We continue this week with our series on the Woman of Revelation 12. As we have maintained thus far, the Flood of Revelation 12 is the sudden irruption of error toward the end of the fourth century, which error in practice became known to the world as Roman Catholicism. The flood that emerged from the Serpent’s mouth was nothing else than the sudden step-wise emergence and nearly universal acceptance of Roman Catholic doctrines beginning at the end of the fourth century. In our pursuit of the Woman of Revelation 12, we seek out those late fourth century saints who resisted the flood of error, and escaped from it.
Last week we discussed Jovinianus, Auxentius, Genialis, Germinator, Felix, Prontinus, Martianus, Januarius, Ingeniosus, Vigilantius, Sarmatio and Barbatianus who were all excommunicated or similarly condemned for maintaining “the new heresy and blasphemy” that the virgin, the widow and the wife—being all members of the same church—were loved equally by their Lord and Savior. Such a teaching was not to be tolerated, and the reaction was both histrionic and swift.
Their sentences of excommunication were grounded on the novelties introduced by Jerome and Ambrose who had insisted that Jesus “loves virgins more than others” (Jerome, Against Jovinianus, Book I, chapter 12), and (in plain contradiction of 1 Timothy 5:14), that young widows and virgins ought not marry and bear children (Ambrose, Epistle 63, paragraph 22). Men like Jovinianus had simply rejected as unscriptural the new triple hierarchy of merit and the teaching that the wages of chastity were everlasting life. For daring to preach out loud the doctrines of the apostles, these men were condemned and expelled.
We turn this week to another novelty of the late fourth century—the emergence of the bishop as an instrument of the state, and the beginnings of the episcopal exercise of civil power. In the latter part of the century, the role of the bishop was transformed into an office of considerable political power under the auspices of caring for the poor. The poor of that time comprised a significant segment of the populace, and when the emperor began to assign to the bishops the distribution of state goods to the lower class, the bishop began to wield inordinate influence with the emperor and power over the people.
Peter Brown, in his 1988 historical lectures at the University of Madison, observed this striking transition in the power of a bishop in the waning years of that century. “As a protector of the poor, the Christian bishop had achieved an unexpected measure of public prominence by the last decade of the fourth century” (Peter Brown, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity (University of Wisconsin (1992) 103). But as he notes, “love of the poor” by then had become but a euphemism, a cloak under which the bishops aggregated power quite beyond the Scriptural exhortations of charity:
“The theme of ‘love of the poor’ exercised a gravitational pull quite disproportionate to the actual workings of Christian charity in the fourth century. It drew into its orbit the two closely related issues of who, in fact, were the most effective protectors and pacifiers of the lower classes of the cities and of how wealth was best spent by the rich within the city. Both themes went far beyond the narrow limits of the church’s traditional, somewhat inward-looking concern for the poor.” (Brown, 78)
Under emperor Constantine, the church began to be viewed as a conduit for distributing the largess of the state, although early in the process the attendant obligations of that function were considered an imposition rather than an honor. The emperor had decreed that all funerals be administered by the Church, and established that all revenues for the services be paid directly to the church, tax free ( S. P. Scott, The Civil Law, vol XVI, (Cincinnati, 1932) Enactments of Justinian, Novel 59). Constantine had sent grain to the church in Alexandria “for the support of certain widows” and “abundant provision for the necessities of the poor” to the church in Heliopolis. Though born of good intention, the actions were interpreted as a “trouble” and a “pretense” to the earlier Christian writers (Athanasius, Apologia Contra Arianos, Part 1, Chapter 1, paragraph 18; Eusebius, Life of Constantine, Book III, Chapter 58). To distribute the wealth and resources of the state was a halting attempt to respect and submit to the wishes of a king in accordance with 1 Peter 2:17, but was by no means considered a scriptural obligation attached to the bishop’s office. It could not end well.
