The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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April 17th, 2018 · No Comments · christianity, history

I grew up in the Church, attending regular Sunday services, and assisting with ritual in my teens. I was a believer of all that I had been told, but yet there was a nagging suspicion that things weren’t exactly as I imagined them. My first clue, at sixteen, that the whole thing was a house of cards was my discovery of the Heresy Wars.

In Christian parlance, “heresy” is an act or a belief that runs counter to the teachings of the Church. A heretic is someone who spreads heresy to others, like a deadly virus. From the re-establishment of Christianity by Constantine, until about 800, Church authorities fought amongst themselves and frequently sent armies to eliminate groups of heretics where-ever they were found. Since the rationale given in most cases was a conflict of theological points, these actions are all considered part of the Heresy Wars.

My understanding of the Early Church narrative said nothing about heretical bishops or ethnic cleansing. I was told that the early Christians were frequently assaulted and harassed by Roman authorities for the crime of being Christian. These persecutions were writ large in Early Church legend, and included a handful of specific personalities with biographies and heart tugging scenes of torment while they held fast in their faith.

But the Early Church myth is fiction, and the Heresy Wars really happened.

There were three distinct causes for the Heresy Wars. The first was that the bishops of the richest cities in the empire were all competing to become the apex bishop. They used theological pronouncements as a means to identify each group, and fought a pretty standard Roman civil-war style battle, both with soldiers and with spies, until Rome came out on top. In the meantime, each bishop would claim that their competing bishops were heretics and anyone following them were heretics. This lead to a lot of hurt feelings, I imagine, but it mostly sorted itself out after a century or so.

The second cause of the Heresy Wars was the little matter of the prior form of Christianity that wasn’t really being followed so closely anymore. A presbyter named Arius, in a kind of foreshadowing of Luther, declared that this new theology being dictated by these competing bishops was heresy. According to the original form of Christianity created by the Flavians, all the Trinitarian gyrations in Nicea were irrelevant since God the Father was always superior to the Son. Instead of calling it “original” Christianity or “Flavian” Christianity, the Bishops called it “Arianism” so as to dismiss the older church as the work of an old crank and not an emperor. Naturally, this lead to a sort of prolonged inquisition of each Christian community in the empire where nonconvertible Arians were slaughtered.

The third cause of the Heresy Wars was a later period of regularization. Occasionally, a Christian community would be found who, while not Arian, still possessed unusual theology or ritual. When they could not be convinced of the error of their ways, the Church tended to kill them all. Most often, these were groups who had practiced as pagan organizations prior to the imposition of Christianity. While they may have changed their deity names and added some elements of Roman rite, they still mostly did whatever they had done before. Interestingly, the Church lost interest in this task after several centuries, meaning there still remain a number of Christian communities in Europe and North Africa that still practice their earlier pagan rites alongside Christian ones.

The primary fruit of the first cause of the Heresy Wars was the doctrine of the Trinity. The very nature of God, and Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, was the subject of intense and sometimes violent debates. There was no formulation which satisfied one and all. The Trinitarian formula was a compromise which pleased no one, but brought an end to the virtual civil war the subject had brought about. It was also so convoluted as to be patent nonsense. God, the one in three, is one, not three. Yet the three are distinct and not God, while they are also God. So debate that, Aristotle!

Before the Trinity, “God the Father” was the prior Caesar, and his “Son” was the current, living Caesar. The Holy Spirit was the Spirit of the Senate and People of Rome. Because that’s how the Flavians built it. Constantine had all of the prior order’s written materials confiscated and burned, and the Arian heresy died out with the older generations.