The Arian heresy

Much blood has been spilled over the vexing question of how to consider Christ's dual human and divine nature.  I've been proofing a book about Mennonite or Anabaptist martyrs in the 16th century and came across this account of the interrogation and torture of a woman who refused to go along with the orthodox line on this and many other matters:
In the sixth place she was asked whether she did not believe that Christ had assumed his flesh from Mary. But she confessed that he was from above, and had come down from the Father; that the Word had become flesh, even as John says: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life." And as he himself says, that he is the bread which came down from heaven. That he was also the only reconciler, redeemer and advocate. To investigate further, was not necessary to her salvation. John 8:23; 1:14; 1 John 1:1; John 6:31; Rom. 5:10; 1 John 2:1.
That's a good response, I think: "To investigate further, was not necessary to her salvation." I can't believe it was necessary to anyone else's care for her salvation, either, particularly if the investigation was backed up by torture and death by burning (the sentence routinely handed down for unrepentant Anabaptists).  There are some detailed explanations of spiritual mysteries that we are not privy to.  Nor have we been encouraged to believe we are either authorized or obligated to ferret out the explanation by exhaustive analysis, and certainly not that we need to kill each other over our diverse results.

These Anabaptists got into deadly trouble for two other persistent errors.  First, they denied infant baptisms, going so far as to renounce their own, if they had occurred, and insisting on a new baptism as reasoning, consenting, and believing adults.  Often the main focus of their tortured interrogations was to get them to name the parties who had been present at their adult baptisms; it was their primary glory to refuse to answer.  Second, they declined to receive the Catholic eucharist, considering the doctrine of transubstantiation to be a superstition or idolatry.  These were the two heresies that most worked up their inquisitors, to judge by the summaries of their trials and sentences.

For their own part, the shock troops of the Reformation had a bad habit of killing people who persisted in holding or attending Masses, on the ground that it was a deadly heresy to engage in this idolatry.  It was a very bad time, and hard to imagine in these days.  It would be nice to think that's because we now understand that our duty lies more in examining our own conscience than that of others.  More likely, though, it's hardly anyone takes the form of worship seriously enough to imagine killing or dying for it.

15 comments:

Grim said...

I always think of the Arian heresy as being an ancient rather than Renaissance-era concern. It was the difference between seeing Jesus as just another pagan half-god, like Heracles sired on the woman Aclmene by the god Zeus, and recognizing the real (and really revolutionary) claim being made about Jesus' nature.

So I can kind of understand why the ancients felt strongly about it. It wasn't just an issue of mode of worship for them. The whole truth of the "good news" was being lost because this fit so easily into a well-greased pagan rut. It was so easy to believe in another half-god, one who might do mighty deeds but who was ultimately not of more moment than Heracles or Perseus or maybe Achilles....

Tom said...

I'm glad Christians are no longer willing to kill for these things, but it would be a shame if they were no longer willing to die for them, or to bluntly call heresy what it is.

Larry Harman said...

You're exactly right, Tom. I've speculated for some time that most people displaying a "Coexist" bumper sticker aren't really preaching tolerance of diverse beliefs, so much as they're finding them too inconsequential to fight over. I have no evidence for that, just a sneaking suspicion.

Texan99 said...

It's true. I read a lot of those testimonials, thinking "Can I even imagine standing up for a dangerous belief with that kind of courage?" Granted, I thought they were caught up in controversies that were not important, but then no one is trying to restrain me today by force from worshipping in the way that seems best to me. Every one of those martyrs knew that it was likely he or she could escape death, or at the very least be beheaded or strangled quickly instead of agonizingly burned to death, merely by apostasizing. They believed that to do so would be to trade some temporary pain for the eternal loss of everything that was truly important. What would we allow ourselves to be tortured to death to avoid? Is there anything?

It's a soft, prudent life I've led.

douglas said...

For better or worse, that's true for most of us, Tex. In some ways it's better that it's so, but surely without the test, one never really knows the truth in our deepest selves. Whoever said "truth hurts" was probably more correct than they thought.

Texan99 said...

In any case, if there are going to be any spiritual controversies worth killing or dying for, I hope they won't be issues like this splitting of hairs over the exactly proper way of describing Christ's dual nature. It's clear the Anabaptists weren't saying anything remotely close to "Jesus was just a pretty cool guy like a bunch of other guys," which is the only position that should even warrant a stern rebuke among orthodox believers, let alone a massacre for the purpose of saving souls. I thought the witness's insistence that she wasn't called to delve any further into the mystery was an admirable approach. She, at least, wasn't simply ducking a hard issue! Obviously she was in deadly earnest.

Ymar Sakar said...

The Christians were foolish to spend so much effort killing other Christians, even if apostates or heretics they may be.

They should have started wiping out Islam, at least. Islam had a much better policy of expansion and often forbade fights between Muslims. Meaning, raiding and conquering Christian territories were the outlets.

Tom said...

It seems to me that the nature of Christ in the Christian religion could hardly be of greater importance.

People say these heresies aren't important, but if they aren't important, why not be orthodox? It is only because the topics are of great importance that people insist on them.

Texan99 said...

Certainly His nature is important, but if we haven't been told exactly what it is, can it be important to kill other people over their different speculations over the finer points? Especially while we're busy ignoring the things about which He's given quite unambiguous instruction?

I just don't see that we've been encouraged in any way to stir up strife over the difference between homoiousianism and homoeanism, or whether Christ is literally or metaphorically present in the Host.

Tom said...

I'm on record up top as saying we shouldn't be killing people over any of this. Let them be Satanists or atheists or whatever.

