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Examines the history of the Christian heritage behind the symbols of the cross, the fish and the trinity. Reasons why religious groups use symbols.
American educator John Dewey in The Quest For Certainty writes Theinvention or discovery of symbols is doubtless by far the greatest singleevent in the history of man Without them no advance is possible with themthere is no limit set to intellectual development except inherentstupidity From the earliest ages even prior to predominant Christianrule under Constantine commencing in Ferguson symbols havebeen used by religious groups and specifically the Christian church formany reasons As a secret sign among the faithful during times of persecution
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An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. However, its use as a Christian symbol is a product ofcultural syncretism preceding Constantine's rule. Constantine took great interest in disciplining the unity of theChurch and called for Church councils including the Council of Nicea in325, which shaped the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and defined theChurch against the heretics. As a means of memorializing God's divine activity in human history. According to George Ferguson, the cross is "one of the oldest and mostuniversal of all symbols." Most Christians would agree that the cross isthe perfect symbol of Christ because of the tremendous sacrifice itrepresents on mankind's behalf. Archaeologists havenot found any Christian use of the symbol before that time (129). Our Christian Symbols. As a secret sign among the faithful during times of persecution, . To reiterate, it was notformally associated with the Church until the time of Constantine, at whichtime the cross was publicly used as the symbol of the Christian religion.Until this time, its utilization had been restricted, and private among theChristians themselves. Thetwo main types of crosses used in historic Christian literature and artwere either Greek or respectively, Latin (Rest, 45). Without them no advance is possible; with themthere is no limit set to intellectual development except inherentstupidity." From the earliest ages, even prior to predominant Christianrule under Constantine commencing in 3 6 (Ferguson, 78-81), symbols havebeen used by religious groups, and specifically, the Christian church formany reasons: . This is a legitimate method ofsymbolism, for to those able to realize the sacred significance of thethreefold head a great mystery is revealed, which was the intention uponits inception. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words,article "Cross"), the cross as a "Christian" symbol was taken directly fromthe pagans. As a means of teaching biblical truths to those unable to read, . The emperor stands in for the departed Christ, yet, for many yearshe used Apollonian imagery as well. It iscommonly known that the Godhead is equal but separate. By a decision of faith, this personhas entered into a personal relationship with God and knows the reality ofGod's forgiveness. At this time in history, Byzantium had a higher concentration ofChristians than any other part of the empire; churches already outnumberedtemples there, so it was a strategic location for the newly Christiandirection the empire was taking, it was also strategic for Constantine tostart promulgating Christ through certain imagery (even if it was inconjunction with himself), thus creating the path of symbolism to which theChristian church identifies with today. Constantine set a certain prototype in the use of certain symbols ofChristianity to support his rule. Each circle is interminable, and has no apparent beginning or end(16-18). The shape of the original crucifixion device is a matter forspeculation. In conclusion, symbolism and its meaning in Christian art, literatureand the ecclesiastical community of believers, tells unforgettable stories,laden with unforgettable truths, that if one were to miss the meaning anddepth behind the symbols, a person may as well ignore any of the wordswritten behind them. The Christian Education Press: Philadelphia, 1954.Whittemore, Carroll E. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. Christian symbols have been and always will be presentforms that help us understand, appreciate and believe in spiritualrealities. It was written in response to a heresy called "Arianism" that deniedJesus was fully God. In this catacomb art the symbol was frequently coupled with communion imagery-the fish is depicted swimming with bread and a cup of wine on its back. Church clerics were given thestatus of imperial administrators, they became essentially governmentbureaucrats and secular and ecclesiastical law became one and the same.'Ecclesia', the church community, became the body of the state (Ferguson).Under Constantine's successors this unity would become so seamless thatpaganism or heresy became, thought of, as, a form of treason; thoughts andpractices not simply considered spiritually wrong but acts against thestate. American educator John Dewey, in The Quest For Certainty, writes: "Theinvention or discovery of symbols is doubtless by far the greatest singleevent in the history of man. His coins reveal a picture of him in the conqueror's pose and armornext to a cross topped by a globe, while his helmet bears the name ofChrist. The triangle is one of the most popular symbols of the Holy Trinity.Each side of the triangle represents a "Person" of the Godhead (Rest, 15.)One line represents the Father, one the Spirit, the other the Son. E. Today, the person who displays the fish symbol has accepted thesame New Testament teaching that these early Christians accepted: thatJesus Christ is their Lord and Savior. He says, As persecution of Christians became more frequent and intense in the Roman Empire, the fish symbol became a password shared among underground believers. Oxford University Press, New York, 197 .Rest, Friedrich. The Nicene Creed is ultimately about the Trinity, butit also affirms historical realities of Jesus' life (Ferguson, 3 1). WhenChristianity began to spread, the worship of suffering also spread. The Latin cross islonger vertically and has a