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For many Christians, sacraments are really important. Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and others often emphasize how precious their sacraments are, and sometimes criticize other church traditions for not being “sacramental” enough. There is a lot of disagreement on what a sacrament is though: Catholic teaching states that there are seven sacraments, whereas most Protestants argue that there are two – baptism and communion – and eastern Orthodoxs usually claim that there are countless! The Catholic council of Trent states that both the Protestant and eastern Orthodox views are unacceptable, condemning anyone who says that there are “more, or less, than seven” sacraments.
This is just ridiculous. Jesus and the apostles never talked about “sacraments”. Yes, they baptized, broke the bread, annointed the sick and so on, but they never grouped these activities in one category of “sacraments”. Nothing in the Scriptures indicates that communion and baptism had any other role or importance than other things Jesus commanded His disciples to do, like helping the poor, pray and share the Gospel.
“Sacrament” is really a creative Latin translation of the Greek term mysterion, a word that does appear in the Scriptures never referring to church activities but to the Gospel (e.g. Col 4:3, 1 Tim 3:16). The one responsible for the translation was Tunisian church father Tertullian (155-240 AD), who often was creative with his translations (“sacrament” didn’t really mean mystery but rather referred to an oath), and he used it when describing baptism because he thought that baptism was a mystery.
So far so good. However, another African church father, Augustine, took some more freedoms with the word around 200 years later, using it as a category to include not just baptism but also communion, the Nicene creed and the Lord’s prayer. He was also the first arguing that a sacrament is a visible sign of invisible grace, which of course is true for those things but not exclusive to them – Bibles, sermons and a hug can also be visible signs of invisible grace. (more…)
This awesome article has been frequently shared by people in my networks the last couple of days; Preston Sprinkle writes about 4 ways the modern church doesn’t look like the early church (and, as several have pointed out, this goes especially for the modern mainstream Western church). These four areas are:
1. How we view other Christians. When the early disciples called themselves brothers and sisters, they actually treated each other like brothers and sisters and had a community that was far more relational and sacrificial than fellowship in most Western churches.
2. How we spend our money. The early Christians didn’t collect money for church buildings and pastors’ wages but for the poor.
3. How we think about power. The early church refused to be patriotic but was pacifist and persecuted.
4. How we study the Bible. Early Christians let every new convert study the Scriptures in a detailed manner, and most disciples then knew the Bible better than many Western church goers today.
I totally agree with all of Sprinkle’s points, and I’m glad that more and more start descovering the radical roots of the Christian faith. However, I would like to pinpoint three additional areas where the early church looked different from the mainstream Western church life today: (more…)
I’m writing a minor thesis about belief in miracles, where I compare a charismatic, Lutheran and Catholic church leader (namely Surprise Sithole, Swedish Archbishop Emeritus KG Hammar, and Pope Francis). This is and extract from the theoretical background:
Theology of Miracles in Church History
The New Testament describes how both Jesus and his disciples experienced “wonders” (Greek: τέρας) and “works of power” (δύναμις), such as healings of blindness and deafness, casting out demons, hearing the audible voice of God and raising the dead. These were not new claims in the Jewish culture, since the Old Testament talks about “wonders” (Hebrew: פֶ֑לֶא) like parting the red sea, healing the sick and raising the dead (Ps 77:14, Ex 13:17ff., 1 Kings 17, 2 Kings 5). The apostle Paul wrote that the Holy Spirit bestows miraculous gifts to all believers (together with non-supernatural gifts like wisdom or faith), and encouraged his readers to seek such gifts together with love (1 Cor. 12:4-14:1).
Fathers in the early church believed that miracles were possible, and many argued that they or their church members had experienced them. Justin Martyr argued that the prophetical gift had remained with the church to his day, and that “numberless” persons plagued by demons had been healed by Christian exorcists (II Apol. 6, Tryph. 82). Origen made parallels between the miracles of the Bible and Christians of his day who “expel evil spirits, and perform many cures, and foresee certain events” (Cels. 1.46). Similar claims were made by many other church fathers.
