Christianity Is a Crooked Path


  • Today’s believers think the words of the New Testament to have been handed down directly by God’s hand, but in defiance of that belief, a survey of pre-Reformation Christianity will reveal a wide diversity of very popular interpretations of those words, their variety and mutual contradiction.
  • These interpretations were shaped by six general influences external to the events recorded in the New Testament, which profoundly influenced the framing and resolution of doctrinal disputes.
  • Trinitarian disputes sought to establish discursively the relations of the persons of the Trinity once the conception of the Trinity (nowhere present in scripture itself) was proposed in the second century; these interminable schisms were only suppressed by a doctrinal surrender to the mystery of the hypostatic union at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 which was enforced by theocratic law.
  • Cultural influences included those in the Roman Empire, among them the divinity of the emperor as a man/god in the era of the first articulations of Jesus’ divinity, as well as Jewish persecutions and the destruction of Israel in the year 70 and the later decline of the western Roman empire.
  • Other religions’ influence included the covenantal relationship of Jews to God in the Pauline church, Platonism, Gnosticism, Manicheanism, and the Great Schism of Christianity in 1053, all of which were adapted in the explosion of sectarianism in the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation.
  • Philosophic influences included Neoplatonist effects on the early development of the Hellenistic church and Aristotelian dominance of the Scholastics in the High Middle Ages to the Renaissance, as well as Stoic influences congenial to self-denial and millennialism.
  • Biblical disputes began with oral transmission and eventual written canons of Scripture in the fourth century, but continued without cessation before climaxing in the “priesthood of all believers” doctrinal revolution of Luther (itself rooted in millennial influences on Paul embraced with Manichaean severity by Augustine) before exploding in the widely printed pamphlets of the Augustinian priest Luther after 1517.
  • Governance disputes initially involved imitating Roman models of governance in conflict with localized or regional authorities; these disputes waxed and waned geographically and chronologically as other influences threatened centralized authority with several breaks from the Roman Church eventually splintering Christian authority, and given the brittle nature of institutional authority, these weakened trust until the final and near-total collapse of religious authority in the Reformation.

We are tempted to view Christian faith as an inerrant package of beliefs handed down directly from its founding, its path lit by the glow of divine inspiration. It is not. Its contents have been shaped and smoothed by controversy and conflict from its very beginnings. Even if we were to dismiss the Q-Source origins of canonical Scripture as well as the apocryphal texts so as to accept Biblical inerrancy in faith, the slightest acquaintance with Church history will suffice to illustrate the remarkable inventiveness of Christian thought. Every deviation from what we think of as “real” Christian belief was embraced by many persons making their best efforts to live out what they saw as God’s word in Scripture, doctrine, and revelation (see “Can Religious Belief Be Knowledge?”). Those condemned as heretics thought their beliefs validated by the same kind of revelation and permissibility that eventually triumphed over their own (see “Religious Knowledge as Mobius Strip”). But a free expression of private belief, even if Biblically justified, could not be tolerated if it threatened Church authority and the civil authority that drew power from it (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”). The few exceptions to that rule proved it by the brevity of their toleration.

What follows is a very brief and very incomplete sketch of a few of the major controversies in Christianity between its founding and the Protestant Reformation, color coded by type of influence. Color Coding is as follows: Trinitarian Disputes, Cultural Influences, Other Religions’ Influence, Philosophic Influences, Biblical Disputes, Governance Disputes.

Council of Jerusalem (70).  During the early Roman Empire, three historical events shaped the faith. The first was the dominance of the Emperor who had only been formally deified within the lifetimes of the first generation of Christians. This did not portend well for Christianity because public religion and civic duty now required worshiping the Emperor. The first major persecutions began under Nero in 64. So in the first century of Christian theology, a man/god as ruler was the norm, not the exception. The third event was the Roman sack of Jerusalem (70) and the beginning of the Jewish diaspora, which occured simultaneously. The end of the Jewish state caused a severe decline in the power of Jewish influence on early Christian doctrines. The Council of Jerusalem’s major decree was the separation of Christianity from Judaism. One did not have to be a Jew before becoming a Christian. Thus began the evangelizing era of early Christianity.

Docetism (80) Belief that Jesus did not die on the cross because his body was not flesh and was fully inhabited by God’s spirit.

Marcionism (140) argued that the Jewish god of the OT was not the Christian God of love.

Adoptionism (180) Belief that Jesus was a supremely virtuous man who was perfected by God’s inspiration.

