Paul

I have been particularly interested in the first generations of the Church, those immediately following Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The most prominent individual during this period is undoubtedly Saul of Tarsus, who later became known as the apostle Paul.

Paul is a very interesting figure.  It has been said that Jesus founded Christianity, but Paul founded the Church.  He poured his life into his missionary journeys, starting churches, and writing letters to Christians across the known world.  Many of his letters are now included in our Bibles.  We literally have accepted them as gospel.

But consider a quote from Saving Jesus from the Church, by Robin Meyers:

“We know that Saul of Tarsus, who never met Jesus, became the apostle Paul through a completely mystical experience and seemed to care nothing for the earthly teachings of Jesus, only his “adoption” as the Son of God through the resurrection. Not only did he alter the nature of the gospel from a story to an argument, but his letters and those written by others in his name are the earliest Christian documents we have, written long before the gospels.”

If it weren’t for the fact that the other apostles eventually accepted Paul as a true apostle with corresponding authority, it would be easy to question whether his writings even belong in our Bibles.  I have noticed that Paul hardly ever refers to Jesus’ life on earth or his teachings.  In fact, not only had he never met Jesus, it seems that he had little contact with the eleven disciples who had actually walked with Jesus.  And he apparently did not have benefit of the four gospels yet either.  So he preaches about Jesus as Son of God and Savior, but includes very little of the teaching that Jesus gave the world directly.

In my own Bible reading I need to go back through the gospels, and then through the writings of Peter and John.  I want to make sure that I understand the teachings of Jesus and how they have been incorporated into Christian faith and practice, aside from the extraordinary influence of Paul.

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This post can also be found on my other blog at http://pathsofchristianity.com/paul/

 

 

 

 

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Restoring the Great Tradition

I just started reading The Soul of Christianity, Restoring the Great Tradition by Huston Smith.  The author was  born to Methodist missionaries in China, and went on to become internationally known and revered as the premier teacher of world religions.  I’m not very far into the book yet, but I have found it very interesting so far.

In the Preface, Mr. Smith states that he feels like a voice crying in the wilderness, the wilderness of secular modernity.  He goes on to say “And yet a voice that can pull us out of the wilderness is on our very doorstep.  That voice is the voice of first-millenium Christianity, the Great Tradition, which all Christians can accept because it is the solid trunk of the tree from which its branches have sprung.  It is the voice of peace, justice, and beauty that emanates from the Christian soul …”

Later, in the Introduction section, he states that “today religion is hamstrung between liberals and conservatives who cancel each other out.  Conservative Christians, commonly tagged as fundamentalists, incline toward a biblical literalism that is unworkable because it ignores the contexts that give words their meaning … and they are in constant danger of slipping into disastrous political agendas.”  On the other side, he says “Liberal churches, for their part, are digging their own graves, for without a robust, emphatically  theistic worldview to work within, they have nothing to offer their members except rallying cries to be good.”

There are two main sections to the book:  The Christian Worldview, and The Christian Story.  I have read just far enough to discern a main thread.  The author maintains that God is coming back into the picture in our cultures because we now understand where secularism has gone wrong.  Secularism has equated two things, absence-of-evidence and evidence-of-absence.  However, it is clear that these are really two very different concepts.   I think that Mr. Smith is on to something pretty profound here.

I am looking forward to reading the rest of this book to see how this thread is developed.  I am also anxious to see how Mr. Smith believes we should navigate the middle ground of Christianity between the flawed approaches of those who are too liberal and those who are too conservative.  I’ll be sure to share my findings with you.

A Sect of the Jews

My sister-in-law recently posted the initial words of the Jewish Shema prayer on Facebook:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

She stated that she has always loved these verses, and commented:  “If we all just tried to live by this ONE command, our ‘immediate’ worlds would be a better place.”  I did a “LIKE” on her post.

This reminded me of how strongly Christianity is rooted in Judaism.  In fact, the earliest followers of Christ regarded themselves as Jews.  They were centered in Jerusalem and observed the Jewish law.  They held the Jewish scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) as the Word of God.  They worshiped in the synagogues.  The first bishops were all circumcised Jews.  Christianity may have remained a sect of the Jews if it had not been for the later, overwhelming influence of Paul and his ministry to the gentiles.

The Didache or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles is one of the earliest Christian writings, dating to the latter part of the first century.  The first line of this treatise is “Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles (or Nations) by the Twelve Apostles”.

The text, parts of which constitute the oldest surviving written catechism, has three main sections dealing with Christian ethics, rituals such as baptism and Eucharist, and Church organization.  The contents and structure are from a decidedly Jewish perspective. The Didache was considered by some of the Church Fathers as part of the New Testament but it ultimately was not accepted into the New Testament canon.  The entire text can be reviewed at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/didache.html

It seems that Christians over the centuries have been somewhat confused about our Jewish roots.  For example, the Jewish scriptures (Old Testament) are considered to be the Word of God, but yet not directly applicable to us in the new Christian “age of grace”.   And Christians have been inconsistent in their view of Jews.  In the past, Christians have at times vilified the Jews as “Christ killers”, and at other times have stood strong with them as God’s chosen people.  I need to put some further study into the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, especially as it impacted the earliest Church.

