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?

An Old Kind of Christian

I have recently begun paternity leave, and I’ve decided that, besides not formally doing work for ten weeks, I’ll also take a moment away from reading ancient, mediaeval, and Orthodox books for a little bit, to sort of, um, freshen the brain. Read books ‘normal’ people read. So I’ve put my ‘fun’ reading of Statius’ Thebaid on hold and have started Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and my Christian-y reading of St Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations has been switched for Brian D. McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian.

I realise I’m 18 years late to this party (and was 18 when the book came out), so any meditations I have on a book that thought it was cutting-edge in 2001 may be a little inappropriate. I will not be able to recapture what it must have been like to have been 36 reading this book back then.

Also, I have read two of McLaren’s books already, one in 2004 (More Ready Than You Realize) the other in 2006 (A Generous Orthodoxy), and I have to admit that I liked them, but neither was revolutionary or game-changing. Finally, for my own 2001-02 context, I did read, in 2002, Walsh and Middleton’s Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be, my introduction to postmodernism.

Anyway, having laid out a bit of my own modern context (I use that word on purpose), I also assume any regular reader knows that I am a Classicist and ecclesiastical historian who specialises in Patristics with research interests that stretch into the High Middle Ages and an eclectic, East-leaning Anglican devotional life, having been raised in a charismatic Anglican parish.

Before beginning this book, my thoughts were largely as follows. My sister-in-law once observed that Brian McLaren was not that revolutionary in these early books; he was mostly just explaining postmodernism to middle-aged people. In the end, however, the emerging church as a movement has proven itself largely spent. McLaren’s book A New Kind of Christianity set him not merely outside the bounds of evangelicalism but of any orthodoxy, however generous (for some solid critique, I direct you to Bill Kinnon, since I know and trust Bill). He demonstrated himself simply another liberal; he was running so fast to find something new that he ended up in the 1990s in 2010.

The only other two names ever associated with the emerging church that I can think of are Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll, and I’m sure I’ll get in trouble for daring to mention Driscoll’s name with such illustrious company — for Driscoll has proven himself simply another Reformed megachurch pastor who happens to be edgy. Bell decided to catch up with the Episcopal Church in affirming universal salvation and gay marriage. Oh, yes, Peter Rollins; he seems not really to be a liberal simply because he is so very different. But he’s by no means anywhere within the boundaries of historic orthodoxy — he may be the only one to have succeeded in becoming a new kind of Christian.

When I first asked a couple of years ago the question, ‘What happened to the emerging/emergent church?’, I found a video on YouTube of one less-famous member chatting with a slightly more famous guy. The less famous emergent guy had emerged into Roman Catholicism, and the other had turned out a Pelagian who rejected the Nicene Creed not on any logical grounds but on the highly individualist notion that the men who wrote it had to place telling him what to believe. It was a strange conversation to watch.

So it seems that in trying to embrace postmodernism, many associated with emergent have ended up modern(ist) in one way or another — the individualistic Pelagian who also rejects Nicaea; the guy who bailed out and became Catholic; the Reformed pastor; the guys who are really not so different from the liberal mainline, itself a product of modernity.

This, of course, is no surprise. Contrary to all the exciting things being said in the first 46 pages of A New Kind of Christian (this is as far as I have got), postmodernism was simply a self-critique of modernism, which is what modernism has been doing for most of its existence. The idea that postmodernism may actually simply be an outgrowth of the modern mindset, that it may actually be modernism dressed up in fancy, new jargon, first came to my attention in a 2009 or 2010 issue of Adbusters. Since then, I’ve seen or heard of a growing critique of postmodernism.

So McLaren, et al., for all that I know their books helped a lot of Christians work through important issues and critique the modern church, failed at becoming a new kind of Christian.

I realise this post is already long-ish, but my other thought, a thought that also inspired the title, and one which I hope to explore further, is that perhaps an old kind of Christian is what we need, but neither a modern(ist) one nor, indeed, an irrecoverable pre-modern one. Brian Walsh and others have dug into those of us who think that we should hunt down pre-modern Christianity to find moorage in the sea of postmodernity. (Brian Walsh has also succeeded in slowly drifting in liberalism in his embrace of the postmodern; where are the orthodox postmoderns?) Rather, I think of a spirit-infused prophet of old who has drunk deeply of the Fathers and can body forth for us in our current context, be in post- or not, the ancient, medieval, Byzantine and even (gasp!) modern wisdom the Spirit has poured into the Church.

One may argue that that kind of Christian sounds like a postmodern Christian as imagined 18 years ago. The difference is that, unlike a Peter Rollins who provides a long-running critique of the whole Christian project, or McLaren who doesn’t really seem to understand the medieval world (or didn’t, back in 2001 when he wrote this book, based on how he uses Lewis’ The Discarded Image), this is someone from within the tradition who embraces it, is infused with it, and loves it to bursting, because the tradition is the manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth, because the tradition is the Holy Spirit at work in the world of men, because the tradition is the life story of the Body of Christ.

Postmodernism, that is, late stage modernity in its current manifestation, has a liking for story and song. Is tradition not simply the story of the church? Is it not the song sung by the Spirit in His people over these long years? Let us go deep into the Christian tradition, East and West, and prayerfully seek the wisdom of the mystics and liturgists and saints and poets and theologians who have brought us here, and use them as guides to bring us to Christ.