Montanism (180) A favoritism for Gnostic Gospels to “complete” Synoptic Gospels.

Arabici (240) Belief that the soul perishes with the body and will be restored at the Last Judgment.

Psilanthropism (280) Belief that Jesus was not coterminal with God, the father, but was infused with divinity at birth. Declared a heresy at Nicea.

Council of Nicea (325) This council was called by the seven major bishops to resolve the Arian question. Half of Christians believed that Jesus was inspired as Moses and Abraham had been, “filled with God,” as they were. Therefore, he was not divine. Only the Gospel of John, clearly influenced by Hellenistic Platonism, had reported differently. As Christians were evenly split on the issue, they appealed to Constantine, Roman Emperor, to decide. This intervention began the era of “caesero-papism,’ which had long been the Roman theocratic model, in Christianity. It is the claim that rulers are invested with divine authority.  The Nicene Creed declared Arianism a heresy and formalized the Trinitarian tradition. The principle of Canon Law (divinely ordained orthodoxy) was begun at Nicea. Also, the Council recognized the primacy of three bishops as “patriarchs”: Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, a tradition maintained by the Orthodox churches but abandoned by western Christianity in favor of the caesero-papism model.  Constantine made Christianity Rome’s state religion and began the era of persecutions of non-Christian faiths that continues today.

Patripassianism (350) Belief that God the Father suffered on the cross with Jesus.

Council of Constantinople (381) Enforced the divinity of Christ and declared Arianism a heresy punishable by death. Also condemned the Pneumatomachi, who considered the Holy Ghost to be a remnant of primitive spiritualism. Also condemned Apollinarism, the teaching that only Christ’s body was human and that his mind and soul were purely divine, an alternative man/God combination. Earliest efforts to standardize the nature of Trinitarianism. Constantine commissioned the first Bibles to establish orthodoxy among Scriptural sources. Fragments still exist.

Council of Ephesus (431) Condemned Nestorianism, the belief that Mary was a fourth divine form and that “God Bearer” (“Theotokos”) was a legitimate name for Christ.  It resolved the issue by transferring the title to Mary, who would henceforth be considered the God-bearer. Nestorius taught that all experiences and attributes of Christ were human; only “the Word” was divine.   Also condemned Pelagianism, the belief that works could earn or assist salvation. Also condemned Donatism, the belief that martyrdom was the true Christian calling. Augustine was a major influence in this effort, though he also strengthened the Gnostic and neoplatonic influences in Christian orthodoxy. These were later highlighted by Luther, an Augustinian priest. Gnosticism included a range of “mystery religions” dating to the third century that emphasized a special divine knowledge achieved through ritualistic observances. It was a variant of Manicheaism, the belief that the soul was pure spirit trapped within a corrupting material reality. Gnosticism sought a “secret knowledge” only available through obscure ritual or method and has a long history, tracing back to Pythagorean numerology, but in its Christian form, it focused on the transmission of grace through sacrament and/or revelation. Neoplatonism entered through the teachings of Plotinus, who was not a Christian but who was thought to have been inspired by the Gospel of John (and possibly to have influenced its wordingin the Vulgate). It stressed the parallel existence of a complex metaphysical realm that could be intuited through the worldly realm. Augustine’s City of God was influenced by Gnosticism and neoplationism.

Council of Chalcedon (451) Condemned the Eutychian doctrine of monophysitism, which was the reverse of Nestorianism. It taught that everything human and divine were combined in the nature of Christ, with the divine predominating.  Proclaimed the hypostatic union in Christ, a mystery of Christology, a perfect but inexplicable union of man and God. The Trinity was formally declared a mystery of the faith.

Second Council of Constantiniple (553) Reaffirmed anti-Nestorianism and anti-monophysitism. Justinian had recently divided the Roman Empire with a second capital at Constantinople, and this Council resulted in a schism between the West that accepted the findings of this Council and the Eastern Church that refused them. The schism would be formalized in 1053 and would partially explain the sacking of Christian Constantinople by Christian crusaders in the Fourth Crusade of 1204.

Third Council of Constantinople (680) Repudiated monothelistism, the belief that Jesus had only a divine and not a human will.

Second Council of Nicea (787) Rejected veneration or worship of icons, relics, and sacred ground.

Great Schism (1053) Orthodox Church splits from Roman Catholic Church

Sethianism (1100) Belief that Satan was working for God the Father in order to bring knowledge to man, and so denied Christian doctrines of evil.

