‘For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist‘ (2Jn 1:7).
The Church has always been plagued by heresy. It is alluded to numerous times in the New Testament, if not identified by name. St John simply called them ‘deceivers’; St Paul referred to Judaisers as ‘false brethren’ (Gal 2:4); and Jesus Himself warned: ‘For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many‘ (Mt 24:5). The Early Church confronted Gnosticism (Acts 8:9-24), which was itself divided into competing sects, of which one became known as Marcionism, which held to Docetism – denying the virgin birth of Christ, along with His humanity, death and resurrection. And there were the Arians, who denied the eternal pre-existence of Jesus; and the Montanists, who believed the Second Coming and millennial reign of Christ were imminent. This is just a snapshot: a tour of the theological controversies of the first centuries AD is not a topic for a blog post.
There is presently much ado about a group of women clergy in the Church of England who advocate (if not agitate) for God to be referred to by the feminine pronoun. Since God transcends gender, to call Him ‘She’ is not altogether heretical; indeed, it is a whole lot more theologically propitious than calling Him or Her ‘It’. But it does display a certain disrespect for the chosen words of Christ, if not a deficient understanding of the natural paradigm of procreation. If God were not Christ’s Father but His Mother, then Mary is not the Mother of God but His commissioned gestational surrogate. Indeed, if both Mary were mother and God were Mother, the Holy Family combines in a lesbian union of homosexual commingling. Jesus taught believers to pray: ‘Our Father which art in heaven‘ (Mt 6:9). We must reflect very carefully indeed before we catholicise the New Zealand Prayer Book, which teaches:
Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven..
The strength of Christianity is its universal ability to morph to each culture and adapt with the times. But God revealed the Truth in Christ, and Christ is immutably the Son; Θεός ὁ υἱός – the second person in the Trinity. We may cavil over feminist christologies as we grapple with the oppression from which the distressed and dispossessed seek to understand the nature and person of Christ. But patriarchy is not evil: fatherhood is not twisted. A feminist theology which exalts matriarchy and magnifies motherhood to the diminishment of patriarchy and fatherhood is one which fails to grasp either the equality of the sexes or the image of God. If the Church of Jesus Christ has for centuries perpetuated some egregious inequalities (and it has), wounds are not healed and souls are not edified by insensitive emancipatory notions of God the Mother.
But just as it was with the Early Church, theological disputes are blurred by social and political issues which tend to reflect regional interests and traditions. When the ecumenical councils were convened to agree matters of doctrine and confront heresy, Church and State were intrinsically mixed, and strains within the Church necessarily meant strains within the Empire. At Chalcedon in 451, the two great cities of the Byzantine East, Alexandria and Antioch, stood opposed to one another in their theologies of the person of Christ. On the one side were the ‘orthodox’, who insisted that Christ had two separate natures, human and divine; on the other side were the Monophysites, who argued that Christ had but a single nature, composed of the human and the divine, but tending to emphasise the former. Complicating the theological debate was the loss of the prestige of Rome, a growing sense of national identity in the various parts of the Empire, and the fact that the great Sees were continually in competition with each other. Emperor Marcian had to balance his desire to restore and invigorate an empire with the need to try and preserve unity within the Empire of the East. A uniform Christology offered one solution.
It was not infrequent that the Alexandrians charged the Antiocheans as being those who ‘divide the Christ’. This assists in understanding the Antiocheans’ hesitation to adopt the term theotokos, for such implied, to them, a misunderstanding of the nature of Christ. Mary did not give birth to Christ’s divine nature, only to his human. To call her the ‘Mother of God’ was to confuse the two, and to do injustice to both.
In a sense, the Church is back at Chalcedon. Not, this time, disputing the human-divine nature of Christ which led eventually to the Great Schism of 1054, but arguing over matters of human gender and sexual identity. They are the contentious obsessions of the age, but neither impinges upon theological fundamentals or soteriological precepts. They serve only to empty the pews of the traditionalists, conservatives and orthodox, thereby sacrificing half of the via media on the altar of a postmodern Molech.