The great African theologian Augustine was the first to argue that one of the miraculous gifts had ceased, namely xenolalia – to be able to speak an existing language one has never studied like the early disciples did on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4-12). Augustine did however argue that other Biblical miracles were still happening in his days, in his City of God he gives numerous examples of people being healed from blindness, breast cancer, paralysis, demonic possession and other torments, and he gives four examples of Christians in the area who were raised from the dead (City of God 22.8). Augustine argued that miracles are not contrary to nature, but what we know as nature – hence he did not want to differentiate between the natural and supernatural (City of God 21.8). (more…)
One of my greatest passions has for years been to teach what the Bible says concerning poverty and wealth. This is the topic for my blog and youtube series God vs Wealth, as well as my free e-book God vs Inequality. I think it’s very clear in the Bible and in early church writings that Christians should not be rich. Instead, we should live simply and practice community of goods and economic equality, just like Jesus and the apostles.
Someone who disagree with me is Dave Ramsey, Christian money guru who argues that Christians can and should be rich. In an interview with charismatic TV host Pat Robertson, Ramsey says:
“I think there’s a problem out there with some bad and toxic teaching that somehow [says] that if you’ve won money, if you’ve built a level of wealth, if you’ve become successful – biblically you have done something wrong. And that’s actually a form of heresy called gnosticism.”
Is it really gnosticism? It’s not the first time I hear a statement like this, and I would like to debunk it. Firstly, who are Ramsey talking about here? He’s saying that the modern “Gnostics” are attacking the production and accumulation of wealth, rather than the possession and storaging of wealth. Now, it’s important to differentiate between these. Ramsey is basically using the accumulation of wealth to defend the possession of it – he’s talking about “building a level of wealth” and “becoming succesful”.
As I argue in my e-book God vs Inequality, the Bible says that we should work and produce wealth, but not for personal gain but for the benefit of the common. Thus, while we work we should be content with food and clothing (1 Tim 6:8) and promote equality (2 Cor 8:13), having everything in common (Acts 2:45). Of course, there is a temptation in earning a lot of money, and many times people earn money through harmful means, destroying the environment or exploiting others, which is unacceptable for Christians. But the main problem for me and other Christian activists such as Shane Claiborne, Jim Wallis or Ron Sider is economic inequality and how rich Christians possess a lot of wealth instead of living simply and share all they have with the poor.
As I mentioned last week I’m reading Jeff Doles’ Miracles and Manifestations of the Holy Spirit in the History of the Church, and it’s amazing to see what God has been doing continously in His church throughout world history. The book is basically only made up by quotes from older works, and it gives clear proof that cessationism – the idea that miraculous spiritual gifts ceased with the apostles – hardly existed before Luther and Calvin. For example, take a look at what Irenaeus of Lyon, the second century bishop who was a disciple to Polycarp – who in turn was a disciple of John the evangelist – says concering miraculous gifts when he refuted the Gnostics in his famous work Against Heresies:
“Those who are in truth His disciples, receiving grace from Him, do in His name perform [miracles], so as to promote the welfare of other men, according to the gift which each one has received from Him. For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe [in Christ], and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole.
Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years. And what shall I more say? It is not possible to name the number of the gifts which the Church, [scattered] throughout the whole world, has received from God, in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and which she exerts day by day for the benefit of the Gentiles, neither practising deception upon any, nor taking any reward from them* [on account of such miraculous interpositions]. For as she has received freely from God, freely also does she minister [to others]**. (Against Heresies, book 2, chapter 32, section 4)
Christianity is a pacifist religion. Most of the early church fathers wrote that Christians should not kill or join the military, and the idea of “just wars” first developed in the late fourth century, after Constantine’s reforms. The ante-Nicaene church was to a large extent a non-violent church. This was clearly shown already in 1919 when John Cadoux pubished his book The Early Christian Attitude to War, which is now available online. The research has been updated with Ron Sider’s book The Early Church on Killing, which was published last year. But only by looking at quotes from early church fathers, we see that these saints were far from the war-waging right-wing Christians that unfortunately are quite influential in the public debate today:
Justin Martyr wrote in 160 AD:
“We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder, and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for ploughshares, our spears for farm tools. Now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness to men, faith, and the expectation of the future given to us by the Father himself through the Crucified One.” (Dialogue with Trypho 110.3.4)
Tatian (dead c. 185), Justin’s disciple, wrote:
“I do not wish to be king, I don’t want to be rich, I reject military service. I hate adultery”(The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Vol. II, reprint 1979, p. 69)
Athenagoras (133-190) wrote:
“What, then, are these teachings in which we are reared? ‘I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven, who makes his sun to shine on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the just and on the unjust . . . Who [of the pagan philosophers] have so purified their own hearts as to love their enemies instead of hating them; instead of upbraiding those who first insult them (which is certainly more usual), to bless them; and to pray for those who plot against them? . . . With us, on the contrary, you will find unlettered people, tradesmen and old women, who, though unable to express in words the advantages of our teaching, demonstrate by acts the value of their principles. For they do not rehearse speeches, but evidence good deeds. When struck, they do not strike back; when robbed, they do not sue; to those who ask, they give, and they love their neighbours as themselves . . . We . . . cannot endure to see a man being put to death even justly.” (Legatio 11, 34-35 (Athens, 175))
For a long time, I didn’t want to read non-biblical Christian books. I thought that most of the time they were actually diluting the radical teachings of Jesus (and quite frankly I still think this is the case). But I discovered that there are two areas where I get very equipped by Christian litterature, namely church history and testimonies. This has helped me a lot both when I pursue signs and wonders, evangelize and work for peace and justice. I want to share with you some books that really has inspired me a lot and that I highly recommend. First out is Pilgrims of a Common Life: Christian Community of Goods Through the Centuries by Trevor J. Saxby.
