Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Were the Nicolaitans Quasi-Catholic?

There are two verses in the second chapter of the book of Revelation that fundamentalist Protestants like to twist into a condemnation of Catholicism. These verses are the only two references in Scripture to a group called the Nicolaitans:

Rev 2:6 Yet this you have, you hate the works of the Nicola'itans, which I also hate.

Rev 2:14-15 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice immorality. 15 So you also have some who hold the teaching of the Nicola'itans.


From a study of the etymology of the name of the group ("Nicolaitan" probably means "victory over the people") and influenced by their own antipathy towards a hierarchical structure in the Church, these fundamentalists are somehow, through an amazing exercise in twisted logic, able to conclude that Jesus, in revealing to John what he did in these two passages, is condemning Catholicism. It's pretty much one of the most baseless and laughable arguments against Catholicism that I have ever heard.

Irregardless, "seal", one of my usual opponents over at HCR, tried to use this argument. What follows is my first response to him. This ended up launching us into a very long and drawn-out debate, which basically consists of him yelling and screaming and showing his obsession with hating Catholicism at all cost....and me simply repeating my position over and over b/c he's never able to catch it the first time around. Some of you may find that amusing, but I think the entire debate is stupid and just too long to post here in its entirety. If you are brave and tenacious enough to read the entire thing, just go here. I enter into the debate with post #12.

Pax Christi,
phatcatholic
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Anywho, what about Nicolaitans believing in a ONE MAN Authority over the Church.... Elders/Pastors being superior to those of the congregation instead of fellow brotherhood...
There is no indication in Scripture that they believed that. Your only proof is the etymology of the name "Nicolaitan," but even this does not prove your case. The name could just as easily mean "victory of the people" or "victorious people." Also, Dr. John Lightfoot says that the name comes from the word (hlykn) , "Nicolah", "let us eat", which they often used to encourage each other to eat things offered to idols (below we shall see how prevalent is this understanding of their practices).

Secondly, even if we do take it to mean "victory over the people" it does not follow from this that Jesus hated them b/c they believed in a hierarchical church. A group could be victorious over the people in a variety of ways. One way would be to successfully propagate a doctrine amongst them. This seems to be the meaning that is more in line with the actual Scripture passages regarding the Nicolaitans.

Granting that Scripture never tells us explicitly what are the "works" (Rev 2:6) and the "teaching" (Rev 2:15) of the Nicolaitans, from their proximity to the Balaamites (cf. Rev 2:14) we could rightly infer that these works and teachings were similar to theirs. We know of the Balaamites that they "eat food sacrificed to idols and practice immorality." An overwhelming number of Protestant Bible reference works (which would have no interest in affirming a hierarchical church structure) see this as the reason the Nicolaitans were condemned:
  • John Gill, Exposition of the Bible (Rev 2:6): Though these Christians had left their first love, yet they bore an hatred to the filthy and impure practices of some men, who were called "Nicolaitans"; who committed fornication, adultery, and all uncleanness, and had their wives in common, and also ate things offered to idols;
  • Jamieson, Fausset, Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Rev 2:6): Michaelis' view is probable: Nicolaos (conqueror of the people) is the Greek version of Balaam, from Hebrew "Belang Am," "Destroyer of the people." Revelation abounds in such duplicate Hebrew and Greek names: as Apollyon, Abaddon: Devil, Satan: Yea (Greek, "Nai"), Amen. The name, like other names, Egypt, Babylon, Sodom, is symbolic. Compare Revelation 2:14,15, which shows the true sense of Nicolaitanes; they are not a sect, but professing Christians who, like Balaam of old. tried to introduce into the Church a false freedom, that is, licentiousness; this was a reaction in the opposite direction from Judaism, the first danger to the Church combated in the council of Jerusalem, and by Paul in the Epistle to Galatians. These symbolical Nicolaitanes, or followers of Balaam, abused Paul's doctrine of the grace of God into a plea for lasciviousness (2 Peter 2:15,16,19, Jude 1:4,11 who both describe the same sort of seducers as followers of Balaam).
  • People's New Testament (Rev 2:6): Opinions are not agreed concerning this sect, but it is probable that the followers of a Nicolaus are meant who taught that Christian liberty meant license to commit sensual sins.
  • Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament (Rev 2:6): It is even possible that the Balaamites of verse Acts 14 were a variety of this same sect (verse Acts 15).
  • John Wesley, Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible (Rev 2:6): They allowed the most abominable lewdness and adulteries, as well as sacrificing to idols; all which they placed among things indifferent, and pleaded for as branches of Christian liberty.
  • Easton's Bible Dictionary ("Nicolaitanes"): They were seemingly a class of professing Christians, who sought to introduce into the church a false freedom or licentiousness, thus abusing Paul's doctrine of grace (Compare 2 Peter 2:15,16,19), and were probably identical with those who held the doctrine of Baalam (q.v.), Revelation 2:14.
  • Smith's Bible Dictionary ("Nicolaitans"): They may have been identical with those who held the doctrine of Balaam. They seem to have held that it was lawful to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication, in opposition to the decree of the Church rendered in (Acts 15:20,29) The teachers of the Church branded them with a name which expressed their true character. The men who did and taught such things were followers of Balaam. (2 Peter 2:15; Jude 1:11) They, like the false prophet of Pethor, united brave words with evil deeds. In a time of persecution, when the eating or not eating of things sacrificed to idols was more than ever a crucial test of faithfulness, they persuaded men more than ever that was a thing indifferent. (Revelation 2:13,14) This was bad enough, but there was a yet worse evil. Mingling themselves in the orgies of idolatrous feasts, they brought the impurities of those feasts into the meetings of the Christian Church. And all this was done, it must be remembered not simply as an indulgence of appetite: but as a part of a system, supported by a "doctrine," accompanied by the boast of a prophetic illumination, (2 Peter 2:1) It confirms the view which has been taken of their character to find that stress is laid in the first instance on the "deeds" of the Nicolaitans. To hate those deeds is a sign of life in a Church that otherwise is weak and faithless. (Revelation 2:6) To tolerate them is well nigh to forfeit the glory of having been faithful under persecution. (Revelation 2:14,15)
  • Barne's New Testament Notes (Rev 2:6): It is generally agreed, among the writers of antiquity who have mentioned them, that they were distinguished for holding opinions which countenanced gross social indulgences. This is all that is really necessary to be known in regard to the passage before us, for this will explain the strong language of aversion and condemnation used by the Saviour respecting the sect in the epistles to the churches of Ephesus and Pergamos.
  • Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Bible (Rev 2:6): The Nicolaitanes taught the community of wives, that adultery and fornication were things indifferent, that eating meats offered to idols was quite lawful; and mixed several pagan rites with the Christian ceremonies.
  • Merrill C. Tenney, Interpreting Revelation (Rev 2:6): The teaching of the Nicolaitans was an exaggeration of the doctrine of Christian liberty which attempted an ethical compromise with heathenism.
Richard Chenevix Trench gives the most exhaustive treatment of the Nicolaitans (go here and scroll down to vs. 6), and his conclusion is one of agreement with what I have presented here.

