This is my first attempt to reflect on my experience of belief. I want to try, as far as I can, to avoid discussing theological concepts or models of belief. Reflecting simply on what I have experienced as a believer. In this first post I recall growing up believing in God.
For introducing me to belief in God I must thank my parents. And also the Methodist church I attended for much of my childhood. Even though my parents were not very religious, Christianity was cultural and an expected part of growing up. When I say they were not religious I don’t mean to imply that they were atheists either, but simply secular through lack of engagement with their own beliefs.
We attended a Methodist church for no other reason than that my parents viewed it as an English equivalent to my Father’s N.G. (Dutch Reformed) denomination in which we were baptized as babies. As far as Sunday school is concerned, the thing that stands out most vividly in my imagination is worship, especially a song called “Jehovah Jirah” and another called “Love the Lord your God”. I can remember enjoying these and other songs, and sang many of them outside of the Sunday school setting – which is strange given my complete inaptitude for all other forms of music.
At home, my mom sometimes read bible stories to us and at night, I will forever remember the “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer. How, as a young boy, I pictured my soul leave my body as I lay down to sleep – hopeful that it had made its’ way to God. And that should anything happen to me while I lay there in my bed, at least my soul was safe in God’s hands.
I also remember the need, sometimes, to pray that prayer, and later the Lord’s Prayer, over and over again. These repetitions arose from concerns that I had become distracted, and had allowed the prayer to be completed on autopilot. This of course seemed problematic since perhaps auto-pilot prayer didn’t have the same power as self-navigated prayer. If this was true then perhaps God hadn’t heard that He needed to “keep my soul”, or “forgive my trespasses”, or “deliver me from evil”. Thankfully I never let the autopilot continue once I had noticed it, and usually I was satisfied that the prayer following the discovery was done with sufficient devotion and care to reach the ears of God.
To this day this habit continues and will often manifest as repeated grace during the first bite of the meal, as I move the focalized prayer at the table to my heart, and there reiterate my gratitude for God’s provision. Likewise, the Lord’s prayer is still at times susceptible to autopilot transmissions, and still I feel the need to bring my focus back to the prayer and repeat whatever was spoken without intention. These early struggles are also discernible in my need to sometimes overemphasize my intention, or meaning, in prayer – in case God misunderstood me and thinks I’ve communicated something unacceptable.
I remember the first time I was hurt by “the church” or rather by members of it. It was the usual bullying that many of us experience at various times when we are young. My experiences unfortunately connected to those who were part of the body of Christ – but also just little boys like myself. And though I no longer connect the hurt to the church, the bullying itself has left deep scars.
I also remember my first unanswered prayer. Oh, there may have been others before this. But this one was different. This was something very personal and something very painful and I wanted deeply for God to change it. I prayed and prayed and prayed, waking each day to find the prayer unanswered. I have no idea how long it went on for or when I finally realized God wasn’t going to answer the prayer. It was an unspoken prayer and nobody knew that I was praying besides me and God. I also have no idea what I thought of God because of this but I do remember the pain of living daily with a reality that I deeply desired to escape and finding no God to take the pain away.
Until I was 16 my outlook on life was narrow and finite. I believed everything I had been taught and had no reason, nor any desire, to believe differently. That was until I read a newspaper report linking God to a part of the brain. Innocently my eyes had fallen onto one of the headlines of the open newspaper lying on the dining-room table. It read something like, ‘Scientists discover God linked to part of the Brain’. In an instant my world changed. Suddenly my clear and solid vision became blurry and unstable. For the first time that I can remember, I had encountered something I had no tools to engage. My childlike faith was never taught about the supposed conflict between science and religion. I had grown up believing that both were true, along with history, geography and everything else. This brief moment would launch me into adolescence in a way that left the rest of puberty looking quiet tame in comparison. In many ways it was the death of my childlike faith.
Today I deleted some posts from my blog. It’s the first time since starting the blog that I’ve removed something I previously wrote. There are many things on this blog that I’ve written and then changed my mind about. I haven’t deleted these, but allowed them to stand as developments in consciousness and thought. However, over the last few months I took a radical stance on some issues that I’d prefer not to identify with and would dislike others to encounter should they randomly come across a blog post.
Let me explain. I encountered some radical forms of charismatic and mystical expression a few months ago that left me concerned. This concern grew into fear and the fear gave rise to suspicion and doubt, which was then directed towards ever growing spheres of reality connected to the initial concern. It was one of those “A is bad, A is connected to B therefore B is bad” kind of things that soon became an “everything is bad” perspective. Unfortunately the “everything is bad” perspective just doesn’t sit well with my soul and eventually I had to go back and reconsider whether everything really is bad.
I don’t think it is!
I could be wrong, but I just don’t feel like having an “everything is bad” perspective represented on this blog is helpful.
“Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good!” Genesis 1:31
Six months ago I wrote a post about feeling like I’m living on a spiritual merry-go-round. Like I just keep encountering the same issues over and over again. Perhaps the problem is that I don’t hear so well and God needs to keep saying the same thing over and over and over.
