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Is Jesus Superior to All Other Religious Leaders?

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Volume 38 , Issue 3. If you do not receive an email within 10 minutes, your email address may not be registered, and you may need to create a new Wiley Online Library account. If the address matches an existing account you will receive an email with instructions to retrieve your username. Martin W. Mittelstadt Evangel University Search for more papers by this author. Tools Request permission Export citation Add to favorites Track citation. Share Give access Share full text access. Share full text access. Please review our Terms and Conditions of Use and check box below to share full-text version of article.

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Get access to the full version of this article. View access options below. You previously purchased this article through ReadCube. Institutional Login. More confusing yet was that so complex and radically diverse a system of thought existed so early in the Christian tradition, and that was nowhere near the end of radical thinking in the first few centuries of the religion's evolution. In the later stages of the Roman Empire, neither pagans nor Gnostics proved the fiercest foe the early Church would face. Because in principle Gnostics refused to act collectively, they made an easy target for the clergy's growing intolerance toward internal diversity.

This type of factionalism could be rooted out and isolated, silenced or eradicated with relative ease because its adherents had no overarching bureaucracy sheltering them from general onslaught. Even if the process took centuries, it was not all that difficult, certainly compared to the other challenges that lay ahead.

Little did Christian officials suspect a far more dangerous foe was lurking within their very own ranks, a well-organized body of questioners who were prepared to attack the orthodox vision of Christ. The basic issue underlying this festering controversy stemmed from Jesus himself, who in the day represented a new type of divinity, both man and god at the same time. While in Greek religion Dionysus was also depicted as having a two-fold nature—likewise, both mortal and divine—once Dionysus had assumed immortal status, he no longer suffered in human ways.

Jesus, of course, was quite different. As recorded in the four gospels accepted by the orthodox Church, his story gave rise to serious questions about the exact nature of his divinity, issues which kept cropping up because they were inherent in the narratives of his life, in particular, how a being could be both a deity and a non-deity at once. That, in turn, led directly to another complication built into Christianity, the relationship between God and Jesus. If Jesus is God's Son, to many that means he should be taken as subordinate to his father—good sons obey their fathers, don't they?

If, instead, you make the choice to see Jesus as God incarnate, then you're left with the enigma that God is his own Son. This perplexing conundrum fueled many a lively debate among the first few centuries of Christians, especially after their religion had assumed world prominence in the days following Constantine. Much as earnest deliberation can be a helpful and healthy exercise for a growing and evolving system like early Christianity, it can also make some aspects of organizing a working religion hard to manage, such as spreading the good word. That is, when priests have a hard time explaining easily the nature and function of a deity—even something as simple as where he came from or who his parents are, or parent is —it can impede the process of recruiting converts, especially among the hordes of unschooled barbarians filtering through and around late Rome.

The result was a faction of churchmen led by a dynamic and well-educated priest named Arius ca. Seeing Jesus as a divine being and the offspring of God but not a god exactly like God—in other words, a very high-level, celestial messenger sent to earth—this heresy later called Arianism endorsed the position that, if Jesus is the Son of God, then he cannot be allowed to assume precedence over his Father in heaven or on earth.

In essence, Arius' conclusion was that the orthodox interpretation of the Trinity made no sense, at least not in terms of power-sharing; rather, logic dictated the Father had to be primary and central, and thus should be respected as such. It was a difficult position to counter in the arena of argument and reason. Common sense dictates that sons should submit to their fathers, and common decency demands respect for elders. But Church officials could not admit such a proposition without conceding Jesus' inferiority to God, so they had little choice but to step into the fray and attempt to squelch this controversy.

Leading the opponents of Arianism was none other than Arius' own superior Athanasius —his boss, so to speak—the patriarch of Alexandria and a formidable power-broker in the Church. Also a savvy administrator, Athanasius made no real attempt to counter the arguments of his trouble-making underling but, instead, insisted that Jesus was ultimately unknowable and the Trinity a mystical union.

Third Way Allegiance: Christian Witness in the Shadow of Religious Empire

In simple terms, he told Arius to shut up. But an issue that divisive does not die down so easily, and like so many other theological questions circulating in the day, Arianism, too, ultimately landed in Constantine's lap. Like any powerful, under-educated politician confronted with a real brain-teaser of this sort, the emperor called together his advisors, in this case, Christian clergy from all across the Empire to a synod, the famous Council of Nicaea near Constantinople in CE.

After some vigorous debate, the bishops ended up backing Athanasius and forged the famous Nicene Creed in which adherents and converts to Christianity were sworn to uphold the orthodox perception of Christ as "begotten not made" by God and " who was made flesh, was made man, suffered and rose again on the third day.

The credo did not stop there either. It continued on to an outright denial of the major tenets underlying Arianism and Gnosticism, in fact, any version of Christianity which challenged the Church's authority, forcing its membership to denounce these heresies publicly:. But those who say that there was once when he was not and before he was begotten he was not and he was made of things that were not or maintain that the Son of God is of a different essence or substance or created or subject to moral change or alteration—the Catholic and Apostolic Church condemn them to damnation.

This constitutes the wholesale deprecation of all heresies which were at that time raising their voices in opposition to the policies and existence of not only the orthodox vision of Christ but also an organized Church government. But even such extreme measures did not forestall the growth of Arianism. Later synods reversed the decision of the Council of Nicaea and confirmed Arian views, which only exacerbated divisions within the Christian world.

More important, Arian proponents played well the advantages inherent in their vision of Christ, especially outside the Empire in areas where Church bureaucrats who lived for the most part in Roman metropolises had as yet little influence. The Arian Christians' simpler conception of Jesus as subordinate to and discrete from God allowed them to win many converts, especially among those unfamiliar with the complex theological history underlying Christian orthodox doctrine.

