Thinking About Church History

This essay takes up from the essay “Thousands of Generations.” In that essay we saw that God has promised to show His faithfulness to thousands of generations of those who love Him. If God is going to do this, then human history will have to last for thousands of generations, which means Christ is not coming back for at least 100,000 years or so. (One thousand generations = 30,000 years.)

Now we reflect on the implications of this fact for our understanding of the history of the Church thus far.

What About the Church Fathers?

The true Fathers of the Church are Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John, and the other Fathers in the Bible. These men, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, created the apostolic deposit from which the Church always grows.

The men who came after them, in the first and second and third centuries, are not Church Fathers but Church Babies. This is how we should regard Ignatius, Irenaeus, Basil, the Gregories, and yes, even Augustine. I am not saying that in their personal biographies they were spiritual infants; I imagine they were far more mature in Christ than I am. What I am saying is that in terms of the corporate biography of the Church, they lived in the infant stage and their great accomplishments were only the beginning of that corporate biography. We appreciate what the Holy Spirit did with them, and the theological accomplishments they made, but to say that they understood everything and laid everything out definitively would be grotesque, ludicrous, and idiotic.

We may think that because these men lived right after the apostles, they must have known a lot. Remarkably, this is not the case. Anyone who reads the Bible, climaxing in the New Testament, and then turns to the “apostolic fathers” of the second century, is amazed at how little these men seem to have known. The Epistle of Barnabas, for instance, comments on the laws in Leviticus, but completely misinterprets them, following not Paul but the Jewish Letter of Aristeas. It is clear that there is some significant break in continuity between the apostles and these men. What accounts for this? I can only suggest that the harvest of the first-fruit saints in the years before ad 70, which seems to be spoken of in Revelation 14, created this historical discontinuity. (I’d say the first-fruits Church was the Pentecostal harvest of the third month; we look toward the Tabernacles harvest of the seventh month; note Leviticus 23:22, which comes right after the description of the Pentecostal feast, and may well shed significant light on the problem we have here mentioned.)

Thus, the Church Babies had to start with the Bible and grow from studying it and learning about it. They knew the Bible was true and that Greek philosophy was false, but the first outworking out this problem took several centuries and resulted in the great decisions of the first four great councils. Yet not until Augustine did any of these men see clearly the doctrine of election taught in Paul and the rest of the Bible. The Western Church, following Augustine, was able to make much greater progress in defining the faith against Greek philosophy, while the Greek Church made no further progress and began a decline toward the great apostasy of ad 787 (the so-called Seventh Ecumenical Council).

We ought to be careful, too, in assuming we have a comprehensive picture of the early church. We have a few writings of a few men, many of whom were not pastors and teachers but educated first generation converts from paganism, lay scholars who were engaged in debate. We actually know precious little about church life, preaching, and general Bible knowledge during this period. We would need hundreds of sermons from hundreds of preachers, decade by decade, from all over the Church. We don’t have anything like this. When Eastern Orthodoxy maintains that it preserves the lifestyle and teaching of the early church, it is engaged in a monumental act of self-deception. Nobody preserves that life and nobody can recover it because we don’t have enough information to do so. Returning to the practices of the early church is impossible.

When we see that God’s history will span thousands of generations, we see how silly it is to assume that history ended in the early centuries, everything was settled, and no significant progress remains to be made.

 

What About Tradition?

A Biblical view of history also greatly relativizes all traditions in the Church. Consider the Rome Myth-mystique. When Constantine moved the capital of the empire to Constantinople, that city became the New Rome. When Constantinople fell, the Russians decided that they were the true heirs of Rome and the true preservers of Christianity, and announced that Moscow is the Third and Final Rome. Meanwhile, in the West, the city of Rome maintained that it was the center because the Pope was there. But Charlemagne wanted to be Rome also, and created the Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire continued to be a European ideal down to World War I. For Roman Catholics, Rome continues to symbolize the center of the world.

Looking back on all this, we can see that it is really pretty stupid. Where does the Bible even hint that Rome will be the center of anything? There is no Biblical reason to think Peter ever went there; the “Babylon” of 1 Peter 5:13 is Jerusalem. The prophecies of Daniel and Revelation clearly state that the Fourth World Empire was annihilated and removed from the scene when Christ’s Kingdom came in the first century. Rome, in the sense it is discussed in Daniel and Revelation, was annihilated in ad 70. What continues thereafter is no longer part of God’s special historical plan, laid out in Daniel 2 & 7, but is simply one nation among many, no different from China or Great Zimbabwe.