Well, I’ve actually had some movement again and so I thought I’d post a bit of an update on the 5 issues I was exploring at the time of the original post.
1) Who is Jesus?
Check out my last post for the answer to this one. Suffice it to say that I think Jesus is exactly who the early church claimed he was. The incarnation of the Word of God. The Logos of God, born into the human race, fully God and fully man. Born to redeem mankind out of the hands of the evil one and reestablish humanity in relationship with the Father through the Son’s redeeming death and the work of the Holy Spirit in the body of Christ.
2) What is the Bible?
The Bible is a collection of various writings from key members of God’s adopted family. I believe God fully intended for the Bible to exist and to be used by his past, current and future children as they learn about the history of the people of God, the climactic birth, life and death of Israel’s (and the world’s) Messiah and Savior and the New Covenant established by Him.
While there are translation and interpretation issues in all Bible versions I no longer consider this an obstacle to the truth. I believe the Spirit of God can and will help every true seeker after the One and Only God to understand and rightly interpret everything that is vital to our relationship and salvation in Jesus Christ.
I think it is advantageous to read widely on difficult passages (both in terms of Bible translations and scholarly and pastoral interpretation) and seek God earnestly for answers to those issues that we struggle with.
I also think it is wise to always approach our interpretation with humility, as pride can easily blind us to our own faulty beliefs.
3) The Law and the Christian
After much prayer and reflection I am finally starting to let go of the issues raised by Messianic Judaism/Christianity. I still need to process some of this issue through writing but I’m starting to feel released from a legalistic desire to simply return to the letter of the law in the same way Israel lived before the New Covenant.
4) Is there really a Christian Mysticism
This issue has become one of the biggest life changers recently. I continued to question my motivation towards mysticism and began to see a sensate desire for experience that seemed akin to other unhealthy desires to feel a certain way.
In addition to this I encountered some disturbing realities linking various movements within contemporary Christianity that I have serious reservations about. In all these movements, mysticism and experience are the key components and seem to be the ties that bind the whole thing together. This has caused me to reconsider many movements and schools of thought that I had once felt quite at home in.
This issue needs its’ own post and so I will leave it at that for now.
5) Christian Apocalypticism
This one was on the bottom of the list and I’m actually only starting to re-explore it at the moment. In light of my previous issue on Christian Mysticism this last point has suddenly sprung to the front of my mind again.
I’m been very weary of jumping off the deep end with issues and yet I’m constantly finding myself up to my eyes in turbulent waters.
As far as this issue is concerned I find myself looking at it in two distinct ways. One way of looking at it is that we are standing on the precipice of greatness. While the world may look troubling on the surface there are some deep spiritual currents moving over the surface and the Spirit of God is hovering, ready to usher in the kingdom of God. If the church would just fix some of the problems of the past we could truly usher in the Millennium of Christ and establish the kingdom of God on earth.
The second way of looking at it (and the one I’ve usually considered more biblical) is that the world is not going to get any better and that the church is not going to get any better and that it is going to become progressively more difficult to remain true to the kingdom of God is a world that is doing all it can to destroy the gospel and the people of God.
Again in reference to the previous issue on mysticism, I’ve suddenly become very aware of the current trends in Christianity. A couple of years ago I thought mysticism very good and I felt like one of the few who saw the truth and really desired intimacy with God. Now I realize that the mystics are not the isolated visionaries, but rather they are becoming the staple stock of the new/emerging church. I light of this and many other issues I can simply say that I doubt what everybody thinks is the Truth and the Light is in fact going to turn out to be so in the end.
After a somewhat bumpy ride, which involved poring over digital and printed sources while laying all my concerns and struggles before my Heavenly Father, I feel I have found peace in my struggle with Jesus.
Of course I in no way mean that I now “fully understand Jesus” or that I have “conquered the mystery of Christ”, but simply that having wrestled with my issues over Jesus in the presence of God I have felt led to my current position. From here God may still take me much further or lead me down another road, but whatever the case, I know that it will be for my good and His Glory – Come What May!
For those of you who are interested I have recommitted myself to a Trinitarian understanding of God. While the Bible itself can be interpreted in various ways I think there is a danger in trying to view the text from a particular vantage point. By reading as a Unitarian I missed many of the clear markers of Jesus being more than just a man (even the perfect man).
N.T. Wright’s “The Challenge of Jesus”, together with the earliest Apostolic Fathers like Irenaeus and some help from other historical and theological sources, has left me firmly believing in the Incarnation of the Word of God who existed with and as God from eternity.
Where I may differ from other approaches to the Trinity is that I find myself in the Pre-Nicene understanding of the Trinity. Contrary to popular belief this is not the same understanding taught by the bulk of the Church today. The Eastern Orthodox position remains the most faithful and a number of individual Protestants and isolated churches are realizing this fact. This doesn’t mean that the rest of Eastern Orthodox theology is equally Apostolic (though they would like to argue otherwise) but I must with conscience side largely with them on this one – though I would rather say I side with the early church than with Eastern Orthodoxy.
