Posts Tagged “great christians of history”

Tertullian 2I’m continuing my occasional series on great Christians in history, by going back earlier than I ever have, to an important early Christian known as Tertullian. He wrote in the latter decades of the 2nd century CE and the early decades of the 3rd, a crucial time when a lot of Christian thought had only just begun to gel.

What we know of Tertullian himself comes mainly from his own pen, so it must be taken with a grain of salt. He was a Carthaginian Roman who wrote mainly in Latin, and lived in the central Empire, at a time when most Christian writers wrote in Greek and lived in the East. In this regard he stands out a bit from the rest of the ante-Nicene Church Fathers, yet his writings influenced many other Christians, both during his life and after.

Tertullian’s writings carry a legalistic edge and employ legal language and expressions. As a result, later Christian legend claims he had been trained as a lawyer before his conversion. But if one examines what Tertullian says about Roman law, it’s not really certain he was a lawyer. Nevertheless, his legalism later became a strong theme in Christian thinking, and this is one of Tertullian’s chief legacies to Christianity. Doctrines ceased to be notions that illustrated higher spiritual ideals, but became, rather, statutes which had to be viewed absolutely and literally.

Another of Tertullian’s enduring legacies is the inclusion of the Old Testament (or Hebrew scriptures) in the Christian canon. In the middle of the 2nd century many Christians — including the Marcionites, as well as most Gnostic sects — rejected the Hebrew God as a deficient creature, one distinct from, and inferior to, the “true” God revealed by Christ himself. Tertullian opposed this philosophy, insisting that the Hebrew God was, in fact, THE God, and that there was no difference between them. Toward that end, Tertullian taught the opposite of what these groups believed … he insisted that the Hebrew scriptures were absolutely sacred and indispensable to Christians. It was in his massive anti-Marcionite tome, Adversus Marcionem, that Tertullian coined the terms vetus testamentum (“Old Testament”) and novum testamentum (“New Testament”) to explain how the two realms of Christian scripture were connected.

While the Trinity doctrine did not exist in his own time — it was the product of later anti-heretical formulations — Tertullian did presage it a bit, having introduced the term trinitas (meaning “trio,” which later became English “Trinity”) to describe the interrelationship of the “three persons” of God.

These are all innovations for which Tertullian is famous. But the reality of the man is that he was stiff and puritanical. He yearned for the Christians of his time to return to older, stricter customs. With the exception of the few notions he invented, he considered innovation to be impious and dangerous for Christians to engage in. Over time he became increasingly frustrated with, and disappointed in, the Christians he usually associated with; he eventually left them for a Montanist community which was near Carthage. The Montanists of his time and locale were both ascetic and charismatic, so their approach to Christianity appealed to the puritanical Tertullian. It’s astoundingly ironic that a rigid Christian who despised heresy and had written extensively against several of them, ended up embracing one of them. (His departure from the “orthodox” Latin Christianity of his time, to this horrible heretical outfit, is the reason Tertullian has never been sainted, unlike most other Church Fathers.)

But as I see it, the most important legacy Tertullian left behind — something which left its mark on all of Christianity after him — is a certain unmistakable viciousness that most Christians have tried to copy, but few have equalled. Tertullian was — put simply — a fiercely arrogant, pompous ass who reveled in his own superiority and piety. Here is an example of his distinct brand of Christianity:

