4 Reasons to Get to Know Ancient Christianity

Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil

Many have found themselves and their faith unsettled as the West entered, enters, dwells in, the state of late modern existence called ‘postmodern’. As well, whether the ‘postmodern’ has had anything to do with it, in the same decades since I heard my father proclaim the death of Christendom in a 1998 sermon, many have found discomfort with the church of evangelicalism for many a reason.

Some left to the liberal side of the mainline. Others left to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Some of us stayed put as best we could but found ourselves slowly transforming into something different from what we once were. For example, last year, I was venting to my brother some frustrations with the church I attended (Reformed, biblicist, low church, evangelical, pseudo-Anglican). I said I didn’t think I was an evangelical anymore (even though my commitment to historic orthodox theology and ethics is as strong as ever), and he said I sounded like a catholic Anglican.

After all, at the time I was reading Alexander de Hales (1185-1245) on grace in the original Latin for comfort in my plight (a friend had sent it to me).

Of course, I have only stayed put ecclesially (-ish?). What I have been doing for most of my (as yet brief) adult life has been lunging into ancient, mediaeval, Byzantine, and Orthodox Christianity as my solace, alongside the English poets and the Prayer Book. Perhaps you, too, find yourself in an awkward place at your church — you affirm historic orthodoxy but rankle at the pulpit, shudder at things other evangelicals say, and don’t know if you’re becoming a liberal or an Anglican. (Become Eastern Orthodox, it seems the best option right now.)

If so, here are some reasons, regardless of where your ecclesiastical home lands, why theologically conservative Protestants should get to know ancient Christianity.

1. The New Testament

No ecumenical council determined which books are in the canon of the New Testament. And if you understand the way western canon law works, the 397 Council of Carthage with its canon is maybe not as important as it looks. Anyway, this is a thing we should all know. What happened instead was an unofficial growing consensus that manifested itself over centuries through the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that the 397 canon of Scripture was not controversial, nor was Athanasius’ in 367, nor would that of Innocent I be in the early 400s. This is very brief and not meant to be a historical investigation of the question of how or when the NT canon settled; please don’t troll me, I’m never in the mood.

What I want to say is: If these people were attuned to the Holy Spirit and filled with His grace to be able to discern between the inspired revelation of God and everything else (however valuable to the church’s life), shouldn’t we pay attention to what they have to say on other subjects?

2. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity

The ancient church fathers articulated with ever greater precision and beauty the doctrine of the Most Holy and Life-giving Trinity, finding a way to use human words that is both biblically faithful and philosophically sound. Read their writings on the Trinity, such as St Gregory of Nazianzus’ Five Theological Orations.

If you believe the Trinity is an essential doctrine for Christian orthodoxy, doesn’t it make sense to get to know it from the people who had to think through these dangerous new waters?

Moreover, reading the ancient theologians on the Trinity, not only does your appreciation for this doctrine grow, so does your love and awe of God. You want to praise and worship so wonderful a Persons as these.

Furthermore, the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are still out there, alongside Oneness Pentecostals, Christadelphians, and Richard Rohr. The beauty, elegance, and logic of these teachings, coupled with their biblical fidelity will help you navigate any future encounters with such as these. I enjoy bringing up St Athansius with Jehovah’s Witnesses, myself.

3. The Person and Work of Jesus

Alongside the Most Holy Trinity, the ancient church thought through what it believed about the person and work of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the God-man, who trampled down death by death. If you believe that Jesus Christ is one person who is at once fully human and fully divine, why not read the writings of the people who articulated this belief and wrestled with how to phrase it? Why not go and read the Chalcedonian definition of the faith right now?

Again, knowing how and why the church has come to its belief in Jesus Christ as one person existing in two natures, fully human and fully divine, will help you with Mormons, Richard Rohr, et al., but it will — once again — also bring you to your knees in worship of Christ Our God who was crucified for us.

Furthermore, maybe Brian D. McLaren and others who say that penal substitutionary atonement theory is ‘divine child abuse’ are getting to you — not necessarily that they annoy you, but that you fear they are right. Well, let me tell you something about ancient views on the atonement: None of them is penal subistitutionary atonement, for this was not articulated until the masterful work of St Anselm, Cur Deus Homo (c. 1100). Being a catholic Anglican, I agree with Anselm, but since I increasingly lean East, I also see that this is not the only way to view the atonement, which is an act of God like a diamond, casting forth different colours in different directions depending on the light.

What you will find is a central home for the cross (crucicentrism being integral to evangelical identity) alongside an embiggening of your vision to see that the Incarnation is a Big Deal, that when God answered the prophet’s call to rend the heavens and come down (Isa. 64:1), nothing could ever be the same. If atonement is an issue for you, the Fathers will bring you to your knees in worship of the suffering immortal God.