A brief description of the position I now hold is as follows:
I believe that the Bible and Early Church taught the Monarchy of the Father and that the Father alone is the source of Deity. The Son and Spirit, while eternal and uncreated, derive their Divinity from the person of the Father.
The East has focused on the Unity of the Godhead as coming from the person of the Father while the West has focused on the Unity of the Godhead coming from the Essence or Substance of God. In a sense this makes God an eternal substance rather than an eternal person. I could say a little more about this but I direct you rather to some excellent scholarship on the matter.
For an easy read on the history of Trinitarian thought see, Christian History for Everyman.
For the Eastern Orthodox position as opposed to the Western (Filioque) position see, His Broken Body – The Filioque Controversy. This second link does much to describe some of the source of my struggle with the Trinity in the first place by describing the main differences between the logical outcome of Eastern and Western thought on the Trinity.
Finally I give you a Protestant description of the same issues with a slightly different conclusion but still wrestling with the same important dynamics. I include this perspective because it highlights the difficulties with the Calvinist/Reformed position and offers another Western position which I feel comes closer to the original view of the church (but still, in my opinion, falters on the filioque issue).
I wrote this as a reply to my friend Chris on his blog, Scarecrows in the Melon Patch. I’m posting it here because it expands on my thoughts from my previous post, clarifies some of my thinking and provides links to some sites that give much more detail than I can include here:
I completely agree with you that to go the route of purposefully rejecting clear biblical revelation is akin to spiritual suicide. I have no confidence in any secular, philosophical or mythological approach to the scriptures or their full revelation of God.
All that I am suggesting is that maybe (and I only say maybe because I’m still grappling with a lot of this) our understanding of Jesus could benefit from a reevaluation of who and what the messiah was and is. Our understanding of Jesus affects our understanding of the gospel & the nature of God and any misunderstanding of one effects all three. The position I am explaining is called Biblical Unitarianism or Christian Monotheism (This should not be confused with Universal Unitarianism – which teaches that everybody will be saved).
Biblical Unitarians believe in the full inerrancy of the scriptures and the need to maintain a strict biblical faith, which includes a belief in One God YHWH, His messiah Jesus, and our need for salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection. So I am not advocating an evolutionary approach or any other non-biblical model.
What I am saying is that by starting with the premise that Jesus is God we automatically read that understanding into the biblical text. For the last 2 or 3 months I have been listening to audio readings of the New Testament. When I started I decided to approach each section with an open mind, listening for a clear indication that Jesus was God, without reading my own assumptions into the passages. What I found consistently was that Jesus always refers back to the Father alone as God and so does Paul (even in Romans 1-3) and the other N.T writers.
There were a small handful of texts that I had to listen to a few times over as my mind automatically reverted to the old paradigm. After listening again and sometimes checking the Greek text and doing a little background study I am yet to find any conclusive evidence that Jesus is YHWH.
There are some passages (like John 1) that may suggest (though other interpretations can be suggested) Jesus pre-existed before being born. Even if this is true it doesn’t necessarily make him YHWH. It is well documented that Jews considered those aspect of reality, like the law, the messiah and the election of Israel to have existed “eternally” in the mind of God. In addition the bible also says that John the Baptist was sent from God and Jesus asks rhetorically whether John’s Baptism was from heaven or from men – neither of these mean that John or his baptism pre-existed in heaven before John was born.
In response to Jesus’ use of ἐγὼ εἰμι and the desire of the Jews to stone him I can say the following. I relooked at each case in which the texts describe the Pharisees, scribes, chief priests, lawyers, Sadducees and Jews wanting to kill, seize, or stone Jesus. I also looked at Jesus’ use of the aforementioned phrase. There is no significant connection between the use of the phrase and the attempts on his life. It is often used and usually translated as a self description without causing the Jews to attack him. Instead the attacks usually occur after another form of provocation which I will highlight hereafter. It is also clear that all translations are not equal; a short sampling will show what I mean:
In John 8:24 Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah and uses the term ἐγὼ εἰμι to identify himself as such. The ESV translates correctly and those that follow exhibit progressively more bias:
- “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” – English Standard Version (©2001)
- “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am [the one I claim to be], you will indeed die in your sins.” – New International Version (©1984)
- “That is why I said that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I Am who I claim to be, you will die in your sins.” – New Living Translation (©2007)
- “That is why I told you that you will die in your sins, for unless you believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.” International Standard Version (©2008)
Later in John 8:58 (still part of the same conversation in which the term is used three times and usually translated correctly twice), the majority of translations make no attempt to indicate that Jesus is still referring to himself as the Messiah and instead the reader is left with no other option but to think Jesus is referring to himself as I AM.
