Friday, December 23, 2016

A Theological Anniversary

Four-hundred forty-four years ago today, on 23 December 1572, in the main market square, in front of the Heiligegeistkirche in Heidelberg, a criminal was executed. His crime was particularly heinous.

The ruler of Heidelberg, Friedrich III, was under enormous pressure not to let it go unpunished. The criminal, Johann Sylvanus, had been Superintendent of Ladenburg, a town under Friedrich's jurisdiction, and a member of the clergy. Friedrich III needed to distract attention from his own sins, and making a public example of a criminal like Sylvanus could show that he was tough on crime.

To reinforce the lesson, Sylvanus's children were forced to watch with the rest of the populous as an executioner took off his head with a sword. One simply could not allow such awful crimes to be committed.

Johann Sylvanus's crime was to doubt that the doctrine of the Trinity as propounded in the creeds was found in the Bible. As a matter of fact, it is not. The doctors who propounded it knew that "not one word of it is found in the holy scriptures" (μηδεμιας γουν θεοπνευστου γραφιας) according to Eusebius. Their congregations knew it wasn't either. The doctors had had to explain to their congregations that they should adopt a creed that was not found in the scriptures because the committee had worked hard (Socrates, Ecclesiastical History, I.8), but that was more than a millennium before Sylvanus.

The whole problem of the creeds started one day in Alexandria. It was the big center of intellectuals of the Roman empire with its famous university and large library. One day, the bishop, Alexander, "started theologizing using philosophy" (φιλοσοφων εθεολογει) seeking for his own glory (φιλοτιμοτερον). One of his elders, Arius, a man "not lacking in learning" (αμοιρος διαλεκτικαης λεσχης) preferred someone else's dogma and responded to the bishop out of a desire to win the argument (εκ φιλονεικιας). (Socrates, Ecclesiastical History, I.5) This theologizing started the argument that ended in the creeds, and in Sylvanus's beheading 444 years ago.

In one of those happy coincidences, however, Sylvanus was vindicated. Two-hundred thirty-three years to the day after his death, a prophet was born. God would tell this prophet that "all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors [i.e. those who professed or supported the creeds] were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”" (Joseph Smith—History 1:19).

On this, the 444th anniversary of the martyrdom of Johann Sylvanus, it is useful to know that the product of theology is an abomination in the sight of God. Sylvanus knew at least that it was not scriptural--which Eusebius and everyone else at Nicaea also knew--and for that he gave his life.