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Why I’m not just a “follower of Jesus”

It’s a pet peeve: those people on Facebook (and real life) who call themselves “followers of Jesus.”  Yes, I’m glad they’re followers of Jesus.  I just wish they wouldn’t say it that way.

Why?  Because it’s a substitute for the word “Christian.”

“Followers of Jesus” want to distinguish themselves from nominal Christians, from mean Christians, and from Christians who focus on “religion” instead of “relationship.”  It’s great that they care about orthopraxy as well as orthodoxy.  It’s great that they see faith as a journey.  And, of course, it’s great that they like Jesus so much.

But I still hate the term.

From my perspective, many “followers of Jesus” focus on their individual relationship with God.  They would be comfortable joining a group of followers, usually, but they’d prefer a more decentralized band of Jesus-following friends.  That’s not to say they don’t go to church—typically they do.  However, they want to think of themselves as somehow more akin to a New Testament disciple than a captive of the institutional church.

Christian, on the other hand, denotes connections to people of different perspectives and eras, to Rome and Constantinople, to Reformers and Anabaptist martyrs, to tacky pop music and exquisite icons, to Westboro Baptist and Metropolitan Community, to Gnostics and Arians and the creeds which ousted them, to Jewish roots, to a liturgical calendar, to Mother Teresa and the Crusades and World Vision and the Nazis.

“Christian” has baggage in many people’s eyes.  It is claimed by people way more conservative than we are or far more liberal than we are.  It links us with revolutionaries who have gone “too far” or traditions we see as dead and cold.  It forces in our face the historic Christian creeds, but also means we ironically share a label of self-identification with many heretics, a label some of them still claimed—rightly or wrongly—after (formal or informal) excommunication.  We are confronted with the sins of the past and present, and we don’t always have a chance to explain we aren’t like “those” Christians.

Being “Christian” forces us to have a history.  It forces us to be humble.  It forces us to be creedal.  It forces us to be ecumenical.

In some sense, it forces all of us to aspire to the balance of Vatican II, recognizing a pure stream of Christianity while also accepting how broadly God extends his grace.  While I may not be ready to call Rome home, I really appreciate this way of looking at things.  We will all always think that our way is the “right” way, and it’s good to recognize and attempt to preserve the approach to Christianity that we think is best.  However, when someone who disagrees with us—and perhaps we think is barely Christian—still insists on identifying that way, we should be gracious towards them and look for common ground.

Similarly, we should not be so foolish as to think we can divorce ourselves from history by avoiding the people from which our denomination separated, forgetting the wars fought in Jesus’ name, safely distancing ourselves from the sexual abuse committed by clergy, or magically returning to the New Testament church before bishops and councils.

Like it or not, we are connected to those who use and misuse the word Christian.  We are connected with institutions of waxing and waning power.  We are connected to millions of people both like and unlike us, a great communion of not-always-very-saintly-seeming saints.

We may wish that some people who have gone off the deep end theologically would admit they’re not Christian anymore.  We may think our denomination has it right.  We may wish people would stop behaving in very unChristian ways, and especially that they would stop using the Bible to support what they’re doing.  It’s somewhat inevitable, and in some ways it’s good—because “Christian” should mean something and the misuse of it should offend us.

But we should not stop using the term, as if we are the only true “followers of Jesus,” unlike all of those other so-called Christians, as if we are simply “following Jesus” without cultural baggage and ecclesial traditions of our own, as if we “follow Jesus” unlike those judgmental hypocrites over there, as if because we “follow Jesus” and we just need to pray and read the Bible and can neglect to educate ourselves about church history (particularly between the New Testament and the Reformation), as if we have no lasting—and certainly no involuntary—association with people or structures.

We have a history, beautiful and marred.  We have standards of orthodoxy and insiders who try to get away with breaking them.  We have divisions.  We have unnecessary committees.  We have practices which originated centuries after Jesus.  We have terrible, terrible bookstores filled with hideous T-shirts and embarrassing bumper stickers.  We have weirdos and idiots and fuddy-duddies.  And we all know some people using our name who we really think shouldn’t be (and probably really shouldn’t).

And we need to acknowledge that.

Which is why I’m happy to call myself, “Christian.”

