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Entries in Church History (65)


The appeal of Augustine

Augustine said some pretty wonky things, but he said much that I can totally understand and agree with. One of those things is how he confronted his own sin. Even after his conversion, Augustine wrestled with temptations. One of them was the praise of men. As a trained rhetorician, he would have sought the approval of men. After his conversion, he talks about the remaining struggle:

. . . there is a third kind of temptation which, I fear, has not passed from me. Can it ever pass from me in all this life? It is the desire to be feared or loved by other men, simply for the pleasure that it gives me, though in such pleasure there is no true joy. It means only a life of misery and despicable vainglory . . .  This is why the enemy of our true happiness persists in his attacks upon me, for he knows that when men hold certain offices in human society, it is necessasry that they should be loved and feared by other men. He sets his traps about me, baiting them with tributes of applause, in the hope that in my eagerness to listen I may be caught off my guard. He wants me to divorce my joy from the truth and place it in man's duplicity. He wants me to enjoy being loved and feared by others, not for your sake, but in your place. 

But we, O Lord, are your little flock. Keep us as your own. Spread your wings and let us shelter beneath them. Let us glory in you alone. If we are loved or feared by others, let it be for your sake. No man who seeks the praise of other men can be defended by men when you call him to account. Men cannot save him when you condemn. (Confessions, X.36).

The praise of men is something we can all get caught up in without even realizing it. Yet how often do we admit such a temptation? How often do I consider the approval of others a trap? 

I love how Augustine ends this discussion: by throwing himself upon the truth he knows, that we are his flock.


Stuck in our own minds

I really enjoyed my class in Church History yesterday. It was a long day, but very invigorating. Supper was provided for us, and it was nice to sit and chat with others. The prof must have been even more tired, seeing as he had to do a lot of talking. I've not had this prof before, so I was looking forward to getting to know him. He is an enthusiastic lover of Church History, so I can see I'm going to enjoy this class.

One of the really great things we were told is that our term papers are not the kind of papers whereby we have to prove something. Rather, he wants us to choose a topic, probe as deeply as possible, and reveal what we have discovered. I'm going to be researching the development of the doctrine of purgatory in the Middle Ages, so I'm excited to look for some good resources that include some primary source documents from the men who were instrumental in developing that doctrine.

At the end of the class, we examined the writings of Ignatius, who was one of the very influential men from the early church. He was the one who really promoted a hierarchy in the church, investing a lot of authority in the bishops. Of course, as we sit here in 2017, we can see how that contributed to the eventual concentration of power among the bishops in the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.

As we read through Ignatius, we were reminded that after Jesus and the apostles died, there was a vacuum left in the Church. How did they determine the right way to "do Church" without the presence of the apostles? People turned to men like Ignatius, who was a disciple of John. The Church in its infancy was suscptible to falling into quick error as sects and factions developed, not to mention the objection of the Jews. Where was the ultimate voice of authority? Of course, it was in the Scriptures, but they were not even completely compiled in Ignatius's day, and the process of developing doctrine from Scripture was a long process. There must have been a lot of fear in the Church at the time. At one point, in one of the documents from Ignatius, it was clear that he equated loyalty to the bishop with loyalty to God. That stirred a lot of discussion among the class.

It was pointed out that our reaction to the kind of loyalty to authority displayed by Ignatius was not unfamiliar to people during his day. We balk at such a concentration of authority because of our own experience and because we can look back and see how concentration of power was detrimental to the Church. One student was not so quick to let Ignatius off the hook. He felt that Ignatius, having the copies of the Scripture he would have had, ought to have avoided that error.

I think he had a point, but I'm not so sure it's as cut and dried as that. I don't think we can truly understand how people thought in the first century. We can read about what they did or what they said, but if we have not been immersed in a culture which did not automatically suspect authority as we do today, I don't think we can fully appreciate what it was like.

As students of history, we do evaluate it, but at the same time, we do have to be careful not to expect people in the first century, in a very different world than ours, to do what we would do or react how we do. I was thankful that the prof emphasized that. 