In particular, the Arian monk Ulfilas was able to attract many Germanic barbarian groups to his side, the Goths especially who became avid non-orthodox Christians. Among the administrators of the Church, the internal unrest precipitated by these heresies only intensified interest in formalizing holy services and offices of all sorts. Doctrine and ritual came to center around what is now known as the seven sacraments : baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, marriage, ordination and final unction. Church leadership fell into the hands of bishops , each of whom oversaw a see , a religious "province" of sorts , in which, as it turned out, not all bishops were equal.

Those situated in the great urban centers of the Empire became arch bishops " head -bishops" whose opinion carried more weight because of the large populations they represented. In particular, the Bishop of Rome stood out among his peers and hence came to be called the papa "Father". From this evolved the papacy and the office of Pope.

The justification advanced to lend credence to this bureaucracy sheds light on the psychological machinery of the early Church, all the more because the reasoning used is likely to rest on invented history. The bishoprics and sees of the Roman West grew up in places unassociated with Jesus himself, places it could not even be imagined he ever went in person. Thus, in order to ground their communities in Christ himself somehow, the bishops had no choice but to build bridges to the apostles of Jesus, but that was difficult, too.

There was no clear or credible testimony about the lives of Jesus' apostles after his crucifixion—where did they go? In origin, this unconfirmed history probably served truth less than the western bishops' need to tie their authority directly to Jesus himself. Through this elaborate reconstruction of the past—the transference of power from Jesus to the apostles and then to the bishops came to be called the apostolic succession —Church bureaucrats linked their authority to the seminal voices and events of the New Testament.

But this path to empowerment, be it revisionist or not, also proved no smooth or easy road. Besides the continuing resistance of heretics who sought to undercut and discredit leaders like the Pope, the bishops themselves vied for real control of an increasingly wealthy and influential institution. In particular, the patriarch of Constantinople, who led a large and well-organized community of Christians in the great capital city of the eastern half of the Empire, was reluctant to take his marching orders from an occidental bishop inhabiting faraway Rome.

Later, as the western end of the Empire began to fall apart, it made even less sense to Rome's eastern denizens to continue obeying some purported papa.


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By the early Middle Ages ca. Eventually, the growing sense of estrangement between Church officials in Rome and Constantinople led to the division of Christianity into Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox factions. This, in turn, opened the door to military conflicts like the Crusades see Chapter Thus, the early Church's efforts to promote unity within the Christian world by imposing standard doctrine and firm governance only ended up fracturing it incurably in the long run.

The irony and futility of orthodoxy-through-force would, no doubt, not be lost on the Gnostics. Indeed, is that sound we hear from deep beneath the sands of Nag Hammadi the lamentation of an extinguished sect, or is it laughter and echoes of "I told you so"? God the Mother, Mary Magdalene the Apostle, a Jesus who never actually suffered on the cross—it all seems unimaginably foreign to the modern view of Christianity.

Even to suggest these sorts of things in most corners of the Christian world today would be to open the door for widespread recrimination and scorn or, worse yet, entice someone to author a best-seller like The Da Vinci Code.

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And yet ideas of this sort were not only advanced in Christianity's first centuries but also attracted many adherents and enjoyed considerable popularity, at least to judge from the vitriol with which their orthodox adversaries attacked the "heretics" who promulgated these notions. To see such a wide range of beliefs attested so near the navitity of Christ's religion may seem odd to many today, not just on theological grounds but because, in general, we're taught to expect increasing differentiation as things expand over time.

The widely used, so-called "Darwinian" model of evolution which is built around notions like survival-of-the-fittest and natural selection presumes that growth will be accompanied by rising variation—often presented as graphs that look like upside-down Christmas trees—in other words, we're trained to look for greater complexity over time as things evolve.

While that may be the way things work in paleontology , it's not the pattern of change which the historical study of Christianity presents.


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  5. Indeed, the great open frontier of the Christian religion in its earliest phase has left behind a record of more creative and pioneering visions of Christ's message and divinity than all later ages combined. And as time passed, orthodox forces antagonistic to any ideology at odds with institutionized Christianity obliterated those conceptions of Jesus which ran against the growing mainstream. And once Christ came to be defined in certain ways, and on that perspective of his life and teaching depended a powerful and influential social institution like the Church, it was all but impossible to recast his image without changing what he stood for and, of more immediate consequence, what stood for him.

    And that makes tracking down a historical Christ a very difficult endeavor, not so much because the what-really-happened of his life has been obscured in a void of verifiable data—it has been, but that's not the point! All in all, Jesus has proven an ideal target for invented history, which is not to say any particular narrative about him rests on lies, only that he is the sort of figure around which exaggeration and myth tend to accrue. In other words, as we see so often in history, when people care very much about something, the truth of history isn't likely to be what they serve first, or at all.

    But it seems safe to say at least this much: out of so many possibilities, one perspective on Christ won out, the literal view of his life and resurrection.

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    Yet we now know this was neither the only nor the most "historical" take on his life story. Rather, it met the needs of an institution in ascendancy and was the version of the truth most feasible for a world needing comfort and stability amidst turmoil and savage upheaval. And if this was the first time Christian orthodoxy was to go to war with heresy, it would certainly not be the last. In later ages, others followed the trail mapped out by the Gnostics and their heretical brethren and re-ignited the debate over what constituted a Christ and a God.

    I don't mean Protestants at the time of the Reformation the early 's CE —though they certainly fit the mold—but nearly a millennium before them, another group began asking questions which challenged the central tenets of orthodoxy and through innovative insight and revelation structured a religion that was both revolutionary and at the same time rooted deeply in the theological traditions of the Near East. From this was created a new type of believer who would take the controversies of Christianity to different and unexpected heights.