Doctrinal Controversies: Causes and Features


Even general church history must take considerable note of the doctrinal controversies of this period. They entered too deeply into the life of the age, were too large a factor in the great events of the Christian Empire, that they should be left entirely to the history of doctrine. However, we shall endeavor to observe the distinction between the two branches, and without dwelling upon the minutiæ of doctrine, or the arguments adduced in their support, shall consider the controversies mainly as factors in the life and public events of the age.

The reign of Constantine inaugurated, almost of necessity, an era of theological activity, if not of theological strife. That the Church, when relieved of the strong outward pressure, should apply itself with great zeal to the deeper problems of the faith, was a very natural turn of events. Where there is mental life, there is always speculation in some department or other, always philosophizing, always endeavors after the exact definition and the satisfactory defence of truth. In the centuries following Constantine, philosophizing was drawn by an irresistible attraction into the theological field. Christianity uplifting itself in the freshness and glory of a new and triumphant power, and claiming to be the absolute religion embracing the whole circle of divine truth, must necessarily absorb very much of the speculative energies of the times.

Indifference to matters of creed was practically an impossibility. Many whom custom still bound to their old, worn-out heathenism may have had but a moderate interest in its tenets. But Christianity with its unforgotten record of heroic conflicts, with its long list of honored martyrs, with its lofty promises, with its comparative freshness, and with its felt superiority to all the religious products of the ancient world, claimed too lively an interest from thoughtful adherents to allow of an indifferent attitude towards its doctrinal contents.

Aside from indifference to matters of creed, unanimity of opinion was the only thing which could have saved the Church of that era from doctrinal controversies. But this, too, was practically out of the question. The depth of the subject was enough by itself to prevent unanimity of opinion, especially on the part of men coming from such varied antecedents as belonged to the transition from a Jewish and heathen to a Christian world. There were causes, therefore, compnratively normal and legitimate, that acted powerfully in the direction of doctrinal agitation.

But these causes were re-enforced by others that have less claim upon our charity. A false impetus was given to theological strife by a wide-spread failure properly to recognize the broad distinction which exists between faith and orthodoxy. The abhorrence of heresy, which had been engendered by such gross aberrations from Christian truth as Gnosticism and Manichæism, conjoined with the unspiritual temper of numerous adherents of the victorious Church, led not a few to confound evangelical belief with allegiance to a creed. According to their superficial estimate, a zealous championship of the right articles of faith was a supreme evidence of Christian character. Coalescing with this stimulus to controversy was the old Greek disputatiousness which still survived. It was easy for the Greek mind to run into a mania for speculation and discussion, to the neglect of practical interests. Cicero in his day complained of the controversial bias of the Greeks, and accused them of thirsting for contention rather than for truth. Not a little of this spirit came unconquered into the Church.

Controversy was also intensified and imbittered by the action of the government. The design of the emperors was indeed the promotion of peace and harmony in the Church, but their interference none the less bore the natural fruit of increased strife. What else could have been the result of the principle established under the administration of Constantine; namely, that the minority of bishops, gathered or represented in a council, must submit their faith to the decision of the majority, and, in case of refusal, feel the force of civil as well as of ecclesiastical proscription? The inevitable consequence was, that, when a doctrinal dispute arose, the partisans of either side were intent upon securing for themselves a majority in a council and the co-operation of the government. The government, thus flattered by the appeals of contending factions, was incited to mage a full show of its power and importance. Emperors having least understanding of the subjects under debate were quite apt to be most zealous in their attempts to control doctrinal settlements. Hence full scope was given, in the treatment of theological questions, to all the expedients of the most violent political strife.

Finally, the populace of the large cities, by their characteristic bias to faction and extreme partisanship, fostered controversy, and contributed to it an element of ferocity. "The abstruse tenets of the Christian theology," says Milman, "became the ill-understood, perhaps unintelligible watchwords of violent and disorderly men. The rabble of Alexandria and other cities availed themselves of the commotion to give loose to their suppressed passion for the excitement of plunder and bloodshed. If Christianity is accused as the immediate exciting cause of these disastrous scenes, the predisposing principle was in that uncivilized nature of man, which not merely was unallayed by the gentle and humanizing tenets of the gospel, but, as it has perpetually done, pressed the gospel itself, as it were, into its own unhallowed service." [History of Christianity, Book III., chap. v.]

