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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.

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Reflections on The 5 Solas: Sola Fide

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.

Martin Luther and the Reformation

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.

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.