But what a spectacle is that fast-approaching advent of our Lord, now owned by all, now highly exalted, now a triumphant One! What that exultation of the angelic hosts! What the glory of the rising saints! What the kingdom of the just thereafter! What the city New Jerusalem! Yes, and there are other sights: that last day of judgment, with its everlasting issues; that day unlooked for by the nations, the theme of their derision, when the world hoary with age, and all its many products, shall be consumed in one great flame! How vast a spectacle then bursts upon the eye! What there excites my admiration? what my derision? Which sight gives me joy? which rouses me to exultation?–as I see so many illustrious monarchs, whose reception into the heavens was publicly announced, groaning now in the lowest darkness with great Jove himself, and those, too, who bore witness of their exultation; governors of provinces, too, who persecuted the Christian name, in fires more fierce than those with which in the days of their pride they raged against the followers of Christ. What world’ s wise men besides, the very philosophers, in fact, who taught their followers that God had no concern in ought that is sublunary, and were wont to assure them that either they had no souls, or that they would never return to the bodies which at death they had left, now covered with shame before the poor deluded ones, as one fire consumes them! Poets also, trembling not before the judgment-seat of Rhadamanthus or Minos, but of the unexpected Christ! I shall have a better opportunity then of hearing the tragedians, louder-voiced in their own calamity; of viewing the play-actors, much more “dissolute” in the dissolving flame; of looking upon the charioteer, all glowing in his chariot of fire; of beholding the wrestlers, not in their gymnasia, but tossing in the fiery billows; unless even then I shall not care to attend to such ministers of sin, in my eager wish rather to fix a gaze insatiable on those whose fury vented itself against the Lord. “This,” I shall say, “this is that carpenter’s or hireling’s son, that Sabbath-breaker, that Samaritan and devil-possessed! This is He whom you purchased from Judas! This is He whom you struck with reed and fist, whom you contemptuously spat upon, to whom you gave gall and vinegar to drink! This is He whom His disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said He had risen again, or the gardener abstracted, that his lettuces might come to no harm from the crowds of visitants!” What quaestor or priest in his munificence will bestow on you the favour of seeing and exulting in such things as these? And yet even now we in a measure have them by faith in the picturings of imagination. But what are the things which eye has not seen, ear has not heard, and which have not so much as dimly dawned upon the human heart? Whatever they are, they are nobler, I believe, than circus, and both theatres, and every race-course. (De spectaculis or “On the Games”, chapter XXX)

If Tertullian’s happy, sanctimonious, giddy reveling in the endless, horrific torment of others doesn’t make your blood run cold, then nothing will. And that, I fear, is perhaps his greatest imprint on subsequent Christianity … a belief that it is not only right for non-Christians to suffer eternally, but “good” for them to do so — and this, in turn, is something that righteous Christians should find enjoyable and entertaining. This philosophy left its mark on all subsequent Christianity … unfortunately.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Oliver Cromwell, by Samuel Cooper (died 1672)This is the third in my series on “Great Christians” in history. Oliver Cromwell was a warrior-Calvinist who, during the course of the English Civil War, rose to prominence among the Parliamentarians who fought the royal faction; he later led the country in place of the king.

His career began quietly enough with his election to the House of Commons in the late 1620s, after which he seems to have gone through a personal crisis — perhaps a bout of depression. He emerged from it, in the early 1630s, a fervent Calvinist. Like most others of that sect in England, he was convinced the Anglican Church hadn’t sufficiently jettisoned the trappings of Roman Catholicism, and agitated for a “second Reformation” of sorts. At the outbreak of hostilities between Parliament and the Crown in 1642, this supposedly pious man and faithful Christian collected up a cavalry troop of his own, and happily marched to war. Despite having no military training or background to speak of, he scored enough victories that he rose up through the ranks of the Parliamentarian forces. By 1645 he was second-in-command.

As the war continued, Cromwell viewed his military success as a sign that God had “chosen” him to smash the Crown.

The Parliamentarians won in early 1649 with the execution of King Charles I and the creation of the Commonwealth in place of the monarchy. Contention among the anti-royal partisans cropped up almost immediately thereafter. Cromwell had tried to end this infighting, however, it proved too much for him. Seeking another venue in which to express his violent piety, later that year, Cromwell took his army into Ireland. The latter was a Catholic country, and Cromwell hated Catholics even more than he’d hated the king or any of his royal supporters. His campaign in Ireland — which for him lasted only about a year — was as vicious as any of the other campaigns of his career (since it included massacres of civilians) and left a mark on Ireland which is still recalled to this day.

Cromwell ventured into Scotland to fight off Charles II, who hoped to take back the Crown. That campaign, too, was marked by vicious massacres. When the so-called “Rump Parliament” which ruled the Commonwealth proved insufficient for him, Cromwell took matters into his own hands, disbanded that body, and in 1653 essentially forced the creation of a new state, with himself at its head, with the title “Lord Protector.”

That’s when he really went to town with his hyperreligiosity. He set up a mechanism by which the state — rather than the Church — approved and dismissed clergy. Both the Anglican and Catholic churches were outlawed, their hierarchs dispossessed and their property seized.

Over the years of his rule, Cromwell increasingly tried to force dour Calvinistic behavior on the people. Church attendance became mandatory; holidays were outlawed (especially Christmas, but others beside); and so too were gambling and most public entertainments, such as plays and races. And the good, “godly” Cromwell continued to send military forces abroad, not only in Ireland, but in other colonies too, particularly in the Caribbean. This pious, dutiful, obedient Christian remained — contrary to the teachings of Christ himself — a man of war to the end of his days.

