Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Chapter 8: The Raging Debate


             “OUR AGENDA TODAY is to put forth, once and for all, the true nature of our Lord Jesus Christ, whether he is of the same substance as the Father, as our earlier Church Fathers believe, or in fact of different substance from the Father, as claimed by Arius; whether he is very God as the Father, or subordinated to Him; whether he is eternal, or merely created,” said Hosius in his opening remark as the president of the Council in Nicaea.  Seating next to him was Emperor Constantine, observing the procession.
“Everyone would be given a fair chance of voicing his view,” he continued, “let no stone left unturned, no argument unheard.  At the end of the day—and by that I don’t mean today, for we shall take as much time as necessary—we shall reach an agreement, once and for all, to our long standing dispute.”
“And if we do not?”  One of the participants asked.
“We have to reach an agreement, my fellow believers.  There are no two ways about it.”
“But if we cannot,” insisted this participant, whose name was Jacob, a prominent ebionite from Petrae, Arabia.
“We have to reach an agreement.  There is no question that we cannot,” Hosius continued, beginning to feel irritated by Jacob’s insistence.
“Suppose we cannot.”  Again Jacob insisted.
“Then the emperor will have to decide,” said Hosius.
There was laughter.  Jacob laughed the loudest, along with his colleagues seated near to him.  Arius, the man alleged to cause all the commotions, grinned cynically.  What a farce! He thought.  Alexander, the respected bishop from Alexandria, Egypt, stared grimly.  Seated next to him was Athanasius, his young deacon, whose face was stone serious.  He didn’t find it amusing.  Both Alexander and Athanasius were Arius’ strong antagonists.
“This august hall is no place for mockery,” warned Hosius in all seriousness after the laughter was subsided.
“Pray tell me, Mr. President Hosius of Cordoba, whose mockery is graver, mine or yours?”  Challenged the ebionite from Petrae.
“Just what do you mean by that?”  Hosius demanded.
“A pagan emperor to decide on our religious dispute?  What mockery can be greater than that?”  The hall was quiet this time.  All faces were zoomed to Constantine, looking perhaps for the sign of anger.  But Constantine the great was as cool as ever.  He didn’t show much reaction.  Perhaps he had anticipated such kind of remark.  Perhaps he was merely good at hiding his emotion.  Perhaps he was merely great, for only great man can take such kind of insult.  Or perhaps he didn’t put much hope on this kind of conference among the fanatics.  Or perhaps whatever happened during the debate, this didn’t bother him much, because he already had something up his sleeve. 
But Hosius’ face turned as red as a burning flame.  He was incensed.  With the most authoritative voice, he retorted:
“Another remark of that kind from you, you would be lucky to have your head intact.”
“So much for the fair hearing,” Jacob was unrelenting.
“Out of this hall, NOW!!!” Hosius yelled, already losing his temper.  Jacob stood up and about to make a move out of his chair.
“Sit, please,” suddenly there was a firm and authoritative yet non-threatening voice coming from one direction.  It was from Constantine himself.  All eyes were on him.  Constantine signaled to Hosius to remain calm.  He stood up slowly in a regal manner.
“Permission to speak my fellow compatriots,” Constantine spoke, “I shouldn’t have interjected, for I am not one of the disputants.  But I have to, seeing the emotions have been kindled even before the debate begins.”
All eyes were on him.  All ears listened to his voice attentively.  Constantine still regained his composure, as cool as ever.
