Posted by: ken98 | September 15, 2011

Gibbon Teaches Christian Heresies 101 – How 3 or 2 Can Possibly Be 1 And Gibbon the Recovering Catholic

Day 734 – Ken here (Th)(9-15-2011)
(DEF II, v.4, Ch.47, pp.930-940)(pages read: 1990)

I should probably be more interested in this than I am, coming from a long line of New Englanders (back to the Mayflower) and probably having some witch-burning, bible-thumping, sinners-dangling-over-open-flames-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-god-a-la-Cotton-Mather genetically predisposed in my makeup. But I can’t.

The problem with being a historian is you know too much. What others see as a vast, cloudy, faintly glowing area called “FAITH” is to the historian a constricted, less cloudy, much-less-glowing area called historical research in Late Antiquity AND FAITH since you can hardly ever know anything about the past (even the past that happened five minutes ago when you really think about it) – but it tends to tarnish the halo-like generalizations that surround most historical religious figures.


No, not a screen shot of Heretic the fantasy first-person shooter video game created by Raven Software, but the kind that sets a thousand pens in motion and burns through tens of thousands of pages of vellum over the centuries and still gets people riled up - No, we mean Christian heretics, the actual early Christian heretics, the faves of Gibbon in Chapter 47

Heresy is a big button with me – esp. Christian heresy since (unfortunately for us) we ACTUALLY HAVE a lot of history around each heresy and reconstruct it with a vaguely fair kind of accuracy for our own purposes in the 21st cent. and the end result is often a feeling of disgust at how petty the whole heretic-making progress is – its about as divine as passing am annual U.S. National Budget bill in the Legislative Branch. Not, actually, very divine at all.

We get to Gibbon’s Primer On Heretics. Gibbon was himself a convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism when he was young, he was “convinced” to reconvert after his father threatened to disinherit him. As a result, Gibbon has a hatred for things Romish, only the mildest loyalty to Prostetantism, but a firm conviction that the Church of England (run, as it was by English Gentlemen) was probably the most rational and correct (in a common-sense sort of way). In other words, a TYPICAL ENGLISHMAN of the late 1700’s.

He gets a bit confusing, as he denigrates without pause the early “heresies” of the church, with a vicious panache and a cutting wit, that seems oddly out of place since the Anglican Church would have been tolerated for five minutes in the 1st 5 centuries without being anathematized and exiled as being pernicious and poisonous to the health of the Roman state.

I’ll probably end up saying this over and over and over again, BUT, the TRUTH about CHRISTIANITY is, that what we believe today is the creed of the POLITICAL WINNERS of the Roman Empire.

And Gibbon knows BOTH these two facts very well – so I have to ask, why did he write this long, boring, flag-waving, cross-raising chapter? Especially since its very harsh criticisms of the early Church are so comically opposed to what he knows to be true? I think he was 1) pandering to popular opinion in the 1780’s to get published and read (ie a kind of social, ENGLISH, cultural Christianity (if you’re European, you’re Christian, and the best Christians are obviously Protestants), or 2) he just enjoyed letting his pen flow free and slathering great smoldering heaps of burning vituperative rhetoric on whatever object lay in front of him, in this case the easy target of early Roman heresies, or 3) he really believed all the purple prose flowing from his pen and he was in effect, beginning to live his second childhood, or 4) yet another reason, hidden forever in history, or just not visible easily to the present blogger (Ken) (I’m sure there’s MANY MANY more reasons for Gibbon’s rabid orthodoxy, I just don’t see them yet.

I’m not going to be a good person to be around the next 70 pages. Forewarned is forearmed.

Onto – Chapter 47 and Christian Heresies 101 at the Gibbon Academy of Well-Written Invective

The Story
Basis of Heresies
  • 1st ones = Nature of Trinity – how can God be Three In One – still a good question today
  • Later ones = Method of Incarnation – how can an omniscient, all-powerful God get crammed into one man’s soul for 33 years?
  • (Ken) – these seem like trivial questions today – altho they violently divided the Roman Empire over and over again for centuries
  • (Ken) the argument has always been that these questions betray a deeper crisis of faith – God as man and God as God – and understanding deepens and broadens that faith – but the truth is that most of the conflicts, while they started out theoretically as spiritual discussions ALL ended up as political decisions – the political importance of the beliefs of the Patriarchs of Alexandria, of Constantinople, of Jerusalem, and of Rome show this all too well – which is why I have a hard time focusing on the SYMPTOMS of political problems (i.e. punishing heresies) and not on the real political struggles themselves
  • (Ken) The obvious question (well, to me) is what is important? Probably the way you live your life, rather than the airy and insubstantial ideas you allow to drift about in your brain – but the fact that this runs counter to most Christian organized religious teaching today shows how deeply the old questions run, even in 21st cent Christianity
  • But……. that’s just me…..

