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Orthodox Christians As The Victims Of Heretical Sects

The narrative we hear so often from the likes of Karen King, Bart Ehrman and other postmodern theologians, that the Catholic-Orthodox Church from which the Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Assyrian churches are descended oppressed and victimized other early “Christianities” is not only untrue, but the opposite of truth.
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  1. This originated as a reply to a thread, but grew a bit too large, so I made it a blog post.

    Indeed, it is true that Roman Pagans accused the early Christians of cannibalism, based on a misunderstanding of the Eucharist. Pagan accusations of gross sexual immorality were probably the result of an encounter with one of the more perverse heretical cults, some of which were straight-up sex cults, such as the group St. Epiphanios the bishop of Salamis called “Gnostics”, not to be confused with the larger family of Gnostics referred to by St. Irenaeus in the portion of his book Against Heresies, entitled “Against the Gnosis (Knowledge) So Falsely Called,” and of course the Nicolaitans, founded by Nicolas the Deacon, who I mentioned in my previous post, who practiced and blasphemously dared to regard as something like a sacrament, the sharing of wives among members of the cult.

    Some postmodern and liberal theologians, like Karen King of Harvard Divinity School, Elaine Pagels, and Bart Ehrman, in what one must charitably hope is naiveté (such as what I am convinced we see with the immensely polite and soft spoken Austrian leader of the Ecclesia Gnostica, Bishop Stephen Hoeller), regard the practitioners of early “Christianities”, which is to say, heretical sects as victims of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church we confess in the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds (the former part of the statement of faith for ChristianForums.com), from which all Christian churches, whether Protestant, Orthodox or Catholic, are descended.

    In reality, they have it mostly backwards: while it is true that some, such as the Montanists, Novationists, Meletians and Donatists did experience persecution along with Christians, and the Manichaeans were later exterminated by Muslims along with all Christians to the East of Persia and Mesopotamia and the South of what would become Russia, with the exception of the St. Thomas Christians in Malankara, India, and many others*, it is equally true that Roman encounters with heretical sex cults nominally related to Christianity fueled the fires of the persecution of Christians, which was particularly severe in the third century, especially under Decius and Diocletian, but even under Nero and the great fire that he blamed on Christians; the woes of the Roman Empire, which reached the zenith of its political power under Trajan, began to increase dramatically under Marcus Aurelius, and after he died, Commodus and a succession of other incompetent emperors made a point of blaming the various natural disasters, political unrest, and military failures of the Roman Empire on the Gods being angered by the Christians, who were depicted as sexually immoral cannibals, and the failure of the virtuous (literally, manly), pious and honorable adherents of the syncretic pagan religions of the Empire to suppress their vile superstition by violent coercion or extermination.

    In addition to very possibly being the cause of the Roman belief that Christians were licentious perverts (in reality, by modern standards, the opposite is true; Romans by our standards tended to be bisexual polygamous paedophiles who abused and prostituted slaves and girls who could not afford a dowry), many of the Gnostic sects also practiced dissimulation, that is to say, denied or renounced their faith in order to avoid persecution, and then later resumed it in secret, as they, believing in false gospels, denied the value of martyrdom.

    Nor did this end with the conversion of St. Constantine, for, while the Council of Nicea did condemn Arius and his heresy, eventually, the Arians got to the Emperor, and more importantly, his son and heir Constantius, in the person of Eusebius of Nicomedia, who, possibly aided by the extremely flattering biography of St. Constantine authored by the more well known Eusebius of Caesarea, famed for his Ecclesiastical History, but who was, at least, an Arian sympathizer who resented the Council of Nicea despite signing its decree, albeit with the equivocation “with my hand, but not with my heart,” did baptize Constantine on his death bed, and even while St. Constantine was still alive, persuaded him to convene another council, in Ancyra, which exiled St. Athanasius, the Patriarch of Alexandria, who, as the protodeacon of his predecessor, St. Alexander, presented at Nicea with great rhetorical skill the case of the Church of Alexandria against Arius, who they had deposed and anathematized for heresy, an action confirmed by the Council of Nicea, so that the St. Athanasius eventually wound up Trier, in Germany, a dangerous outpost on the threatened northern border of the Empire, far removed in climate and distance and in all other respects from his native Egypt. Under Constantius, the Arians began a systematic persecution of Christians which lasted into the reign of the Christian Emperor St. Theodosius I, with St. Ambrose of Milan and his faithful laity forced to physically occupy a basilica in order to prevent it from being handed over to the local Arians in order to placate them, in 386, although violence against Christians had largely subsided when he came to power after a struggle following the death of the Arian Emperor Valens.