It did not take long for those who became entangled in the state welfare function to realize just how influential and wealthy they could become by performing this service on behalf of the emperor. George of Alexandria had used his position to corner the market on funerals, and “made a profit on every corpse that was buried” (Epiphanius, Panarion 3.1.76, 1.5-6). The churches became distribution centers where the poor of the city gathered to receive their daily provisions from the hands of the bishop, and the bishop thus aggregated to himself a considerable following in the city:
“Attracted to such [distribution] centers, the poor rapidly came to be mobilized as part of the ‘symbolic retinue’ of the bishop. Their presence in the bishop’s following, along with that of monks and consecrated virgins, symbolized the unique texture of the bishop’s power. … On the great feasts of the year, the poor were put on view, through processions and solemn banquets. … These occasions may not, in fact, have significantly alleviated the state of the poor, but they carried a clear emotional message that was closely watched by contemporaries. … By being made visible, the poor were also made amenable to control.” (Brown, 97)
Control, rather than charity, was the effect of the bishops becoming “lovers of the poor” and administrators of the civil welfare state. “The poor” had been elevated to a political demographic, and as a crowd, could be mobilized to do the bishop’s bidding. The bishop, Ambrose wrote, could calm “disturbances,” but could incite them, as well, if “moved by some offense against God, or insult to the Church” (Ambrose, Epistle 40, paragraph 6). The three so called “Petrine Sees” of Alexandria, Antioch and Rome became the chief exemplars of this new civil prominence and power exercised by the bishops and their henchmen. By his ostensible “care for the poor,” each of these bishops had surrounded himself with a veritable “urban militia” that could do his bidding. By the latter part of the fourth century, that influence began to be wielded as a sword:
“While the patriarch of Alexandria became notorious for his use of such groups, he was by no means alone. The patriarch of Antioch also commanded a threatening body of lecticarii, pallbearers for the burial of the urban poor. The extensive development of the underground cemeteries of the Christian community in Rome, the famous catacombs, from the early third century onwards, placed at the disposal of the bishop a team of fossores, grave diggers skilled in excavating the tufa rock, as strong and as pugnacious as were the legendary Durham coal miners who intervened in the rowdy elections of the nineteenth century. During the disputed election in which Damasus became bishop of Rome in 366, the fossores played a prominent role in a series of murderous assaults on the supporters of his rival. Throughout the empire, the personnel associated with the bishop’s care of the poor had become a virtual urban militia.” (Brown, 103)
These bishops, who claimed to represent Him “who went about doing good” (Acts 10:38), had become little more than an arm of the state. They were shepherds of a politically expedient urban demographic instead of shepherds of the fold of God as Paul and Peter had instructed (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2-3). Indeed, the noble bishop of the apostolic era (1 Timothy 3:1) had morphed into a civil servant, each one serving as the de facto mayor of his Roman township, determining how the rich spent their money, and how the poor received theirs. Heretics were no longer just being removed from the Christian community (ex communicare) for their offenses, but were being kicked out of town (ex civitate) for them:
“Now, in the later fourth and early fifth centuries, Christian churches were being built inside … city walls, and people who did not fit into Christian communities were excluded outside them.” (Raymond Van Dam, Leadership and Community in Late Antique Gaul (University of California, 1985) 68)
Augustine, bishop of Hippo, reporting on his handling of an accused deacon, explained that he had rejected the deacon’s ostensibly deceitful request to be taken back, and removed him from the city by force (“coercitum pellendum de civitate,” Augustine, Epistle 236, paragraph 3, Migne, Patrologia Latina, vol. 33).
Never in Scriptures had the bishops ever been endowed with such civil authority as to throw people out of town, much less by force of arms. Yet by the end of the fourth century, such actions by bishops were commonplace as the episcopate was forged into a new civil power. As Brown noted, the office of bishop “had achieved an unexpected measure of public prominence” (Brown, 103), and the “shepherds” who occupied the office had learned to wield it well. The wealth of the state flowed through the hands of the bishops, before whom the people of the city gathered at the doors of the church to receive their daily bread. The urban poor became part of the “symbolic retinue” of the bishop, some of whom began to serve in his “urban militia.” In the eyes of the world, the bishop had become just another player on the world stage, leveraging an urban demographic for political influence and wielding the “unique texture” of his power to achieve his political ends—all in the name of caring for the sick and the poor.
