Friday, March 17, 2006
On the Road—Part 4
Occasional thoughts on my spiritual journey
In my previous installment on this topic, I related my first exposure to the Orthodox faith during a 2003 trip to Bulgaria. Upon return to the US, my life quickly resumed its familiar pattern of work, home, and church. Things rocked along much as they had before--that is, until my encounter with the Church Fathers.
Above all else, you could characterize me, my wife and my son as readers. One cannot sit or lie down anywhere in our home without being within arms reach of a book, magazine or newspaper. Our bedrooms are no different, with books stacked on the floor and nightstands. And that’s the way we like it. About two months after my return, I was sleeping in our son’s bed, as we had overnight company who were using our bedroom. I reached underneath the bed to extract a book to read before going to sleep. What I pulled out was a small volume entitled Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers. I remember buying the book at a used book store about 15 years earlier, but had never gotten around to reading it. I suppose I was ready for it now.
I chose the section on Ignatius, probably because it consisted of only 7 short letters. As a history major, it is somewhat embarrassing to admit now that I really knew nothing of the man. In the short introduction to the letters, I learned that he was the third bishop of Antioch; had been so from about 69 AD; and penned these letters on his way to martyrdom in Rome in 107 AD.
Yet even this biographical information was challenging to my own particular religious presuppositions--for I was a Protestant of the Restorationist persuasion. Briefly put, we subscribed to the “great apostasy” view of church history. Adherents believe that the church went into a steep doctrinal tailspin soon after the death of the last apostle, John. Although pockets of “New Testament Christians" were supposedly in evidence throughout the ages, things basically continued to deteriorate until the Reformation, which saw a partial recovery.
But while we saw the Reformation as corrective, we viewed it as incomplete, a half-measure, as it sought only to reform, rather than restore the church to its New Testament purity. This view remains distinctly ahistorical, seeing the church as being above history and not being subject to historical forces; that it could be “restored” at any time using the “blueprint” of the New Testament. This restoration had to wait until the early years of the 19th century, however, when American frontier revivalists initiated what we referred to as “the Restoration Movement.” So, after 1700 years or so, it would seem that someone had finally figured out how to interpret the Bible correctly. Now, I say that a little facetiously and I realize that I am painting with a very broad brush here. Many sincere, faithful Christians in Restorationist churches today would scoff at this simplistic view. Indeed, perhaps sensing the inherent fallacies in the argument, most of the churches are downright sheepish about using this terminology anymore. And yet, this view accurately describes how Restorationists see themselves in history and remains the foundational understanding which under girds all these churches and sets the parameters for the way they continue to “do church.”
The Restoration Movement was very much a product of the American frontier, drinking deeply from prevailing concepts of liberty and individualism and being nourished on the tenets of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment. They were confident that the intelligent, sincere inquirer could open his Bible, and with logic and rationality, deduce what God wanted him to do. They could avoid all the fractious, bickering denominations and become simply “New Testament Christians." From this vantage point, the early leaders gleaned from scripture that the "first century church" was autonomous in its governance, with each local congregation being led by elders, and being served by deacons, with emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. They perceived no organizational structure beyond the local congregation. The historical development of a hierarchy culminating in the papacy (and they had no concept of developments in the East as being anything separate and apart from Catholicism), was nothing more than the fulfillment of the prophetic warnings of Paul. This was our basic view of church history and when we read the pages of the New Testament, this is the church we saw.
This brings me back to Ignatius and his letters. For the church he quite plainly described was not this church. As Paul, the scales literally fell from my eyes. While I often have trouble remembering names, I am pretty good with chronology. The fact that Ignatius wrote these letters in 107 AD is not in dispute. This means, that to a large degree, his life overlapped the ministry of the Apostles. So, even though the date is 107 AD, this is clearly “first century” stuff. Ignatius’ church was one of bishops and clergy and deacons and laity. The unity of the church was his greatest concern as he approached his martyrdom. He admonished the churches at Ephesus, Magnesia, Trallia, Rome, Philadelphia and Smyrna to be united in Christ; to be submissive and obey their bishops, indeed to “be as submissive to the bishop and to one another as Jesus Christ was to His Father, and as the Apostles were to Christ and the Father; so that there may be complete unity, in the flesh as well as in the spirit.” He spoke freely and with warm, collegial affection for the bishops in these other cities.
Now the Restorationist would have a ready answer for this. They would say that this development was indeed the apostasy that Paul had warned about—the whole “wolves in sheep’s clothing” thing; an apostasy from “simple New Testament Christianity" into a hierarchical power structure. But this response is woefully inadequate. For the general view is that this digression evolved slowly over time. Ignatius was a contemporary of the Apostles. The fact that he served as the third bishop of Antioch from 69 AD to 107 AD places him squarely in the Apostolic age. So, the system of bishops, clergy and deacons were solidly in place by the end of the Apostolic era, rather than a digression that occurred after the Apostles. And if this system was heretical, as Restorationists maintained, then where was the outcry? Where were the voices of opposition? There were none. In fact, the “first century church" understood itself the way Ignatius described it. To be sure, there were schismatics, but they were, as Ignatius related, those who “denied that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Saviour Jesus Christ.”
The bottom line is this: the church of Ignatius’ day--who studied at the feet of the very Apostles of Christ, who were part of the very same culture, who spoke the same language, who lived out their lives in that particular part of the world, who faced martyrdom for their faith-—understood scripture and Apostolic teaching one way. The church of the American frontier—separated by 1700 years and thousands of miles, a product of the western European Protestant Reformation, endued with the tenets of the Scottish Enlightenment and American pioneer individualism, reading English bibles translated from Latin bibles translated from the original Greek—understood scripture another way. Which had more credibility? Put in this light, the answer seems obvious. And yet I often heard it remarked in bible studies that we were much better off than the “First Century Christians," since we had “the word,” meaning of course, scripture and they didn't (Imagine that, having only the Apostles and their teaching!) That statement always bothered me, but only in time did I come to realize the misguided arrogance, and ignorance, behind it.
Frankly, the issue of church governance and authority was not “the” issue with me. But this raised a question in my mind that refused to go away. If we were so decidedly wrong about this, if our reading of scripture here was so fractured by the prism of our Protestant presuppositions, then what else did we have wrong? The question became for me, what do I do with this new insight?