Saying dumb things: Yet another example of catholi-phobia hurting the church

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Photocredit: globalnerdy.com

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(Apostolic Succession for Newbies, episode 3)

When discussing false teaching in Christianity, it is common to hear evangelicals blame the early church fathers for wandering from the gospel and accepting false teaching early on. This is really not much more than an example of Catholiphobia. You have seen Catholiphobia. That is what is going on when you hear someone say, “That seems sort of…you know…Catholic.” Which is code for, “If a Catholic does it, it must be wrong.” Dropping the Eucharist as the normative weekly worship for Christians, clergy dressing like clergy so that non-Christians know a clergyperson when they see one, and full-body worship (like marking oneself with the sign of the cross) all come to mind as examples.[1] Perhaps the biggest mistake of Catholi-phobia: dropping bishops as leaders of churches.[2]

One seminary professor of mine expressed the Protestant anti-bishop bias like this, “The problem was bishops…a problem we solved by giving the church to teams of elders in the Reformation.” For some reason intelligent, God-fearing people don’t hear the implied heresy in the accusation. What my professor was really saying is that Jesus was wrong – that the “gates of hell” did prevail against the church (Matt. 16:18) for some 1400 years until the Reformation…or some other restoration movement of the 19th century (Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, LDS) or the 20th century (Pentecostalism). It might surprise many to know that in the early church, bishops did not give the church false teachers, it protected the church against them.

It might surprise many to know that in the early church, bishops did not give the church false teachers, it protected the church against them.

This will take a bit of setup, but it is necessary to get to our final installments on apostolic succession: Bishops vs. bibles: Authority in the early church. And, Game. Set. Match. Why bishops were the trump card in early church disagreements.

Organization in the Early Church

Early Christianity is a study in organic organization. In the gospels we read of Jesus of Nazareth, a compelling and unique itinerant rabbi who spends three years going from town to town with a core-group of followers. Like the rest of the public, the disciples are fascinated by Jesus’ public teaching and healing. They, however, were given private instruction into the meaning behind his teaching and miracle working…that he was ushering in a new kingdom through a new kind of king: “God with us,” a fulfillment of the meaning behind their scriptures. Jesus did this in the ultimate of informal environments: Three years around a fire with him.

After the resurrection, the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the spreading of the message of Jesus by those apostles, primarily Peter and Paul. As Acts opens, we see the Jewish disciples of the Jewish rabbi leading in predictably Jewish ways. Change begins in Acts 8, when persecution forced many to leave Jerusalem. It took nearly a decade, but the scattered disciples finally begin to consistently extend the story of Jesus to non-Jews in Antioch (Acts 11:19-20). In Acts 11, the Jewish Christians were confronted with what to do with the increasing number of gentile converts. By the end of Acts (Chapters 20 and 24) we see the beginnings of formal organization: bishops (usually translated as “overseers” by modern Protestant translators) and deacons (usually left untranslated) appointed as leaders of local churches. Another word “presbyter” (usually translated “elder”) is sometimes used synonymously. Since churches met in households you would have multiple presbyters or “elders” in a town, and a single bishop (overseer), that would “oversee” them. It was a model co-opted from Roman government. The early Christians faced other core decisions besides organizational and leadership ones, of course. Questions like: What specifically would Christian’s believe? (A question they would solve with creeds)? And what books would comprise the Scriptures? (A question they would solve with canon-which books would be included in the New Testament.)[3] But in the book of Acts, we see the earliest church engaged, not with the story of the creation of the scriptures, but in living the faith out by the human successors to the Jesus story taking the message of faith to the next generation.

The Rise of Heresy

Very quickly, “strange ideas”[4] also reared their head. These were predictable: First, as I just pointed out, the young Christian church was still organizing itself. There were no New Testament scriptures.  The urban, diverse and, early on, rather under-educated Christians had no written source of authority to which to appeal.[5] Second, the witnesses to Jesus left a degree of vagueness about the exact nature of Jesus’ relationship with the Father (was Jesus God “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” or was it, as Jesus also said, “The father is greater than I.”) Belief had yet to be systematized. Third, Christians had opened the door to increased confusion by our evangelism methods. We were using Greek and Roman philosophers to explain and validate the new Christian faith to the Greco-Roman world.[6] Some folks took this too far and moved from explanation to syncretism-melding the two. Fourth, surely some were intentional false teachers, unscrupulously and opportunistically taking advantage of Christians’ reputation for generosity.[7] But mostly there was a lack of discipleship due to Christianity’s rapid spread. Evangelistic success led to a shortage of mature Christians to see to the training of new converts in the faith. The earliest of the “strange ideas,” Gnosticism, held that it was necessary to learn the “secret knowledge of their spiritual essence” in order to receive salvation.[8] The big question was: How would an emerging movement face conflict? And to what source would they make their appeal?

The answer will surprise you.

Next up: Bishops vs. bibles: Authority in the early church.

[1] I am not critiquing the actual theological problems with Rome, such as allowing the tradition to actively overrule scripture through modern dogmas such as papal infallibility (1869), or the Immaculate Conception (1854) or the over-reactions of the later meetings of the council of Trent against the very reactive Protestants (1550s-1560s).

[2]This is an area that most Protestants, steeped in a materialistic worldview, generally don’t see as anything near a central issue. For sacramental Christians, touch and teaching both are quite important.

[3] Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. (London, Penguin Books, 1967), 41-44.

[4] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 1. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.ii.html. Book one lists the bizarre beliefs of many heretical teachers.

[5] Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity. (Peabody, Mass, Prince Press, 2008. 50-51.