In the midst of this episcopal chaos, Ærius of Sebaste dared to raise an emphatic objection. He had been working with the bishop, Eustathius, to care for the needs of “the crippled and infirm” (Epiphanius, Panarion 3.1.75, 1.7), but was disturbed that the bishop had “turned to the acquisition of wealth, and all sorts of property” (3.1.75, 2.2-3). Epiphanius in turn criticized Ærius and defended the bishop, not by denying the charges, but by explaining that the bishop was only doing his duty, and “could not do otherwise” (3.1.75, 2.2-3). Apparently, this was the new normal, and Ærius simply needed to adapt to it.
In his criticism of Ærius, Epiphanius was as vitriolic and unhinged as Jerome had been with Jovinianus and Vigilantius, and Ambrose had been with Sarmatio and Barbatianus. Ærius was “a person with cracked brains” (3.1.75, 1.1), and was no more than “a dung or blister-beetle,” or a “bug” (3.1.75, 8.4). “[H]is teaching was more insane than is humanly possible” (3.1.75, 3.3). From this description, we expected to find Ærius advocating bestiality, idolatry, child sacrifice, polytheism, Arianism or demon worship. Instead, what we find is a simple objection from the Scriptures against the transformation of the bishopric: was the office of bishop really supposed to be so different from the office of presbyter?:
“[H]e says, ‘What is a bishop compared with a presbyter? The one is no different from the other. There is one order,’ he said, ‘and one honor and one rank. A bishop lays on hands,’ he said, ‘but so does a presbyter. The bishop administers baptism, and the presbyter does too. The bishop performs the eucharistic liturgy, the presbyter likewise. A bishop occupies the throne, and the presbyter also occupies one.’ With this he misled many, who regarded him as their leader. … For his own and his hearers’ deception he alleges that the apostle writes to ‘presbyters and deacons’ and not to bishops, and tells the bishop, ‘Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which thou didst receive at the hands of the presbytery;’ and again, elsewhere he writes ‘to bishops and deacons’ so that, as Aerius says, bishops and presbyters are the same.” (Epiphanius, Panarion 3.1.75, 3.3)
Note that Epiphanius struggled to compile a coherent indictment of Ærius, accusing him both of denying and affirming that Paul wrote to bishops. Unable to defeat Ærius’ Scriptural arguments, Epiphanius resorted to the old Roman Catholic standby—development of doctrine—as a reason for the sudden secularization of the bishopric. In the process he inadvertently acquitted Ærius of the charge of inventing “a monstrous fictitious doctrine” (Epiphanius, Panarion 3.1.75, 1.4). In his reading of what “the apostle wrote,” Epiphanius all but conceded that Ærius was actually correct, but that the apostle’s instructions had gone out of style, and his teachings no longer applied:
“And [Ærius], as not knowing the true order of events, and not having read the most searching investigations, does not realize that the holy apostle wrote about the problems which arose when the Gospel was new. Where bishops were already consecrated he wrote to bishops and deacons, for the apostles could not establish everything at once. … This is what local churches were like at that time. All did not get each thing at the start, but what was needed was arranged for as time went on. … Thus the things the apostle wrote applied until the church expanded, achieved its full growth…” (Epiphanius, Panarion 3.1.75, 4.5, 5.7)
Paul’s teachings did not apply any more. Things were different now, Epiphanius insisted, and we must rely on tradition rather than the written instructions of the apostle:
“The church is bound to keep this custom because she has received a tradition from the fathers. … the Only-begotten and the Holy Spirit taught both in writing and in unwritten form. … Now since these precepts have been ordained in the church, and are suitable, and all of them marvelous, this fraud is confounded in his turn.” (Epiphanius, Panarion 3.1.75, 8)
We can hardly object to Ærius’ questions. He was hardly the monstrosity and imbecile he was made out to be, and Epiphanius’ counterargument against him is tottering and implausible. In view of the transformation of the episcopal office taking place in the latter part of the 4th century, Ærius knew something was going terribly wrong, and dared to speak out against it. The apostles had used both terms—presbyter and bishop—to describe their own offices (Acts 1:20; 2 John 1; 3 John 1). Paul had written both to bishops and to deacons (Philippians 1:1) and also “had ordained them elders (presbuteros) in every church” (Acts 14:23). When Paul had final instructions for the Ephesian church, he summoned the elders (presbuteros) (Acts 20:17) and informed them that God had made them bishops (episkopos) over the flock (Acts 20:28). Thus, in Ærius’ eyes, the apostolic commendations and descriptions of the offices could by no means account for the sudden increase in the wealth, power and property of the bishops occurring in his day. He argued from the Scriptures, and Epiphanius berated him with tradition and ad hominem arguments.