First Lateran Council (1123) Inspired by Paul, it required celibate clergy.

Third Lateran Council (1179) Condemned Waldensian heresy of poverty as a Christian duty. Also condemned Catharism (Albigensianism), a belief that Satan was the anti-Christ and an equal to God, a doctrine that was derived from the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism in Persia. Forbad usury in favor of Christian charity as related in Acts of the Apostles.

Fourth Lateran Council (1215) affirmed doctrine of transubstantiation as central to Christian faith. Required communion and other sacraments as essential for salvation.

Scholasticism Beginning with the Crusades of 1090 and continuing through the Renaissance, the influence of Aristotle, “the philosopher,” pervaded Christianity with a renewed emphasis on careful reasoning on first principles, academic education, new religious orders, and discursive positions on theological issues best represented by Thomas Aquinas (1280). 

Renaissance (14th -16th C) A rolling cultural revolution begun in Italy as consequence of the Crusades (11th – 14th C) and Venice’s dominance of the Byzantine Empire, the Renaissance began the unravelling of a total reliance on religious authority that was completed in the Reformation. 

Conciliarism (beginning in 14th C) A reaction to the scandals of the Papacy in Avignon and after, conciliarism placed authority for doctrine in Church councils, not in papal authority.

Council of Constance (1415) settled the century-long great schism of the papacy in which as many as three popes claimed Petrine authority, each excommunicating the other, as well as the long “Babylonian Captivity” of the papal court to Avignon, France. The Council also suppressed the teachings of John Wycliffe (Lollardry), who condemned luxurious living and valued vernacular Scripture, and John Hus, who used Scriptural authority to lead a peasants’ revolt against feudal lords and corrupt clergy in the name of sharing in common as the early Christians practiced.

Printing Press (1439) Initially of relatively minor import in Christian life, the printing press exploded into relevance in the Reformation.

Protestant Reformation (1517- 1688) Began in doctrinal disputes: anti-Pelagianism, priesthood of all believers, total depravity, etc. Quickly resolved to a split between orthodox authority and individual conscience that split both Catholic and Protestant denominations. Ended in purely political infighting to replace religious authority with civil authority as religious faiths for Protestants began focusing on personal conversion and private beliefs. Began the diversity of Protestant faiths based upon born again testimony rather than dogmatic authority. Twenty million killed as the modern secular state was begun with the gradual separation of church and state in modern nation-states.

Council of Trent (1545-1563) Reaffirmed Catholic authority against Protestantism. No salvation outside of Catholicism. “Sola fide” declared a “vain confidence” and “sola scriptura” denied in favor of Patristic tradition, conciliar resolution of heresy, and papal power (formally enshrined as “papal infallibility” in 1870). Reaffirmed seven sacraments. Reaffirmed purgatory. Also condemned Antinomianism, the Protestant belief that Christians are freed by grace from adherence to moral duties. Anticipated by Paul in Romans 3:8.

I end this tour of heterodoxy at the event that ultimately destroyed religious authority and ushered in the defining quality of modernism: individual preferential agency (see “Premodern Authority). With the Protestant Reformation, the power of private belief burst upon Western societies in a torrent of heresy, sectarianism, and bloodshed introduced by Martin Luther’s declaration at the Diet of Worms in 1519. “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”

Though religious authority maintained a declining fraction of its former power after the Reformation, especially in Roman Catholic and Muslim domains, its conflicts with private agency could not be deferred indefinitely (see “Which Clash of Civilizations?”). This axiomatic conflict still echoes today (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). Believers will argue that the triumph of their private convictions over external and institutional religious authority marks an advance for their faith. The heterodox quality of nearly all religious beliefs today (though not quite all, as Shia Islam and literalist Christianity prove) is much stronger than it was through the long centuries of dogmatic Christendom (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?). Very few of the variances explored here have been resolved except by the force of institutional authority, and so the power of individual moral agency and private conviction are sure to cycle the same kinds of conflicts through future generations of believers, who can only escape religious war by forswearing public religious influence. After reviewing this list, believers might say that all of this dogmatic conflict is irrelevant to their interests. They feel secure in the contours of their own brand of faith and do not wish to subject it to an interrogation that might lead to doubt. I respect that choice, so long as believers are willing to acknowledge that they pursue universal truths about the reality and will of God less than their own comfort (see “To What Extent Can Uncompassed Doxastic Beliefs Guide True Moral Commitments?”).