slapping heretics

Slapping Heretics?

on December 8, 2019

Every year on the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas, which was last week, memes circulate about St Nick having slapped the heretic Arius at the Council of Nicaea. This event apparently has no basis in history. But more disturbing is the seeming celebration of it. I saw one tweet in which a mother shared her husband was telling their children about it.

Should we celebrate slapping heretics? What about torturing them? Or burning at the stake? Or simply jailing them?

Presumably these memes are meant to be humorous. Hahaha. Too many people around the world day suffer violence because of their religious beliefs. Many of them are seen as heretics in their communities. It’s not very funny.

Arius was a heretic because he rejected the eternal deity of Christ, which Nicaea rightly affirmed. Let’s celebrate his defeat in debate, but let’s not celebrate a mythological punch in the face. Persons of his views should never have church office, but they don’t merit violence.

The point is additionally important because there is a caricature that Christian orthodoxy as affirmed at Nicaea was coercively imposed by the Emperor and subsequently sustained by the sword of the Empire.

“Every line in the Creed’s is a statement of the victor,” recently declared Rev. Dr. David Anderson Hooker of the Kroc Institute at Notre Dame. “Since Constantine there has yet to be an expression of Christianity that has not become oppressive,” he added.

So Christian orthodoxy is violent and oppressive. The allegation is ironic per Nicaea, where the chief advocate of orthodoxy was Athanasius. This young priest and later Bishop of Alexandria won the debate within the council. But he did not become a favorite of the Empire, which preferred order over orthodoxy.

The historian Edward Gibbon, no fan of Christianity, recalled:

We have seldom an opportunity of observing, either in active or speculative life, what effect may be produced, or what obstacles may be surmounted, by the force of a single mind, when it is inflexibly applied to the pursuit of a single object. The immortal name of Athanasius will never be separated from the catholic doctrine of the Trinity, to whose defence he consecrated every moment and every faculty of his being. Educated in the family of Alexander, he had vigorously opposed the early progress of the Arian heresy: he exercised the important functions of secretary under the aged prelate; and the fathers of the Nicene council beheld with surprise and respect the rising virtues of the young deacon. In a time of public danger the dull claims of age and of rank are sometimes superseded; and within five months after his return from Nice the deacon Athanasius was seated on the archiepiscopal throne of Egypt. He filled that eminent station above forty-six years, and his long administration was spent in a perpetual combat against the powers of Arianism. Five times was Athanasius expelled from his throne; twenty years he passed as an exile or a fugitive; and almost every province of the Roman empire was successively witness to his merit, and his sufferings in the cause of the Homoousion, which he considered as the sole pleasure and business, as the duty and as the glory of his life. Amidst the storms of persecution, the archbishop of Alexandria was patient of labour, jealous of fame, careless of safety; and although his mind was tainted by the contagion of fanaticism, Athanasius displayed a superiority of character and abilities which would have qualified him, far better than the degenerate sons of Constantine, for the government of a great monarchy.

Here’s one anecdote of persecution that Athanasius suffered, as Gibbon recounted:

Athanasius had indeed escaped from the most imminent dangers; and the adventures of that extraordinary man deserve and fix our attention. On the memorable night when the church of St. Theonas was invested by the troops of Syrianus, the archbishop, seated on his throne, expected, with calm and intrepid dignity, the approach of death. While the public devotion was interrupted by shouts of rage and cries of terror, he animated his trembling congregation to express their religious confidence by chanting one of the psalms of David which celebrates the triumph of the God of Israel over the haughty and impious tyrant of Egypt. The doors were at length burst open: a cloud of arrows was discharged among the people; the soldiers, with drawn swords, rushed forwards into the sanctuary; and the dreadful gleam of their armour was reflected by the holy luminaries which burnt round the altar. Athanasius still rejected the pious importunity of the monks and presbyters who were attached to his person; and nobly refused to desert his episcopal station till he had dismissed in safety the last of the congregation. The darkness and tumult of the night favoured the retreat of the archbishop; and though he was oppressed by the waves of an agitated multitude, though he was thrown to the ground, and left without sense or motion, he still recovered his undaunted courage, and eluded the eager search of the soldiers, who were instructed by their Arian guides that the head of Athanasius would be the most acceptable present to the emperor. From that moment the primate of Egypt disappeared from the eyes of his enemies, and remained above six years concealed in impenetrable obscurity.

