Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Lesson 19: Five Leading Churchmen

The main aspects of Christian life from the mid fourth to the mid fifth centuries can be explored by examining the five leading church leaders of the era.

Chrysostom (347-407)

Also know by the more accurate St. John of Constantinople, this man became known as Chrysostom because of his great oratory skills. Chrysostom means “golden tongued.” He was an elder in the church of Antioch, but his fame arose when, in 397, at age fifty, he became bishop at Constantinople.

Before becoming an elder in Antioch, Chrysostom tried the ascetic life. Around age twenty he began to withdraw from his classical studies and to devote himself to an ascetic and religious life. He studied Holy Scriptures and frequented the sermons of Meletius, the bishop of Antioch. About three years later he was baptized and ordained. But the young cleric, seized by the desire of a more perfect life, soon afterwards entered one of the ascetic societies near Antioch. Prayer, manual labor and the study of scripture were his chief occupations, and we may safely suppose that his first literary works date from this time, for nearly all his earlier writings deal with ascetic and monastic subjects. Four years later, Chrysostom resolved to further withdraw and live in one of the caves near Antioch. He remained there two years, but then, as his health deteriorated, he returned to Antioch to regain his health and resumed his office as lector in the church.

He achieved great influence there following riots over excessive imperial taxation, in which statues of the Emperor Theodosius and his family were mutilated. Fearful of a merciless reprisal by the emperor, who was known for his fiery nature, Chrysostom set out for the imperial courts to plead for moderation.

During the same period, more precisely during Lent in the year 387, Chrysostom gave twenty-one sermons in which he asked the people to consider the error of their ways.

Theodosius’s response to the defacing of his image was somewhat subdued, and Chrysostom’s sermons became legend for the level of their eloquence. It was said that many pagans converted upon hearing Chrysostom preach.

Upon arriving in Constantinople to assume the office of bishop, Chrysostom soon made enemies of the clergy because of his strict disciplinarian nature.

The necessity for reform was undeniable. Chrysostom began "sweeping the stairs from the top" He ordered a reduction in the expenses of the Episcopal household; he put an end to the frequent banquets. With regard to the clergy, Chrysostom had at first to forbid them to keep in their houses syneisactoe, i.e. women housekeepers who had vowed virginity. He also proceeded against others who, by avarice or luxury, had caused scandal. He even had to expel one deacon for murder and another for adultery. He also took corrective action in regards to the monks, very numerous since the time of Constantine. Some had taken to roaming about aimlessly and without discipline. Chrysostom confined them to their monasteries. Finally he took care of the ecclesiastical widows. Some of them were living in a worldly manner: he obliged them either to marry again, or to observe the rules of decorum demanded by their state. After the clergy, Chrysostom turned his attention to his flock. As he had done at Antioch, so at Constantinople and with more reason, he preached against the extravagances of the rich, and against the ridiculous finery in dress affected by women “whose age should have put them beyond such vanities.”

He also fell into disfavor with the court, due in large part to the influence of a rival, Theophilius, bishop of Alexandria. Even worse, he ran afoul of the Empress Eudoxia, wife of Arcadius. The animosity arose from Chrysostom’s intervention in abuses of power by members of the court, including important women who were friends of Eudoxia. Eudoxia may have also been offended when Chrysostom preached a sermon in which he stated “Again Herodias rages; again she is confounded; again she demands the head of John [the Baptist].”

Chrysostom was banished from Constantinople for a short time in 403, and again the following year to Armenia, where he died in 407.

Chrysostom’s gift to Christianity was his skilled biblical exegesis, given in commentaries and other writings, which were so vital that the Roman Catholic Church refers to him as one of the “Doctors of the Church”. His most valuable works are his Homilies on various books of the Bible.

Chrysostom’s career illustrates how, in the eastern empire, the church remained dominated by the secular powers. Part of this was due to the fact that in the east (unlike the west) there were several sees (Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem) competing for dominance and the emperor leverage the rivalries so as to increase his own influence. In the west, Rome’s place at the head of the table was never challenged, especially after the decline of the great North African churches in the sixth and seventh centuries.

Ambrose (339-397)

“I have know no bishop but Ambrose,” said the emperor Theodosius, so impressed by Ambrose’s leadership and authority as bishop of Milan.

Ambrose’s rise to power was a circuitous one. Ambrose was a civil servant in North Italy. He had the responsibility to maintain civil order during the election of a new bishop (an event that often led to civil strife) in Milan in 373. The election was contentious, with no claimant achieving widespread popularity, when a child’s voice was heard saying “Ambrose for Bishop!” This was taken as a sign of divine guidance, and the Christian populace insisted that Ambrose should occupy the see. Ambrose, although the son of Christian parents, was, at thirty-four, not yet baptized. Nevertheless he accepted the position and in short order was baptized, ordained, and consecrated bishop.

In spite of his lack of ecclesiastical preparation, Ambrose served well. His first act in the episcopate, imitated by many a saintly successor, was to divest himself of his worldly goods. His personal property he gave to the poor and his landed possessions he turned over to the Church, making provision for the support of his beloved sister. He wrote a number of Latin commentaries of skillful, allegorical exegesis, and is credited with being a founder of Latin hymnody.