“Our fellow brother is correct.  I am no Christian.  I don’t know what Christianity really is.  I don’t really know who your gods really are.  I am not even sure whether your gods are one or many.  But how could I, when even prominent bishops such as yourselves couldn’t agree on what constitute the basis of your religion, or the nature of your god.  Now, perhaps many of you do not accept me as a Christian, and you are right, because how could I claim myself to be the follower of Christ when I do not even know who he is.”  The emperor paused for a while, eyeing the reaction from the audience.  They all looked attentive.
“I was the follower of Sol Invictus.  Perhaps I still am.  And who is this god, Sol Invictus?  He is the Sun-God.  Is he really a god?  All of you would say no.  He is just a sun.  Do I really believe him to be god?  Does it really matter?”  Again the emperor paused, eyeing the audience once again, and continued.
“I will tell you what matter.  I see him rises every day from the east and sets in the west.  He is there, every day.  I can see him every day without fail.  Without him, this world would perish.  He gives us light.  Through him, our eyes can see.  Without him, our eyes are blind.  He gives us life.  Without him, we would all perish.  Now, is he a god?  You would say that he is no god, just a sun.  But I will say, I know him, and I know he gives us life.  He may not be worthy to be a god, but what is God?”  The emperor paused yet again, for the last time.
“Let it be recorded that I convoke upon you to convene here because I have a feeling there is a greater God than the sun.  Let it be known as well that my mother is a devoted Christian.  She is not an iota as knowledgeable as you are, but she knows what she worships, and she does not indulge in a petty dispute like you.  She had asked me to go to Jerusalem, to be baptized there.  As a dutiful son, and as someone who believes that there is a greater god than the sun, I was inclined to follow her to Jerusalem, but I had to postpone the plan, because this matter in our hand is greater than me accompanying my mother to the Holy Land.  My mother is a true believer.  She has found her God, but I am still looking.  Why am I still looking?  Because you, those who are supposed to tell me who this god really is, cannot agree on his nature.  Now, I am here to find out.  Nay, we are all here to find out.  Hosius was right when he said that we need to reach an agreement, but he was wrong when he said that I will make the final decision.  I am not here to decide.  I am here to help you decide.”  With those words, Constantine sat down.
It was a regal gesture, fit for a great emperor.  His words calmed everyone in the hall.  It didn’t really matter whether or not he spoke from the heart.  For all intents and purposes, he appeared sincere with his words.  More importantly, his brief interlude put everyone to ease.
“Shall we continue?”  Said Eustathius.
“Yes, we shall,” said Hosius and continued, “you must forgive me for blurting out.  It was unbecoming of me as the president of this council, but I wouldn’t be as incensed were the insult leveled against me.  Our brother Jacob has shown utter disrespect to his majesty by such remark.  Whether or not his majesty is pagan is immaterial, for such is not the issue in hand.  His majesty has shown his eminence grace by remaining calm in spite of the insult.  And I must say that he has shown himself to be even more Christian than some of us here.  Now, shall we focus on the first issue in hand.  Is the Lord Jesus a God and very God as the Father the God; or is he subordinated to the Father, as claimed by Arius?”
“And why not entertain another possibility?”  Said Jacob, still in his element, even after the passionate speech from the emperor.
“Namely?” Asked Hosius, although he knew already what Jacob would say.
“That he is just a man, though holy indeed is he.”
“The Lord Christ’s divinity has been established.  It is no longer a question…” said Eustathius.
“By whom?”  Interjected Jacob before Eustathius finished his sentence.