It is also interesting to note that in the Greek LXX the focus of God’s self-revelation in Exodus is not even really on the “I am” but on what follows ego eimi ho on, translated as, “I am The One Who Is.” (Ex. 3:14 NETS). As such Jesus’ use of the first part of the statement without the next is nowhere near the divine name of Exodus. The truth is that the messiah existed, whether physically or potentially in the mind of God way before Abraham was ever born. Therefore Abraham placed his hope in the coming of the messiah as did every other faithful God follower throughout the ages.
With regard to the Jews constant accusation of blasphemy, similar accusations are made numerous times throughout the bible (falsely and correctly) and not once is it used to indicate that the person is claiming to be God.
Rather, in every one of the accounts where they do try to kill or capture Jesus, he has done two key things. 1) He has openly denounced the religious leaders (and those who follow them) for their false spiritual system – going so far as to claim that they are the children of Satan. As such he is claiming that their so-called worship of YHWH is in fact false. 2) He also affirms his Divine appointment as Messiah, claiming direct authority from God in everything he says and does.
So in effect Jesus is saying: “I condemn you and because I have direct appointment and authority from God in all that I do – God condemns you.”
It is this outright condemnation of their entire false system (which the Pharisees, Sadducees and the like rule and propagate) that outrages them and creates in them the desire to kill Jesus. They accuse him of being possessed and he tells them that he represents God. They accuse him of blasphemy (dishonoring God) and he counters by telling them that they themselves are committing the unpardonable sin by declaring the work of God’s Holy Spirit to be the work of Satan – again condemning them.
They accuse him of blasphemy, not because he is claiming to be YHWH, but because the religious elite and those who follow them are claiming to represent YHWH and instead Jesus is telling everybody that they represent the devil.
During his trial they finally find two witnesses to accuse him of saying he will destroy the physical temple and rebuild it in 3 days – which they considered blasphemy (again being interpreted as dishonoring God – not claiming divinity). When he reaffirms that He makes those claims (though not their interpretation of the claims) as the Messiah and that they will see his power manifested when He is Seated at the Right hand of God they consider this enough evidence to have him killed.
As to Jesus not correcting their interpretation of his claims to deity, I think he does. In the first part of John 10 Jesus asserts his appointment by God as the only way to attain salvation. At the same time he denounces the religious elite as hired-hands who have forsaken the sheep. Additionally he affirms that this teaching and his authority come directly from the Father.
The next part of the chapter sees Jesus again denouncing the false spirituality rampant amongst the Jews and reasserting his right to judge by declaring that He and the Father are united in their mission – he and the Father are one. I don’t think this necessarily means they are one God – though this is usually the way we read it because of our preconceived ideas. [He later prays that his followers would be one with him and the Father in exactly the same way that he and the Father are One but we don’t take that to mean the Trinity will be growing in number].
When the Jews pick up stones to kill Jesus they say that he is claiming to be “a god”. Our English translations translate it “God” but this isn’t correct. Whenever the New Testament speaks about YHWH they use the Greek τὸν θεός (The God). Whenever they speak of gods (sometimes of men and also of heavenly beings) they simply use θεός (in its’ various forms), which is the case in John 10:33 and elsewhere.
This is clear from Jesus’ reply in which he says being called a god is no big deal since the scriptures themselves call men gods (but not The God). Jesus says he is the Son of God because he has been sanctified and sent into the world by the Father. He proves this by doing the works of the Father and shows that they are united in their mission.
31The Jews picked up stones again to stone Him. 32Jesus answered them, “I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?” 33The Jews answered Him, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God.” [a god]
34Jesus answered them, “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I SAID, YOU ARE GODS’? 35″If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), 36do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? 37″If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; 38but if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father.” 39Therefore they were seeking again to seize Him, and He eluded their grasp.
To conclude all of the above I would say that I’m still not convinced that the Messiah had to be YHWH. I’m open to him being YHWH but apart from always believing him to be I’m not finding the actual biblical evidence. I also re-examined messianic prophecies in the Old Testament. Not one of these prophecies indicate that the messiah would also be YHWH. Rather, if anything, they assert that the messiah would be a human being.
It was Greek philosophy that deemed it necessary for Jesus to be God in order to save us. But the bible itself never says this. Jesus substitutionary death is based on his obedience to God and his sinless life – not on his being divine. If I am incorrect on this it shouldn’t be too difficult to show that his divinity was a prerequisite for his ability to save – but I am yet to find this expressed in the text. Rather, I find that just as “by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection from the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” AND “There is one God and one mediator between God and men – the man Christ Jesus (emphasis mine from 1 Cor 15:21 and 1 Tim 2:5).
The last point to deal with is perhaps the reason we struggle more than anything with an alternative to the accepted understanding of Jesus. You allude to it when you say, “if it’s one giant colossal conspiracy cooked up by the… great Christian thinkers throughout history through whom Christianity has been ‘crafted’.” How do we deal with such a potential compromise of the biblical message without becoming cynical or disillusioned?
I suppose in a way it shouldn’t really surprise us. Protestants have long asserted that the early church went off track almost immediately after the death of the Apostles. My struggle to accept this fact is what drew me to Eastern Orthodoxy since I found it hard to believe that the church could apostatize so early in its’ history. But we already affirm this through our choice to disregard countless decisions of the historical church.