Saxby has been a part of the Jesus Fellowship Church, or the Jesus Army, in the United Kingdoms since its beginning in the 70’s. The Jesus Army was the main fruit of the charismatic revival among hippies in the UK and they practiced community of goods, something Saxby was very attracted by. He doctored at Oxford in church history, writing his thesis about community of goods. In Pilgrims of a Common Life, he shows how community of goods has been practiced in all of church history in many different cultures, countries and churches.
In the first three chapters, Saxby effectively challenges the popular misconception that the apostolic church of Jerusalem was the only one practicing community of goods and that it was an exception rather than an example. He shows that community of goods is the logical consequence to the economic teachings of Jesus, he points at the fact that Jesus Himself practiced community of goods with His disciples, and he also looks at the cultural and historical context and shows how community of goods was not a foreign idea in first century Israel – the essenes practiced it and it was supported by both Greek and Jewish morals.
Hippies aren’t always popular among evangelical Christians. Mark Driscoll has famously said: “Some emergent types want to recast Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in His hair, who drank decaf and made pithy zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes. […] I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.” I do agree that Jesus wouldn’t shop shoes or be a Buddhist, but He surely would be able to beat up. In fact, that’s what they actually did with Him on Easter.
The hippie movement emerged in the 60’s and 70’s in the United States and spread quickly to Europe and other parts of the world. It was a youth movement with international influences that emphasized love, peace and understanding, freedom and environmentalism, music, sex and drugs. It was influenced by eastern religions and sparked both new age occultism and the sexual revolution. These latter bits make it understandable why Dricoll doesn’t like hippies very much.
However, in the early 70’s thousands of hippies were saved in what is simply called the Jesus Movement, or the Jesus People Revival. They protested against both drugs and occultism, saying that we should “get high on Jesus” and be baptized in the Holy Spirit instead, but they preserved the hippie passion for peace, justice and a simple lifestyle. Over 100 000 Jesus hippies lived together in communal houses, they were preaching the Gospel in the streets and on the beaches, and many miracles happened as they prayed for the sick and prophesied.
As promised in my last blog post about atonement theology, I want to share what I’ve found when researching the early church fathers’ view on the death of Christ. My countryman Gustaf Aulén wrote a book 83 years ago called Christus Victor when he argued that the church fathers didn’t believe in penal substitution but in a “classical” atonement framework which he calls Christus Victor, the victorious Christ.
The difference between the two views is essentially that while penal substitution emphasises that Jesus took the punishment for our sins on the cross, Christus Victor emphasises that Jesus defeated the devil and his wicked forces when he died on the cross. A form of Christus Victor which according to Aulén was popular during the age of the church fathers was the ransom theory, the idea that God sent Jesus as a “bait”, and when satan killed him he got hooked by the power of God like a sloppy wet fish.
Now, I don’t have any problems at all with the Christus Victor perspective. As a third wave charismatic, I think it suits well with the Kingdom message of the Gospels – Jesus is indeed at war with satan, which is evident in His healings, exorcism and finally His death and resurrection. The Bible clearly speaks about how Christ defeated the powers of darkness on the cross. So I do believe in Christus Victor. What I don’t believe is that this perspective by any means replaces the fact that Jesus took the punishment for our sins on the cross, which is also what the Bible teaches. As William Evans brilliantly argues, Christus Victor and Penal Substitution are not mutually exclusive and should be viewed as equally true perspectives rather than conflicting paradigms.
