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).
While Jesus has been a central figure in my thoughts lately, this struggle is far from new. In fact I can clearly recall struggling with the concept of the Trinity even after I rejected traditional Christianity as a teenager of 16 or 17. You may wonder how it was that I struggled with the Trinity if I had rejected traditional Christianity. Thankfully I still continued to read the Bible. I didn’t understand it theologically and approached it with various biases. But I still found myself confronted with a being called God, with a man named Jesus and with “something” called the Holy Spirit.
At the time I was immersing myself in a spiritualized drug culture. I practiced the use of various narcotic substances as gateways to the spiritual realm – to direct contact with God and with divine revelation. The consequences were dire and I steadily began losing touch with reality.
I fully accepted that God was real and that there was only One God. You may be surprised to learn that I gleaned this truth, not from Judaism or Christianity but, from (seemingly polytheistic) Hinduism. With an entrenched belief in One God it was very difficult for me to understand Christianity’s claim that Jesus was God.
Of course Hinduism’s influence left me thoroughly pantheistic in my theology and I could therefore accept Jesus as an individual keenly aware of his own internal divinity. Perhaps the leading figure of some kind of sorcerer’s coven (there were 13 of them after all) which demonstrated their obvious connection to God through various healings and other miracles. I could not however accept him as the One and Only True God – not in a way that was radically different from my, or anyone else’s, ability to realize divine consciousness. After all, there was only One God, the God to whom Jesus prayed and from whom he received his power and purpose. To accept that Jesus was this same One God seemed illogical.
As a result of my drug use and steady decline into insanity I finally had a serious breakdown. Thanks be to God the experience left me much saner, rejecting drugs and eastern metaphysics, accepting salvation through Jesus Christ and returning to traditional Christianity. At the time I just took it for granted that the doctrine of the Trinity explained as much as we could know about God the Father, the Son of God and the Holy Spirit. I was happy simply trying to build relationship with God on the basis of my repentance and forgiveness in Jesus.
When I first encountered the Jesus of the Mormons and Jehovah’s witnesses I brushed him off without much consideration. I knew there were alternatives to the Christian religion and even alternative understandings of the Bible. I had already had about as much as my mind could handle of alternate views of the truth and I wasn’t really interested in disappearing down the rabbit-hole again. But I didn’t remain in that state for very long.
I’m a born researcher, I love reading and I have a deep desire to know! While I’m not sure how skilled I am as a teacher, I certainly have a passion for sharing what I learn with those around me. I think this was one of the main factors contributing to my desire to become a pastor. I had always believed that religious truth was more important than anything else and having now found the truth (or so I thought) I should spend my life sharing it with others. Bible College was a real eye opener.
During my time at college I realized just how muddy the waters of Christianity really are. Suddenly I wasn’t quite sure exactly what the truth was anymore. I, along with a few friends, found that our understanding of Christianity didn’t always line up with the mainstream. I found myself easily able to follow the arguments of different schools of thought and enter into their paradigms so as to understand what they believed and why. It often seemed that both sides of a conflict had really valid reasons for upholding their views and no easy way to determine who was right and who was wrong.
I clearly remember the first time, post-conversion, that I hit a major crisis regarding Jesus. I had taken a break from my studies and Nicky and I had decided to spend some time teaching English in Thailand while reflecting on our walk with God. While there I encountered the teachings of various messianic Christian groups. These groups held numerous positions contrary to the established views of traditional Christianity on topics such as, The Law, Grace and Works, the Sabbath, Jesus and God.
For the first time I actively engaged with Christians who held a radically different understanding of Jesus and the Father. The interaction was fueled by the fact that these Christians were acknowledging problems in the common teachings of Christianity that I had already noticed when I read my Bible. At the time the interaction left me feeling seriously unsettled and upset. I discussed some of the problems with friends and through their explanations and recommendations I brought an end to my inquiry and placed a few band-aids over the unresolved issues.
Recently however, in the Great Circle of Life, these band-aids have popped off again and without the unsettling and despair created by my first encounter with the subject I find myself once again struggling with the same issues. Central to this whole issue is the person of Jesus.
