Let him be anathema!
Two weeks ago I was sitting in a cafe talking about Jesus to a young aspiring school leaver who was heading to a Bulgarian Orthodox seminary. I forget the exact details of the discussion, but the gist stays with me. He was telling me that God, who is wholly other, is unknowable – classic EO line. When I probed a little further about who Jesus was and what he revealed of God he said it… Jesus could not reveal God as God.
Needless to say we had a hearty discussion.
Interestingly, today I was reading up on some Karl Rahner (RC theologian and priest) and he observed that most Christians (RCs? Although I think his observation would apply to the protestant side too) struggle to capture an orthodox understanding of Jesus’ humanity and divinity. He asserts that the majority of Christians would subscribe to a Docetic Jesus where God’s divinity inhabits the fleshly vessel. God in human clothes made of skin. Jesus was not fully human, just kind of.
Then you would know about the Elephant Room saga, where Mark Driscoll questioned T. D. Jakes on his view of the doctrine of God, in particular his views on the doctrine of Oneness. The Oneness doctrine rejects the concept of the Trinity and instead subscribes to a modal view of God. The entire discussion did little to clarify the situation, but what we do know is that Jakes subscribes to a doctrine of God that uses the terminology of ‘manifestations’ as opposed to persons.
How did the church in times gone by deal with these theological bents? Simple, ‘Let him be anathema!’
The best example of the ‘Let him be anathema!’ cry is found in Cyril of Alexandria’s work called the Twelve Anathemas. He was not dealing with a Docetist, but the father of Nestorianism, Nestorius himself. I don’t intend to go into the content of the letter to Nestorius but Cyril’s view was clear. Nestorius believed that Jesus had two separate and autonomous natures. According to Cyril (eventually), Nestorius needed to adopt the position that Christ had two natures but that these were without division or separation. Cyril’s letter outlines in no uncertain terms how Nestorius could go about working towards reforming his position. Each of the twelve points ended with ‘Let him be anathema!’ A sure sign that Cyril meant business.
The point? You get stuff wrong you get the anathema line.
But what was Cyril saying? My way or the highway? Are the Twelve Anathemas the sharp words of just another arrogant bigoted fundamentalist? An intolerant absolutist?
In Cyril’s day, despite Ehrman’s current commentary to the contrary, there was one Lord, one faith, one church, one orthodoxy. In the 5th century this was defined for the most part by the c. 325 Council of Nicaea, as well as the collective works of the fathers in the 200 odd years prior to it. Orthodoxy was not some ambiguous thing that any one individual could trump up and it was for this reason that the powers that be could compare an individual’s theology with that of the orthodox tradition. If someone fell outside of the bounds they were met with the severe response: Let him be anathema!
The point is that in those times messing up your doctrine of God was serious business with serious, potentially eternal, repercussions. The church new this and the proponents of the heterodox views knew this also.
What has changed? A lot and nothing.
Nothing has changed in that the issues are just as serious. Fiddling with orthodox views of the divinity and humanity of Christ and the Trinity, for example, is not to be done flippantly as though it were a choice of strawberry or chocolate. What we see in the first millennium and a half is an urgency coupled with a holy fear to be faithful to how the great theological minds throughout history conceptualised God in Scripture. Surely our attitude should be the same! We have the privileged of enjoying the longevity of these views – you know the old line, standing on the shoulders of giants.
Furthermore, nothing has changed in that Arianism is still as heretical as it was in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Docetism is still errant. Nestorianism 1500 years on has not become any more faithful to the text of Scripture then it was in the 5th century. History for the believer is not simply about dates, times and events.
History plays a role in what we believe, but also importantly in what and why we don’t believe.
We also see that nothing has changed with regard to the very specific use of anathema in the Bible. Here are two apt usages:
- Gal. 1:8-9, But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed (anathema). 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed (anathema).
- 1 Cor. 16:22, If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed. Maranatha.
But something has changed!
One can openly deny the doctrine of the Trinity and hold to Oneness views of God and still be counted as a part of the church. One can grow up in a church and hold to Docetic views of Christ unchallenged. We no longer here the damning cry, ”Let him be anathema!’
I wonder why?
Well, it probably doesn’t surprise you, but I have some suggestions:
- Perhaps it’s a mark of our age of tolerance. You can believe what you want over there and I’ll be over here believing what I want.
- Worse, perhaps it reflects our age’s characteristic pervasive interpretive pluralism.
- Perhaps it points to our poor theological training systems. I mean, where do people learn that historically damned views can be considered as viable orthodox theology?
- Maybe, as we observe in many of our denominations, the little or no doctrinal accountability has come back to bite us. Ok, you can try to win me over on any form of church governance, but it is clear that the NT teachers submitted to the top dogs when it came to theology. When they were in error they (and we) knew about it.
- Or could it be as elementary as not knowing our church history.
Time to bring it back – ‘Let him be anathema!’ for God’s sake!