31 Flavors

Princeton Theological Seminary, nestled next to its Ivy League sibling university, has never welcomed my advances. Although I’ve long ceased keeping the myriad rejection letters I’ve received over the years and now prefer to throw them in the recycle bin unopened, in my recollection I’ve applied to Princeton Seminary more times than any other school. Given the historic connection between the seminary and my alma mater of Edinburgh University, I often wondered why I never even merited an interview. After all, I live less than 20 miles away and they wouldn’t even have to pay for gas. So it was that I found a recent reference to “Princeton Theology” so interesting. Not every seminary gets to name its own brand of poison.


Princeton Theology refers to a movement that helped establish the culture that would give us the dubious gift of Fundamentalism. I have never been a Presbyterian, but I have attended their institutions, and one of the characteristics I’d often noted is that Calvin’s thought, in particular, often left me chilled to the theological bones. Assured of his own place in heaven, his theology seemed designed to keep others out. People, being what they are, naturally want to be on the winning team, especially in the eternity game. Reformed thought, therefore, was often perceived as cold and somewhat unfeeling. Predestination is, after all, determinism. Princeton Theology, beginning in the early nineteenth century, was intended to try to introduce a somewhat cozier evangelicalism to the sternness of Presbyterian theology. You may be condemned to Hell, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t feel good about it. After all, the divine plan trumps human need every time.

The approach of the twentieth century saw an increase in evangelical fervor throughout the United States. The growing number of flavors of Christianity led many to wonder what the true vanilla was. The answer, self-proclaimed, to be sure, was Fundamentalism. If you’ve never attended a gathering of theologians, you might not shudder as much as I do while typing these words, for such a conventicle has enormous power. Indeed, the Niagara Bible Conference was able to do what the Council of Nicaea was not—distill the essence of true Christianity that could be accepted by all believers. Unless, of course, one was raised in a Catholic or Orthodox tradition. Princeton Theological Seminary is not a Fundamentalist institution, but even a well-meaning attempt to make Christianity more palatable might lead to too much vanilla. In a world of 31 flavors, perhaps paradise tastes different to everyone, depending on the formula.

Playing Nicaea

Some professors are more creative than mine ever were. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even today “old school” means getting it done the arduous, nose-to-the-grindstone way. A friend of mine, however, is in Turkey where a class on social, political and religious relations has her involved in a role playing game (RPG in internet-speak) where the students take on the roles of the participants at the Council of Nicaea and argue the perspectives of those parties. What a great way to learn what minutiae set ablaze entire worlds! For those of you who don’t follow ecumenical councils, Nicaea was the big one. Depending on whom you trust, there were seven ecumenical councils that early Christians accepted, although others had gone their own direction before the first council (Nicaea) even began. Historians are now aware that Christianity was never a unified religion, just a varying number of winners and losers vying for who had the right to call themselves the true followers of Christ.

Constant Constantine keeps the halo.

Constant Constantine keeps the halo.

Nevertheless, the Council of Nicaea was one of the pivot-points on which all of history in the western world turns. Seem like a sweeping generalization? It is. But an honest one. Nicaea was the opportunity for the first Christian emperor, Constantine, to set in motion the swirling whirlpool of politics and religion that has never truly left the world ever since. Already before 325 C.E. there had been endless bickering about who Jesus really was, when Easter should be celebrated, which books belonged in the Bible (that most political of books), and who had authority over whom. The big question was really the relationship of Jesus to the Father, or, the first instance of “who’s your daddy?” Over questions like these, given history’s long view, thousands of people have died.

It’s not unusual to hear that the Council of Nicaea was the last time all Christians agreed on the major points. Many churches still recite the Nicaean Creed on a regular basis as a symbol of that unity. It is clear, however, already from the period of Paul’s letters (the earliest Christian literature) that differences of opinions had arisen among the first generation of disciples. Those we quaintly call Gnostics were among the earliest believers and they managed to survive, transmogrified, past all of the authoritative councils of the church. The very idea of ecclesiastical authority is one of power. Who has the might to make right? And it was a chance to be seen among the ecclesiastical elite. Nicaea left out, most famously, the Arians. And if the media is anything by which to judge contemporary Christianity, the majority of the Religious Right would fall into that camp as well. Recite with me now, “I believe in…”

Jolly Saint Nicholas


Each December the Princeton University Chapel Choir performs a free holiday concert in the impressive university cathedral (actually, it is a chapel, but given its size I’ll stick with cathedral). This year’s concert was Benjamin Britten’s “Saint Nicholas.” The association of Saint Nicholas with Christmas, not really a major holiday until relatively recent times, was an aspect that developed long after his death in the fourth century. The date of his death, December 6, and his association with the giving of gifts, made him an obvious model for Santa Claus (who still bears his name). Most of the gifts I’ve received from bishops involved losing a livelihood and personal dignity, so it is little wonder that Nicholas is venerated. Few bishops of his generosity exist today.

The stories of Nicholas of Myra, however, are full of mythical accounts that bear less resemblance to history than to legends of old. Eric Crozer’s lyric for Britten’s piece invokes several of these miraculous tales. Saint Nick, it seems, stilled a storm at sea, multiplied food and walked on water like Jesus. The lyric also tells the legend of how he raised three pickled boys from the dead, although I have to admit I couldn’t get my mind off zombies after that. This story seems to owe something to the myth of Tantalus, who, like Nicholas, was from Anatolia. In real life we do know that at the Council of Nicaea Nicholas punched Bishop Arius in the ear for his heresy. Theological discussions are like that sometimes. And I wonder if that might not be the origin of another curiosity of which a friend recently reminded me—Saint Nicholas doesn’t travel alone.

Our modern version of Santa Claus takes its roots mostly from germanic traditions. In that culture the saint is accompanied by a more sinister character who doles out punishment to the naughty. He is known by many names: Krampus, Ruprecht, Schmutzli, Zwarte Piet, or simply the Devil. Instead of using their diabolical fists, they generally carry rods to smack the not-so-nice, kind of the Republican side to the liberal Santa. This dark figure does not appear in Britten’s “Saint Nicholas” where a (mostly) kinder, gentler saint appears. A saint who raised briny boys from the beef barrel also belted another theologian upside the head. Life, even for saints, is full of contradictions.