Posts Tagged With: Arianism

Pastoral Letter 12/1/13

Greetings in the name of Him who came to save His people from their sins!

As I type I can feel the leftover turkey and yams churning in my stomach.  We have much to be thankful for, and the upcoming Advent season gives us even more reason to be thankful, for it is this time of year that we pause to remember God’s gift of His Son Jesus Christ, God from all eternity, conceived and born in due time, predestined before the foundation of the world to come as the Savior of Sinners.

Although the Bible does not fix for us the date of the birth of Christ, Christmas is an ancient tradition in the Christian Church.  The date of December 25th began to be observed in Rome in the 4th century.  (The 4th century church father John Chrysostom notes that there was a longstanding tradition already in the Church that Jesus was born during the winter time dating back long before this time.)  Around the same period, in the Eastern churches of Greece and Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), Epiphany was starting to become a popular festival on January 6th celebrating Jesus’ birth, the visit of the wise men, and baptism by John in the Jordan River.  While the celebration of Epiphany spread westward, the celebration of Christmas spread eastward and southward to the churches.

nicholas   strikes arius detail

Nicholas of Myra strikes Arius at the Council of Nicaea; Fresco in the Soumela monastery, Turkey

In this period of time there was a great controversy in the Christian church due to a teaching of a preacher in Alexandria, Egypt named Arius that from all eternity “the Son was not.”  He taught that only the Father was the eternal God and that Jesus the son was a lesser god who had been created by the Father at a point in time prior to creation.  (This doctrine is similar to the teaching of some modern groups, for example the “Jehovah’s Witnesses.”)  Arius’ teaching caught on like wildfire because many people found it easier to understand and accept than the biblical teaching on the Trinity: One God in Three Persons (cf. Matthew 28:19.)  But God in His providence raised up great preachers to oppose this teaching, men like the Greek fathers Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, Basil the Great, and John “golden mouth” Chrysostom.  They knew that without a Savior who is both fully God and fully man, with two distinct natures in one person, there could be no reconciliation of a holy God with sinful man, and there would be no salvation.  These church fathers thought that a new festival on December 25th would provide a valuable opportunity to proclaim the truth about the person of Christ, that God the Son, being fully God from all eternity with the Father and the Spirit, took to Himself a full yet previously un-impersonated human nature, and became man, in the womb of the virgin Mary.  They used Christmas as a defense against Arius and his false teaching about Christ.  It was Gregory Nazianzus who said in reference to John 1:1, “What better way to celebrate Him who is the Word, than by preaching the word?”  Christmas caught on in churches all over the world as a time to hear sermons on the incarnation of Christ, and in the end, it was probably one of the great influences which wound up leading to the decision of the Council of Nicaea in favor of the biblical teaching on who Christ is.  (At the council, according to tradition, there was one minister from the city of Myra in Asia Minor named Nicholas, who is said to have struck Arius in the face during a council session when he said, “The Son was not” in an attempt to knock some sense into him.  Nicholas was defending the biblical doctrine of Christ being fully God, and was also known for being generous to the poor.  He is the origin of the “Santa Claus” stories.)  The results of this council were encodified in the Nicene Creed, an important and historical statement of the doctrine of Christ and the Trinity.

As we reflect on Christ during this season, let us be thankful to God for leading His Church to the truth about who He is, guiding her through history, and remember that salvation is only in Him who being God from all eternity, became man in the womb of the virgin Mary, was born in a stable, and continues to be God and man, in one person, with two distinct natures forever, the Mediator between God and sinful man.

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If Christianity Is True, Why Are There So Many Different Churches?: Part 1, Defining Differences

The vast array of denominations and sects within Christendom is dizzying and admittedly wearying to inquirers and those new to the faith, let alone to your average longtime church-goer!
Some may wonder whether Christianity can be the true faith, considering that there are so many divisions and disagreements between professing Christians. Why are Christian churches divided into so many different labels and groups?

1.  Defining differences

First of all, there are differences, and there are differences.  The first type is fundamental and essential differences in the faith.  The Apostle Paul in Holy Scripture writes about these when he says:

Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us. 1 John 2:18, 19

When division occurs in the church over an essential doctrine like the doctrine of Christ, there is a distinction being made between true and false religion, between that which is Christian and that which is Antichristian. This is the kind of division John is describing in the passage above. Many divisions in the Christian Church throughout history have been of this kind. (Ever since the resurrection of Christ, we have been in the “last time” that John refers to.) For example, in New Testament times there was a gnostic movement which attempted to blend Christianity with Greek philosophy in order to make Christianity more attractive to Greeks. Eventually the gnostics denied that Christ had come in as a real human being with a human body, since this idea was offensive to Greeks. It was a denial of Christ the Mediator, God come in the flesh. In such cases where there is a split over essential Christian doctrine, one group continues as the true Christian church and the other is a false church or religion of some other kind.  John calls them, “antichrists.” Many other divisions of this essential nature happened in the first millenium of Christianity, especially during the debates over the Trinity and the person of Christ, leading to such breakaway heretical groups as the Arians, the Sabellians, the Nestorians, and the Monophysites. Some modern groups which have followed in the mold of the ancient heretical groups are the Mormons, the Jehovah’s witnesses, and the Oneness Pentecostals. It’s uncanny how closely these modern groups resemble the ancient heresies. And a few of the ancient heresies themselves are still around in isolated pockets around the world.

In other cases, there are differences or divisions which do not involve an essential doctrine of the Christian faith, and different churches may continue to recognize one another as true churches of Christ, yet there are some limits of various degrees on the amount of fellowship they have with one another, either intentionally or otherwise. In this category would be many of the churches that trace their heritage to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, who still adhere to the essential doctrines of the Christian faith as revealed in Scripture, and believe that righteousness in God’s sight comes through faith in Christ alone, but they remain separate for various reasons. In some cases there are doctrinal differences which do not reach to the essential doctrines of Christianity, but they are held distinctly out of a desire to be in full obedience to God’s revelation in Scripture, and two particular Christian churches have not come to agreement on them. Into this category would fall the debates over whether baptism is best administered by sprinkling or immersion, or degrees of difference in understanding the church and the sacraments which do not undermine the good news of the grace of God in Christ for sinners by faith in Him unto salvation.  They are united on first tier essential Christian doctrine, but divided on other issues.  How is it that after two millenia and one common book, so many true Christian churches (not to mention individuals) remain divided on some of the important but second tier issues? To be continued…

Categories: History, Pastoral, The Church | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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