If that were not enough, we also have the following commentary, which all comes from Monergism.com (a popular resource for Reformed/Calvinist theology, of which "seal" is a proponent. Note the presence of Piper and MacArthur, too highly revered Reformed theologians):
  • Derek Thomas, Revelation Archive Index (Rev 2:15): The particular false teaching making the rounds in Pergamum was known as the teaching of Balaam (2:14), and the teaching of the Nicolaitans (2:15). A single error is meant by these two descriptions. What it was can be ascertained by recalling the story of Balaam in the Old Testament. [. . .] It is an age-old error: that the liberty we know in our relationship with God is a license to sin.
  • John Piper, Revelation Sermon Manuscripts (Rev 2:15): So now we see what this Nicolaitan stuff is: it's a teaching that somehow encourages idolatry and sexual immorality. Some in the church were promoting this, even while others were laying their lives down for the gospel.
  • John MacArthur, Falling Out of Love with Jesus (Rev 2:6): The Nicolaitans were a group of heretics who also became involved in the church at Pergamum. It is very possible that they showed up in many places. One of the deacons initiated in Acts 6 was named Nicolas. As best as can be determined, Nicolas became a heretic. He pushed liberty to an extreme and his sect was characterized by extreme indulgence and uncleanness. Some people have said that Nicolas started the heresy; others have said that Nicolas made a statement that some people misinterpreted and used as the basis of their cult. Clement of Alexandria, who lived during that time, said that the Nicolaitans "abandon themselves to pleasure like goats...leading a life of self-indulgence" (The Miscellanies 2:20). They replaced liberty with license and perverted grace (Gal. 5:13).
  • Herman Hoeksema, Behold He Commeth (Rev 2:12-17): In the text these Nicolaitanes are compared to that wicked Balaam of the Old Testament, who offended the people of God. It is not impossible that these Nicolaitanes were antinomians, people who deliberately taught that it mattered not how the Christian lived here upon earth since Christ fulfilled the law and the old Adam was doomed to destruction anyway. They were not very scrupulous as to their own lives. They would feast with the heathen and eat of their sacrifices. In a word, they were a class of .people that threatened by their doctrine and life to obliterate the distinction between the church and the world in Pergamos, even as the counsel of Balaam was calculated to wipe out the characteristic difference between the people of Israel and the Moabites.
  • Kim Riddlebarger, Sermons on the Book of Revelation (Rev 2:1-7,12-17): The teaching of the Nicolaitans is compared to two Old Testament figures, Balaam and Jezebel, who sought to lure Israel away from YHWH by tempting the people to adopt pagan practices in addition to worshiping YHWH. As it concerns the Ephesian congregation, either the false apostles were Nicolaitans–teaching that it is acceptable to worship Christ and pagan deities–or else, the Nicolaitans represented yet another threat in addition to that of false apostles. [. . .] Therefore, when we read in the New Testament that Jesus Christ threatens the church in Pergamum with the sword for tolerating the Nicolaitans, what provokes our Lord’s righteous ire must be false doctrine similar to that of Balaam.
  • Sam Storms, The Seven Letters of Revelation (Rev 2:1-7): They were evidently licentious and antinomian and advocated an unhealthy compromise with pagan society and the idolatrous culture of Ephesus. It is most likely that the “teaching” of the Nicolaitans is identical with the “teaching” of Balaam (2:14-15). The similarity of language also suggests that Jezebel and her followers (2:20-24) constituted a group of Nicolaitans in Thyatira. They are all said to be guilty of enticing God’s people “to eat things sacrificed to idols” and “to commit acts of immorality” (2:14-15,20).
That the works and the teaching of the Nicolaitans were like that of the Balaamites is a conclusion too numerous in Protestant biblical scholarship to simply dismiss b/c you happen to have a beef with hierarchical church structures. Many of these scholars probably share your beef, yet they did not read that into the text, as it appears that you have done.
This is one of the main reasons they were hated by Christ.
Matthew 23:8-11 "Be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren .... Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant,"
Jesus is not condemning the positions themselves but instead those who are in love with them, who pride themselves in holding these positions, and who forget that it is b/c God is Father, Teacher, Master, etc. that anyone is able to hold such positions on earth. We know this b/c Jesus tells us in just a few verses prior to the passage you have cited (cf. Mt 23:1-3) to respect the authority of the scribes and Pharisees who sit on Moses' seat. He would not have said this if he rejected positions of authority among the people.

