Friday, January 1, 2010

Ephesians 3:10 part three

. . . . so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places (Ephesians 3:10).

The concept of God as a tri-unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is universally accepted today by all Christians who believe the Bible to be the fully authoritative and divinely inspired word of God. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches (bold are my emphasis):

All Sacred Scripture is but one book, and this one book is Christ, because all divine Scripture speaks of Christ, and all divine Scripture is fulfilled in Christ (paragraph 134). The Sacred Scriptures contain the Word of God and, because they are inspired, they are truly the Word of God (paragraph 135). God is the author of Sacred Scripture because he inspired its human authors; he acts in them and by means of them. He thus gives assurance that their writings teach without error his saving truth (paragraph 136).

The tri-unity of God is not the only truth accepted by all Bible-believing Christians. Just as important to our faith is our understanding of Jesus -- that He is at the same time fully God and fully human, that He was conceived in the Virgin's womb by the power of the Holy Spirit, lived a sinless life, was crucified to pay the penalty of our sins, was resurrected from the dead on the third day, ascended to heaven and will come again to bring His children home to heaven with Him. We also believe the Holy Spirit is not a "force" but is a "Person" -- the third Person of the Trinity.

But while 21st century Christians -- Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Protestants -- agree about these doctrines, agreement has not always been the case. There were times, especially in the early centuries, when these doctrines were in great danger of being dismantled. If not for the forceful opposition of leaders God raised up in the Church, Christianity as we know it would not have survived.

For example, we looked briefly last time at the doctrine formulated by the "Judaizers" (see Acts 15 and Galatians 5). If not for the leadership of Sts. James, Peter, Paul and the others, the Christian doctrine of salvation through faith in Christ's atonement would have been watered down into oblivion by the notion that one had to be circumcised to be saved.

Another heresy facing the early Church was Gnosticism -- a system of beliefs whose predominant theme revolved around the idea that only those who have been given a special knowledge (Greek: gnosis) of the mysteries of the universe can be saved. Sts. Paul and Peter likely addressed this error in their letters to the Colossians, 1 Timothy and 2 Peter.

Probably the most dangerous heresy affecting the early Church was taught by a priest named Arius (born circa 250 A. D.) Arianism (not the same as Aryanism) taught that Jesus was not truly divine, but rather was the first and greatest of all God's creatures. In other words, God is a singular "one." Jesus is not God. Neither is the Holy Spirit, God. After much heated debate, and in a manner reminiscent of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, the Church leaders convened a council at Nicea (in modern Turkey) in 325 A.D. to hear both sides of the question, and to definitively settle the question

It was at this council at Nicea that the Catholic Church established what is now known as the Nicene Creed. The council made it clear in this following phrase that Jesus was truly divine:

"We believe in one lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in being (or, one essence) with the Father."

In 381, at the Council of Constantinople, the Church amended the Nicene Creed with this statement of faith regarding the divinity of the Holy Spirit: "We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son*. With the Father and the Son He is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets."

Pelagianism was another erroneous teaching circulating through the early Church. Pelagius (circa 354 A.D) taught salvation could be achieved solely by upright moral behavior -- even without God's grace merited to us through Christ's atonement. In other words, salvation was strictly a "works" issue.

Pelagianism continued to spread until the Catholic Church met in 529 A.D. to definitively address the heresy. At the Synod of Orange the Church set forth it position that salvation was a grace granted by God completely gratuitously -- and not at all on the basis of our merit.

To close this section of our study of St. Paul's comment in Ephesians 3:10, let's look at one more heresy that spread through the early Church and -- if it had been successful -- would have altered our understanding of Jesus Christ and salvation.

Nestorius (born circa 386) was an Archbishop of Constantinople. He argued that the Virgin Mary was properly called "Mother of Christ" and not "Mother of God" because Mother of God implied the divine nature was born, suffered and died. Nestorius believed in dualism -- an idea not uncommon to other incomplete and early teachings about the full divinity and humanity of Christ. Nestorius believe there were two persons in Christ -- a divine and a human. Thus it was the human person in Christ who was born, suffered and died, not the divine person.

The Church Council at Ephesus (431 A.D.) denied the dualism of Nestorius by establishing the term "Theotokos" for the Virgin -- meaning, Mother of God (i.e. Mother of Jesus who is God) -- thereby settling the question (for a time, anyway) of the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus.

Even a cursory study of Catholic Church history, and the vital role it played in protecting true Christian faith from faltering into error, is a valuable endeavor. For further information, follow these links here and here (for example), or google "early church councils."

When St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians . . . . so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places, he could not have known the full scope of heresies and erroneous teachings that would circulate through the Church during the ensuing centuries. But God the Holy Spirit knew. And that is why I believe He inspired St. Paul to pen these words in chapter three, and later in chapter four.

God is all about protecting His flock. That is why He gave us the Scriptures, and that is why He gave us the Church to help us understand the Scriptures. Without both, the flock run the risk of going terribly astray.

Next time we will move further into St. Paul's words in chapter three.

* I am aware of the "filioque" controversy. You can read about the controversy here and here.

Questions for Reflection:

1. What were your thoughts when you first heard the term, "Mother of God"? After reading the above paragraph about Nestorianism, what do you now think of the term?

2. Can you think of any Scriptures that someone could use to support the position that Jesus is not really God in the flesh (hint: there are several in the NT)? Can you think of any Scriptures to support the position that Jesus is truly God (hint: there are many in the NT, as well as the OT).


Anonymous said...

Very interesting, thank God for the leadership of the Catholic Church. In the quote from the Nicene Creed, was the phrase in parenthesis part of the creed or an add-on by the writer? Thanks for the insight and the links, I'll be busy for quite a while with this one......Dan

Richard Maffeo said...

Thanks for the comment, Dan. The parenthetical comment (one essence) is my addition. The greek word used for "one in being" means "one essence." I added that parenthesis for english clarification.