Second Verse Same as the First

The other day I came across this loony video where a Muslim cleric accuses the Jews of mixing in human blood to make their matzos.

I was instantly reminded of the false accusations made against the early church by pagans who apparently misunderstood the nature of communion which they took to involve cannibalism (Thyestean feasts). Athenagoras in his Embassy for the Christians complains:

Three things are alleged against us: atheism, Thyestean feasts, Œdipodean intercourse. But if these charges are true, spare no class: proceed at once against our crimes; destroy us root and branch, with our wives and children, if any Christian is found to live like the brutes. And yet even the brutes do not touch the flesh of their own kind; and they pair by a law of nature, and only at the regular season, not from simple wantonness; they also recognise those from whom they receive benefits. If any one, therefore, is more savage than the brutes, what punishment that he can endure shall be deemed adequate to such offences? But, if these things are only idle tales and empty slanders, originating in the fact that virtue is opposed by its very nature to vice, and that contraries war against one another by a divine law (and you are yourselves witnesses that no such iniquities are committed by us, for you forbid informations to be laid against us), it remains for you to make inquiry concerning our life, our opinions, our loyalty and obedience to you and your house and government, and thus at length to grant to us the same rights (we ask nothing more) as to those who persecute us. For we shall then conquer them, unhesitatingly surrendering, as we now do, our very lives for the truth’s sake.

It is interesting to me that the feeble mind of hatred should produce such similar lies in such disparate times. It just goes to show you how powerful a tool cultural taboos can be in the process of “othering” your enemies.

Happy Quartodeciman Easter

Today at dusk marks the beginning of Nisan 14 on the Jewish calendar. Many early Christians celebrated Passover at this time as a Christian celebration of Jesus, both to mark his sacrifice and to anticipate his coming. They interpreted the Gospel of John as indicating that they should celebrate on the eve of the 14th. This led to one of the largest ecclesiastical disputes in early Christianity, and it marks the earliest dispute on record about matters of church calendar. The real problem is that the Quartodecimans were breaking their fast earlier than other Christians. The other Christians wanted to hold the fast until Sunday (the Lord’s day), but the breaking of the fast by Quartodecimans was disruptive to them. Here is a discussion of the controversy from Eusebius:

1. But the bishops of Asia, led by Polycrates, decided to hold to the old custom handed down to them. He himself, in a letter which he addressed to Victor and the church of Rome, set forth in the following words the tradition which had come down to him:

2. “We observe the exact day; neither adding, nor taking away. For in Asia also great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again on the day of the Lord’s coming, when he shall come with glory from heaven, and shall seek out all the saints. Among these are Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who fell asleep in Hierapolis; and his two aged virgin daughters, and another daughter, who lived in the Holy Spirit and now rests at Ephesus; and, moreover, John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and, being a priest, wore the sacerdotal plate.

3. He fell asleep at Ephesus.

4. And Polycarp in Smyrna, who was a bishop and martyr; and Thraseas, bishop and martyr from Eumenia, who fell asleep in Smyrna.

5. Why need I mention the bishop and martyr Sagaris who fell asleep in Laodicea, or the blessed Papirius, or Melito, the Eunuch who lived altogether in the Holy Spirit, and who lies in Sardis, awaiting the episcopate from heaven, when he shall rise from the dead?

6. All these observed the fourteenth day of the passover according to the Gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith. And I also, Polycrates, the least of you all, do according to the tradition of my relatives, some of whom I have closely followed. For seven of my relatives were bishops; and I am the eighth. And my relatives always observed the day when the people put away the leaven.

7. I, therefore, brethren, who have lived sixty-five years in the Lord, and have met with the brethren throughout the world, and have gone through every Holy Scripture, am not affrighted by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said ‘We ought to obey God rather than man.’”

8. He then writes of all the bishops who were present with him and thought as he did. His words are as follows:”I could mention the bishops who were present, whom I summoned at your desire; whose names, should I write them, would constitute a great multitude. And they, beholding my littleness, gave their consent to the letter, knowing that I did not bear my gray hairs in vain, but had always governed my life by the Lord Jesus.”

