Why the Church Matters 2 – On Theology and History

St Andrew’s UC - Rockland ON
Why the Church Matters
A Manageable History
14 Feb 2011
Study 2 – On Theology and History

 

WHY IS THEOLOGY IMPORTANT?

One occasionally hears something like these comments:

1. “I don’t need any theology. I’m very familiar with God’s infallible word and that’s enough. He wrote it - I believe it - that settles it.”

2. “We don’t need to worry about theology. All we need is a deep personal relationship with Jesus and to know that he loves us. Anything else is window dressing.” We need to keep in mind Jesus attitude to sentimentalism in Luke 11:27-28:

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”

It is not suggested here that a deep personal relationship with Jesus is not needed. Indeed without some relationship with Jesus the Faith is downgraded from religion* to mere philosophy.

(*NOTE:- religion is having a rather bad press these days. Partly this may be due to Muslim terrorists who are regarded as heartless fanatics. One understanding of the word religion is discipline. Theresa of Avila (1515 – 1582) commented that without discipline there is no religion – she meant systematic prayer, reading of Scripture and Sunday observances, etc.)

On questionable theology, consider these examples from past church history picked from Germany, South Africa and the American Southeast. This is not to suggest in any way that these people are more wicked than the rest of us. They show the results of various out-of-context questionable theologies:

1. Apartheid in South Africa. This doctrine was based on Gen 10 which specifies three different races; Hebrews (sons of Shem); Gentiles (sons of Japheth – we of European descent); Africans (sons of Ham.) As these races were separately created, the theology assumes that they were never to mix.

2. The rise of Nazism in Germany of the 1930s. German Protestants have, post–WW2, commented that resistance of the Church to Nazism was much feebler than it should have been. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who did oppose it, had to change his theology (inherited from Luther’s interpretation of Romans 13:1-5) to mean that the State trumps the Church in politics.

1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”

3. Slavery in the Christian world. Slavery is nowhere explicitly condemned in Scripture even by Paul or Jesus. According to Wikipedia, “In 1622 the great Catholic Saint, Vincent de Paul, was appointed chaplain to the French galleys, and in this capacity ministered to the slaves.” It is possible that de Paul knew slavery was anti-Christian but beyond his resources to destroy; more likely he never questioned the institution. The CBC program As It Happens, featured an item on slaves even owned by Marguerite Bourgeoys (17th Cent nun) who apparently saw nothing amiss in the practice. It took 1500+ years of Christendom before William Wilberforce had a theological breakthrough that is now commonplace.

4. Racial discrimination in the American Southeast. Is it not ironic that this social phenomenon persisted unquestioned in that part of the U.S. where the Bible was held in the highest regard?

5. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once said it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning.”

We know from history that these conditions have either now disappeared or are under general opprobrium.

WHY?

Because in part, someone or some group challenged the received wisdom with new theology (inspired by the Bible). Theology is not the only factor in social change but for us Christians it is an important one.

The individual believer needs support when things are not going well. But often this support is taken to be a-rational (heart theology beyond the rational mind) meaning, “you just have to have faith that God knows what he is doing.” But Martin Luther observed during one of his bleak periods – “But I am baptized!!” I think this was head-knowledge (good theology) as much as heart knowledge.

It is not suggested that heart theology is irrelevant – there are times when it is the only thing that works - but divine support is even stronger when supported by head-knowledge theology.

WHAT IS HISTORY?

It is the product of a historian:

- selecting what she considers the really important facts from the myriad available.

- interpreting the meaning or lessons to be learned from them.

Both processes are subjective, limited and, as human enterprises, fall short of certain truth; that is one reason why there are so many books on theology.

“Any job worth doing is worth doing badly.” GK Chesterton.

WHAT IS THE RELATION BETWEEN HISTORY AND THEOLOGY?

1. Historical Facts are important, hopefully objective and reliable but (by themselves) uninteresting. Interpretation of the facts is less reliable and unavoidable but vastly more interesting and important.

2. We’ll look at the history of the Church to the extent that it is needed to help us see the theology of the Faith; but the most important thing is theology - not history.

3. The Bible is rooted in historical facts which, were they disproven*, would destroy the Bible. That said, theology is the central concern of Scripture.

* - A renown Biblical scholar of 60 years ago, Rudolph Bultmann, appeared to hold the view that the historical truth of Scripture was of little matter, since it was the ETERNAL ETHICAL OR MORAL TRUTHS THAT WERE IMPORTANT. No doubt this view can make humanity better but it falls short of the entire Hebrew witness and is not a basis for the historic catholic Faith. (We’ll define “catholic” vs “Roman Catholic” a bit later.)

4. So church history is like a furniture van. The reason for the van is the furniture – not vice versa.

(NOTE Much material from now on will be quotes referring to the 1st, 2nd Centuries and so on. There is no 0th Century or 0 AD. So the 1st Century is AD to AD 99; 2nd Century is AD 100 to AD 199, etc.)

From Rodney Stark - The Rise of Christianity - pp 211+

“To anyone raised in a Judeo-Christian or Islamic culture, the pagan gods seem almost trivial. Each is but one of a host of gods and godlings of very limited scope, power, and concern. Moreover, they seem quite morally deficient. They do terrible things to one another, and sometimes they play ugly pranks on humans. But, for the most part, they appear to pay little attention to things “down below.”

“The simple phrase “For God so loved the world . . .” would have puzzled an educated pagan. And the notion that the gods care how we treat one another would have been dismissed as patently absurd.

“From the pagan viewpoint, there was nothing new in the Jewish or Christian teachings that God makes behavioural demands upon humans - the gods have always demanded sacrifice and worship. Nor was there anything new in the idea that God will respond to human desires - that the gods can be induced to exchange services for sacrifices. But, - - - - the idea that God loves those who love him was entirely new.

“Indeed, as E. A. Judge has noted in detail, classical philosophers regarded mercy and pity as pathological emotions - defects of character to be avoided by all rational men. Since mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it was contrary to justice. Therefore “mercy indeed is not governed by reason at all” and humans must learn “to curb the impulse”; “the cry of the undeserving for mercy” must go “unanswered” (Judge 1986:107.) Judge continued: “pity was a defect of character unworthy of the wise and excusable only in those who have not yet grown up. It was an impulsive response based on ignorance. Plato had removed the problem of beggars from his ideal state by dumping them over its borders.”

“This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught that mercy is one of the primary virtues - that a merciful God requires humans to be merciful. Moreover, the corollary that because God loves humanity, Christians may not please God unless they love one another was something entirely new. Perhaps even more revolutionary was the principle that Christian love and charity must extend beyond the boundaries of family and tribe, that it must extend to all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:2). Indeed, love and charity must even extend beyond the Christian community.

“Recall Cyprian's instructions to his Carthaginian flock, - - - that there is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with the due attentions of love, but he would become perfect - - should do something more than heathen men or publicans - he, overcoming evil with good, and practicing a merciful kindness like that of God, should love his enemies as well. . . . Thus the good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith. (Quoted in Harnack 1908: 1:172-173)

“This was revolutionary stuff. Indeed, it was the cultural basis for the revitalisation of a Roman world groaning under a host of miseries.”

We’ll take a look at a few persons and issues typical of the period between Pentecost and the Edict of Milan – 313AD.