So what may have appeared obvious to others for a long time has become clearer to me recently.
In essence much of my struggle has been between various groups who claim Christianity contains external truths that must be believed and defended. Over on the other side of the road we have various groups who consider Christianity to be a more existential, esoteric or spiritual reality that cannot be tied down to concrete dogmas, doctrines, rituals and practices.
While I’ve been going round in circles trying to figure out which brand of Christianity is historically accurate, they’ve been trying to tell me that none of them are.
And you know what…I just might agree with them.
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.
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?
My friend Sean has a blog about his encounter with and recovery from some of the negative elements in institutional Christianity. I recently wrote a blog post as a guest blogger for his blog. Writing that post was part of the motivation that got me started on my own blog. Here is the link to the post on my friends blog.
The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice – George Eliot.
If that is true then my sense of lack regarding my spiritual growth is a direct consequence of my inability to decide.
The world is a shopping mall. A buffet of options to satisfy every taste. Religion as a man-made reality is no different. Whatever your particular take on God there’s a religion, or a church, or a gathering of people to match your outlook. Not only that, but you can tweak that outlook any way you like and still find at least one group of people who agree with you.
Draw up any list about the nature of church, spirituality and God and I’m pretty sure you can find a circle of friends who feel the same way and would love to include you in their fellowship. And yet, with all the options and opportunities out there I find myself standing and staring out at the religious landscape unable to commit to anything more than the Lordship and Saving Grace of Jesus Christ.
Now this may seem like enough to some of you – and in some ways it really and truly is. But in another sense it leaves me depressingly incomplete. The ministry of Jesus was the redemption of the world; He accomplished the task God set for Him and that is why I call Him Lord and Saviour. The dual task He then set for His followers is to Love God and Love others. The vehicle through which this should be done is the fellowship of other followers who corporately manifest His body i.e. The Church. The Church is supposed to play a vital role in the Kingdom agenda of Jesus’ disciples. Therefore, without a church I am like a dismembered hand dragging myself along the road unable to carry out very much of anything.
The problem for me is not that I don’t believe anything regarding the church, in fact it is just the opposite. I’ve explored and investigated so many facets of the church that I have become disillusioned by the exclusive claims of all of them. At this stage I cannot commit to being ONLY Baptist, or Evangelical, or Anglican, or Protestant, or Catholic, or Orthodox, or Emergent…
And so we come to this blog. I’m tired of driving myself and my wife crazy with revolving arguments and endless commentary. I’m hoping that by writing down some of my wrestling I will start sensing some movement in this endless struggle with God and His Church. My prayer is that when the morning breaks God will bless me with a new perspective on His Beautiful Bride and my heart can finally find some peace in a Christian Body.