[6] Starting with Paul on Mars Hill (Acts 17) Christians struggled with the question of how to communicate faith to people who don’t accept the authority of the Scriptures.

[7] Gonzalez, 51.

[8] Robinson, B.A., “Gnosticism: Ancient and Modern Beliefs & Practices”, http://www.religioustolerance.org/gnostic2.htm

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Augustine: Big Man Meets Bigger God. 354-430 C.E.

Yesterday was the feast of St. Augustine of Hippo, Great Doctor of the Western church. Long considered the greatest ancient mind in the Western world, Augustine is out of favor right now in Christian circles.

Being asked to sum up Augustine’s life, teaching, theology and ministry in 5 minutes is a bit like being told that I need to drive a semi through my cat door…it won’t fit and the attempt is liable to make a mess of things.

I will start the way Mark starts his Gospel-by skipping the first 30 years. We pick up Augustine’s story mid-stream: Augustine is 30 years of age and already has the most prestigious academic job in the Roman world: Professor of rhetoric for the imperial court in Milan. It was a position that brought with it a sure career of prominence in Roman politics.

Being a prominent up-and-comer has never been good for one’s sense of spiritual need, and as such, Augustine came resistantly to faith. He was having too much fame and fortune and enjoying all of the “fun” that comes with. However, he had a praying mother and a friend of faith, Ambrose, who was a challenge to his intellect. They were God’s tools to break his defenses. Who is God using to break yours?

So eventually the Big man met He-who-will-not-be-avoided.

Augustine had his familiar conversion experience alone in his backyard at 33, after much influence by St. Ambrose (another rhetorician and Archbishop of Milan). At 37 Augustine was ordained to the priesthood. At 41 he was made bishop of Hippo, an African backwater and a diocese considered far beneath a person of his aptitude and potential. Far from being buried in obscurity, however, over the next 29 years Augustine would become the most towering Latin writer, extraordinary in both scope and depth. Brilliant preachers and teachers are always asked to write their stuff down. He did. We have 350 of his authentic sermons and around 100 books/booklets. They include apologetic works to debunk various heresies, commentaries on books of the Bible, texts on Christian doctrine, one of which was called “On Christian Doctrine.” His work, “On the Trinity,” is considered by many theologians to be the masterpiece that forever defined “Great theological writing.” Augustine is best known for his (Confessions), the personal account of his early life and conversion, and the City of God which he wrote to explain to Christians, badly shaken by the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 that “our citizenship is not on earth.” The Confession, addressed to God as prayers is the first autobiography. Augustine introduced the concept of the “self” in the Confessions and of “history” in the City of God. He was held in such high regard that years after his death, when Hippo was sacked by the Vandals, who held to the Arian heresy that Augustine had so powerfully written against, they burned every building in Hippo except his cathedral and library.

And yet, he is held in wide contempt in the church today. Augustine is blamed for “oppressive doctrines” such as original sin, the sovereignty of God, just war, and abortion as a sin. The current movement in the Episcopal Church to “restore” the heretic Pelagius is a direct repudiation of Augustine. And yet…

Several weeks ago I was taking summer courses at our seminary in Berkeley. The seminary president hosted a dialogue, in the fancy historic mansion on the grounds. This dialogue was between former presiding bishop Frank Griswold and Mark Jordan, a professor who has left Harvard for the Danforth Center on Politics. I didn’t know Jordan, but quickly came to realize that this guy, in a room full of super-bright people, was super, super-bright. Jordan was the Reinhold Niebuhr Divinity professor and a professor of women, gender and sexuality. He was originally an expert on medieval philosophy…especially Aquinas and is published dozens and dozens of times-mostly on Aquinas and human sexuality issues. By the middle of the conversation everyone in the room  was waiting to hear how Jordan would respond to whatever question was being fielded. In a room full of heavyweights, he was the weightiest. At one point he made a comment about St. Augustine, and added the throw away line, “I cannot get enough of Augustine. I have spent 30 years immersed in him. To this day I can not come to his writings without feeling like the proverbial man drinking from the fire hose.”

A good place to start with Augustine is The Confessions: they are Augustine on Augustine…or more accurately, Augustine on the experience of being chased by God. What comes out when reading the words of this “greatest intellect of the western world” is his humility-his sense of gratitude toward God…his sense that God pursued and chased and wooed and won his heart when he was in love with the pursuits of his own flesh- as Paul says, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for you.” While the early fathers focused on the mind and the body as the seat of God’s saving action, Augustine was the first writer to articulate the heart as the seat of God’s saving work the human soul. Here is how Augustine describes God’s pursuit of him, while he was lost in hedonistic pursuits:

“Thou didst cast away (my sins), and in their place thou didst enter in thyself–sweeter than all pleasure, though not to flesh and blood; brighter than all light, but more veiled than all mystery; more exalted than all honor, though not to them that are exalted in their own eyes. Now was my soul free from the gnawing cares of seeking and getting, of wallowing in the mire and scratching the itch of lust. And I prattled like a child to thee, O Lord my God–my light, my riches, and my salvation…

Late have I loved Thee, O Lord; and behold, you were within and I without, and there I sought you. 
You were with me when I was not with Thee. 
You did call, and cry, and burst my deafness. 
You did gleam, and glow, and dispel my blindness. 
You did touch me, and I burned for Thy peace. 
You have formed us for yourself, 
and our hearts are restless until in they find their rest in you. 
Late have I loved Thee, Your Beauty ever old and ever new. 
You have burst my bonds asunder; 
unto Thee will I offer up an offering of praise.

Hear the wisdom of this wise man: “O Lord, You have formed us for yourself, 
and our hearts are restless until in they find their rest in Thee.”

Amen.