Category Archives: Middle Ages

The Creed is for Whistle-Blowers, not Dogmatists

Tony Flannery – who in 2020 asked: ‘What is the point of the Creeds?’

By far the worst thing ever to happen to the Christian Creeds of the early centuries was that they became tools of persecution by hunters of Christian heretics in the Middle Ages. (c. 476 CE – c. 1453)

The second-worst thing that happened to them was their use by the compilers of Catechisms – for the persecution of many generations of Christian children who could be beaten in school for failing to remember what the Catechism said.

With one self-defeating arm of the bureaucracy of  the Catholic Church in pursuit of heretics until recently, it is no wonder that cancelled Catholic priest Tony Flannery should ask in 2020 What is the point of the Creeds?’1‘From the Outside: Rethinking Church Doctrine’, Tony Flannery, Red Stripe Press, 2020

The shortest answer to this question goes as follows:

First, the Apostles Creed is a summary of the faith the led the earliest church through its worst persecutions. It was a passport through persecution, NOT a licence for persecution – and should never have been used for that purpose.

Second, the Nicene Creed is a mere ‘tweaking’ of the Apostles Creed, to insist upon the equality of all three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It should never have been used as a tool of religious oppression either.

The ‘Credo’ of Jesus of Nazareth

The English word ‘Creed’ derives from the Latin word ‘Credo’ which means ‘I believe’. Every firm believer is in need of a summary of what they believe – and Jesus’ own people, the Jews had that.  Called the ‘Shema‘ (the Hebrew word for ‘Listen’ or ‘Hear’) it was recalled by Jesus when he was asked, in Mark’s Gospel, what was the greatest of the commandments.

He replied as follows:

‘This is the first: Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one, only Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.’  (Mark 12: 29-31)

This was a direct quotation from one of the oldest of the Hebrew scriptures, or ‘Old Testament’, the Book of Deuteronomy. ‘“Hear O Israel: Yahweh our God is the one, the only Yahweh. You must love Yahweh your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength.” (Deut 6: 4,5)

Because the Apostles Creed affirms Jesus as ‘Son of God’ it follows that what Jesus believed is also binding for Christians, so we believe ourselves also bound by the ‘Shema’ as the basis of all other laws, including the Ten Commandments given to Moses.

As explained by Luke Timothy Johnson in ‘The Creed’, the Apostles Creed grew naturally out of the Shema – to explain to Jews and Gentiles why Jesus’s story was central to Christian belief.

Jesus’s Crucifixion was a Beginning, not an End

The earliest Christians believed firmly in Jesus’s survival of crucifixion. What is impossible for many who are attracted to Jesus’s teachings today – the belief that he had been somehow raised from the death proscribed by a Roman governor of Palestine, in about 30 CE — was the firm belief of those who compiled the four Gospels and the Creed.

It is obvious also why that belief was affirmed in the Creed. It reassured the Christian believer that his or her own life would endure beyond physical death –  as a follower of this man who had not been simply obliterated by the worst persecution that the greatest empire of the time could devise.

It is the most grotesque irony of the history of Christianity that the Creed should itself in later centuries have become an instrument of persecution. To call Jesus ‘Lord’ was, for the first Christians, to deny supreme authority to Caesar – and therefore to endanger oneself, as Jesus himself had done by criticising the religious elite of his own time.

On the third day he rose again.

This insistence on the truth of the Resurrection of Jesus is the central and pivotal statement in the Creed – explaining everything that comes before that in the Creed, and everything that followed. For the purpose of the Creed was to assure the believer that in following Jesus, as a mere human, the same victory over death could be achieved. The power claimed by Rome, or any other authority, was thereby ‘relativised’ – reduced to mere appearances and ‘passing away’ – temporary.

That Jesus was human also – as vulnerable to suffering and death as the rest of us – was therefore also to be believed.  For otherwise how could survival of death be possible for merely human believers in Jesus?

But Jesus was also ‘Son of God’ and himself divine.  So therefore, somehow, he had been ‘conceived’ by – or ‘brought into being by’ – the Holy Spirit of God.

