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Empire and Institution

My friend Sean recently wrote a piece called Heartbreak Empire in which he discusses the biblical narrative as a critique of Empire Building. My comment on his post was getting a little lengthy and so I decided to post it on my own blog instead.

Thanks once again for a thought provoking and well written post Sean.

You reveal a critical aspect of the biblical story – God’s disapproval of Empire – and I fully agree!

In all its’ horrid manifestations Empire is always opposed to the Kingdom of God. I do find myself wondering though whether we at times conflate Empire and Institution when we speak about the church. I think we all know what we mean when we criticize the institutional church. But I also think that sometimes our meaning is lost on those who operate in and minster out of healthy institution. I’ve been feeling led recently to write something of a flipside view of church as institution.

I say this because in a sense institution is simply another word for organization, association, society and the like. In this sense it is nothing but the visible manifestation of people organized around a common goal or mission. Therefore the church is naturally institutional. In fact human beings are naturally institutional since the opposite of institution is generally anarchy or at the very least disorganization.

Institution can be many things, amongst others it can be organic, healthy, holistic, love-centered, people-centered, edifying, self-sacrificing. But it can also be oppressive, power-hungry, corrupt, selfish, profit-centered, static or life-less.

While I also agree that the adoption of Christianity as state religion under Constantine had major implications for the direction the church took in subsequent generation. I also see a bit of a danger in overstating a romanticized version of the Church before Constantine and demonizing most of what followed as though there is no continuity between the church pre-Constantine and the church post-Constantine (Which I don’t think you necessarily do – but I think there is a danger there).

As you know, I’ve often been drawn to these kinds of black and white scenarios. But recently (in part through you and Chris) I’ve been trying to see things a little differently. When I was studying the Eastern Orthodox Church I was surprised to see how much continuity actually exists in the church when viewed through the writings of the Apostolic Church Fathers both before and after Constantine.

Many of the things we think occurred through Constantine were already established in the 1st and 2nd centuries. As you note in your post this is well within the “persecuted church” stage of history. I’m talking about things like, church governance with bishops, priests and deacons serving a special and unique role in the church, the setting out of clear theological boundaries against Gnosticism, Judaism, Ebionism and other heresies (and thereby the justification for continued boundary setting in subsequent centuries), the discussion of the new ‘apostolic writings’ and the stages leading to their acceptance as Holy Scripture at Nicea (the Canon was not officially closed until the Protestant Reformation).

Of course I also agree with you that in the writings I’m referring to these realities are in their infancy (though still clearly accepted by the church) and under Constantine and Rome they gradually became more and more solidified as the Church grew in size (and power) – which led to both good and bad consequences. Many of these growths however were the natural consequence of a growing institution. When things are small they are easier to manage and require less formal structure, but once Christianity had become as big as it did it required greater institutional management – which was neither all good, nor all bad.

I think the ‘Parable of the Wheat and Tares’ speaks powerfully to this reality. We should always remember that under Constantine, under the Roman Popes (even during the Middle Ages) and even in the Western Institutional Church today we have a mixing of Good and Bad that Jesus warns us we are incapable of uprooting. Not that we should say nothing when we see evil (or even just unhelpful) realities in the church, but that we should remember that our vision is limited and sometimes we may think we are seeing Tare when in reality it is Wheat (and vice versa).

I’ve written before on some of my concerns regarding the nature and consequences of the protest that happened during the Reformation. While others had “protested” corruption in the church before they had also remained a part of it and sought to change it from the inside. Jesus taught in the temple and synagogues and lived as a Jew under Judaism – even while criticizing many of the failings that had befallen the nation. Similarly Francis of Assisi, who I know you are quite familiar with, remained within the church and brought about positive changes without creating the schisms of the Protestant reformation. Often schism, even for good reason is due to a power-play on both sides of the split – just look at the East West Schism.