Despite Ignatius's shortcomings in the matter of Church leadership, his efforts toward promoting a solid Christology made up for it. It was probably a much different world to go to a Church without a formally established set of beliefs. Biblical texts were still being evaluated and not everyone had them. That God preserved a faithful Church through all that is truly something only God could do.


A cold dose of reality

Today, I'm attending a day long class in Church History. It runs from 1:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. I know a few of my fellow students, but a I look at the roster, I see that there are many I don't know. It's always interesting to meet other students, because inevitably, we meet those who have read things we haven't or who have interests we don't, and we learn from them.

One of the most enjoyable parts of seminary for me has been coming face to face with how much I don't know. It's enjoyable in that it is a hopeful thing: there is no end to what one can learn. It can also be sobering, too, when we realize how little we know. Yesterday, in Greek, our prof had us each take turns writing on the whiteboard answers from an exercise we did individually. It was transcribing Greek words written in all uppercase to lower case. Of course, the fact that we would have to demonstrate our knowledge or lack thereof in front our classmates, was intimidating. I felt bad for the first few students, because it's always awkward to be the first ones. I got lucky with my word. It was an easy one: ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, or χριστος, Christ. I confess to not knowing my upper case letters as well as I should, but when I saw the first two letters, the chi and the rho, I knew what it was. I breathed a sigh of relief when I sat down.

Being in a learning environment is a good way to nurture humility, and if you spend any amount of time online, reading blogs in Christian circles, a good dose of intellectual humility could benefit us all. It's so easy to think we know everything if we publish a blog full of our own ponderings and no one comes along to refute us. Or worse, we gather around us like-minded people who are as unread as we are, and who support or insufficiently researched writings.

Being evaluted and being among people who know so much more than I has been good for me. I tend to think I know more than I do, and I need humbling. 

A while back, I had a conversation with someone who said that one of the frustrating things about online discussion was the fact that so many others were not very well-read as he. I was taken aback at this person's lack of humility. We can all be arrogant and superior, but to demonstrate it so unabashedly was something else. I like to steer clear of that kind of thinking. The minute I start using myself as the standard for comparison, I'm in trouble.

In Christian scholarship, especially, we ought to hold our learning with much humility and with gratitude. I am thankful daily for this opportunity I have to learn; and for the resources available to me. This isn't every Christian's experience. There are Christian lay people and pastors all over the world who have limited resources and opportunity despite having a hunger to know more. Gratitude makes humility a lot more likely than holding our knowledge with an attitiude of entitlement.

I have read a lot of Church History over the years. I expect that today, I will meet others who have done the same thing and others who have read much more. In the course of our discussion, I will learn from my fellow students as well as my prof. It's okay if I don't know everything. Learning implies that we don't know things. And when I do learn, I'll be thankful.


The Catholic Presence Makes a Difference

One of the areas of study I am always in the process of engaging in is the history of the Church in Canada. I will be taking Church history in September, and I hope at that time to find more resources about the history of evangelicalism specifically. Evangelicalism in the U.S. is well documented, but there is much less with a specifically Canadian focus.  

For quite a few years now, I have had Mark Noll's A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada on my shelf. It's a large volume, and I've just never decided to sit down with it and pick away at it. As part of my reading of Canadian material this year (and reading books which sit on my shelf unread for a long time), I decided to take it out on the deck with me and my tea yesterday afternoon. I have always like Noll's writing. 

Noll begins right at the beginning, with the colonization of the New World, and the impact it had on the indigenous peoples. I was happy to see Noll's admission that what Columbus and his kind did was not always Christian. As he discusses these early years, he points out that in Canada, because of the French presence, had a Christian presence for a long time before Protestantism began making its mark.

One of the most famous French mission initiatives to Canada came through Jean de Brébuf, a Jesuit. He was a man reputed to be more sensitive to the people he was ministering to, although he is quoted as using the word "savage" to describe the native population. That said, he did believe in recognizing that the natives were to be viewed as  "ransomed by the blood of the son of God, and as our Brethren with whom we are to pass the rest of our lives."

This presence of Roman Catholicism did not stay confined to what is now Québec. It spread throughout the country. The enduring element of French culture and language which remained even after the British were victorious at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, has left its mark on Canada. Noll says:

Whereas Roman Catholics in significant numbers came relatively late to what would be called the United States, they were present as the first permanent settlers of Canada and so provided foundational contribution to later Canadian civilization.