    Eventually, Emperor St. Theodosius earned his sainthood by proscribing Paganism and Arianism, and smashing the Altar of Victory in the Roman Senate, but in subsequent decades, the Western Empire famously collapsed, and the Visigoths, Ostrogoths and related tribes who had been converted to Arianism pillaged or conquered the Western Empire, with the Visigoths also attacking the Eastern Empire, and in many cases, massacring Christians. Later, and unsurprisingly, given the similarities between Arianism and Islam, in that both religions denied the deity of Jesus Christ, and the doctrine of the Incarnation, and of the Holy Trinity, the Visigoths largely converted to Islam, and having conquered much of North Africa, this facilitated the extremely rapid expansion of the Ummayid Caliphate across this territory and into Spain. Separately, Rome itself was variously sacked and ruled by Ostrogothic Arians, notably King Odoacer.

    Indeed, there exists a seventh century architectural relic of this period of enforced Arian-Christian coexistence in the town of Ravenna, which until the Ostrogoths seized it, was a Byzantine outpost in Italia, in the form of two baptistries, one used by Christians and one used by Arians.

    The subtle differences in the iconography of the two baptistries, which architecturally are nearly identical, following the common octagonal layout of baptistries in Italy and parts of the Byzantine Empire (a famous and more recent baptistry following this design is the Baptistry in Sienna, which followed the standard architectural conventions of that city during the Renaissance, and is interesting, liturgically, in that the custom was that regardless of which parish one lived in, or if one attended the Dominican or Fransiscan churches or the Cathedral, one would be baptized in this central baptistry), should be evident on viewing them, and these differences have interesting potential theological implications.

    Can you guess, just looking at the ceilings of the Christian and Arian baptistries in Ravenna, which was which? I will provide the answer below.

    Baptistry no. 1


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    Baptistry no. 2

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    Following this footnote, the answer as to which baptistry was originally Christian and which was built in imitation of it by the Arian Emperor Theodoric some 50 years later will be provided.

    *Other exterminated all African Christians outside of Egypt, Sinai and modern day Ethiopia and Eritrea, and all Christians in what is now Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, and also nearly all of the Christians of Caucasian Albania, now called Azerbaijan (not to be confused with Albania in the Balkans, where Enver Hoxha tried to exterminate Christians and all other religions in what is generally regarded as the second most brutal Communist dictatorship after North Korea). See the Lost History of Christianity by John Philip Jenkins.

    Now, regarding the baptistries:

    The first image, depicting a beardless, youthful Christ, with St. John the Baptist on the right hand side of our Lord and with the Apostles against a gold background, is in fact the Arian one, whereas the second image, depicting a more mature, bearded Christ, more recognizable from traditional Christian iconography, with St. John the Baptist on the left hand side of our Lord, and the Apostles against a dark blue background, is of course the earlier Christian baptistry.

    Now, the most striking difference, that being the beardless, youthful, even adolescent Arian depiction of our Lord, versus the traditional Christian depiction of our Lord as an adult male of thirty, with facial hair, suggests the Arian subordination of Christ to God; in Arianism, our Lord is not God, or the incarnation of God, nor is the Trinity accepted; rather, our Lord is blasphemously described as a lesser created being, of a different essence than the Father. Thus, depicting Him with a beard would call to mind St. Isaac’s vision of the Ancient of Days, which was historically interpreted by most of the Early Church Fathers as a vision of our savior Jesus Christ, God the Son, the Incarnate Logos, who is fully God and fully Man. God the Father, not being incarnate, was traditionally regarded as invisible, and in the Eastern Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox iconographic traditions, icons of the Father were prohibited (although under Western influence, a few icons of that sort did appear, after icons of the Father were somewhat normalized by, for example, the famed ceiling fresco by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, which one could argue represented the Ancient of Days, but soon, we saw a proliferation of doctrinally dubious depictions of our Lord, standing with an elderly version of Himself, or worse, a Zeus-like figure, and the Holy Spirit as a dove, which is iconographically acceptable, since that happened).

    Speaking of the devil, which is to say, Zeus (“The gods of the gentiles are devils” Psalm 95:5 in the Septuagint Psalter teaches us), avoiding confusion between our Lord and Zeus or comparable figures from other Pagan religions, for example, Odin, albeit with both eyes intact, may well have been as much a consideration with regards to the illiterate and less well catechized Arian laity, as avoiding confusion with the Ancient of Days, which in the heretical Arian religion is simply God, and our Lord is simply not. Consider that in both mosaics, we see the Jordan mythologically personified as Zeus in a subservient position to our Lord (consider the numerous times God exercised His dominion over the Jordan, for example, by reversing its floe, something which still is known to occur at the Great Blessing of Waters on the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, on January 18th (January 6th on the Julian calendar, which is still used by all the Orthodox churches in Jerusalem), but in the Christian mosaic, he is appropriately diminutive and of a more subservient disposition, whereas in the Arian mosaic, he is depicted as being as large as, if not larger, than the youthful Christ, who is on his right, perhaps implying subservience and suggesting a conflation of Zeus and God the Father, which is quite possible given the aggressive nature of Arian evangelism, which may well have failed to expurgate from the Ostrogothic converts all traces of their previous Pagan religion, which if true would be another similiarity with Islam, thus suggesting the ease with which the Visigoths converted, in two respects: Muhammed’s preservation of Mecca’s status as a holy city and center of pilgrimage and the Pagan practice of circumambulating the Kaaba seven times.

