Ancient religion got me into this mess, part 1

The following, while in earnest, should still be taken with a grain of salt since I did spend the last 7 years worshipping with the Free Church of Scotland.

Council of Chalcedon

Much of my difficulty with modern church worship and thought comes from my vocation as an ecclesiastical historian. Ancient Christianity got me into this mess, basically. I find it difficult to believe evangelical doctrine and reject liturgical worship and episcopal structure at the same time.

Many evangelical denominations have a desire to return to ‘apostolic’ or ‘New Testament’ Christianity. Not only is this impossible, it is undesirable. Evangelical Christians believe doctrines that were developed and hammered out, sometimes organically, sometimes through councils and polemic, by bishops who led Christian communities in regular liturgical celebration of Holy Communion. To do the impossible, to turn the clock back 1900+ years, is undesirable for anyone who believes in the Holy Trinity, the dual natures of Christ, the New Testament canon, predestination, Arminian free-will, or justification by faith. All of these require the patristic engagement with worship, Scripture, and philosophy to emerge — and the latter (if delineated in a Protestant way) needs medieval scholasticism to at least react against and St Augustine to be inspired by.

There are three main doctrinal areas where my study of the ancient church makes me take pause and consider the structure, liturgy, and devotional practice of the first five or six centuries: the canon of Scripture, the Trinity, and the dual nature of Christ. The two chief sacraments instituted by Christ — Holy Baptism and the Eucharist — are a further catalyst for my belief in the importance of ancient practices. Finally, I have a more nebulous relationship with ancient devotion.

This blog post will briefly look at the three doctrines, a second at the sacraments, and a third at the wider world of ancient devotional practices.

The Canon of Scripture

The canon of Scripture, on which I’ve blogged before, was not dropped, Qu’ran-like, from heaven. It grew organically over several centuries. Some orthodox Christians included books we today exclude; some excluded texts we today include. The Holy Spirit at work in the church brought her to a slow, general consensus on the 27 books of the New Testament. A good look at this is A High View of Scripture? by Craig D. Allert.

The central thesis for Allert is that there was a coinherence of authority in ancient Christianity, and the Rule of Faith (variously articulated, similar to the Creed) worked alongside the worshipping community to help them sort which texts belonged. Scripture upholds the Rule of Faith, and alleged ‘apostolic’ texts that clashed with it were rejected.

One aspect of this question that always emerges is that, when we read Justin and the others, it is clear that the early Christians were reading the proto-New Testament at worship. And if you study ancient worship, it becomes clear that their worship was a weekly liturgical celebration of Holy Communion, often headed by the local episkopos (the monarchical episcopate emerging in some places by the year 100, in others not until the 200s).

When people start writing their canons of Scripture, they are being written by the leaders of the ancient church — bishops who lead the community in both a teaching and liturgical office centred around Holy Communion.

I find it hard to reject the form of worship and church order that the Holy Spirit used in the church to inspire our ancestors in the faith to see what the canon of Scripture is.

The Holy Trinity

When I read Aloys Grillmeier’s Christ in Christian Tradition, Vol. 1: Up to the Council of Chalcedon, I realised how fortunate I am in some ways to live on this side of the ecumenical councils. Very few early Christians have left us records of Jesus as a mere man or prophet; but as to how he was ‘divine’, that was harder to understand. Was he actually an angel? Or a lesser divine being? How is he related to the Father and the Holy Spirit?

It was Origen’s teaching in the catechetical school of Alexandria that started the drive to sort out how these three persons work together, and it was the debates of the fourth century that led our fathers and mothers in the faith to affirm that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are three consubstantial persons who are one God, articulated by Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Ambrose, Augustine., et al Again, the bishops.

Part of what drove this fourth-century articulation of the church’s trinitarian faith was the fact that in her central act of (liturgical) worship, Jesus Christ was worshipped as God. St Athanasius used this to accuse the ‘Arians’ of idolatry (we’ll set aside the accuracy or fairness of that for now). I believe in the Trinity; I believe that it can be proven through a right interpretation of Scripture. But I also know that, humanly speaking, there is a certain amount of contingency in Christian orthodoxy.

If I affirm the Trinity, articulated by bishops who realised in their act of sacramental, liturgical worship that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are fully God, why should I reject the form of worship that in part drove them to that realisation?

The dual nature and complete unity of Christ

The fifth century is my area of expertise; my PhD was on the letters of Pope St Leo the Great, whose articulation of two-nature Christology was affirmed and accepted by the imperial church at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

The bishops assembled at Chalcedon, and then at its reinterpretation at Constantinople in 553, were trying to find a way to keep Leo happy and affirm the teachings of St Cyril of Alexandria at the same time. Cyril’s Christology was driven, in fact, by his sacramental theology. Cyril, like most other ancient Christians, believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. If Christ’s divinity and humanity are sundered, then how can the Eucharist even work? How can his flesh be real food and his blood real drink (Bible verse) if he is not a fully united person both God and man?

Leo, on the other hand, had a very evangelical concern. How can the church find a way of maintaining the truth of Jesus as fully God and fully man without destroying either? Jesus needs to be just like us in order to take our sin upon himself. But no mere man could do that; he needs to possess the fullness of God in himself. In traditional Latin theology (see Sts Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine), as synthesised by Leo, this was articulated by teaching that Jesus has two naturae, two natures, but is a single persona, person.

Both Cyril’s approach and Leo’s approach have many outworkings in our lives, in fact. How can I affirm their teaching, affirm the ecumenical councils’ doctrine, and at the same time cast aside the liturgical actions that nourished their faith and spurred on their thinking?

Final Thoughts

These are just three patristic doctrines that mean we cannot set the clock back to New Testament times. Other people will have slightly different lists. Perhaps a discussion not only of canon but of Scriptural authority would be salutary. Or predestination/free will. Or miracles. Or creatio ex nihilo. Setting the clock back is impossible and undesirable. The central beliefs of Christian orthodoxy originally hinged, historically speaking, upon bishops gathered in council on one hand and their leadership with the Christian community gathered liturgically around the Eucharist on the other.

I believe that sound, historic liturgy protects us from faddism such as Joel Osteen or the more divergent instances of charismania. Ideally, the historic episcopate has/should as well. It also guards evangelical doctrine from heresy and ‘liberalism’, as maybe I’ll discuss later.

I believe, finally, that I have not come to a love of the liturgy and orthodox faith of the ancient and medieval church willy-nilly. This has been conscious, at times agonising, work. It has been prayerful and rational. Is this not how God works in his people?

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