Gibbon further described:

The despotic power of his implacable enemy filled the whole extent of the Roman world and the exasperated monarch had endeavoured, by a very pressing epistle to the Christian princes of Ethiopia, to exclude Athanasius from the most remote and sequestered regions of the earth. Counts, praefects, tribunes, whole armies, were successively employed to pursue a bishop and a fugitive; the vigilance of the civil and military powers was excited by the Imperial edicts; liberal rewards were promised to the man who should produce Athanasius, either alive or dead; and the most severe penalties were denounced against those who should dare to protect the public enemy. But the deserts of Thebais were now peopled by a race of wild, yet submissive fanatics, who preferred the commands of their abbot to the laws of their sovereign. 

Athanasius was protected by lowly monks and lay people while rulers and armies sought his destruction. He was hardly the tool of Empire, whose sword instead tormented him and other orthodox bishops.

Of course, there were many times when Rome and subsequent regimes across centuries persecuted religious dissenters in the name of orthodoxy, though often there were other underlying and more self-serving motivations. But orthodoxy has been as often the target of persecution as the beneficiary.

Christian orthodoxy is challenged and even persecuted in every culture and time. It commands total obedience to a constant Gospel standard over and against the spirit of every age. Orthodoxy is not simply the creed of Nicaea but the core ethics transmitted with it, which include the sanctity of all human life from womb to grave, and the sacredness of male-female marriage mirroring Christ the eternal Groom to His eternal Bride, the Church.

The Church when faithful proclaims orthodoxy across cultures and all times, in season and out. Its tenets call for voluntary adoption by the devout, never coercion or threats. The Church’s power is moral and spiritual, not violent. All persons are image bearers of God and merit respect of conscience and person, including heretics.

Saint Nicholas never slapped Arius. Presumably Nicholas, who was himself persecuted, would agree with G.K. Chesterton that orthodoxy needs no coercion, but is itself a great and dangerous adventure, the greatest of all, whose fruit and destination are abundant life and safe harbor forever.

  1. Comment by John Kenyon on December 9, 2019 at 6:59 am

    Hmmm. Athanasius rightly defended Jesus, the Christ, God with us (John 1:1; John 14:9) against Arius, but never solved the mystery of beginning-end in relation to the eternal order. He assumed “begotten (John 3:16) not made” meant the eternal order operated in duplicate to our known world order, such that an eternal being (a son) could be begotten of the eternal substance of the Father, which nonetheless requires a point of time in eternity for the begetting, which ironically was the position of Arius–there was a time when He was not. Removing the diphthong (oi) from homoousion solved nothing, for whether one uses figurative (a simile) or literal terms to describe X, the referent changes not. But it was here where the theological preference for literal language and rejection of figurative language blossomed to infect centuries of bogus and bloody debate over baptism, the Lord’s Supper and so much more. Well-intentioned, too, was the extra-biblical construction of 3 distinct divine “persons” in an implied hierarchy; wherein the alleged distinction of 3 divine persons and 3 gods is too subtle for most to grasp. In summation of this highly abbreviated summary, Nicaea did not solve the mystery of time/eternity in the Father-Son, and it is arguable that the unintended consequences of this particular apologetic in 325 did more harm than good to western Christendom. And no beating up atheists–Do unto others…

  2. Comment by John Kenyon on December 9, 2019 at 12:41 pm

    Hey, Ya’ll. Get off my back. I like the Beaver and am merely challenging him as Wally to consider that 4th century theologians did not secure the franchise on Father, Son and Holy Spirit for all people in all times and places for political theology. So he’s wrong about it. Don’t beat him up.

  3. Comment by CBByrd on December 10, 2019 at 2:29 am

    The franchise is secure. The league just isn’t as large and robust as most thought.

  4. Comment by CBByrd on December 10, 2019 at 1:04 am

    How like God to bring this timely seasonal-themed conversation on “slapping heretics”! I had written about this same concept- figuratively- in a letter I wrote to Dr. Carolyn Moore after her weblog post last week about grief positioned a verse from Psalm 23 in a way that intrigued me. As I read your article here, many of the issues underlying my ponderings of her post and my own thoughts about “staying at the table” are akin to the same ones that Arius and Athanasius found themselves vigorously debating when St. Nick allegedly stepped into it and which appear to underlie continued conflict with United Methodism today as it has within Christendom since those ancient ages and, it seems, will until Christ returns.