His relationship with the emperor demonstrates the greater independence from secular intrusion enjoyed by western bishops. When Theodosius massacred seven thousand inhabitants of Thessolonica, Ambrose excommunicated him. After eight months, the emperor submitted to Ambrose’s authority and did public penance for his sin on Christmas day, 390.

Not all of Ambrose’s use of his authority and influence over the secular realm was done wisely. When Christian monks in the Euphrates region burned down a synagogue, Theodosius justly ordered that restitution should be made, but Ambrose, when advised of the situation, ordered that Theodosius should do no such thing. Thus Ambrose, sadly, played a role in the church’s rising anti-Semitism.

On a happier note was Ambrose’s role in the Arian heresy. Due to the nature of his rise to power, starting not as a cleric but a “rational” and worldly civil servant, many Arians believed that Ambrose would prove a champion to their cause. They were mistaken. He supported the orthodox view of Christ’s divinity and labeled Arianism for what it was: heresy. Ten years after he became bishop, the Empress Justina, regent for her infant son Valentinian II, took control in Milan. She was a staunch Arian and had the support of the military. She claimed that one church in Milan should be reserved for the Arian position. Ambrose rejected her demand. Only his widespread popularity among the populace spared him from Justina’s wrath.

Jerome (347-420)

Jerome’s greatness does not stem from his influence in the sphere of public affairs. His fame results from the Latin translation of the Bible he produced. It wasn’t the first Latin translation, but was far superior to all others. The existing Latin translations diverged both from the Greek texts and from one another, and none had been authorized by the church. Jerome put it this way: “If we are to rely on the Latin versions, then let us be told which of these we are to rely on, for there are almost as many distinct versions as there are copies of Scripture.” In those days, anyone who knew both Greek and Latin, it seemed, produced his own translation.

Jerome, a native of Dalmatia (Croatia) was educated at Rome and spent much of his life in the east, where he mastered Greek and Hebrew. While a knowledge of Latin and Greek was fairly common, including Hebrew in the mix set Jerome apart. In 382 he returned to Rome and was charged by Damasus, bishop of Rome, with the job of revising the Latin New Testament. Jerome was reluctant, knowing that he would be “blamed” by those who found their favorite translations altered, and this time with the Church’s authority. (Indeed, “I think the original must be wrong,” said one such malcontent when told that his favorite translation had been undone by an appeal to the earliest manuscripts.)

Jerome’s translation of the Gospels appeared in 384, soon followed by the rest of the New Testament. Then he proceeded to revise the Old Testament. This was more challenging. Until this time, Latin versions of the Old Testament had been based on a Greek version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint, produced in Alexandria in the last three centuries B.C. Jerome found this unsatisfactory and instead translated directly from the Hebrew. This caused a great deal of criticism to be unleashed upon Jerome, to which he responded in rather colorful language, calling his critics “two-legged donkeys” and “those who think ignorance is holiness.”

Jerome’s translation became the standard. It is known as the Vulgate, and the Council of Trent in 1546 declared it to be the one authoritative Latin version of Scripture, to which all theological disputes must make their appeal.

Leo the Great (c. 390 – 461)

Leo the Great was bishop of Rome from 440-461. He, in a very real sense, elevated the position of bishop of Rome to that of Pope.

It is true that from very early in Christian history, the church at Rome held a special place. However, this position of preeminence had always been honorary, not official.

At first, the seat of imperial power being in Rome lent prestige to the Roman church. And when Constantine moved the capital to Constantinople, the resulting power vacuum in that most important city (Rome) actually resulted in an increase of the bishop’s power as the most powerful leader still there.

There were, of course, other reasons. Rome was the only church in the west that could claim apostolic foundation, and she was accorded special veneration on that account. And in matters relating to purity of doctrine, the church at Rome had consistently exhibited to the church at large a worthy example.

The acknowledgment of the Roman church as a model for other sees led to the practice of consulting the Roman bishop on various questions of doctrine, procedure, and discipline. The Roman bishop’s responses to these questions were known as decretals, the earliest of which that have been preserved date back to the episcopate of Damasus (366-384). While these decretals had no binding power, their advice was generally heeded which, in apart, accounted for the uniformity that was present in the western church. Gradually, over time, they were regarded with increased moral authority.

The Council at Nicaea (325) which dealt with the Arian heresy recognized the churches at Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch as the leading sees of Christendom, and their bishops were given the title “patriarch.”

While councils and emperors and other bishops (at least in the west) agreed that Rome was preeminent, Leo sought a theological foundation for this belief. That he supposed he found in:
18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Matt. 18:18-20)

Leo argued that since Peter was the founder of the Roman church, the Roman bishop inherited his authority, including dominion over the keys of heaven.

Augustine (354-431)

Augustine was discussed at length in the previous lesson, including his debate with Pelagius over the doctrine of Original Sin and natural man’s moral inability to seek or obey God. Augustine had a strong view on the Sovereignty of God. Later, many who would come to be called Calvinists, would argue (while not at all insulted by the name) that, at the very least, accuracy demanded that the label Augustinian rather than Calvinist. In particular, they claim that in Augustine’s teachings one can find the thread that links all five “points of Calvinism.”