For his objections, Ærius “was driven from the churches” and “often lived out in the snow with his numerous band of followers, and lodged in the open air and caves, and took refuge in the woods” (3.1.75, 3.1-2). He had been excommunicated, and thus kicked out of town altogether.
Epiphanius also accused Ærius of Arianism, saying that “he holds beliefs that are no different, but are like those of Arius,” and that he has “his tongue sharpened and his mouth battle-ready” (Epiphanius, Panarion 3.1.75, 1.3). But for all this, Epiphanius could not produce from Ærius a single statement tainted with Arianism, and instead suggested that Ærius’ affirmation of the Niæan canons must have been insincere (Epiphanius, Panarion 3.1.75, 3.2). Had Ærius been guilty of such heresy, we are sure Epiphanius would have substantiated the accusation, so eager was he to destroy the “dung beetle.”
In the end, all Epiphanius could do was defend Eustathius’ behavior in view of the current practices and size of the church, and override with tradition Ærius’ appeal to the Scriptures because Paul’s writings had not taken into account the future state of the church. Those arguments form a pretty thin foundation for Ephiphanius’ condemnation of Ærius.
Because of his Scriptural arguments and resistance to novelties, it is no wonder that Ærius, with Jovinianus and Vigilantius, is accused of being an early Protestant. As The Protestant Theological and Ecclesiastical Encyclopedia explains,
“Against the principles maintained by Aerius and his adherents nothing can be said from the stand-point of Protestantism, on which account Protestants are frequently accused of the Aerian heresy.” (Johann Jakob Herzog, The Protestant Theological and Ecclesiastical Encyclopedia, Vol I (Philadelphia, 1860) 63)
We accept the charge.
As we noted in our previous installment, the rising late 4th century novelties were met by a noble resistance movement that can be traced to the apostles. Ærius was among them, and against what little we have of his writings we can offer no meaningful objection. The so-called Ærian heresy that was ostensibly “more insane than is humanly possible,” and the so-called “new heresy and blasphemy” of Jovinianus and Vigilantius, and the so-called “intoxication of heresy” of Sarmatio and Barbatianus (Ambrose, Epistle 63, paragraph 113), were nothing less than the voice of the Woman, objecting to the flood novelties that were overtaking those who had become stupefied in the grand delusion (2 Thessalonians 2:11). In their error, the detractors ended up making arguments against the Scriptures on the grounds that the tradition of the Church was more authoritative, and that anybody who disagreed with them must have been influenced by demons. The Woman was receiving her nourishment from the Word of God, and thereby withstanding the flood of novelty, while the rest of the world was careening into doctrinal disaster.
We are hardly surprised therefore to find such men separated from the new religion of Roman Catholicism by excommunication. What had been lopped off by excommunication was actually the True Church, and what remained in power when all the dust settled was the Great Apostasy—the Little Horn of Daniel 7, the Beast of Revelation 13, the Man of Sin, the Son of Perdition of 2 Thessalonians 2—or what the world would come to know as Roman Catholicism.