9. Thereupon Victor, who presided over the church at Rome, immediately attempted to cut off from the common unity the parishes of all Asia, with the churches that agreed with them, as heterodox; and he wrote letters and declared all the brethren there wholly excommunicate.

10. But this did not please all the bishops. And they besought him to consider the things of peace, and of neighborly unity and love. Words of theirs are extant, sharply rebuking Victor.

11. Among them was Irenaeus, who, sending letters in the name of the brethren in Gaul over whom he presided, maintained that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be observed only on the Lord’s day. He fittingly admonishes Victor that he should not cut off whole churches of God which observed the tradition of an ancient custom and after many other words he proceeds as follows:

12. “For the controversy is not only concerning the day, but also concerning the very manner of the fast. For some think that they should fast one day, others two, yet others more; some, moreover, count their day as consisting of forty hours day and night.

13. And this variety in its observance has not originated in our time; but long before in that of our ancestors. It is likely that they did not hold to strict accuracy, and thus formed a custom for their posterity according to their own simplicity and peculiar mode. Yet all of these lived none the less in peace, and we also live in peace with one another; and the disagreement in regard to the fast confirms the agreement in the faith.”

14. He adds to this the following account, which I may properly insert: “Among these were the presbyters before Soter, who presided over the church which thou now rulest. We mean Anicetus, and Pius, and Hyginus, and Telesphorus, and Xystus. They neither observed it themselves, nor did they permit those after them to do so. And yet though not observing it, they were none the less at peace with those who came to them from the parishes in which it was observed; although this observance was more opposed to those who did not observe it.

15. But none were ever cast out on account of this form; but the presbyters before thee who did not observe it, sent the eucharist to those of other parishes who observed it.

16. And when the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about certain other things, they immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this matter. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him.

17. But though matters were in this shape, they communed together, and Anicetus conceded the administration of the eucharist in the church to Polycarp, manifestly as a mark of respect. And they parted from each other in peace, both those who observed, and those who did not, maintaining the peace of the whole church.”

18. Thus Irenaeus, who truly was well named, became a peacemaker in this matter, exhorting and negotiating in this way in behalf of the peace of the churches. And he conferred by letter about this mooted question, not only with Victor, but also with most of the other rulers of the churches. (EH 5.24)

Pagan Erotica and The Shepherd of Hermas

A while back I was reading Peter Lampe’s fantastic book From Paul to Valentinus, when I came across a rather curious claim about the Shepherd of Hermas. Before I say more, let me first reproduce the text of one of the passages in question. The following is Lake’s translation of the first two verses of Vision 1:

1:1 He who brought me up sold me to a certain Rhoda at Rome. After many years I made her acquaintance again, and began to love her as a sister.
2 After some time I saw her bathing in the river Tiber, and gave her my hand and helped her out of the river. When I saw her beauty I reflected in my heart and said: “I should be happy if I had a wife of such beauty and character.” This was my only thought, and no other, no, not one. (Herm. 1:1-2)

While the oddity of the introduction is plain to all (the visions literally open with Hermas ogling a naked woman while insisting he was not thinking untoward thoughts), the supposed source for the image is anything but obvious. Lampe proposes that this juicy bit of plotting is ripped straight from the pages of pagan erotica. According to Lampe (pages 218-219 for the curious), the protagonist’s chance encounter with the bathing damsel is a staple trope for the Attic equivalent of a lad mag. Imagine some cheesy 70s music and read verse 2 again. Seems plausible to me. Perhaps you are not convinced, but I have saved the best example for last.

5 But I took him by his wallet, and began to adjure him by the Lord to explain to me what he had shown me. He said to me: “I am busy for a little and then I will explain everything to you. Wait for me here till I come.”
6 I said to him: “Sir, what shall I do here alone?” “You are not alone,” he said, “for these maidens are here with you.” “Give me then,” said I, “into their charge.” The shepherd called them and said to them: “I entrust him to you till I come,” and he went away.
7 And I was alone with the maidens, and they were merry and gracious towards me, especially the four more glorious of them.