I also have a problem with that this blog and that blog and even Wikipedia as well as several books uncritically says that the majority of the church fathers believed in Christus Victor and that it was dominant for a thousand years before Anselm of Canterbury messed it up, and therefore we should not believe in penal substitution. Firstly, even if they emphasised Christus Victor we cannot conclude that they didn’t believe in penal substitution unless they say so, and as I wrote in my last blog post I think it’s really hard to deny penal substitution without ignoring large parts of the Bible.
Christian primtivism is the logical idea that the church Jesus founded was the church He wanted. It’s connected to the idea of restorationism, that teaches that we should restore Church to its original form when it starts to behave weird and contradict Scripture. As you’ve probably noticed I’m a passionate restorationist, and while I love and cooperate with people from the historical churches I think that their tendency to contradict the Biblical Church is quite harming. A couple of days ago a friend sent me an article on Catholic Answers called The Problems with Primitivism by Dwight Longenecker, which says that we should really not try to model church as Jesus and the apostles modeled it. Allow me to disagree. I will quote each of Longenecker’s arguments and turn them on their heads:
1 Cultural Relevance
First, each restorationist movement, although it seeks to return to the ancient church of the apostolic age, is actually produced as a reaction to the circumstances of its own age and culture. For example, the peasant movement of the Bogomils came out of a church weighed down with corruption and aristocratic influence. The radical reformers in 16th-century Europe and the New World were influenced by the utopianism, the rise of the nation state, and revolutionary spirit of their age… Restorationists believe they are restoring something ancient. In fact all they do is create an expression of Christianity which is a reaction against the circumstances and assumptions of the age in which they live.
Well, I know of no restorationist movement that claims that we need to speak Arameic and live in the Roman Empire to be the original church. All churches adapt the Gospel to their culture and historical context – including the Catholic Church. It’s hard to argue though that since we need to adapt to our culture we need to believe in purgatory and seven sacraments.
2 Information about the Early Church
Second, while restorationist movements are reactions to the particular age in which they live, they are also conditioned by the long history of restorationist movements. For hundreds of years, Protestants have perpetuated a particular vision of the early Church. Each new restorationist movement borrows those ideas, never questioning whether the tradition they are inheriting is actually true to the reality of the early Church or not. Therefore, the restorationist doesn’t so much restore primitive Christianity; he simply replicates are earlier restorationist model, reproducing what he has been told early Christianity was like.
It’s true that some restorationists are lazy, not double-checking their doctrines and practices by Scripture, but the same thing can definitely be said about Catholics. For example, they believe that there are seven sacraments – neither more nor less – an idea that originated with Peter Lombard in the 12th century! All restorationist movements at least try to break unbiblical traditions and restore biblical Christianity, Catholicism however is not even trying.
Back in the days, people really could write. In the patristics course I’m taking, I’m writing about early Christian attitudes toward wealth and community of goods. In my research I found this awesome sermon by Basil the Great (330-379) – a commentary to Matthew 19:16-22 simply called “To the rich”. Basil is one of the most influential church fathers, known for his defense of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and boy he had some serious stuff to say about rich folks. I think the text is really prophetic in that it speaks directly to the unequal, consumerist, individualist society of today. Enjoy!
You call him teacher, and you won’t do his lessons? You acknowledge him to be good, and what he gives you you throw away? But, surely, he who is good supplies good things; this is obvious. Although what you ask about is eternal life, you give proof of being utterly addicted to the enjoyment of this present life. What, after all, is this hard, heavy, burdensome word which the Teacher has put forward? “Sell what you have, and give to the poor.”
If he had laid upon you agricultural toils, or hazardous mercantile ventures, or so many other troubles which are incidental to the life of the wealthy, then you’d have had cause for sorrow, taking the order badly; but when he calls you by so easy a road, without toil or sweat, to show yourself an inheritor of eternal life, you are not glad for the ease of salvation, but you go away pained at heart and mourning, making useless for yourself all that you had labored at beforehand. […]
Now, you are obviously very far from having observed one commandment at least, and you falsely swore that you had kept it, namely, that you’ve loved your neighbor as yourself. For see: the Lord’s commandment proves you to be utterly lacking in real love. For if what you’ve claimed were true, that you have kept from your youth the commandment of love, and have given to each person as much as to yourself, how has it come to you, this abundance of money?
