Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Lessons from the Proto-Council of Jerusalem

In order to justify their own brand of Doctrinal Development, modern (or post-modern) revisionists have invented a story that is not in the Bible at all, even though they insist that they find it there.

The story goes like this: During the early years of the Church a great controversy raged about how to include Gentile converts. The Church was not sure whether or not they needed to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses, or if they could be admitted simply by baptism. The two parties in the controversy were represented by St. Paul for the baptism party and his opponent, St. James for the circumcision party. This division, disagreement and controversy was settled after many years at the Council of Jerusalem, where the Apostles finally came to some agreement. Furthermore, the years of controversy are a precedent for contemporary Christians to struggle through a "period of reception" about new leadings of the Holy Spirit, for example, women's ordination and Blessings for same sex unions. Just as God did a new thing with the Gentiles, while Peter and James learned to adjust, so he is doing now with priestesses and with conjugal blessings for Adam and Steve, Frankie and Johnnie, etc. We see from the controversy that raged in the Book of Acts that this is normal, just the way the Spirit works.

But, as a matter of fact, there was no controversy about what to do with Gentiles. There was, rather, a settled doctrine, and it was the only Tradition of the Church regarding Gentile converts. When this settled Tradition and dogma of the Church was challenged, the challengers were not treated as equals whose opinion deserved consideration. Rather they were seen to be heretics (the first heretics), and were told, frankly, to shut up, sit down and accept the authority of the Apostles. They were told to stop, and those who persisted were labeled false teachers, and warnings were sent to the churches not to heed them. The Council of Jerusalem is the prototype for the Ecumenical Councils, presenting defense of the Faith against heretical innovation that was contrary to the received doctrine of the Church as based on revelation.

Let us look at the record of Scripture.

And the apostles and brethren that were in Judaea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. And when Peter was come up to Jerusalem, they that were of the circumcision contended with him, Saying, Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them. But Peter rehearsed the matter from the beginning, and expounded it by order unto them, saying, I was in the city of Joppa praying: and in a trance I saw a vision, A certain vessel descend, as it had been a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it came even to me: Upon the which when I had fastened mine eyes, I considered, and saw fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And I heard a voice saying unto me, Arise, Peter; slay and eat. But I said, Not so, Lord: for nothing common or unclean hath at any time entered into my mouth. But the voice answered me again from heaven, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. And this was done three times: and all were drawn up again into heaven. And, behold, immediately there were three men already come unto the house where I was, sent from Caesarea unto me. And the spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting. Moreover these six brethren accompanied me, and we entered into the man's house: And he shewed us how he had seen an angel in his house, which stood and said unto him, Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon, whose surname is Peter; Who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved. And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning. Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost. Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God? When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life. (Acts 11:1-18)

Certain things must be noticed in this account. Peter likened the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the house of Cornelius to the Day of Pentecost ("...the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning. Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost. Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us..."). Unlike the usual laying on of the Apostle's hands, these Gentiles were Confirmed directly from heaven, even before Baptism. The message was clear; the Pentecost experience was exactly duplcated, or rather, extended to Gentiles. Later, Peter would say, "And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith" (Acts 15:8,9). The words "no difference" were because of the Divine action that repeated what happened on Pentecost itself.

Established doctrine

The other thing we must note from the discussion between Peter and the other Apostles and brethren is how quickly they accepted his words. There was no controversy at all once they heard what happened from Peter's own mouth: "When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life." There it is: The unanimous declaration by the Apostles that they received this revelation from God about how the Gospel would be received by believers among the nations of the earth. They knew that it would be done, and now God revealed how. This was now the teaching of the Church, the doctrine of the Apostles.

Later, during a brief episode Peter would lapse into his old way of treating Gentiles, giving in to some embarrassment at Antioch (Gal. 2:11f), and receiving a rebuke from his brother Apostle, St. Paul, for failing to live by the very doctrine that he, Peter, had himself first proclaimed, and which he still professed. This episode mentioned in the Epistle to the Galatians bears no resemblance to what followed. The sudden appearance of the "Judaizers" comes as a shock in the Book of Acts, a disruption of the Church's teaching and order. "And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question." (Acts 15:1,2)

The Council of Apostles and Presbyters in Jerusalem were not there to reconsider the revelation given to Peter all those years earlier; they did not come with an open mind considering some possibility that they may have been mistaken in their recognition that God had poured out his Spirit on the Gentiles. Neither did James come there holding out after many years and resisting the new movement of the Spirit during a "period of reception." James, as the local Apostle (bishop) appears to be presiding over this Council as its host, joining his voice to that of the all the other Apostles in defending the teaching that the Church received on that day, years earlier, when Peter was given the revelation. As for Peter (based on the part I quoted above from this same 15th chapter), it seems he must have read Paul's Epistle to the Romans, or perhaps, simply had always taught the same doctrine (imagine that).

