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The Church: Going Back to What?

Jonathan Stone explores the issue of "Primal Church:"

When I speak of primal church I am not speaking of some sort of neanderthal church, but rather those primitive elements that still serve as the basic building blocks of the church. For example, geometrically speaking, we can think of the primitive shapes such as cones, spheres, pyramids, cubes, etc., by which all other shapes and designs might be constructed. Or we might think of the primary colors, from which the whole gamut of colors might be constructed. Or we might think of how bits and bytes are the fundamental building blocks of all computer programming languages. I’m sure the list could go on.

A large part of the problem is this: what constutites the "early church?"  That, in part, is the issue that Cardinal Kaspar stepped on in his comments about Anglicanism having to choose between the "the churches of the first millennium -Catholic and Orthodox" and the "the Protestant churches of the 16th century."  Judging by the slugfest that ensued on Titusonenine, that’s still a controversial question.

I’m going to try to tackle this question on multiple levels.

Let’s start with the typical "Protestant" view of church history.  We start with the "Apostolic Church," the church that existed when those who put on paper or parchment the New Testment were still on the earth.  Then there’s this gap full of apostasy until the Reformation, after which time we have true religion(s) restored (those infamous variations of the Protestant churches that  Bossuet catalogued!)  until the present time.

Evangelicals of all types have variations on this.  Wesleyans and Pentecostals, for example, like to start the clock of "restoration" with Wesley, with the result that we have a "Wesleyan-Pentecostal trajectory" of history.  Telling someone like me that helped design missles in my career that our history has a "trajectory" only conjures images of something that’s eventually going to explode when it gets in proximity to its target, not the most felicitous view of history.

Such "gappy" views of history only cultivate exceptionalism, something that has been a stumbling block to the unity of the Body of Christ for a long time.  They’re also ahistorical, which means that, since we refuse to learn the mistakes of others, we’re sure to make the same ones ourselves.

Flipping things around, Cardinal Kaspar’s glib characterisation of Catholicism as closer to the church that was in the beginning papers over an enormous number of issues of Catholic and Orthodox history.  To start with, once the dust had settled on the Reformation, what you had was two stark choices: a 16th century Protestant and Reformed construct, or a 16th century Catholic Countereformation construct.  Anglicanism was something of a DMZ between the two, and didn’t stay demilitarised very long either.  (That, BTW, is the real meaning of the "via media," not the mushy liberalism we have today in the TEC.)  Moreover Anglicanism represented the first broad-based attempt to peel away some of the unBiblical accretions and get back to a "Patristic" church of the Roman Empire era.  In the last century, the Catholics themselves realised that much of what they did and practiced were late accretions, which led to the following:

The second (trend before Vatican II) was a trend back towards a stronger Biblical/Patristic emphasis. The Biblical trend was exemplified by the École Biblique de Jerusalem, headed up by Roland de Vaux. It was given a serious boost by the 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, which encouraged Bilbical studies and allowed Catholic Biblical translations to be done from the original Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew rather than strictly the Latin. The Patristic emphasis was the work of scholars such as Jean Danielou and Henri de Lubac.

So where does this leave Pentecostals?  We started in the last century with a "clean slate," but it was quickly filled up by contact with other Evangelicals and their ahistorical approach.  The result was a simple, straightforward church structure that proved simple to implement and propagate, but left us flatfooted theologically in many respects.  Now we are wrestling with many issues that, IMHO, we would find simpler to solve if we had a better handle on where Christianity has been.

To start with, we need to take more regard for what came in the centuries immediately after the New Testament.  They weren’t perfect, they didn’t always get it right, but they wrestled with many issues in a culture not only closer to the NT’s but also a pagan culture that we’re seeing a comback of in our own time.  The "Patristic" era would be a good study on how these people dealt with many issues that we’re trying to sort out today.  One important note: although the manifestations of the Pentecostal gifts declined during this era, the belief that God should be an active help in our lives didn’t.  I’m specifically thinking about the miraculous, something the Reformers jettisoned and Protestant Christianity has struggled to come back to.

Second, we need to be honest with ourselves and admit that we’re going to have structure of some kind.  The Evangelical/Pentecostal romantic dream of a Christianity "without form and void" only obscures the real problems we face.  For example, the back and forth over the election of state/regional Administrative Bishops in the Church of God at MissionalCOG would be well informed by the practice of the Roman Empire church (which is why I brought up the issue and my reference to Ambrose’s election to start with.)  What we need is a structure that serves the needs of God’s work and God’s people, not the other way around.

Third–and this is the real "trout in the milk" for Evangelicals and Pentecostals–we need to realistically face the fact that Christianity went to liturgical forms of worship a lot more quickly and easily than we care to admit.  Our worship is generally structured (and in many cases contrived) even without liturgical structure.   Same kind of structure was part and parcel with Judaism and it’s unreasonable to think that Christianity would be completely free of it.  Again we need to find forms of worship that really bring us closer to God, irrespective of what form or lack of it they take.

History is a big deal.  It’s time to face it realistically if we want some help from those who went before in our journey into where we’re going.


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