Heb 11:24-26; 32-12:2
This particular epistle is repeated on various occasions throughout the Church year in that it reminds us of the communion of the saints and the struggles of those who have gone before us in the faith. In the selection that is read we only hear of a few of the struggles for the faith that are mentioned by the Apostle, but it is enough to portray for us the fervent love of God which carries these saints through every trial and persecution. At the time of this writing, the great persecutions and waves of martyrs of the Christian Church had not yet occurred and so the saint was referring to those among the old testament saints who remained faithful to the True God even prior to the coming of the Messiah. Even as we read this testament to their struggles, however, it is not difficult at all to perceive the link between those old testament saints who looked forward to the promise of the Messiah and the deliverance that He would bring and those saints who had received the Messiah Himself and lived in His promise of eternal life. Thus on this Sunday of Orthodoxy, we are inspired to look at the struggles of the great passion-bearers and martyrs to understand the True Faith which they have, through their labors have confirmed and passed on to us as our spiritual inheritance.
Even during the life of Christ we see that some men chose to completely misunderstand Him and sought to destroy Him. They did not grasp the eternal purpose for which God created us and to which He called us. They had created a God in their own image and thus could not abide the self-revelation of God which conflicted with their own imaginations. In the end their hatred of our Lord Jesus Christ was so great that they sought to destroy Him – but in doing so they revealed His true nature as God incarnate all the more. Though they tried to silence Him, their efforts only served to emphasize the Truth that He proclaimed. By His incarnation God took upon Himself our corrupt and mortal flesh which was diseased by sin and death and by His death and Resurrection, healed us and united us with the glory of His divinity.
The persecutions did not end, however, with the Resurrection, but continued; first at the hands of the pagans who opposed the One True God and later at the hands of those who wished to impose their own erroneous understandings and limits on the True Faith. It is the ongoing Triumph of Orthodoxy against these heresies that we celebrate today. For us who live so far separated in time and culture from these controversies, it is difficult sometimes to see their full importance and to understand why it is so vital to resist those heresies. Let us therefore look at a few of the major controversies that arose in the early life of the Church that we might grasp their importance and the true value of the struggles that our forefathers endured to protect the True Faith and pass it on to us.
Among the first of these heresies was that of the priest Arius who began to teach that Jesus Christ was not fully God, co-eternal and of one essence with the Father, but rather that He was the first created being, a demi-god through whom all the rest of creation was brought into being. This belief was appealing to some because it preserved the idea of the One God without the mystery of the Holy Trinity (which was difficult to comprehend and explain to the rational mind). This heretical belief however had a very unfortunate effect (as do all heresies) in that it made our salvation impossible. Our salvation is not to simply spend time relaxing in paradise after death, but rather it is to live in union and communion with God, united to Him and sharing in His life. If Jesus Christ is not God, then His incarnation does not unite us to God, but rather to a created demi-god and the wall of separation between man and God remains. Under the heresy of Arius we remain separated from God and unable to be united to Him. This heresy was condemned by the 1st Ecumenical Council in Nicea which was in turn confirmed by the 2nd Council in Constantinople and which delcared the truth that our Lord Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man in the Nicene Creed.
Although Arius was condemned, the heretical controversies did not end. Another controversy centered in Antioch erupted around the teaching of a bishop Nestorius who distinctly separated the humanity and divinity of our Lord. He taught that the Virgin Mary was not the mother of the God/man Jesus Christ, but rather she was the mother only of the man Jesus who was later loosely joined in the same body by God. Thus the divinity and humanity of Christ were not joined in one person but that Jesus Christ consisted of two persons co-habiting one body. Nestorius therefore objected to calling the Virgin Mary “Theotokos” (the Mother of God) and insisted rather that she be called the Mother of Man or at most the Mother of Christ. This extreme separation also prevents our salvation for it denies that the human and divine natures can be united but can only exist side by side. This heresy was condemned by the 3rd Ecumenical Council in Ephesus and the Church continued to proclaim the truth that the God/man Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, united in one person.