How are we to understand today the insistence upon the ‘virginity’ of Mary, the mother of Jesus?  Some scripture scholars tell us that the original meaning of the word did not originally imply that Jesus’s conception happened without sexual intercourse, but that probably cannot be proven,  What is certain is that the process by which Jesus was ‘conceived’ or ‘begotten’ by God was for early Christians a secondary matter – dependent upon the conviction that through Jesus we come to know God – and to know that God is love.

The Creed Summarises the Gospels

Because the Creed was in later centuries used to justify the persecution of Christian ‘rebels’ or ‘heretics’,  it is sometimes alleged that it was the product of the Constantinian Roman Empire – and therefore NOT what Christians originally believed.  This can be disproven simply by comparing it with what is asserted in the four Gospels.

To take just the Gospel of Matthew to start with, it is clear that the belief that God is a ‘Trinity’ of three persons was central to the early church.  Completed probably by as early as 100 CE Matthew’s Gospel gives us in Chapter 28 Jesus’s final instruction to his followers, AFTER the crucifixion:

Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matt 28: 19)

Although the Nicene Creed – to the right – did emerge in the wake of Constantine’s decision to approve Christian belief it is also clearly a mirror of the earlier wording.  What is distinctive about it is simply its insistence upon Jesus as an equal member of the Trinity – something questioned by Arianism, a ‘heresy’ of the time that made Jesus clearly inferior in status to the Father.

In that one Gospel, therefore, completed centuries before Constantine, we find the central beliefs of the Creed – that Jesus had survived crucifixion and taught that God was a Trinity.

The Nicene Creed also affirms the equality of the Trinity

Can Unarmed Love Conquer Death?

Think about it just for ten seconds. Other than the complete faith of the founders of the Christian tradition that Jesus had risen, what else can explain why there ever was a Christian tradition?

That faith has proved far stronger than the Roman imperial conviction that crucifixion would do what the Romans were certain it would do – scrub anyone who suffered it completely from historical memory. 

All merely human empires are built on a premise of permanence via the shaming of others, and almost everyone knows now what a ghastly and doomed premise that is.

The Creed simply means that it is unarmed truth in the face of armed power that drives history forward. Through their courage and their vulnerability, it is the speakers of unarmed truth to power who are best remembered and best loved.

Because, somehow, truth-tellers, whistleblowers, are definitely not ever, in any circumstances – truly alone.

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The Story of the West: IV – The Rise of Capitalism

Sean O’Conaill © Reality Jan 2007

Until fairly recently, as we have seen, historians have favoured a view of history that praises ancient Greece and Rome, and then extols the modern period beginning about 1450. And they have depicted the period in between – from about 476-1450 – as a period when nothing happened. Very often they associate the supposed stagnation of these ‘Middle Ages’ with the ‘dead hand’ of the Catholic church.

Secularist writers often take this approach because they are committed to a view of history that gives little credit to Christianity for anything. Greek ‘reason’ and the rise of secularism explain everything that is good about the modern world, they suppose. As we have seen, this is a blinkered view that ignores much recent historical research. We now know that the Middle Ages, in comparison to ancient times, were enormously progressive, and were in fact the cradle of the very best features of our own era.

And this applies to economic development also. The unprecedented wealth produced by modern methods of economic management derives historically also from the Middle Ages.

To admire the architecture of the ancient world – of Athens or Rome – is usually to forget that these buildings were the result of extraordinary human misery. Slavery in the ancient world was unimaginably brutal. Slaves mostly worked the land, and it was their produce that went to finance and feed and build the cities, where only the landowning elites lived in anything like luxury. Most people lived in nauseating slums that fostered disease. So focused were the wealthy on the consumption of surplus wealth that there was very little reinvestment, which meant that there was very little economic progress either.

Slavery also meant that there was very little technical development in Ancient Greece and Rome. Why spend money developing water power, for example, when Rome’s wars brought slaves who could provide the power needed for milling or paper-making?

