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The Letter Killeth, but the Spirit Giveth Life

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Mary (detail), circa 14th Century, Greece
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

On Christian Doctrine, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series on Christian theology, we took a brief look at some of the competing ideas alive in the early Christian church concerning the life and ministry of Jesus, and the nature of his relationship to God. We briefly compared the interpretations of the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas.

While John taught that Christ’s life and relationship to God was a unique historical event, Thomas believed that Jesus was a paradigmatic example of the relationship that all persons have to the divine. These imply radically different concepts of salvation: for John, salvation consists in affirming Christ’s death and resurrection, while for Thomas it consisted of coming into accord with your personal relationship to God.

For those who have studied Indian philosophy, the resonances between Thomas’ soteriology and Indian models of liberation, such as those taught by the Buddhist, Jaina, and Advaita Vedanta schools, is immediately apparent. It is interesting to note that Thomas is believed by some traditions to have traveled to India, and an extant community of South Indian Christians traces their own lineage back to Thomas.

The extra-canonical Acts of Thomas describes his ministry and martyrdom in India. It begins with an episode in which Christ, after his resurrection, instructs Thomas to go to India to teach, and Thomas replies “How can I, who am a Hebrew, go forth and preach among the Indians?” (1) When he refuses to go, Christ sells Thomas into slavery to an Indian trader, who brings him home, and there his adventures begin.

I am not certain to account for the apparent significance of this Indian tradition claiming a lineage back to Thomas and the affinities the Gospel of Thomas shows with Indian philosophy. Thomas’ gospel is quite early – earlier than the Gospel of John – and if extraneous religious ideas were interpolated onto the gospel, one would expect that to occur at a relatively late date. The Acts of Thomas dates to the third century, for example. It’s a mystery to me, what is going on there.

In Part 1 of this series, we also looked at the doctrine of the Trinity and the unsuccessful attempt by the church to exclude female representations of divinity, which has everywhere been challenged by the Cult of Mary. It is worth noting that the early churches in the Arabian peninsula and in Egypt may have glorified or even deified the Virgin. The religious historian Jonathan P. Berkey notes that in the centuries before Muhammad, many Arabs appear to have interpreted the Trinity as consisting of God, Jesus, and Mary. In support of this reading, Berkey cites a Koranic verse in which Jesus denies being the Son of God (2):

And when God said, ‘O
Jesus son of Mary,
didst thou say unto men,
“Take me and my mother
as gods, apart from God”?
[Jesus] said, “To Thee be
glory! It is not mine to
say what I have no right
to.” (3)

Berkey notes the proximity of Arabia to the Ionian colony of Ephesus, which, as we noted in Part One of this series, was a prominent center of goddess worship, and the site of a great temple dedicated to Artemis Ephesia. It was at the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE that Mary was affirmed to be “God-Bearer” (Theotokos).

It is also worth noting that the Christian church assimilated the iconography of Mary with the infant Christ from an ancient tradition in Egypt, depicting the goddess Isis and the baby Horus.

The religious imagination will not tolerate suppression of the divine feminine for long, and institutional attempts to eliminate it are constantly challenged by forceful, spontaneous attempts of the psyche to formulate symbols of this kind. Mary the God-Bearer lies within easy reach of Mary the Goddess-Mother, as the Koran and other evidence from the Middle Ages will corroborate. As a caveat, however, it should be borne in mind that the Western Church values Mary’s status as God-Bearer primarily in the light of what it says about Christ’s divinity, not for what it says about Mary.

The Problem of Christ’s Dual Nature, Both Human and Divine

Christ Enters Jerusalem (detail)
c. 14th century
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

Continuing our evaluation of Christian doctrine, I would like to look at the relationship between Christ’s human and divine natures, as it was formulated in 451 CE at the Council of Chalcedon. It is my belief that this Council painted the church into an unenviable corner, insisting upon the literal truth of a doctrine that cannot be accepted as such.

By the time of this council, it had already been established at Nicea that Jesus Christ was the third persona of the Trinity. In addition to being the Logos, co-eterntal with the God the Father and with the Holy Spirit, he was also believed to be the human son of Mary.

According to church doctrine, Christ was incarnated, lived as a man, suffered death, and rose again, and this human death was vital for the atonement of human sins. The conceptual vocabulary of atonement in early theology was closely modeled on contemporaneous legal doctrines of atonement for transgression. Based on a tradition dating back to the Code of Hammurabi, which famously called for “an eye for an eye,” atonement for transgression required a penalty of the same type as the transgression. Only by dying a human death could Christ’s atonement redeem human life.

We are therefore left with a logical problem. The Nicene Creed proclaimed Christ to be of one essence with the Father; he is eternal, unchanging, and beyond suffering. But as Jesus, he was incarnate in the field of time, suffered, and died.

How does this work? Is the immortal Christ different from the human Jesus? Did Christ have two distinct natures that somehow coexisted in the person of Jesus?

These doctrinal questions may seem trivial, but in their own clumsy way they get at very deep questions about what Christians mean when they talk about salvation, and what they mean by their cardinal doctrines. I am not myself a Christian, but as a person who takes spiritual problems seriously, I think it is important to understand what is going on here. It is not only historically important, but it is necessary if one wishes to come to terms with the rich and ancient tradition of Christianity, and to see what it may have to offer to Christians and non-Christians alike.

