Ancient Texts 5 – Interpretation

Posted: January 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 5 – Interpretation

At this point in the series, I want to apply the things already discussed to some aspects of modern biblical interpretation. I have at times encountered people and studies that delved deeply into the etymology, tense, or alternate usages of a specific individual word or phrase found in the text. In and of itself, there’s nothing particularly wrong with doing that. I have a love of language and its nuances myself. It’s not the sort of thing that many people necessarily find enjoyable, but I do and I understand others who do.

Nevertheless, it’s important to realize that when you break the text down to a specific word, there are potential problems. First, we don’t actually know for certain if the word we believe was used was precisely the one actually used. It could be a simple scribal error or it could be that as punctuation developed, a later scribe made a more subtle interpretive error like picking the wrong gender for a word. However, the original text itself was likely developed in synergy between an apostle who was not a native Greek speaker and a scribe who was more proficient at Greek. It’s the text as a whole that is most important, not the individual words chosen. Finally, we are all far removed from that culture. Language is always a dynamic interaction with the culture in which it was embedded. Words and phrases are not always used to mean what they would normally mean in another context.

None of that should detract from the joy some find in studying words and language, but it should raise a cautionary flag. When such study simply illuminates or expands the historic teaching and interpretation of the Church, it’s beneficial. It’s like St. John Chrysostom drawing a spiritual point from two variant renderings of a text. There isn’t really even a problem with such study providing a novel interpretation as long as that novel interpretation remains consistent with the historic framework of Christian faith and practice.

However, I have seen such word study used — both historically and in the present — to promote an interpretation that contradicts the historic framework of Christian belief and interpretation. At that point, you have to make a choice. Will I believe this new thing I have discovered — either directly or through a teacher? There is and has always been an attraction toward special knowledge for most human beings. You can trace the thread of that temptation through many Christian heresies and schisms over the centuries. We like the feeling that we have special knowledge or insight that others lack. I tend to be suspicious any time I can track a specific belief or practice to an individual or group who broke from the larger Christian strand over that belief or practice with their own unique interpretation supporting it.

Christianity cannot be constructed (or reconstructed) from the Holy Scriptures alone. I’m not sure any faiths can simply be constructed from scratch using nothing but their sacred texts, but I’ve never delved deeply into some of the other religions like Islam, so I’ll reserve judgment. But Christianity cannot be so constructed. Christianity flows from an oral culture and is centered around the experience and proclamation of the singular event of the Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus of Nazareth and the coming of the Holy Spirit. (Some Fathers describe the Word and the Spirit as the two hands of God.)

Some of that oral tradition is captured in the texts of of the New Testament, but much of it is not. Moreover, what Christians call the Old Testament is almost useless apart from that tradition. In the teachings of Jesus, the first sermon of Peter, and continuing all the way through to the second century Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching by St. Irenaeus of Lyons we see the Old Testament radically reinterpreted in the light of the fullness of the revelation of Christ. St. Justin wrote to the Rabbi Trypho that the Jews read the Scriptures without understanding because they do not acknowledge Christ. The tradition of that reinterpretation must be transmitted because it cannot be reconstructed from the text alone.

Either the Apostolic tradition of interpretation has been continuously maintained or it is lost and the Church failed. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing against the gnostic heretics, made the following point about their use of the Scriptures, which is worth always keeping in mind.

Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skillful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skillful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.

How, then did the Church maintain the proper and beautiful image of the king? He wrote about that as well.

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.

In other words, the Church in its unity of faith has received the apostolic preaching and carefully preserves it. All the churches in every country and in every language do not believe or hand down anything different. Whatever else we might say about it, one thing is clear to me. Protestantism has failed to do that. Completely, utterly, and it seems to me beyond all argument or dispute. And much of that disintegration has hinged on interpretation. People have taken a tile or a group of tiles from the mosaic and they have arranged them in a different way. The more charismatic or otherwise convincing ones have been able to get others to accept their new arrangement of the tiles as the true mosaic.

