Catholics have plenty of reasons to thank the early Church's bad guys
Jane Greer May 14, 2019
As Mike Aquilina was recording the audio version of “Villains of the Early Church: And How They Made Us Better Christians” (Emmaus Road, $23), he posted on Facebook, “I think this might be my funniest book so far. In the afternoon session I was laughing so hard at my own jokes that we barely eked out the Nero chapter.”
Nero funny? Aquilina a humorist? No and no — and yet yes.
Aquilina is author of more than 50 books on things Catholic. He’s a born teacher who puts words together to reach rather than to impress.
In his books, on broadcast and social media, and in person, his mission is to make clear the important details while never losing sight of the Big Picture: the eternal holy Catholic Church, against which not all the powers of hell shall ever prevail.
And it’s precisely because he sees events by the light of eternity that he sometimes can’t help poking fun at the farcical aspects of human nature. His is the generous laughter of someone who knows his team has already won.
This book’s 10 chapters tell the stories of 10 early Church-era men, from our old friend Judas to Nestorius, archbishop of Constantinople. Each of these men could have hurt the Church, had God not claimed it for his own.
But with the possible exception of Nero — who today would have a dozen terrifying psychiatric diagnoses in his file — none of these men had evil motives.
They were badly in error. They were grossly mistaken. They Just. Didn’t. Get. It. And that’s where the funny creeps in. Grave error, in the light of eternity, is ridiculous.
God made lots of holy lemonade as the Church — in response to all those lemons — formed or strengthened critical doctrines. How does the Old Testament relate to the New? How does the Son relate to the Father? Is Mary the Mother of God? In the brand-new Church, these questions needed firm answers — and these “villains” helped compel those answers, often in preposterous ways.
Take Marcion — please. A Roman shipping magnate born about 80 years after Christ, Marcion was a generous Church member and contributor — until the Church asked him to leave.
In a nutshell (key word: nut), Marcion believed that creation, including the human body, was evil; that an unknown “stranger” God existed — a good God — who was mightier than the creator God; that Jesus Christ didn’t have a real body but rather an illusory “magic mist”; and that our bodies would not be resurrected, because, well, they were evil.
Marcion’s most famous work, “Antitheses,” attempted to prove that the God of the Jews could not possibly have been the God of Jesus. The errors of his ways were not funny to Marcion’s critics, but he stood by his crazy convictions and, astonishingly, was siphoning a troubling number of converts from the Church.
The Church Fathers objected. And today, we have Marcion to thank for a necessary and immense contribution to Catholic doctrine. In order to argue against him, the Fathers had to take a deep breath and decide exactly how the Old Testament was related to the New: how the God of Abraham was the God of Jesus.
Or consider Arius, after whom the Arian heresy is named. He taught that the Son was subordinate to the Father, created by the Father, and thus not eternal as the Father is.
“What was so shocking about Arius’ teachings,” writes Aquilina, “was that they went against the traditional practice of the Church — never mind the doctrine. Christians worship Christ as God. They baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Arius’ interpretation “denies and defies” all that — and yet he, too, was enticing people away from the Church.
Both the Church and the political arena were in chaos at the time. “The Eastern emperor, Licinius, was becoming increasingly intolerant of Christians, and the Western emperor, Constantine [a Christian], was becoming increasingly intolerant of Licinius,” writes Aquilina.
“Eventually, open war broke out between them — a war that Constantine easily won. Now there was just one emperor for the whole Roman Empire, and that emperor was a Christian.”
But as Constantine quickly learned, all was not well. The miasma of Arianism was spreading rapidly. He took decisive action and, in 325, called all the bishops of the world — about 250 of them — to a meeting at Nicaea.
From that momentous gathering issued the Nicene Creed, and 1,800 years later, all around the world, 2 billion Christians still repeat the words: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father.” Thank you, Arius.
And finally, consider Nestorius, archbishop of Constantinople. On his very first day in office, he offended the emperor’s sister, who had consecrated her virginity to Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary and “was the one who really ran things in Constantinople.”
Next, Nestorius ordered the demolishing of Constantinople’s lone — and semi-officially tolerated — Arian chapel. To thwart Nestorius, the Arian congregation burned down their chapel before it could be torn down. The fire spread. Nestorius had been in office for five days.
He went after monks, who were too independent. He went after women, who were too visible. And finally, he did himself in by insisting that technically the proper name for Mary was not “Mother of God” but “Mother of the Christ.”
Aquilina writes: “The problem with most people, Nestorius seemed to believe, was that they didn’t choose their terms carefully enough. … The problem with Nestorius, thought practically everybody else in Constantinople, was that he had just said Mary wasn’t Mother of God.
“The people of the city instantly latched onto that little word ‘technically’ as representing everything they hated about Nestorius. ‘If Mary is not technically the Mother of God,’ they said, ‘then her Son is not technically God.’ ” Everyone but the new archbishop knew that was wrong.
Rome and Alexandria eventually got into the fight. Nestorius doubled down. Finally, the emperor (or possibly his virgin sister) called a council at a place named Ephesus. What happened there was like a long “Three Stooges” bingefest with some “Game of Thrones” thrown in.
Ultimately, of course, Mary was even more firmly enthroned as the Mother of God. And Nestorius, who deserves our gratitude for precipitating that doctrinal decision, was exiled to the Great Oasis of Egypt.
Error — and even evil: they just can’t win against the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
Jane Greer edited and published “Plains Poetry Journal” and is author of “Bathsheba on the Third Day.”
SPECIAL OFFER! 44 issues of Angelus for just $9.95! Get the finest in Catholic journalism with first-rate analysis of the events and trends shaping the Church and the world, plus practical advice from the world’s best spiritual writers on prayer and Catholic living, along with great features about Catholic life in Los Angeles. Subscribe now!
You Might Also Like