A number of weeks ago my friend Chris made the comment that he believes that “no matter what people have said about the canonization of the Bible, it is the one collection of ‘dissident’ books that cuts through the illusion and speaks plainly into our human reality.” I happen to think that to a large degree he is correct – However…
Issues of Translation and Interpretation (T&I) still stand. It was on the basis of the life of Jesus and the Apostles Interpretation of that life together with their interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures that they were able to preach Jesus as the Messiah. It was also issues of T&I that caused the separation of the Messianic community from the rest of Judaism, giving it its’ own identity. Later issues of T&I saw the newly established Way developing into Roman Catholicism. Very soon issues of T&I gave birth to Oriental Orthodoxy and later saw the division of the Roman West from the Orthodox East. It was issues of T&I that gave rise to the Protestant Reformation and these same issues have continued to birth new denominations, sects and cults right up to this very day.
The issue isn’t only related to how we as Christians, Bible students and pastors interpret scripture – it goes right to the root of Biblical translation itself. The reason I still agree with Chris though is that the core message of the Bible is clear –
There is One God who created the entire universe. He made mankind in His own Image and Likeness. Mankind fell away from God through sin and continues in this state. God established a plan to reconnect relationally with humanity. That plan was communicated prophetically to Adam and Eve from the very outset and as God’s direct reply to their sin and the corruption of Satan. The plan was then set into motion through various individuals and especially through the nation of Israel. It culminated in the birth of Jesus as the long prophesied Messiah who was conceived miraculously by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The result was a New Adam – a perfect man without sin. Unlike the first Adam the second Adam did not succumb to the temptations and deceits of the devil. His pure and untainted blood provided the sacrifice necessary to destroy sin and death. By accepting his sacrifice on our behalf we are covered by his holy blood and receive God’s Spirit to empower us to live holy and righteous lives. The Bible goes on to give guidance on what it means to live holy and righteous before God.
So what is my issue? My issue is this: Is Jesus God?
The source of my concern is two-fold. One is related to the Bible itself (hence my rant about interpretation) and the other is related to the documented history of pre-Nicene Christianity.
Every traditional Christian after the Nicene Council of 325 was forced by threat of excommunication, exile or death to believe that Jesus was God. It is usually asserted, without much research, that the council simply confirmed and dogmatized the historical and apostolic teachings about Jesus. It is very easy to simply believe this since all traditional Christians have been Trinitarian for at least the last 1700 years. But does that make it true? Did the council really just write down what was already preached by the majority of Christians from the time of the Apostles? I would argue that the theory isn’t as solid as it sounds.
Of course my queries would never have taken me to the history of the early church if I hadn’t already found in the Bible issues that seemed incompatible with the authorized view of the Trinity. I don’t understand how something that appears to be central to the theology of later Christianity needs to be gleaned from hints and suggestions rather than from plain and obvious statements.
On top of the fact that the Trinity, if it appears at all, is veiled and hidden (why?), the Biblical text gives numerous examples that appear to contradict the Trinity. While no clear Trinitarian theology can be found in the Bible the constant admonition that the Father alone is God is clear to anybody reading the text:
- “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
- “And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord:” (Mark 12:29)
- “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)
- “For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.” (1Corinthians 8:5-6)
- “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1Timothy 2:5)
- “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you. If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28)
- “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32)
- “Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” (John 20:17)
- “He who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall never go out of it: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from my God: and I will also write upon him my new name.” (Revelation 3:12)
- “But he (Stephen), being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55-56)
- “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (Colossians 1:15)
- “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.” (1 Corinthians 15:12-28)
- “I saw in the night visions, and, behold, [one] like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.” (Daniel 7:13)
From these and other texts it becomes clear that:
- Jesus prays to God. (John 17:1-3)
- Jesus has faith in God. (Hebrews 2:17,18, Hebrews 3:2)
- Jesus is a servant of God. (Acts 3:13)
- Jesus does not know things God knows. (Mark 13:32, Revelation 1:1)
- Jesus worships God. (John 4:22)
- Jesus has one who is God to him. (Revelation 3:12)
- Jesus is in subjection to God. (1 Corinthians 5:28)
- Jesus’ head is God. (1 Corinthians 11:1)
- Jesus has reverent submission, fear, of God. (Hebrews 5:7)
- Jesus is given lordship by God. (Acts 2:36)
- Jesus is exalted by God. (Acts 5:31)
- Jesus is made high priest by God. (Hebrews 5:10)
- Jesus is given authority by God. (Philippians 2:9)
- Jesus is given kingship by God. (Luke 1:32,33)
- Jesus is given judgment by God. (Acts 10:42)
- God raised [Jesus] from the dead”. (Acts 2:24, Romans 10.9, 1 Cor 15:15)
- Jesus is at the right hand of God. (Mark 16:19, Luke 22:69, Acts 2:33, Romans 8:34)
- Jesus is the one human mediator between the one God and man. (1 Tim 2:5)
- God put everything, except Himself, under Jesus. (1 Cor 15:24-28)
- Jesus did not think being “equal with God” should be grasped at. (Philippians 2:6)
Given the overwhelming evidence in contradiction to the authorized theology – of three eternal, divine, co-equal beings of one substance – the Trinity begins to seem a later development.