88:1 The maidens said to me: “To-day the shepherd is not coming here.” “What then,” said I, “shall I do?” ” Wait for him,” said they, “until the evening, and if he come he will speak with you; and if he come not you shall remain here with us until he come.”
2 I said to them: “I will wait for him till evening, but if he come not I will go away home and return in the morning.” But they answered and said to me: “You were given to our charge; you cannot go away from us.”
3 “Where shall I stay then?” said I. “You shall sleep with us,” said they, “as a brother and not as a husband, for you are our brother and for the future we are going to live with you, for we love you greatly.” But I was ashamed to stay with them.
4 And she who seemed to be the first of them began to kiss and embrace me, and the others seeing her embracing me began to kiss me themselves, and to lead me round the tower, and to play with me.
5 I, too, had, as it were, become young again, and began to play with them myself, for some were dancing, others were gavotting, others were singing, and I walked in silence with them round the tower, and was merry with them.
6 But when evening came I wished to go home but they did not let me go, but kept me, and I stayed the night with them and slept by the tower.
7 For the maidens spread their linen tunics on the ground, and they made me lie down in the midst of them, and they did nothing else but pray, and I also prayed withthem unceasingly and not less than they, and the maidens rejoiced when I was praying thus, and I stayed there until the morrow until the second hour with the maidens. (Herm. 87:4-88:7)

Again this is Lake’s translation. It should be noted that here maidens means virgins. So, Hermas spends the night with a bunch of virgin ladies who make out with him all night.  They all get naked and won’t let him leave, but it’s ok because they spend the whole night praying together. Apparently the gaggle of game virgins is another plot device borrowed from the sultry pages of pagan erotica. If Lampe is right, there are at least two examples of this shocking appropriation of literary smut. I very much doubt that we are viewing something like intentional literary dependence. It seems much more likely that Hermas fell victim in his composition to those floating bits of narrative that seem to imbue cultures. Perhaps, however, the most shocking thing about the Shepherd of Hermas is not its questionable source material, but rather that such an extraordinarily long text filled with bizarre images and containing such obviously adoptionist Christology was read and used by Christians for hundreds of years and almost made it into the canon.

An Early Non-Literal Reading of Genesis

While studying the Apostolic Fathers last semester I came across a non-literal reading of Genesis in 2 Clement. Just as background, 2 Clement, which is not written by Clement, is an early Christian homily that probably dates to around the mid-to-late second century. It is interesting in large part because it is evidence of allegorical interpretation of the Genesis story occurring very early on in Christian history. Here is the passage (Ehrman’s Translation):

But I cannot imagine you do not realize that the living church is the body of Christ. For the Scripture says, “God made the human male and female.” The male is Christ, the female the church. And, as you know, the Bible and the apostles indicate that the church has not come into being just now, but has existed from the beginning. (2 Clem. 14:2)

There are similar comments sprinkled throughout the passage. The church “was created before the sun and moon” and the author exhorts the reader to be apart of the “first church, the spiritual church.” Interesting stuff. I noticed similar ideas in other Apostolic Fathers texts, but none of them made use of Genesis.

Book Announcement

I’d like to take this opportunity to tell my friends and fellow-biblibloggers about a new book I have coming out from Major Evangelical Publisher. A few months ago, MEP contacted me about a book opportunity to continue a series exploring the church life and theology of the Fathers. I must admit, I was surprised that they chose an obscure grad student for the project, but when I confronted them about it they replied, “Who is willing to work cheaper than a grad student?”  Who indeed? After accepting their offer, I got to work right away.  I thought I’d use this blog to provide a preview of the content of the book.  The first chapter focuses on Ignatius of Antioch and examines his three point rhetorical strategy, a strategy that I dare say would remain effective even today.

Step I: Dehumanize

The easiest way to challenge the legitimacy of your opponents is to portray them as somehow subhuman. After all, nobody goes to the zoo for theological advice (except perhaps a “pastor” whose name rhymes with Lark Griscoll who pioneered the quadrant-based flung-monkey-poo method of discernment). Watch as Ignatius elbow drops his opponents with the gospel. His opponents are:

  • “wild animals” and “raving dogs” (Ign. Eph. 7.1)
  • “seemingly trustworthy wolves” (Ign. Phil. 2.2)
  • “beasts in human form” (Ign. Smyr. 4.1)

