1. What Is Classic Christianity?

St. Michael's Cathedral, Toronto
St. Michael's Cathedral, Toronto

Classic Christianity is the cross-denominational, cross-cultural abundance of teachings and practices of the Church throughout the ages and around the world.

Doctrinally, its core is C.S. Lewis’ “mere” Christianity, the beliefs that all Christians everywhere have believed — Chesterton’s “orthodoxy”; in breadth and grace, Classic Christianity finds itself similar to Brian D. McLaren’s “generous” orthodoxy (but not A New Kind of Christianity); nonetheless, in its embrace of the past, of those who have gone before, of tradition and traditions, it leans heavily towards Thomas C. Oden’s “paleo-orthodoxy.”

I list the above authors in the hopes that perhaps you, gentle reader, have read at least one them, and therefore can start to get an idea of where we are starting from.

Paleo-orthodoxy seeks to learn theology from dead guys, to encounter the truths of orthodoxy in the Scriptures and the Church Fathers, drawing from the rich well of the first 1000 years of consensual Christian witness to the Truth. Classic Christianity reads these ancient Classics, seeking always the Truth, always Christ, always a deeper understanding of the Scriptures and God’s revelation to us. Classic Christianity seeks to be in communion with all that is good in the Christian tradition, drawing from the wells not only of the first 1000 years, but of the great Tradition as it gallops across the world and through time.

Christian belief and practice hold theology and doctrine as their chief boundaries; they reside as the foundation for our thoughts and actions, as we try to live out what we believe.  Classic Christianity, seeking Christ throughout these past 2000 years, reads Mediaeval and Byzantine authors, Reformers, Counter-Reformers, Wesleyans, and the best of the rest until today — always with the humility that we are blinded by our own cultural assumptions and have much to learn from the older authors.  And as we draw our theology and doctrine from these past Christ-followers, we seek purity of heart through their practices as well — both the notable “social” and community-based actions as well as the spiritual disciplines, cultivating our spirits with the wisdom of the ages.

As I think about Classic Christianity, three points come to me: It is sacramental, incarnational, and catholic.

Sacramental

If Classic Christianity is described as “sacramental,” one could imagine, therefore, that Baptists and other “dissenting Protestants” are outside of Classic Christianity. While they lack formulated sacramental theology, many Baptists, as well as the Alliance Church, are sacramentalists and just don’t know it, for they will admit to God sending grace through Holy Baptism and Holy Communion that we do not receive any other way. Thus, the extent to which they are sacramental is one part of how these traditions are part of the Great Tradition and reflect Classic Christianity.

A concern for these vehicles of the dynamic, life-changing grace of God is a mark of Classic Christianity — how do we worship God through these? what happens? how do they change me? how do they bind us all together?  A cross-denominational group discussing Classic Christianity would not shy away from these questions, but approach them head-on with humility and grace, seeking to understand one another more as well as the sacraments more — be they two, seven, or limitless.

Part of the sacramentality of a more Classic Christian worldview, however, is not simply Holy Communion and Holy Baptism and how they operate.  It is also a realisation of God communicating His Presence in our lives through the everyday. If bread can be the body of Christ, if wine can be a vessel for the divine, then where else is God? How are we living lives that see God all over the place? How are we living lives where we ourselves are sacramental to those around us, being visible signs of the invisible, spiritual grace of the Triune God Who is over all, in all, through all?

Incarnational

The concept of everything being a potential vehicle of the grace of God leads us to incarnation. If God, the uncreated, eternal creator of the universe took on flesh and pitched His tent among us, what are we doing to live out His existence in the world around us?

When we read the Bible or spiritual books, we are not simply to store up knowledge in our heads.  Smith Wigglesworth once said, “Libraries make for swollen heads, the Word of God for swollen hearts.”  We are to read deeply, spiritually, and prayerfully.

