because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Gospel of Luke Chapter 4, verses 16-21
This remarkable fresco dates from the third century and appears in the Catacombs of Domitilla, the oldest of Rome’s sprawling underground early Christian burial chambers. It is commonly thought that the image depicts a beardless Christ in the now familiar pose at the Last Supper. However, there has been some suggestion that the image may simply convey the idea of Christ as a teacher, a scroll in his left hand and his right hand outstretched, like that of an orator. Thus, Christ appears as a philosopher surrounded by his students or disciples, a more customary role for the Christians of the classical world.
“Correct” belief, the now standard orthodoxy of the Christian Church, was established chiefly at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (now Iznik in Turkey) in May 325 AD. The Council was called by the Roman Emperor Constantine I to settle what he described “as a fight over trifling and foolish verbal differences” between the major Alexandrian ecclesiatics. One group, the followers of Arius, had integrated Neoplatonism, which accented the absolute oneness of the divinity as the highest perfection, with a rationalist and literal approach to the New Testament. Jesus of Nazareth was seen as the most perfect creature of the universe whose standing had caused him to become “God’s Son”, but who, as the “Logos” or “Word”, was created by the uncreated “Father” and thus subordinate to His Will. Arius had published this thesis in the verse of his Thalia (Banquet) around 323, and it spread rapidly by the way of the popular songs of the common people.
The champion of Nicene orthodoxy was Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria in Egypt, and he and his followers eventually won the day. The resultant Nicene Creed was an enlarged and explanatory version of the Apostles’ Creed in which the doctrines of Christ’s divinity and of the Holy Trinity were defined. The Creed found in the seventh century Irish manuscript known now as the “Bangor Antiphonary”,which is kept in the Ambrosian Library in Milan, differs in wording from all other versions which are known, and is, in substance, the original creed of Nicaea. The Bangor School accepted orthodox Christianity as “the true vine brought out of Egypt” and through it Columbanus and his followers helped to wrest Europe from Arianism.
Following the Reformation Neoplatonic mysticism rose once more in Italy. Fleeing from the Roman Catholic Inquisition its followers found an equally severe orthodoxy in Calvinist Geneva. One Michael Servetius was burned there as a heretic in 1553. Faustus Socinius was banished during the 17th century Counter Reformation and in Poland he founded a group based upon Arian theology. These Polish Socinians had a profound effect on Church and State in the British Isles among Calvinists and Anglicans alike. In Ireland Thomas Emlyn suffered persecution as a Socinian and in 1725 and 1828 trouble over the acceptance of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) led to the founding of the Non-Subscibing Presbyterian Church of Ireland which was, ironically, strongest in those modern counties of Antrim and Down, which constituted Ulster in Columbanus’ day.
In 367 AD, Anthananius decreed that heretical books should be destroyed. A corpus of writings known to us now as the “Gnostic Gospels” were among these. Previously known to us through attacks on them by the Presbyter Irenaeus, the second century Bishop of Lyon, several of these gospels survived by being buried at a monastery founded by a friend of Athanasius called Pachomius. The monastery was at Cheroboskian, now called Nag Hammadi, in Upper Egypt.
One finds much relevance for today in these texts, particularly as they relate to Jesus’ view of women. Women are indeed regarded more highly in the Gnostics texts than in orthodox texts. The Gnostics allowed women priests and gave a special place to Mary Magdalene above all the disciples. The Gospel of Philip says
“…..the companion of the Saviour is Mary Magdelene. But Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often ……… The rest of the disciples were offended by it. They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Saviour answered and said to them;” Why do I not love you as I love her”
A text called the “Dialogue of the Saviour” says: “She spake as a woman who knew the call”. A Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) contained in a Coptic Codex in Berlin, known as long ago as 1896 was not published until 1955.
Today special and psychological arguments continue to operate against the place of women which was such a feature of Gnosticism. A Vatican 2 document saying “Every type of discrimination…..based on sex is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent” has not been put into effect. It is remarkable that conditions today are not unlike those which pertained during the formation of the early Church. Now we have the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Texts. But not only that, we have many women teachers of vision to show us again the Way of the Lord in a manner relevant to our own times.
Such inspired people already know in some mysterious way the true wisdom of human existence.They see out only to see in. Such mystics are never really at home in a “lawed and ordered” society with its organised Church. The ebb and flow of their exegesis must be allowed that freedom to grow which is necessary for the maturation of the human species. Neither force, nor power, nor autonomy can provide inroads into this process of maturation, for without freedom there will be a holding back in that evolution necessary to prepare us for our rightful place in the universe.
I often wonder whether the “orthodoxy” usually attributed in common Christian heritage to the formulation of the Nicene fathers has been more of an oppression than a safeguard. As a collective phenomenon human beings are still at the stage of the toddler, who is many times distressing, but who, with care and patience, will evolve and progress to maturity. My old friend Brian Smeaton is a Church of Ireland Minister and poet based in County Donegal. former Rector of Ramelton, parish of Aughnish, within Donegal’s Ulster-Scots or Ullans speaking area. In the Declaration of Nazareth, which Brian has called the Manifesto of Christ, Jesus evinces from us those capabilities which lie in us all.