(This is a post I put together on a forum I help to moderate. I thought it might serve as a blog post as well.)
This is something that I have been meditating and thinking about for several years and it is the source of many of the changes of directing in my life and understanding of Christianity, Church and several other elements and so forgive me in advance if this is not very polished as it’s something of a brain dump, or maybe more to the point, a “spirit dump”.
For some time, I’ve begun reading the a portion of the literature collection known as the early Church Fathers. It’s been for the purpose of trying to understand as much as I can what the practices, thinking and foundations of the early church were and to what extent they are still represented in the church of today. I haven’t completed this, and I don’t know that I ever will. I don’t know that I should. Looking back is important. Internalizing it and seeking to walk today as Christ and his apostles taught and looking forward to eternity with Him is more the whole picture.
A quick background for any who don’t know me that well. At the time of my writing this, I am just shy of my 48th birthday. I was raised in Canada until the age of 15. My father’s background was Pentecostal. My mother was Catholic until she married. When they married the eventually began to attend the Anglican Church. At the age of 12 my family transferred to an evangelical church where I was born-again.
I’ve always had a love of reading, thinking and learning. My Uncle Paul was particularly recognized as being a brilliant man (he wrote the definitive manual on the Apple II), he was a college professor at times and always was exploring new areas of learning. He visited with us often and through the time he spent with me, he instilled some of these same characteristics in me. He taught me astronomy. We used to go out with a planosphere and observe the heavens. He took me to the planetarium in Toronto and enrolled me as a junior member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and I began to receive the journals of the at organization and to read them as a pre-teenager and young teen. In it I was exposed to many of the elements of astrophysics and different approaches to understanding the universe.
My Uncle Paul also exposed and instilled within me a love of understanding how to think and understand. In our conversations often when we lay out at night gazing at the stars, we would talk. He would ask me questions and then ask me how I thought I knew what the answers and the “truth” was. It was all pretty light but he always piqued my curiosity.
At the age of 12, my uncle gave me a book for my birthday. It was The Story of Philosophy, by Will Durant. That book was somewhat life changing for me. It exposed me to the history of western thought and moved me through the different philosophers from Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and through Augustine and Aquinas through the reformation and renaissance, right through many of the major modern thinkers. It didn’t occur to me that these were subjects better considered by older students. I simple read and devoured the book and reread it many times.
The rest of my history I’ll spare you. I’ve recounted it other places on the board and it is not that relevant to this topic.
In general, it seems to me, now as I look at the sum of my self-training in philosophy and history and my formal training in theology, that there is a serious disconnect between many areas of what Christianity is today and what was understood and practiced by those early Christians. Some of these, of course, are a product of the time and culture in which they are found, and I don’t expect that there is any point for us today to try and reconstruct the early church from the point of view of just recreating the past. Beyond that these are the things that have come out in my thinking and examination so far.
A huge transition took place in the thinking and practice of the church historically, and it is particularly exemplified in the thinking, teachings and changes to that early Christianity that particularly took place through Augustine. It’s no coincidence that Augustine is considered the father of Western Christianity. I’m coming to the conclusion that many of those changes carry the seeds of what has borne the fruit in contemporary Christianity of what I can only describe as Deism, Legalism and Rationalism displacing the central tenets and practices of early Christianity.
That a strong conclusion I know, but it’s where I am in a lot of my musings lately.
In particular, I think that much of the tenets and understanding of Christianity in the early church are best reflected in the church father Athanasius. It was he who fought many of the major battles that took place in the first two or three generations of the early church to help organize and define the understandings of some very important issues that arose from the challenges of some heretical understandings that arose. In particular, Athanasius was the one who spearheaded the opposition against the teachings of Arius (Arianism) in terms of the deity of Christ and the Trinity.
Much of the foundations of Christianity are laid out in a writing by Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God. It’s a long process but examining the writings of Athanasius in this regard and contrasting them with many of the changes introduced and reflected within the writings of Augustine has been extremely revealing to me.
How this ties to the question in this thread is particularly much of the idea asked about here in the realm of “absolute truth.” Augustine effectively took, greek philosophy and many of the assumptions contained within it, and merged it into Christianity and from that came much of what is accepted by many in the west as “christianity”. This is reflected in evangelicalism today and other traditions as well by assumptions that are hardly even questioned anymore. In particular these are some of those assumptions:
1. Christianity can provide an answer to most every question that can be asked, if not directly from Scripture, then by the systematizing of Scripture to concepts that then can be entered into syllogistic constructs and conclusions drawn based on those constructs.