When we read the theology of the masters such St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Gregory Palamas, and Richard Hooker, our chief concern is not simply knowledge about God, but actually knowing God Himself.  We must rediscover how to live as people who worship a Triune God. We must rediscover how to make life worship, how to make theology into action. An apt monastic teaching is that work is prayer — this includes the work of study and thought.

We are to live the life of Christ in the world; we are to be the light itself.  And we are to see Christ in the world around us, to give him a cup of cold water. Classic Christian doctrine and theology is about transforming lives and bringing us to purity of heart, making us fit for heaven, conforming us to the likeness of Christ.

Live in a way that reflects God’s Being as Trinity. Live as though it really matters that while we were His enemies, God died for us. Live a life that reflects the reality that God is Jesus. Actually turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, give away your shirt. Be like Christ and rise early to pray. Live as though every breath, every footstep, every book, every friend you have is a gift from God. Live in way that demonstrates the reality of prayer. Live. Live like a person who loves Jesus.

Catholic

The only way to be sacramental and incarnational is to be humble in our approach to theology and Scripture.  We must realise that our own cultural, denominational, temporal location is not the be-all and end-all of Christian teaching.  A humility of this sort — there are many ways of being humble — leads to a more catholic approach to Christian life and thought.

Catholic means no more than universal — in terms of time and space. St. Vincent of Lerins defines it as what has been believed everywhere by everyone forever. This is a strong mark of true Christian orthodoxy and Classic Christianity.

Thus, with a catholic approach to Christianity, the classic Christian reads Wesley and Newman, Lady Julian of Norwich and St. Gregory of Nyssa, Protestant and Catholic, East and West, ancient and mediaeval, Renaissance and 19th-century.  All the riches of Christian writing and thinking that are available to us are fair game.  What can we learn from a fifteenth-century Greek?  An eighteenth-century Baptist?  A twentieth-century Catholic?  A fourth-century monk?

Part of catholic humility is not only going to other traditions from before us but turning to them as they exist today. I believe that Protestants need not only to reclaim Reformation ideas/ideals but should also not shy away from our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, for a significant portion of them has not fallen into the trap of modernity that so many of us have.  By reading RC and EO writings, by befriending them, checking out their worship occasionally, our journey into tradition and Classic Christianity will be aided.

At first blush, these ideas of sacrament, incarnation, and catholicity seem more feasible for the Anglican who stands on the bridge between Protestant and Catholic, other mainline Protestants, or certain types of Roman Catholic.  However, much of the teaching of “evangelical” Protestants falls under the heading of Classic Christianity and is part of the rushing, roaring river of the Great Tradition — no matter how much its authors may eschew the very thought of tradition!  Thus, we can read Bunyan, a Baptist, alongside his Anglican contemporaries such as Donne.

Nevertheless, it stands that the Catholics and Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Christian Reformed, to cite the most notable, all have strong roots with Classic Christianity, and already express portions of it in corporate worship. Yet in our personal lives, so few of us have read classic Christian works, have practised the classic Christian disciplines, prayed the classic Christian liturgies, sung the classic Christian hymns, have learned classic Christian theology and ideas. Let us change that trend immediately.

11 thoughts on “1. What Is Classic Christianity?

    • Ben, sometimes I ask myself the same question! It has to do with some of the technical points regarding the Fall and the nous and what salvation is as well as the relationship of non-Orthodox to Orthodoxy; ultimately, it’s because I have yet to be convinced that the Eastern Orthodox Church is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

  1. But if you look at the history of the Church and all of her beliefs, you see that they have not changed! Have you ever read the Didache? When the Didache was found, Western Christians were so enthralled with how strange the Early Christians did things, while if they looked just a wee bit over their shoulders, to the East, they’d see that the Orthodox have been doing the things described therein since the very beginning.

    Have you ever asked an Orthodox priest about these technical points? As for the relationship of Heterodox to Orthodox, the Church teaches that we cannot say who is not in the Church, because to say that is to define the Will of God. For more information on that, I suggest you read the book “Christ the Eternal Tao.”