That said, it seems true that the realities of the reformation protest did not allow for change from within and simply could not be contained within the Catholic Church. But it also just goes to show that even within an institution as hierarchical and structured as the Roman Catholic one a Saint like Francis can exist and do mighty things for the Kingdom of God.

I may take up this theme in a future post, an examination of the good that has been done in and through the institutional church. Not as a defense of the institution over against the voices of criticism, but just a reminder to myself and others that the Church as an institution is unavoidable. What we want to avoid is bad institution, corrupt institution and this is what we usually mean when we speak of institutional church. But any time human beings act in an organized manner institution is created in the sense that is forms the skeleton around which we, as the muscles, blood, nerves, and skin, may operate. What we want to aim for is healthy and Spirit-led institution. Institution that is organic and life-giving.

I think we would all agree that the church as institution, both before Constantine and since, has never failed to have positive aspects – even if at times the negatives almost seem to outweigh the positives. It is easy to get caught up in the negative aspects of what the church has done and is doing – and at times this is needed – but in the long run I think we also need to remind ourselves of the good things the church has done and is doing as it shares the Light of Jesus with a world caught in darkness.

But just to reiterate, where I fully agree with you and the main point of your post is that God opposes empire, Jesus opposed empire and ultimately it seems that the meta-narrative of the bible really is a critique of human institution as Empire Building and the incompatibility of Empire with the Kingdom of God.

Existential Christianity

So what may have appeared obvious to others for a long time has become clearer to me recently.

In essence much of my struggle has been between various groups who claim Christianity contains external truths that must be believed and defended. Over on the other side of the road we have various groups who consider Christianity to be a more existential, esoteric or spiritual reality that cannot be tied down to concrete dogmas, doctrines, rituals and practices.

While I’ve been going round in circles trying to figure out which brand of Christianity is historically accurate, they’ve been trying to tell me that none of them are.

And you know what…I just might agree with them.

Translating the Truth

Recently I’ve been enjoying a revived interest in reading (and listening to podcasts of) the Bible. It has brought with it a deep sense of recommitment to understanding the messages contained in the biblical text without preconceived ideas about what I’m going to find. It has also introduced some deep wrestling with the difficult realities involved in trying to access a ca.3500 (Old Testament) and ca.2000 (New Testament) year old set of documents written in languages that are no longer immediately accessible. My last post relating to the complexities of historical research applies equally well to the Bible.

For me, the whole process has highlighted the related fields of translation and interpretation. Christianity has always relied on both. Right from the outset the early Christians had to choose between a Koine Greek (LXX –Septuagint) and a Classical Hebrew text of the Old Testament – they chose the Greek. Then they had to interpret the Old Testament in light of the events they had witnessed in the life and death of Jesus. This interpretation became the message of the Early Church.

Soon these early Apostles and disciples were writing their own texts (in Koine Greek) and circulating them around the churches. As the Church grew they started translating these texts into other languages. Soon there were a number of documents in circulation and while there was general consensus regarding the authenticity of most of the texts, there were a few that caused some disagreement.

During the 4th century a number of synods were held to discuss and vote on the agreed texts to be considered scripture. Koine Greek was developing into Medieval/Byzantine Greek and Latin was the preferred language of the Western Empire. As such Latin became the Ecclesial language of the Western Church, centered in Rome. Latin translations became the norm in the Roman Church while Byzantine Greek continued to develop and be used in the East.

As time went on the original autographs were lost and all that remained were the copies. Two thousand years later the bible is the most widely translated book in existence and few people ever stop to consider its’ history and structure. Most Christians simply accept that regardless of which version of the Bible they are reading, it contains an accurate translation of the lost originals.

Me and my Bible

A few months after my 19th birthday I had a traumatic and desperate realization of my need for repentance and grace. I accepted the message of salvation through Jesus and became a Christian. My first encounter with Christian community was a KJV-only house church. These Christians believed in the sole inspiration of the King James Version of the Bible. They told me that all other versions of the Bible were corrupt and purposefully diluted the Word of God. They showed me scripture after scripture that was changed or simply deleted in the newer versions of the Bible. At the time I had no understanding of the history of the Bible, how it was translated, or any other related issues – so I simply believed what they told me.

