Bad Santa: It Must Lead to Obedience

nikolausOn Christmas day (2014) I was engaged in a conversation inspired by the third-century born Nicholas or if you must “Saint Nicholas” who became the Bishop of Myra in Lycia (modern day Turkey). Nicholas was the archetype for the present-day notion of “Santa Claus” supposedly because of all the “good deeds” towards children he performed throughout his life. Well every year around this time (Christmas) people post the following meme.

stnick

Well the history behind it is that during the time of the Nicean Ecumenical Council of 325 which dealt with the nature of Jesus in relation to the Father. Nicholas was anti-Arian and proponent of what is known at present as “the Orthodox Christian position” thus Nicholas was one of the signatories of the Nicean Creed.  As the memes indicate supposedly at some point Nicholas physically struck Arius because of his beliefs. nsp

I find it ironic that the man who supposedly was defending the nature of Christ physically assaulted someone he most likely viewed as an enemy. Yet Jesus taught:

 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.[1]

In essence we had the very one that believed he understood Christ upset about people not understanding Christ appropriately to the point of physically assaulting them but in light of Jesus’ words above apparently Nicholas was the one that did not understand Jesus. The following is not an argument for or against the truthfulness of Nicean Christology but it is a case for practical theology. One needs to ask does defending and knowing the Nicean Creed makes one more obedient. Can an Arian obey Christ’s words concerning nonresistance or because they lack an understanding of the Trinity they cannot forgo physically harming others? The natural response to this is that Trinitarian theology does not give a person an edge on being obedient. The following material will demonstrate how the Swiss Brethren prioritized matters.

In the year 1571 a group of Reformed theologians in Frankenthal, Palatinate, Germany invited some leaders of the Swiss Brethren branch of Anabaptism to engage in what is known as the Frankenthal Disputation. It was a series of intensive theological discussions that took place over a number of days. Looking back at this disputation provides a means to examine the second generation of Swiss Brethren’s comprehension of certain issues related to “doctrine”. Historian Arnold Snyder provides us with an account of what was stated during that event. All the areas discussed will not be presented here. I want to zoom in on is the Swiss Brethren’s response when the discussion addressed the Trinity.

Arnold Snyder tells us the Reformed theologians asked the Swiss Brethren to articulate their understanding of “person” and “hypostases” as these terms relate to God and the Trinity.  The Swiss Brethren replied “with simple scripture passages or with statements denying their qualifications for pronouncing on such lofty or deep matters as the actual nature of the Godhead.” [2] Eventually after “some lengthy sessions, the end result was that the Swiss Brethren managed to demonstrate to the Reformed that they were orthodox trinitarian believers. As Rauff Bisch stated early in the debate, “We confess that these three (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are one, as John says.”[3] Now the next aspects of the account is the heart of what I am trying to argue overall. The Swiss Brethren explains the reason for their reservations regarding any discussion of the Trinity or God’s nature to begin with. One of the brothers said “We would much rather teach our Christian people to fear God and to love their neighbors, rather than dealing with such difficult matters concerning which we have no command.”[4]

Not too many years following the debate an unnamed member of the Swiss Brethren took a copy of the minutes of the debate and added additional commentary to the text fleshing out the Swiss Brethren’s thoughts and arguments. Regarding the section mentioned previously on the Trinity the author whom Snyder designate as “Q1” is documented as saying “Knowledge of God . . . is necessary for salvation (Jn. 17), and so it is necessary to clarify the meaning of the article on the Trinity. Nevertheless, describing the Trinity in proper words is of little account; rather, “He who says he knows God, and does not keep His commandments is a liar . . . Therefore, whoever wishes to gain knowledge of the Trinity will submit to [God] in obedience.”[5] In traditional Swiss Brethren fashion the focus is on obedience and not theology.

Finally Q1 says something that puts “Saint Nicholas” and those that think like him in the proper perspective. Q1 writes: “Truly a simple peasant, or a humble lay person who serves God, is better than a puffed up little scholar who is immersed and drowned in many arts and completely mired in himself.”[6] Snyder explains that by the aforementioned statement ultimately the Swiss Brethren and Q1 considered questions such as the ones in the debate “to be speculative, finally beyond the reach of human knowledge and thus of secondary importance”.[7]

The above is a stark contrast with many today that put such a high value on comprehension and articulation of orthodox doctrine such as the Trinity that obedience becomes secondary in importance. Whereas the Swiss Brethren Anabaptists put so much emphasis on obeying Christ that they relegated the so-called standard for Christian acceptance and brotherhood as ordered by Nicea to the ranks of a speculative secondary issue. Therefore what’s the point if whatever it is that you are teaching does not end in right living?

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[1] Matthew 5:43-48

[2] Arnold Snyder, “The (Not-So) “simple Confession” of the Late Sixteenth-Century Swiss Brethren Part II,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 74, no. 1 (2000): 116.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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