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The Trinitarian/Christology Controversies

"Hermits tried to keep aloof from the religious controversies and heresy-hunting of the fourth century. They preferred seeking closer contact with God to nitpicking over the precise nature of the Trinity. Yet one debate over God's nature exploded at the end of the century. Was God a spirit or a physical being?"...History and Hermits - The Desert Fathers of Egypt by Derek Bickerton
On the streets of Alexandria, Egypt, in the 4th century, you might be asked, homoousios" or "homoiousia"? It would be no exaggeration to say that your life at that moment may have depended upon a theologically and politically correct answer which would, of course, be "homoousios".

If you were a native Alexandrian, you would likely know the answer. However, a new comer to the city, likely arriving by ship, you would have been well served by the ship's captain who might be knowledgeable enough to warn you before you set foot on land. Such was the power of the early Church in the 4th century.

The problem with attempting to clarify, clarifying being little more than gross theological speculation, and then promulgating religious dogma based on that speculation, as in the case of the early Church fathers attempting to describe the nature of God, something that can not be proven as fact, but must be taken on "faith", is that someone will always question it or take an opposite position.

We need only look at the three Abrahamic religions (those monotheistic faiths emphasizing and tracing their common origins to Abraham),Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to realize how inflexible religious doctrine can cause human suffering and loss of life.

Thus one question will always remain: Who is really right? Perhaps the best answer is: In the end, it does not really matter because it is all words of men and is only speculation anyway.

The remarkable thing about the desert fathers, following their own spritual path before the early Church became organized and eventually took control of the Egyptian monasteries, was that the monks practiced their own individualized spirituality without a cloak of dogma or interference from the organized Church. And it appears from their sayings that they were remarkably successful in their efforts to experience communion with the Divine.

Unfortunately as the early Church fathers began formulating and structuring doctrine that was very specific in describing what beliefs concerning the nature of God constitute a "true" Christian and imposing those specific beliefs on the monasteries during the 4th century led to dissension among the Neoplatonic monks educated in the Alexandrine schools and the uneducated monks. Eventually the worldly politics of theological speculation invaded the cloistered world of the desert fathers.

Around this time (4th century) a new definition for the word "heresy" emerged. Traditionally up to that time heresy meant a choice or opinion, but as a Christian orthodox position (or "true belief") was established, heresy eventually came to mean an incorrect theological belief. Anything not Orthodox Christian was pagan. From the Orthodox Christian viewpoint, there was no middle ground. Anyone, monks included, not "Christian" in the emerging orthodox sense were heretics and became targets for persecution.

Ironically an individual on a most devout spiritual path leading to communion with the Divine, could be a heretic in the eyes of orthodox Christianity if they did not profess the true belief, leading one to wonder if perhaps even God, himself, could be a heretic!

Sadly, the monks became sharply divided leading to open hostilities. Those monks who were unwilling to accept or adapt to early Church doctrines concerning the precise nature of the Divine were banished from the monasteries in Egypt in what became known as the "Trinitarian controversies" and later the Christological Controversies.

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