Consider for example that in addition to affirming the deity of Christ the Nicene council also promulgated 20 other doctrines for the entire church. The subsequent councils also promulgated volumes more. Yet we are convinced that most of these laws and doctrines are baseless and unbiblical but continue to stand by the decisions of these councils on matters of the Godhead. It seems to me that if we believe they were wrong about all these other matters they may have been just as wrong on such weighty issues as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – As Paul said, a little leaven leavens the whole lump.
So the last 3 or 4 weeks I’ve been engrossed in alternative understandings of the early church; the development of the church into Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy and the “heretical” groups who provided an alternative to the developing consensus.
In an age in which technology allows us to – fly around the world in 90 ton flying machines, send photos, music and information to each other through the airwaves, and provide power to our cities by splitting atoms, creating steam, turning turbines and moving electrons – it appears as though human beings have acquired immense knowledge of the world around them. In one sense this is absolutely true – the science of technology has given us insight into countless phenomenon and provided us with the tools to harness the power of the earth in unbelievable ways – but not all sciences have been as successful.
The word history come from the Greek historia (ἱστορία) and indicates knowledge acquired by investigation. In this sense it is very similar to the word science which comes from the Latin scientia, also meaning knowledge. Now while the natural and physical sciences have provided major insight into our world, insight that has directly affected our technological advancement, the science of history has been far less successful. The apparent success of the one and failure of the other is due, in large part, to the tools and methods employed and (more importantly) employable by each.
The Scientific Method seeks to explain the events and processes of nature in observable and reproducible ways. History on the other hand relies on the memories of others to tell a story about what has happened in the past. While the findings of natural science can (usually) be judged and evaluated by repeating the experiment – history cannot!
Unfortunately however, in an age where our intelligence has surpassed our wildest imagination, the average person simply believes that the successful domination of the science of history is automatically included in the powerful feats of modern man. But should anybody ever attempt an actual investigation of history, in which the outcome of such an investigation would hold serious consequences for the investigator – say perhaps an investigation into the history and development of the early church – it would gradually become apparent that history has a bias and a shadow that muddies the waters of reflection and darkens the memory so that the truth revealed is (perhaps incurably) obscured.
I once read that history is written by the winners. I didn’t understand it at the time, but it has become much clearer to me since then. George Orwell followed on from this understanding of history and said “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” Once history has been written – with all the bias, lies and deception capable of fallen human beings – it is written. It’s extremely difficult to look back over the expanse of 2000 years and try to get back to the reality of what really happened and what it was really all about. That wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t affect the present and the future – but it does!
What you believe about the past, especially as a Christian, directly affects the way you think about the present and the direction you will go in the future. While on the surface it may seem that the 30 000 Christian groups, denominations and traditions are separated over issues of theology, it would be more accurate to say they are separated by their history.
Each of these groups (and of course it’s more true of some than of others) is reaching back across time and space and telling their story – the history of the birth and development of Christianity. Each group has its’ heroes and its’ villains and each group explains its’ existence as the providential work of God in the face of the continual onslaught by the forces of darkness.
The Catholics tell of their fight against the evil forces of the Roman Empire and their providential victory both over Rome and over the heretical Arians, Ebionites and Marcionites. Later they tell of the lies and wickedness of the Protestant Reformation and the insidious evils of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. But God, they say, protected his Roman Catholic Church and brought it through the terrible trial and their history will show that without a doubt they are telling the truth.
The Orthodox tell of their holy battle against the Western Corrupters and the devastating effect of the rise of the Papacy. The persecution continued under Islam and then under Communism. But thankfully God has protected His One True Church and through the careful retelling of history the Orthodox can prove that they are this Church.
The Protestants tell of their spiritual awakening through the power of the Holy Spirit and their retrieval of the lost history of the Christian Church. They tell the story of the evil Catholics and their corruption of the simplicity of Early Christianity. They also tell of the evils of the Jews and how they sought to bind the young church back under the yoke of Judaism. The success of Protestantism is, of course, proof – that the Spirit of God has sanctioned the history of Protestantism and validated the truth thereof.
These three major traditions are evidence enough of the complexity involved in trying to recapture the past. There are many, many more stories like these and many more groups that tell the story through other eyes and emphases.
Currently I’m exploring the history of Christianity as told by the various Messianic groups. They tell the story of a Jewish Messiah sent by God to restore all things to his God and Father. They have many things in common with other Christian groups and many things that are different (even amongst themselves). But as they say…”the devil is in the details” and when it come to history, it’s the details that are the most difficult to see.
Over the last few months I’ve spent most of my time investigating the claims and theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Well, that came to an end recently and I’ve begun to see this exploration with some outside clarity again.