We are not surprised, either, to find John Cardinal Newman identifying these early Protestants for us in his Historical Sketches. They were the early manifestations of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli:
“Where, then, is primitive Protestantism to be found? There is one chance for it, not in the second and third centuries, but in the fourth; I mean in the history of Aerius, Jovinian, and Vigilantius,—men who may be called, by some sort of analogy, the Luther, Calvin, and Zwingle, of the fourth century. And they have been so considered both by Protestants and by their opponents, so covetous, after all, of precedent are innovators, so prepared are Catholics to believe that there is nothing new under the sun.” (Newman, Historical Sketches, vol. I, section IV, chapter IV)
As we noted last week, even Roman Catholic historian, David Hunter, recognized that it was not Jovinianus who was the innovator, but his detractors. Jovinianus, he conceded, “stood much closer to the centre of the Christian tradition than previous critics have recognized,” and his detractors, Jerome and Ambrose, “represented the survival of the ancient encratite” heresy (Hunter, David G., Marriage, Celibacy and Heresy in Ancient Christianity (Oxford University Press (2007) 285).
In response to Newman’s accusation that Protestants are “covetous … of precedent,” we simply say that there is no organization on earth so bereft of—and therefore more covetous of—precedent than the Roman Catholic religion. By Newman’s own admission, he was compelled to rely on late 4th century novelties in order to extrapolate from them an imagined apostolic continuity. In his essay On the Development of Christian Doctrine, he resorted to “the clear light of the fourth and fifth centuries” to interpret the preceding era (Newman, On the Development of Christian Doctrine, Chapter 4, Section 3), so pressed was he to explain the “want of accord between the early and the late aspects of Christianity” (Newman, On the Development of Christian Doctrine, Introduction). But as we showed in Longing for Nicæa, Roman Catholicism has a hard time getting even as far back as the early 4th century, much less to the ante-Nicæan era.
Like Ambrose, Jerome and Epiphanius, Newman characterized the objections of Ærius, Jovinianus and Vigilantius as personal complaints by men who were offended at being deprived of sexual pleasures and worldly enticements. “[I]n the case of each of the three, … their respective protests seem to have arisen from some personal motive,” Newman asserted:
“Aerius is expressly declared by Epiphanius to have been Eustathius’s competitor for the see of Sebaste, and to have been disgusted at failing. He is the preacher against bishops. Jovinian was bound by a monastic vow, and he protests against fasting and coarse raiment. Vigilantius was a priest; and, therefore, he disapproves the celibacy of the clergy.” (Newman, Historical Sketches, vol. I, section IV, chapter IV, emphasis in original)
Attributing the rising protests to “personal motives” was a poor attempt to detract from the Scriptural arguments these men were putting forth against real novelties that were making headway at the time. Newman’s predecessors had used the same tactic.
Epiphanius could not imagine any other motive for Ærius’ actions than jealousy (Epiphanius, Panarion 3.1.75, 1.5-3.4), and yet in the context of the contemporary changes taking place in the office of the bishop, Ærius’ questions appear to have been based on concern for the office itself, and were grounded in the Scriptures.
Ambrose, for his part, could not imagine that the disciples of Jovinianus had any other aim than to pursue with abandon the sensual pleasures of food and sex (see Ambrose, Epistle 63, paragraph 9). Yet it is clear from their objections that they were appealing to 1 Timothy 4:1-3 regarding marriage and food God “created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth” (see Jerome, Against Jovinianus, Book II, paragraph 16).
Jerome assumed that Jovinianus’ only possible motive in rejecting his novelties was that “he prefers his belly to Christ” (Jerome, Against Jovinianus, Book I, paragraph 40), but tellingly observed that Jovinianus’ arguments were abundantly Scriptural and not “his own lovely flowers of rhetoric” (Jerome, Against Jovinianus, Book I, paragraph 1).
Jerome likewise insisted that Vigilantius’ only concern was that fasting and continence, if generally embraced, would cut off his revenue stream at the tavern (Jerome, Against Vigilantius, paragraph 13).
Yet Vigilantius expressed a much different, and very reasonable motive, for his objections: “Under the cloak of religion we see what is all but a heathen ceremony introduced into the churches” (Jerome, Against Vigilantius, paragraph 4). He, like his colleagues, was protesting against the flood of novelties sweeping through the church.