When you add this internal Biblical evidence to the historical evidence a clearer picture begins to emerge. The Jews were Monotheistic and while clearly understanding that God would save them through the Messiah, they never concluded that the Messiah would be God. Therefore the internal evidence of the Bible upholds this Jewish emphasis.
However, after the time of the apostles the church began to lose its’ Jewish mindset as the gospel went out to the gentile nations. The Son of God as Lord over All was originally a Jewish understanding of their perfect human Messiah given Lordship overall all of creation as the first fruits of the New Creation – but later through the influence of Greek philosophy we see this understanding abandoned in favor of God the Son as part of a Binatarian and then a Trinitarian Godhead.
The writings of the early church seem to show a gradual development in the theology of God. At first the Father is God and Jesus is Lord. But through such apologists as Justin Martyr we see the development of the Logos Christology (which Hellenizes the Jewish description of the Word/Plan/Mind of God in John 1:1 into a pre-existent Logos) in which Jesus is either a second God, a lesser God, a divine being of an angelic kind, or the personification of the Reason or Mind of God. These positions are known variously as Subordinationism, Binatarianism, Arianism, Adoptionism and other similar concepts. At this stage the Holy Spirit receives very little, if any, attention.
Later, especially at Alexandria Modalism becomes dominant and in other areas evidence of pure Trinitarianism becomes evident. Finally at the Nicene Council Binatarianism is codified and Trinitarianism becomes the upcoming and dominant Theology.
Naturally, without substantial Biblical evidence to support the new Trinitarian Theology, scribes began altering the text (Evidence of Trinitarian Corruptions of the Biblical Text). These corruptions are now widely acknowledged by almost all Trinitarian scholars. In addition to these corruptions a number of the writings of other early church fathers were corrupted, some of these corruptions are still used to try to support an earlier dating for Trinitarian theology.
Personally I have no desire to make Jesus anything other than God. It is what I’ve believed for the last 10 years and considering whether or not it is true is certainly no trivial matter.
That said, I want to make it clear that even if Jesus isn’t God in the same way that the Father is God it doesn’t mean that he suddenly becomes unimportant. The Bible may not teach a clear Divinity for Jesus but it does show him to be the pinnacle of human history and the means of salvation for all mankind. In addition, whether or not the Holy Spirit is a separate person from the Father or simply the Power and Energy of God in no way eliminates our need and reliance on the Power and Indwelling of the Spirit for daily Christian living.
In conclusion – these are my reflections given my current struggles and the information I’m dealing with at the moment. Who knows what I’ll learn tomorrow or the next day or a month or year from now. I’m really interested in dialoging with people on this one, so if any of this creates any sort of reaction in you lets chat. Perhaps you’ve got some insight that could help me understand all of this better.
One last thing – this study of Biblical Unitarianism (the belief in One God, the Father) has highlighted a couple of other interesting subjects for me that I may blog about in the months to come. Like the erroneous teachings about going to heaven when you die – nobody has! And the forgotten facts about Jesus’ central message concerning the coming of the Kingdom of God to earth (as in heaven) in the prophesied millennium.
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.
My research has slowed to random spurts here and there (though this post resulted in a bit of renewed investigation). I think the struggle of deciphering the truth has simply left me feeling like further accumulation of knowledge is redundant. I still welcome any replies however as I’ll probably get more use out of conversation from here on out than I will from taking in any more content.
It seems the history of Orthodoxy has been a continual struggle to hold onto the authentic truth in a world bent on eradicating it. If you look at the history of Orthodox conflicts with the rest of the world you can see a continual onslaught:
Orthodox – Roman Conflict: As we know the church was born in conflict, not only with the Roman state but also with Judaism. It generally swayed between bare tolerance and outright persecution.