So the fall of the Roman empire was not a global disaster, as was once thought. The collapse in the supply of slaves meant that now for the first time there was an incentive to innovate. Out of this incentive arose, for example, the overshot water wheel – powered by water directed onto the top of the wheel to give added impetus. The padded horse collar was another such medieval development, allowing horses to pull far heavier wagons, and, for the first time, ploughs capable of turning the heavier soils of northern Europe.

These technical developments waited only upon secure conditions for the investment of surplus wealth. We now know that this happened first in Medieval monasteries, not in Protestant Europe after the Reformation of the 1500s. Such monasteries were often enormously productive as a result of centuries of land development. Some became giant complexes in which water power was applied to the making of paper, metal working and the milling of grain.

This fact alone is enough to undermine the old belief that it was the ‘Protestant work ethic’ that began the economic miracle of the modern world. R.H. Tawney argued in 1926 that it was hard-working Protestants, whose pleasure-hating moral code condemned luxurious living, who first amassed the capital necessary for continuous reinvestment in economic enterprises. In fact this had begun to happen many centuries earlier in the monasteries of that supposed enemy of all progress – the Catholic church.

Furthermore, it was the steady development of Catholic theology that allowed this economic development. St Augustine began the reconsideration of ancient taboos against the raising of prices to meet demand by arguing that the monetary value of an article could legitimately relate to whatever a customer would be willing to pay. Later, scholastic theologians in the monasteries and universities of Catholic Europe came to argue that the charging of reasonable interest on loans was also morally acceptable. Banking, a vital source of credit for investment, could not have progressed otherwise.

And this development in Christian theology too was directly related to the growing economic power of medieval monasteries.

It was Catholic theology also that first gave real security to what we now call the ‘entrepreneur’ – the would-be capitalist considering investing his wealth in, say, a mining enterprise or the building of a dam to produce water power. The problem with doing that in a society ruled by landowning aristocrats was that the political power, added to the jealousy, of the ruling classes could all too easily lead to the confiscation of any productive enterprise – without compensation to its founder.

This was why China, for example, fell behind medieval Europe in enterprises like mining. A thriving Chinese metallurgical industry was at one point totally destroyed by state and aristocratic interference.

In medieval Europe, on the other hand, scholastic theologians developed a sophisticated theory of property rights, which gave entrepreneurs unprecedented security when it came to investment. Just as Catholic theology undermined slavery, so did it also create a favourable climate for risk-taking economic enterprises.

For all these reasons it is now recognised by leading economic historians that the ‘Protestant work ethic’ had absolutely nothing to do with the origins of western capitalism – the systematic reinvestment of surplus wealth – for the simple reason that capitalism emerged centuries earlier in the most unlikely setting – medieval Catholic Europe.

And it was Catholic centres of medieval trade in Italy – especially Venice and Genoa – that pioneered modern systems of book-keeping and banking that allowed for sophisticated international trading relationships and business practices to develop. The later development of great Protestant trading nations such as England and Holland owed everything to this earlier economic development in southern and Catholic Europe.

The deepest ignorance continues to prevail, however. In a recent letter to the Irish News a proponent of the cause of secularism as the font of all progress again referred to the Middle Ages as the ‘Dark Ages’ – because they were ages of faith. We now know beyond doubt that this misconception is based entirely upon ignorance and prejudice. When all of Western Europe was wholly Catholic it was also progressive in many ways.

And the central key to all this progress was Christian theology, which was itself always in development. Arguing consistently for the dignity of the individual human being, it fostered a progressive mindset. It brought an end to the slavery of the ancient world. It inspired the setting up of great medieval universities and the development of true science.  It led to modern theories of human rights, and it created the conditions for the unprecedented economic progress of modern times.

Now, of course, Christian theology is on the defensive at the very time that western capitalism and science – unshackled from Christianity – threatens our world with nuclear terror, mass addiction and environmental catastrophe. In two final articles in this series I will argue that Christian theology has yet another contribution to make to the history of our world – the understanding and overcoming of all the major dangers that now threaten the human family.

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