Back to our two natures problem, then. Different people tried to respond to it in different ways. Nestorius, for example, argued that in Jesus there were two persons and two natures. And a school called the Monophysites believed that there was only one nature within Jesus – a single, unique nature.

Both of these positions were rejected by the orthodox church as heretical, and, as you might expect, these kinds of disagreements led quickly to political violence, arrests, depositions, and threats of war. So goes the history of the church.

The Council of Chalcedon was called to settle this dispute, and they arrived at the following definition of faith:

Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all with one voice teach that it is to be confessed that our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same God, perfect in divinity, and perfect in humanity, true God and true human, with a rational soul and a body, of one substance with the Father in his divinity, and of one substance with us in his humanity, in every way like us, with the only exception of sin, begotten of the Father before all time in his divinity, and also begotten in the latter days, in his humanity, of Mary the Virgin bearer of God.

This is one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, manifested in two natures without any confusion, change, division or separation. The union does not destroy the difference of the two natures, but on the contrary the properties of each are kept, and both are joined in one person and hypostasis. They are not divided into two persons, but belong to the one Only-begotten Son, the Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. (4)

They are of one substance but two natures? Joined in one person, without any division or separation? This is no answer to the question; it merely restates the problem.

Regular readers may recall that we recently looked at the nature of mysticism on Mesocosm, and we found that mystical symbols refer to a domain that lies beyond language and thought. Mystical symbols frequently invoke contradictory or paradoxical language to evoke a domain that lies beyond the reach of logic. Can we not simply accept the Council’s solution as a statement along these lines?

We cannot, for the mystical symbol is a symbol, that refers to a reality outside of itself. The Council’s formulation, on the other hand, insists on a literal reading of the symbol. It does not only assert a paradoxical formulation of Christ’s nature, but also insists that we take it as a factual description.

In my opinion, this represents the worst tendency in western theology: it takes itself too seriously, too literally. A study of Buddhist logic, by contrast, offers a deeply refreshing alternative – problems of this type are built in from the ground up. I may return to this topic in a later post.

For now, suffice to say that the language of spiritual symbols is the language of poetry, not science or history. You cannot pin down what religious symbols “really mean,” certainly not by applying metaphysical distinctions such as substance versus nature. One is reminded of Molière’s doctor, who, when asked how it was the medicine puts people to sleep, replied “by virtue of its dormative faculty.” As Nietzsche remarked, such answers belong in comedy.

I will suggest a alternative reading that distinguishes between Jesus the person, and Christ the symbol.

With respect to the literal, historical truth, the evidence strongly indicates that a man named Jesus taught in Galilee during the time of Pontius Pilate, and he was executed for sedition. His ministry was probably something along the lines of the teaching we get in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – an eschatological teaching of the Essene variety.

That is, his primary message was probably something along the lines of “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” (Matthew 3:2). Like many Jewish teachers in Judea in his day, he appears to have believed that a literal end of history was coming soon, and that the dead would experience bodily resurrection right here on earth, similar to the teaching of the Zoroaster.

In the meantime, before the end of days, Jesus appears to have affirmed the Old Testament injunctions to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” (Deut 6:5) and to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” (Lev 19:18).

White Crucifixion (detail)
Marc Chagall
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

Now, sometime after the death of Jesus, certain of his followers began to hold the story of his death and resurrection as primary. John and Paul taught that Christ’s resurrection signified atonement for all who would choose to believe in him. This is a completely different teaching that is virtually undetectable in the earlier gospels.

The message of redemption through belief in the resurrection of a God was by no means new. Countless regional variations of this mystery had existed throughout the Mediterranean for centuries, including the cults of Tammuz, Osiris, Attis, and Dionysus. Important elements of this aspect of Christianity are demonstrably drawn from the Demeter rites at Eleusis as well, along with the cults of Isis, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism.

When we evoke the possibility of redemption through the spiritual affirmation of the resurrection of a dying God, we are talking about a religious symbol of great antiquity and wide distribution. As rational people, we simply must look at the abundance of cognate symbols in the region, and make some kind of sense of what that implies for the nature of the story of the Gospels.

This is not to say that the religious symbol of Christ is not important or powerful – on the contrary, its wide distribution is testimony to the degree to which it is valued by those to whom it speaks. But the fact of the matter is that Christ, taken as the third persona of a triune Deity, is a symbol. The person Jesus is not the same as thing as the Son of Man, attendant upon the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:13-14), and he is not the same kind of thing. To try to interpret the symbol as a fact is to miss its meaning.

What, then, is its meaning?

I would personally submit that the ultimate meaning of the Christ symbol, as with any religious symbol, consists in the living response that it evokes in the human heart, whatever that might be.

In the next post in this series, we will look at Christ as a religious symbol in the context of another place where orthodox doctrine in the Western Christian Church really missed the boat – the dispute between Augustine and Pelagius over the doctrine of Original Sin.

1) “The Acts of Thomas.” fr Barnstone W. The Other Bible. HarperCollins. 1984. p. 465
2) Berkey JP. The Formation of Islam. Cambridge University Press. 2033. pp. 45-6
3) Arberry AJ. (trans.) The Koran Interpreted; A Translation. Touchstone Books. 1955. 5.115. pg. 147
4) Gonzalez JL. The Story of Christianity; Volume I. HarperCollins. 2010. pg. 301


Written by Mesocosm

March 25, 2012 at 11:13 am

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