“The Dream of the Rood”

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I love this piece. Here’s a link to the full poem translated by Richard Hamer. The text I worked with was translated by Alfred David. Both are lovely.

http://www.english.ox.ac.uk/oecoursepack/rood/translations/hamer.html

And here’s my analysis. Hopefully it adds to the meaning and beauty of the text.

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In order for the gospel of Christ to be universal, it needs to make sense within a variety of cultural contexts, which is why Christian evangelism places so much emphasis on contextualization. “The Dream of the Rood” is a remarkable work of Christian theology that sets Christ’s death and resurrection within the Anglo-Saxon context. It appeals to traditional values within Anglo-Saxon culture even as it redefines these values in terms of Christ’s authority. The Rood, in particular, models Christian discipleship as it shares the wounds of Christ, assists in his conquest over sin and death, and ultimately shares in his glory. It demonstrates great strength, courage and loyalty—all characteristics of the Anglo-Saxon hero—but these values are ultimately defined by Christ who voluntarily and nonviolently sacrifices himself to save the world.

The narrator of the poem first notes the wounds of the Rood after he describes its dazzling beauty: “Yet I could see signs of ancient strife: / beneath that gold it had begun / bleeding on the right side” (18-20). This sudden turn of phrase indicates the primary importance of the wound and introduces the predominant theme of suffering. The Rood’s gold and jewels are beautiful, but they only make sense in the context of the “ancient strife” which caused the bloodstain. Because it carries the wounds of Christ beneath the exterior of bejeweled grandeur, the Rood is an authentic disciple.

Strength is a frequent theme in the Rood’s narration, but the virtue is defined in distinctly Christocentric terms. It is here that the author seems to be affirming as well as redefining, traditional manifestations of strength. Remembering the crucifixion, the Rood notes, “Then I did not dare act against the Lord’s word / bow down or fall to pieces when I felt the surface / of the earth trembling” (35-7). In this act, the Rood demonstrates both the virtues of a true disciple and that of a warrior. It obeys to the wishes of its lord and stands strong in the middle of suffering.

But the Rood continues, “Although I might / have destroyed the foes, I stood in place” (37-8). This is perhaps the poem’s most pointed commentary on the connection between strength and violence. The Rood clearly senses its own strength. It recognizes, almost to the point of indulgence, that it has the power to avenge itself and its lord. Although it does not give a definite reason for its rejection of violence, the contrast between destroying foes and standing in place suggests that violence would be an act of weakness. As a tree, the Rood would presumably have to fall on its enemies to destroy them, but to do so would be to fail in its duty to raise up Christ. It cannot exalt its lord and destroy its enemies at the same time. If the Rood would express its strength in violence, the mission of Christ would fail, so instead, it follows Christ’s example and lays aside its power for the sake of a cause more noble than vengeance.

Several lines later the Rood again deals with the question of violence, but this time it sets the question in the context of the malicious treatment it receives: “They drove dark nails into me; the dints of those wounds can still be seen, / open marks of malice; but I did not dare maul any of them in return” (46-7). Here again, the Rood mirrors the sufferings and wounds of Christ. It receives the same nails, it is wounded in the same places, it feels the same malice, and yet it resists the urge to take vengeance. The Rood still does not explain its rejection of violence other than stating it did not “dare maul any of them in return.” The phrase “in return” is important because it raises the issues of retaliation and eye-for-eye justice that defined so much of Anglo-Saxon life. The Rood needs to set aside his sense of just retaliation in order for the mission of Christ to succeed.

The Rood’s attitude also seems to have changed since its prior consideration of violence. Nonviolence is now motivated by the tenacious will to remain faithful instead of the noble, almost supercilious, withholding of strength. Like a true disciple, the Rood is forced into a moment of crisis in which it must decide whether to follow its own inclinations toward revenge, or fulfill the mission of Christ, however painful.

To a culture imbued with a strong warrior ethic, the Rood’s refusal to fight could be misunderstood as an act of cowardice, but the author makes it clear that this is not the case. Just as battle scars validate the heroic warrior, wounds received in the service of Christ validate the heroic disciple, and the Rood brandishes its “dints” and “marks” as evidence of its courage. Its rejection of vengeance is not motivated by cowardice, but by determined strength and obedient loyalty. In fact, retaliation would be the ultimate act of cowardice because it would be motivated by self-preservation. Christ’s mission is to die, and it is the Rood’s sworn duty to assist in this mission. Courageous loyalty, not vengeance, becomes the ultimate good. It is here that the author of the poem most clearly subverts the code of violent retribution.