We in America are in a happy position, because Protestant Christianity broke with the Rome Myth, and America became the most consistently Protestant nation. Even here, our forefathers looked to the Roman Republic and Cicero for much of their inspiration and architecture; but American Christianity has not claimed to be a New Rome. We have, at long last, moved past this myth.

When we consider the large future ahead for the world, a future that will continue to be galvanized by the ministry of the Church, it becomes rather silly to posit any tradition as the answer to our problems. Will Anglicanism exist 10,000 years from now? Will there still be icons in the churches in Russia 40,000 years from now? Will Dutch Calvinism exist in ad 20,569? Will anybody be using grape juice in communion in the year 3000? Will anyone besides a few advanced historical scholars know in the year 30,000 that the USA ever existed? Or consider the quackodox fringe groups that claim to be guardians of tradition and that “consecrate” bread and wine and then venerate them: will they still exist in 8000 years? Of course not. From the perspective of a truly long history, what is called “church tradition” is largely a matter of very local and temporary custom.

The changes that have already taken place in the history of the Church are only the beginning. What will happen when China, the Congo, and Paraguay become strong Christian lands? Will they claim to be “new Romes”? How quaint! As the Church grows and transforms in history, learning more and more about the Bible and applying God’s ways more and more in human life, the nationalistic follies of her early days will be more and more seen for what they are.

There are those who say, “Well, there are three ancient churches: Contantinople, Rome, and Canterbury; and so there are three authentic traditions.” This is nothing but ethnic racism. It is not even true historically. What about Ethiopia, Armenia, and Gaul?

Or let us ask another question: Will Azerbaijani Christians in the year 8000 use the Anglican Book of Common Prayer? Will they use the 17th century Westminster Confession of Faith in all its culture-bound phraseology? Will they worship with Scottish psalm tunes? Obviously not. All these cultural expressions change; only the Bible remains unchanging.

What is the true Church tradition, then? The true Church tradition is revamped each time significant progress is made in the Church’s understanding, each time there is a paradigm shift or intellectual revolution. In the light of the new paradigm, history is re-understood as the events that lead down to the revolution and new paradigm. History is not some kind of objective recounting of facts. If it were, it would have to include everything the ever happened, and by “everything” I mean everything! History, rather, is the selective recounting of events deemed significant by us who live now. Thus, each time there is a cultural paradigm shift, history is re-considered and events are emphasized that lead to the present crisis and situation. This does not mean, necessarily, that history is being distorted; rather, it means, we hope, that history is being better understood and applied.

Thus, there is no such thing in the abstract as Church tradition. Anyone who seeks merely to preserve the “tradition of the past” winds up distorting it, because those who authored the “tradition” were working out of a far broader paradigm than what wound up in the “tradition.” When the next generation tries to deal only with the “tradition,” and refuses to entertain anything that might be broader, it perverts that tradition.

I saw this happen in the old Christian Reconstructionist scene. There were young men whose only knowledge of theology came from Rushdoony, North, and Bahnsen. They thought, however, that this was all there was to know. They judged everyone and everything in terms of this “tradition.” But in fact, of course, Rushdoony, North, and Bahnsen were broader than merely what they wrote, knowing a whole lot of things they did not put in their books. These three men were working out of a large paradigm, but their followers, those I’m writing about here, did not have a large paradigm. Their paradigm was exclusively formed from the things contained in the books of Rushdoony, North, and Bahnsen. As a result, they grossly distorted the Christian Reconstructionist model that had been established by Rushdoony, North, and Bahnsen. They despised, for instance, pastoral care and counselling, and the reason they had no appreciation for these things is that RN&B did not write about them, so they had not become part of the “tradition.” I never new more than a handful of “Reconstructionsts” who fit this description, but the few I knew provided a good illustration of the problem I’m addressing.

The same is true of any traditionalist. Eastern Orthodoxy, for instance, claims to preserve the tradition of the “Church Fathers.” In fact, these “Fathers” (“Babies”) were much broader, richer, fuller, and much more Biblical in their paradigms than shows up in the few writings we have from them. To isolate these writings and work over them generation after generation produces gross distortions. And actually, “Orthodoxy” fell into idolatry in the 700s, venerating icons in defiance of God’s law, which had never been done in the Church before.

How then do we measure the tradition of the Church? We measure it by the Bible. What God has been teaching the Church is the Bible. The more we learn about the Bible, the better we can sort through “tradition” and see what is wheat and what is chaff. History is real; tradition is real; the guidance of the Spirit is real; but the only way we can understand and appreciate that history, tradition, and guidance, is from the standpoint of the Bible, which is the unchanging foundation.

James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This article was originally published at Biblical Horizons