NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 21.3
Tom Lee's study of the Origins of Christianity might be considered to have two great values. At one level it provides a big canvas view of the forces that moulded the development of Catholicism. At a second level though the fascination is in the myriad of small details. Today the focus is on Basil, Jerome and Augustine — "big picture" material and the small detail is possibly to be found in the origins of the practice of not eating meat on Fridays.
Two Emperors, Two Creeds — the Comedy Continues. Part 21.3
Classic formulation of Trinitarian doctrine...
In his fight against Arian influence Basil corresponded most often with Athanasius in Alexandria. This bishop was battling the influence of the texts regarded as apocryphal that competed with the official scriptures. In 367 all twenty-seven books of the New Testament were listed in his Easter letter: "Since ... some guileless persons may be led astray from their purity and holiness by the craftiness of certain men and begin thereafter to pay attention to other books, the so-called apocryphal writings, being deceived by their possession of the same names as the genuine books."
For latter-day Christians who focus solely on scripture as their engagement with the Divine, it is perhaps problematic that Christianity flourished for the first three-hundred years with no centralized text. Rather, there were dozens of contending accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus.
Internal divisions weakened the Arians themselves over terminology as to what they really believed about Jesus and his relationship with the Godhead, and how to spell it out precisely in both Greek and Latin. The Cappadocian fathers devised a formula acceptable to Athanasius. While he emphasized the unity of God — Father and Son are one essence — the Cappadocians stressed God's threeness — Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three persons. Preserving a delicate balance between the threeness and the oneness in God, they gave full meaning to the classic summary of Trinitarian doctrine, three persons in one essence, though it would take quite a time for the whole church to accept it in a written form that they all agreed that they understood. Few laymen ever did fully understand it and most still don't, since it is essentially unknowable and unprovable and has nothing whatever to do with the message of Jesus.
Augustine — the great Latin doctor of the Church...
Augustine, who would become the great Latin doctor of the church, was a native of Thagaste in what is now Algeria. We know so much about him because he wrote the first Christian autobiography. Son of a pagan father, he was raised as an unbaptized Christian by his mother Monica. In 370, at the age of sixteen, he was sent to Carthage to complete his education. He was a cosmopolitan of eager charm, formidable intelligence and limited humor. Being a normally corruptible youth, in a happy mixture of appetite and bewilderment, he was soon living in a relationship with a young woman, to whom he was devoted for fourteen years. She seems to have been a tender, vulnerable woman of tattered gallantry and frail flesh. They had a son, Adeodatus, given by God, whom his father always cherished.
When Augustine was nineteen the study of Cicero's Hortensius awoke in him an interest in philosophy, and convinced him that happiness was to be found in the pursuit of wisdom, but which required contempt for worldly pleasures and control of sexual passion, a price too great for him at that time. His sex drive was strong from puberty and involved him in much casual experiment with lower-class prostitutes. He wrote, "All around me hissed a cauldron of illicit loves". He could only pray, "Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet".
With his studies completed Augustine was restless and found it difficult to settle to a career as a teacher. He sought a philosophy of life and was for a long time attracted by the teachings of Manichaeism. The Manichee myth of a primeval conflict between light and darkness seemed to explain why the world was a mixture of good and evil, and provided a rationale for an ascetic morality, by the pursuit of which the Elect were destined to gain release for the particles of divine light imprisoned within their bodies. An inferior order of Hearers was expected only to keep simple moral rules and was encouraged to hope for reincarnation as Elect with the prospect of deliverance from the treadmill of transmigration. But because of their secretive ceremonies the Manichees were suspected of moral enormity and black magic, just as the early Christians had been.
Bishops and theologians continued to hurl anathemas at each other and various bishoprics were contested, including Antioch. In 376 Jerome, a native of Dalmatia who had studied at Rome, wrote plaintively to bishop Damasus at Rome asking which of the three contenders at Antioch he should accept as the true bishop.
Eating meat — "the seed plot of lust" — St Jerome...
Following his baptism at age eighteen, Jerome went to live among hermits in the desert east of Antioch in what has been described as "a popular, even slightly overcrowded resort for fourth-century hermits." Jerome, who was not a virgin, was obsessed with sexual imagery, his fevered imagination filling his cell with troupes of dancing girls. Between his bouts with the Devil he developed a morbid revulsion for the sexual act, believing that God should have devised some more acceptable way for humans to reproduce. In the Church there was a growing belief that the consumption of meat created what Jerome called "the seed plot of lust" because of the semen-producing quality of flesh. This led to an emphasis on fasting and fish-heavy diets. Another factor that led the church to promote consumption of fish during meatless fasts was an adaptation of the practices of worshipers of Venus, who ate fish on Fridays.
Jerome managed to learn Hebrew from a friendly rabbi and afterwards in Constantinople was a student of Gregory of Nazianzus. At Antioch Jerome was ordained priest, but strangely he claimed it was against his express wishes, and he declined to exercise the priestly office that he felt was incompatible with his special vocation.
In the prolonged battles in the east Bishop Basil of Caesarea supported Meletius as bishop of Antioch, while Damasus of Rome supported his rival Paulinus. Basil and most other bishops throughout the church, east and west, had no hesitation in rejecting the bishop who was admitted to communion with Rome. The third contender got short shrift from all sides. At a Council in Antioch in 379 Meletius was the president. He also presided at the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 381. Being out of communion with Rome did not, towards the end of the fourth century, militate against a bishop being recognized as practically Primate of the East.
Basil of Caesarea died on New Year's Day 379. He was only 49, but worn out by austerities, grueling travel through a large episcopate, constant theological battles and an unknown painful disease. He was eulogized by Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa. Seventy-two years later the Council of Chalcedon declared him Basil the Great.
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