Something that has struck me though is the clear disparity between what Protestants consider the early church to be like (non-institutional, home-based communities, no definitive clergy-laity divide) and the witness of the very early Apostolic fathers. Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp (30-100AD) were contemporaries of Peter, Paul and John and the theology and ecclesiology of these Bishops has more in common with Eastern Orthodoxy than Protestantism. In addition their roles in the church predate the “supposed” Romanising of the church structures by the Roman Politicians in 300-400AD.
Orthodox – Catholic Conflict / East – West Conflict: After the edict of toleration by Constantine and later the adoption of Christianity as the religion of the empire by Theodosius the conflict became internal. Over the next 600 years the East and West grew steadily apart, finally splitting when the Pope in Rome tried to exert universal control over the Church. They were however united enough to agree on the findings of 7 Ecumenical councils of the One Universal Church.
My opinion is that the East represents a truer (or True) reflection of the faith as taught by the early church. It is clear that the West engaged in far more renovations of the anciently held beliefs and practices, renovations like the role of the Pope in the One Church. This finally gave birth to the greatest changes of all under the Protestant Reformation and its’ aftermath.
Orthodox – Muslim Conflict: With the conquest of the Ottoman empire Orthodoxy became a persecuted religion once again. The Ottoman occupation of “formerly” Orthodox countries led to serious corruption in the hierarchy of the church and great difficulty for the average Christian. This occupation culminated in the World War I genocide of 2 million (Armenian, Assyrian and Greek) Orthodox Christians by the Ottoman Turks and Kurds.
Many problems developed during this time as a corrupt hierarchy leads to potential corruption of the whole system. However, since Orthodoxy has no individual leader the church tends to rectify the mistakes of past leaders. Deviations from True Orthodox teaching and practice correct themselves over time since Orthodoxy is judged by the whole church and not by a specific bishop in the church. Also, the Russian Orthodox Church was not affected by the Muslims and therefore not prone to the same mistakes caused by the Ottoman oppression.
Orthodox – Communist Conflict: Russia finally had its own turn to face persecution with the onset of Communism and its attempt to eradicate all religion. The Government followed a dual agenda of persecuting true Orthodox clergy and believers and also setting up a “state orthodox church” controlled by the government and corrupted from the start. Currently the Russian Orthodox Church is the biggest of the Eastern Orthodox Autonomous Bodies.
Throughout the 2000 year history of the Orthodox Church there has been a continual interplay between the Church and the State. At times this has been to the churches favour, but at other times it has seriously affected the churches ability to remain True to the Faith. In the long run I believe this has been one of the major downfalls in the history of Orthodoxy – one that still plagues parts of the church in the 21st century.
Orthodox – Globalization Conflict or Orthodoxy in the 21st Century: One of the major disappointments for me in my exploration of the church is that serious corruption has continued to plague it, especially in its relation to the secular authorities, but also due to the pride and political games of its hierarchy. But even as I write this I realise that it could be no other way – the claim be the True Church has never been a claim to be a church without Tares. I suppose I need to ask whether the Wheat appears to be True Wheat and simply try to ignore the Tares (Jesus seems to think this is the only way). But what I can say is that the state of the church today is no pretty picture – there are multiple issues regarding jurisdiction and arguments over authority. There are squabbles over some minor and major changes, things like clerical dress and appearance, liturgical calendars and participation in Ecumenical dialog. There is also a bit of conflict between the traditional Orthodox countries and American Orthodoxy which is seen by many as a Masonic, globalizing, renovating and modernising body (together with the patriarch of Constantinople) – which has serious consequences for a Church that values historical immutability.
In the end it seems the major conflict today is centered around how much the Church can change to meet the world it ministers to and where to hold onto old ways as a means of preserving the Faith Once Delivered by the Apostles.
I started this blog by acknowledging an interest in both historical Christianity (such as Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism) and postmodern Christianity (such as the Emerging Church Movement, Quakerism and other Post-modern manifestations of Christian Community). It seems to me however that as each week passes and I continue to write and reflect that I see the light of Orthodoxy burning brighter than its’ Post-modern counterparts. I’ve been really happy to discover that many of the things that attracted me to the “Emergents” has proven to have an even deeper expression in Orthodox Christianity, while those elements of emergent Christianity that concerned me are not found in the Historical Church. It appears that many of the positive developments that just “felt right” were in fact gleaned from an existing tradition as old as Christianity itself. Another development is that interacting with the heavy-weights of Orthodoxy has left me questioning some of my previously held positions regarding the Church. After becoming disillusioned with mainstream/evangelical Protestantism I thought I’d found the answer in the anti-institutional model of church. It seemed convincing that the early church was this spontaneous, free-form community of individuals connected to Christ as their individual heads, but the more I study the early church, and the historical record, the more these assumptions are shown to be false. In large part these positions are derived from reading certain New Testament texts without taking into consideration the fullness of the historical data or the Liturgical and Spiritual continuation with the model set out under Judaism.