Most of the posts on this blog are in praise of Orthodoxy and while doing the research I had been more or less convinced of the Churches arguments for historical credibility. But now, while I’m still pondering somewhat, I’ve begun to sense the holes in some of their claims. An old friend and a new friend have challenged me to reconsider what I know and to spend some time with the bible – both of which have left me doubting many of the Orthodox positions. In addition, I’ve come to some new insights regarding claims to historicity and the ease at which one can use history to support your claims (in the same way one can use the bible to support your particular theology).
I can’t tell you how many times I simply feel like I’m going round in circles. Just when I’m quite confident that I’ve left something in the past and moved on…I hit a wall and realize it’s all too familiar.
My hope is that rather than circles I’m moving in some kind of spiral and every time I re-encounter something I move towards greater depth of clarity regarding each issue. This is my hope…but I’m in no way sure that it’s the case. It’s equally possible that I’m simply stuck on a theological merry-go-round with no way to get off!
Through my recent critique of Orthodoxy I’ve bumped into some familiar “old friends” that I thought I’d laid to rest…but apparently they’d like me to spend some more time with them.
So what are some of these recurring themes that I keep slamming into?
1. Who is Jesus?
Are the ancient councils of the Roman Catholic Church really the only options regarding who Jesus is? If we believe that the Church of Rome corrupted so many apostolic doctrines and practices, why do we simply take it for granted that they were right about Jesus? Who were those early heretics that claimed the churches interpretation of Jesus was wrong – do we just accept that it was the correct one or have we actually given these other interpretations a fair hearing and understood why these men (and woman) disagree/d with the status quo.
2. What is the bible?
The best-selling book of all time! But how many of us really know the issues surrounding the book that we all hold so dear. Like the fact that most contemporary translations of the Old Testament are made using the Greek translation which differs from the Hebrew manuscripts. What does it mean for us that there are a total of 4 different categories of ancient New Testament manuscripts and that nobody agrees which ones actually match the original autographs of the New Testament. Do we really realize how much interpretation goes into translation and that it has serious consequences for our understanding of the bible’s teachings.
3. The Law and the Christian
Mainline Christianity has always taught that Christians don’t need to obey the Old Testament Law. The Catholic Church officially changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday (with no scriptural basis for doing so) and removed the second of the 10 commandments from their catechism (splitting the last commandment in two to retain the number 10). In recent years Messianic Christianity and other prophetic movements have claimed that the Catholic Church parted ways with the early church on this issue. They say that realizing that the Law cannot save us and discarding the Law are two very different things. What exactly did Jesus mean when he said that not a single “comma or full stop” would be removed from the law (except those parts that he fulfilled – like the abolishment of the sacrificial system) and that if we break the least commandment or teach others to do so we shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven. Should we be keeping the Sabbath and all the other Laws in the Old Testament?
4. Is there really a Christian Mysticism?
I loved mysticism and spiritual experience before I loved Jesus. And when I found out that Christianity had a mysticism I was immediately interested. At first it did concern me that the only places I would find this mysticism were in Catholicism or Orthodoxy, but my desire for experiencing God transcended my fears. It just had to be true, otherwise, why would I want it so badly. But recently I’ve been wondering what exactly it is that I’m after with my mysticism. Am I simply wanting to wallow in the energies of God because they make me feel good? Did I simply replace my one time drug addiction for a God addiction? Just what is the relationship between mysticism and my desire to feel good?
5. Christian Apocalypticism
No matter how you read it, the bible is an apocalyptic book. It is full of warnings, signs and prophecies relating to the end of time. I once held a very negative view of the world based on my understanding of the bible and its’ apocalyptic warnings. But the negative outlook became too much for me and I tried hard to see the world with different eyes – to have some hope that maybe the institutional church and the institutions of the world were not all as bad as the bible said they would be. My engagement with the theology of the emergent church and my exploration of Orthodoxy was part of my hope of finding some light in the church. But recently I’ve been challenged once again to stop looking at the world and the church with rose colored glasses and to accept the truth that I saw many years ago. Are we naïve to believe that there is still some hope left or are we just in denial about the true spiritual emptiness of the world around us?
Well, these are my current struggles and I’ll probably be writing more about them in the weeks to come – they’ve veered me quite far off the path of Eastern Orthodoxy and that’s okay. I simply pray for God’s grace to see the truth in a world that hates the truth and tries to extinguish the Light wherever it appears. May Your Word be a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.
So I’m really wrestling hard lately with the questions that have come up as a result of my exploration of Eastern Orthodoxy. What has made it even harder is the fact that I’m alone, half way around the world and could really use someone to talk this stuff over with, someone I trust and very importantly someone I feel is capable of actually sifting through this stuff with me and keeping me from being blinded by my own deficient insight.
I really thank God that while I can’t claim to have a whole community of people like that, I do have one lone wolf who I know I can count on to help me. So, after speaking to my confidant on Friday, I agreed to write down some of the main points of interest and concern and he agreed to have a look. My prayer regarding all of this is that we both find something of value that God wants to show us.
So here’s what I’m discovering and struggling with so far:
I’d always assumed that the churches born of the Reformation were the re-claimers of a lost treasure. That though they were not perfect, they were a great deal better than their Roman Catholic predecessor and that any further developments in the church would be built on their strong and Spirit-filled foundations.