Also, if you look at the whole passage, instead of the parsed version of it that you have provided, you'll see that if Jesus is objecting to the positions of "rabbi" and "master" (or teacher/leader) then he is also objecting to the position of "father." But, we know from several places in Scripture (cf. Jn 8:56; Acts 4:25; 1 Cor 4:15; Jas 2:21; Philemon 1:10) that both Jesus and the apostles refer to men being "fathers" among the people. So, if we were to accept your logic, we would have Jesus rejecting the positions of "rabbi" and "master/teacher," but accepting the position of "father." That simply makes no sense whatsoever.

If that weren't enough, we also see examples of a herarchical structure in the New Testament, whereever it mentions apostles (here), bishops (here), elders (here), priests (here), and deacons (here). It is true that the understanding of these positions was somewhat fluid in the NT church, but by the 2nd century, they started to take on a more definite form, as evidenced by early Christian witness (see here).
Ignatius eh...Heck I believe them... Espicopal Gov't is overtly Heretical.
Perhaps you overlooked these verses?:

Acts 1:20 For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick (episkope) let another take.

Acts 20:28 Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers (episkopos), to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.

Phil 1:1 Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops (episkopos) and deacons:

1 Tim 3:1-2 This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop (episkope), he desireth a good work. A bishop (episkopos) then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;

Titus 1:7 For a bishop (episkopos) must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre;


A hiearchical structure is clearly present in the NT Church, and so Jesus cannot be said to be against such a structure, and the Nicolaitans cannot be said to be condemned for holding authoritative positions over the people.

Pax Christi,
phatcatholic

10 comments:

Bryan said...

So, what he's basicaly saying is that not only are Catholics heretical; but so is almost every other Christian for the last 2000 years unless they are some sort of Baptist or fuzzy non-denominational.

Anonymous said...

# "But do not be called Rabbi; for One [hen] is your Teacher, and you are all brothers." Matthew 23:8
# "Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ." Matthew 23:10

Anonymous said...

"For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus," 1 Timothy 2:5

phatcatholic said...

What's your point? I know those verses already ;) Nothing about them contradicts Catholic doctrine.

Anonymous said...

I grew up catholic, and once I started reading the Bible, I could no longer agree with all that I had been taught as a catholic. God in his sacred Word states, that once you know the truth, the truth shall set you free, until you read the Bible, you are walking in darkness, I never saw anyone walk into a catholic church with a Bible.

phatcatholic said...

So you never saw someone walk into a Catholic Church w/ a Bible. That doesn't mean they've never read it! Just b/c you didn't know the Bible very well when you were a Catholic, that doesn't mean other Catholics are similarly ignorant.

There are many, many Catholics who love the Bible, read it often, and know it well. I count myself among them. This post you are commenting on is itself steeped in the Bible. All you have done here is make a hasty and ultimately unfair generalization regarding Catholic familiarity with the Bible.

It may come to your great surprise to find that, when Catholics read the Bible, they actually find confirmation for their Catholic faith, not proof enough to leave. That is in fact what happened to me and undoubtedly many others.

At any rate, Catholics hear three readings from the Bible every time they go to Mass, so it's pretty silly to say that they've never read it, or never heard it read.

Anonymous said...

Ok, since you read the bible and it confirms your catholic faith, explain to me where in the bible is baptizing infants, taught or practiced?

phatcatholic said...

No problem. See Part 5 in my 8-part response to common objections against Catholicism:
http://phatcatholic.blogspot.com/2006/10/eight-key-points-part-five.html

phatcatholic said...

It looks like the link isn't working (you can't click on it to go to the page), so you'll have to copy it and paste it into a new browser window.

Anonymous said...

I love the article and the rebuttal comments. Thank you.

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