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.
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).
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.
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.
So this week I’m tackling my thoughts on the Protestant understanding of Salvation by Faith Alone.
This is quite a big one for me since taking a stand against this doctrine is in essence claiming back for humanity what the Reformers said belonged to God alone. Should I be wrong here I’m trying to wrestle God out of something He’s not willing to give me – and I would hate to be doing that.
But again my struggle with this doctrine stretches back a number of years now and started with my reading of scripture. Again and again I would read things in the scriptures that indicated a responsibility on humanity that stretched further than simply having faith (e.g. Matthew 6:14-15 “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins”).
Now let me be clear that I am not denying that we are saved by having Faith in Christ, nor am I saying that I can be saved apart from the work of God in my life…but I am asking whether Salvation by Faith Alone is a historically valid position to take. Is it what Jesus taught His Apostles and is it what the early church taught?
Now even though Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism started emphasizing some different things (even when they were united as one church), they both understood and taught that what you do matters, that works are an important dimension of the spiritual life and of our salvation. It seems to me that they got this from the Bible and from church tradition i.e. the oral teaching of the church passed down by its’ leadership.
I also think it is important to note that Martin Luther protested a development in Catholicism that taught that merit could be stored up in a spiritual “bank account” and then sold to believers for a price (Merit and Indulgences). It was tied to a juridical (legal) view of atonement that understood Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as primarily a legal issue between human beings and God that needed to be settled in the “heavenly courtroom”. Now this idea of stored merit, sale of indulgences and a juridical atonement appears to be a Roman Catholic deviation from the teachings of the early church. Hence the Orthodox have no such teachings. And while the reformers rejected the teachings on works, merit and indulgences they maintained the juridical understanding of the atonement.
Martin Luther was so determined to distance himself from the teachings on works, merit and indulgences that he wanted to get rid of the book of James because it clearly taught that works are an important part of our salvation and that Faith Without Works is Dead – James 2:24: You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. This passage in James is the only place in the Bible that links the words Faith and Alone, making a negative affirmation. But Martin Luther was not satisfied to leave it there – he actually went so far as to add the word “alone” after “faith” in Romans 3:28 – For we maintain that a man is justified by faith alone apart from works of the Law (i.e. the works of the Jewish Law). When questioned by other scholars about this addition he remarked that “It is my Testament and my translation, and it shall continue to be mine”. I’m really not trying to imply that Martin Luther was all bad and that he had no reason to distance himself from teachings that he felt were being abused and corrupted, but it seems to me that once he had resisted what was wrong in the teachings he was unable to reconcile his new understanding with the scriptures or get passed the juridical view of atonement that was adding to the problem.
I have been blessed recently through my exploration of Orthodoxy to discover some new ways of understanding things in relation to this doctrine of Faith Alone. First of all it seems (and I’m still learning and exploring) clear to me that the doctrine cannot be reconciled with scripture or the history of the early church. I’ve also enjoyed learning about how Orthodoxy reconciles works and faith in their teachings on synergism (a relational and covenantal understanding of our salvation): “In the NT synergism is the idea of being “workers together with” God (2 Corin. 6:1), or of working “out your own salvation . . . for it is God who works in you” (Phil. 2:12, 13). This is not a cooperation between equals, but finite man working together with Almighty God. Man responds to Christ’s salvation through cooperation with God’s grace in living by faith, righteous works and rejection of evil.” (The Orthodox Study Bible). This seems true to me.
The Orthodox also acknowledge the legal metaphor used for salvation but they employ all the other Biblical metaphors as well without over emphasizing the legal one. They have come to see salvation as a process by which God is healing a broken humanity, more than anything else – I like this understanding, I definitely relate to the need for healing.
Coming to the end of today’s post I feel more strongly than ever that things may have been different had Orthodoxy been able to shed light on the struggles of the Reformation. It certainly increases my desire to further explore the history and theology of a Church that has remained more or less obscure in light of the magnitude of the Catholic-Protestant Clash that is still rippling through the church today.
The 5 Solas are the basic tenets held by Protestants over against the theology and practice of the Roman Catholic Church. They are as follows:
- Sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”)
- Sola fide (“by faith alone”)
- Sola gratia (“by grace alone”)
- Solus Christus or Solo Christo (“Christ alone” or “through Christ alone”)
- Soli Deo gloria (“glory to God alone”)
Since I’m spending a fair amount of time these days questioning the historical validity of my Protestant roots I thought I should reflect on the 5 Solas and consider my own attitude to each. I’ve been a little busy recently and so my reflections are admittedly only a first attempt at discovering my thoughts on the subject. I’ll start with Sola scriptura and work my way down over the next few weeks.
I’ve had a long-standing relationship with reading the Bible. Even during my teenage years in which I rebelled against mainline Christianity I continued to read the Bible. I interpreted it first through Rastafarian eyes, then through Hindu eyes and eventually it become some kind of New Age oracle.
When I eventually accepted the truth of Christianity and felt Jesus draw me back to Himself I simply assumed that all would be well and I would understand the Bible and Christianity without issue. Nothing could be further from the truth.