However, through a number of spiritual crises I became disillusioned with the Institutional Protestant Church. This disillusionment resulted in a forking of my spiritual journey. To the left I encountered the spiritual, mystical, existential, post-modern and emergent church. This loosely related body of believers gave me back the hope that Christianity could be fully expressed in this life without the shallow authoritarianism, materialism and overall inauthenticity I encountered in the Protestant church.
I was more than ready to embrace this new-found spiritual church but I just needed to confirm one thing. If this really was the True church, the New Testament Church and the Church of Jesus Christ it needed to stand up to historical criticism. After all, the theory is that this approach to Christianity is a recovery of the ancient practice and teachings of the New Testament believers. So I was standing at a fork in the road; spiritual church to my left – historical church to my right. My hope was that the fork would meet and that the two paths were in fact one!
When I started exploring the historical church I naturally came upon the Roman Catholic Church. My exploration of Roman Catholicism was both enlightening and disappointing. Historically the R.C. church had a number of very important claims. These claims had significant ramifications for theology and practice. Many of the apologetics were well argued and thought provoking. However I still struggled to reconcile certain developments in Catholicism with the theology and practices of the early church. That said, I also realized that the early church was far more sacramentally, liturgically and theologically connected to Roman Catholicism than my Protestant formation would have liked me to believe. This also left me with some problems in trying to bridge the gap between my “Protestantally” developed ideas about the spiritual and mystical church and the actual historical Early Church.
I was in a bit of a pickle…though historically more credible, I had some serious concerns regarding the Catholic Church…I also had an attraction to the emergent church but couldn’t reconcile it with history…neither of my two options seemed to fully encapsulate the historical Church of Jesus Christ. Providentially the Lord had seen it fit to give me a deep connection with all things mystical and when exploring all things in Christian Mysticism one realizes that Protestantism and Catholicism are not the only options.
While I had discovered the Orthodox Church a long time before this recent struggle it had remained somewhat of a mystery to me in terms of actual content. I was attracted to its’ theology of Theosis and enjoyed the mystical anthologies of the desert fathers. But this was the limit of my knowledge on the subject. It was only recently that I encountered its’ claims to be the One True Church of Jesus Christ founded on the ministry of Jesus and his Apostles with a 2000 year unbroken line of Apostolic succession.
My concern over the lack of historical credibility in the emerging church developed into a struggle over the low Christology and Ecclesiology evidenced in the movement. The historical church had both a High Christology and a High Ecclesiology. The emergent church seemed to struggle to fully embrace the reality of the Incarnation. Jesus appears either so human that the church is no more that a humanitarian community of love that seeks to improve the state of the world…Or so spiritual that the world is simply forgotten in favor of a platonic or gnostic rejection of all material, physical and earthly manifestations of Christianity. A relapse of the same Christological struggles of the early centuries.
Where both these views fail to fully embrace the reality of Jesus – Both Fully God and Fully Man, the Orthodox view upholds the full vision and reality of the Incarnation. I’ve discovered in its’ sacramental worldview a vision of The Church and the Spiritual Life of the Christian that exceeds everything I’ve explored before. I am yet to find anything that indicates a departure from the theology and practice of the early church and continue to realize daily just how narrow-minded and uninformed Protestants actual are concerning many of these realities. This is not said arrogantly or with ill-intent, but rather as an expression of my own mindset while discovering the riches of Orthodoxy.
This is but a brief overview of my initial thoughts on the potential value in Eastern Orthodoxy and in the weeks to come I’d like to continue exploring some of these realities in greater detail. For anyone interested in a summary of the history of the church I recommend the article History of the Orthodox Church by Aristeides Papadakis, Ph.D.
I decided to take a break from the Solas to consider the latest issue that has come up for me – That of the Apostasy of the Early Church.
What happened to the Church of Jesus Christ? This was a major question motivating the Reformer’s zeal for change. But of course they didn’t believe they were actually changing the church…oh no, that would be dangerous and blasphemous. No, instead they believed their mission to be one of re-forming…the way a plastic surgeon would re-form a body broken through some terrible event. A RESTORATION OF THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST- this is how those 16th century men understood their mission; to Restore the Lost Body of Jesus to its’ New Testament Roots.
Naturally the idea of Apostasy comes into play here. Unless we care very little for New Testament Biblical prophecy, we can’t escape the repeated warnings throughout the New Testament that a time of Apostasy would follow the establishment of the Christian Church. Paul, John, Peter and Jude all speak of the battle the Church would face in maintaining the Truth. In fact they even indicate that the corruption of truth had already begun and in some cases was the cause of their writing about it. The Bible definitely addresses a falling away from the True Church that would come as a result of adhering to strange doctrines and practices foreign to the doctrines and practices of the Early Church (built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets with Jesus as Its’ Corner Stone).
