Monthly Archives: March 2018

Christian Culture in Church History

A common error in the study of church history is to seek to find a version of one’s present branch of Christianity in the past. Since Christian doctrine and practice develop over the centuries, trying to find oneself in church history is like trying to find out how people in Shakespeare’s era texted one another, or trying to understand what Edward II’s position on globalism was. You won’t find covenant theology or dispensationalism (in the self-conscious, self-identified form) before the 17th century, cessationism (as a reaction to Pentecostalism) before the twentieth, or Baptists who hold to justification by faith before the 17th. There are no self-conscious, self-identified credobaptist, compatibilist, cessationist, creationist, complementarian, and chiliast believers like me more than a hundred years ago.  This doesn’t mean those positions are not biblical or did not exist in church history; it simply means the faith once delivered to the saints has been progressively understood by the saints. I won’t find in the early church a theological understanding that took 2018 years to develop.

Similarly, if it is an error to imagine some ancient version of one’s own church or denomination, it is equally an error to imagine that somewhere in history there existed a pristine and nearly perfect form of Christianity. The perfect group chosen usually depends upon the sympathies of the speaker: some of the Reformed imagine it was Calvin’s Geneva, certain Methodists picture the revivals under Wesley similarly, some Baptists think that the Metropolitan Tabernacle under Spurgeon was almost the Millennium, some anti-Calvinists pin their hopes on some pre-Reformation groups, such as the Waldenses, others romanticise the Middle Ages. But all of these had points of doctrine, practice and worship that were less than perfect, and revealed a church still in development. No straight line from the apostles to the present day exists.

Recognising these two errors might lead us to a faulty conclusion: the notion that there has never been an instance of Christian culture. To agree that no perfect example of Christianity exists in the past is not to assert that Christian culture has never existed. Quite the contrary.

This error comes from trying to judge or think about Christian culture in the abstract, rather than in the form of cultural phenomena and cultural artifacts. Concrete cultural artifacts produced by Christians exist in abundance: songs, paintings, poems, buildings, treatises, histories, sermons, buildings, customs, and the like. Wherever Christianity has taken hold of the majority of a population in one place, it will soon be seen shaping the sagas, political arrangements, clothing, technologies, and even language itself. If a culture is a religion externalised, then wherever Christianity becomes dominant, cultural forms representing that worldview will appear.

At what point can we say a form of Christian culture was in a certain place, for a certain time? It depends on how dominant Christianity became, how long its dominance held, and how healthy the form of Christianity was that was known and practiced. But that it has done so in many times and places is beyond dispute.

A second error follows the first. In trying to imagine a Christian culture in the abstract, a person assumes its incarnation will look identical in every instance. When he finds that Christians of varying ethnicities developed different forms of music, architecture, and literature, he wrongly concludes that one cannot speak about Christian culture at all. To him, the differences seem to eliminate any unifying principle.

What our interlocutor misses is glaring. The most interesting thing about comparing different cultural artifacts from different Christian communities is not that they are different, it is how similar they are. Indeed, while no one expects Armenian and Chinese Christianities to be identical, what is fascinating is to find equivalence in cultural forms between Christians separated by thousands of kilometres or hundreds of years.

Equivalence is the proper word. When two forms are equivalent between two groups, they may not share the same shape or incarnation, but they carry the same meaning in their respective communities. They are like the same idea in different languages.  Two reverent Christian communities will produce different cultural artifacts, but they will both have words for “reverence”, both have postures for reverence, both have combinations of musical notes for reverence. Often enough, a visitor from the one will be able to broadly decode the reverential tone of a form in the other. All this speaks of equivalence between two different instances of Christian culture.

Church history reveals something far more interesting than a pristine Christian culture in one time and place: very different ethnicities, languages, and traditions that often enough produced artifacts that have passed into common use of Christians around the world. The equivalence was sufficient to have “catholic” value.  The “leaven” of Christianity leavened the whole cultural lump of particular peoples and particular times, and so produced different Christian cultures.

But where we find strong equivalences in forms and artifacts between folk cultures, since they shared Christianity, we find something like Christian culture in its most general and extensive sense. These equivalences make up a universal, two thousand year-old tradition of orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy. And a tradition is simply a culture stretched over time.

Two Tests and Two Questions

I present my children with two written tests. They open the envelope of the first, and see the heading, “Dad Orthodoxy”. A series of questions about me follows, which they find delightfully easy. “What is your father’s first name?” “What colour are your father’s eyes?” “What is your father’s favourite meal?” “Where did your father grow up?” Having superior knowledge of my appearance, history, preferences, habits, and personality, they fly through the test. They are thoroughly Dad-orthodox.

They proceed to open the second envelope. Here they encounter the title “Dad Orthopathy”. Not knowing what orthopathy means (and at least one of them suspecting it might have something to do with feet), they shrug and plunge into the test. They find the questions here give them pause. “How should you address your father?” “What tone of voice should you use when disagreeing with your father?” “When has teasing and joking with your father become disrespectful?” “What are some ways you give honour to your father?

This test takes longer for my children to complete. They aren’t always sure if they have given the “correct” answers, which were unequivocal in the first test. They even have to stop and think about their relationship with me, and evaluate it carefully.

For all that, they know that it is possible to get wrong or incomplete answers on this test, too. Though the test requires different kinds of judgement, it still deals with truth: truth about their father. The first test deals with who their father is, the second deals with what their father deserves.

If we were to replace the father and children with God and His children, and imagine a similar set of tests, we might have a helpful picture of the dilemma of modern Christianity. Swathes of Christians would ace the first test, having learned by heart all kinds of doctrinal facts.

The second test would give everyone some difficulty. The real problem is not that it would be difficult for all Christians. The troubling thing is that it would make some Christians angry. They would feel the very asking of these questions is invasive. They would protest that the second exam consists of “trick questions”, with “no right answer”. They would argue that two Christians might write opposite things, and their cultural situation would make their respective answers correct in their context. They would accuse the examiner of asking narrow, even culturally-insensitive, questions.

So here are our two questions.

  1. Does the Bible give us forms of both exams? Does the Bible teach us both who God is, and what He deserves? Does it require both right belief in who God is, and a right response to who God is?
  2. Why do evangelicals (of whatever stripe, including fundamentalists) deny that the second exam exists, or that one can fail it? Why do they care only about the first exam, and act as if orthodoxy is the sum total of our obligation? Why do they resent the discussion of orthopathy?