The poem also expands on the biblical account of the crucifixion by envisioning the Rood as a participant in both the burial and resurrection of Christ. After Christ is taken off the cross and laid in his tomb, the Rood is also cut down and buried. However, this “frightful destiny” is not the end for Christ or the Rood, and it is soon resurrected and adorned with gold and silver (75-7).  The Rood participated in the suffering and death of Christ, so now it shares in his glory. Because it faithfully endured “grievous sufferings,” “terrible sorrows,” and humiliation for the sake of its Lord, it is now elevated to a position of honor. As the Rood notes, “So the lord of glory, guardian of Heaven, / exalted me then over all forest-trees…”  (90-1). This sequence of death, burial, and resurrection closely parallels the Christian liturgy of baptism in which believers are buried with Christ, resurrected to new life, and given the hope of future glory with him.

However, as the Rood indicates in its description of the final Judgment, this glory can only be attained through suffering and death: “Before the multitude [God] will demand / where a soul might be who in the Savior’s name / would suffer the death He suffered on that tree” (112-4). Suffering is the criteria for judgment because it indicates authenticity. Only those who have received Christ’s wounds are worthy of being his disciples. Only those who die with him are worthy of reigning with him. Suffering is the rite of passage for the disciple. Wounds are medals of honor. And ultimate victory over evil and death comes through nonresistant sacrifice.

Works Cited

“The Dream of the Rood.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. 33-6. Print.

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Myth, Fairy Tales, and Christian Faith

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This blog post reminded me that I wrote about a similar theme last semester. Here it is with only minimal editing. (I don’t understand how career writers live with themselves. I’m only a semester and a winter break removed from this piece, and I’m already tempted to edit it the schmutz out of it.)

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Attacking Christianity as a myth or fairy tale has become commonplace in contemporary atheism. Any number of atheists, from online commenters to Richard Dawkins, use this attack as a sort of self-evident, trump card. The rationale behind the supposed self-evidence goes something like this. Any story that involves the supernatural is false. Myths, fairy tales, and Christianity involve the supernatural; therefore, they are all equally false. Those who perpetuate these ideas routinely denigrate Jesus Christ as a moral teacher with a cadre of deluded followers, or worse, a conjurer of cheap, magic tricks.

Christians are not only disturbed by the vicious nature of these attacks but by the apparent following mustered by the group of scholars popularly known as the “New Atheists.” The more fundamental vein of Christian scholarship has expended much time and effort combatting the attacks of atheism with scientific and historical data. Apologetics and worldviews studies have surged with the popularization of atheism. The overwhelming impetus in contemporary Christian apologetics is to distance Christianity from mythology and present everything recorded in the Christian scriptures as based on historical and scientific fact, and therefore true.

Certainly much good has come from Christian apologetics, not least its commitment to contemporary issues and questions. However, in its attempt to present a demythologized faith, the church has indirectly accepted the presuppositions embedded in atheist arguments—namely, that myths and fairy tales are always false, and truth is synonymous with fact. Instead of standing on the foundation of Christendom’s great thinkers and literary giants, the church has opted to fight on atheist turf with atheist weapons. And as so often happens in war, one battle won usually means another battle lost.

Perhaps, in this new era of scientific materialism and reductionism, it is time to reconsider Christianity’s proximity to mythology and fairy tales. Since quality fantasy stories reflect cosmic, human, and therefore, Christian themes—themes of good and evil, creation and redemption, to name only a few—contemporary Christians can own their story as the real-life incarnation of fantastic images.

Mythology

In his classic work, The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton traces and discusses the development of myth. According to Chesterton “mythology is a lost art, one of the few arts that really are lost; but it is an art.”[1] As an art form mythology has become an integral part of Western and even Christian literature. In his seminal work, Paradise Lost, John Milton extends the tradition of Greco-Roman mythological epics to the Christian story. The Greco-Roman gods serve not only as metaphors, but as actual spiritual beings, albeit in a Judeo-Christian context. Dante, as well draws heavily from established mythology in his Divine Comedy. More recently, C.S. Lewis retold the classic myth of Cupid and Psyche with decidedly Christian overtones in his novel, Till We Have Faces.

