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.
My research has slowed to random spurts here and there (though this post resulted in a bit of renewed investigation). I think the struggle of deciphering the truth has simply left me feeling like further accumulation of knowledge is redundant. I still welcome any replies however as I’ll probably get more use out of conversation from here on out than I will from taking in any more content.
It seems the history of Orthodoxy has been a continual struggle to hold onto the authentic truth in a world bent on eradicating it. If you look at the history of Orthodox conflicts with the rest of the world you can see a continual onslaught:
Orthodox – Roman Conflict: As we know the church was born in conflict, not only with the Roman state but also with Judaism. It generally swayed between bare tolerance and outright persecution.
Something that has struck me though is the clear disparity between what Protestants consider the early church to be like (non-institutional, home-based communities, no definitive clergy-laity divide) and the witness of the very early Apostolic fathers. Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp (30-100AD) were contemporaries of Peter, Paul and John and the theology and ecclesiology of these Bishops has more in common with Eastern Orthodoxy than Protestantism. In addition their roles in the church predate the “supposed” Romanising of the church structures by the Roman Politicians in 300-400AD.
Orthodox – Catholic Conflict / East – West Conflict: After the edict of toleration by Constantine and later the adoption of Christianity as the religion of the empire by Theodosius the conflict became internal. Over the next 600 years the East and West grew steadily apart, finally splitting when the Pope in Rome tried to exert universal control over the Church. They were however united enough to agree on the findings of 7 Ecumenical councils of the One Universal Church.
My opinion is that the East represents a truer (or True) reflection of the faith as taught by the early church. It is clear that the West engaged in far more renovations of the anciently held beliefs and practices, renovations like the role of the Pope in the One Church. This finally gave birth to the greatest changes of all under the Protestant Reformation and its’ aftermath.
Orthodox – Muslim Conflict: With the conquest of the Ottoman empire Orthodoxy became a persecuted religion once again. The Ottoman occupation of “formerly” Orthodox countries led to serious corruption in the hierarchy of the church and great difficulty for the average Christian. This occupation culminated in the World War I genocide of 2 million (Armenian, Assyrian and Greek) Orthodox Christians by the Ottoman Turks and Kurds.
Many problems developed during this time as a corrupt hierarchy leads to potential corruption of the whole system. However, since Orthodoxy has no individual leader the church tends to rectify the mistakes of past leaders. Deviations from True Orthodox teaching and practice correct themselves over time since Orthodoxy is judged by the whole church and not by a specific bishop in the church. Also, the Russian Orthodox Church was not affected by the Muslims and therefore not prone to the same mistakes caused by the Ottoman oppression.
Orthodox – Communist Conflict: Russia finally had its own turn to face persecution with the onset of Communism and its attempt to eradicate all religion. The Government followed a dual agenda of persecuting true Orthodox clergy and believers and also setting up a “state orthodox church” controlled by the government and corrupted from the start. Currently the Russian Orthodox Church is the biggest of the Eastern Orthodox Autonomous Bodies.
Throughout the 2000 year history of the Orthodox Church there has been a continual interplay between the Church and the State. At times this has been to the churches favour, but at other times it has seriously affected the churches ability to remain True to the Faith. In the long run I believe this has been one of the major downfalls in the history of Orthodoxy – one that still plagues parts of the church in the 21st century.
Orthodox – Globalization Conflict or Orthodoxy in the 21st Century: One of the major disappointments for me in my exploration of the church is that serious corruption has continued to plague it, especially in its relation to the secular authorities, but also due to the pride and political games of its hierarchy. But even as I write this I realise that it could be no other way – the claim be the True Church has never been a claim to be a church without Tares. I suppose I need to ask whether the Wheat appears to be True Wheat and simply try to ignore the Tares (Jesus seems to think this is the only way). But what I can say is that the state of the church today is no pretty picture – there are multiple issues regarding jurisdiction and arguments over authority. There are squabbles over some minor and major changes, things like clerical dress and appearance, liturgical calendars and participation in Ecumenical dialog. There is also a bit of conflict between the traditional Orthodox countries and American Orthodoxy which is seen by many as a Masonic, globalizing, renovating and modernising body (together with the patriarch of Constantinople) – which has serious consequences for a Church that values historical immutability.
In the end it seems the major conflict today is centered around how much the Church can change to meet the world it ministers to and where to hold onto old ways as a means of preserving the Faith Once Delivered by the Apostles.
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.
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.