I was seriously conflicted when I later attended churches that used the NIV or other translations of the Bible. In my naivety I believed that all Bibles were translated from the same manuscripts and that the translations that departed from the text of the King James were using faulty and corrupted texts. I assumed this was done knowingly and purposefully to deceive people. I thought for example that the Watchtower’s (New World) translation used a corrupted Greek original and therefore translated John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the word was a god”, incorrectly. If they returned to the manuscripts of the KJV, I believed, they would realize their mistake and translate the text correctly.

I assumed that it was a simple matter to go back to the originals and gain an accurate translation of the very words of Jesus and the early apostles. I never realized that these originals no longer exist and that there are thousands of variants in the manuscripts we now have.

During my studies at the Baptist Theological College I became more trusting of other translations by learning about formal and dynamic equivalence. I was told that some Bibles, like the KJV, tried to give a literal (word-for-word) translation. Other Bibles, like the NIV or TLB, gave a dynamic equivalent (thought-for-though) translation. It was up to the reader to consult the kind of translation they required and to check different translations to confirm accuracy. I still hadn’t realized however the significance of not having the original manuscripts and the variations between different copies.

Translating the Bible is much more complicated than either my initial confidence in the KJV or my later confidence in the overall consensus of different versions led me to believe.

Translating the Old Testament

Regarding the Old Testament we still have the two options that our forefathers in the faith had – Greek or Hebrew. Unlike their situation however, Koine Greek and Classical Hebrew have been replaced by modern variants of those languages. Some words have fallen out of use, grammar and syntax rules have changed. This all creates a number of problems for translators trying to understand and reproduce the text into other languages.

At the start of the 20th Century the oldest Hebrew text (the Masoretic text) dated to about the 10th Century AD, a thousand years removed from the time of Jesus. The Greek text on the other hand survived in fragments from the 1st and 2nd Century BC and in complete manuscripts dating from the 4th Century AD.

The Greek text contains various texts that Protestants now consider unbiblical, but which were part of the Hebrew collections before the time of Jesus and also found amongst the Dead Sea scrolls. Several of these “apocryphal” books are still included in the Bibles of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and considered authoritative.

When the Greek and Hebrew texts are compared they differ in a number of places. Many scholars and translators preferred the Greek text because it was older. In addition many of the quotations in the New Testament appeared to come from the Septuagint rather than the Masoretic text. However, the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls pushed the dating of the earliest Hebrew manuscripts back 1000 years. Thus the Greek and Hebrew Old Testaments could face-off on equal footing.

The Dead Sea scrolls restored credibility to the 10th Century Masoretic text by showing that they more often agreed with the later Hebrew texts over the earlier Greek ones. This doesn’t automatically give preference to the Hebrew text, but rather indicates that both the Greek and Hebrew text types already existed side by side during the 1st Century. One criticism of the Septuagint, that is yet to be more fully explored by scholars, is that it appears to bear evidence of tampering.

It seems that after the early Church adopted the Greek text over the Hebrew they wished to defend their choice as supported by Jesus and the Apostles. They wished to make it appear that Jesus and the Apostles used the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew scrolls for their preaching and teaching. They did this by re-writing New Testament quotes of Old Testament passages back into the Old Testament texts of the Septuagint. Unfortunately this is not often admitted and scholars still use the faulty assumption that the re-written texts are part of the original.

Translating the New Testament

There are almost 6000 complete and partial fragments of the Greek New Testament manuscripts – more than any other ancient work in existence. In addition there are 10 000 Latin manuscripts and over 9000 manuscripts in various other ancient languages like Armenian, Coptic, Syriac and more. This fact at first excited me and gave me hope that at least the New Testament could be apprehended accurately and without controversy; but more doesn’t always mean better.