Mythology in its essence, senses something beyond the human experience. Myths break down the rigorous boundaries between what is seen and what is unseen, and present a world in which spirit has its say in the matter. In Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, for example, the warring deities constantly direct and thwart, bless and curse the exploits of the soldiers or the travels of Odysseus. In these stories we, along with the ancients, understand that what we see is not necessarily all that we get. We are not always in control. Spirit is alive. In Chesterton’s estimation, mythology recognizes “that beauty and terror are very real things and related to a real spiritual world; and to touch them at all…is to stir the deep things of the soul.”[2]

Ultimately, myth is not so much a defined literary genre as it is a way of reading. According to C.S. Lewis, “the degree to which any story is a myth depends very largely on the person who hears or reads it.” The reader who simply reads the story asks, “Will the hero escape?” Whereas the true myth-lover feels, “I shall never escape this. This will never escape me. The images have struck roots far below the surface of my mind.”[3]

However open he left the definition to the reader, Lewis does identify six elements of a myth. First of all, myth is “extra-literary.” By this Lewis means that all myths, regardless of their respective authors, offer similar experiences to the reader.[4]

Second, “the pleasure of myth depends hardly at all on such usual narrative attractions as suspense or surprise.”[5] This element is key to reading myths for what they are. Those who read myths simply for the sake of the story will forget the story as soon as the excitement of plot passes because their imaginations are not committed to the grander possibilities embedded within the plot.[6]

Third, the human element of mythology does not elicit deep sympathy from the reader in the sense of the reader feeling emotions for the specific character in the plot. Rather, myth elicits sympathy for humanity in general through the individual human in the story.[7] Here again, myth extends its reach beyond the territory of narrative fiction and deals with the universal.

Fourth, myth always belongs in the realm of fantasy because it always deals with “impossibles and preternaturals.”[8] By contrast, de-mythologized versions of history take great pains to strip away all vestiges of the supernatural in an attempt to present “what really happened.”

Fifth, myth always contains an element of gravity, regardless of the outcome of the story. While Lewis allows for both sad and joyful myths he concludes that “it is always grave.”[9] This universal seriousness of myth speaks to the seriousness of human existence.

Finally, and closely related to a myth’s inherent gravity, is its ability to inspire awe in the reader. Often this awe prompts the reader to allegorize the myth in an attempt to grasp the significance and meaning of it. Still, after all the allegories have come and gone, the myth stands on its own and remains worthwhile simply for being what it is—a grand epic.[10] And in the grand, epic, foreignness of the myth-world, we see reflections of the familiar.

Myth as a reflection of reality is especially evident in those myths which concern the search for something that was lost. In fact, Chesterton sums up the essence of mythology as a search—“something that combines a recurrent desire with a recurrent doubt…”[11] He then draws these ideas together with the myths of Demeter, Isis, and Adonis:

Demeter wanders over a stricken world looking for a stolen child; Isis stretches out her arms over a stricken world in vain to gather the limbs of Osiris; and there is lamentation upon the hills for Atys and through the woods for Adonis. There mingles with all such mourning the mystical and profound sense that death can be a deliverer and an appeasement; that such death gives us a divine blood for a renovating river and that all good is found in gathering the broken body of a god. We may truly call these foreshadowings; so long as we remember that foreshadowings are shadows. […] For a shadow is a shape; a thing which reproduces shape but not texture.[12]

Images such as “divine blood” and “broken body of a god” evoke deeply Christian images of the Passion of Christ—evocations obviously intended by Chesterton.