“The Lord Jesus’ divinity is not an issue here.  It has been established by our Church Fathers.  What we are attempting to resolve here is whether or not he is of the same substance as the Father, or of difference substance.”  Said Eustathius.
“He is none of that,” insisted Jacob.
“Enough Jacob!” Hosius tried to shut Jacob up, “let’s focus on the issue in hand.”
“The issue is wrongly formulated in the first place.  Jesus himself said that he is a man.  Look into the scripture, if you will,” insisted Jacob.
“It is in the scripture that the Lord Jesus said he is God, the Son of God.”  Another voice spoke.  It was from Alexander, the prominent aged bishop of Alexandria, the place where Arian controversy was most rife.
“Only in the Gospels of John and Matthew.  And those claims cannot be trusted.  Even if they are to be trusted, they do not mean literally, for Adam is also said to be the son of God, and David, and all the Children of Israel.  The term was to convey the relationship in terms of faith, not a literal relationship.  God neither begets nor begotten.  He is one, as said by the Lord Jesus Christ himself.  Do you want me to quote the verse?” Challenged Jacob.
“You Ebionite pig, the murderer of the Lord,” another voice came in.  It was Marcellus, the prominent priest of Ancrya.  Ancrya, we may note, is to be called Ankara in the later days, the capital of the modern Turkey. 
“Pardon my expression your majesty,” Marcellus apologized to the emperor for his rude expression.  This priest from Ancrya was known for his hot tempered, partly because he was then rather young.
“The Lord Jesus already freed us from the shackles of the Mosaic Law, but you still want to go back to the old ages.”  Marcellus continued.
“The Lord Jesus did not come to nullify the Law, but to fulfill it.  Do you want me to quote the verse?”  Jacob was persistent.
“Enough of the verse quoting challenge, Jacob,” said Hosius in an authoritative voice, “we know the scripture as much as you do, if not more.”
“Then why are you not following the scripture?”
Constantine was observing the debate attentively.  He was rather amused.  The issue brought by Jacob had nothing to do with the issue in hand.  He was exhaustively briefed by Hosius about the Arian controversy.  But the Arian question was not even entertained.  And the originator of the great controversy, Arius, remained seated and motionless in his seat, grinning occasionally, as if amused by the whole thing.
“Let’s stick with the issue brought by Arius, Jacob.  Let’s not get sidetracked by something already decided,” Hosius said.
“Who decided what.”
“If you insist on sidetracking, this will be no end.  A stop must be put to it.  And, as the president of this council, I demand that you remain with the issue.”
“The issue is to put forward the truth about the Lord Jesus Christ once and for all,” insisted Jacob.
“Yes, and what is he.  Is he of the same essence with the Father or not?”
“He is a man, a rabbi, a holy man.”
“He is a God!!!” Marcellus shouted to the top of his voice, “Don’t blaspheme this august hall, Jacob.”
“He is a man.  Don’t blaspheme God, Marcellus!!!”  Interjected Jacob, equally loud.
There is no way these fanatics can come to the agreement, thought Constantine.  Already they were at the top of their voice, yet the issue in hand was not even entertained.  If something is to be achieved at all, thought Constantine, an emperor’s intervention would be required.  Even a God needs a king to intervene on his behalf, Constantine remembered Hosius’ plea months ago.
The debate raged on ceaselessly on the nature of Christ.  Seeing there was no end to it, Constantine motion to Hosius to put the debate into a recess, to be continued the day after.  The central committee meeting would be convened that evening to decide how to handle this kind of situation, should it arise again.  This endless debate which did not even touch the issue in hand must be put to a stop.  The emperor himself would chair this close door meeting.