    Another point of interest, speaking of Islam and the later conversion of the Visigoths from the vile Arian heresy to that dreadful religion, which has historically persecuted Christianity with a zeal matched only by Communists, is that the Arian baptistry has iconography, which stands in marked contrast to most Muslims and to the largest contemporary neo-Arian cult, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Of course, a simplistic answer would be that Theodoric and the Arians in Italy, who did eventually convert to Christianity, thanks be to God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, were Ostrogoths, and the subsequent Iconoclast heresy happened in Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire, not the former Western Empire. However, there is a more important point to be made here, and that is that we know from the excavated Jewishnsynagogue and early Christian church, both from the Second Century AD, in Dura Europos, and both recently destroyed by barbarians under the banner of the Islamic state, and from Ethiopian Jewry, that the Jews historically had iconography. Indeed, a reading of the Old Testament, with the sculpted cherubim supporting the Mercy Seat on the Ark of the Covenant, and other decorations, divinely instructed by God, confirms that the Jews not only had iconography, but that this iconography was divinely commanded. We also know that iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire erupted based on the illogical superstition of Byzantine generals that the Islamic iconoclasm was why they were prevailing in battle, and the only way to secure victories against the advancing Muslim armies was to adopt an iconoclastic interpretation of the second commandment.

    This proved unsuccessful, and iconoclasm was itself declared a heresy at the Second Council of Nicea in 787 AD, and eventually abolished by 843 AD, with the accession as regent the dowager Empress St. Theodora as regent for her son, the future Emperor Michael III, an event celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church as the Triumph of Orthodoxy (which is understandable, considering the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople was the largest and most important of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the state religion of the Byzantine Empire, and was also the most adversely affected, with several Iconoclastic emperors, patriarchs and other senior prelates; the other Chalcedonian churches including the Georgian Orthodox Church, the Maronite Church and the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the Oriental Orthodox Churches (Coptic, Syriac, Armenian and Ethiopian, and some which are now extinct thanks to Islam, such as the Nubian Orthodox Church formerly in the Sudan), continued to use iconography without interruption, as did the Church of the East).

    Iconoclasm would not return to Nicene Christianity until John Calvin and Thomas Cranmer, and the particularly dreadful iconoclasm perpetrated by Calvinists, Mennonites, Puritans, Anabaptists, Anglicans and Huguenots in France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, England, Wales and Scotland; fortunately, the Anglicans, most of the larger Reformed denominations, such as the Congregationalists, the successors of the Puritans, have realized that the Lutherans were correct in preserving iconography, and they had erred, and iconoclasm has dwindled, now mainly limited to Baptists, fundamentalist and covenanting Presbyterians, and various non-denominational churches. It should be noted, however, that while I regard iconoclasm as a theological error, iconoclastic churches are not heretical sects, and in exploring the issue of iconoclasm, my intent is not to suggest as much, but rather, to explain why the Arians in Ravenna had iconography, when other Arians converted to an iconoclastic religion, and in light of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are heretical not because of their iconoclasm but because of their revival of Arian Christology. Indeed, since iconography is no longer being destroyed and wars are no longer fought between Christians over iconography, I do not regard iconoclasm as a major bone of contention within Christianity; I am a great admirer and supporter of the very conservative and traditionalist Southern Baptist Convention, and like minded groups, which tend to eschew iconography, but which also eschew homosexual marriage and the numerous other concessions to worldliness we see in the mainline Protestant churches.