As much as Chesterton draws parallels between Christianity and mythology, they are not synonymous. The Christian narrative is not one of many myths but the ultimate fulfillment of the many. Mythology is incomplete because it satisfies the human need for “festivity and formality” but fails to address the human need for a creed.[13]

The incarnation of Christ is the lynch pin for a truly Christian reading of mythology. Of all the things mythology got wrong, “it had not been wrong in being as carnal as the Incarnation.”[14] This understanding ultimately led Chesterton to the idea that all pre-Christian mythology and philosophy find their fulfillment in the Jesus Christ. In his words, “…the rivers of mythology and philosophy run parallel and do not mingle till they meet in the sea of Christendom.”[15]

In a letter to a friend, C.S. Lewis also discusses the connection between Christianity and mythology:

Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is god expressing Himself through what we call “real things.”[16]

In a similar vein, J.R.R. Tolkien, famous for his mythological Lord of the Rings, understood that the ancient myth of a “dying god” found its fulfillment in the historical, Christian, God Incarnate who died as a sacrifice for the world.[17] For men like Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien, Jesus Christ filled—with real flesh and blood—the shadows cast by ancient mythology.

Fairy Tales

If asked, most people could probably tell a fairy tale better than they could define the genre. This in itself speaks to the establishment of fairy tales in popular culture. Americans as well as Europeans grow up on the stories of Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood to name only a few. While fairy tales from non-Western cultures use localized characters, the basic themes and even forms remain strikingly similar. Fairy tales have been collected and popularized by anybody from the Brothers Grimm to Disney movie producers; however, few fairy tales have definite origins.

So what is the nature of a fairy tale? To answer this questions we first need to establish the nature of fairyland. According to Tolkien, the definition of “fairy” does not depend on the definition of a fairy but “upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country.” Yet even this nuance does not help much because, according to Tolkien,

Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole.[18]

Obviously, the only satisfactory “definition” of a fairy tale is direct experience. In essence, the reader knows fairyland when he or she enters it. However, for the sake of the discussion one can identify some major themes associated with fairy tales. Paradoxically, these themes both reflect the real world of humans and distinguish fairyland from it.

First of all, the fairy world usually involves some element of magic—that is, the world in which fantasy happens is decidedly other than world in which the reader lives and operates by different laws. In fairy tales, animals talk, pumpkins turn into coaches, frogs turn into princes, and witches make houses of candy to attract little children. While Tolkien agrees that fairyland is related to magic, he clarifies that it is not the magic of a “laborious, scientific, magician” but magic of a “peculiar mood or power.”[19]

Yet even as fairyland operates according to imaginative magic, it is quite reasonable and rational, like our world. According to G.K. Chesterton,

We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions.[20]

Fairyland laws might differ from the laws of human reality but they are as consistent if not more so. According to Gene Veith, fantasy “must be believable, if not in terms of our world, in terms of its own.”[21] Thus, fairy tales, while filled with fantastic characters such as goblins, dwarves, ogres, and dying princesses, remain true to themselves.

The fairy world is also dangerous. And in the dragon lairs and dingy forests, children (and adults) face and conquer their deepest fears.[22] Whether fairy tales shape our current fears, or whether they arose from the subconscious fears of a culture, the themes of fear and courage reflect what humans experience as everyday life.

Related to the rational consistency of fairyland is its deep sense of morality.[23] Hardly any other genre of literature contains characters that are as unambiguously good or hopelessly evil. In the story of Hansel and Gretel, few, if any, question the justice of burning witches alive for intended cannibalism. The wolf in Little Red Riding Hood deserved to be gutted because he ate Grandma. Even Little Red Riding Hood deserved her misfortunes because of her disobedience. The iron law of consequences rules fairyland. However, fairy tales are not just about teaching good morals; they allegorize themes of human existence in even more nuanced ways. In a classic piece from Orthodoxy, Chesterton writes:

There is the chivalrous lesson of “Jack the Giant Killer”; that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. […] There is the lesson of “Cinderella,” which is the same as that of the Magnificat—exaltavit humiles. There is the great lesson of “Beauty and the Beast”; that a thing must be loved before it is loveable. There is the terrible allegory of the “Sleeping Beauty,” which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to sleep.[24]

Similar to myth, fairy tales allow us to see the familiar in the foreign.

Finally, fairy tales can be identified by their characteristic comic ending.[25] After escaping from their castles and battling their demons, the protagonist of fairy tales usually live “happily ever after.” Tolkien writes:

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.[26]

Tolkien labeled this fairy tale escape from death a eucatastrophe—a good catastrophe that is characteristic of all good fairy tales.

