Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Recovering the Lost Spirit of Early Christian Thought

          With countless tomes documenting Christianity’s history already lining the shelves of theological libraries, Robert Louis Wilken takes a somewhat different approach to recording the beliefs and practices of the early church in his book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. Instead of documenting the historical facts of Christianity from the perspective of someone who just records the obvious, Wilken digs beneath the easily observable to uncover the theological thought process of some of the great theologians of the early church. Wilken’s approach is less documentary and more narrative which gives the book a rich context that draws the reader into the thought process and the practices of some of the greatest minds of the early church like Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, and the Cappadocian Fathers. Wilken’s approach invites the reader to consider how the orthodoxy (right beliefs) of the early church shaped its orthopathy (right affections) and its orthopraxy (right practices).
            More importantly, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought provides a theological baseline against which readers can compare their theological understanding and how that understanding informs their life of faith and practice. Although I always suspected that Protestantism’s theological moorings had slipped, comparing modern or post-modern Christianity to Wilken’s portrayal of early Christianity reinforced for me that evangelicalism, at least, has drifted far away from its original, spiritual, theological anchor.
Although it is still difficult to accept some of the theological conclusions reached by a few of the great theologians of the early church, there are, nevertheless, some modern theological practices that must be re-evaluated in light of the historical significance of those practices and how those practices developed according to the early church’s understanding of the Scriptures that shaped those practices. Additionally, it seems clear that modern/post-modern Christianity has lost its critical theological thinkers. It has become rather obvious that the best way to understand orthodoxy, orthopathy, and orthopraxy is to look more to the teachings of the early Church Fathers and Mothers than we do to the same degree to modern Christian thinkers and teachers. Wilken makes clear that theologians of the early church didn’t take the Scriptures for granted. Instead, they wanted to know not just how the metanarrative of the Scriptures informed theological life but were seemingly concerned with every last word of God’s Word. Scriptures that seem mundane to modern/post-modern Christians seemed to hold great significance to theologians of the early church. That failure by modern/post-modern Christians has created a theology that is a mile wide but only an inch deep.
            Finally, theological practices and thinking critically about the Scriptures don’t occur in a vacuum. Instead, the Scriptures and how God’s Word informs our practices and life of faith are ultimately transformative—at least they should be. For the early church, the Scriptures and their related practices were never detached from the goal of spiritual growth. The early church would never have imagined church practices to be a way to entertain the faithful. Similarly, the early church would never have relegated understanding God’s Word to merely an academic exercise. Instead, church practices and God’s Word were always engaged with the purpose of edification and spiritual growth.
            Ultimately, it would be to the eternal benefit of Christians generally and Protestantism specifically concerning spiritual practices, thinking critically about the Scriptures and allowing both to be vehicles of spiritual transformation and growth to begin to recover the lost spirit of early Christian thought.
            Having converted to Protestantism from Catholicism some thirty years ago, I have witnessed a continuing change in the spiritual practices of Protestants over those three decades—a change that has not always been very good. For twenty years my family and I worshipped at two different churches that valued the spirituality of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We knew all about a person who came to Christ and was baptized before the community. Although we had no real way of knowing the person’s heart, we knew, as a community that the public profession of faith was sincere. We also knew that while baptism was in part a personal event, it was also a communal event where everyone entered into the celebration of the person being baptized. Over the last ten years, one of those churches has grown significantly. Baptisms are performed en masse utilizing mobile, blow-up hot tubs. The congregation knows next to nothing if they know anything at all about the people being baptized. It has become a personal event that fails to engage the congregation. Today’s baptismal practice isn’t even a shadow of the baptismal practice of the early church. Wilken describes the practice of the early church when he writes,

