Lecture series untangles Church history for young adults

Professor Darrick Taylor explains the thinking, characters and situations behind the First Council of Nicea and the Arian heresy it addressed in his September 30 lecture. (Megan Marley/Key photo)

Megan Marley

What was the role of deaconesses in the early Church? Why do we have clerical celibacy in the Church? What’s the real story behind the Inquisition, the Church’s condemnation of Galileo, why the Protestant reformation occurred and many other often-ambiguous points of Church history?

One history professor in Kansas City offers a free monthly lecture/discussion during the school year for young adults to explain these topics and more.

Dr. Darrick Taylor, adjunct professor of History at Johnson County Community College, started this lecture as a way to help young Catholics learn the who, what, when, where, why and how behind what they believe.

“Fr. Mattingly (the Young Adult Office director) suggested this to me. I was telling him one day I want to do more charitable work, like food kitchen type stuff, and he said: ‘why don’t you teach a class on Church history?’”

“Being Catholic, the history of the Church is so long, it’s so old—and we live in a day and age in which distrust is rampant,” Taylor continued. “Sometimes in life we have reasons to distrust authorities we would otherwise trust; it’s not unnatural, it doesn’t mean you don’t believe, but that you have questions that you’d like to have better answers.”

“I’m a convert to the Catholic faith [from atheism], and I think we have the best answers to questions about God—I think the answers that are often given, to be frank, are not very good. So that is kind of why I wanted to teach this course: that yes, there are historical reasons for X, Y and Z, it’s not just because somebody in authority said so one day.”

Topics for the 2019-2020 school year range from Arian heresy to the Latin-Byzantine Schism to Humanae Vitae. Taylor’s September 30 lecture focused on the First Council of Nicea and its resulting Nicene Creed, which is recited today at every Mass.

“Why do we recite a Creed? What is a Creed? It’s a symbol of what we believe…Why is this a controversial topic?”

“It’s controversial because some people deny the truth of it; there are non-Trinitarian Christians, who don’t believe in the Trinity (e.g. Jehovah’s Witness, Christian Scientists, Unitarians, etc.), there are other monotheistic faiths that don’t accept the Trinity (e.g. Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, etc.). This is also something of a historical controversy for a variety of reasons.”

Taylor explained that certain biblical passages, as well as the writings of Early Church Fathers and even secular sources point toward early Christian belief in Christ’s divinity and the Trinity. Logical explanation of Christian belief became particularly important when encountering the precise logic and terms of Greek philosophy.

“For the Greeks, divinity is pure spirit, there can’t be any crossing boundaries from spirit to matter, that just doesn’t make sense—God can’t have a body,” Taylor said.

“A lot of this (Council) has to do with reconciling these tensions within Christian belief: having one God, and the appearance of these three Persons in the Bible—how can you reconcile that? How can you reconcile humanity with divinity? How do you reconcile plurality with unity? This is a philosophical problem…but basically in terms of their actual worship, they were worshiping the One-in-Three in an unreflective Faith.”

Even before the Council there was some development of baptismal formulae, ‘rules of Faith’ and creeds within local churches.

“Essentially, all creeds were local ones before the Council of Nicea—they were mostly for those needing to be educated in the Faith: Catechumens,” Taylor explained. “What makes the Nicene Creed different is that for the first time, our creed is going to be developed not for Catechumens but for bishops…more and more as the Church grows, they’re come to the realization that people are holding beliefs that are not compatible with each other and so you’re going to have a need for a more universal standard of orthodoxy.”

Through the 313 Edict of Milan by Constantine, emperor of the western half of the Roman Empire, Christianity received legal status to be practiced openly. By the time Constantine defeated his eastern co-emperor and unified the Empire in 324, doctrinal dispute over the nature of Christ and His relationship to God the Father was causing a disturbance. And just as Constantine would convene the Senate to address matters of State, he convened the Council to reach a consensus of Christian belief.

“Roman emperors had a traditional obligation to safeguard the character of religion in the State. Religion was a matter of public life in ancient Rome…it’s not necessarily the content of your beliefs that they cared about, but the character or kind of religious faith you had,” Taylor explained. “They cared about unity a lot, they didn’t want religions that seemed to threaten the State.”

“He wrote a letter to the bishops at one point saying, ‘you are the bishops who govern the internal affairs of the Church. I am the bishop for external affairs in the Church’. He did see it as something of a divine duty to take care of external matters, he was not so concerned with doctrines…he is concerned with the unity of his Empire.”

The argument essentially had two sides. Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, maintained there was unity between the Father and the Son—that Christ was divine in the same sense/substance as the Father is, co-eternal with the Father, or else He could not be a true Son. He drew this from multiple Scriptures such as ‘the Word was God’ and ‘I and the Father are one’.

The presbyter Arius of Alexandria emphasized the oneness of God the Father, and that His divinity must be greater than the Son—that Christ was created ‘god’ by the Father’s power and before that He did not exist, and that He was the first and most perfect of all God’s creatures. (Side note: Arius used the Scripture quotes ‘the Father is greater than I’ and ‘firstborn of all creation’ to support his argument, but the meanings in the original language and in context of the entire passages are less superficial; the first denotes the difference of Persons within the Trinity and Christ’s humanity in relation, and the second shows Christ as the source of creation with rightful dominion over the world.)

Through debate, the 270-300 bishops gathered at the Council defined that the Son was God, coeternal with and of the same substance as the Father, and crafted the Council’s eponymous creed with a list of anathemas to repudiate Arius’ heretical claims. The rest of the gathering was devoted to more administrative matters, such as when to celebrate Easter and priestly behavior.

Taylor said the legacy of the Council not only defined the doctrine of Christ as the God-Man and what was heresy using logical argument, but also established the binding authority of the Church as an institution to clarify its belief/tradition.

“It makes—I hate to use secular terms—policy for the Church,” he said. “Not everything is exactly clear in the beginning…it takes time and sometimes conflict.”

After two years of being held at Our Lady of Sorrows parish near downtown Kansas City, this year’s lectures will be held at Guardian Angels parish in the Westport area. Classes will generally be held 7-8:30 pm on the last Monday of each month during the school year.

A full list of upcoming topics and dates can be found at churchcontroversies.com; some previous lectures (along with another series called ‘Catholic Lives’) and a freewill donation link can be found on Taylor’s podcast channel ‘Controversies in Church History’.


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November 29, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph