I would imagine that I’ve seen this debunked St. Nicholas myth dozens of times on social media this year. American evangelicalism has beatified Nicholas of Myra because of the apocryphal story that he punched a heretic. As the story goes, old St. Nick, neither jolly nor gifted with a belly that shook like a bowlful of jelly, was actually an avenging angel of orthodoxy. At the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, St. Nicholas lost his cool when Arius denied the full deity of Christ and punched him in the nose.
This story has no historical support and has been debunked with fair authority. It was the late 1300s before this myth even appeared, in the writings of a Venetian named Petrus de Natalibus. Lists of bishops in attendance at Nicea do not include Nicholas of Myra and Arius was not in attendance. There were Arians there, and later iterations of the story say it was “an Arian” not Arius himself who was struck. Neither story is true. Tensions ran high at Nicea, but there is no truth to the story that the progenitor of the Santa Claus myth ever punched a heretic.
The story is as true as Rudolph and the elves at the North Pole.
There’s a better question. What is it about American Christianity that makes us so prone to enthusiastically embrace a fictional story about a Church Father punching out a heretic and using it as a moral example for the church? Why would we praise such a sinful act instead of championing 1 Corinthians 13, the Beatitudes, the Fruit of the Spirit, or the myriad of passages that call us to gentleness, peace, love, and kindness? Would a healthy Christianity rejoice at a story of a man losing his temper and punching a heretic?
What if the story were true? If Nicholas did it, would it be right? Is it an example we should follow? Jesus confronted the moneychangers and the Pharisees, but he didn’t go around punching them. He called us to love our enemies, to gently rebuke and restore those who err. We are called to imitate Christ, not 4th Century Church Fathers who lose their temper.
I know, I’m the meme Grinch now! (I’ll be honest – I think the “Deck the Halls? Try Deck the Heretic” one is funny.) Much of this is just fun, but I think the meme presents some problems that should not be ignored.
- First, it just isn’t true. St. Nicholas never punched a heretic.
- Second, it gives cover to a dysfunctional, ungodly, unhealthy Christian culture in which beating down others is a good and godly act. There is an entire segment of Christianity that considered verbal violence in the cause of Christ a fruit of the Spirit and they’ve adopted the real Santa as their patron saint.
- Also, most of us have lost people following our feeds. Is this the picture of Christ and the church we want to present? Is a fictional story of a Christian punching a heretic how we want to present ourselves?
This is not a helpful meme. It needs a good punch in the nose.