Binary Opposition, Hierarchy, and God's Power in Early Christian Writing. (03/21/2001)

In the early history of the church a complex of interrelated ideas arose, quite naturally as it were, that has persisted in its ability to define, as well as anyone could hope, the most basic and fundamental aspects of Western ideology. These ideas have persisted, furthermore, for so long in an unchanging articulation that they have taken on an appearance of authority which tends to elevate them to the position of immutable truth. In other words, because of their long, even popular, history, as an ideological methodology, few thinkers, even perhaps no one at all, have ever bothered to question their essential validity. One might even be able to argue that it has become impossible for anyone schooled in Western thought to conceive of any rational discourse that does not depend on concepts grounded in binary opposition, hierarchical structures, and the omnipotent presence of some force or another that first sanctioned the complex into being, whether one calls it "God" or something else, and continues to sustain it now in the face of any criticism that might be voiced against its claim to validity.

One thing that has generated this notion of authoritative validity, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the essential suitability of the complex as a means of defining reality, concerns the fact that an early Father of the church, Tertullian of Carthage, devised a methodology for determining the fact and appearance of heresy based on the notion that truth in speech acts could be determined directly by how ancient or how recent any of them happened to be. Older ideas, like the ones expressed in the laws and prophets of the Old Testament, were considered to be truthful, while any writing of a more contemporaneous type, excluding the New Testament, of course, were suspected of being false out of hand unless they re-inscribed propositions obviously drawn from prior texts that were already considered to be orthodox. As he notes in his refutation of the heretical philosophy of Hermogenes, who argued that God created the world out of already existing matter (heterodox), and not out of nothing (orthodox), the only test anyone needs to apply to determine heresy is whether or not the ideas expressed are novel, as opposed to long-standing or ancient. Making any idea that is novel the same as one that is heretical effectively prevents and circumvents the appearance of any notion that challenges accepted belief for as long as the dominant discourse, even if only among its own members, has the power to punish its wayward thinkers. The early Fathers of the church depended on expulsion (excommunication) as a means of preventing novelty in their theology, which was the same as condemning the miscreant to eternal death in Hell. Later, of course, after the church became the official religion of the Roman empire, heretics were more often punished by actual physical death, by being burned at the stake.

The point to be taken here is that basic concepts in Christian theology, like binary opposition and hierarchical structure grounded in the existence of an omnipotent Creator, cannot be credited with truth preserving qualities simply because they have existed for a long time in a human consciousness always constrained by threats of excommunication or death if, and when, it dares to voice any novel idea whatsoever. Galileo spent the final years of his life under house arrest and threat of death from the 17th Century church because he dared to challenge the geocentric view of the cosmos favored by Christian ideology. The church forgave him his heresy, without admitting its own error, and without acknowledging the solar-centric model of the cosmos (God is the center of the universe after all and not the sun), in 1992. Any effort to divine when the church Fathers are likely to catch up with Newton and Einstein simply defies rational expectation.

As I have already argued elsewhere in this document (Anshen, Bloch, Dionysius, Freedom, Harmonics), the concepts of binary opposition and hierarchical structure have their natural and inevitable origin and existence in the idea that the universe was created by an omnipotent, everlasting God. Since that view of reality does not stand as particularly credible in the face of scientific analysis, even if the ideas of science are novel ones in comparison to scriptural values, it still matters that creationism is the dominant ideology in the Western world. While I have presented arguments against that position, I have not presented proper documentation, or proof, that these concepts adhere together in logical constructs in the writing of the early church Fathers. Doing that here, then, is the only object of this essay.

In the early years of the church, Athenagoras wrote a treatise that has come to be called A Plea for the Christians, which was intend as a defense against accusations that they were criminals in the eyes of worldly leaders at the time. During those years there were many "crimes" attributed to people who believed in church doctrine and many of them were convicted of various offenses against the state. These people were generally executed if they refused to renounce their beliefs and became martyrs for the faith. After listing several of the common charges brought against Christians, Athenagoras says that "these things are only idle tales and empty slanders, originating in the fact that virtue is opposed by its very nature to vice, and that contraries war against one another by a divine law." (Athenagoras: Chapter III). The point here is not to examine the charges he dismisses as "idle tales and empty slanders," which most of them certainly were, but to take note of the fact that he addresses the issue in terms of binary opposition, where virtue and vice are by nature opposed to each other, and then makes the further point that such structures necessarily "war" against each other by virtue of "divine law." Since that statement cannot be changed or amended by anyone without peril of excommunication or outright execution, it has the effect of first creating a version of the absolute word of God which claims that reality cannot be perceived except as a "war" between the "contraries" that have always defined opposite ends of every binary opposition. Since the war is also described as a "divine law," there is never any hope of overturning it, on the one hand, or of escaping from its consequences, on the other.

