A problem with history as a subject is that it is not short. Christian history now spans nearly two millennia and that is a lot to cover in a blog post. So here is #3 of what I hope is four posts on this topic – or maybe five.
Previously, in parts 1 & 2:
- Christian history looks like an aimless mess, about as linear as the path of a pinball, knocking about
- Phyllis Tickle sees order in the chaotic history, sees several distinct, deep changes, one every 500 years
- Things are lost with every big shift, but the previously challenged and often confused Christian community has always redefined itself and expanded like crazy after the shift
- In the hodgepodge of today’s myriad denominations, Tickle identifies four dominant Christian traditions: Liturgical, Social Action, Renewalist and Conservative, all of which are quite set in their ways
- We stand at the edge of a new dominant Christianity which does not exist today but which, hopefully will recapture much of what is deep, gritty, mystical, communal, incarnational, biblical Christian practice
- Some of what has been lost along the way is good stuff which we need, but no-matter; little, museum-like ‘Christianities’ curate – that is, protect and preserve – what has been long lost to most of us
- Richard Foster identifies twelve great disciplines which were foundational to the holiness, power and witness of the early church: Meditation, Prayer, Fasting, Study, Simplicity, Solitude, Submission, Service, Confession, Worship, Guidance and Celebration
- No more than three of these ancient disciplines are practiced by any main Christian tradition today
- Six of the twelve are to be found established and supported primarily in the Catholic orders: Meditation, Fasting, Simplicity, Solitude, Submission and Guidance
My Big Question
All of which has led me to ask a question which I have already posed in several ways: how can we see our situation as covered, as under the sovereign, loving protection and control of the living God?
To answer the question, I will start by examining my assumption about our human authority and God’s gracious superintendence of our human efforts. My assumptions are based, I think, on my reading of several passages which I have seen as pointing to a single message. In Matthew 18:18, Jesus said, “Most assuredly I tell you, whatever things you will bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever things you will release on earth will be released in heaven.” Then, in John 20:23 he said, “Whoever’s sins you forgive, they are forgiven them; whoever’s sins you retain, they have been retained.” And then there is Matthew 28:18-20, ‘The Great Commission:’
Jesus came to them and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things which I commanded you. Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.
When read together, I take these passages as imperative promise oracles, as marching orders graciouly couched in words of comfort, as if to say:
‘You guys are the beginning of the greatest movement of all time, The God-movement, based on the confession of:
“The Messiah Jesus, him crucified and exalted!”
You are going to change the whole world. You need to have confidence as you move ahead that you will be supported one hundred per cent by my Father and by me as his Enforcer from heaven. Whatever you decide is good and important on earth will be held to be so in heaven; whatever you decide is worthless and irrelevant on the earth will be seen as such in heaven. Wherever you go and whatever you decide, I’ve got your back!’
This was an important and empowering message for the founders of the new community. It took away from the apostles one of the most basic human fears, the fear to decide and then act, to take a stand. We all more or less fear decisiveness because we might be wrong and because our wrong steps could ruin all we have tried to accomplish. In reality, though, to not act, fearing a wrong step, is even worse than a wrong step! A movement is no movement at all if its leaders are frozen in indecision. So Jesus told the persons whom he charged to launch the kingdom, based on his redemptive work, teaching and authority, they could not chose wrong.
Heady stuff. Sure, heady, but how far can we take this promise? It has been a fundamental error of Roman Catholicism to interpret these passages to mean, ‘Peter’s church, the community supposedly founded by Simon bar Jonah in Rome, would always be lead by an infallible leader.’ History has proved this assertion to be wrong countless times on many, many levels.
Two Useful Readings
So, how about another approach, assuming my reading of these passages is more right than wrong? I see two important and not mutually exclusive ways of reading this history, what I call ‘normative’ and ‘pragmatic’ approaches. By a normative reading, I mean, a reading of history which leads to the restoration of creation, to the new heavens and new earth. By a pragmatic reading, I mean, a reading of those things which do work, if only for a time. Has every decision of Christian leaders over time lead to the development of those things which will exist in glory? No, certainly not. Have many decisions led, over time to what was needed for a given time, if not forever? Yes, certainly!
A Biblical Example
I bet you need some examples. So do I. First, from the Scriptures and then, in the next post, from Christian history.
Genesis 37-50: Joseph, the spoiled brat and second-to-last son of Jacob, was sold into slavery by his older brothers. Not a normative decision on behalf of ten of the founders of the tribes of Israel concerning another such founder, would you agree? Yet, pragmatically speaking, the brothers’ wretched and hateful action put Joseph exactly where God wanted him to be: in Egypt! Their hatred was turned by God into the salvation of much of the local world from a great famine. It also allowed God to move Israel/Jacob and his family of 70 persons into Egypt.
Then, the Egyptian government, under Joseph enslaved the people of Egypt, forcing them to trade their freedom for life-saving food – food they had raised themselves in the years of plenty! There was nothing normative about Joseph’s oppressive and imperial use of his authority, yet God later used Egypt’s hatred of Joseph. When the Egyptians regained power from the ruling dynasty which Joseph had served, they were quick to turn the tables and enslave Joseph’s growing family. Yet, this evil action was, implicitly, exactly what God wanted; an opportunity to show the world his power while liberating his people from Egypt! My point is, many pragmatic and even evil decisions were used by God to move toward that which is truly normative, a liberated, fruitful children of Israel, living by Torah in the promised land: that is who we are and who we will be when the kingdom comes in its fulness on the earth.
Toward Answers to the Questions
Do you see where I am going? In the next post I will argue that all sorts of decisions made by early Christian leaders were wrong-headed and not at all normative –headed for the kingdom-come – but God has ‘had the back’ of his people through it all. Next time, look for answers to these questions from the last post (Christian History, Part 2):
1. Should the common purse have not disappeared into the monasteries?
2. Should monasteries have been established at all?
3. Should the regular orders have ever been established or not?
God is sovereign; he never misses a trick. And he loves all creation, including you and me, very much! That is why he never gives up on us.
Peace and grace, Trace
1 Back to PostJesus describes himself and is described by the New Testament writers as “the one who sits at the right hand of God,” once he is exalted. In ancient and even in medieval kingdoms, this position was reserved for the King’s champion or enforcer. Jesus was elevated to be the enforcer of the will of God in Heaven over all creation.
2 Back to PostThere is some evidence the rulers Joseph served were foreigners and not native Egyptians. The “Sea Peoples” or “Hyksos” held Egypt before the 18th dynasty, the rulers of Egypt in the time of Moses (if one accepts, as I do, an early, 1400 BC, exodus).