The Third Person VIII: The Fall of Rome

St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was the last great intellectual figure of Western Christianity in the Roman Empire. His writings on election and pre-destination, on original sin, on the theory of a just war and on the Trinity had a great influence on the medieval Church, in particular on St Thomas; he also had a great influence on Protestant reformers such as John Wycliffe and John Calvin. Augustine himself was influenced by the 3rd century Greek philosopher Plotinus and the Neoplatonists, influenced to the point where he ascribed to them some awareness of the persons of the Trinity (Confessions VIII.3; City of God X.23).

After the sack of Rome in 410, Augustine wrote his Sermons on the Fall of Rome. In these episcopal lectures, he absolves Christians of any role in bringing about the event that plunged the Western branch of the Empire into the Dark Ages, laying all the blame on the wicked, wicked ways of the pagans. European historians have begged to differ, however. By way of example, in his masterpiece, both of English prose and of scholarship, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the great 18th century English historian Edward Gibbon does indeed blame Christianity for weakening the fiber of the people, hastening the Fall of Rome.

In his work on the Trinity, Augustine followed the Nicean formulation and fulminated against the heretics known as Arians who denied the divinity of Christ. Paradoxically, it was Arian missionaries who first reached many of the tribes of barbarians invading the Empire, among them the Vandals. The Vandal horde swept from Spain Eastward along the North African coast and besieged St. Augustine’s bishopric of Hippo (today Annaba in Algeria). Augustine died during the siege and did not live to see the sack of the city.

By the time of St Augustine, in the Western Church the place of the Holy Spirit in the theology of the Holy Trinity was secured. But in popular culture, the role of the Holy Spirit was minor. Jesus and Mary were always front and center along with God the Father. To complicate matters, there emerged the magnificent doctrine of the Communion of Saints: the belief that all Christians, whether here on Earth, in Purgatory or in Heaven could communicate with one another through prayer. Thus, the faithful could pray to the many saints and martyrs who had already reached Heaven and the latter could intercede with God Himself for those who venerated them .

This is the internet and social media prefigured. The doctrine has other modern echoes in Jung’s Collective Unconscious (an inherited shared store of beliefs and instincts) and in Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere (a collective organism of mind).

The origins of this doctrine are a problem for scholars. Indeed, even the first reference known in Latin to the “Communio sanctorum” is ascribed to Nicetas of Remesiana (ca. 335–414), a bishop from an outpost of the Empire on the Danube in modern day Serbia who included it in his Instructions for Candidates for Baptism. Eventually, though, the doctrine made its way into the Greek and Latin versions of the Apostles Creed.

The wording “I believe … in the Communion of Saints” in the Apostles Creed is now a bedrock statement of Christian belief. However, this doctrine was not part of the Old Roman Creed, the earlier and shorter version of the Apostles Creed that dates from the second and third centuries. It also does not appear in the Nicene Creed. The earliest references to the Apostles Creed itself date from 390 and the earliest extant texts referencing the Communion of Saints are later still.

One school of thought is that the doctrine evolved from St Paul’s teaching that Christ and His Christians form a single mystical body (Romans 12.4-13, 1 Corinthians 12). Another candidate is this passage in the Book of Revelation 5.8 where the prayers of the faithful are collected in Heaven:

      And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people.

For an illustration from the Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry of St John imagining this scene as he wrote the Book of Revelation on the Ile of Patmos, click HERE .

The naïve view is that the doctrine of the Communion of Saints came from the ground up, from nascent folk Christianity where it helped to wean new converts from their native polytheism. Indeed, as Christianity spread, canonization of saints was a mechanism for absorbing local religious traditions and for making local martyrs and saintly figures recognized members of the Church Triumphant.

With the doctrine of the Communion of Saints, the saints in heaven could intercede for individual Christians with the Godhead; devotion to them developed, complete with hagiographic literature and a rich iconography. Thus, the most celebrated works of Christian art depict saints. Moreover, special devotions have grown up around popular patron saints such as Anthony (patron of lost objects), Jude (patron of hopeless cases), Jean-François Rėgis (patron of lacemakers), Patrick (patron of an island nation), Joan of Arc (patron of a continental nation), … .