Trace the threads of the interpretations you believe whether you received them from others or have found them for yourself. If you cannot trace those interpretations and the beliefs and practices they support back to an apostolic origin, I would suggest you consider why you believe that particular interpretation. It doesn’t matter how well you can logically support your interpretation. The texts of the Holy Scriptures are a mosaic and can be fit together to teach a great many things quite reasonably. (If that weren’t true, we wouldn’t have had so many heretical and schismatic groups from the early first century on nor would Protestantism have splintered into more than thirty thousand separate denominations and non-denominations.) Can the thread of that interpretation be supported historically or not? If not, you have a mosaic, but not necessarily the true mosaic of Christ.


Original Sin 13 – What Does Scripture Directly Say About Inherited Guilt?

Posted: March 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 13 – What Does Scripture Directly Say About Inherited Guilt?

I’ve spent a lot of time walking through the narrative of our Holy Scriptures and the way I see them interacting with the idea of inherited guilt. I imagine at this juncture, though, at least some readers are probably wondering if the Scriptures say anything directly about inherited guilt. And actually, they do. Personally, I know of only one place where the Scriptures directly address the idea.

(Ironically, it’s like the doctrine of sola fide or faith alone. There is actually only one place in the entire text of the Holy Scriptures where we explicitly find the idea of “faith alone” discussed, but those who hold to sola fide don’t really like to focus as much on that text and it’s one where they have to struggle for “alternative” readings of the text. Similarly, you won’t find much focus on this particular text among those who hold to the idea of inherited guilt.)

For that text, we’ll turn to our final prophet, Ezekiel. As a rule, I dislike placing too much emphasis on individual verses or short segments of the text. But there’s always a tension since you can’t just read or quote the entire text in every discussion. I encourage anyone following this series to go read all of Ezekiel or at least the entire flow of the narrative around chapter 18. But here is Ezekiel 18:20.

“But the soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the wrongdoing of his father, nor shall the father bear the wrongdoing of his son. The righteousness of a righteous man shall be upon himself, and the lawlessness of a lawless man shall be upon himself.”

We bear the guilt for our own actions, not for any other person’s actions. As with James, I’m sure there are any number of ways you can choose to read the text that negate its meaning. That’s why I don’t generally find that simply quoting texts has much value. The meaning of a text lies not in the text itself, but in its interpretation. That’s one of the reasons Christianity has over 30,000 schisms today all of which claim to ‘faithfully’ interpret the text of Scripture.

Ezekiel is an intriguing book. I’ll also note that a little later the text calls into question an idea that is usually closely tied to the idea of inherited guilt — that God condemns us to death for our inherited (and actual) guilt. Death and sin are intertwined in Scripture and its rarely a straightforward cause and effect relationship. We are mortal because humanity has turned from its only source of life. But then we are more strongly inclined to sin because we are mortal and because we experience the consequences of the sin of others. “Do I ever will the death of a lawless man, says the Lord, since my will is for him to turn from the evil way and live?” Is it God who wills death? Or is it ultimately us?

Just something more to think about. We’ll move on to other topics in the series tomorrow.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 5 – Clement, Corinth, and Order

Posted: July 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I’m going to open this post with chapter 40 from Clement’s letter to the Corinthians.

Since, therefore, these things have been made manifest before unto us, and since we have looked into the depths of the divine knowledge, we ought to do everything in order, whatsoever the Lord hath commanded us to do at the appointed seasons, and to perform the offerings and liturgies. These he hath not commanded to be done at random or in disorder, but at fixed times and seasons. But when and by whom he wisheth them to be fulfilled he himself hath decided by his supreme will; that all things, being done piously, according to his good pleasure, might be acceptable to his will. They, therefore, who at the appointed seasons make their offerings are acceptable and blessed; for while following the laws of the Master they do not completely sin. For to the High Priest were assigned special services, and to the priests a special place hath been appointed; and on the Levites special duties are imposed. But he that is a layman is bound by the ordinances of laymen.