From the very outset of my walk with Christ I was tormented by different interpretations of the Bible and what those interpretations meant in practical terms for my faith and practice. Did the Bible allow or condemn the modern outpouring of spiritual gifts? Were all interpretations of the Bible valid or was the King James the only Authorized Version? Did the Bible teach the doctrine of the Trinity or was Christ somehow less than God the Father? Did the Bible indicate a suspension of Jewish Law or should the keeping of the law continue under Grace. Does the Bible teach a symbolic understanding of communion or a sacramental understanding? Does the Bible indicate that the church should be hierarchical or de-centralized? Is salvation by grace alone or do works influence the outcome?
The list could go on and on so I’ll end it with just one more…
…Does the Bible even consider itself Authoritative?
I remember during college a number of students became disillusioned with the teaching that the Bible considers itself authoritative since the New Testament did not even exist when the texts of the New Testament were written. Therefore passages like 2 Timothy 3:16 (All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness) should not be used to uphold the teachings of the New Testament since it was not speaking of the New Testament when it was written.
With all this confusion over interpretation and claims of authority it has become ever clearer to me that the Bible is not as easily understandable and self-interpreting as the Reformers taught it to be. The history of the church post-Reformation is the clearest example of this fact…while there had been schisms and breaks with the official teaching of the church before, at no time did it fracture into the thousands of interpretations we have today.
This fact nearly caused me to disregard the bible completely. I went through a phase in which I considered my own experience and sense of right and wrong to be the sole guide in my walk with God. But through this phase I felt God leading me back to the bible and emphasizing the importance of scripture. But coming back to the bible still left me with the problem of interpretation.
Historically the church taught that the Bible can only be interpreted by Apostolic Tradition. In other words the early church was responsible for recording and passing down the teachings of the Apostles. As a community the church was responsible for safe-guarding the faith and guiding its’ beliefs and practices. As its’ leaders the clergy were the one’s given the ministerial duty of carrying out this mission for the one body of Christ. When the Catholic and Orthodox talk about Apostolic Tradition it is this historical ministry to which they refer.
Whether one accepts this or not it is true that tradition played an important role in the churches formation and growth for 1500 years. Since that time it has become acceptable or unavoidable that each person follows his own interpretation resulting in disunity and a plethora of views.
When I was first confronted with the disunity of Protestant Christianity one of my first reactions was to consider what the Church Fathers taught and practiced. Only after this assumed solution to the problem was I taught that Protestants don’t do that because we don’t believe that the Early Church Fathers can be trusted. Currently I’ve decided to take up that initial investigation and I’m reading Clement, Ignatius and Eusebius and will continue to read other church Fathers as well. My initial thoughts on what I’ve read so far is that Catholic and Orthodox understandings of theology and practice can already be seen in the generation following after the Apostles.
Did the church really take such a radical departure from the teachings of the 12? Or might it be that the church in following the teachings of the 12 continued to grow and develop in exactly the way Jesus intended it too?
During my college days I wrote a research paper on the ecumenical movement. I’ve always been interested in the interface of different beliefs and practices. Before coming to Christ as a young adult, this interest led me to explore Hinduism, Buddhism, New Age Magic and Rastafarianism. During my time at Theological college this interest was channeled into the interface of different Christian bodies – How they understand themselves and each other – How willing they are to openly discuss their past and present understandings about God, the Christian Faith and Spiritual Practice – What their Main Differences are, but also what makes them All Christian.
My interest in Catholicism was sparked a few years before writing the paper on ecumenism by my introduction into Christian mysticism. At the time this led me to explore both Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) expressions. I remember always feeling a little worried that I was diving into the life-blood of a people most evangelicals considered un-saved and in need of the True Gospel. Why was my soul being nourished and my spirit being lifted to unbelievable heights by something unheard of and unpracticed in the majority of Protestant churches?
I finished that assignment on Christian ecumenism with one nagging question that I didn’t know the answer too. Or perhaps I should say I sensed the answer but didn’t know whether I should trust what I felt. The question is a simple one – “Do I believe that what Martin Luther started was a good thing?” If yes, no problem! But I was leaning towards the negative! It’s not that I didn’t think he had some valid objections, but his actions led to the splintering of Christianity in a far more destructive way than any split before him. As I’ve wrestled with this over the years I keep coming back to the fact that Protestant Christianity, while often talking about modeling the early church, departs from the history of Christianity in an unprecedented way.
Another question I’m asking these days that relates directly to the previous one is, “Would Martin Luther have Protested against Orthodoxy in the same way he Protested against Roman Catholicism?” While the two churches are similar there are important differences and while it is impossible to answer I do think it is a valid question. The history of Catholicism and Orthodoxy is very different and the churches emphasise different things, perhaps, had Luther been Orthodox rather than Catholic he may have had less to Protest about…but this is only speculation and serves more as an indication of my own preference at this time for Orthodoxy over Catholicism than anything else.
In my next post I’m going to be looking at the 5 Solas of the Reformation and reflecting on my current understanding in relation to each of them.
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.