This theme of ultimate comedy after tragedy echoes distinctly Christian themes of restoration and redemption—an “echo of evangelium in the real world.”[27] For the Christian, the Gospel of Christ, with its art, beauty, and “self-contained significance,” is the truest of all fairy tales. The only difference is that this eucatastrophe actually took place in human history. The joy experienced by the Christian is the same joy experienced in the ‘turn’ of the fairy tale. Except this ‘turn’ resolves the true story of humanity and creation redeemed from the weight of sin and death. “Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.”[28]

In short, fantasy and myth reflect an astounding reality. Thus, the supposed trump card for the atheist becomes the highest compliment for the Christian.


[1] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2008), 102.

[2] Ibid., 108.

[3] C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 49.

[4] Ibid., 43.

[5] Ibid., 43.

[6] Ibid., 47.

[7] Ibid., 44.

[8] Ibid., 44.

[9] Ibid., 44.

[10] Ibid., 44.

[11] Chesterton, Everlasting Man, 113.

[12] Ibid., 114.

[13] Ibid., 109.

[14] Ibid., 176.

[15] Ibid., 111.

[16] C.S. Lewis, “Letter to Arthur Greeves,” October 18 1931, quoted in Gene E. Veith, Jr., Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 138.

[17] Michael D. O’Brien, A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998), 141.

[18] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” California Lutheran University, http://public.callutheran.edu/~brint/Arts/Tolkien.pdf, 3.

[19] Ibid.

[20] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Image Books, 2001), 48.

[21] Gene Edward Veith, Jr. Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 141.

[22] Ibid, 143-4.

[23] Ibid, 145.

[24] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 47.

[25] Veith, Reading Between the Lines, 145.

[26] Tolkien, 14.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 15.

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Grandeur, simplicity, and bipolar spirituality

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On Christmas Day Jean and I attended a service of lessons and carols at the National Cathedral.

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The setting sun ignited stained glass windows. The organ roared. Buttresses soared. Candles flickered. Grand proclamations of Scripture echoed through holy halls. We prayed, sang, and worshipped the Incarnate Creator in a setting of palpable transcendence.

FCF-sign

But most of my corporate worship experiences happen in a small brick building where the windows are just windows. Other than a banner behind the pulpit and cross carvings on the pews, the place is functional. Babies squall. No organ here, just four-part singing. The only worship processional that happens is the stream of almost-latecomers and definite-latecomers. Yet I leave feeling as if I have worshipped–a comfortable, homecoming type of worship, but worship nonetheless. “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free…”

Where is the intersection of art and simplicity? Does fine architecture demand the sacrifice of small things–the home things? At what point does simplicity subvert transcendence?

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2013 Reads

Well, it’s the first day of 2014 which means I should probably get any 2013 posts out of my system. Most of my reading last year was scattered and distracted, but here are five pieces that stirred deep down things.* 

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Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Nothing in the world moved before his eyes, and he could depict to himself without hindrance the sudden swing upwards of the dark sky-line, the sudden tilt up of the vast plain of the sea, the swift still rise, the brutal fling, the grasp of the abyss, the struggle without hope, the starlight closing over his head for ever like the vault of a tomb–the revolt of his young life–the black end.

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My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman

God exists apart from our notions of what it means to exist, and there is a sense in which our most pressing existential question has to be outgrown before it can be answered. (81)

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“A Divine and Supernatural Light” by Jonathan Edwards

It is rational to suppose, that there is a really such an excellency in divine things–so transcendent and exceedingly different from what is in other things–that if it were to be seen, would most evidently distinguish them.

justificaiton

Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision by N.T. Wright

This lawcourt verdict, implementing God’s covenant plan, and all based on Jesus Christ himself, is announced both in the present with the verdict issued on the basis of faith and faith alone, and also in the future, on the day when God raises from the dead all those who are already indwelt by the Spirit. The present verdict gives the assurance that the future verdict will match it; the Spirit gives the power through which that future verdict, when given, will be seen in accordance with the life that the believer has then lived. (251)

nathaniel hawthorne

“Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The road grew wilder and drearier, and more faintly traced, and vanished at length, leaving him in the heart of the dark wilderness, still rushing onward, with the instinct that guides mortal men. The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds; the creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians; while sometimes, the wind tolled like a distant church-bell, and sometimes gave a broad roar around the traveler, as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn. But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors.

Here’s to a new year filled with meaningful words, lofty thoughts, and true stories.

*Thanks to G.M. Hopkins for the last three words.
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Whom do men say that I am?

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This is a short piece I wrote recently for my Intro to Christian History & Thought class. It’s a summary of some important heresies concerning the nature of Jesus and the ecumenical councils that combatted them. I conclude with a reflection on my Christian tradition. Personal application is always fun because at my school (Regent U) I’m usually the lone Anabaptist voice crying in the wilderness. Or shouting from my soapbox. Depends on perspective.

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Christology and the Councils

In intellectual pursuits, truth demands effort, at times even conflict. While generally seen as negative, the Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries demanded a clear and unified answer from the Church concerning the nature of Christ.

The Heresies

Arianism challenged the deity of Jesus by advocating a monotheistic theology in which God the Father alone possessed deity. Jesus was a created being who did not share deity with the Father.[1] Arius drew his inspiration from ambiguous Old Testament passages like Proverbs which talks about wisdom (hence, Jesus) being created at some point in history. He also drew from the phrase “only begotten” to argue for the creation of Jesus. Logically, if Jesus was created, he is not eternal; therefore, he is not God.[2]

Like Arius, Apollinaris challenged the nature of Jesus, but instead of denying Jesus’s deity, Apollinaris denied his humanity. Since humans are souls within bodies, he taught, then the essence of Jesus was the Word dwelling in a human body. Thus, Jesus possessed no human will or mind, and by extension, minimal humanity.[3] With its emphasis on the soul within body as the ultimate identity, Apollinarianism was obviously an extension or expression of Gnosticism.

Nestorius was bishop of Constantinople who distinguished between Jesus Christ the man, and God the Word in what came to be known as the “Word-man” approach. In Nestorius’s teaching, Jesus Christ was a man in which God the Word dwelt. Although Jesus Christ and God the Father are unified in purpose, they remain separate in essence. By extension, the Virgin Mary could not be known as the “God-bearer.” At the heart of Nestorius’s teaching is his denial of the incarnation of Christ; he simply could not believe that an infant could be the true God.[4]

Where most other heresies stirred up controversy for emphasizing a particular element of Christ’s nature at the expense of others, Eutychianism was condemned for mixing his natures to the point of them being indistinguishable. According to Eutychus, Jesus was neither fully God or fully man, but a sort of hybrid between the two.[5] While this perspective was an honest attempt at avoiding the extremes of the other perspectives, it ultimately confused more than elucidated the issue of Christ’s divinity.

The Councils

The first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicea, convened in 325 A.D. and focused on Arianism, eventually condemning it as heresy. The Council adopted a creed that clarified the nature of Christ’s divinity. Particularly important is the creed’s use of the Greek term homoousios to capture the concept of Jesus being “of one substance” with God the Father.[6] From the Council of Nicea emerged two major opposing groups: the Western or Nicene group which emphasized the deity of Christ, and the Eastern or Origenist group which emphasized the Trinitarian nature of God. While the Origenists were not Arians, they were suspected of the heresy because of their emphasis on the distinctiveness of Christ.[7]

The Council of Constantinople in 381 continued to focus on the problem of Arianism but also addressed Apollinarianism. The Nicene Creed developed at this council, remains the most widely accepted of all creeds in the contemporary church.[8] Against Arianism the creed maintained the full deity of Jesus, and against Apollinarianism it confirmed his full humanity. However, as theologians like Nestorius and Eutychus tried to understand the function of Christ’s unified humanity, they caused additional controversies which led to yet another ecumenical council.[9]

The Council of Chalcedon in 451 continued its treatment of Arianism and Apollinarianism while addressing Nestorius’s “Word-man” Christology and Eutyches’s tertium quid, or “third something” idea. In the “Chalcedonian Definition” that emerged, Jesus is defined as “perfect in God and also perfect in manhood…born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God…to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly.”[10] While not everybody agreed with it, this definition established an orthodox, Christological framework by negation as much as definition.[11]

Christology Today

            I grew up and remain in the Anabaptist Christian tradition. Unlike the Magisterial Reformers who focused on sola Scriptura, the Radical Reformers tended to draw their primary inspiration and direction from the teachings and life of Jesus. This does not mean that they devalued Scripture. Rather, Jesus (as revealed in Scripture) became the lens through which the rest of Scripture came into focus. Although my current church does not use creeds in any sort of systematic way, we adopt the central tenets of the Nicene Creed, namely that Jesus is both fully God and fully human.