In this context, we see reinforced what Paul had written in his first letter to Corinth and the teaching from the Didache (redundant since Didache means Teaching, but I couldn’t think of a better way to phrase it). The offerings (in this context eucharist) and the liturgies (the work of worship of the people) are to be done in order and at fixed times and seasons, not at random or in disorder. Further, this order had been commanded by the Lord. In addition to their schisms and divisiveness, one of Paul’s chief concerns with the Corinthian church a generation or so earlier had been their disorder in worship. It seems that many of the bad tendencies of this church had persisted.

I’m not a Greek scholar though I’ve picked up a passing familiarity with some of the rudiments of the language over the years. From past experience, the English word “laymen” above probably translated laos or laoikos. I find that the modern understanding of laymen or laity doesn’t precisely jibe with the ancient understanding. It took me a while to begin to see it, myself. In the ancient understanding, the laiokos were not the unordained. Drawing heavily on Hebrews, they understood that the people of God were reconstituted in Christ as a royal priesthood with one high priest, Jesus the Christ. That was a shift because before Christ only the sons of Aaron out of the people of God formed the priestly class. The laoikos then were those ordained into the first order of the priesthood in Baptism. As such, the people were all responsible for their part in the liturgy, in the offerings (a priest could not perform the liturgy of the Eucharist or communion alone or without the people), and in their priestly ministrations in the world.

The best illustration of the distinctions of orders actually comes a few centuries later. St. Ambrose of Milan, though his sister and mother were Christian, had not yet been baptized when the Arian bishop of Milan died. (It is important to note that it was not uncommon to delay baptism at that time because of the question of whether or not intentional sins committed after baptism could be forgiven.) Ambrose was a gifted orator and lawyer and was attempting to maintain order in a uprising of the orthodox (non-Arian) Christians of Milan. As he was doing so, the people acclaimed his as their bishop. He was immediately baptized and then ordained to the diaconate and then priesthood on successive days before being elevated to the episcopate the next week.

So there is one priesthood consisting of all the people of God and four orders within that priesthood with one eternal High Priest in Jesus Christ. We are all priests and priestesses of at least the first order if we are baptized in Christ. When we lose sight of that reality, things get muddled pretty quickly.

I’m going to close my reflection on this letter with the following section from chapter 46.

Why are there strivings, and anger, and division, and war among you? Have we not one God and one Christ? Is not the Spirit of grace, which was poured out upon us, one? Is not our calling one in Christ? Why do we tear apart and rend asunder the members of Christ, and make sedition against our body, and come to such a degree of madness that we forget we are members one of another? Remember the words of our Lord Jesus, for he said, Woe unto that man; it were good for him if he had never been born, rather than that he should cause one of my elect to offend. It were better for him that a millstone were tied about him, and that he were cast into the sea, rather than that he should cause one of my little ones to offend. This your schism has perverted many; hath cast many into despondency; many into doubt; all of us into grief, and, as yet, your sedition remaineth.

It’s important to absorb the tenor of this statement and others like it. This call to oneness tends to permeate discussions of the Eucharist in the ancient writings. Clement, of course, is echoing Paul. He’s not really saying anything new. This is an application of the tradition of the apostles which we believe according to the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament they received directly from Christ.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 4 – Clement of Rome

Posted: July 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Having already reflected on the Didache or Teaching in my previous series, I want to begin our exploration of the historical view of the Eucharist with the Letter of Clement, Bishop of Rome, to the Corinthian Church. This letter was written in the late first century. Some date it as early as 70 AD. Others as late as 96 AD, the last year of the reign of Domitian. The letter’s reference to persecutions would tend to indicate to me that it was written sometime during the latter part of the reign of Domitian (81-96).

This letter does not directly discuss the Eucharist, though it is referenced a number of times as “offerings”. However, it does contain an important look at church structure, order in worship, and the importance of unity and avoidance of schism. The issue in the Corinthian Church that Clement is writing to address is division and schism. It appears they were even trying to depose their Bishop! Of course, as we know from Paul’s letters to Corinth, with which Clement certainly seems to be familiar, schisms and divisions were apparently a recurring problem in Corinth.