Now any good child of the reformation is supposed to believe that it is the Roman Catholic Church that represents this Apostasy. After all, the only defensible argument for changing the historical beliefs and practices of the church is that the church had fallen away from its’ position as the Body of Christ. This may seem strange to say today in lieu of the ecumenical spirit that prevails in this generation, but without this historical mandate the reformers would have had no leg to stand on.
So, did the early church apostatize? Is this what the Bible says would happen?
I’m beginning to think otherwise!
First of all, Jesus says that He will build His Church on the foundation of the Apostles and that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. This would indicate that Jesus would be building One Church and that that One Church would never be overcome. In Ephesians 4:4-6 Paul confirms that there is in fact only One Church:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.
Later in the same Epistle Paul tells us how Jesus feels about this church:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church (Eph 5:25-32).
But what then of all the “falling away” and the deception by “traditions of men” and “doctrines of demons”? Didn’t I start this post with a Biblical appeal to the validity of the apostate church?
Well…No, I didn’t!
Not to the validity of an apostate church. In fact every description of apostasy indicates that the apostate fall away from the church of Christ.
Acts 20:28-30: Paul, speaking to the Elders of the church in Ephesus, reminds them of their position of authority given them by the Holy Spirit to protect the church. Warning them that Wolves would come in from outside and even grow up from inside the church – “to draw away the disciples after themselves”.
2 Thess 2:15: Paul tells of the great falling away that will occur before the Return of Christ and that the falling away from the church occurs because people reject the traditions of the Apostles (both the Oral Traditions AND those Written in the Epistles).
1 Tim 4:1: Paul says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, i.e. leave the faith. He goes on in 2 Timothy to describe some of these people that do not endure (stay with) correct doctrine, but seek out teachers who agree with their own erroneous views. An example of a deserter is given in Demas, who is said to have forsaken Paul and run back to the ways of the world. Interestingly Paul, urging Timothy to fight to maintain the Truth he has received, tells him that it is the “house of God”, “the church of the living God” which is “the pillar and ground of the truth”.
2 Pet: Peter warns about many things concerning the way and manner of those who turn away from the truth. Though they seek to bring heresy into the Church, their end result is like the Pig, who after having washed (entering into the church) returns again to wallow in the mud (forsakes the church).
1 John 2:19: John clearly indicates that while many antichrists have already appeared in the church, they are easily identified by the fact that they leave the church. If they had really been a part of the Body of Christ they would not have left the Body. Their exit from the church is their identifying marker.
Jude 3-19: Jude also has a lot to say about the apostates, but a clear indication of their identity is that they deny the clear and established doctrines of the church, rebel against its’ God ordained Authorities and seek to create factions to gather people after themselves.
So where am I going with all of this?
It just seems to me that if Jesus established a Physical Body of Believers as His Own Body and Church. And promised to take care of and protect that Church from heresy and corruption. We need to look a lot further back than the 1500/1600s to find it.
The only two bodies that appear to have any valid historical claim to be the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church are the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox. And in my mind only One of those can actually be correct in their claim, since Jesus and the Apostles say there is only One Church. For various reasons I continually find myself siding with the Orthodox…but I sense the end of this journey may still be a long way off.
The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice – George Eliot.
If that is true then my sense of lack regarding my spiritual growth is a direct consequence of my inability to decide.
The world is a shopping mall. A buffet of options to satisfy every taste. Religion as a man-made reality is no different. Whatever your particular take on God there’s a religion, or a church, or a gathering of people to match your outlook. Not only that, but you can tweak that outlook any way you like and still find at least one group of people who agree with you.
Draw up any list about the nature of church, spirituality and God and I’m pretty sure you can find a circle of friends who feel the same way and would love to include you in their fellowship. And yet, with all the options and opportunities out there I find myself standing and staring out at the religious landscape unable to commit to anything more than the Lordship and Saving Grace of Jesus Christ.
Now this may seem like enough to some of you – and in some ways it really and truly is. But in another sense it leaves me depressingly incomplete. The ministry of Jesus was the redemption of the world; He accomplished the task God set for Him and that is why I call Him Lord and Saviour. The dual task He then set for His followers is to Love God and Love others. The vehicle through which this should be done is the fellowship of other followers who corporately manifest His body i.e. The Church. The Church is supposed to play a vital role in the Kingdom agenda of Jesus’ disciples. Therefore, without a church I am like a dismembered hand dragging myself along the road unable to carry out very much of anything.
The problem for me is not that I don’t believe anything regarding the church, in fact it is just the opposite. I’ve explored and investigated so many facets of the church that I have become disillusioned by the exclusive claims of all of them. At this stage I cannot commit to being ONLY Baptist, or Evangelical, or Anglican, or Protestant, or Catholic, or Orthodox, or Emergent…
And so we come to this blog. I’m tired of driving myself and my wife crazy with revolving arguments and endless commentary. I’m hoping that by writing down some of my wrestling I will start sensing some movement in this endless struggle with God and His Church. My prayer is that when the morning breaks God will bless me with a new perspective on His Beautiful Bride and my heart can finally find some peace in a Christian Body.