From all these causes resulted an age intensely polemical. As many testimonies and incidents assure us, controversial zeal burned with indescribable ardor. "Disputes and contentions," writes Theodoret, "arose in every city and in every village, concerning theological dogmas. These were indeed melancholy scenes over which tears might have been shed. For it was not as in bygone ages, when the Church was attacked by strangers and enemies: they who fought against each other [in this strife of tongues] were members of each other, and belonged to one body." [Hist. Eccl., i. 6.] "Every thing in the city," says Gregory of Nyssa, speaking of the Arian controversy in Constantinople, "is full of such [as dogmatize over things incomprehensible], --the lanes, the markets, the avenues, the streets, the clothiers, the bankers, the dealers in provisions. When you ask one how much a thing costs, he will favor you with a discourse about the begotten and the unbegotten. When you inquire the price of bread, he replies,'The Father is greater than the Son, and the Son is subordinate.' If you ask,'Is the bath ready?' he declares, 'The Son was created from nothing.' I know not by what name, whether frenzy or madness or other kindred term, this evil which has come upon the people may fitly be called." [Orat. de Deitate Filii et Spiritus Sancti.] In like manner Gregory Nazianzen testifies: "It has gone so far that the whole market resounds with the discourses of heretics, every banquet is corrupted by this babbling even to nausea, every merry-making is transformed into a mourning, and every funeral solemnity is almost alleviated by this brawling as a still greater evil; even the chambers of women, the nurseries of simplicity, are disturbed thereby, and the flowers of modesty are crushed by this precocious practice of dispute." [Orat., xxvii. 2 (Schaff's rendering).] If such language applies to the doctrinal strifes of the fourth century, what shall describe the polemic zeal of the fifth century? Said Nestorius in his inaugural sermon at Constantinople: "Give me, O Emperor, the earth purified from heretics, and I will give you heaven in return; help me to destroy the heretics, and I will help you to conquer the Persians." [Socrates, Hist. Eccl., vii. 29.] But intolerant as was the zeal which these words reveal, it by no means exceeded that which was directed against Nestorius himself as he fell under suspicion of heresy. At the council of Ephesus in 431, a whole string of anathemas was hurled against him. One bishop remarked, that, as those who counterfeit the imperial coins are deserving of the severest penalties, so Nestorius, who has dared to falsify the orthodox faith, was deserving of all punishments at the hands of God and of men. Another declared that he was worse than Cain and the Sodomites, and that the earth might fitly open to swallow him up, or fire from heaven descend upon him. In the official notification by the council of his condemnation, Nestorius was named a "new Judas" [Mansi, Concilia, iv. 1228.] and the city of Ephesus expressed its delight over the sentence by processions, torches, and illuminations. [Ibid., iv. 1241; Opera Cyrilli, Epist. xxiv (Migne).] A layman and a lawyer, writing subsequently, named Nestorius "that God-assaulting tongue, that second conclave of Caiaphas, that work-shop of blasphemy." [Evagrius, Hist. Eccl., i. 2.] Cyril of Alexandria, who was the soul of the crusade against Nestorius, scrupled at no means for securing his ends, even to the bribing of numerous court officials. The letters of his archdeacon show conclusively that he made presents to various parties at court, and exhorted the church at Constantinople to be careful to do their part in satisfying the avarice of certain persons. [See Neander, iv. 203; also Hefele, Conciliengeschichte, § 156] Hefele attempts, indeed, to palliate the practice of Cyril, on the plea that it was Oriental custom to introduce a negotiation with a sovereign or other dignitaries with presents.

[§ 150. Hefele seems half-conscious of the weakness of his apology, for he seeks to withdraw attention from Cyril by reference to the Protestant theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who prefaced their communications to the dignitaries of the Greek Church with presents. Supposing that the cases were parallel, it would do little toward rescuing the saintship of Cyril. But they are not parallel. If the Protestant theologians had beset the officials of their own government with lavish presents, in order to secure a special act of administration, such as vengeance upon a hated rival, there would have heen a ground of comparison.]

