YIMC Book Club “The Great Heresies” Chapter Two

It’s meat and potatoes time here at the YIM Catholic Bookclub. Old Thunder (Belloc) kicks off this chapter with these terse and direct words, “Arianism was the first of the great heresies.” Where are the footnotes to back up this claim? You won’t find any footnotes in Belloc’s books. I suppose he is confident in making the claim because “everyone knows” this to be true.

Sure, I didn’t, and maybe you didn’t either. But I’ve stated before that I don’t know everything, so if I were you I would make a note to myself to check out these assertions. Perhaps by reading the works of St. Athanatius, for example, or more recently the words of Cardinal John Henry Newman. But for now, let’s just let Belloc draw back the veil on the early Church and see what almost happened to Christianity.

And let me remind you that from almost the very beginning of the Church, it has not been “smooth sailing.” Consider the words of St. John (1 John 2:18-19) when he states,

Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that the antichrist was coming, so now many antichrists have appeared. Thus we know this is the last hour.  They went out from us, but they were not really of our number; if they had been, they would have remained with us. Their desertion shows that none of them was our number.

Yes, the bold is my emphasis, but I’m not the one making the point. St. John is clearly stating that even in his lifetime (6 – 100 AD), controversy and heresy were getting off the ground. Heck, it sounds like they were actually thriving because otherwise why would he mention it? This is shocking to no one who is deep in the scriptures, which is probably why Belloc didn’t encumber every one of his points with footnotes. For the rest of us though, it wouldn’t hurt for you to keep the Bible and the Cathechism close at hand while reading the rest of Belloc’s book. And may I suggest Freiderich Knicht’s helpful book as well?

Belloc writes,

Now the central tradition of the Church here, as in every other case of disputed doctrine, was strong and clear from the beginning. Our Lord was undoubtedly a man. He had been born as men are born, He died as men die. He lived as a man and had been known as a man by a group of close companions and a very large number of men and women who had followed Him, and heard Him and witnessed His actions.

But, said the Church, He was also God. God had come down to earth and become Incarnate as a Man. He was not merely a man influenced by the Divinity, nor was He a manifestation of the Divinity under the appearance of a man. He was at the same time fully God and fully Man. On that the central tradition of the Church never wavered. It is taken for granted from the beginning by those who have authority to speak.

Did I mention that everything hinges on authority for Belloc? And in the end, isn’t that True?

Before I blather on, recall that at the start of the meeting for this book selection, I asked for volunteers to take a leadership role in guiding our discussion here. Up to the plate this week is “Mary R.” What follows is Mary’s brief synopsis of this weeks chapter and the high points as she saw them.

Let’s give Mary R. a hearty welcome and a dose of gratitude for being the first out of the gate in my little experimental twist on the YIMC Book Clubs’ rules of engagement: “all readers should be prepared to help discuss the book.” Maybe Webster, Allison and I will eventually just bring the refreshments!

Mary R., you have the floor,

Chapter 3 – The Arian Heresy
I erred in my first reading of this chapter. Hillaire Belloc stated, “There is no greater error in the whole range of bad history than imagining that doctrinal differences, because they are abstract and apparently remote from practical things of life, are not therefore of intense social effect. … Merely to say that Arianism was what it was doctrinally is to enunciate a formula, but not to give the thing itself.”

I read “enunciate” as “eunicate.” “Eunicate” is not a word (ed.- LOL) but “eunuch” is and that is what I did to the Arian heresy when I first heard about it. I removed the essential and kept the dogmatic part. I knew that Arianism concerned the denial of the divinity of Jesus but I did not take into consideration the society and the uniqueness of the era.

Belloc, referred to as HB going forward, corrected my view and gave me the history, the flesh and blood, of the Arian heresy. This chapter covers roughly 250 years from 300 to 550. It is about generals, emperors, men and motives. HB explains the cultural groundwork that allowed Arianism to take root.

There are the people who supported Arianism – the noble families who were reluctant to accept the social revolution of Catholicism; the intellectuals who were concerned about the loss of their social position; and the Army who supported it. It is the history of people and how their support strengthens or weakens the Church. And it is the doctrines that must be defended.

The competing doctrines were:

* Catholic Christianity: Jesus was at the same time fully God and fully man. “On that central tradition of the Church never wavered.”

* Arianism: Jesus was man and our Lord but not divine. He was not God.

The two main characters who supported opposing views were Areios and St. Athanasius. Both men were charismatic. Both were passionate and both believed what they taught. And finally, halfway through this chapter we find out how St Athanasius defeated Arianism. He was sincere, he was tenacious, he was Patriarch of Alexandria (2nd most important town in Eastern Empire), he enjoyed popular backing, he was a genius, and he was young when the Arian heresy started. He had a lot going for him but he also endured five exiles. Through it all, St Athanasius defended the doctrine.