    Here is most of the text of that letter to Dr. Moore:
    “When you wrote about grief and mentioned Psalm 23 and the imagery of a feast prepared for us in the presence of our enemies with them forced to watch, I was reminded of something I had written a couple of years ago. Your perspective on the Psalm 23 verse is a more protective and comforting view and I like it! I just hadn’t seen that in that psalm before. The whole context for tables and enemies had gone in an entirely different direction for me. I think that is somewhat due to my having realized that Christ himself remained “at the table” with one who could rightfully be called his “enemy” (Judas) and was not tempted to partake of the “dainty” that had been being put before him again and again since satan first tempted him in the wilderness 3 years earlier – (to deny, dodge, or yield to others’ attempts to thwart the purpose for which he had been sent by the Father.) “Staying at the table” has come to mean for me steadfast faithfulness to God in the midst of circumstances that are more than a little uncomfortable, testing, or even downright tempting. In doing so, one may be even more greatly blessed and avoid the tempting risk of gloating triumphantly before one’s enemies. If we are to love our enemies, there must be a way found to make peace with them.
    This whole UMC “Connectional Table” ethic had always offered me hope that we, as diverse UMC folk, would find a way through our disagreements and come to unity IN CHRIST. As a traditionalist, I am not unhappy with the way things have unexpectedly veered since Feb’s SGC 2019. But there is, I expect, a great deal more pain and indulging in “enemies’ dainties” that is likely to be done by parties on all sides before we get to the end of the decades-long drama, however God has been envisioning and directing it. I’ve done a lot of personal grief work over the last 5 years. I have seldom found more than the briefest of comfort and little joy when my feasting was carried out while enemies were forced to watch. As you can see, I am struggling a bit with this imagery. Perhaps you can give me more insight into the reading of Psalm 23 and how it frees us from having our enemies at the table with us and allows us to feel safe and comforted only with them forced to watch from a distance. That may indeed be the case when we’re all dining at a heavenly kingdom feast and our enemies have been relegated to hell. But as long we live on this earth, only the supernatural presence and peace of Christ can help us, as we will likely never know when, who, or even whether enemies and the dainty snares they bring are present among us or not. We will always be subject to being ambushed or caught off-guard, especially by emotions that do not play by rules.
    Here is some perspective that may help clarify why I am struggling based on having contemplated this feast imagery in the past in working with counseling. I wrote the following about 3 years ago: (see post in on 8/26/16 copied here, too )
    “As I have worked in counseling and spiritual formation with women over the last 10 years, I have observed a particular attitude that it has taken me ten years to wrap my mind around and articulate what it is I am seeing. It finally all came together this past week as I was working with a particularly difficult young lady with whom I have worked for a while. She is very bright, an eager learner, but very much a rule breaker….any rule, every rule, every time. Not always willfully and intentionally, but with laissez faire attitude of “I’ll ask forgiveness (if necessary later because of getting caught) instead of permission” for anything that is not clear cut and hammered in stone. I have dubbed this attitude that I have observed:
    Exceptionalist Entitlement Attitude
    Allow me to provide some setup to explain what this is and how it came to be clarified for me.
    In the Scriptures there are references to a “dainty”, a temptation that is used that has great appeal to one’s appetite, whatever that appetite is. Satan is very adept at discerning our appetites and setting before us “dainties” that tempt us with the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. God provides a warning several times. The Psalmist David, in praying to be delivered from the ways of “men that work iniquity,” cries, “Let me not eat of their dainties” (Psalms 141:4). In other words, don’t let me take their bait.
    The man who sitteth “to eat with a ruler” (Proverbs 23:1-3) is counseled, “If thou be a man given to appetite, be not desirous of his dainties; seeing they are deceitful food”. One can compare this also to John’s words in the woes upon Babylon (Revelation 18:14), “All things that were dainties and sumptuous are perished from thee.”
    Such dainties seem to be naturally associated in the realm of the flesh with kings’ tables and with the lives of those who are lovers of pleasure and luxury. By their associations and their softening effects such dainties are to be abstained from or indulged in moderately as “deceitful food” by those who would live the simple and righteous life which wisdom sanctions. The book of Daniel is a case of a wise young man who rejects the king’s “dainties”…the rich foods of the palace and remains firm in his commitment to eat according to God’s rules for him, this in a literal and physical sense, but it is equally evident in a figurative and spiritual sense.
    Such dainties are also “offered not from genuine hospitality, but with some by-ends.” Satan puts it before us to see what we will do with it.
    One is also counseled to shun the dainties of the niggard (Proverbs 23:6, one who is stingy), who counts the cost (Proverbs 23:7) of every morsel that his guest eats, for there may well be a demand for some favor in return in the future.

