18 February 2017
Always two there are
In the second century, two groups attempted to gain control of the Way, the radical new communal movement that had arisen in the eastern Mediterranean. The first of these groups were the ‘poor ones’, the ebionai, who accepted Christ as the Messiah but otherwise did not differentiate themselves from the Jews. The ebionai were unwilling to question the received wisdom of the culture they had come out of, and as a result they adopted a racially- and culturally-exclusionary set of practices that closed the doors to Gentile believers, in addition to denying the Godhead of the Saviour.
In response to the Judaïsing tendency represented by the ebionai, an opposite tendency arose that went to a Hellenising extreme, taking various philosophical insights from various Greek philosophical schools and mystery religions, and arriving at an uncompromisingly élitist position wherein certain people who possessed the true knowledge, the true gnosis, were privileged above all others, and even exempt from normal notions of good and evil. In their eyes, Christ’s human nature was an illusion, and his life on earth merely a veil covering the abstruse, obscurantist ‘truths’ of the nature of God and the pleroma – accessible, again, only to the élite few. The Ebionites and the Gnostics both were condemned by the early Church, even though they fled to polar opposite extremes. And the Church continued to have within its ranks both legitimate Judaïsing and Hellenising tendencies.
Likewise, a century later, the arguments between the heresiarch Sabellius and Tertullian over the personal nature of the Trinity – with Sabellius arguing against the personhood of Christ and the Holy Spirit, holding instead that they were ‘modes’ of one single person in the Godhead – and the resulting controversy over Saint Athanasius of Alexandria’s use of the term ‘homoousios’ to refer to the substance of God, led directly to the opposite heresy of Arius, who in accusing Saint Athanasius of Sabellius’ heresy, held the separate personhoods of the Father and the Son so strongly that he denied the Godhead of Christ. The first heresy preceded the second and opposite. Both heresies were ultimately condemned: the second in the Council of Nicæa; and the first in the Council of Constantinople.
This pattern has repeated itself a number of times in Church history – particularly in the early Church. The heretical teachings of Nestorius in his unwillingness to venerate the Theotokos with any appellation greater than ‘Christotokos’ (holding that she was not the mother of God but instead the mother of Christ’s human nature only), precipitated Eutyches’ opposite heretical view that the Theotokos fused the human and divine natures within herself and produced a new nature.
The Church has only continued to retain her radical witness of the mystery of the Incarnation, because it was able to hold onto the complete truth, and held any partial or biased versions of ‘truth’ in contempt – regardless of which ‘side’ they fell on. Remember that these were as much cultural and political arguments as they were theological ones, and a version of ‘truth’ which privileged a worldly political view over the person of Christ would not end until it had distorted for its followers the image of Christ into that of a false Christ, an image lesser than He Himself. The Ebionites, who valued their cultural heritage and racial purity over the truth of the Church, were so eager to portray Jesus as a good Jew and the Messiah of their folk in particular, that they denied that He was also God (and thus also could save the Gentiles). And the Gnostics, who held the common people (and indeed, the entire material world) in such contempt as to deem them all ultimately unworthy of moral consideration, put forward for their credulous followers a Christ of illusions, a conjurer of cheap tricks.
The same pattern is holding true today. The spirit of our neo-Gnostic age is infected with a rootless hypercapitalist globalism, which seeks its moral and spiritual affirmations in a peculiarly soporific sort of deism, a religion of ‘democracy’ and rainbow flags and trendy inclusive bumper-sticker slogans, which renders its followers uncritical of themselves or of the conditions that alienate them from their fellows. And we are witnessing the inevitable neo-Ebionite reaction: a nihilistic religion of Blut und Eisen, which readily and eagerly wraps itself in the symbols of Christendom, but from which any trace of Christ Himself is conspicuously absent.
The Orthodox Church, which gives right glory to Jesus Christ, is – as it has always been – caught right in the middle of a war between secular ideologies, behind both of which unhealthy spiritual powers are present. During the twentieth century, the Orthodox Church and some of her most luminary new martyrs offered great resistance to the siren calls of blood-and-soil nationalism; during the twenty-first, we are offering a redoubtable and worthy resistance to hypercapitalist globalism and the most callous abuses of the rootless élite. But we cannot simply define ourselves by what we oppose, if we are to truly witness to Christ in this darkening age. We must witness to the true image and radical logic of the Incarnation. We must speak up for the weakest and most vulnerable persons among us, as the image and likeness of God, without apology, without irony and without rancour. We must speak against the œconomics of fraud and illusion and debt slavery, and against the culture of death (whether in a clinic or in the target crosshairs of a drone). While recognising it is broken, we must not turn against the material world (or, for that matter, against our material bodies), but care for it in ways befitting a salvific and sophic work.
In short, we must do what we have always done: hold firm to the truth even when it is unfashionable, and especially when elements in the culture try to tug us away from it in either heretical direction, whatever that direction happens to be.