The lesson of Acts chapter 15 is not that the Church is slow to catch on when the Spirit moves, and that we need a "period of reception" on those occasions when "time makes ancient good uncouth." There was no controversy or misunderstanding on the part of the men who held the offices of authority to teach in the Church.

And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name...Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God. (14, 19)

The clearest language is employed to describe the authority with which these men sent out their unanimous defense of the revelation that had been unanimously received years earlier, which Tradition they now asserted once more.

"For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things." (v.28)

The revisionists will have to come up with something better to defend their innovations. Their tale of a long drawn-out controversy over "a new thing" simply is not what the Bible says.


Anonymous said...

Amen Fr. Hart, spot on!

But, unfortunately, sometimes it has not as easy as at the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem.

For example, the whole Church rejected Arianism, but required two General Councils and much spilled ink in explanation by the Cappadocian Fathers (not to mention worn out sandals by the ever-on-the-run St. Athanasius) before everyone got comfortable with the use of "homoousia" (substance) in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, "commonly called Nicene."

But, notice here that, even a century long dispute involving two Universal Councils, the struggle was about reaching agreement on Christian "terms of art," which, like all language have meaning only by consensus, convention or agreement regarding usage. The disputes were NOT about the substantial content of the Christian Revelation. Indeed, the substance of the Faith was never in doubt either by the "homoousian" party of Alexanderia, Rome, and Anathanasuis or the "homoiousian" party of the vast majority of the non-Arian Orthodox in the East.

Likewise, despite three different historical formula for expressing Christ Jesus' perfect divinity and perfect humanity in techinical Hellenic philosophic terminology -- namely 1) hypostatic union, 2) natural union; and 3) personal union -- all apostolic Christians have ALWAYS agreed that, in Christ, the union of humanity and divinity is without confusion, conversion, division or separation. (The four great "withouts.")

Hence, in 20th Century have both the Roman Communion and also the Anglicans (via a non-contentious Lambeth Statement) FINALLY acknowledged that the Asyrian Church of the East (wrongly so-called "Nestorians") and the National Oriental Orthodox (the wrongly so "Monophysites") are NOT christological heretics. And, it was about time as their liturgies -- where the rubber meets the road, so to speak --have always used the same christological terms and imagery as ours! BTW, most university educated Orthodox scholars also agree on this matter, even the contoversial (but never dull) Fr. John Romanides thought the Miaphysistes (the proper appellation) were substantially orthodox.

* * * * * *

Unfortunately, some opportunistic and sincerely confused folk both within and without the Church have taken advantage of disputes and confusion over precise technical language -- which sometimes seems a tad precious and pedantic, but is important as Dorothy Sayers oft reminds me -- to conclude or charge that our Universal Christian Councils have "developed" or "grown," even "invented" the substance or content of the deposit of Faith once delivered, either by divine inspiration or just arbitrarily. But, as Fr. Hart aptly argues, this is just not the case.

To the contrary, the substantial content of the historical Christian Revelation already was almost completely explained (and not invented) by Irenaeus in the mid-2nd Century! Everything since then -- at least until Rome went off the chain a bit (note that not even Rome believes itself to be "inventing" dogma in its sectarian-Councils) -- has been a mater of honing and seeking consensus regarding technical, Hellenic philosophical language (which STILL remains the dominate intellectual milieu of the Christian world over a millennia after the last General Council) in response to the rationalizing challenges and the particular historical and linguistic contexts Christianity has happened to have found itself.

Sorry, to ramble on, but Fr. Hart sometimes stirs up the "Amen Corner" in me. He deserves a better "Witness." Alleluia!

Christ's Peace,



"Always preach the Gospel. Sometimes, use words." -- St. Francis of Assisi

Alice C. Linsley said...

St. James was a profoundly holy man whose knowledge of Scripture and Tradition was vastly greater than that of any of TEC's bishops, revisionist or otherwise. This is evident in the way he led the Jerusalem Church's deliberations and in the wisdom of his decisions. It is also evident in the liturgy which the Church received from him, which is still used in Orthodox monasteries and on his October feast day in many Orthodox churches.

Canon Tallis said...

Again and again, the same old answer but the only right one. Antiquity, antiquity, antiquity! This is what we should all know and probably do, but sometimes like St Peter we forget. Therefore it is only right that we praise God that we have Father Hart and Albion Lamb that he has given us the Continuum.

How wonderfully sweet is it to have Catholic orthodoxy taught again and again.

Thanks also to Matthew and Alice who have added to the discussion.

P.S. There is no visual verification.