Within a couple years after Cromwell’s death, the once-hated monarchy was restored. And never again would Calvinists be permitted to run Britain … that kingdom had learned her lesson, where they were concerned.

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Line drawing of John Calvin, published in 1892 bookThis is the second of my posts on “great Christians” of history (and in case you didn’t know it, that “great” is intended as facetious). My first post in this series was on the conniving Cyril of Alexandria. This time I’ll go over John Calvin, that mighty reformer of Geneva and one of the chief figures of the Reformation. I already covered him in a prior post, which dealt with Christians who actually believe him to be someone to be emulated, and whose 500th birthday must be celebrated by all good Christians. I will therefore crib from my own prior remarks on this vicious, cruel, and murderous creature:

Folks, let me be brutally honest with you about Calvin. He was above all else a theocrat.

That’s right … a theocrat. He was invited to help reform the church in Geneva (in modern Switzerland), and stayed long enough not only to reform its church, but to make its church into the city’s government. By 1541 he was essentially the city’s dictator — ruling with absolute authority — and remained so until his death.

During his career he encountered enemies, and he destroyed them methodically. Despite his popularity in Geneva, there was a party opposed to him, which he called “the libertines” (because they believed God’s grace had freed them from ecclesiastical control). He spent years plotting against individual “libertines,” sometimes getting them prosecuted for what might otherwise have been minor infractions — and in a couple of cases, for fabricated infractions — until their resistance to him was worn down. …

Perhaps Calvin’s shining moment came in his dealings with another ecclesiastical reformer — though of a different sort than Calvin himself — Michael Servetus of Spain. The two had conducted a brief debate via correspondence, which lapsed after Calvin gave up on it, having decided Servetus was an outrageous heretic (mainly because the Spaniard was anti-trinitarian). Servetus, trying to re-establish contact with Calvin, in 1547 offered to venture to Geneva himself to resume their debate in person. Servetus’s own problems with the Church, plus Calvin’s failure to grant him safe-conduct, meant this visit was put off for several years.

But in 1553 Servetus finally did arrive in Geneva — and Calvin made sure that was the end for him. Servetus was arrested, and Calvin arranged for him to be prosecuted by one of his few remaining “libertine” opponents. Since the city of Geneva itself, by then, was pro-Calvin and decidedly anti-Servetus, the libertine had no choice but to press the matter … but Servetus was popular elsewhere in Europe, and having to prosecute him jeopardized the libertines’ relations with other cities. Late that year, Servetus was condemned and burnt at the stake, and the libertines’ fortunes fell further.

Calvin, you see, used one opponent to destroy another, forcing them to damage each other, and leaving him standing even taller. Yes, indeed, that is the sort of Christian John Calvin was.

Christians … you can emulate Calvin if you want, but if you wish to be morally upright and obedient to the God who said (among other things) “turn the other cheek,” “hand over your shirt and your cloak,” and “walk two miles instead of one” … well … I’d advise against it. (But then, what would I — a godless agnostic heathen — know about being a humble and obedient Christian?)

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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St Cyril of AlexandriaWhen one considers the abuses of the Christian church, one invariably thinks of things like the Inquisitions or the Crusades. While these are still valid examples of what can go wrong with Christianity when people get carried away with it, they have unfortunately become too cliché to get people’s attention any more. When you say the words “Inquisition” or “Crusades,” Christians stop listening. They’re not interested in hearing anything about these, and will not accept that they’re an object lesson on their religion.

This means other examples of Christianity’s moral failures are needed. While Christians won’t necessarily like to hear these, either, they’re different enough from the clichés to at least get them to listen for a little while before they turn their ears off. I intend to bring up some of these in a series of posts I’ll facetiously call “Great Christians” or “Great Moments in Christianity.”

Early Christians — especially during the period of the great Christological controversies of the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries — were a truly contentious bunch. Among the most vicious of the contenders was Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria. He was responsible for many events in Christian history; he proved the most influential Christian prince of his time, in spite of his vicious and unethical tactics. He is, to this day, revered as a saint by all Christian churches — even though he was no “saint” at all.