The real story behind these men is not a “personal motive” at all, something even Newman must have recognized, for each one of them argued against not one, but manifold, errors. Ærius, after all, was not only “against bishops,” but against celebrating the Jewish passover, praying for the dead, purgatory, and mandatory days for fasting:
“‘What is the Passover you celebrate? You are giving your allegiance to Jewish fables again. We have no business celebrating the Passover,’ he says; ‘Christ was sacrificed for our Passover.'” (Epiphanius, Panarion 3.1.75, 3.4)
“‘Why do you mention the names of the dead after their deaths (i.e., in the liturgy)? If the living prays or has given alms, how will this benefit the dead? If the prayer of the people here has benefited the people there, no one should practice piety or perform good works! He should get some friends any way he wants, either by bribery or by asking friends on his death bed, and they should pray that he may not suffer in the next life, or be held to account for his heinous sins.” (Epiphanius, Panarion 3.1.75, 3.5)
“‘And there can be no set time for fasting,’ he says. ‘These are Jewish customs, and ‘under a yoke of bondage. ‘The Law is not made for the righteous, but for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers and the rest. If I choose to fast at all, I shall fast of my own accord, on the day of my choice, because of my liberty.'” (Epiphanius, Panarion 3.1.75, 3.6)
In view of the contemporary transformation of the Lord’s Supper into a sacrifice, we can hardly object to Ærius’ sentiment on the Passover. Regarding his objection to prayers for the dead, and his implicit rejection of purgatory, we stand in solidarity with him. Regarding the liberty of fasting according to one’s own conscience rather than by the imposition of an ecclesiastical rule, we join with him in his objections.
Early Protestants, indeed. The real story is that the general apostasy of which Paul had warned was now under way, and as John had foreseen, the preservation of the Woman by the Word of God was under way as well.
The novelties against which the Woman protested were cropping up on every side. Ærius had attracted “a throng of people” and allegedly “deceived and perverted many” with his teachings (Epiphanius, Panarion 3.1.75, 1.3-4). When he left, “he took a large body of men and women with him” (Epiphanius, Panarion 3.1.75, 3.1). Vigilantius, as Jerome reported, left in unexplained haste (Jerome, Epistle 58, paragraph 11) and had influence in “all those provinces where numbers plead freely and openly for your sect” (Jerome, Epistle 61, paragraph 1). He successfully “makes his raids upon the churches of Gaul,” Jerome complained, and was actively supported there (Jerome, Against Vigilantius, paragraph 4). Jovinianus, too, was not short of followers, as Pope Siricius (Letter to the Church at Milan), and Ambrose (Epistle 63, paragraph 7) make clear, all of whom were condemned or excommunicated with him.
Our point is not that the sheer numbers of early Protestants can in any way prove the authenticity of the movement, but rather that the historical records contain evidence of an exodus of Protestants, just when Rome’s novelties were springing up. The significance of this to our examination of Revelation 12 is that John foresaw the Flood of the Serpent terms of rising error, and the Flight of the Woman in the language of Exodus, as we highlighted in part 3.
Newman, while briefly recognizing the early Protestant movement, as quickly dismissed it, and instantly directs our attention elsewhere, since the late 4th century reformation, so he thought, did not amount to much:
“These distinct considerations [of personal motives] are surely quite sufficient to take away our interest in these three Reformers. These men are not an historical clue to a lost primitive creed, more than Origen or Tertullian; and much less do they afford any support to the creed of those moderns who would fain shelter themselves behind them. … It does certainly look as if our search after Protestantism in Antiquity would turn out a simple failure;—whatever Primitive Christianity was or was not, it was not the religion of Luther.” (Newman, Historical Sketches, vol. I, section IV, chapter IV)
But the historical record says otherwise. Not only had a reform movement arisen to resist the mounting novelties, but it was growing and persistent, and endured through what we now call “the Reformation,” which was really a second Reformation, not the first.
We will continue on this theme in our next installment.