As a result of this I’ve decided to write this week about something I’ve noticed in some of the Emergent groups that has struck me as deficient. I’m thinking especially of the emergent groups that are particularly anti-institutional and this perceived deficiency is hence rooted in their Ecclesiology. I started reflecting on this while exploring the Ecclesiology of Historical Christianity, which has always held a much higher view of the Church than its’ contemporary off-shoots. It seems to me that when the Reformers broke with the Catholic church they down-graded their view of the church and this process has simply continued to the present day. Now we have emergent groups that have such a low Ecclesiology that almost nothing of theological weight could be said about it. I don’t think many Protestant Christians even understand how low their view of the Church really is when compared to these older traditions. But it isn’t simply the age of the historical traditions that give them credit, it’s the Deep Theological content of their view of the Church that makes them, at least to me, upholders of a richer, deeper, more meaningful expression of what the Body of Christ really is.
One area (and there are a number of others) where this creates a problem is that I feel it causes some in the newer movements to fall short on the first of the two greatest commandments by replacing the first with the second.
One of the things the Emergents definitely seem to be getting right is the second greatest commandment. They understand community and they fight for it wherever they are. They really do Love others as themselves and are fighting hard to bring the kingdom to earth as it is in heaven – Feeding the poor, widowed and orphaned, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, caring for the environment, rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn. The Emergents, and those who think like them, are certainly following the biblical mandate to be community with each other and care for others as though they were literally an extension of their own body – the body of Christ. But that being said I still think that some of them are missing out on a vital part of what it means to be the Church.
A few years ago a well known Pentecostal minister wrote a book called, Liturgical Theology – the editors provide the following description:
Bad worship produces bad theology, and bad theology produces an unhealthy church.
In Liturgical Theology, Simon Chan issues a call to evangelicals to develop a mature theology of the church–an ecclesiology that is grounded in the church’s identity as a worshiping community. Evangelicals, he argues, are confused about the meaning and purpose of the church in part because they have an inadequate understanding of Christian worship. As a remedy for this ailment, Chan presents a coherent theology of the church that pays particular attention to the liturgical practices that have constituted Christian worship throughout the centuries. With a seasoned eye and steady hand, he guides the reader through these practices and unpacks their significance for theology, spirituality and the renewal of evangelicalism in the postmodern era.
I find it encouraging that a Protestant Evangelical would acknowledge such a significant lack in the Churches identity and practice. That said however I find it strange that many Protestants will try to “reclaim” elements of the past without realizing that a Church exists, and has existed since the beginning, that holds every single one of the ancient Church’s teachings and practices (an example of what happens when church history is taken seriously can be seen in Peter Gillquist and his Campus Crusade colleagues who took the “reclaiming” to its’ logical and spiritual conclusion by joining the Eastern Orthodox Church).
Chan makes an interesting statement in the book that has confused a number of his Protestant readers, he says:
“The church precedes creation in that it is what God has in view from all eternity and creation is the means by which God fulfills his eternal purpose in time. The church does not exist in order to fix a broken creation, rather creation exists to realize the church.”
For most Protestants the Church only exists because Adam and Eve fell. But the Orthodox Church teaches that God’s plan for creation always included the Church and always included the Incarnation. Humanity was always meant to become a divinized people. God always meant to join humanity to his Divinity through the Incarnation resulting in the divinization of all creation through humanity– with Christ Incarnate as the epicenter of that creation. Therefore the Church is much more than a loosely connected body of people who believe and practice various different things about Jesus. When we become members of the One Church we enter into the people of God, the people who find their existence fulfilled through the worship of God.
Historically the church is first and foremost a worshiping community. The Greatest Commandment is to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. We were restored to fellowship with God so that we could once again join the heavenly host in crying out to God holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God almighty.