    Also, another thing. “O Gladsome Light” is the oldest extant Christian hymn. It was written before the New Testament was written, according to some. It is still sung in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Also, if I am not mistaken, Anglicans and Lutherans have rediscovered it. Have you ever heard of Western Rite Orthodoxy?

    And one more thing! Salvation is a process. It’s not something that is instantly bestowed on us and then we’re done. It’s something we strive fore every single day, by constantly re-affirming our relationship with Jesus and trying to live to the glory of the Holy Trinity.

    • I would argue that, looking at the history of the Church and her beliefs, that the Eastern Orthodox have perhaps changed the least, and certainly haven’t changed since the Byzantine period, where the Greek Patristic legacy was synthesised by the brilliance of St. Maximus, St. John of Damascus, St. Simeon the New Theologian, and St. Gregory Palamas. But the strands of the patristic legacy beyond the Greek world are not exactly as the Orthodox Church presents things, as I discovered reading Fr. John Romanides’ Patristic Theology. Romanides gives a good account of the Byzantine synthesis of the ancient Greek monastic tradition, but he presents it as the consensus of the Fathers, something I am uncomfortable with.

      Indeed, Anglicans and Lutherans have rediscovered “O Gladsome Light,” and I know that Catholic scholars of the Divine Office are certainly aware of it; whether it has impacted liturgy is a question I cannot answer. Alas, Western Rite Orthodoxy seems to be an American phenomenon. We have one lovely, little Orthodox Church where I live, Byzantine rite with a mixture of English, Greek, Romanian, and Slavonic at the services.

      Finally, while I agree that salvation in its entirety is a process, I would argue that justification is by faith alone. Through that faith and by God’s grace we move forward into the all-consuming fire of his life and love, ascending the ladder step by step as he sanctifies us. To the extent that that sounds Orthodox, it is basically classic Methodism; to the extent that it is evangelical, it is basically classic Lutheranism.

      I am, at present, a mixed bag of beliefs. Conciliar Christology, Thomist Triadology, Lutheran sacramentality, Anglican liturgy, aspiring to live more in line with Franciscan simplicity but failing utterly. I do not see penal substitutionary atonement as incompatible with “classic” or Christus Victor atonement. The balance still falls to the West, Ben. If/when the East tips the scale, I’ll get duly chrismated!

      • Wow! You really get into the philosophy of Christianity!

        I’m afraid you lost me with the talk of the patristic legacy…

        What, by the way, are your views on Confession?

      • As far as the Patristic legacy is concerned, I find that Romanides, Ware, et al., have a tendency to present the (brilliant) Greek Byzantine synthesis as the consensus of the pre-Byzantine Fathers of the entire Church catholic, while a reading of the Greek, Latin, Coptic, and Syriac Fathers, especially before Justinian, gives us a much more pluriform view on certain issues, thus casting their image of an unchanging Orthodox Church as being not entirely accurate.

        I like what an Anglo-Catholic priest I know said about Confession: All may, some should, none are required. I think that confession to someone, be it a spiritual father, a priest, or a spiritual brother, is probably actually spiritually healthy and that Protestants have sadly lost this idea in our rejection of Late Mediaeval “sacerdotalism”.

  2. It is always nice to find kindred spirits. I discovered Classic Christianity via Thomas Oden’s work when studying systematic theology at Liberty University…it basically brought me from Fundemental Baptist thought all the way into “high-church” Lutheranism. I recently told someone that I qualify as an “Anglo-Lutheran evangelical Catholic.” I appreciated your reasoning in regards to the Eastern church here as well…

    • Glad you like this blog. I’ll have to check out yours, too. Enjoy being an Anglo-Lutheran evangelical Catholic! Embrace it with gusto! 😉

  3. So refreshing to discover and ponder these deep ideas and comments on Christianity beyond the barriers of denominationalism in America. My wife and I are seeking kindred spirits in our present journey, having taken a sabbatical from traditional Church.
    – TF

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