The Anabaptist emphasis on the emulation of Christ in life—nachfolge Christi—has shaped our understanding of salvation. More recently, Anabaptism has drawn much from Protestant evangelicalism in its understanding of affective salvation by grace. Nonetheless, we tend to understand salvation as more of a life-long process of following Christ than a significant, grace-infused moment. Our missions tend to focus more on establishing church communities than on winning large numbers of people to Christ.

Of course, the danger of Anabaptist Christo-centrism lies in its tendency to veer toward a Marcion-like rejection of God as revealed in the Hebrew scriptures. We find the non-violent practices and teachings of Christ difficult to square with the apparent violence of God in the Old Testament. Even as we emphasize Jesus Christ as the one in whom the fullness of God dwelled,[12] we risk distinguishing too strongly between their natures.

Practically, Anabaptists and mainstream evangelical groups tend to confuse the nature of Christ, much like Eutychus did. Since we do not encounter questions concerning Christ’s nature on a regular basis, we either equate him with God the Father, or we discuss him as some separate deity altogether. Although we need not remake all the decisions of the ecumenical councils, we ought to be aware of the issues at stake. Because sooner or later, most early heresies reappear as modern controversies.


[1] Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 28.

[2] D. Jeffrey Bingham, Pocket History of the Church (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002), 46.

[3] Lane, 39.

[4] Ibid., 53-4.

[5] Ibid., 58.

[6] Ibid., 29.

[7] Ibid., 30.

[8] Ibid., 40.

[9] Ibid., 41.

[10] Hugh T. Kerr, ed., Readings in Christian Thought, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), 76.

[11] Lane, 61.

[12] Colossians 1:19

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Creation of man

Iroquois

Overall, the Iroquois creation myth shares very little with its Hebrew (biblical) counterpart. Where Genesis records God speaking the world into existence in a more or less systematic way, the Iroquois story includes the fantastic tale of a woman giving birth to hostile twins on the back of a giant sea turtle. Yet for all their differences, the myths* align remarkably on the creation of humans.

This from the Iroquois account:

When [the good mind] had made the universe he was in doubt respecting some being to possess the Great Island; and he formed two images of the dust of the ground in his own likeness, male and female, and by breathing into their nostrils he gave them the living souls, and named them EA-GWE-HOWE, i.e., a real people.

And this from Genesis 1 and 2:

God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female he created them. […] The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. (ESV)

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*mytha traditional story, esp. one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.” (New Oxford American Dictionary)

(Reference: “The Iroquois Creation Story.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1. 8th ed. Ed. Nina Baym. New York:  W.W. Norton, 2013. 20-3.)

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Words

Dictionary

My working vocabulary always lags behind my reading vocabulary, so this year, as a sort of unofficial New Year’s resolution, I have been looking up and recording all unfamiliar or uncertain words. While I haven’t noticed amazing progress with working vocabulary (why else would I have used “amazing”?), I realize that I assume to know more than what I actually know. With the increased reading load from school, I have been slacking with the recording part, but the habit was good while it lasted.

Here are 10 of my favorites:

1. fissiparous: inclined to cause or undergo division into separate parts or groups.

2. irredentist: a person advocating the restoration to their country of any territory formerly belonging to it.

3. atavistic: relating to or characterized by reversion to something ancient or ancestral.

4. tergiversate: make conflicting or evasive statements; equivocate.

5. recondite: (of a subject or knowledge) little known; abstruse.

6. splenetic: bad-tempered; spiteful.

7. jingoism: extreme patriotism, esp. in the form of aggressive or warlike foreign policy.

8. empyreal: belonging to or deriving from heaven.

9. littoral: of, relating to, or situated on the shore of the sea or a lake.

10. equipoise: balance of forces or interests.

(All definitions come from New Oxford American Dictionary).

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