Now I’m not trying to say that Emergents don’t worship God, it just seems to me that the first and second commandments have somehow become reversed in some of their thought and practice. The church is simply the term used to denote followers of Jesus who love each other well and live out his mandate to be there for each other through the ups and downs of life. A people who seek to build the expression of this communal life practice wherever they go. Now this is great, but it’s not enough.
The church exists to worship God and through that worship to become recipients and conduits for the grace and energy of God to reach out into every sphere of life and creation. If our primary focus is community before worship we will very soon be building that community on our own steam and find that eventually the source of our energy is insufficient to create what can only be done by keeping first things first.
I think this same lack is true of many evangelical churches as well, in which the preaching of the word, rather than the worshipping of the Word Incarnate, takes center stage.
I really feel that the Orthodox Churches Ecclesiology, both theologically and practically brings the fullness of what it means to be the Church. The Divine Liturgy is centered on the worship of the Trinity. Sacramental theology is vital here and sharing communion is the center of their service. Through communal participation in the service the community is joined physically and spiritually to the Incarnate Christ. It is through this Worship and by Participating in the Body and Blood, the Grace and Energy, the Life and Spirit of God, that the Christian is able to Love their Neighbor as themselves and be Christ to the world. Without this as the center of the Christian Life I think the churches of the Reformation, and beyond, are going to continue to grasp for depth and meaning (sometimes with very good intentions) without finding the River of Life that flows from the Throne of God.
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.
I thought about calling this post “Does History Matter?” but immediately realized that the question is ridiculously rhetorical. I think it is reasonable to contend that the largest majority of thinking people would agree that history matters. How it matters is a completely different issue all together.
I’m specifically interested in how we approach the importance of history in relation to our religious beliefs and practices. As noted on my friend Sean’s blog I’m caught in a difficult pull between the church of the past and the church of the future. I see the problem as a choice between two ways of looking at church history. I’ll describe them as Perfect start-Fixed model vs. Good start-Improving model.
I think most people would agree that Jesus knew what he was doing when he called the 12 apostles and gave them the authority and direction to spread the gospel and build community amongst those who received the message. The New Testament is the testimony of that early mission and its’ outcomes in various places around the Mediterranean.
Perfect start-Fixed model
The first option, as I see it, is that what Jesus communicated to his Apostles and to the early church through prophetic and historical witness was the perfect start to the church. It described a fixed model through which God would continue to carry out His mission in the world. The perfect start included what can be found in the New Testament, but also includes the oral and written teachings of the Apostolic Fathers and Early Church Fathers (Tradition) as they continued to uphold the truth passed down to them through the church. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches uphold this understanding and believe that they have been given the mission of safe-guarding the truth handed down from generation to generation starting with Jesus and the Apostles.
Good start-Improving model
Another way of looking at it is that the church started off well, even Perfect. The New Testament records describe everything that is necessary for us to understand and practice Christian community. But that very early on, probably by the close of the apostolic age, the church moved steadily away from the truth revealed in and through Jesus and the Apostles. The Apostolic and Early Church Fathers are not reliable accounts of the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles and the manifestation of the church in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, and 15th century is an ever darkening image of the teachings of the New Testament church. It is only at the birth of the Protestant reformation that the church begins to return to her New Testament roots and through an ever improving understanding of Jesus and the Gospel the church will either return to a fully Biblical model (Protestant ideal) or even improve on the Good foundation of the Early Church (Emergent ideal).
Getting Back to History
So what is your take on the history of the church?
Taking a closer look at the history of the church has caused me to seriously question my Protestant assumptions about returning to a Biblical and Early Church model. I don’t think Protestants really take church history seriously enough. In fact one of my regrets from my college days is that they forced a year-long church history course into a two-week church history seminar. Clearly they were not concerned that their future ministers would be handicapped by a scant understanding of church history. Is it realistic to try to hurdle over 1500 years of history in order to get back to some kind of perfect ideal that could not even be preserved in communities connected directly to the Apostles. Or perhaps the perfect ideal was preserved but was sometimes expressed imperfectly through individual Christians. And perhaps it was this imperfect expression that caused Martin Luther and others to Protest. I just wonder whether the protest brought us closer to the truth or took us even further away! One of the many things that do concern me about that act of protest is the image it evokes in me of the aftermath – the church like a cracked glass bowl shatters into ever increasing shards – each trying to lay claim to their historical and biblical validity.