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The Letter Killeth, but the Spirit Giveth Life

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On Christian Doctrine, Part 1

Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of heaven will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside you and it is outside you. (1)

12th Century Byzantine Mosaic,
Bode Museum
(Click to Enlarge)

These words from the Gospel of Thomas, written several decades before the Gospel of John, give a sense of the diversity of beliefs available to early Christians. Where John would emphasize the absolute uniqueness of Christ’s relationship to God, calling Jesus “the only begotten of the Father,” (John 1:15), Thomas proclaims a Christ who teaches that God is everywhere and within, saying “Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up a stone and you will find me there.” (2)

From the perspective of the Gospel of Thomas, it is not the fact of Christ’s resurrection, but of each individual’s relationship to God, that leads to salvation. In this account, Christ is an exemplar of the relationship everyone has to divinity: “When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty, and you are poverty.” (3)

By the late second century, Iraeneus of Lyon had determined that the three Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, along with the Gospel of John, were to be considered canonical, and all others were superfluous. The mainstream church has followed his lead on this matter ever since. The universalizing theology of Thomas was rejected in favor of John’s unique, cosmological Christ, the Word by which all things were made, co-eternal with God, and man’s relationship to God was determined to be through Jesus alone.

The process of consolidating a Christian orthodoxy continued for several centuries, throughout the Patristic Period, the late Roman Empire, and the early Middle Ages, and during this time countless alternative views were rejected and suppressed.

The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, describing the relationship between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, was established at the First Council of Nicea in 325 CE, the first great ecumenical council of the church. This council produced the Nicene Creed, which explains the Trinity as one unified Godhead consisting of three persons, each of whom is wholly and completely God.

The Latin word translated as person in the Creed is persona, which literally refers to a stage mask used in drama. The relationship between the three personae is described as follows:

Christogramic Lamp, 4th-5th Century, Athens

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and of all things seen and unseen. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, and born of the Father before all ages. God from God, light from light, true God from true God. Begotten, not made, of one being (homoousios) with the Father, by whom all things were made. […]

And (we believe) in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father (and the Son), who together with the Father and the Son is to be worshiped and glorified, as was spoken by the Prophets….

Not all Christians accepted the idea that Christ was of one being with the father. The Alexandrian bishop Arius (c. 250–336 CE), for example, argued that Christ, as the Son of God, was created by God and is apart from God. This view came to be called Arianism, and is now considered to be one of the cardinal heresies of the Christian church.

Mary with Child, Heidelberg

In the early first millennium, however, Arianism was widely accepted, especially among the Germanic peoples of Europe. The Visigothic king Alaric I, who sacked Rome in 410, was an Arian, as was Odoacer, the ruler of the foederati who deposed the last Roman emperor in 476.

In 451, the doctrine of Arianism was formally and explicitly rejected at the Council of Chalcedon, the last great ecumenical council. Chalcedon judged Christ to be “the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body….” In so doing, the orthodox church embraced the paradox (or mystery, if you prefer) that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine at the same time.

The church often describes the defeat of Arianism as a theological triumph, with the better, truer doctrine winning out over the lesser, but in reality it was a military and political victory, not a theological one. The Germanic peoples who subscribed to Arianism were defeated by the Franks, who were soon to become the next great power in Europe after the fall of Rome. The first ruler of the united Frankish tribes was Clovis I (481–511), who established the long-lived Merovingian dynasty. His affirmation of the Chalcedonian Creed was decisive.

The church would continue to use political and military force to suppress divergent beliefs for the next thousand years. Pope Innocent III, for example, went so far as to declare a crusade against the people of southern France in 1209, in an efforts to stamp out Catharism. His crusading warriors, in their zeal, put thousands of unarmed civilian inhabitants of Béziers to the sword, having famously decreed “Kill them all, God will know his own.”

Jan Hus

Jan Hus, Deutsches Historisches Museum

Any number of would-be reformers were condemned and their works destroyed. The English priest John Wycliffe was declared a heretic after his death in 1384. His body was exhumed and desecrated, and his books were burned.

Jan Hus, the controversial Czech reformer, was invited to the Council of Constance in 1414. When he arrived, having been promised safe conduct, he was seized and burned at the stake. The blood-letting based on control of Christian doctrine continued to the time of Martin Luther and beyond

There is no question that the history of Christianity is a proper mess, I think. But in what follows, I would like to express some criticisms of Christianity on a doctrinal basis, instead of on historical or social grounds.

The Doctrine of the Trinity, and the Exclusion of the Goddess

As described above, the Nicean doctrine of the Trinity describes one God with three personae, which the church reads as persons, but which I interpret as aspects. In my interpretation, transcendent God is known to human consciousness by way of different images or archetypes, each of which ultimately refers to the same mystery.

I cannot accept the doctrine that there are three and only three personae that properly refer to God. An important case-in-point is the orthodox rejection of female images of divinity, which the church has boldly asserted, but cannot sustain.

Gender is rooted in the cultural and biological facts of our species, and surely has nothing to do with a deity who is beyond all that. But in terms of religious psychology, our species has a common heritage extending back tens of thousands of years, and it everywhere embraces female representations of the divine. I cannot believe that it is spiritually or psychologically healthy, or even possible, to exclude female representations for long.