    The particular case that I encountered that led me to this epiphany had to do with this young woman’s delight in knowledge.
    She asked me how to spell a word. In doing so I referenced the grammar rule: i before e except after c or when sounding like ‘a’ as in neighbor or weigh. It is a simple mnemonic ‘rule of thumb’ for English spelling. If one is unsure whether a word is spelled with the sequence ei or ie, the rhyme suggests that the correct order is ie unless the preceding letter is c, in which case it is ei. It doesn’t always apply, but if you don’t know how to spell something, it’s a good starting point. As I discovered in my research, Wikipedia notes that “the rule is very well known; Edward Carney calls it “this supreme, and for many people solitary, spelling rule”. However, the short form quoted above has many common exceptions; for example:
    ie after c: species, science, society, sufficient
    ei not preceded by c: seize, weird, vein, their, foreign, feisty, heist
    Many more exceptions are observable.

    Some authorities deprecate the rule as having too many exceptions to be worth learning.”
    When I recited the rule to help her with the spelling, she said, “Huh, I’m sure there are exceptions to that rule. Do you know any?” Not being in the mood for word games at the moment, I said, “Yes, there are, I’m sure, but I can’t think of any right now.”
    I might as well have thrown down a gauntlet of challenge for her. She called me later that evening, actually as I was going to bed, to tell me she had discovered an exception…..”proficient”, a word which a friend had used in helping type a resume for her. I said, “You called me to tell me you found an exception to the i-before-e rule?” She was very proud of herself for having found it and wanted me to know she had done so.
    This bothered me all weekend, that she found such delight in an exception to a rule, one which is actually no more than a general rule of thumb and one which has many exceptions. I could not shake the way that she had responded with such challenge and delight. I asked her about it a few days later. She said she had intentionally set about to discover an exception and when she found one, she actually was delighted. I told her about other exceptions that are very common and which should have come to mind for her if she was that committed to discovering an exception- “science”, in particular, as that is her field of study.
    I asked her, “What do you do with such knowledge you glean?” I knew from others around her and my own experience with her what she does….she shows it off… a master in the game of Trivia. She tells everyone about it. I suggested to her that one should, at times, use care with how she displays her “knowledge” , it annoys others and can make you look foolish, too.
    I reminded her, too, that something like a grammar rule is not the same as rules in science or law or social contexts. I asked if she knew what a “Rule of Thumb” is and she immediately said it has to do with the size of a stick a husband can use to beat his wife. References to such a law exist; however, no documentation of an actual law has ever been located in historical research, although it is alleged to have dated back to an old English law. This use is a fairly recent interpretation that has been borne by feminists over the last century as having arisen out of an English law and as evidence of the chauvinism of the law. Now, my young student said such a law exists in Alabama where she is from. And, if laws in Alabama or elsewhere have arisen through assumed reference to an alleged English law, they are, fortunately, resting on weak precedent. This is essentially a Snopes myth that arose and has no sound truth in reality.
    It is, however, according to several sources, an allusion to the fact that the first joint of an adult thumb measures roughly one inch, literally a rule (or ruler) of thumb. Since human physical dimensions vary, any measurement taken by so crude a means would be only a rough approximation and would not be trustworthy for precision work requirements. Therefore, a rule of thumb is an informal principle that is intended to provide general guidance rather than precise direction. While it was once used to reference a rough physical measurement, the term has evolved to apply to any kind of broadly applicable and imprecise rule. It’s not expected that a rule of thumb will always provide the correct answer. The earliest documented use is in this sense is in J. Durham’s Heaven upon Earth (1685): “Many professed Christians are like to foolish builders, who build by guess, and by rule of thumb.”
    Patricia A. Turner, a University of California at Davis folklorist, understands how a falsehood can acquire the mantle of truth. Turner acknowledges that it is “very sloppy for an academic to pass on misinformation.” Once a theory such as the inaccurate history of the “rule of thumb” has been debunked, it can backfire on those promoting it, she says. “If someone has read it who knows it is false, everything gets discredited on that level. So based on one falsehood, a whole history can be challenged.”
