Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

The Councils and the Latin Church Fathers

Written by Rev. C.A. Schouls
We have already met some of the Church Fathers and noted that at various times the churches met together in ÒcouncilsÓ to decide certain important issues. This instalment will draw some facts together and put all this before us in an orderly but very sketchy way.

The councils were meetings of church leaders where important questions were discussed, various forms of advice were given and decisions were made. Some of the more important councils and the leading figures, together with the issues discussed, were:

Council of Nicea, 325 - the first truly ÒecumenicalÓ council (involving all the churches). At stake was the question, ÒIs Christ fully and truly God, equal with the Father?Ó Arius and Athanasius, both from the city of Alexandria (Egypt) held opposite views.

Arius was an old man, a gifted preacher, pious and well respected. He feared that the church would return to heathendom if room were given for the view that there is more than one God. He taught that Jesus is the first and the highest of all creatures but not fully God.

Athanasius, forty years younger and not carrying quite the weight that Arius did, led the forces which taught that Jesus is fully God.

This controversy involved the salvation of man. The person and the work of Christ cannot be separated from each other. ÒJesusÓ means Saviour (Matt.1:21). The value of ChristÕs saving work depends upon the kind of person He is. ManÕs condition is hopeless; only God can save him. If Christ is not God, He cannot be the Saviour.

The controversy about this was long and bitter. The emperor Constantine called a council to meet in the small town of Nicea (in present day Turkey). Over 300 bishops attended; some had been crippled by torture. The result of this council was that Arius was condemned as a heretic. A statement of true doctrine was adopted which we still have as Òthe Nicean CreedÓ. This is the first written creed of the Christian Church, predating even the ApostlesÕ Creed, and is held to by Romish, Greek and Protestant churches alike.

Council of Constantinople, 381 - Nicea did not put a stop to the Arian error. Arius (who died in 336) and many others refused to subscribe to the Nicean Creed. They were supported by some emperors and other leaders. Athanasius was in a constant battle and, at various times, banished and recalled, depending on the orthodoxy of the emperor (Constantine died in 337). Nicea had said nothing about the Holy Spirit. Constantinople affirmed Nicea and also expressed belief in the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

Chalcedon, 451 - Although, by this time, the question of the godhead of Jesus Christ was becoming well settled, there was still the question: Who is Jesus Christ, really? Is He God? Is He man? Is He God and man? Is He the God-man? The question was hotly debated: not only by learned men but in the ordinary churches and by the common folk on the street. In 451 a council was called to meet in the city of Chalcedon, very near Nicea. This time, 600 bishops were present. This council again confirmed Nicea. About Christ, it declared: He is one Person who has two natures, both fully human and fully divine. These two natures are present in Jesus Christ Òwithout confusion, without change, without separation and without division.Ó This was adopted and is still held to by all Christian churches. Essentially, nothing further has been said about the difficult problem of the natures and person of Christ.

Ambrose (340-397) - born in the western part of Germany, educated at Rome, was a man of great and varied talents. He became governor of northern Italy at a young age. During the Arian controversy, in the year 374, in the city of Milan, an uproar broke out in the church: Arians and orthodox both tried to have ÒtheirÓ man appointed to the office of bishop. When the meeting erupted in frenzied shouting, Ambrose, the governor (a Christian but not yet baptized) came in to restore order. Suddenly, shouts went up ÒAmbrose for bishop!Ó Both parties were united in their choice. Ambrose was baptized, gave all his money to the poor and he was appointed bishop. He was a good and strong bishop who wrote many books and hymns.

Jerome (340-420) - born in Dalmatia (part of former Yugoslavia), he travelled widely and spent the last 20 years of his life living in a cave near Bethlehem where he translated the Bible into Latin, the language of the common people of the day. This translation is known as ÒThe VulgateÓ (ÒvulgarÓ originally meant only ÒcommonÓ). Although a Latin version did exist, it was a poor translation of the Greek versions. (About 200 BC the Hebrew Old Testament had also been translated into the Greek - Jerome used this for his translation into Latin.) This Vulgate is still in use in the church of Rome today, although since the early 1960's it has been mostly replaced by current language versions.

Augustine (354-430) - born in North Africa, was the greatest and most influential of the church Fathers. His mother, Monica, was a Christian. The young Augustine was a brilliant youth, but wasted much of his talents and neglected his early education. He did not learn Greek. At age 16 he went to school at Carthage, a major North African city, where he engaged in much wickedness and became deeply involved in pagan thought (very similar to the ÒNew AgeÓ views of today!). Monica prayed much for her son and was assured that Òa son of so many prayers cannot be lost.Ó A gradual change came over him: he became dissatisfied with heathen ideals and the emptiness of his own life. One day, at age 32, sitting in a garden with a copy of the New Testament lying next to him, he heard a childÕs voice singing a ditty which included the lines ÒTolle, legeÓ (ÒTake and readÓ). He took up the Scriptures and read Romans 13:13 and 14. Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof. The Lord applied this in such a way that it worked his conversion.

In time, Augustine became bishop of Hippo, North Africa. Among his many writings, the most important are his own ÒConfessionsÓ and ÒThe City of God.Ó His greatest contribution came in the struggle with Pelagius, a British monk, who denied original sin and taught man is not born corrupt but sins due to the examples of others. Augustine held the orthodox view that man is conceived and born in sin and cannot save himself but is saved only through the grace of God, according to His sovereign good pleasure worked out in election.

[The Council of Ephesus, 431 condemned the views of Pelagius, but, just as with Arius, they survived, in a mutated form known as ÒSemi-PelagianismÓ. This, in turn was condemned by the Council of Orange, 529, but not fully and has survived and become part of the official doctrine of the Church of Rome. Basically, it teaches that man is able to make a choice for salvation and has a free will which he must exercise to choose Christ as Saviour. Of course, we know how this pernicious error has continued to infect the thoughts of many throughout the ages]

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