If you are like me looking for answers, be careful not to read too fast this chapter or you might misread words, change meaning, and miss what you are looking for. Fortunately, I wrote this introduction and had to reread the chapter several times. Thus I have an answer to how I can personally combat heresy. No, I am not male therefore I cannot be a bishop. I don’t have a following of people to support my ideas. And I am not young. Finally, I shouldn’t look for an Army general (HB tells us how the Army was finally converted from Arianism).

What I did learn is that I need to study and understand Church teachings – the dogmas of what it is to be Catholic. I need to believe by both reason and faith.  I need to listen to my bishop and give him my support as he leads me back to union with God.

Okay. Now it is your turn. What did you learn?

Thanks Mary R., and Bravo Zulu! I’m looking forward to our members’ (and anyone else who has read the chapter) discussion in the comm-box below.

  • Grace

    Interesting that Julian the Apostate almost succeeded in bringing back paganism in the late 300s. I tend to forget that it existed alongside Christianity for a long time.I also found this interesting: "Arianism, however, was one of those heresies which did die. The same fate has overtaken Calvinism in our own day…" I was wondering, have they really died? Are Jehovah's Witnesses sort of Arian? And isn't Calvinism still alive and kicking, or was he refering to something very different from the Reformed and Presbyterians who believe in Predestination? I have trouble understanding or being convinced by the reasons HB gives for the court and the military believing in Arianism, that the court disliked the power of the organized Catholic clergy and the military felt it was somehow socially superior to be different. It just doesn't make sense to me. What do others think?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    Grace, I believe HB's assertion is backed up by historical fact. As a student of military history, I find no disconnect with HB's claim that,The Roman Empire was a military state. It was not a civilian state. Promotion to power was through the Army. The conception of gloryand success, the attainment of wealth in many cases, in nearly all cases the attainment of political power, depended on the Army in those days, just as it depends upon money-lending, speculation, caucuses, manipulation of votes, bosses and newspapers nowadays.Wow, that could have been written 15 seconds ago, huh!I can't point you to the definitive history of Rome (Belloc wouldn't recommend Gibbon, LOL), but there is a wealth of historical material available on Google Books (search "History of the Roman Army").I also found this link, but with unfootnoted sources: http://www.romanempire.net/army/army.html

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    "The other side have accepted your main point; why cannot you now settle the quarrel and come together again? By holding out you splitsociety into two camps; you disturb the peace of the Empire, and are as criminal as you are fanatical."That is what the official world tended to put forward and honestly believed.Sheeeeeeesh!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    Last chance for volunteers! Who will be leading the charge for us on the next chapter? Shoot me a note.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02270396127498411004 Shannon

    One of the more human anecdotes about the importance of this doctrinal dispute is that it wasn't fought in the scholarly academies and just of interest to "the elite." People in the marketplace would gather to argue the point, singing songs to support their claim. Think of a giant sports stadium with the supporters of two different groups arrayed against each other. What was that famous chant about beer??On a more local note: I taught church history in Seattle which is famous for its open air market, Pike Place Market. One of the fun spots there is the fish market where the fishmongers throw fish to each other, and at the tourists. When we got to the story of the Arians, it was this scene I invoked for my students. As tourists and townfolks gathered around to watch the flying fish, so there would have been arguments and singing about whether or not Jesus was divine.

  • Grace

    Sorry, I wasn't very clear. I was not disputing that the army was pro-Arian; that seems to be historical fact. I was pondering the why of it.I read Evelyn Waugh's Helena not long ago. The Arian controversy figures in it (although when I read it, I must admit, I wasn't paying much attention to that aspect of the story). I heartily recommend that book, for history lovers.

  • Grace

    Shannon,Good point. It is hard to believe for us moderns isn't it that at one time it was a major issue talked about by everybody? (Instead of, um, the World Cup or the latest antics by pop celebrities).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01658116461483425280 Brandon Vogt

    I don't have my copy of "The Great Heresies" in front of me right now, but if I remember correctly, Belloc describes how Arianism was essentially a reaction against the miraculous.A distaste for miracles ultimately led to rejection of the grandest miracle: the Incarnation.I see this today with many rationalists and materialists. Attempts are made to reduce beauties and mysteries to explainable material causes. There is no room in modernity for the divine. I think this rejection of God and His movement today snowballed from this first Great Heresy. Back then, there were small, subtle rejections of the divinity of God. Now, these rejections have crescendoed to complete denial.This heresy is extremely dangerous, if only because all significance of Jesus, and all pursuit of Catholicism hinges on this reality: that Jesus is God. If he's not, our religion is a sham and a waste. If he is, Catholicism is true, and the story we find ourselves in is mesmerizing.(As a Protestant convert to Catholicism, one other element of Belloc's writing that I've enjoyed is his use of "Catholicism" to denote the true, historical religion of Christ instead of "Christianity". A subtle nuance, but one I appreciate.)