Archives For History

Right off the bat, I’ll own that this title is pretentious. But I just had this realization, and I think it’s profoundly true. I’ll need to improve my titling skills, because while this post should be broadly relatable, I’m sure the title scared most people away. But not you, dear reader. Thanks for giving me a chance here.

The 19th Century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard is one of the most influential thinkers in history. If that statement surprises you, it’s because his thinking comes to most of us indirectly through many currently-influential voices. He’s the philosopher equivalent of the bands who influenced the Beatles, who in turn influenced every musician you’ve ever enjoyed.

But he doesn’t do much direct influencing of modern readers because it takes a lot of work to dig into. (Follow me on this—I promise it will pay off.) For one thing, he wrote a ton of books, and those books tend to have many hundreds of pages. But to make matters exceedingly irritating, many of Kierkegaard’s books were written under numerous pseudonyms (Victor Eremita, John Climacus, Anti-Climacus, Hilarius Bookbinder, etc. etc. etc.). And some of these works claim to be compilations of writings from still others. Some of these pseudonyms seem to represent more nearly than others what Kierkegaard himself believed, but it’s impossible to be sure.

Kierkegaard would play games with these pseudonyms. He would release two books by two different pseudonyms on the same day, or within a couple of weeks of each other. While he was producing these works, he would be sure to be seen in public frequently so that no one would suspect him of being the author of these works (a bit of theatre that worked for a time, but not for long). These books would offer different points of view on Christianity, philosophy, ethics, and society. Kierkegaard also published several books under his own name, but it still takes a lot of brainpower to untangle the relationship between this Kierkegaard and the pseudonymous authors of Kierkegaard’s other books.

Because of these bizarre methods, there’s no consensus on what Kierkegaard himself actually believed, no universally agreed upon “theology of Soren Kierkegaard.” I’m tempted to think of that as a frustrating loss. But I’m realizing that it’s not. It’s actually a gift.

How can I possibly claim that this quirky, controversial, confusing philosopher could save our world? Because the kind of reading that his books require would make us all better citizens and dismantle our biggest hurdle to mutual understanding.

When I first started reading Kierkegaard’s works, I read them as I read any book. I was in search of “Kierkegaard’s theology.” I wanted to know his views on things. When I do this with any author, I get a feel for their positions, and then I decide whether or not I agree with Calvin or Keller or Wright or Lewis. When I think about it, it’s extremely binary. But this is actually unhealthy. Because I actually agree with and disagree with all of these authors.

What is this pull I feel to identify with some authors over others, as though I need to check [favorite author]’s views before I know what I believe? Wouldn’t it be healthier to learn from each author and pull the most helpful parts from each? Isn’t it most important to walk away with deeper understanding and inwardly transformed as a result of wrestling with an author’s arguments? How does it help me to be able to claim to “agree with John Piper” or whomever, as though it’s all or nothing? Are we not perpetuating the problem by relying on a few individuals to do our thinking for us? Really, it just makes us all that much more divided. Encamped. Partisan.

But Kierkegaard’s bizarre style won’t let us get away with this. You have to think for yourself. When you read Kierkegaard, you have to engage with his actual arguments, because you never really know what it means to “agree with Kierkegaard.” You have to decide, to “judge for yourself,” to use a Kierkegaardian phrase. With each pseudonym; each book; each paragraph, sentence, and argument, you must weigh and decide what you think.

It’s infuriating. And exhausting. And healthy.

Kierkegaard was extremely controversial in his day, and cartoons like this were often printed in newspapers, where he was mocked for his pants and curved spine. People tend to be uncomfortable with those who challenge the norms.

Our political climate is so polarized. You’re republican or you’re democrat. You’re pro or anti whomever. You’re pro this or anti that. We deal in sound bites, in memes. And your response has to be instant. You have to be outraged or impressed within seconds, and if you don’t make a social media statement right now then you’re siding for or against someone or something bad or good. IT’S US OR THEM! RIGHT NOW! Our figure head has made this or that statement, so fall in line!

Don’t you hate it? Isn’t it ugly? Don’t you feel in your bones that we need something better, something more sustainable?

What we need, I submit, is a Kierkegaardian way of reading things. Take your time. You’ll have to decide, but don’t simply follow the party line. Do your homework. Weigh each comment, each argument, each moment on its own merits. It’s not about blind adherence, it’s about the journey.

Judge for yourself.

Kierkegaard also rails against indecision, so you do have to make up your mind. Deciding is important, but you’re not allowed to decide by default, by blindly following your tribe’s voting guide or statement of faith. If we could all retrain our habits of engagement in light of Kierkegaard’s infuriatingly inefficient approach, perhaps we’d learn to understand each other better, to renounce the “hot take.” We would then develop wise, patiently-formed, true-to-the-depths-of-our-soul convictions, and we could hold hands and walk away from the echo chambers we’ve been told to pledge allegiance to.