    1. Heresy #1 – the Nazarenes, or Ebionites
  • Believe that the old Mosaic Law was NOT abrogated by Christ’s birth
  • a great deal (3 pages) on this – a lot spillover anti-semitism
  • This whole chapter reads like a Sunday School Lesson – albeit a very well written one – so I’ll spare you the details
  • (Ken) You get a lot of this in the New Testament – Hebrews etc – the blanket descending with the forbidden animals on it, etc – so this seems more familiar than most – and somehow a more obvious “heresy”

    2. Heresy #2 – the Docetes (Gibbon’s word) – Marcionites, Manichaeans, Gnostics
  • All have a hard time believing that God would voluntarily (or even be capable of) inserting himself into something material – you can’t put the divine into the material – so how did Jesus’s body/personality actually operate?
  • Some thought the body of Jesus was an apparition, a kind of divine illusion
  • Others said that the body was made of the stuff of god – divinity – so it could not have suffered
  • Often it was an attempt to reconcile SCIENCE and RELIGION – as the science of the day was Greek, and NeoPlatonic, and taught that all things down here on earth were incurably material, but mixed with the divine,and that as you got closer to GOD, you met less and less material, and more and more “divine” substance – finally reaching God who was all Divine, No Material – the obvious questions about Jesus (Man AND God) boggle the mind – as it did to the thinkers of the 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th centuries

    3. Heresy #3 – Dual Nature – Cerinthus
  • Tried to bridge Hebrews, Gnostics – the Dual Nature – said to be esp. a favorite of the fanatically fervid Egyptian Church
  • Jesus was a man until he was baptised, then the holy spirit came down and filled him, to inhabit his mind while he was on earth – before that he was just a man
  • When he suffered, the spirit flew back to God, and he suffered as a man

    4. Heresy #4 – Divine Incarnation – Apollinaris
  • Appolinaris Bishop of Laodicaea – Jesus had two natures within him – god and man – all thru his life – all at the same time
  • Against that, the Churches of Asia, Egypt, Ethiopia asserted ONE NATURE – that when Jesus was born, in place of a soul, he had the divine LOGOS – the divine nature – the whole time – only one – THIS IS Monotheism – One God -ism
  • Fathers of the Church Basil, Gregory, Chrysostom – Dual
  • Fathers Diodorus, Theodore, Nestorius = SINGLE
  • The empire went back and forth for many many years, sometimes persecuting one, sometimes the other
  • Only OUTSIDE of the Roman Empire was it is possible to worship with real religious freedom – thus the Nestorian Churches (and the other ancient remaining churches outside the Empire – the Assyrian, etc) preserved their opinions from this early time – their brethren in the empire were forcibly converted, killed, or were exiled (ex. to Persian, the Nestorian – where their churches spread to China and India)


    Last Word…


    Edward Gibbon by Henry Walton

    Gibbon had a brief romance with Catholicism followed by a harsh breakup that affected his historical inclinations for the rest of his life - he never, and I mean never had a kind word to say about a monk - a notable institution in the Roman and Orthodox Churches, significantly missing in Prostestant Christianity and therfor hated by him - Edward Gibbon by Henry Walton - this portrait makes him look so happy, so benign - how could such a pleasantly accomodating face have written the Decline and Fall?

    Gibbon as a Recovering Catholic


    This from Wiki (on the life of Edward Gibbon):

    Oxford, Lausanne, and a religious journey: 1752–1758

    Following a stay at Bath in 1752 to improve his health, at the age of 15 Gibbon was sent by his father to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was enrolled as a gentleman-commoner. He was ill-suited, however, to the college atmosphere and later rued his 14 months there as the “most idle and unprofitable” of his life. Because he himself says so in his autobiography, it used to be thought that his penchant for “theological controversy” (his aunt’s influence) fully bloomed when he came under the spell of the deist or rationalist theologian Conyers Middleton (1683–1750), the author of Free Inquiry into the Miraculous Powers (1749).

    In that tract, Middleton denied the validity of such powers; Gibbon promptly objected, or so the argument used to run. The product of that disagreement, with some assistance from the work of Catholic Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704), and that of the Elizabethan Jesuit Robert Parsons (1546–1610), yielded the most memorable event of his time at Oxford: his conversion to Roman Catholicism on June 8, 1753. He was further “corrupted” by the ‘free thinking’ deism of the playwright/poet couple David and Lucy Mallet;[5] and finally Gibbon’s father, already “in despair,” had had enough.

    David Womersley has shown, however, that Gibbon’s claim to having been converted by a reading of Middleton is very unlikely, and was introduced only into the final draft of the “Memoirs” in 1792-93.[6] Bowersock suggests that Gibbon fabricated the Middleton story retrospectively in his anxiety about the impact of the French Revolution and Burke’s claim that it was provoked by the French philosophes, so influential on Gibbon.

    Within weeks of his conversion, the youngster was removed from Oxford and sent to live under the care and tutelage of Daniel Pavillard, Reformed pastor of Lausanne, Switzerland. It was here that he made one of his life’s two great friendships, that of Jacques Georges Deyverdun (the French language translator of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther); the other being John Baker Holroyd (later Lord Sheffield). Just a year and a half later, after his father threatened to disinherit him, on Christmas Day, 1754, he reconverted to Protestantism.

    “The various articles of the Romish creed,” he wrote, “disappeared like a dream”.[7] He remained in Lausanne for five intellectually productive years, a period that greatly enriched Gibbon’s already immense aptitude for scholarship and erudition: he read Latin literature; travelled throughout Switzerland studying its cantons’ constitutions; and aggressively mined the works of Hugo Grotius, Samuel von Pufendorf, John Locke, Pierre Bayle, and Blaise Pascal.

    Edward Gibbon on Wiki


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