This heresy gave rise to a reaction in other parts of the Church opposing the humanizing of Christ by Nestorius seeking to emphasize the divinity of Jesus Christ. This reaction, centered in Alexandria, was championed by the bishop Dioscorus. Dioscorus maintained that while Jesus Christ was both God and man, united in one person, after the incarnation the human nature was eliminated and that only one nature, the divine, remained. This preserved the divinity of Christ from those who would over-emphasize His humanity, but again, it went too far and created a barrier to our salvation. Because, according to these monophysites (meaning “one nature”), the God/man Jesus Christ did not possess a human nature, the possibility of the union of divine and human natures without the destruction of the human nature is rendered impossible. What remains is something akin to the hindu belief that in the afterlife the individual is lost and his essence absorbed into the divine. This is not our salvation for our union with God is an icon of the divine Trinity, the unity of 3 persons in the 1 essence of the Trinity. If we were to follow the monophysite belief, then our human nature would be lost, swallowed up in the divine and while our unity with God would be accomplished, that unity would be imperfect as our own personhood would be lost. The 4th Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon, addressed this issue and condemned the monophysite teaching, confirming that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man possessing both a divine and human nature united together in one person. The decision and teaching of the 4th Council was later confirmed by the 5th Ecumenical Council.
Seeking to further explain and justify their thinking, the former proponents of the monophysite teaching put forth a new idea that while Christ possessed both a human and divine nature, he possessed only one will, the divine will (called monotheletism meaning one will). Again this teaching is problematic for it denies that our Lord was fully human in that He did not possess a human will and further because of this the implication is that in order for man to be saved the human will must be destroyed for it cannot be fully in submission to and brought into harmony with the will of God. This heresy was condemned by the 6th Ecumenical Council in Constantinople.
About this time, the Church began to be confronted with the rise of Islam in Persia and the East. The Islamists held strictly to the Jewish law of the prohibition of images used in worship. This idea is drawn from the belief that God cannot be seen by man and therefore cannot be depicted. Any attempt to depict God is interpreted a move towards idolatry condemned by the 2nd Commandment. This influence among those in the Church who lived under the influence of Islamic rule brought forth the condemnation of the Holy Icons (called Iconoclasm). The Iconoclasts demanded that all images of our Lord Jesus Christ and the saints be not only taken out of the temples, but destroyed, claiming that they were false images and therefore idols. This again attacks the basis of our salvation which rests in the incarnation of Christ. If God truly took on Himself human flesh and in His incarnation revealed Himself to the world, then the God/man can be depicted – otherwise he would not truly be man. In addition, If the saints cannot likewise be depicted, then we are not united with God in a tangible and visible manner and our union with God is limited and not a full communion with God. Iconoclasm denies the very idea expressed by St Athanasius that “God became man in order that man might become god.” After many great struggles the Iconoclast heresy was finally overturned and condemned by the Church in the last of the great Ecumenical Councils – the 7th Council of Nicea.
It is this great triumph of the Orthodox faith that we mark today as the capstone of the era of the 7 Councils of the Church. These 7 Ecumenical councils stand as defining benchmarks of the Orthodox Faith, defining and preserving for us what is the True Faith and what is error. The evil one, however, has not ended his war with the Church and continues to introduce novel teachings which would pull us away from the Church. Even some of these old heresies have continued to exist in various ways throughout the years. There are remnants of the Nestorian confession today in Persia and further east (such as the “Church of the East” or the “Indian Orthodox Church”). In Egypt, North Africa and Armenia the Coptic and other “Oriental Orthodox” confessions, which are the descendants of the monophysite heresy, continue to exist. Although these ancient confessions are close to the Orthodox faith in many ways and have evolved over the centuries to a more Orthodox confession of faith, they remain separated from the Church. In many of the Western Protestant confessions we see the same iconoclast beliefs being resurrected and militantly proclaimed. In addition to all of this there is the new “pan-heresy” of Ecumenism which attacks the very concept of the Church as the visible and substantive Body of Christ (and therefore which denies a full and robust understanding of the incarnation of Christ).
The age of the Ecumenical Councils may have ended, however, the battle for the true confession of the Orthodox Faith continues even today. Many have suffered and died for their confession of the God/man Jesus Christ and we stand in the same line and heritage with those great confessors. They have passed on to us the true faith, revealed to mankind by the God/man Jesus Christ in His incarnation and preserved by the power of the Holy Spirit. Now we too step into their shoes and it is our turn to boldly proclaim the True Faith to the world – not only by our words, but most especially and most powerfully by our lives. Let us shine, therefore, with the light of Christ and so illumine the world around us.