[If you want to give Kierkegaard a try, I recommend starting with this fantastic biography, or this brief but helpful guide to his thought.]

Take a brief look at Church History and you’ll realize that the Church is kind of an icky place. Or at least, it often has been. I love my church, and you probably love yours too. But historically speaking, the church has a tendency to be really really messed up.

The Church has a lot of blood on its hands. Protestants have killed Catholics and vice versa over the practice of Communion. Reformers literally drowned Anabaptists who believed that baptism was for believing adults and not for infants (“You like to be baptized? Let me hold you under a little longer…”). Think of the Crusades. Or of corruption within the church throughout the Middle Ages. Simony (selling church leadership positions to those looking for a good political career) was a recurring problem in the church. Our modern sex scandals are nothing new in terms of Church History, except that many times in the past the promiscuous church leaders have been unrepentant, unapologetic, and unashamed.

Think of the times that the Church has advocated slavery, has fought against human rights (unbelievably, Martin Luther King, Jr. had to “fight” against Christian churches), or has stood by and done nothing while holocausts were afoot.

Think of the hypocrites sitting in the pews around you. People actively involved in affairs even as they pretend to be devout Christians. Think even of yourself: Who among us truly practices what Jesus preached?

We get pretty worked up when people accuse the Church of being hypocritical, but let’s admit: they have a point. The Church can be (and often has been) a dirty bunch. That’s the case with all human enterprises.

Imagine God hiring a PR representative: “Well, God, you’ve got a decent reputation, at least in some circles, but that Church you continue to hold on to is not doing you any favors. You have a growing constituency of people who love you but hate the Church. For centuries upon centuries a large demographic has stayed completely away from you because of the Church. It’s time to distance yourself. Be God, do the good things you want to do in the world, change lives, bring healing to impossible situations—all of that. But do it without the Church. The Church is only bringing you down.”

Simony, a practice common throughout the Middle Ages, means buying a church leadership position.

I’d fire any PR rep that said something different. The Church is a huge liability for God.

And yet God refuses to abandon the Church. He refuses to distance himself. It’s true that we cannot confine God’s activity within our church walls. God works all around us in ways we couldn’t possibly imagine. Yet he remains inextricably tied to his Church.

And he has tied himself to the Church by choice. This was his idea. God’s mission in this world has always been about redemption, about reversing what went wrong with the fall, about defeating evil and healing what has been broken. His mission moved through Abraham and Israel, through David and Isaiah, and finally reached its climax in Jesus. But then God did the unthinkable: he passed the mission on to the Church. The Church! This wandering, embarrassing, inept group has inherited God’s mission to fix the whole world. And God did this on purpose!

As David Platt says, the Church is God’s Plan A, and he has no Plan B.

Why has God stubbornly refused to distance himself from the Church? Because his plan of redemption will be brought to completion through the Church. Because God does great things through those who are weak. Because God chooses the foolish things of this world to shame the wise. Because God takes earthen pots and uses them to unleash his glory upon an unsuspecting world.

churchI am as broken as anyone in Church History, yet God uses me. My church is as full of sinners as any other church in history, yet God is bringing healing and purpose and life and hope to the world through this ragtag group of Christians I call my church body. We will continue to mess up. We will continue to be weak and cowardly. We will forget the mission and get worked up about things that don’t matter. We will continue to be a liability. But God will not abandon his Church.

And because God will not abandon His Church, we will continue to bring healing that far exceeds our abilities. We will continue to embody reconciliation and forgiveness and peace, though in ourselves we lack these resources. We will continue to show the world that Jesus is alive, that the Spirit of God has not for a single second neglected God’s mission, that the Spirit fulfills the mission through the apparent foolishness of God’s Plan A Church.

God has not dumped the Church, and he never will.

“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).

It’s easy to be grumpy about all of the denominations in the church. If we’re supposed to be united as the body of Christ, then why do we have Baptists and Presbyterians and Methodists and Lutherans and Episcopalians and Evangelical Free Churches and Assemblies of God a host of others? I recently saw a report estimating that we have over 33,000 Christian denominations in the world.[1]

I can think of a lot that is unhealthy with the reality of denominationalism. But when we look at church history, the introduction of denominations was actually very healthy, and we should all be thankful for this development.

In the wake of the Reformation (roughly 500 years ago), each church saw itself as the one true church. Catholics, Lutherans, Anabaptists, Anglicans: each of these groups (and more) held different beliefs and followed different practices, and each was convinced that their church was right—to the point that they would banish and even kill those who saw things differently. These churches, which took root in specific areas, began to war against each other. The Huguenots (followers of John Calvin) were rounded up by Mary Queen of Scots, tried before Catholic judges, and then tortured and/or burned. The Thirty Years’ War started as actual warfare between Protestants and Catholics.

Eventually, everyone got tired of the fighting. It was clear that no one church would arise and dominate the religious landscape. Christianity seemed hopelessly divided, and war seemed an increasingly useless way to try to unite the church.[2]

Into this mess came the theory of denominationalism, introduced by the Dissenting Brethren of Westminster. Rather than each branch of the church considering itself the one true church, denominationalism sees each church as simply one expression of the whole of Christianity. Each church is referred to (or “denominated”) by a specific name, but it is still part of the larger whole.

The Dissenting Brethren built their theory of denominationalism on four points:

  1. Human beings do not understand God’s truth perfectly, so differences of opinion are inevitable.
  2. These differences of opinion are important, and each church must follow its convictions on what the Bible teaches. Nonetheless, many differences of opinion do not violate the heart of the Christian faith.
  3. No church has a full grasp of God’s truth, so no one church by itself can adequately represent the true, capital C Church. We are the true Church together, not in our individual expressions.
  4. Separation does not mean schism. In other words, we can disagree about many points of doctrine and practice, but still be united in Christ.

Thus denominationalism allowed the church to move forward. We no longer had to kill or banish one another over every doctrinal disagreement. (Can you imagine elder meetings if this were still the case? That would make a great reality show.) This mentality provides the basis for a Baptist church disagreeing with a Presbyterian church on many issues, but still viewing one another as Christians.

Denominations

So while the denominational landscape can be discouraging—if we are all one in Christ, then why have we splintered off into these innumerable groups?—we should actually be thankful for denominations. The diversity in the church is a reminder that Christians still differ from one another significantly. We’re not brothers and sisters in Christ because we happen to think exactly alike. Far from it! No, we are brothers and sisters in Christ despite our very real differences in interpretation and practice. But we are brothers and sisters nonetheless. The Baptist church sitting next to the Presbyterian church are reminders that though we have differing convictions, we still choose to stand side by side as representatives of the larger Body of Christ.

But of course, everything I’ve just said is meaningless if we choose to demonize other denominations. My guess is that as you read over the Dissenting Brethren’s four points, you had mixed feelings. Yes, this is a good perspective, but no, I tend to view my own church as the only right one. We believe the way we do because we’re right. My “Christian” neighbor attends that other church because she doesn’t understand the Bible. Etc.

With the Dissenting Brethren, I affirm that our differences are important. How we interpret the sovereignty of God, the way we practice baptism, and our views on divorce and remarriage are very important, and we need to continue seeking truth in all of these areas. But the authority is the Bible, not the leaders or doctrinal statement of my specific church. And as long as the church next door is committed to God and his word (not superficially, but really and truly), then we stand together as representatives of the full (and diverse) Body of Christ. May we all be variously denominated, but essentially united.

If you want more on this topic, consider Tim Keller’s perspective.


 

[1] The estimate of 33,000 denominations is almost impossible to believe, until you consider that (1) each major denominations is made up of subsets (e.g., not just Baptist, but American Baptist, Southern Baptist, etc.), (2) each denomination can look much different from country to country, and (3) nondenominational churches are very popular, and being nondenominational does not mean that they are united in doctrine and practice—it basically means that each individual church is almost a denomination unto itself.

[2] It should sound crazy to us that warfare amongst Christians was ever considered an option, but this was the result of hundreds of years of the church being tied to the state.

Earlier this week, a group of 21 Egyptian Christians, members of the Coptic Church, were beheaded. The accusation against them: they were “people of the cross, members of the hostile Egyptian Church.” This unfathomable act was carried out by ISIS—an act of barely veiled evil, supposedly done in service to God. Religious people everywhere (most Muslims included) are horrified at this and other atrocities committed by the Islamic State.

As I hear about this beheading, I am in the middle of my semester, in which I am teaching two courses that give me two unique perspectives on this event. On the one hand, I am teaching about the persecution endured by the Christians in the first three centuries. On the other hand, I am teaching through the book of Revelation. The church history course gives historical perspective; the Revelation course gives eternal and theological perspective.

In talking about the early church, we have been looking at many examples of Christians who bravely met their death. From sometimes sporadic and sometimes full-scale persecutions under Roman emperors to persecutions in China, India, Egypt, Africa, and the Middle East for most of Christian history, persecution has been the church’s constant companion. Paul promised: “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). And he meant it. Jesus himself said, “In this world you will have tribulation,” but he also went on to say, “But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Throughout history, many of our Christian brothers and sisters have boldly chosen death over disgrace, martyrdom over apostasy. Most of these martyrs didn’t actually have to die: there was a simple escape from their painful deaths (often preceded by torture). All they had to do was renounce Jesus. And yet that simple act was more than they could bear; death was a far more attractive option.

Despite numerous attempts throughout church history (and apparent victories in specific areas at specific times), evil has not been able to stop the followers of Christ from, well, following Christ—from picking up their own cross and accepting death on behalf of their Lord. As Tertullian famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

These 21 men bravely joined the prestigious ranks of those who have demonstrated that Jesus matters more than their own lives. As Hebrews says, these are people “of whom the world was not worthy” (11:38).

At the same time, I’ve been teaching through the book of Revelation. Though there is much disagreement about the nature and timing of Revelation, the book was originally written to seven churches on the verge of intense persecution from the Roman empire (or “Babylon,” as Revelation refers to it). The letter of Revelation was written to keep them standing strong in the face of persecution. Some churches were in danger of flirting with the evil empire, and Revelation calls them to remain faithful. Other churches were about to suffer for their faith, and Jesus says to them: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10).

Standing firm as a faithful witness to the reign of Jesus—even in the face of death—is a key theme in Revelation. Revelation calls all Christians to be ready to lay down our lives rather than deny Jesus in our words or our actions.

In calling us to be faithful witnesses to the point of death, Revelation is calling us to follow the example of Jesus. Towards the beginning of the book, John hears an announcement of “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,” who has “conquered” (5:5). And as John turns to look upon this conquering, kingly Lion, he seems something startling: “I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (v. 6). What John sees interprets what John hears. Jesus is indeed the King, the conquering Lion. But the way in which he has conquered is by dying as a sacrificial Lamb. This then sets the stage for the followers of the Lamb.

The white lamb in the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck

The white lamb in the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck

Throughout the book of Revelation, the followers of the Lamb are called to “conquer” in the same way the Lamb conquered: “They have conquered him [the dragon: Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (12:11). It is fascinating that in Revelation, the same event in which Satan and the evil empire are said to conquer over God’s people (11:7, 13:7)—namely, martyring them—is also the event in which the martyrs are said to conquer Satan and evil (12:11). The evil empire believes that it is conquering by killing the saints; the saints are assured that they are conquering the evil empire by dying. We are reminded of Paul’s words:

“We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).

Faithful witness is the call throughout Revelation, and martyrs throughout history have answered this call.

So as I heard about ISIS beheading 21 Christians and referring to them as “the people of the cross,” I thought: they got that exactly right. People of the cross indeed. People who are willing to pick up their cross and follow Jesus. And as I heard of one of the ISIS soldiers claiming, “we will conquer Rome,” I thought: they got that exactly wrong. They are siding with Rome, with Babylon, with the beast, with the evil empire. And the men they beheaded are the ones who truly conquered Rome.

Because our Christian brothers went to death for the sake of Jesus’ name, choosing faithful witness to the lordship of Jesus over their own lives, evil was conquered on Sunday. Just as in the crucifixion of Jesus, evil has been conquered in the very act by which it meant to conquer.

So to our Christian brothers who defeated ISIS: Thank you for reminding us that Jesus is better than life. Thank you for showing us that death is not defeat, that those who remain faithful to death will receive the crown of life. We are inspired by your allegiance to the slaughtered Lamb, and we are resolved to follow the Lamb into the heavenly city, where he has already wiped every tear from your eyes (Rev. 7:17, 21:4).

Don’t Pray Like a Pig

Joey Dodson —  November 4, 2014 — Leave a comment

PigI was reading The Epistle of Barnabas[1] (a letter by one of the early Church Fathers) this week and came across this curious argument. According to Barnabas, Israel misunderstood the food laws given at Mt. Sinai. Moses wasn’t referring to actual food. He was speaking “spiritually.” God’s intention wasn’t to forbid people from eating pork. “Bacon tastes good! Pork chops taste good!” Rather, with this law, Moses meant believers should not associate with piggish people—those who only acknowledge the Lord when they are in need. Such folk are like swine that squeal until they are fed, students who oink for extra credit the week of finals (okay, that last bit is my addition). Barnabas goes on to interpret all the food laws in this manner.

Although I think Moses did actually endorse a literal prohibition from pork, I do appreciate Barnabas’ admonition for us not to be “little piggies” who only talk to God when we are in need. Prayer should be an ongoing conversation more than a 911 call. In short, even if you eat bacon: do not pray like a pig.

 


 

[1] The Epistle of Barnabas is an early Christian document written in the Second Century. Scholars debate whether the author was a Jewish-Christian or a Gentile one. It reminds me a lot of Hebrews. You can read the letter here: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/barnabas-lightfoot.html