    This last statement by Ms. Turner suddenly triggered recognition for me that this young lady and others whom I have counseled in recovery use a similar thought process to dismiss a rule or boundary….if it has ever had an exception, can have an exception, or fairness dictates that is should have an exception, then I will claim the exception and thereby totally negate the validity of the rule. Just about the only rules, laws, or guidelines that can’t be busted this way are physical laws like the Law of Gravity or the Law of Thermodynamics. Everything else they can dismiss because of the possibility of an exception……and in their way of thinking, they personify the exception and will attempt to convince everyone else that it is so.
    It was my desire to understand the way this young lady thinks and how she has managed to justify her life’s pattern of rule-breaking, boundary-busting, and exception-claiming through such finely honed skills as lying, manipulating, hiding the truth, and arguing with a signpost that suddenly caused this to click in my brain. I could see the phenomenon not only in her, but in several other women I had unsuccessfully counseled in our ministry in the past and I now had a name for it:
    Exceptionalist Entitlement Attitude- an attitude that, because an exception exists, the rule does not apply at all, in any circumstances and should be null and void. It fosters dismissal and defiance of rules. It causes one to consider herself the exception to every rule and attempt to prove to everyone that fact. It is a mindset that can miss the reality that consequences for violations of rules can and will likely ensue. In other words, “The rule doesn’t apply to me. No, really. It doesn’t apply to me.”
    When I sat with her a few days later to discuss this observation, she suddenly got quiet and said, “I know where that comes from.” She is from a family of lawyers. She said she was raised sitting around on Sunday afternoons listening to them discuss various cases and how to defend against charges, how to “get people off.” She learned to think like a legalist. It is a mindset that is intently focused on the letter of the law, precedents, and omissions and dismisses any regard for the spirit of the law. There is always a loophole to be found for such people. And if caught red handed, it is always the fault of the rule itself or someone else who had circumvented the rule somehow or who told them that it didn’t matter or didn’t tell them that a slight variation was still a violation.
    I would return here to satan’s “dainty” and its role in this. There is a biblical comparison of two favored individuals, anointed men of God’s choosing for greatness. One chose to indulge in satan’s “dainty” and one did not. Both were youngest and favorite sons who were gifted by God and called by God for specific leadership.
    David- A favored son, anointed as a youth to succeed King Saul. Taken into the king’s home, where he lived a privileged life. Then he encountered problems with Saul, his benefactor and predecessor, but rose to the challenge and acted honorably. David continued to do so, until a “choice dainty” was placed before him at a time when he should have been with his troops, but instead was indulging in a king’s prerogative to remain at home and send others to do the work. Bathsheba had little choice but to submit to the king. David’s indulgence in this “dainty” offered as a temptation that appealed to a lustful appetite in him – which he chose to indulge – led to Uriah’s murder, a baby’s death, God’s pronouncement of a reign for David filled with war and violence and treason even among and by his own children, and denial of the privilege of building the temple. A secret, impulsive and seemingly irrelevant violation of a rule by a king, who could have whatever he wanted, that didn’t seem important at the time had far reaching and disastrous consequences.
    Joseph- also a favored youngest son whose favor annoyed his brothers and led them to sell him into slavery and tell their father he’d been killed. Joseph was taken into a well-provisioned home and had favor. But when he resisted a woman’s lustful desires, he was falsely accused of rape and imprisoned. He continued to use the gift of interpreting dreams that had incited his brothers while sitting among the men in prison and eventually he was called to do it with Pharoah. That led to him having a place of trust and responsibility over the nation’s resources which came in handy when his brothers came seeking food. He was able to maneuver them into bringing the whole family. He revealed his identity and was able to provide safety, provision, and a promising future for the Hebrew people. It was 14 years later, when his father, Jacob, died in Egypt that the brothers feared that Joseph would finally take his revenge. But Joseph, did not take satan’s “dainty”, even then. His reply was, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.”