Step II: Demonize

Once you show that your opponents are subhuman, you really have to prove that they are evil instead of just stupid. Try finding as many ways as possible to associate your opponents with the Devil. Be creative like Ignatius, he said his opponents were:

  • “a weed planted by the Devil” (Ign. Eph. 10.3)
  • “filthy” and they “will depart into the unquenchable fire” (Ign. Eph. 16.2)
  • an “evil offshoot which produces deadly fruit” (Ign. Trall. 11.1)
  • bearers of “the stamp of this world” (Ign. Magn. 5.2)
  • promoters of “evil teachings” (Ign. Eph. 9.1)
  • doomed to become bodiless daimons (Ign. Smyr. 2.1)

Step III: Delegitimize
Finally, find ways to smear your opponents with unpleasant titles, and whenever possible exploit the prejudice of your audience. You can call your opponents names:

  • those who say he only appeared to suffer are “atheists” (Ign. Trall. 10.1)

You can exploit the growing Anti-Judaism in Christianity by characterizing your opponents as:

  • partakers of the “bad yeast” of Judaism (Ign. Magn. 10.2)
  • believers of “old fables” who by living “according to Judaism” “have not received God’s grace.” (Ign. Magn. 8.1)

And you can attack the legitimacy of their worship:

  • Their eucharist is “invalid” without the bishop (Ign. Eph. 5.2; Ign. Smyrn. 8.1)

Obviously the church fathers give us powerful examples of theological reflection, prayer, and worship, but they can also help us deal with divisions in our churches. A quick rhetorical rout can leave your opponents decimated, and bring your church back under your impartial, divinely-appointed control with great speed. Watch for the book to be published later this year, and check the table of contents below to see what other church fathers I mine for that decisive rhetorical victory today’s churches really need.

Table of Contents:

  • Chapter 1: Irate Ignatius
  • Chapter 2: Mighty Justin Martyr
  • Chapter 3: Indomitable Irenaeus
  • Chapter 4: Testy Tertullian
  • Chapter 5: Combative Chrysostom
  • Chapter 6: Antagonistic Augustine

Did Clement, Bishop of Rome, Write or Quote from Hebrews?

I’m continuing to work through the fantastic Apostolic Fathers: An Introduction edited by Wilhelm Pratscher, and one of the truly fantastic parts of this book is that every chapter has a section on intertextuality. Besides being a generally fascinating subject, it is important for how we conceive of Christianity in the earliest of the early church. In the chapter on 1 Clement written by Andreas Lindemann, the relationship between 1 Clement and Hebrews is briefly explored:

The special similarity between 1Clem [sic] and Hebrews was recognized even in the early church. Eusebius writes (HEIII 38.1-3) that the fact that the author of 1Clem cites Hebrews means that Hebrews cannot be a “young” text; he also refers to the similarity of style and thought. Origen concluded from [i.e. according to] Eus VI 25.14 that people saw Clement of Rome (or even Luke) as the author of Hebrews. (pg. 59)

The section of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History Lindemann refers to is specifically dealing with what Origen has argued about the nature and authorship of the scriptures. It contains some interesting features like the claim of Matthean priority and the denial of the authenticity of 2 Peter. The section referred to above says:

11. In addition he makes the following statements in regard to the Epistle to the Hebrews in his Homilies upon it: “That the verbal style of the epistle entitled ‘To the Hebrews,’ is not rude like the language of the apostle, who acknowledged himself ‘rude in speech’ but that its diction is purer Greek, any one who has the power to discern differences of phraseology will acknowledge.
12. Moreover, that the thoughts of the epistle are admirable, and not inferior to the acknowledged apostolic writings, any one who carefully examines the apostolic text will admit.”
13. Farther on he adds: “If I gave my opinion, I should say that the thoughts are those of the apostle, but the diction and phraseology are those of some one who remembered the apostolic teachings, and wrote down at his leisure what had been said by his teacher. Therefore if any church holds that this epistle is by Paul, let it be commended for this. For not without reason have the ancients handed it down as Paul’s.
14. But who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows. The statement of some who have gone before us is that Clement, bishop of the Romans, wrote the epistle, and of others that Luke, the author of the Gospel and the Acts, wrote it.” But let this suffice on these matters. (Schaff, Eus VI 25.11-14)

Lindemann continues:

To be sure, neither agreement by citation nor other references to the text allow for the assumption of a direct literary relationship. But the similarity of 1Clem 36.2-5 to Hebrews 1:3-5, 7, 13 is so great that the use of Hebrews by 1Clem must still be considered possible.

