22 NOVEMBER 1963, Page 30


By ALAN BRIEN SCATTERED about my office are pieces of paper torn from a pad—on one side a word, on the other a de- finition. Mostly the words are -isms such as Arian- ism, Adoptianism, Docet- ism, Ebionism, Erastian- ism, Eutychianism, Gnos- ticism, Jansenism, Mani- chaeanism, Monarchian- ism, Monothelitism, Nes- torianism, Pelagianism, Sabellianism. Occasion- ally the term to be defined is a phrase like 'prevenient grace' or 'ontological argument.' Sometimes it is a pair of adjectives like `homoiousios and homoousios.' Now and then, I pick up a paper and read off to myself: 'Ophites—Gnostic sect which worshipped the serpent of paradise because it was the first to rebel against the demiurge who had created our miserable world. H & H.' The letters at the end tell me that the information came from Heresy and Heretics, an orthodox Catholic view put out by Burns and Oates, Publishers to the Holy See.'

Quite likely, I shall then turn to another reference book, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, and add to the entry—`They held the Fall to be a progress from ignorance to knowledge and a positive advantage to mankind. ODCC.' Perhaps I will next note in a post- script 'see Stevenson. pages 105-7, for an Ophite liturgy, also compare Cainites.' Stevenson is a Fellow of Downing who has just brought out a fascinating collection of documents illustrating the history of the Church up to AD 337, A New Eusebius (S.P.C.K., 18s. 6d.). The liturgy is rather baffling in the manner of the Prophetic Books of Blake (who was probably a neo-Ophite) full of characters called Ogdoad, Ialdabaoth and Sabaoth. If the Cainites do not have their own index leaf, I create one with the entry—'Gnostic sect which regarded"the OT God as responsible for all evil in the world and exalted those who withstood him, e.g. Cain, Esau and Korah. Said to have apocryphal gospel of Judas Iscariot. ODCC.' I proceed to check other standard works—such as Be ttenson's newly-revised, 1963 edition of Documents of the Christian Church.

What do I gain by codifying information about forgotten heresies and mapping' out the tangled course of obscure ecclesiastical con- troversies? I have never studied either history or religion in any organised way. Even the terms in the books I have to read are almost like a foreign language. Glancing at random through Canon Purvis's Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Terms (Nelson, 30s.), I find that inside this world a 'libel' has become a charge drawn up by a plaintiff con- cerning matters he is 'prepared to prove as fact,' and that 'the answer to a libel is an allegation.'

I do not think that my compulsive interest in the history of dogma is simply an affectation of eccentricity. Though there is a collector's pleasure to be discovered in entries like 'Anselm of Lucca, St. He is not to be confused with his uncle, Alexander II, also Anselm of Lucca, by whom he was appointed to the see of Lucca in '1027.' For full enjoyment of such discoveries, you must first of all want to know about one of the Anselms. Any intelligent man can see the fun in settling down, with pencil and paper and a large scotch, to the 'Ontological Proof' of St. Anselm. (Not, incidentally, St. Anselm of Lucca, 1036-86, or his uncle, Alexander II, died 1073, and also Anselm of Lucca, but St. Anselm, 1033-1109, Archbishop of Canterbury.) Here it is from page 191 of Bettenson :

That the non-existence of God is inconceivable This proposition is indeed so true that its negation is inconceivable. For it is quite con- ceivable that there is something whose non- existence is inconceivable, and this must be greater than that whose non-existence is con- ceivable. Wherefore, if that thing than which no greater thing is conceivable can be con- ceived as non-existent; then, that very thing than which a greatei is inconceivable is not that than which a greater is inconceivable; which is a contradiction. So true is it that there exists something than which a greater is inconceiv- able, that its non-existence is inconceivable: and this thing art Thou, 0 Lord our God!

St. Anselm (not to be confused, etc.) though an English Archbishop was a Lombard by birth. There is Mile doubt, however, where Pelagius came from when he turned up in. Rome in 400 to deny original sin with the words (Bettenson, p 75) 'everything good and everything evil is done by us not born with us.' Some claim him for Ireland but only an Englishman could earn Canon Purvis's rebuke: 'he tended to confuse decent behaviour with the true attitude to God.'

These are civilised pursuits and anyone who claims to be educated should know something of the doctrines of, say, Jansenism. But that is really too late in the day for me—my period of special study ends with Eusebius and the last days of Constantine. My eye still strays to, say, the Petrobusians, whom I recall particularly because Peter of Bruys was murdered by a mob in 1124 while barbecuing meat on Good Friday over a bonfire of crucifixes. Even within my 350 years, however, my central interest is not some obviously key event like the crucifixion—though my whole view of the birth of Christianity has been changed by two startlingly original recent works, Paul Winter's The Trial of Jesus (De Gruyter, Berlin) and Joel . Carmichael's The Death of Jesus (Gollancz). What obsesses me is the political struggle for power in the early Church which was fought over such dogmas as the relation of the divinity and the humanity in 'Christ. and the nature of man, sin and grace.

Perhaps 'political' is the clue. Claud Cockburn who shares my devotion to this period and whose favourite reading is Dean Stanley's History of the Eastern Church, has long since elaborated his cover story. Communism, he argues, is the most important of all modern ideologies and the history of the Church often parallels the history of the Party, helping to explain why successive Internationals failed, the reason for the great purges, the development of Marxism into Stalinism, and even the latest split between Russia and China. It was Engels, after all, who, pointed out in 1894 the resemblances between early Christianity and the first working-class movements: Just as all those who have nothing to look forward to from the official world or have come to the end of their tether with it—oppo- nents of inoculation, supporters of abstemious- ness, vegetarians, anti-vivisectionists, nature- healers, free-community preachers whose communities have fallen to pieces,. authors of new theories of the origin of the universe, unsuccessful or unfortunate inventors, victims of real or imaginary injustice, honest fools and dishonest swindlers—all throng to the working- class parties in all countries—so it was with the Christians.

It's an ingenious rationalisation. I just hope it's true, that's all.