Early Christianity, part two

One of the first challenges of the early Church came from the combination of Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ Jesus. The question arose: how many Jewish rituals and customs did Gentiles have to adopt to become Christians? Since the Jews were obeying commandments from God, were Gentiles required to obey the same commandments?” Or did the work of Jesus cancel some or all of the commandments God had made through Moses and the prophets? A meeting of Church leaders (described in Acts 15) resulted in a compromise that asked Gentile Christians to respect a few dietary restrictions, as well as sexual morality. Paul, using his authority as an apostle, later canceled all dietary restrictions, affirming what Jesus already had taught.

The question was not one of distinguishing different types of commandments from God, calling some ceremonial and others moral. Jesus Christ is the end of the Law, rescuing his people from all demands of the Law as well as from all punishments for breaking God’s Law. He fulfilled the Law for Jews and for Gentiles, granting freedom in the place of commandments. But Christians are not free to do whatever their sinful hearts desire. They are free, instead, to be the people God intended in creation. Therefore, Christians love God wholeheartedly and love their neighbors—they do not worship false gods and do not murder, commit adultery, steal, or lie. Christians imitate Christ, the sinless man. But where God’s Law pointed to Christ’s work by its ceremonies (circumcision, animal sacrifices, food restrictions based upon those sacrifices, and holy days), Christian freedom allows Christians to work together forming Christian ceremonies. Loving one another, Christians sacrifice their freedom to one another for their common benefit.

The second challenge came from Hellenistic Gentiles trying to blend the teachings of Jesus—and of Moses and the prophets—with Greek philosophy. Stoics saw reality as spiritual, with the physical world considered unimportant. Epicureans saw reality as physical, with all things dying and disintegrating—even the human mind or soul. Neither group had room for the Resurrection. Over time, some Hellenistic Christians developed new religions called Gnostic—a few of them used the label Gnostic, claiming to have special knowledge from God, but many similar groups are gathered under the same label by contemporary historians. Using the names of Jesus and his apostles, Gnostics taught a Hellenistic form of Christianity that viewed Jesus as a spiritual messenger from another realm, one who came to release sparks of divinity from the physical world and grant them true spiritual freedom. The cross of Christ was emptied of its power—one Gnostic writer pictures the body of Jesus nailed to the cross, while the spirit of Christ hovers overhead, mocking his enemies for thinking they could hurt him. Sin became a question of attachment to the material world; redemption became a matter of becoming truly and fully spirit. Gnostics tried to replace the New Testament writings with many other books (often attributed to Old Testament and New Testament figures) that denied the goodness of God’s creation, the redemptive power of the cross, and the resurrection of Christ and of his followers. These Gnostic writings are easily distinguished from the true apostolic books of the New Testament.

One powerful movement sometimes included among the Gnostics is Manichaeism. Its founder, Mani, blended Christian teachings with Zoroastrian beliefs from Persia as well as some Buddhist beliefs from India. Mani said that only one God exists, but Mani’s one God is opposed by an evil enemy who is his equal in power. The world is their battleground, and the war is fought within each person. Those who choose God’s path—a path of holy living, love for others, and care for the world—find salvation, but those who choose his enemy’s path—a path of selfishness and destruction—fall into eternal fire. Some modern Christian writings resemble Manichaeism more than they do the New Testament. Writings that picture Satan as king of hell, capable of successfully opposing God’s will in the world, are Manichean. Writings that suggest that human choices can determine the outcome of the war between God and Satan are Manichean. Writings that say that faith is a choice made by human individuals apart from the will of God are Manichean.

Along with these challenges to the Christian message came other struggles to understand the nature of God and especially the nature of Christ Jesus. Hearing of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, some people thought that Christians worship three gods. Others thought that the three names reflect a single divine Person doing different things at different times. Some thought that Jesus of Nazareth was adopted by God the Father, making him superhuman. Others (influenced by Hellenistic theology and by Gnostic leaders) thought that Jesus was a divine spirit who only pretended to be human. By the time of Constantine, a preacher from Egypt (named Arius) convinced many Christians that only God the Father is eternal and all-powerful; Arius said that the Son of God was created by the Father and is inferior to the Father. Constantine called Christian leaders together to resolve questions about the identity of Jesus as the Son of God. More than three hundred Christians gathered in Nicaea because of the Emperor’s request. They prayed together, studied the Bible together, and reached agreement. From their Bible study, they concluded that Jesus—the Son of God—is equal to the Father. They wrote a document, or Creed, which affirmed that Jesus is “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten—not made—Being of one substance with the Father.” Only three participants at this meeting disagreed with the Nicene Creed. This statement of faith became the measure of genuine Christian belief. It was called “orthodox” (meaning “right-thinking”) and “catholic” (meaning “united and existing everywhere”).

Later Church meetings further defined the orthodox and catholic Christian faith. All these meetings were based on sincere Bible study, seeking ways of expressing the truth about God and his messages. The Holy Spirit was understood to be God, equal to the Father and to the Son, a Person as the Father and the Son are Persons, yet united as one God, not three gods. Jesus was understood to be completely divine and completely human, so that anything said of the Son of God can also be said of the Son of Mary, and everything said of the Son of Mary can also be said of the Son of God. God was born in Bethlehem and placed in a manger. God was hungry, thirsty, sleepy, and tempted to sin (although he never sinned). God was nailed to a cross and killed. Yet the Son of Mary is almighty. He is present everywhere in the universe. He knows everything. He has the power to judge sinners and to forgive sins. The two natures of Christ cannot be separated, because only one Christ exists.