Original Sin implied (is synonymous) with the doctrine of Total Depravity.

If unconverted man cannot be a party to his own conversion, he must be of the Unconditionally elected, or predestined to use another biblical term. Otherwise the doctrine of Total Depravity would mean that nobody was saved.

If a people have been chosen from the foundation of time, it meant that Christ’s atonement, while infinite in merit, was not efficacious for all men. Rather it achieved salvation for some rather than making salvation possible (but not certain) for everyone. This doctrine is rather unfortunately known as the doctrine of Limited Atonement.

If God is sovereign, and His will cannot be thwarted by man, and He has chosen a people, then when He calls His calling cannot ultimately be rejected, thus we have the doctrine of Irresistible Grace.

Likewise, having converted, called, and justified His people, God will lose none of them, preserving them to the end. This doctrine is unfortunately called Preservation of the Saints, a name that mistakenly hints that the merit rests with the saint rather than for God. Accordingly, Preservation of the Saints is preferred.

Those whose adhere to the doctrines point to Augustine in support. It is generally agreed that Augustine did indeed hold to these positions, although the one for which there is some question (and for Calvin as well) is the doctrine of Limited Atonement. Part of the problem is that this doctrine is often misrepresented. In truth, if neither Augustine nor Calvin wrote much on this doctrine, it is likely because the rules of logic dictate that you cannot really hold to four out of five—these doctrines stand or fall together—and so there was no point in belaboring the obvious. Still, it is useful to review Limited Atonement.
Limited Atonement

Everyone agrees that only believers are made acceptable before God by imputation of Christ’s righteousness, which was completed once and for all by His death on the cross. This is an important point: Both Augustinians and their detractors agree that Christ’s atonement is efficacious only for believers—hence both camps actually profess a form of “Limited Atonement”. Only Universalists do not limit the atonement.
I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. (John 10:11)

The non-Augustinian (semi-Pelagian) view is that Christ’s atonement had to be big enough for the entire world because, in principle, the entire world could accept the Gospel call. Again, however, they agree that the atonement is effective only for believers. So the semi-Pelagian view of the atonement is:
  • Unlimited in extent (big enough for the world).
  • Indefinite in effect (there is no countable set of predestined “elect”)

The incorrect representation of the Augustinian view is that the atonement is limited in extent and definite in effect. The first point is not part of the Augustinian view although it is frequently offered as the Augustinian or Calvinist position. Augustinians do not think that while Christ was on the cross there was a meter running counting the number of sinners that His suffering was sufficient to cover and, when the number reached the number of the elect, His suffering ended.

If you have to pick a single verse that is viewed as the most difficult to defend against (from an Augustinian perspective), it is found in chapter two of 1 John:
1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous;
2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.(1 John 2:1-2, NASB)

This seems to fly in the face of “the elect”, as evidenced by the phrase but also for those of the whole world. Obviously Augustinians cannot take this verse literally.

But neither can semi-Pelagians. The only people who can rejoice in taking this literally are Universalists. For, if Christ is literally the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, then the whole world has had its ransom paid and the whole world will be saved. This is contrary to a plain reading the rest of scripture and thus is rightly rejected by all Christians. So what do Augustinians say about this verse?

One possibility is that John was talking to fellow (Christian) Jews and was pointing out that Christ’s death was atonement not only for “our” (believing Jews) sins but also for the sins of the world (believing Gentiles). This us/world = Jews/Gentiles identification is of course used in other places in Scripture.

Another possibility is related to the extent as opposed to the effect of the atonement. Somewhat in parallel with many are called but few are chosen-- it might be that Christ’s death was sufficient to save everyone in the whole world – but nevertheless will be efficacious only for the elect. If God wanted everyone to be saved he could do it, and Christ would not have had to suffer more—he already suffered enough for everyone. Yet God has chosen to save only some—for reasons that we will not fathom this side of glory (and perhaps not even on the other side).

While both points may be true, it is, in fact, this latter “possibility” the represents the actual Augustinian view of the Atonement:
  • Unlimited in extent (big enough for the world, Augustinianism and semi-Pelagianism agree).
  • Limited (or Particular or Definite) in effect (for the elect only)

The two views do not disagree on extent of the atonement—both agree that it was big enough for the whole world. In this sense it was unlimited—which is why the term Limited Atonement, because of the confusion it causes, was not a good choice.
Augustine asked himself, is there any passage of Scripture which can be taken unequivocally to mean that God has deliberately undertaken not to extend his saving grace to certain people who, if that grace had been extended to them, would have responded affirmatively? It appears that there is such a passage. Augustine (Enchiridion, Chap. 103) has this observation: "The Lord was unwilling to work miracles in the presence of some who, He said frankly, would have repented if He had worked them."
20Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21“Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. (Matt. 11:20-21)

And other, similar and difficult passages, such as
10And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12so that "they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven." (Mark 4:10-12)

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