Placing the texts side by side the similarity is obvious.

1 Clement 36.2-5

Hebrews 1:3-5, 7, 13

2By Him we look up to the heights of heaven. By Him we behold, as in a glass, His immaculate and most excellent visage. By Him are the eyes of our hearts opened. By Him our foolish and darkened understanding blossoms up anew towards His marvelous light. By Him the Lord has willed that we should taste of immortal knowledge, who, being the brightness of His majesty, is by so much greater than the angels, as He hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.3 For it is thus written, Who maketh His angels spirits, and His ministers a flame of fire.

4 But concerning His Son the Lord spoke thus: Thou art my Son, today have I begotten Thee. Ask of Me, and I will give Thee the heathen for Thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for Thy possession.

5 And again He saith to Him, Sit Thou at My right hand, until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool.

3He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.  5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”?

7 Of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.”

13 But to which of the angels has he ever said, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?

Ante-Nicene Fathers

NRSV

Lindemann notes some differences that detract from the idea of a close relationship between texts. Specifically, both 1 Clement and Hebrews use the language of “high priest” to describe Jesus, but they do so in divergent ways. Lindemann suggests that it is possible that the author of 1 Clement knew Hebrews 1, but not the rest of the letter. All in all, it is a rather complicated issue. There seems to be a clear relationship, but the extent of the relationship is anything but clear.

The Didache: Still Relevant

I’ve been working my way through the fantastic book edited by William Pratscher called The Apostolic Fathers: An Introduction. I am loving this book, especially its in depth interaction with German scholarship on the Apostolic Fathers. When I was reading the chapter on the Didache, I couldn’t help but think that the Didache had practical advice on sorting out good prophet (or preacher) from bad. Here is Jonathon Draper’s discussion:

The prophet speaking in the name of God must be heard and obeyed, but not everyone who claims to be a prophet is in fact a prophet, as Did [sic] also recognizes (11.8). This creates a dangerous situation indeed, for any community. Deuteronomy institutes the test of fulfillment of the prophecy, and this is interpreted by Did [sic] in terms of the lifestyle of the prophet (as also in Matt 7:15-23, “You will know them by their fruits”). The “way of life of the Lord” (τοὺς τρόπους κυρίου) differentiates the true from the false prophet (e.g., 11.9-10, 12). (Pratscher, 17)

I recommend you read the whole section of the Didache that deals with these issues 11.3-13.7, but here are some highlights from Holmes’ translation:

11.4 Let every apostle who comes to you be welcomed as if he were the Lord. 5 But he is not to stay more than one day, unless there is need, in which case he may stay another. But if he stays three days, he is a false prophet. 6 And when the apostle leaves, he is to take nothing except bread until he finds his next night’s lodging. But if he asks for money, he is a false prophet. [emphasis mine throughout] 7 Also, do not test or evaluate any prophet who speaks in the spirit, for every sin will be forgiven, but this sin will not be forgiven. 8 However, not everyone who speaks in the spirit is a prophet, but only if he exhibits the Lord’s ways. By his conduct, therefore, will the false prophet and prophet be recognized.

11.12 But if anyone should say in the spirit, “Give me money or anything else, do not listen to him. But if he tells you to give on behalf of others who are in need, let no one judge him.

While the whole not questioning prophets bit won’t get my seal of approval, the rest of the advice is quite sound. If someone asks for money or displays a lifestyle devoid of Christian virtue, then they are false. If people just followed this advice, there wouldn’t be a televangelist left on TV within a month.

Reforming My Understanding

I admit it:  I came to seminary knowing nothing about theology.  Well, next to nothing.  I had taken Early Judaism and Intro to the New Testament in college, but I had never formally studied theology or church history.  I had read a few books on certain areas of theology (like women in ministry) and history (like American evangelicalism), but I knew little about Luther, less about Barth, and nothing of Chrysostom—an ignorance that often made me feel a little self-conscious around my seminary peers, even after I realized most of the ones who talked most in class were just spouting their uninformed personal opinions.