more upright crossbar, usually embellished withjewels or other ornamentation at the end of each bar (ibid). When did "Christians" first begin using the cross as a sign oftheir religion, or when did the apostles use it? Symbols of the Church. Accordingto one writer (W. They used the fish to mark secret gathering places, especially within the catacombs. It's relevant to mention that from an early date Constantine combines theChristian symbol with his personal image as a conquering general; the crossas a symbol of victory over 'darkness' imposed with imperial fervor (Rest,24). Thecreed was written in AD 325 and completed in its present form in AD 381.Over 3 Church leaders from all over the world gathered to write thecreed. Thesurprising thing is that the Christian use of the cross did not begin untilthe time of Constantine, three centuries after Christ. Sometimes, the Romans executed people on a Tau cross (a T-shaped style), sometimes on a Roman cross and sometimes on a simple stake.Since the original language of The gospels was Greek, they state that Jesuswas crucified on a "stauros" (see Mark 15:21, Mark 15:32, Matthew 27:32,Luke 23:26, and John 19:17). During this time, he used images such as thecross and other holy relics to show that Constantinople represented theheart of Christianity and all of its glorious symbols.The Trinity Christians of all regions and denominations recite the Nicene Creed(also called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, because the completepresent form was defined by bishops in both Nicaea and Constantinople).Catholics, Orthodox, and many Protestants all revere the ancient creed. This symbol was one of the most widely used in the earlychurch according to some (34).The Cross Interestingly, the use of the cross (which is today one of the mostwiddly recognized sxmbols in the world) as a symbol of Christ's atonementand redemption does not become formally established until after Christ.History shows that the cross was used centuries before Christ. The crosshad symbolic meaning before it assumed a total Christians connotation;however, for this paper, it will be named as a solely Christian symbol.The cross has been employed as a sacred, protective, or decorative emblemin almost every culture throughout the world (Ferguson, 128). Thames & Hudson, London, UK, 1979.Ferguson, George. Under Constantine it became the acknowledged andvery public symbol of Christianity. This appears as the word "cross" but inreality, the Greek word usually means a vertical pole without a crossbar.(Cooper, 68-69). According to Collin Hansen of Christianity Today, the fish wasan integral part of identification. The initial letters for the Greek wordsstood for "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior", and spells out the Greek wordfor fish. Some will argue, however, that we may use thesign of the cross, regardless of symbolib origin, because it represents themanner in which Jesus Christ died, and we are not using it today to worshipa pagan deity. Following a Christian agenda, Constantineordered the destruction of the Temple of Asclepius at Aigeai in Cilicia(now residing in Turkey)and established images of the cross on most of thebuildings surrounding the empire. The origin of the word "cross" is theLatin word for "crux", from the verb cruciare, meaning to torture. REFERENCESCooper, J.C. (ibid). It has beenfound in China, Africa, it appears on Bronze Age stones in Scandinavia, inancient Greece, in pre-Columbian America, and in the Euphrates-Tigrisregion around 15 B.C. Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1987. To setforth an appropriate figure the people of the empire could equallypromulgate, it was necessary to devise an image in which the three persons-Father, Son, and Holy Ghost- were separate and yet one, the Trinity. Incidentally, an enormous body of evidence proves that the originationof the cross as symbol was not strictly Christian in nature; ironically, ithad roots in rank paganism. The fish symbol also appeared on Christian gravestones and jewelry, and marked the homes of believers (34).Hansen goes on to say that after the threat of persecution had passed, thefish was inscribed on the Constantinian Church of the Nativity inBethlehem. It is the very core of Christianity; it isthe emblem of atonement, and the symbol of salvation and redemption. Notably, thethree candles supported by the main stand suggest the doctrine of the threePersons in that this symbol is in complete harmony with the idea of theunity of the one God. Another type ofsymbol that represents the Trinity is a triangle with interwoven circles.The three interwoven, or interlaced circles constitute God as One in threePersons. He was sophisticated in what wouldnow be called "public relations." The final symbolic gesture of hisleadership was exploiting the use of ancient statues when he claimedByzantium for his new capital in 33 renaming it after hilself -Constanthnople (Rest, 25). As part of forming our early Christianheritage, Constantine was aware that the majority of the inhabitants of theRoman Empire were still pagans, so he still partially incorporated somepagan imagery into his personality cult. Indifferent parts of Europe, there may be figures similar to this, whereinthree faces are united in one head, etc. The most important legacy of Constantine inrelation to the formal establishment of Christian symbols was the marriagebetween the Church and the imperial state. Another symbol of the Trinity, not as commonly known as thetriangle, is a candelabrum with three candles (Cooper, 68). The number three has significant meaning in theChurch, and typically, when things are paired in threes, it is a symbol ofthe Trinity (Rest, 21).The FishThe fish sign (shown by intersecting two half circles) was a secret signused by the early Christians fearing persecution as a means of designatingthemselves as believers in Jesus. In an architectural performance designedto show the leadership position of the church over Paganism, Constantinestripped the temple of its exterior colonnade and reused it to build hisown church (Cooper, 69). As a way of reminding believers of God's sovereignty over all creation, and .
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