A European preacher named Pelagius offered a version of Christianity tainted with Manichaean and Gnostic beliefs. He suggested that every person maintains a spark of goodness that can please God with good works, can come to God, and can be accepted by God. Orthodox and catholic Christians insisted that (as the Bible says) all persons are dead in sin until God makes us alive by the power of his Word. We cannot find God, but Jesus our Shepherd finds us. We have no goodness in us until the redeeming power of God removes our sins and reconciles us to God. The early Church resisted these teachings, but they would return in later forms of Christianity. J.

The two natures of Christ

When Christian leaders met in the Council of Nicaea, they prayed and studied the Bible and discussed its message to determine whether the Son of God is equal to the Father or is less than the Father; whether he is eternal like the Father or created by the Father. Their study and discussions convinced them that Jesus is, as they declared, “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” This was no new teaching; it was a summary of what the Bible says about God. Christians continue to believe that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one God, not three gods; that each is a distinct Person loving the others and speaking to the others, and doing things for the others; that each is almighty, all-knowing, present everywhere, eternal, unchanging, and holy. Yet there is one God, not three gods; one Lord, not three lords; one almighty Being, not three almighty beings; and so on.

When other questions arose about the Christian faith, new councils formed to learn the truth the way the truth about the Triune God was learned at Nicaea. They gathered, they prayed, they studied Scripture, they discussed, and they reached an understanding. Most of the questions they sought to answer were about Jesus. Knowing that he is God and also that he is human, Christians struggled to comprehend and to communicate how the two natures (divine and human) work together in one Christ. Many false ideas were suggested about the two natures of Christ. Some suggested that his body is human but that his mind and soul are divine. Others suggested that the two natures dwell in one Christ without interacting, like two boards glued together. Still others suggested that the two natures combine into something unique, like two liquids blended together to create a drink or a dressing. Some thought that the human nature was something acquired by the Son of God at his incarnation which he can remove at will, leaving it aside when he does not need it, and resuming it when required. Some suggested that the divine nature of Christ so overwhelms his human nature that his human nature must always be controlled by the divine nature; they said that Jesus has one divine will and no human will. By studying the Bible and discussing its message, Christians were able to conclude that all these beliefs are untrue.

Jesus Christ remains one hundred percent God and one hundred percent human, but he also remains one Christ, not two christs. Therefore, anything true about the one nature is true about the entire Christ: the divine nature of Christ experiences humanity, and the human nature of Christ experiences divinity. The test word used at some of these Councils was Theotokos: “Mother of God.” They asked, can Mary the mother of Jesus be called the mother of God, or is she only mother to the human nature? From their study of the Bible, Christians concluded that Mary is rightly called the mother of God, because she gave birth to Christ Jesus, who is fully God as well as fully human.

So if Jesus was hungry, God understands hunger. If Jesus was thirsty, God understands thirst. If Jesus was anxious about what he was about to face, God understands anxiety. And yes, through the human nature of Christ, God experienced suffering and death. Likewise, the human Jesus of Nazareth knows all things, has all power, runs the universe, and has authority to judge all people, because he is the Son of God.

If Jesus was not fully human, his obedience to the Law would be meaningless. God cannot be tempted to sin. God is unchanging, pure, and holy. But the human nature and human will of Jesus were tempted to sin. He resisted temptation, obeyed his Father’s will, and so earned for all sinners the rewards that belong only to those who faithfully obey the entire will of God. If Jesus were not fully human, his death would have been merely a ruse, a trick, meaning nothing. But the human nature of Jesus experienced death; his human soul and human body were separated—the body buried in a garden, the soul committed into the hands of the Father. Any Christian who dies experiences the same separation of body and soul, with the body left on earth and the soul taken to Paradise to await the resurrection.

There are two kinds of death: physical death and spiritual death. Adam was told that the day he ate the forbidden fruit he would die, but Adam lived physically more than nine hundred years after that sin. Adam and Eve died spiritually that day. Their sin created a barrier between them and God, a barrier they could not remove. Jesus died physically, but did he experience spiritual death? Did the barrier caused by all the sins he was bearing on the cross come between him and his Father?

The divine nature of the Son of God cannot be separated from the Father. They are eternal and unchanging, in perpetual fellowship with one another—they are one God. The human nature of Christ can and did face spiritual death. For this reason, Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Some people say that he was praying Psalm 22, and in a sense he was. But Psalm 22 is a vivid prophecy of what happened to Jesus on the cross. His agony at the separation was so deep that it echoed a thousand years into the past to be quoted by David in the Psalm.

As I wrote in my last post, different aspects of the crucifixion reach different people in their needs and in their faith. Some time periods in Church history have gravitated more to one aspect or another of the Passion of our Lord. But none of them is to be rejected. All of them are Biblical, whether their imagery is military or financial or legal. And Christ did indeed bear the burden of our sin and the spiritual death which sin causes, as Paul wrote, “For our sake he [God the Father] made him to be sin who knew no sin [Jesus] so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21). This is an essential part of our salvation, that God loved the world so much that he gave his Son—he even turned his face away from his Son for a time—so that whoever believes in him will not perish but has eternal life (John 3:16). J.