What jobs can Christians have? Many would probably answer “all, because Christians should spread the light everywhere” but that would be an overstatement. Should Christians for example be prostitutes? Even if Jesus never said “Don’t be a prostitute”, we understand from the Biblical ethics that prostitution is not a very suitable Christian workmanship. In the early church, the Apostolic Tradition from 215 AD lists prostitution as a non-Christian job, along with some other very interesting occupations:
If someone is a gladiator, or one who teaches those among the gladiators how to fight, or a hunter who is in the wild beast shows in the arena, or a public official who is concerned with gladiator shows, either he shall cease, or he shall be rejected. If someone is a priest of idols, or an attendant of idols, he shall cease or he shall be rejected. A military man in authority must not execute men. If he is ordered, he must not carry it out. Nor must he take military oath. If he refuses, he shall be rejected. If someone is a military governor, or the ruler of a city who wears the purple, he shall cease or he shall be rejected. The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God. (Apostolic Tradition 16:7-11)
According to the early church, Christians shouldn’t be gladiators, soldiers or governor. Ron Sider has written more about this in his book The Early Church on Killing. Even “rulers of a city” is ruled out. They kill and hurt people as well, indirectly. The political power is power through violence. The early Anabaptists and the early Pentecostals rejected political power for the same reason as the early Christians: they wanted to change society through love and the Holy Spirit, not by force or swords.
As I’ve written before, evangelical pastor John MacArthur has recently organized a conference called “Strange Fire” and will publish a book by the same name, where he argues that the charismatic movement is a crazy, heretic, demonic mess. As I’ve gone through what MacArthur said at the conference I’ve realized that the event really lives up to its name. Here are the top seven strange Strange Fire statements!
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in John MacArthur’s Opening Address (marccortez.com)
- Not All Charismatics Bark Like Dogs (sacredprofane.wordpress.com)
- ‘Strange Fire’ Conference: Oh, MacArthur… (amyhopefrancis.com)
- John MacArthur’s #StrangeFire And Arlene Sanchez Walsh’s Latino Pentecostal Identity (politicaljesus.com)
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore. (Micah 4:3)
A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate must resign or be rejected. If a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God. — Hippolytus of Rome
Ron Sider is one of the most influential activist theologians in the Western church; his 1977 book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger has been read by over 400 000 people and has been ranked as one of the top 50 books that have shaped evangelicals by Christianity Today. This same magazine has now made an interview with Sider because of the publication of his new book The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment.
As the title suggests, Sider looks at the writings from the church fathers and other early Christian documents to see what they thought about killing. And as we previously have written on this blog, he found that they were pacifists. They were against all forms of killing; war, abortion and capital punishment – which should confuse the traditional left-right political paradigm a lot.
Just war-proponents sometimes argue that the reason most church fathers argued that Christians shouldn’t join the military was that idolatry was so common in the Roman army. This, Sider says, is not true:
Their most frequent statement is that killing is wrong. Killing a human being is simply something that Christians don’t do, and they’ll cite the Micah passage or Jesus’ “love your enemies” to support that. But the clear statement that Christians don’t kill is the foundation.
The most frequently stated reason that Christians didn’t join the army and go to war is that they didn’t kill. But it’s also true that in Tertullian, for example, idolatry in the Roman army is a second reason for not joining the military. But it’s not true that idolatry is the primary or exclusive reason that the early Christians refused to join the military. More often they just say killing is wrong.
For the rest of the blog posts in this series, go here.
In the previous part of this series we looked at how the theology of Christian Zionism, which claims that the Jewish people must return to the land of Israel before the second coming of Christ, is very young. Its roots are found in the 16th century and its developed form didn’t appear until the 19th century. However, most Christian Zionists don’t view this as a problem, since they believe that this was not the birth of the theology but its resurrection – Christian Zionism was the original church teaching about the role of Israel, and the Puritans and Dispensationalists simply rediscovered it.
However, the early church did not believe in Christian Zionism. None of the church fathers, neither any anonymous early Christian writings, argued that the Jewish people must return to Israel before the second coming of Christ. On the contrary, they were supersessionists, teaching that Christ had fulfilled the covenant with and promises to Israel and that these now belonged to His followers, the church.
The non-existence of Christian Zionism in the early church is rather indesputable, even most Christian Zionists themselves acknowledge this. They claim that the apostles believed in Christian Zionism, but that it was immediately lost. I call this “The Men in Black Theory”. Just as the movie agents use their neuralyzer to erase people’s memories, Christian Zionism was suddenly deleted from the collective mind of the whole church right when the final pages of the New Testament was written.