The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, pops up in paintings as a dove here and there, at best taking a minor part next to John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth or next to the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel. This stands in contrast with the Shekinah, the Jewish precursor of the Holy Spirit, who plays an important role in the Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism.

There is one area of Christianity today, however, where the Holy Spirit is accorded due importance: Pentecostal and Charismatic churches; indeed, the very word Pentecostal is derived from the feast of Pentecost where the Holy Spirit and tongues of fire inspired the apostles to speak in tongues. In these churches, direct personal experience of God is reached through the Holy Spirit and His power to inspire prophecy and insight. In the New Testament, it is written that prophecy is in the domain of the Holy Spirit – to cite 2 Peter 1:21 :

      For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit.

Speaking of prophecy, the Holy Spirit is not mentioned in the Book of Revelation which is most surprising since one would think that apocalyptic prophesy would naturally be associated with the Holy Spirit. For some, this is one more reason that the Council of the Rome (382) under St Pope Damasus I should have thought twice before including the Book of Revelation in the canon. There are other reasons too.

Tertullian, the Father of Western Theology, is not a saint of the Catholic Church – he defended a Charismatic-Pentecostal approach to Christianity, Montanism, which was branded a heresy. This sect had three founders, Montanus and the two sibyls, Priscilla and Maximilla; the sybils would prophesy when the Holy Spirit entered their bodies. Alas, there are no classical statues or Renaissance paintings honoring Priscilla and Maximilla; instead the Church treated them as “seductresses” who, according to Eusebius’ authoritative, 4th century Church History, “left their husbands the moment they were filled with the spirit.” No wonder then that Eusebius is known as the Father of Church History.

While we have no masterpieces depicting Priscilla or Maximilla, for a painting of the Sybil at Delphi, click HERE .

For Tertullian and the Montanists, the Holy Spirit was sent by God the Son to continue the revelation through prophecy. Though steeped in Greek rationalism, Tertullian insisted on the distinction between faith and reason, on the fact that faith required an extra magical step: “I believe because it is absurd” – bolder even than Pascal. He broke with the main body of the Church saying that the role given to the Holy Spirit was too narrow – a position shared by Pentecostal Christians today. In fact, the Holy Spirit is key to Pentecostalism where the faithful are inspired with “Holy Ghost fire” and become “drunk on the Holy Spirit.” Given that this is the only branch of Western Christianity that is growing now as the others recede, it looks as though Tertullian was insightful and should have been listened to more carefully. Perhaps, it is a good time now for the Church of Rome to bring up the subject of his canonization almost two millennia later. Doing so today would go some way toward restoring the Holy Spirit to a rightful place in Christianity, aligning the Holy Spirit’s role with that of the continuing importance of the Shekinah in the Jewish tradition and restoring the spirit of early Christianity.

One thought on “The Third Person VIII: The Fall of Rome

  1. Early on in my life as a Catholic I could recite well what the Church held about the Mystical Body; yet I still took it as a symbol/allegory of some kind. And then, in the time of my walking from the Church, I experienced that Body in a most tangible way… which sent me straightway to the Philosophies of the East and Pantheism, including later into the eclectic NewAge; THAT God-IS-All was the answer. Yet another dramatic encounter with it– a Damascus Rd level experience– displaying how that Mystical Body “works” sent me running back to the Church, plumbing its truths ever more deeply, now for some 3 decades.

    My own activities in various venues ways, seeking to understand what “makes us human,” led me to parallels– true and clear, while remaining mysteries– between the body-soul that is man and the Organization-Spirit that is The Church, the Bride of Christ also in its relationship as archetype to its human type, all other roles notwithstanding.

    I have never thought that The Spirit was not getting His fair shake of attention today, but maybe so; rather, I see the whole Trinity lost to increasing numbers of the disinterested, Christ being the sorta exception for His having been so reduced from His Transcendent Kingship down to human taste. But if a sainthood for Tertullian (I do not know enough about him to agree or not with the desire for his canonization) will help restore for all some reclaimed belief in a Transcendent Trinity-God, beyond a folksy-Jesus who demands naught, then may it be so. 🙂

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