Before the session for the day ended, Constantine ordered that all disputants submit their secret petitions for favors and for redress the first thing when the next session started.  


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Monday, April 21, 2014

Chapter 7: The Council


WHETHER Constantine was persuaded by Eustathius’ argument, or Hosius’ flattery, at that moment such matter appeared immaterial.  Being a practical man, and seeing no better option, he agreed with the proposal to convoke an ecumenical council among the prominent priests.  It was called ecumenical because all prominent priests the world over were invited to attend.  Ecumenical is a term borrowed from a Greek word oikoumenikos, meaning universal. 
It was going to be nothing less than a universal gathering, where all priests in the then known universe would be invited to participate.  A place called Nicaea in the Asia Minor was chosen, its location being the most central in the Christian world and the city was near the seat of the Constantine’s empire.  Constantine also had summer imperial palace there, where the council would be held. The date May 20th 325 was chosen and letters convoking all prominent bishops and priests were sent.  Altogether 1,800 bishops were invited: 1,000 from the East and 800 from the West.
Hosius was right.  Even a god needs a king, for throughout the Christianity history up until that moment, there had not been a turnout as big as the one at Nicaea.  About 2,018 priests of various denominations came from the East as well as the West.  Even bishops from the Persian Empire attended, though they were by definition not obliged to attend, for at least two reasons.  One, they were not Constantine’s subjects, since they were the subjects of the Persian Emperor.  Two, the convocation was not made by a Christian authority, but a pagan emperor.  Yet they came, no doubt on the pretext that the council was to be convened by a neutral authority, namely the pagan emperor, or at best a nominal Christian emperor, thereby giving the air of hope that everybody would have fair chance of voicing his view.
The only notable absentee was the pope Sylvester I, the bishop of Rome, on account of his infirmity.  In his place, however, two presbyters were sent. 
Two thousand and eighteen people were too huge a crowd for a meaningful council.  Hence only 320 bishops and prominent priests were allowed to enter the meeting hall.  Selection criteria were determined by the secretariat of the council, headed by Hosius as the president of the council, whose job was to preside on the proceeding.  The Emperor Constantine was to be the observer and overseer of the whole procession, and of course to decide, should these zealots cannot reconcile their differences.  So it was that on 20th of May the year 325, three hundred and twenty prominent bishops throughout the world convened at Nicaea. 
Constantine made a royal appearance wearing his royal robe seating in his royal throne.  His role was made clear: to observe the procession, to be the overseer of the whole proceeding, and to decide should the attendees cannot reconcile their differences. Hosius of course had given more than sufficient briefs to the emperor to enable him to be the final decision maker.  Hosius himself took his place as the president of the whole procession.  In his hand lies the outcome of the great meeting.  He was to be impartial to any dispute, especially regarding the Arian controversy. 
All attendees took their seats, greetings being made, purpose of the meeting being read, and the agenda being set, the debate started.  Here was a group of people passionately debating the subtle and the not so subtle differences in their faiths.  At times the emotion ran so high that the debaters were literally on each other’s necks.  Sometimes the arguments were pure brilliant; sometimes pure insults.  Occasionally they seemed to reach an agreement; most of the time, however, it appeared that they were not capable of agreeing on anything.  Regardless of what transpired, one thing was clear.  This was a group of people whom even death was more preferable than forsaking their faith.  They were totally devoted to their belief, for better or for worse.
As Constantine pondered further, another thing was clear.  For all their passions, devotions and commitments, these people lacked the formula that will glue them together.  That formula was a temporal leadership.  As of now, they were totally disunited.  Disunited zealots were bad omen for the state; that much Constantine knew.  An emperor who can seize the opportunity to be their temporal leader will achieve two benefits.  First, his empire would not only be more orderly, but he would have a group of fearless soldiers to defend the state.  Their bravery bordering on death wish had been proven many times before, especially at the Milvian Bridge against the forces of Maxentius, and at the many battles against Licinius, especially at Adrianople, Hellespont, and Chrysopolis.  Second, that leader will have the opportunity to be immortal.  Not immortality in literal sense, but his name would be remembered for eternity.
The short conversation Constantine had with Hosius rang again in his ear.  The problem of these zealots calling themselves Christians had not been lost to Constantine.  Having defeated all his rivals, Constantine was then concerned about making his empire orderly.  But he had been disturbed by these zealots whom Licinius considered pests.  When Licinius was defeated and put to death, the foremost in Constantine’s mind was how to rein this bunch of zealots. 
Hosius was right.  The divisiveness among these zealots calling themselves Christians had reached the proportion that they can no longer solve it among themselves.  It had to be intervened.  And intervened by an emperor, no less. 

Alas, we move too fast.  There are many finer points that occurred inside and outside of that august conference, as there are many important incidents that occurred during, before and after that pioneer ecumenical council.  These we shouldn’t miss, for they constitute the important parts of the story.  We shall look into some details and not be content with just a mere summary.

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