Through the succeeding centuries Quebec's French Catholic culture remained an important counterpoint to the Protestant societies of North America and even to the more pluralistic Catholicism that eventually came to play such a large role in the United States and elsewhere in Canada.

The dual nature of our country is still evident, of course. But more than than, the soil in which the seeds of evangelicalism were sown is not the same as the United States. Canada is a country defined also by its regionalism, and thus the environment of the Western provinces provides a different climate for evangelicalism to flourish. Those provinces have the further influence of large numbers of Mennonites settling, as well as American influences and large numbers of European immigrants. I confess to finding immigration history very interesting; not just the statistical aspects, but how that immigration worked itself out in society.

I don't imagine I'll finish Noll's book before school begins again, but hopefully I will get through much of it. I also recently picked up a copy of Canadian Evangelicalism in the Twentieth Century, by John Stackhouse. I am confident that Noll's book will provide more resources, as he ends every chapter of this book with suggested resources.


Sixteenth Century Female Blogger?

Argula von Grumbach was a female Reformer, who lived from 1492-1563. She was a woman of noble birth, and writer of pamphlets. Pamphlet writing reminds me of blogging. It was a way to disseminate information with ease. It was really the only way for the common people, including women, to speak forth their views in any public way.

Unlike her contemporary, Martin Luther's wife, Katharina, Argula's activities went far beyond the domestic sphere. By virtue of her father giving her a Bible as a child, she was very knowledgeable of the Scriptures, something not common among women at this time. Those who participated in theological discussions of the day were generally learned male scholars. Women did not attend universities, so if a woman wanted to engage in a theological discussion, she did so as an outsider. Pamphlets were really Argula's only way to speak forth.

Argula emphasized two principles: the priesthood of all believers and the primacy of the Scriptures. She believed her authority to interpret Scripture and speak publicly was founded on the first principle. Of course, not everyone saw things that way. With the Reformation came an attention to the sacredness of the home and family. This gave meaning and value to domesticity. The emphasis on domesticity tended to direct women to work out their vocations primarily in the home.

Despite having no formal education, Argula was determined to speak out:

Ah, but what a joy it is when the spirit of God teaches us and gives us understanding . . . I don't intend to bury my talent, if the Lord give me grace.

That comment is not unlike how many women feel today. And even though we are 500 years past the Reformation, I suspect this tension between the desire to speak and the impediments faced is still something women experience. 

What I found quite interesting is that in order to be heard, Argula faced similar reality women face today: the need for education and to know the right people. Argula, by virtue of her noble birth was in a position far above the majority of women. Not only did she have access to education, she knew the right people and she had the means to publish her pamphlets. It is indeed easier today to spread our own views, but knowing the right people does help. I had an email conversation four years ago with a published Christian writer, and he told me quite honestly that he believed he never would have been published had he not known someone in the industry. I wonder if that is true true generally speaking. 

Argula, by virtue of knowing male nobility had patrons who would support her. Is that still true today? Do Christian women married to or associated with pastors, university presidents, and popular speakers have an advantage over other women? Just like Argula had the means to publish and knew a publisher, what kind of advantages do some women have today? It's an interesting question.

Not everyone liked Argula's insistence. She was labelled as "heretical," and a "hag" for trying to insert herself in the dialogue among male leaders and scholars. Yet she persisted. What I find most notable is her dedication to the Scriptures. And that is a lesson women today can learn from: to know the Scriptures well. We have so much more freedom to speak out than did Argula. Perhaps there are men who would roll their eyes when a woman theologian speaks forth, but there are people who support women in such roles. I think there is still a lack of women in strictly theological discussion, with the majority of the content of their writing focusing on Christian living and cultural themes, but there are a few female theologians out there, and there are some women bloggers out there who write about more theological topics. I'm thankful for both kinds of writing.

If we want to speak forth as women, we do have to be like Argula in two respects: be students of the Scriptures, and be persistent. I don't think it's enough to have a bone to pick and a space online to write. We need to be as grounded in the Scriptures as we can be, and we need to be dedicated to the truth.