            By the end of the second century baptism was preceded by a period of elaborate and intense preparation. Baptism was a ritual for adults, not infants, and the months, even years, leading up to it were a time of formation in the Christian life, through example and practice, and of instruction in the creed. Baptism was a moral as well as a spiritual experience…
            Toward the end of the weeks leading up to Easter (what became Lent), during which the candidate for baptism fasted, abstained from public entertainment and sexual intercourse (assuming one was married), and faithfully attended the word service of the Eucharist, the bishop preached a sermon in which he recited each article of the creed and explained its meaning. The competentes, those seeking baptism, were asked to repeat the phrases after the bishop. Later the sponsor helped the candidate memorize the creed…
            Finally the day of baptism arrived…After listening to the reading of the Scripture the catechumens would “hand back the creed,” that is, recite the words they had learned from the bishop weeks earlier…psalm 42, “As the deer yearns for flowing streams, so yearns my heart for You, Oh God,” was sung, and the catechumens proceeded to the font, a small pool usually six to ten feet long, about three to six feet wide, and approximately three feet deep. At either end there were steps to walk down into the pool, and curtains enclosed the area. The catechumens went down naked into the pool and were immersed in the water as the bishop spoke each person’s name and recited the baptismal formula: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” When they came out of the water they were anointed with oil and clothed in a garment of white linen. After the baptism the catechumens returned to the main basilica for the Easter Eucharist. At their first Eucharist they received a cup of milk and honey, and during Easter week they attended services in their white garments…
            In the early church baptism was not a private affair but a communal celebration of the entire community. Everyone had a role, the bishop and other clergy, neighbors, friends, and family…Baptism was the great Christian spectacle, and the excitement of seeing neighbors and friends step forward one by one to go down under the waters riveted the attention of the Christian community.[1]

Also until ten years ago, we celebrated the Lord’s Supper every week and every week for many years someone different would lead the congregation in the Lord’s Supper dedication with some great biblical wisdom about the spirituality of the Eucharist. The celebration of the Eucharist was truly a celebration engaged in by the believing community in the spirit of remembrance as Jesus instructed. Today we don’t even celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a community. Instead, if the Eucharist is celebrated at all it is done privately at tables set up in various places around the church and the community of believers is invited to partake in the Eucharist at their convenience. The Eucharist has become an after-thought in the Christian community, an optional practice not a regular, required remembrance of our Lord’s sacrifice.
            In contrast, Wilken paints a picture of the Eucharist as practiced by the early church that scarcely resembles what we practice today when he writes,

            Remembrance is more than mental recall, and in the Eucharist the life giving events of Christ’s death and Resurrection escape the restrictions of time and become what the early church called mysteries, ritual actions by which Christ’s saving work is represented under the veil of the consecrated bread and wine…
            The repeated celebration of the liturgy worked powerfully on the imagination of early Christian thinkers. It brought them into intimate relation with the mystery of the Christ, not as a historical memory, but as an indisputable and incontrovertible fact of experience…Before there were treatises on the Trinity, before there were learned commentaries on the Bible, before there were disputes about the teaching on grace, or essays on the moral life, there was awe and adoration before the exalted Son of God alive and present in the church’s offering of the Eucharist. The truth preceded every effort to understand and nourished every attempt to express in words and concepts what Christians believed…
            The Eucharist was the central act of Christian worship, and its communal celebration each Sunday set the rhythm of Christian life. In the early church there was not Christianity without an altar.[2]