Tertullian, in his treatise against the heresy of Hermogenes, who argued that God created the world out of existing matter, draws a distinction between the way the Bible refers to God before and after He created the universe. Prior to creation the name used to denote God was simply God. After the universe was created, however, the word changes to Lord. Tertullian explains the distinction in the following terms:

"We affirm, then, that the name of God always existed with Himself and in Himself--but not eternally so the Lord. Because the condition of the one is not the same as that of the other. God is the designation of the substance itself, that is, of the Divinity; but Lord is (the name) not of substance, but of power. I maintain that the substance existed always with its own name, which is God; the title Lord was afterwards added, as the indication indeed of something accruing. For from the moment when those things began to exist, over which the power of a Lord was to act, God, by the accession of that power, both became Lord and received the name thereof." (Against Hermogenes, Chapter III)

This same idea, namely that Lord is an inappropriate name for God before He has any material reality over which He can exercise His absolute dominion and power, was restated in different terms later in the same argument:

"The Greek term for beginning, which is arkh, admits the sense not only of priority of order, but of power as well; whence princes and magistrates are called arkontes. Therefore in this sense too, beginning may be taken for princely authority and power. It was, indeed, in His transcendent authority and power, that God made the heaven and the earth." (Against Hermogenes, Chapter XIX)

The point to be taken here is that statements like these clearly express the notion that God exists on an exalted plane of pure being and power that necessarily transcends the world that He has created. That transcendence necessarily creates a disparity between the Creator and His creation that establishes the first, and only, step necessary in the fabrication of hierarchical structure. Hence, the ground is well established for the rise of the ideology of binary opposition and hierarchy in the single "fact" that God, as an All-Powerful entity, created the universe. There is need for nothing else to establish the existence of these two ideas as the only legitimate way to comprehend any aspect of the created world and everything that exists in it. What is most obvious here as well is that power plays the dominant role in understanding how binary opposition and hierarchy are meant to function as aspects of all social relationships that evolve on the ground of these primary and immutable concepts.

What is fair to say in this context, since any new or novel idea was treated as a capital crime against orthodoxy, is that these ideas have enjoyed longevity in human consciousness not because they are necessarily true and valid, not because they describe the actual condition of the world, but because to say or think otherwise, as long as the church maintained a judicial power over individuals, which it did throughout the Middle Ages and even well into the Enlightenment, was the same as committing a crime punishable by death. In an ideology where power is defined by, if not derived from, the habit of thinking in terms of binary opposites and hierarchical structures, reinforced by compliance to that rule punishable by death for anyone who varies from it, there is virtually no chance at all that any other way of perceiving the reality of social and political relationships is ever likely to arise, much less take hold, in a culture that embraces such notions. No one in such a culture gives up the will to power, no one gives up the quest to become like God. That quest instead becomes the defining characteristic of what it means to be human.

Novatian, in his treatise on the nature of the Trinity, inscribes the primary distinction between God and man by giving us a list of all the ways in which Deity is superior to humanity, gives us the absolute ground of binary opposition and hierarchy when he say that God

"is loftier than all sublimity, and higher than all height, and deeper than all depth, and clearer than all light, and brighter than all brightness, more brilliant than all splendour, stronger than all strength, more powerful than all power, and more mighty than all might, and greater than all majesty, and more potent than all potency, and richer than all riches, more wise than all wisdom, and more benignant than all kindness, better than all goodness, juster than all justice, more merciful than all clemency." (Trinity, Chapter II)

What this statement really says, of course, is that human beings, except for potentates, kings, princes, popes, cardinals, and all others who possess power in the real world, are always perceived as being considerably less than any of the superlatives that apply to God. In fact, what is fair to say, is that the higher God ascends on the artificial scales of hierarchy, the lower human beings sink in the opposite direction. At some point, and usually sooner rather than later, the ones in the middle, whose status never changes relative to highest and lowest, are driven to act against their inferiors for the simple reason that the ones on the lowest rung of the ladder ultimately slip below the level that defines them as human at all. When that happens, as it always inevitably does, genocide is born.