Saturday, May 15, 2010

Quote of the Week: The Dark Side of Church History

This week's quote comes from Paul Johnson's A History of Christianity. I include it here not so much as an inspiration or an uplifting thought, but rather as a challenge to certain over-idealized ways of thinking about Christian history that so often abound today:

"Christianity began in confusion, controversy and schism and so it continued. A dominant orthodox Church, with a recognizable ecclesiastical structure, emerged only very gradually and represented a process of natural selection--a spiritual survival of the fittest. And, as with such struggles, it was not particularly edifying."

When one reads histories of Christianity, they usually fall into two camps: either those by non-Christian historians which often make the impression that the author has an ax to grind against the church, or those by Christian historians who sometimes tend to oversimplify and gloss over the more unsightly details of the story in favor of their own particular versions of Christianity. Paul Johnson's work is different--he writes as a faithful Christian, but is unafraid to show the seamier side of our history. As such, it's one of the most challenging and insightful histories of the church I've read. I don't always agree with all of his conclusions (such as his inference that Paul's group was actually in direct opposition with James and the Jerusalem church community; or that Galatians and Acts 15 record very different perspectives on the same struggle and events), but his overview of history is worth considering nonetheless.

I feel that his rather unappealing view of Christian history is of immense usefulness, because our history (especially the history of the early and patristic church) is often subject to misuse by any Christian movement that seeks an added dose of credibility. (Interesting, isn't it, that even we evangelical Protestants, who pride ourselves on "sola Scriptura," still make heavy use of the support of early church traditions in favor of our own particular ways of doing church). Not long ago I picked up a recent book by two well-known proponents of the "house church"/"organic church" movement, and it was particularly egregious in this regard--twisting early church history to fit their arguments, ignoring some of the most prominent church fathers whose writings directly contradict their arguments, and relying on some of the most specious scholarship I've seen, all to make their point--that we ought to meet in home-churches, because that's what the early church did. Or take the example of the Anabaptist tradition (of which I'm overwhelmingly fond, and, as a Baptist, have some roots there myself), which often marks the Constantinian revolution as the downfall of the church, and in so doing, unfortunately, puts a pressure of holiness, peace, and brotherhood on the first three centuries of the faith which the actual historical record cannot measure up to. Even the renewed "ancient faith" interest that's sprouting up all over evangelical Christianity (to my great delight) sometimes wanders into this error. It tends to idealize the heroes and the statements of faith produced by the early and patristic churches, without doing the hard historical research of wrestling with the fact that many of our early heroes were not necessarily the best of men, and that the great creeds were both products of and producers of immense schisms, controversies, and even downright hatred and abuse among early Christians. And these are all just within the evangelical camp. The idealistic lens through which many Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians view their early history often has nothing at all to do with actual history, but much more to do with the centuries-later traditions of those earliest memories. Not only are the "saints" of the early church sometimes a bit more morally specious than they're presented to us, but there was apparently a massive disconnect between the high standard set in the writings of the Fathers (most of whom were bishops or other high church officers) and the behavior of the laity and lower clergy. This is a point well made in Robin Lane Fox's Pagans and Christians--bizarre spiritualities, sexual promiscuity, greediness, and violence were everywhere evident in the early church. I suppose, after reading 1 Corinthians, that that shouldn't come as a surprise. But because we like to idealize our history, it does. (And for those who prefer to idealize the Reformation-period and its heroes rather than the early church, the same principles apply, and, I'm sure, some of the same surprises will be waiting for us if we dig below the surface in our historical research.)

If we are lovers of history (as I am), and if we believe that the Holy Spirit has continually worked through his church in all eras, then we should do ourselves the credit of making our historical assessments wisely, neither throwing it all out the window as irrelevant (which many Baptists, sad to say, are prone to do), or embracing it in glowing, naive idealism as in the examples I listed above. There is, of course, a lot to be proud of in Christian history. There is a tremendous wealth of wisdom and experience from which to draw. But let's be wise about how we do it--the early Christians were just human beings, as we are. Some of our dearest heroes from those days may disappoint us. But I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that their lives don't quite measure up with their writings. That's how it is with all of us--we know what we ought to do, but we have a hard time doing it. The best of Christians has a hard time practicing what he preaches.

But this should give us some consolation. We like to terrify ourselves by convincing each other that we're at a stage in church history where "the church is in crisis!" But truth be told, the church has always been in crisis. It has never lived up to its ideals. And we're all, as one community throughout history, wrestling against our sinfulness as we try to follow Jesus faithfully. Let's be wise about how we assess ourselves and about how we assess our fellow Christians, wherever they may fall on the timeline of our history. And let's strive to give ourselves a little grace even while we continue to press on toward our ideals.

1 comment:

David Strunk said...

Interesting that even within the confines of church history that church pastors/theologians had these debates as well.

I decided I'd read the unabridged full-on Institutes in advance of upcoming ordination, and what did I find in the preface and early chapters? Calvin takes the claims of the RC defense on claims of the patristics and flips them on their head, showing how writings from Augustine, Chrysostem, et. al. make varying points about polity and soteriology that defend a reformational position.

To be honest, I found Calvin to be terrifyingly convincing, because he seemed well-footnoted and incisive.

The irony in the reformation- even in sola scriptura- is that Calvin was co-opting various theologies of the patristics to show the authority of his argument, even though he makes a consistent sola scriptura argument in every chapter of the Institutes.

He also appeals to reason a ton. Interesting that right there in the Institutes you have a heavy hand of reason and tradition to support sola scriptura.