To help me move beyond my feelings of inadequacy in the very field in which I have a degree, I have decided to work on supplementing my Fuller intro classes this summer.  In all of my systematic theology and church history classes, I received such a brief overview.  It seems essential to do a great deal of additional study on my own if I’m going to develop my own views on important topics or have a good sense of my place in the larger two-thousand-year-old ecclesia.

Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition by Kenneth J. StewartTo this end, I recently read Kenneth Stewart’s new book, Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition.  It sounds like some sort of apologetics book for Calvinists, but it’s not.  It’s really historical theology through and through.  Each of the myths Stewart attacks are rooted in misunderstandings of the history of the Reformed tradition.  There are obviously ten separate misconceptions Stewart addresses, but for the purposes of this blog, I’d like to focus on two discussions that particularly captivated me: Calvinism as antimissions and antinomian.

First, in the missions chapter, Stewart covered much more that Calvinism and missions.  In fact he actually gave a good deal of general information about Reformation-era Protestant and Catholic missions.  It’s easy to criticize early Protestants for not being as enthused about global missions, for instance, but we have to consider the obstacles they faced.  Not only were many early Protestants persecuted, they also lacked the financial and political backing from seafaring nations  that would have enabled them to take the gospel abroad.  I had never thought about that before: the countries where Protestant views first flourished were not sea powers at the time.  And that made a difference.  Stewart also pointed out that Protestants, like Erasmus and other Christian humanists who remained within the Catholic church, were very concerned about renewal within the church in Europe.  In some sense, then, while Catholic missionaries traveled to the Americas and beyond (with more success at both conversation and compassion in some places than others…), Protestants maintained a more local focus, hoping to reform and reinvigorate the faith of the common people closer by.

Secondly, in the antinomianism chapter, I learned that due to their constant pushing of grace, grace, grace, early Protestants were often thought to be law-haters (even Ten-Commandments-haters!) by their Catholic sisters and brothers.  There was a general fear that this Reformed faith was going to lead to people who found assumptions of morality’s irrelevance, which led to some pro-orthopraxy statements from the Council of Trent, intended to combat this new dangerous tendency among Christians.  For example, “If any one saith, that Christ Jesus was given of God to men, as a redeemer in whom to trust, and not also as a legislator whom to obey; let him be anathema.”

So pulling this all together, these two chapters (of which these few points are not the majority, really—just some of the stuff I took away) got me thinking about today’s church, and particularly today’s evangelicalism.  Today I think lots of more moderate evangelicals are taking a renewed interest in more local missions, which is similar to the early Protestants.  We care about giving people something more than “cultural Christianity” (such as exists in the South), and we find it strange and a bit hypocritical to give large sums of money to the Cooperative Fund for international missions when we have so much to work on here at home.  On this issue, then, I felt I related well to the Reformers.

But when it came to the concerns about antinomianism, I felt I could really connect with where the Council of Trent was coming from.  I think to how today’s moderate evangelicals have also called for orthopraxy, when it comes to social justice issues, especially, but also in other matters.  Instead of merely worrying about having our doctrinal ducks in a row, we have said that it’s important to live righteously.  I’m not saying the Reformers didn’t care about this too—I think most of them did—but I relate to the concern of the Catholics.  They weren’t quite certain where this new branch of Christianity was headed, and they wanted to state firmly that what we do matters.  I really appreciate that.

Like I said, these aren’t the #1 points of these chapters, much less the whole book; however, I would say they are characteristic of a lot of what I learned from Stewart.  In giving me some more background on the Reformation era, both of these chapters increased my appreciation for where both Protestants and Catholics (particularly those who wanted to reform the Catholic church from within) were coming from back then.  And that’s something I think I’ve really been lacking and desiring.  Protestants so often just tell their side of the story, and also neglect to really take any of the episodes they recount and situate them within a larger narrative.  I want that context, and I want that more multifaceted view.  Ultimately, I really want to understand this transition within the church, because I think that in better knowing that story, I will have a better sense of my own theological commitments, as well as what traditions I can confidently draw from myself.

© Jeremiah and Ashleigh Bailey 2012