2. Christianity with Augustine in particular made a major shift in its view of the character of God and the nature of man. Greek philosophy employs the method of dichotomizing questions down to two and only two options both of which are usually presented in terms of absolutes. An example of this is the nature of man. Augustine represents the sea change in Christian thought toward what became known as the total depravity of man. In terms of the nature of God, there was a particular change from a personal loving God, toward a more distant, unapproachable God. The former sense of uniformity within the nature of the trinity is in effect, dichotomized to where God the Father embodies primarily those characteristics of Judgment, Wrath, Indignant response to sin and the total depravity of man. Jesus then becomes the intermediary who represented the love, grace and mercy of God. In terms of intellectual construct there is an acknowledgement that all elements are in all of the members of the Trinity, but in practice certain elements in member of the Trinity eclipse the others.
3. Greek Philosophy merged a concept in that was previously not present. Greek philosophy centers on the need for “the unmade” or “the unorginate” from which descends all constructs. This is at the heart of deism. It pushes God away from intimate involvement with man and creation and provides an explanation for origins and systems, but then reduces or minimizes any need or presence of God within that creation and interacting with mankind. What the impact has been in terms of much of what I observe now in evangelicalism is the separating of God into “concepts”, “principles” and “ideas”. It easily descends into legalism which elevates performance over relationship (if God is distant then relationship diminishes by definition), and elevates rationalism, to where the Scriptures themselves are then subjected to the framework of a systematized approach.
Now, I’m not attempting to say that everything that these elements bring about is wrong. I’m not saying that there aren’t elements of Scripture where such a systematic approach can’t bring an answer that is valuable. What I am saying, is that because of all of these elements, there has been a strong tendency in western Christianity, toward separating these principles and ideals from God and Trinity themselves. It explains, in part I think, why evangelicalism has become so focused in politics toward establishing these ideals and pushing them through in a political agenda, losing sight of the fact that God’s Kingdom has never been about externally changing our social environment in order to bring about personal change. The Kingdom as Jesus promoted it has always been focused upon internal change brought about by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Many of these elements are very subtle, but the assumptions that they carry are very high impact. It explains how people can become focused on ideas such as Love, Grace, Faith, etc. and then separate them from the person of Jesus Christ and God and the Trinity as a whole and then deal with them as concepts in the midst of constructs and then construct a very convoluted, highly structured set of reasoning and logic. Soon without realizing it, you can , as I did, become caught in this realm and function in a way where there is no real daily walk with Christ and no real relationship that is the empowerment of your life. It becomes easy then in that situation to draw upon other sources to rely upon. That can be a heavy reliance upon education to indoctrinate and reinforce through behavioral methods these concepts. It can rely upon institutionalism and man-made hierarchies to pit in place some human elements to keep the engine running. None of these things are necessarily hindrances in and of themselves (although I’m really praying through a few of those to try and figure out where they fit.) It becomes however, a matter of things that are good replacing what God gave us as best and this is what in my mind sets the early church apart from what I see now sadly; a diminishing of the centrality of Christ and complete reliance upon Him. Set within this too, is a willingness, when some type of mystery or tension exists within Christ and the Scriptures being willing to accept some things on faith, in much the same way that if a loved mother or father appealed to you, for you to trust them on something without having to immediately figure out the “why” of everything.
Athanasious summed up a great deal of this here:
“The pagans, who are altogether strangers to the Son, were the authors of the word, ‘unmade;’ whereas our Lord Himself commonly spoke of God as His Father, and has taught us in like manner to use and apply the same…. Nowhere in Holy Scripture does the Son call the Father the ‘unmade.’ And when he teaches us to pray, He does not say, ‘When you pray, say, O God unmade,’ but rather, ‘When you pray, say, Our Father, which are in heaven.” (Against the Arians, I.34)
You can know absolute Truth. His name is Jesus, and He is God. Everything else pales next to that.
I’m sure this rambles and raised more questions than it answers but it prompted me to take some time to put some of my thoughts to writing. It’s still a work in process, just as I am. I hope it helps someone and doesn’t stir up too much controversy.
Just as an afterthought, as well, many of these issues are at the heart of what has been so controversial about the book, “The Shack.” Much of what is at the core of The Shack aligns very well with Athanasius. There’s been a particularly stringent, small although vocal sector of evangelical and reformed tradition who have practically gone apololectic over The Shack and its popularity. Many of these “heresy hunters” have gone ballistic in their efforts to discredit and label the book. Look carefully at the methodology used and asked how many of them are about the reality of a relationship with God and how many are disembodied principles and attributes drawn from Augustine’s western approach. It’s quite revealing.