This accounts, I think, for the enormous popularity of the Virgin Mary, who rose from her humble origins as the mother of Jesus in the Gospels to herself immaculate, elevated up to heaven by the doctrine of the Ascension, and crowned as its queen.

At the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE, Mary was proclaimed not just “Christ-Bearer,” but “God-Bearer” (Theotokos). (4) By virtue of this promotion, she acquired the epithet “Mother of God,” which had long been associated throughout the Roman world with various goddesses, especially the Egyptian goddess Isis, mother of Horus. Early iconography of Mary and Jesus was heavily influenced by depictions of Isis with the infant Horus upon her lap.

Ephesian Artemis, Capitoline Museum, Rome

It is significant that this elevation of stature should occur in the Ionian city of Ephesus, which was renowned throughout antiquity as the center of a fertility-goddess cult dedicated to Artemis.

As Mary became increasingly identified as the Queen of Heaven, she took on the attributes of similar goddess mother/consort figures, who had long been paired with a god who suffers death and finds resurrected. This combined symbol has persisted since at least the eighth millennium BCE, when it was carved into the shrines of Çatal Höyük in Anatolia, or present-day Turkey.

The Virgin Mary elicits from the faithful that particular and ardent form of love that the Goddess always evokes. It is the same devotional love that Apuleius proclaims to the goddess Isis in his wonderful novel The Golden Ass. Apuleius declares to Isis in a voice choked with sobs:

Holiest of the Holy, perpetual comfort of mankind, you whose bountiful grace nourishes the whole world; whose heart turns towards all those in sorrow and tribulation as a mother’s to her children; you who take no rest by night, no rest by day, but are always at hand to succor the distressed by land and sea, dispersing the gales that beat upon them. (5)

How closely this resembles the Marian hymn Salve Regina, set to music by hundreds of Christian composers:

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy,
our life, our sweetness and our hope.
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve;
to thee do we send up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.

Turn then, most gracious advocate,
thine eyes of mercy toward us;
and after this our exile,
show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary. (6)

If we go back to the world’s earliest writings, at Sumer, we find this prayer to the goddess Inanna:

From heaven’s midst Milady
  looks kindly down,
before holy Inanna, before her eyes
  they walk –
August is the queen, the evening star in the sky,
Fitly (therefore) they praise the maiden Inanna.
August is the queen, the evening star in the sky
  unto the border of heaven! (7)

Like Inanna, Ishtar, Isis, and Aphrodite, the Virgin Mary is paired with a God associated with the moon and with the animal sacrifice. Mary shares their cardinal attributes: the dove and the Morning Star.

Apuleius had the good sense to recognize what should be perfectly obvious, that the many congruent images of the Goddess refer to the same experience:

Blessed Queen of Heaven, whether you are pleased to be known as Ceres, the original harvest mother who in joy at the finding of your lost daughter Proserpine abolished the rude acorn diet of our forefathers and gave them bread raised from the fertile soil of Eleusis; or whether as celestial Venus, now adored at sea-girt Paphos, who at the time of the first creation coupled the sexes in mutual love and so contrived that man should continue to propagate his kind forever; or whether as Artemis, the physician sister of Phoebus Apollo, reliever of the birth pangs of women, and now adored in the ancient shrine of Ephesus; or whether as dread Proserpine to whom the owl cries at night, whose triple face is potent against the malice of ghosts, keeping them imprisoned below the earth; you who wander through many sacred groves and are propitiated with many different rites – you whose womanly light illumines the walls of every city, whose misty radiance nurses the happy seeds under the soil, you who control the wandering course of the sun and the very power of his rays – I beseech you, by whatever name, in whatever aspect, with whatever ceremonies you deign to be involved, have mercy upon me in my extreme distress…. (8)

The Blessed Queen of Heaven answers the innate need of the human psyche to cloak the divine in a woman’s form, and it cannot be suppressed for long.


In Part Two this series, I will have a look at the problem of Christ’s dual nature, and the solution proposed by the Council of Chalcedon.

Virgin and Child with an Angel (detail)
Sandro Botticelli
Art Institute of Chicago


1) “The Gospel of Thomas”, 3. from Myer M., et al. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne. 2007. p 139
2) Thomas, 77. from Myer, 2007. p 146
3) Thomas, 3. from Myer, 2007. p 139
4) Baring A, Cashford J. The Myth of the Goddess. Penguin Books. 1993. p 550
5) Apuleius, trans. Robert Graves. The Transformations of Lucius; Otherwise Known as The Golden Ass. Noonday Press. 1979. p 282
6) “Salve Regina.” from Wikipedia. Accessed Feb 3, 2012.
7) “Hymn to Inanna.” from Jacobsen T. The Harps that Once…; Sumerian Poetry in Translation. Yale University Press. 1987. pp 118-9
8) Apuleius, pp 262-3

All images (c) Barnaby Thieme, all rights reserved.


Written by Mesocosm

February 3, 2012 at 1:04 pm

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