One of the Most Holy Trinity was crucified and died for us. Hallelujah!

4. Spiritual Disciplines

You read the New Testament. You believe in the Trinity and the two natures of Christ as well as his atoning work on the Cross. These are great reasons to get to know the Fathers. And as you get to know them, you’ll realise that they inhabited a world without the distractions of Twitter, Facebook, Game of ThronesAvengers films, or the Kardashians. They did, however, inhabit a world with the distractions of chariot races, imperial pomp, occasional persecutions, the theatre, gladiatorial combats, brothels, singing competitions, banquets, and more.

And you’ll find that many of them kept themselves grounded through spiritual disciplines.

Many of us have found (stereo)typical evangelical piety and pietism shallow. We want to love God more and go deeper and see real transformation in our lives. So did the Fathers. And they took to hear the exhortations to pray without ceasing and to love one another and to care for the poor and oppressed.

If you take seriously what they believed, shouldn’t you take seriously how they lived?

These are just the four that came to me tonight. What reasons do you have for reading the Fathers?

New Testament Canticles

I recently wrote three pieces on the New Testament Canticles over at the blog my brother and I share. These are the Benedictus (song of Zacharias at the birth of John the Baptist), Magnificat (song of Mary), and Nunc Dimittis (song of Simeon upon encountering the Christ Child) — all known by their first word or two in Latin. All sung/recited during the daily office. All in the Gospel of Luke.

The reflections are devotional exercises considering the content of the canticles and their historical context. I hope they are a blessing to you:

New Testament Canticles 1: Benedictus

New Testament Canticles 2: Magnificat

New Testament Canticles 3: Nunc Dimittis

Happy Bible Sunday!

In the days of one united Prayer Book and lectionary, Anglican circles called this Sunday, the Second of Advent, “Bible Sunday” because of the Collect:

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The epistle reading is similarly Bible-focussed: Romans 15:4-13.

We would do well to pray this collect over and over again, for, like many of Cranmer’s little masterpieces,* it is a sermon unto itself.  We learn first (regarding the Bible; no doubt an entire homily could be preached on “Blessed Lord”):

  • God caused all holy Scriptures to be written

This alone is to give us pause when we recall some of the things we hear, such as that the NT writers were choosy in their selection and not everything in them is historically true.  Like the Virgin Birth.  Or the Resurrection.  Or the very idea of Jesus being God-in-flesh.  If God caused all holy Scriptures to be written, then we should take these passages and doctrines very seriously before moving on to:

  • written for our learning

The purpose of this writing of Scripture was our learning.  The Bible is there to teach us.  We are to learn from it.  How?  Cranmer shows us next:

  • hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them

The Word of God is to be proclaimed and read aloud.  I believe this applies even to today when most of the population is literate.  The spoken word, as an action, has force and power different from the printed word.**  We are also to read it ourselves, though.  Sunday morning is not enough; our involvement with the Scriptures is to be personal.  As we read the words of life, we are also called to mark them, learn them, and inwardly digest them.

That last phrase, “inwardly digest them,” is among my favourite Prayer-Book phrases.  As we study the Scriptures, we aren’t just supposed to observe them critically as we would the Aeneid or the Tome of Leo.  We are to digest them.  They are to enter into our very being and become part of us.  This is a very dynamic, very physical image.  And what is the result of our intimate acquaintance with the Scriptures?

  • by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life

The Scriptures give us patience — endurance through suffering — and comfort — strength.  Through this endurance and this strength, we come to a place where we are able to embrace — again, a very personal verb — and hold fast — imagine someone holding onto a rope so as not to fall into a chasm — the blessed hope of everlasting life.

The Christian hope is not simply the hope of a better world, the hope of temporal joy, the hope of moral improvement but the hope of eternity for those who put their trust in Jesus, in God, Whose character is displayed to us on the pages of the Bible.

And whence does our hope come?

  • our Saviour Jesus Christ

The Christocentrism of Reformational thought (I acknowledge that there was/is much Christocentrism in Catholic thought; I am not speaking of Catholics, though) comes forth.  Our hope of eternity comes from Jesus.  Cling to him whom we have found in the pages of the Scriptures and we cling to our hope, we cling to eternity and escape from death.  This is a good thing.

So we should all read our Bibles, and read them carefully, so that we can come to know better the God who saves us through Jesus Christ and be transformed and cling to the hope of everlasting life.

*I hereby acknowledge Archbp. Thomas Cranmer’s debt to the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries.  Part of his genius was in selection and translation, part in adaptation of the tradition, part in original composition.

**My own adaptation of Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy.