Thursday, June 7, 2012

Reading history

I've been reading Justo Gonzalez' two-volume work, The Story of Christianity.  Gonzalez does a wonderful job of making history personal, as he focuses mostly on stories of individuals who help the reader understand a specific time in history and the issues that were important at that time.  Volume One starts with the New Testament era and I'm about halfway through, moving into the early middle ages now.

It's been amazing to me reading this book just how much it helps me understand my own time and the struggles I see in the church today.  Over and over I shake my head and say (usually under my breath) "So THAT'S why!"

One example out of many: I have spoken and written (including on this blog) about the massive shift that occurred within Christianity in the 300's AD when Christianity became a legal religion, then became the only legal religion within the Roman Empire.  If we want to understand the seismic shifts that have been happening in the church during the last generation, we would do well to go back and study some of these things from 1700 or so years ago.

Here's an example of one of those shifts.  To offer some background, I have often pondered, looking at the church across the western world, why we all seem to be getting interested in social causes and social ministry about the same time, and why we are simultaneously getting so interested in the communal life of the church (like, for example, pastorates) and why we are simultaneously recovering an interest in the content of Jesus' teaching, namely the "kingdom of God."  (I'm resisting the temptation to launch into a massive series of posts about each of these topics right now.  It's tough, because they're each so timely and important and these three topics, together, are sweeping across the western church these days.)  Don't get me wrong, I love these three elements that are growing in prominence in the church today, and I thank God that his Spirit is moving in these directions and creating a buzz around these three things.  But why now?

Gonzalez points out that in the 300's AD, when the church went from being an illegal, marginal movement to being an established religion that dominated the Roman Empire in alliance with the ruling powers, these three things -- focus on the kingdom of God, tightly-woven faith-based community living, and social ministry -- all disappeared or were transformed in the midst of that change.

This quote from Gonzalez will illustrate at least a little of what I'm talking about.  Gonzalez is explaining the views of Eusebius, who was a great historian of the early church and also an enthusiastic supporter of the new Christian establishment under Constantine.  He is typical of those who greeted Christianity's new alliance with the Empire with glad and optimistic hearts:

Eusebius described with great joy and pride the ornate churches that were being built.  But the net result of those buildings, and of the liturgy that evolved to fit them, was the development of a clerical aristocracy, similar to the imperial aristocracy, and often as far from the common people as were the great officers of the Empire.  The church imitated the uses of the Empire, not only in its liturgy, but also in its social structure.
... the scheme of history that Eusebius developed led him to set aside a fundamental theme of early Christian preaching: the coming Kingdom of God.  Although Eusebius does not go as far as to say so explicitly, in reading his works one receives the impression that now, with Constantine and his successors, the plan of God has been fulfilled.  Beyond the present political order, all that Christians are to hope for is their own personal transference into the heavenly kingdom.  Since the time of Constantine, and due in part to the work of Eusebius and of many others of similar theological orientation, there was a tendency to set aside or postpone the hope of the early church, that the Lord would return in the clouds to establish a Kingdom of peace and justice.  At later times, many groups that rekindled that hope were branded as heretics and subversives, and condemned as such.
(Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, vol. 1, p. 135)

In our day, as the assumptions of Christendom (the system in which Christianity is allied with the ruling powers) are dismantled, we are rediscovering the kingdom of God, that stands in tension with the agendas and aristocracy of the Empire.  Two aspects (among many) of that kingdom are the radical community life of Jesus' followers, and radical commitment to the poor.  Not to say that there hasn't been community in the last seventeen centuries, or that believers haven't helped the poor.  But both of these have been understood as secondary priorities, subordinate to the more important matter of personal salvation that gives individuals hope for a kingdom that exists only beyond death.

Biblical Christianity includes a severe tension with the ruling powers, because one cannot simultaneously claim Jesus as Lord and also burn incense to Caesar.

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