            Theological practices, however, weren’t performed in a vacuum. Instead, practices were constructed on a firm theological foundation of critical thought about the Scriptures.
            Present, repackage, repeat. This seems to be the pattern these days on Sundays for many Christians. Not much theological thought goes into the message. Messages are filled with theatrical creativity but not much theological depth. My experience has been that there are only a handful of messages presented on Sundays and once they are presented they are simply repackaged and repeated at some later date. It never really dawned on me that something was wrong until I entered seminary. I honestly thought my beliefs made sense. However, it only took a short while at seminary before I realized that my theology was grossly truncated by years and years of theologically shallow preaching/teaching. Over the last fifteen years, I have learned that the lack of critical thought has birthed some horrible theological beliefs with devastating consequences.
            George Barna, of the Barna Research Groups, has conducted numerous surveys that support a sad reality within Christianity. In one particular survey conducted in 1997, only seventeen percent of Christians and twenty-five percent of non-Christians believed the moral and ethical standards of Americans at that time were just as high as ever.[3] It is probably safe to assume that things have not improved here in America in the last two decades since that particular survey was conducted. Perhaps contributing to this decline are the beliefs expressed by contemporary Christians. In another survey by Barna, only sixty percent of those surveyed believe the Bible is accurate in all its teachings. Thirty-nine percent believe that Jesus sinned during his time on Earth. Sixty-one percent believe the Holy Spirit is merely a symbol of God’s presence and power but not a living entity. Forty percent do not believe Jesus rose from the dead physically. Thirty-two percent of those surveyed believe that truth is relative.[4] The survey results indicate a failure to think critically resulting in a shift away from orthodox biblical belief. That type of shift cannot occur without consequences. Barna writes, “Most Christians—not those who merely call themselves Christians but those who have confessed their sinfulness and have asked Jesus Christ to be their Lord and Savior—have fallen prey to the same disease as their worldly counterparts. We think and behave no differently from anyone else.”[5]
            Although the early church spent centuries working out the details of her belief, Wilken makes clear that theological accuracy wasn’t a hobby it was a way of life. It is no wonder that the works of Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, and others from the early church era are still cited and relied upon even after so many centuries. To demonstrate that the early church didn’t take God’s Word for granted, some of their interpretive issues revolved around single words in Scripture. For example, Wilken tells us that, “The word cleave, adhaerere in Latin, appears again and again in Augustine’s writings. It is taken from Psalm 73:28, ‘For me to cleave to God is good.’ ‘Does not the word “cleave”,’ writes Augustine, ‘express all that the apostle says about love?’ No other biblical word seemed to Augustine to embody the entire mystery of the faith so fully.”[6] Today it seems that we are accustomed to explaining the meaning of God’s Word as a metanarrative and certainly there is something to be said about the Gospel as a whole. However, I wonder how much of that is simply a function of theological laziness or theological shallowness where thinkers in the early church saw depth of meaning down the minutiae of God’s Word.

            The Christian Bible…created a distinctive universe of meaning. As its words took up residence in the minds and hearts of Christian thinkers, it gave them a vocabulary that subtly shaped their patterns of thought. What the Bible spoke of could not be expressed apart from its unique language and its singular history...
            Because the words and images of the Bible endure, they provided scaffolding on which to construct the edifice of Christian thought. The Bible was, however, more than a platform on which to build something else, and biblical interpretation was not a stage on the way to the real work of thinking. Thinking took place through exegesis, and the language of the Bible became the language of Christian thought.”[7]

            However, understanding God’s word was never intended to be merely an academic exercise. Together with the theological practices it supported, critical thought about God’s Word was intended to be transformative.
            A few years ago I had the privilege of leading a customer to Christ and then discipling her for four months during which I completed a construction project at her home. She was an eager learner, and I witnessed an amazing transformation in her life during those four months. During those four months, the hardest thing wasn’t pointing her to Christ or discipling her. Instead, the hardest thing was trying to help her understand why her husband, who claimed to be a Christian most of his life, was so neglectful and abusive. There were no easy answers to her questions. Over the years that I have been a pastor, most of the people I have counseled, whose lives were basically a dumpster fire, were Christians. They were new Christians and old Christians but they were Christians nonetheless who attended church at least once a week and sometimes as many as three times a week! So what was the common denominator of all those Christians and so many others who sit in the pews next to us every week in church? Lack of spiritual growth or spiritual transformation or spiritual formation. Whatever you want to call it, it appears that the goal of Christians today is to be entertained on Sundays and get their ticket punched to stay out of hell not to grow spiritually. It seems clear both intuitively and is confirmed by the surveys performed by George Barna that many believers today are no different than unbelievers. And to make matters worse, many churches seem to endorse a kind of cultural conformity as a way to be popular and relevant.
            For the early church, belief in Jesus Christ and the life of faith was always supposed to be transformative. Whether it was the practices of the church or the theology of the prominent leaders and thinkers of the church, everything had a trajectory of transformation in the life of the believer. Very simply, Christians were supposed to be different because Jesus was different. Wilken records that “Christ showed us a ‘wholly new way of being human…new, not only because it was strange and wondrous to those on earth, and was unfamiliar in comparison to things as they are, but also carried within itself a new energy of one who lived in a new way.’ ”[8] It is hard to envision entering into a personal relationship with the Creator of the universe as being anything but transformative if it is a sincere and authentic relationship.
            I suppose it’s normal to have a visceral reaction to manipulation and abuses of power without the unfortunate result of throwing out absolutely everything associated with the manipulation and abuses and starting over. And the church hasn’t been immune to such visceral reactions when its unbiblical practices and theology pushed the pendulum to one extreme. For example, when the act of baptism became a means of salvation apart from faith or the bread and wine were presented as the actual body and blood of Christ as opposed to representations or when icons became idols that were venerated as though they were divine, there were those who opposed the theology behind those practices and sought theological equilibrium. Unfortunately, equilibrium is often difficult to achieve and nearly impossible to maintain. As a result, the pendulum always seems to tend to swing to the complete opposite extreme where today baptismal candidates have little or no theological foundation on their way to being baptized in mobile, blow-up hot tubs. The Eucharist is marginalized to the point of becoming an optional and private practice performed in front of a folding card table out of the way at the back of the church somewhere. And icons are so feared or hated that we’ve put our churches in vacant strip malls or abandoned hardware stores with no windows at all let alone any stained glass windows. Churches are constructed with uninspired architecture that displays no religious artwork on the walls, and in many cases, not even a cross can be found inside the building. To take a stand against what was perceived to be manipulation and abuses, we’ve thrown out the baby with the bath water.
Dr. Bruce Demarest insists that evangelicals have to be discerning when trying to decide which beliefs and practices of the past we should retain or recover and which ones should be allowed to become or remain dormant. Demarest writes about his spiritual epiphany,