No doubt, in opening communication with a distant and comparatively unknown court, Oriental courtesy emphasized the propriety of making some gift. But who imagines that the custom of that day made it incumbent upon Cyril to accompany with a multitude of presents his approaches to his own government at Constantinople, with which he had already been in close communication? Judged by the nature and intent of the transactions, it was a gross case of bribery. [That Cyril had gained a reputation for simony (Isidore of Pelusium, Epist, ii. 127), does not tend to soften the interpretation of these transactions.] All that can be said is, that the conscience of the time was not fully up to the modern standard in its judgment of such practices. But, with all his unscrupulous and relentless ardor, Cyril scarcely represents the extreme of controversial heat. His successor Dioscurus surpassed him. The council of Ephesus, in 449, was ruled by him and his cohort of monks with till the arts of terrorism which might have been chosen by a military dictator. Flavian, the venerable patriarch of Constantinople, was set upon with such atrocity that he soon died from his injuries. Any opinion counter to the sentiment of the dominant party was greeted with a furious anathema. As words implying two natures in Christ were quoted from Eusebius of Dorylæum, a chorus of voices shouted, "Burn him alive ! As he has divided Christ, so let him be divided!" In the rage for dogma, conduct was completely ignored. Charges of adultery and other crimes being brought against a bishop, Dioscurus answered, "If you have any accusation to prefer against the man's orthodoxy, we will receive charges; but we have not come here to pass sentence for adultery." [So Theodoret reports, Epist., cxlvii.] Even the honored and important council of Chalcedon often became a Babel of anathematizing voices. Violent invectives were liberally hurled. As the council made place for Theodoret, the party of Dioscurus cried out, "Cast out the Jew, the enemy of God!" To this the friends of Theodoret responded with the exclamation, "Cast out the disturber, cast out the murderer!" The fifth ecumenical council, held at Constantinople in 553, was not content with condemning merely living heretics: resorting to ex post facto decrees, it anathematized, on the score of doctrines not authoritatively settled in his day, Theodore of Mopsuestia, a man who had died long before in unquestioned fellowship with the Church. The West, as a general thing, did not proceed to quite the same extreme as the East, in this controversial era. Jerome, however, did not fall much below the Eastern standard. He stigmatized the opinions of Jovinian as the "hissings of the old serpent," and named him, though a monk, an Epicurus, because he opposed the current over-valuation of monasticism. [Adv. Jovin., i. 4, ii. 36.] Of Vigilantius, he said that he might more properly be called Dormitantius, and intimated that his presence in Gaul had supplied a full compensation for the lack of mythologic monsters in that country. [Cont. Vigilant.] A still more signal exhibition of controversial rancour appears in his reference to Rufinus. At a time when the grave invited to charity, he wrote: "The scorpion is buried under the soil of Sicily, with Enceladus and Porphyrion; the many-headed hydra has ceased to hiss against us." [Comm. in Ezech., Pref.]

Truly an unsightly picture is that which is formed from the combination of such features! Still, it would indicate a very superficial judgment, if these controversies should be regarded as unmeaning events and a total waste. The remark which has sometimes been handed about respecting the Arian controversy -- namely, that the whole strife was over a mere iota-- is very shallow, not to say utterly senseless; just as though the difference of a single letter may not make an immeasurable difference between the meanings of two words. Some of the subjects discussed were vitally related to a true conception of Christianity. Whatever of passion and intrigue may have mingled in the strife, there was still a strong current of fundamental thought, a genuine canvassing of truth upon its merits. While narrow and hot-headed partisans had their place, there were also in the field some of the ablest and noblest men whom God has given to the Church, men of invincible integrity and powerful intellects, such as Athanasius, Basil, the two Gregories, Hilary, and Augustine. A profound and honest engagement of mind was brought to bear upon the great problems of the Christian faith, and certain landmarks were set up for the guidance of all subsequent ages. Unseemly factors are likely to attach themselves to any great movement, as the Reformation clearly illustrates. This first polemical era in Christian history will compare not unfavorably with some later eras. Intolerant as was partisan zeal, there was a general hesitation before the shedding of blood. Some instances there were of deliberate cruelty at the hands of imperial or episcopal tyrants; but the shedding of blood was confined mainly to outbreaks of mob-like violence. There was no organized murder, no Saint Bartholomew massacre, no Spanish Inquisition, no sword of Alva reeking with the blood of thousands. The conditions of the age opened a wide field to bigoted zeal; but the same poison of bigotry is ever stealing into the human heart, and we scarcely need to go back of the present generation to find humiliating examples, though the more perfect checks in our times stand in the way of the more virulent outbreaks.