These manuscripts and fragments are divided into 3 categories based on content, which means that at least 3 different variants of translation have been handed down over the centuries – with thousands of differences even within the groups themselves. Many of these disparities are clearly scribal errors, a missed word, duplicated line etc. But amongst these obvious mistakes there are at times opposing texts that contain no clues as to which is the more accurate copy. The three groups are known as the Alexandrian (or Minority) text-type, the Western text-type and the Byzantine (or Majority) text-type.

The Western text-type shows clear manipulation and poor copying and is therefore considered the least preferable of the three options. There is great debate over whether the Alexandrian or Byzantine text-types should be given preference.

During the Reformation the Byzantine text type was preferred and used for translations like the KJV. This text-type makes up about 80% of all Biblical manuscripts and dates from the 5th century to the 16th century. In more modern times however scholars have argued that the much smaller collection of Alexandrian texts should be given preference due to their shorter readings and more ancient dating (2nd – 4th century). Therefore almost all modern translations (NIV, NAB, TNIV, NASB, RSV, ESV, ASV etc.) use the Alexandrian text-type as their primary base and only consider other texts if there are clear problems with the older text.

This position is contested by supporters of the Byzantine text who argue that amongst other issues, the small number of Alexandrian texts together with their failure to move beyond the 4th century attests to their low-status and disregard by Biblical copyists of the time. The very fact that the Byzantine text survived and continued to form the bulk of all manuscripts indicates that it was the preferred text both in the earlier centuries and beyond. Of course there is far more to this debate than I can write in a few paragraphs. Even so, I do think it is important for us to know that we usually read our Bibles with very little (if any) knowledge of these and other issues.

Conclusion – Biblical Interpretation

Personally I don’t yet know what to make of the whole issue. I may end up putting in some more research on the subject but I’m not sure it will necessarily yield answers either way. The oldest manuscripts could just as easily be right as wrong and the majority text can just as easily represent the better copy as the frequently repeated mistakes of earlier errors. One thing I do know is that while many of the mistakes in the manuscripts are just that – mistakes – it is also clear that the Bible has not escaped the corrupting influence of power. Manuscripts have been tampered with, for various reasons and we would be naïve to assume that the Bible has escaped the forces of darkness.

In the end this has all left me thinking it is probably unwise to simply read one version of the Bible and not compare it with others. The good news is that at least we can do this and seek God’s guidance when discrepancies are found. We need to trust that even though sin and evil have tried to damage the power and authority of the Bible, we have another helper that is far more reliable than any manuscript. The Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth – we must trust that this is true and that God wants us to know the truth.

But this is not the end of the problem. A far more difficult area of discernment is still to be explored, one that again will only be met through the help of the Holy Spirit…but since this post is already quite long I’ll simply introduce it for next time:

Many of you may already have been quite familiar with the inner-workings of biblical translation and already use multiple versions to check and cross-reference passages. But what may at the same time be extremely obvious and yet completely overlooked is the fact that not only are we reading an option of the original, but we’re also reading an interpretation of that option.

Translating from one language to another is simply not as accurate as is sometimes assumed and translators are forced to make thousands of choices that determine how we read the text of the Bible. This becomes extremely clear when reflecting on passages like John 1:1 which I mentioned before.

Recently I’ve been reading biblical interpretations by Unitarians (God is only One) and Binitarians (God is two in One) and realized that even when I cross reference different versions, I’m still reading Biblical translations that affirm Trinitarian (God is three in One) interpretations. Both the Watchtower and the Bible Society use the same Greek Manuscripts when interpreting John 1:1 and yet one group comes to a Trinitarian (or Binitarian) position while the other comes to a Unitarian position. If our Bibles are being interpreted by Trinitarians, are they truly unbiased translations of the original texts, or are they just as much an interpretation as the Watchtower version is?

I’ll take up my thoughts on Biblical interpretation in my next post and consider it specifically in terms of what we believe about Jesus and God.

The “science” of History

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 (στορία) 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.

How Does History Matter?

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.