God was leading me to honor what was true in my own tradition while welcoming back authentic Christian insights and practices from the older tradition. He was leading me to integrate the new and the old—to balance orthodoxy (right beliefs) and orthopathy (right affections) and orthopraxy (right actions). I had come to see that these are the three movements of healthy, growing spiritual life. This balanced path of growth—changing the mind and heart in order to change the outward actions—keeps us from the deadly trap of self-deception in which we believe, but do not grow, in Christ.[9]

            According to Wilken, the proper balance of orthodoxy, orthopathy, and orthopraxy was the passion of the early church as well. They understood that the consequences of failure in all three would have devastating effects on the church and the surrounding culture just like it’s had devastating effects on the church and surrounding culture today. We can’t hope to conform to the world and draw people to God. Instead, only by being different than the world can we give people a sense of God and help lead a lost and broken world to fulfill its true yearning—relationship with God. Wilken makes clear that,

If they [society] have no sense of God, they have no sense of themselves. Although it may appear that a political community can form its people in virtue without venerating God, over time its life will be turned to lesser ends, to vice rather than to virtue…A society that has no place for God will disintegrate into an amoral aggregate of competing, self-aggrandizing interests that are destructive of the commonweal. In the end it will be enveloped in darkness.

            For the evangelical church to more effectively move into the future, it must begin by recovering, at least to some degree, the lost spirit of early Christian thought. To begin, the evangelical church today must re-evaluate some of its practices in relation to the practices of the early church in order to recapture their sacredness. It must also begin to value the importance of critical thought so that followers of Christ have a firm foundation upon which to construct their life of faith and know with certainty why they believe what they believe. Finally, the evangelical church today must refocus its efforts away from entertaining the masses and instead emphasize the value of spiritual transformation and growth.

[1] Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 37-39.
[2] Ibid., 34-36
[3] George Barna, Growing True Disciples: New Strategies for Producing Genuine Followers of Christ, (Colorado Springs, CO, 2001), 78.
[4] George Barna & Mark Hatch, Boiling Point: It Only Takes One Degree—Monitoring Cultural Shifts in the 21st Century, (Ventura, CA, 2001), 190-191.
[5] George Barna, The Second Coming Of The Church, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 6-7.
[6] Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, 72.
[7] Ibid., 76-77.
[8] Ibid., 131.
[9] Bruce Demarest, Satisfy Your Soul: Restoring the Heart of Christian Spirituality, (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 1999), 29.

(Audio version; Music: "Shadow Step" and "Wonder" by Hillsong Worship)