His Machiavellian nature was, perhaps, no more evident than during the ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431. It took place at the height of the Nestorian controversy. The disagreement involved the princes of the eastern Church: Nestorius, archbishop of Constantinople, whose teachings were the focus of concern, and Cyril, who led opposition to him. Nestorius had requested the council, and Emperor Theodosius II had selected Ephesus (along the western coast of modern-day Turkey) to host it, because of that city’s accessibility. Fortuitously for Cyril, two factors played in his favor: First, the host city’s bishop, Memnon, happened to support him; and Ephesus happened to be the city in which Mary, Jesus’ mother, was supposed to have died, making her dear to Christians there. They used this against Nestorius, who had taught that Mary should not be called by the traditional epithet θεοτοκος (theotokos) meaning “Mother of God,” but rather as χριστοκος (christokos) meaning “Mother of Christ.” Cyril and Memnon appealed to the Marian sentiments of the Council’s host city, claiming that Nestorius was somehow “dissing” Mary, and the population appears to have latched onto that.

Now, Cyril and his company of Egyptian bishops arrived by ship, since he had the money to pay to travel by ship, whereas the supporters of Nestorius — the most important of which was John, patriarch of Antioch — traveled over land. Naturally, then, this meant that Ephesus was full of Cyrilline partisans long before the Nestorian prelates could arrive. Cyril and Memnon convened the council before their opponents could arrive in any numbers, and the few Nestorians who were already there, were driven out of the Council chambers. This one-sided council, quite naturally, passed judgement on Nestorius and condemned him. Shortly after, John arrived, and immediately convoked his own council, denouncing Cyril and Memnon.

The result was several weeks of alternating and opposing councils being convened, with rival denunciations, and even some brawling among ecclesiasts, and pitched battles taking place in the streets. The Emperor, hearing about events in Ephesus remotely (he remained in Constantinople) and only days after the fact, was forced to send deputies there to keep order, but the deputies ended up becoming embroiled in the conflict rather than trying to ameliorate it. While he had initially supported Nestorius — the man he had chosen as archbishop of the Imperial seat — Theodosius was eventually overcome by local influences, especially the monks of the Constantinople region who tended toward Cyril’s position. Cyril also had bribed various courtiers, who murmured against Nestorius in the Emperor’s ear. Eventually Theodosius rethought his support for Nestorius.

Between the locals in Ephesus who hated him, and the waning support of the Emperor, after three months of conflicting councils and intractable arguing, Nestorius agreed to leave Ephesus and also retire as archbishop of Constantinople, so long as his own protege replaced him in that see. The emperor and prelates agreed to this arrangement, and he departed, residing in his home region near Antioch.

The Council met hastily, now with no contention. Cyril’s theology was approved and Nestorius’s condemned. But this hadn’t happened because the two theologies had been explored and debated, and Cyril’s had proven itself correct; it was only because Nestorius had, essentially, surrendered the Council.

Nestorius had walked away from the Council in good faith, but within a couple of years, the machinations of Cyril overcame him. His chief ally John of Antioch had given up on him, due to the threats and bullying of Cyril and his own allies; Nestorius’ chosen successor in Constantinople had given up his theology for the same reason; and his erstwhile patron Theodosius had banished him to an outlying monastery in Egypt. Christendom utterly abandoned Nestorius, in spite of all promises that had been made to him. Cyril acquired the absolute victory he’d worked so hard for (and presumably had spent a lot of money to achieve).

The destruction of Nestorius was not Cyril’s only victory, however. Using the monks of the Alexandria environs as his personal army of stormtroopers, during his career, Cyril ordered the destruction of synagogues and the expuslion of Jews from the city; he destroyed various heretics within his see; and he ordered a number of murders, the most famous of which was that of Hypatia, then the most prominent pagan academician of Alexandria — monks attacked her in a mob and literally rent her to pieces. The funds he had used to get himself quickly to Ephesus, and to bribe Imperial courtiers, likely had come to him via the routing of his foes and his monks’ plundering.

The escapades of Cyril of Alexandria are retold famously by Edward Gibbon in his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Volume 2, chapter 47). That Cyril of Alexandria is viewed as a saint is a shame, however, it’s not likely any church will condemn him, since his victory over Nestorius eventually contributed to the Trinity doctrine, which is so precious to most (but not all) Christians. To admit any flaw in Cyril could, conceivably, be construed as “anti-Trinitarian,” and most Christians simply will never permit that.

The lesson here is that right and wrong in Christianity are determined by one’s theology. Having the “right” theology, means everything one does is morally “right”; even if — in actual terms — one’s behavior was anything but “morally ‘right’.”

Of course, it’s quite illogical to refuse to admit wrongdoing on someone’s part merely because of which belief-package s/he espoused; but this illogic appears not to matter much to anyone.

Photo credit: AKMA.

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