It is Christ who will lead us onward.

Constructing Christendom 3: Reconstruction?

Romanesque Basilica Sant'Ambrogio, Milan (my photo)
Romanesque Basilica Sant’Ambrogio, Milan (my photo)

In my first post on this topic, I talked a bit about what we mean by Christendom and the dismemberment of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. Last post, I talked about the role played by the papacy in developing and spreading culture and unity throughout the arising kingdoms that took Rome’s place, bringing us from Pope Leo I (r. 440-461) to Pope Leo III and Charlemagne at the latters coronation in the year 800.

Most of the next 1000 years I’ll skip, okay? Suffice it to say, as mentioned in the first post, the Church as an institution along with many individual Christians was a powerful force in the intellectual, political, cultural, social, legal, artistic, military (etc, etc) life of Europe. For good or ill.

Today it is not.

What I will not talk about, which may disappoint, is the cultural fragmentation that has coincided with the decline of ecclesiastical power in the West. The two may well be linked; I’m not really a cultural analyst, more of a classical philologist/historian who plays around in theology. I would say, however, that we do live in troubling times, when the visual arts are incomprehensible blobs, blots, and belches, music is mostly either vapid pop or void ‘art’, poetry has missed the part where words mean things, modern novels have forgotten what a story is, art cinema is so dull, and so forth.

I also leave it up for others who wish to discuss any possible moral degradation. This is a story that is unequivocally linked to the fall of Christendom, but is a symptom. We cannot legislate morality. If any sort of ‘Christendom’ is worth reconstructing (a point up for debate), I think maybe we begin with disciples.

No, sorry.

With Jesus.

What, then, do I mean by the fall of Christendom?

I first heard the term ‘Christendom’ in old books about the Crusades when I was a kid in the 80s and 90s. I had this vision of all of Christian Europe standing firm against the oncoming, oppressive infidels, who were apparently some people group called ‘Turks’ and by religion ‘Moslems.’

I first heard of how we are living after Christendom from my father’s preaching in the late 90s. He put it simply, that most people aren’t really Christians anymore. Charles Alexander, one of his fellow Anglican priests from the Diocese of Calgary, once put it that we are clearly living in a post-Christian age — at least 35 years ago people could tell you which church they weren’t going to!

That is to say, not only do we have fewer people who truly believe and live the Gospel, we have fewer people who even identify as nominally Christian. To be Christian is no longer to hold any power in our culture. Our churches, as I have seen in Edinburgh, are empty(ing).

Some people are living in fear as a result. They miss ‘the good ol’ days’ when Christians, and evangelical or possibly Roman Catholic Christians, had the power. When they could say, ‘Down with this sort of thing,’ and people would listen.

I don’t know if we’ll ever have ‘good ol’ days’ again.

Could that be a good thing?

New evangelization

What should actually trouble us isn’t the marginalisation of the Church. That is inevitable if no one’s going to our churches or believing the version of the gospel that is publicly pandered to the populace. We should be concerned about salvation and souls.

The Roman Church calls this the New Evangelization. Postmodern, post-Christian, un-Christian Europe and North America have turned their backs on the Church. Even in countries like Cyprus, where almost everyone turns up at a church on Sunday morning, people are not seeking to become Jesusy. They don’t go to their priests for spiritual comfort or advice — they go to the big New Age conventions for that.

When we look to those Great Popes (Leo I and Gregory I) and late antique/early mediaeval saints like St Caesarius of Arles or St Augustine of Canterbury or St Martin of Tours or St Cuthbert or St Aidan or St Columba or St Boniface we see not just people out to mould culture into their vision of what Catholic culture should look like (as the abovelinked post to St Caesarius discusses) but people who want to see their neighbours and the peoples of distant lands find Jesus and then follow him.

I also believe that simple evangelism as I was taught or imagined when younger is not enough. Tracts are not enough. I once wanted to be a door-to-door preacher (no joke) in my zeal to make sure people heard about Jesus — not enough. That guy yelling on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh — not enough. What does Christ call his Apostles to do?

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19, NKJV)

A disciple is a lifelong student of Jesus, an apprentice is his school of life and love. We are to be being conformed to the likeness of his image, and to be helping our neighbours do likewise.

Charles Alexander, in the same series of talks where he noted that 35 years ago people at least knew which church they didn’t go to, called us to be prophets to the culture around, that we need to be a radical church for a radical age.

Cultural transformation

I have a distinct feeling that more Christians = more Christian culture.

But we need, as a Church, to be willing to foster the artists in our midst. We need to let them produce fantastic art that sometimes maybe doesn’t talk about Jesus at all. The Truth will shine through, don’t worry.

We also need to help make real disciples who are in positions of power. Not power-hungry hypocrites who have all the Jesusy slogans but lack Jesusy character. Nay! Men and women of Jesusy character in places of power is a good thing.

But we’ve been saying this for decades. But the effect of Christians on public policy and our efforts to keep people in church and hooked on Jesus have been failing.

So I could be wrong.

How do you think we could transform culture into something where orthodox Christianity is at least visible and taken seriously?