I’ve realized as I’ve been rereading Clement that I probably need to briefly discuss the matter of the Holy Scriptures. There was no established “New Testament” canon for these first few centuries. Most people did not have access to all of the writings that the Church would later canonize, though the ones which would become canonical tended to become more widely read and available as the years passed. Clement obviously has at least one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. Of all the other NT writings, he quotes or alludes to Hebrews the most. It also seems that he had James’ letter. Beyond that it’s hard to say from this one document how many of the writings he had read, though of course he would have been schooled in the oral tradition of the apostles and that shows most clearly in his interpretation and application of texts from the Septuagint in light of Christ.

Clement quotes extensively from the Septuagint (LXX) just as the NT authors themselves do. In the first century and in the Greek East to the present day the LXX was and is the canonical text of the Old Testament or what is referred to in the NT itself everywhere except for one reference in 2 Peter as the Scriptures. The LXX was the Greek translation of the Hebrew texts that were used in synagogues almost everywhere except in Jerusalem and Judea by the first century since Greek was the lingua franca of the diaspora and the Empire, even if Latin was used to conduct business. Since the earliest converts to the Church consisted of many Greek speaking Jews and later pagan gentiles, the Apostles and other early writers wrote entirely in Greek and quoted from the LXX. It’s clear from their texts and from surviving early liturgies that the LXX was what was read in Church. Over time, the writings that came to form the NT canon were also the texts that were read in the Church.

The entire letter is not very long and I do recommend that you take a few minutes to read it in its entirety. However, I’ll reflect on just a few excerpts. As I mentioned, the problem was that they were suffering from schisms and were trying to depose their bishop. Clement addresses the latter directly in Chapter 44.

Our Apostles, too, by the instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ, knew that strife would arise concerning the dignity of a bishop; and on this account, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed the above-mentioned as bishops and deacons: and then gave a rule of succession, in order that, when they had fallen asleep, other men, who had been approved, might succeed to their ministry. Those who were thus appointed by them, or afterwards by other men of good repute, with the consent of the whole Church, who have blamelessly ministered to the flock of Christ with humility, quietly, and without illiberality, and who for a long time have obtained a good report from all, these, we think, have been unjustly deposed from the ministry. For it will be no small sin in us if we depose from the office of bishop those who blamelessly and piously have made the offerings. Happy are the presbyters who finished their course before, and died in mature age after they had borne fruit; for they do not fear lest any one should remove them from the place appointed for them. For we see that ye have removed some men of honest conversation from the ministry, which had been blamelessly and honourably performed by them.

Clement refers here to the bishops who “blamelessly and piously have made the offerings”. That is pretty clearly a reference to the liturgy and eucharist as we saw outlined in the Didache and as Paul describes in his own first (surviving) letter to Corinth. It’s important to note that the Apostles installed bishops and deacons to care for the churches they started. We see that in the NT in a number of places. James was the Bishop in Jerusalem at the first council described in Acts 15 and officiated or facilitated that council, even though both Peter and Paul were present. Paul installed Titus and Timothy as bishops later and that’s reflected in his letters to them. After those initial bishops had fallen asleep, successors were chosen by “other men of good repute” by which we know from other sources referred to other recognized bishops (always at least two) and by the acclamation of the Church into which the successor was being installed as bishop. (Though it didn’t happen often, there are accounts of times when the people of a Church refused to accept a heterodox bishop — even if it meant gathering in the fields.) Historically, it appears that Clement may have been the first bishop of Rome installed by this method rather than directly by an Apostle.

The primary distinction, especially at this point in the life of the Church, between a presbyter (in English typically translated priest) and a bishop was that while there might be many presbyters according to the needs of the people and the size of the Church (which sometimes gathered in multiple locations in a city — Rome is a good example in Paul’s letter to them), there was never more than one bishop for any given place. Thus Corinth could have presbyters in the plural, but it only had one bishop. The presbyters helped the bishop while the deacons served the people.

I had thought I would touch on Clement of Rome in a single day with a relatively short post. As I’ve written, ideas, practices, setting, and culture on which I really need to lay some groundwork for future discussions have kept coming to mind. This post is already much longer than I typically write. So I’ll try to wrap up Clement in tomorrow’s post.


Baptists, Eucharist, and History – Series Intro

Posted: July 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

This past weekend a discussion with the Internet Monk, which began for me at least on twitter, emerged in two different posts. In the first, the iMonk posted a link to a sermon by David Chanski on the Baptist view of the Lord’s Supper and his own thoughts on the sermon. The second post responded to someone who asked what the problems are with the Baptist view of the Lord’s Supper. If you’re interested, you will find some comments by me on both posts. The first problem he listed was a problem he called “the historical problem”. He posed the issue this way:

How do Baptists relate their view of the Lord’s Supper to the ancient church’s far more eucharistic, real presence language? Do we believe the ancient church was wrong until the Baptist reformation? Yes? No? What?

It’s hardly a new issue to me. As a Christian (a clarification I have to make since I have been a lot of other things over the course of my life), I’ve only really been a Baptist sort of Christian. Oh, I’ve experienced many different flavors of Christianity from childhood on and know a pretty decent amount about many of them. But to the extent I’ve been anything in the midst of modern Christian pluralism, I’ve been a Baptist. I’m also the sort of person who enjoys history and who doesn’t just love reading, but for whom reading and breathing come close to being synonymous. And that combination means I encountered this issue sooner rather than later. I was able to set it aside for years to see if a resolution would emerge. I’m often able to do that when faced with tension in a belief. That worked for a decade or so. But it’s been increasingly ineffective over the last four or five years. Since there isn’t much in Christian life, practice, and belief that is and has always been more central than the Eucharist, that’s a problem.

I will point out that this is not uniquely a Baptist problem today. Many “nondenominational” churches (or denominations of one as they tend to be counted) have a perspective that is at least similar to the Baptist view. The Baptist, or more properly Zwinglian (Zwingli originated the memorial, symbolic theology of the Eucharist in the 16th century), view is also similar to the view held by many in the charismatic wing of the modern church. Presbyterian and other Reformed churches have a somewhat similar, though not identical, problem. As I consider the Protestant branch of the church, Lutherans and Anglicans have much less of a historical problem with the Eucharist than many. I honestly don’t remember what Methodists teach, but since they are offshoots of the Anglican Church, they may also have fewer historical issues. I can hardly claim to be familiar with the tens of thousands of distinct sects into which Protestantism has devolved, but I would wager that the majority of the larger Protestant tradition shares at least part of this particular problem with the Baptists.

In this series, I have no plans to resolve the historical problem. I don’t have any answers and I don’t expect a revelation. Instead, I plan to explore the nature of the problem itself. What is the history of belief about the Eucharist? What are the ramifications of that history? I’ll be exploring questions like that.

If it does not matter to you what your predecessors in the faith believed and practiced, if you are unconcerned about those whom Hebrews calls a great cloud of witnesses, then you don’t share this historical problem. If innovation in the faith, even in its most central aspects, is something that doesn’t bother you, then you will probably not find much of interest in this series. This is for those like me for whom such things do matter, and perhaps matter a very great deal.

In this series, I will be discussing excerpts from Christian writings throughout the first millenium. I’m not really fond of trying to “mine” those writings for a topical discussion. I’ve seen a lot of that done pretty badly over the years. Those writings don’t really lend themselves to that sort of approach. With much ancient writing, you have to try to understand the perspective, setting, culture, and situation from which someone was writing and then try to absorb the whole of what they are saying which will then illuminate the parts.  It’s very different from most Western scholastic works where you try to understand each piece in order to grasp the whole. The pieces often build on each other, but usually in a structured and orderly manner. I will always provide a link to the whole work from which I quote. And if you have any question about the way I am reading something, please go read the whole thing. Even better, read as much by that particular author as you can find.

I will caution readers up front that it is impossible to discuss the Eucharist from the writings of the first millenium without also running headlong into the issue of unity and oneness. That’s probably not what a Protestant wants to hear. But the two trains of thought tend to be deeply intertwined in most places. There are many writings over the centuries addressing schismatics (which is not the same thing as heretic) and there were schisms to address. Nevertheless, I don’t think any writer in the first millenium could have ever imagined schism on the scale that we’ve managed. So be warned.

I will generally assume that everyone reading this series has read, in their entirety, preferably multiple times, perhaps even using the techniques of lectio divina certain key portions of the Holy Scriptures. Of course, that includes the accounts of the last supper in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The other two passages are John 6 and 1 Corinthians 11. There are other scriptures, and I will provide specific references when needed. But the Scriptures above will permeate the discussion and sit in the background at all times.

Since my focus will be specifically on the historical problem with the Baptist perspective, the 1689 London Confession is as good a reference for that perspective as any. I immediately noted when I read it that it never references John 6. I’m not sure how you can develop a theological confession of the Lord’s Supper without ever referencing the Eucharistic chapter of the theological Gospel. But there you go. Perhaps that’s part of the problem.

In the series I recently completed on the Didache, you might want to read post 31, post 25, post 26, and post 27. I don’t plan to revisit the Didache in this series since I just reflected on the entire Teaching.

I had actually planned to write a series of reflections on the latest encyclical, CARITAS IN VERITATE, by Pope Benedict XVI next. But this cropped up and it somehow seemed like the series I should write at this time. I may still slip in some thoughts on the encyclical in additional posts.


The Didache 14 – No Schisms

Posted: June 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 14 – No Schisms

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

Do not long for division, but rather bring those who contend to peace. Judge righteously, and do not respect persons in reproving for transgressions. You shall not be undecided whether or not it shall be.

Division here, of course, means schism. The Teaching simply echoes Jesus, Paul, John, James, and Peter. Somehow Protestants in general, and Baptists in particular, proclaim a theoretical idea that Christian faith should be shaped first by the Holy Scriptures even as they completely ignore one of the central tenets of what we call the New Testament. How bizarre is that?

Historically, schisms were rare and treated seriously. Most schisms were either healed or the schismatic sects died off. Before the Reformation there were really only three enduring schisms in the Church, mostly defined by geography and a healthy dose of local politics at the time of the schism. Those three are the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox (often improperly called monophysite, but actually miaphysite), the Chalcedonian Orthodox (often called “Greek” regardless of actual ethnicity) , and the Roman Catholic Church. That was it.

Enter the Reformation.

According to Pew Research, we now have something over thirty thousand identifiable sects, denominations, or more accurately, schisms – divisions in the church. It is routine for even a very small town to have at leasts tens of different types or flavors of “Christian” from which the discerning Christian spiritual consumer can choose. Larger cities will have hundreds if not thousands of choices. Where I live, there is no Church of Pflugerville. There are instead myriad “churches”. Since Jesus said that people would know and accept that he was Lord because of our love and our unity, it’s little wonder that Western Christianity is withering on the vine. Heck, I’m instinctually pluralist and still like aspects of Hinduism’s inclusive nature and I’m even turned off by the present day divisiveness of Christianity. If Protestantism has offered anything else of enduring value, I’m having a hard time seeing it.

The next sentence is one of those tensions in Christianity. We are not the final judge. We can never judge someone’s salvation. And really we can’t judge anyone’s heart. When we judge, we will be held to the same standard. And woe to us when we become the hypocrite or when we judge ourselves more highly than any other. Nevertheless, we are not just called, but actually commanded to love. And in order to love, we must judge what action would be for the good of the beloved. And sometimes the most loving thing we can do is reprove another. When we do, as James points out, we must be no respecters of person, of wealth, or of power. And we should proceed trembling, for we are treading on the most dangerous of soils for our own salvation.

And we must not be undecided. That’s probably the hardest for me. I tend to doubt much. I live within the whirlwind of deconstruction. Every belief I hold, every decision I make, every action I take is subjected to those forces. And a lot of my rationales fall apart. Jesus has held so far. If anything, he has become more real, more present, and more solid the longer I’ve tried to follow him. I act decisively at times. But I always do so in the recognition that my certainty is probably temporary and how I perceive this moment will probably change. And I know how limited my understanding in any given moment truly is. This one is hard. Really hard.