    That disclaimer aside, the Assyrian Church of the East does provide us with an interesting case study, and a possible explanation for an emergent Jewish iconoclasm: the Assyrians are nominal iconodules; a canon in the Church of the East requires that at a minimum, an icon of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ should be on every Assyrian altar, but I have yet to see one. In practice, owing, according to various Assyrian scholars, such as Fr. Ephraim Ashur Alkhas, the reason why canon is usually ignored, and Assyrian churches tend to lack iconographic depictions of our Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Apostles, and other holy persons, despite there being a historic tradition of iconography in the Church of the East, is that constant Islamic desecration of their churches and destruction of the icons resulted in their disuse as a matter of practicality (the Assyrians, unlike the Armenians, were not a fully recognized millet, or nationality, within the Ottoman Empire, and a great many lived in Persia and most lived far from Constantinople, so the minimal representation they had before the Sultan was not effective at protecting their interests, until the involvement of European powers in the 19th century, and that failed to stop the genocide which decimated both the Assyrian and Syriac Orthodox people). In turn, combined with a vacuum in knowledgeable, well educated theologians (a point observed by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware in the initial 1960s edition of his historical masterpiece, The Orthodox Church) in the wake of the genocide, and indeed, perhaps longer than that, given the severe poverty and hardships inflicted on the Assyrian tribes by the Muslims, who in refusing to join the Roman Catholic church like their Chaldean counterparts, effectively cut themselves off from even the meagre resources that the Coptic Orthodox Church, for example, enjoyed (largely on account of its large membership relative to the total population of Egypt, about 10%), until the past 40 years or so, and consequently, poor catechesis, caused many Assyrians to erroneously believe their church was officially Iconoclast and icons were idolatrous.

    If we assume, as is reasonable, that the Jews, under pressure from Islam, which during the reign of Muhammed in Medina, when he massacred a Jewish community, and subsequently after his conquest of Mecca, when he killed all the men and older boys in another Jewish community, enslaving the remaining women and children (this lead to his demise, as a Jewish widow, grieving her husband, prepared for him and his followers a meal of mutton, which she poisoned, in order to test whether Muhammed was really a prophet, or merely a fraudulent tyrant; needless to say, this resulted in his slow, agonizing death, and the death of one of his companions), demonstrated a bigotry towards Jews which exceeded even their contempt for Christians, set aside iconography as a practical measure, given the subsequent dramatic improvement in the fortunes of the Jews in the Muslim world, where they were usually treated better than in Christendom, to our great discredit, one can see how, without the doctrinal basis that Christianity has underpinning iconographic theology, specifically, the doctrine of the Incarnation (we can depict Christ our God because He became man for our sakes, and we can depict the other saints for the same reason, and indeed, we are called to make ourselves in our relations with our family, our friends, the Church and humanity in general, an icon of the Holy Trinity, which is to say, a union of perfect and altruistic love, following the example of our Lord and His Apostles, and the holy martyrs and confessors and fathers and mothers whose lives embody the ideals of Christian virtue), one can see how Judaism, lacking that, might not have merely forgotten about its former iconographic tradition, as happened to the Assyrians, but, following the same rationale as the Byzantine military dictatorship, embraced iconoclasm as the correct interpretation of the Second Commandment, and formalized this in the Talmud, which was completed roughly two centuries after the death of Muhammed.

    Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, we have the later tendency of Sufi mystics, in seeking to convert various religious groups to Islam, leaving in place aspects of their prior religions, which results in such unusual Islamic sects with crypto-Christian or crypto-Gnostic or crypto-Neo Platonist aspects as the Alevis, Bektasis, Alawis, and the Druze, and also two non-Islamic Kurdish religions, Yazidism and the similiar but less well known Yarsanism, having as pivotal prophets and founders of their sects a Sufi mystic, Sheikh Adi in the case of the Yazidis, and Sultan Sahak in the case of the Yarsanis, who may have been the same person, given the striking similiarity between the two religions (both being emanationist and having a belief in seven archangels who are successive emanations of God, in a hierarchical order). Did this practice of syncretism originate with the Arian conversion of the Goths? Perhaps the Sufis, who, depending on the sect, were very often quite opposed to conventional Sunni Islam, revived the practice, resulting in the proliferation of semi-Islamic and Islam-influenced minority religions in the Middle East? (all of whom, it must be stressed, with the possible exception of the Druze, who enjoy some security in numbers in Lebanon, and are also on good terms with Israel, are critically endangered by Islamic Fundamentalists, the recent genocide that resulted in the death of all adult male Yazidis in Sinjar under the reign of terror of the Islamic State, being a case in point; given that the Yazidis helped protect and shelter Armenians during the Turkish genocide against them (and consequently were admitted to the newly formed Armenian state in the 1920s, and form the largest ethnic minority there), and given that many of these religions exhibit elements which suggest a crypto-Christianity or strong Christian influence, it is a moral imperative for Christians, who face similar threats in the Middle East, to pursue policies aimed at protecting all of the religious minorities of the region, including other threatened groups like the Karaite Jews, the Samaritans, the Zoroastrians, the Mandaeans and the Falashas of Pakistan.

    About Author

    The Liturgist
    I am a Presbyter in a liturgical church, and also a member of the LiturgyWorks guild of liturgical scholars, authors, translators and writers.
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