    Joseph was revered among the Hebrews and when they left Egypt 400 years later, his bones were taken with them to the permanent place of burial in their home. Joseph lived honorably and did not yield to indulge in the “dainties” set before him. David did not. There is a price to pay for indulging in the enemy’s dainties, for taking the bait. And though David is honored, his failings and the consequences are well known.
    As she and I have talked about the way she delights in the bits of trivial knowledge that she gathers and how she uses them to argue with or show up others or to attempt justification for defiance of rules and how it delights something in her – competitive spirit, need for attention, enhancing low self-esteem, etc. …..she has acknowledged that this attitude has not served her well in the long run in interpersonal relationships, in contacts with authorities, in jobs, and other settings. About the only place it does work is in a classroom and then only if one has a teacher patient enough, kind enough, and skilled enough to direct this into a more constructive way of pursuing and using knowledge.
    We cannot begin to address dysfunctional ways of thinking until we can see them. I think we have finally come to see and can now address this issue in her life. But I also have seen this as a general type of personality that has come through our life recovery before. The ones who insisted on their entitlement to be the exception to any rule never succeeded. They inevitably were removed from the program. It was not so much associated with any particular mental health challenge- bipolar, personality disorder, PTSD, anxiety, or depression. In fact, I have observed women with each of these diagnoses, or no mental health diagnosis at all, display this attitude. Whether it is associated primarily with low self-esteem as a compensating defense mechanism or is part of a narcissistic personality, I don’t know. But I can say that, now that I have been able to articulate what I have observed in the past but been unable to articulate well in my frustration with trying to address the persistence of rule-breaking behavior, this particular young lady has been the most open to receiving this word and desiring to address it. Whether this is something that I will be able to use with others in the future remains to be seen. I have talked to two of my friends about it in the last two days and the look on their faces was almost exactly what I saw on my student’s face….a look of sudden recognition…as each of these friends said, “I know someone like that!” I think we all probably know someone like that. A process addiction, like a way of thinking that is life-limiting and dysfunctional, is every bit as destructive as any other addiction. The question is, will they insist on continuing in that way of thinking or be open to learning how to think and live differently? ”
    None of my comments about your post are intended to challenge your example. I was mostly relieved by it except for the lingering disquietude of enemies forced to watch. I think I have felt put in the position of feeling like an “enemy” and having been relegated to leaning-against-the- wall status while progressives and others took by force the treasured banquet we have all enjoyed as Christians coming from a rich Methodist tradition that has been nearly stripped of her dignity. Too many partook of the planted “dainties” that spoiled the meal for everyone and even those who appear to have the advantage at the moment will be no more satisfied in the long run by seeing others sent from the table. There are still better ways. But I fear that United Methodism, at least in the U.S, lacks enough people of sufficient grace, goodwill and agape love to overcome the grief and pain we still face in being torn apart. However it ultimately goes, too many may well feast and gloat and too many will be made into even more entrenched enemies. Some of the mechanics of this continuing ordeal have
    potential for even worse harm… not to one side or another, but to everyone. I am grateful for those who are continuing in the tasks that you and others are doing.” [end of letter to Dr. Moore]

    P.S. to you, IRD- There is nothing new under the sun. Same ol’ same old. Just more of the Human Condition writ large for the present generation. I am inclined to plead, like Jesus, “You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you?”

  5. Comment by Psalti on December 11, 2019 at 5:56 pm

    According to the Orthodox monthly Menaion published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery Bishop Nicholas did in fact strike Arius and was nearly ejected from the Council and stripped of clerical rank for having done so.

    But the night after the incident the Theotokos appeared to all of the Bishops in a dream assuring them that Nicholas had struck Arius not out of passion but out of defense of the Divinity of her son.

  6. Comment by John Smith on December 12, 2019 at 6:14 am

    I see the St Nicholas slapping Arius memes less in the context of church governance, theology and heresy and more in the context of “You’re next Santa!” as part of the reason for the season, put Christ back in Christmas, seasonal campaign.

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