But if it's not important, why not be orthodox? Why do people want to come in with heterodox ideas of little importance and stir up strife over them?

Tom said...

Also, I'm not picking a denomination here. I'm not taking a position on the 'real presence,' for example. But if someone's going to be Catholic, they should be Catholic, and if someone's going to be Baptist, they should be Baptist. And, if there's no denomination that suits a person, they should start a new one, or a new religion altogether. Why go around causing trouble over trifles?

On the other hand, if these issues are important enough to be heterodox over, then that's all the more reason to start something new instead of perverting the beliefs of and causing strife in an established denomination.

Texan99 said...

I was going to ask what in the world you could possibly mean by "orthodox" in this context, but if what you're saying is to go along politely with whatever your denomination teaches on the subject, that seems fine to me. I'm not sure all denomination feel a need to express a view on the subject, any more than we all think we just have to know exactly what Christ did between noon and one on His sixteen birthday, though no doubt it would be illuminating if we did happen to find out, and perhaps we will find out some day to our profit.

In general, I think there's nothing wrong with innocent inquiry into matters of this kind, as long as no one takes it on himself to insist that whatever provisional answer he comes up with should be imposed on anyone else. If he enjoys attending religious services that are attended only by people who agree with him on arcane and disputable points, that's probably not particularly dangerous, either, though it could be argued that it introduces an entirely unnecessary sectarianism for moderate benefit, if any. Some things are not much more, at heart, than a question of style and preference.

For whatever reason, at the time of the Reformation, a lot of people got the idea that the established Church was leading them astray in ways that were deadly dangerous. A lot of people in the established Church developed the reciprocal view. From today's perspective, it's hard for me to take seriously an argument that whether people read the Bible in translation or not is a life or death (or salvation or damnation) matter, but that's how they saw it then. The Anabaptists, at least, don't appear to have been motivated by nothing better than self-will or a restless desire for novelty. They really felt the traditional Church was dangerously wrong on important points, and that going along to get along was making a deal with Satan.

Tom said...

... if what you're saying is to go along politely with whatever your denomination teaches on the subject, that seems fine to me.

That's a lot of it right there.

I was reacting to the statement that It's clear the Anabaptists weren't saying anything remotely close to "Jesus was just a pretty cool guy like a bunch of other guys," which is the only position that should even warrant a stern rebuke among orthodox believers, which I might or might not disagree with, depending on how far you take it.

The Nicene Creed has been accepted for about 1600 years across most denominations from the Eastern Orthodox to the Roman Catholic to the Southern Baptist. It is pretty plain about the nature of Jesus in relationship to God. If someone comes into any church that has made the Nicene Creed their standard and starts talking up some contrary view of Jesus, they need to be corrected. Does my opinion differ from your formulation of politely going along with what one's denomination teaches?

Texan99 said...

I don't honestly see why what she was prepared to testify to under torture was different enough from whatever they understood the Nicene Creed to mean to justify continuing torturing her, let alone burn her to death. I don't think we should be picking nits over what "of one being with the Father" means to people in the privacy of their own consciences. If she says she believes Christ told us he was the Bread of Heaven, and that she worships Him and depends on Him as her sole source of salvation to the point that she's willing to die in order to remain true to Him, is that not good enough for us to get on with what He told us should be important about His nature? He told us very little about exactly what was the mystical relationship between Himself and the Father, or how mortals should understand the persons of the Trinity. It seems like such a terrible idea to back people into a corner at gunpoint over how they believe they can truthfully and in good conscience talk about these things in detail.

Myself, I would have said, "I'm willing to swear He's is of one being with the Father," even if that meant I had internal reservations about whether I meant the same thing by those words as my filthy and bloody interrogator meant. To this woman's credit, she presumably felt that was an essentially dishonest dodge, and that she couldn't be coy about something so central to her salvation.

I feel the same way about infant vs. adult baptism. Since I don't believe that the ritual itself is the important thing, I can go along with nearly any form of ritual as an aid to reverence, the reinforcement of communal and personal faith, and the perpetuation of an ancient memorial. My impression is this martyr couldn't take things so lightly: her people believed that if you really believed that baptism was a public undertaking essential to your true conversion, you couldn't mince words about it, even under threat of death.

It didn't help that the Anabaptists deeply believed, and with very good reason, that the people who could even dream of treating them as they were then being treated must be out-and-out agents of Satan, with whom it was completely impossible to reach any accommodation without putting their souls at risk.

Sir Thomas Moore spent a long time working with different forms of an oath he could take in good conscience; presumably he would have preferred not to be martyred if he could find a way out of the trap. In the end, though, there was a point past which he wouldn't go under oath, not even to preserve harmony and obedience, let alone his life. Was he stirring up unnecessary dissension?

Earl Wajenberg said...

A major feature of the modern era is our rampageous individualism. It has lots of benefits in terms of personal freedom and lots of disadvantages in terms of social chaos. But one of the benefits it has, and was quite deliberately designed to have, is making religion more of a private matter.

Nowadays, believers rightly feel pressured and marginalized when the secular world repeatedly pushes back on them to "not push your religions down my throat" by, for instance, saying "Merry Christmas," but at the historical level, they have a point. When the Anabaptists were being burned and Europe was being generally convulsed with religious warfare, this was because of the assumption, unspoken but firmly held by both sides, that the only remotely satisfactory way to practice your religion was as part of a community, and a community that really ought to be coextensive with Europe, otherwise known as "Christendom."

Of course, it didn't help that Luther & Co. gave a golden opportunity to the heirs of the Holy Roman Empire, who had locked horns for centuries against the Papacy, sometimes going so far as to have their own pet popes.