In some ways the terms “Jewish Christian” or “Messianic Jew” may seem like oxymorons.  But on further thought, they may represent the truest examples of the original Christians.

Revelation

Jesus told his disciples that “the Holy Spirit will guide you into all truth”.  Later, the apostle John wrote the book of Revelations describing visions received while he was “in the spirit”.  The apostle Paul never saw Jesus, but received his revelations about the gospel while not knowing whether he was “in the body or out of the body”.  So clearly the revelation of the gospel of Jesus Christ did not end when Jesus left this earth.  It continued as a work of the Spirit at least through the time of the apostles.

But what about after that?

I just started reading A Manual of Church History by Heinrich Guericke, written in the 1800’s and translated from the German by William G.T. Shedd in 1881.  The introduction section includes this passage:  “In the gift of the gospel, and at the first establishment of the Church, the entire sum and substance of Christian truth was given.  But this body of dogma was by no means fully understood by the human mind, in the outset.  The clear apprehension of this  … is a gradual process, becoming more and more self-consistent and all-comprehending, but even now not complete.”

The implication of this position is that there will be no new revelation of Christian truth after the time of the apostles and the establishment of the Church, but that there will be ongoing development of our understanding and application of that truth.  Should we expect that gradual process to be in the hands of certain religious leaders?  Or should it be much more personal than that?

Most of today’s Christian doctrines were developed after the time of the apostles.  The church leaders who established those doctrines have generally claimed and believed that the doctrines they espoused resulted from the guidance of the Holy Spirit and that they are totally consistent with the teachings of Jesus and apostles.  But what do we do with those doctrines that seem to be inconsistent or in competition with each other?  What are we to think about eternal security, or the meaning of the Eucharist, or the method and age of baptism?  Where does the Spirit of Revelation enter into all this for those of us in the post-apostolic era?  Is it possible that the Spirit reveals one truth to one believer, but a seemingly different truth to another?

This brings me back to a consideration of the paths of Christianity.  It is apparent that Christianity has taken many paths over the centuries.  How are we to say that one is true and all others are false?  And how would we identify the single true path in any case?  But I submit that such a decision isn’t up to us anyway.  I believe that what is up to us, as individuals, is to learn what we can about the basis of our faith, and then to follow the Spirit of Revelation in our own lives so that we can establish our personal spiritual paths accordingly.  After all, we aren’t responsible for the paths that others may take.  We are ultimately accountable only for our own path.

 

 

 

 

The Path of Christianity

As I was doing a web search for sites related to the history of Christianity I came across http://www.christianitypath.com/.  The stated purpose of that site is to be “the home for Christian communities all around the world to meet, interact, spread their word and mutually enrich each other.”  The site seems to be still in development, but I found it interesting.  It contains a good introduction to who Jesus is.

However, the name of this site started me thinking about “the path of Christianity”.  It seems to me that this phrase can refer to two kinds of paths, or maybe to two segments of the same path.  The first is the main topic of this blog — the path that Christianity and the Church have followed to bring us from the very first disciples of Jesus Christ through the centuries and up to the various manifestations of Christian worship and discipleship today.  Of course, this is not really a single path.  It is a multitude of paths that have branched and collided and twisted and turned in many different ways.

I think, though, it would be useful for each of us individually to look back at “our path” — the path that has brought us to our current personal faith.  An awareness of our personal Christian roots may shed new light on the sources — and ultimately the validity — of our individual beliefs and practices.  What you believe about the Trinity, about Bible prophecy, about “free will” and many other topics can be traced back through your current church and pastor, and then back through the historical denominations  and reformations and movements and branches in the path until you can see where those beliefs originated.  In most cases, such an examination will reveal that somewhere along the line some authoritative Christian leader said that this is what the Bible really says.  Of course, other authoritative Christian leaders may have proclaimed that the Bible says something quite different.  This is why the Path of Christianity has had so many branch points.

My point is that we stand on shaky ground when we insist that our personal package of beliefs and practices, resulting from the multi-branched path of Christianity leading to our particular church/denomination, is the “right” one.  This is especially true if we have not evaluated any of the other paths to determine why ours is different.  This brings me to a second way to think about The Path of Christianity.  We can view it as our own, individual path.  We can look back and see who or what has influenced our spiritual life up until now.  We can reevaluate some of those influences, and consider whether we are at a point in our path where we should put renewed emphasis on some principles, and less on others.  And we can look forward to see if any course corrections on our current path are in order.

Ultimately, our path is our own.  It is between us and our Maker.  We can’t let it be determined by some denomination or some powerful person in history, or even our own families.  The Path of Christianity is not only one of the most significant threads through all of human history.  Our own Path of Christianity is also the final determinant of our personal spiritual well being.

I wish you the richest of blessings as you walk your path.

The Timetables of History

The history of the Christian Church is a major thread through the history of the world.  But while we often relate Old Testament events to the world history timeline, we seldom make such connections for the Church Age.

I have a large, heavy book called The Timetables of History, a Horizontal Linkage of People and Events.  This book is basically a timeline in the form of one huge table.  It starts in 5000 BC and goes through 1990 AD.  It chronicles the major events in History & Politics, Literature & Theater, Religion/Philosophy/Learning, Visual Arts, Music, Science/Technology/Growth, and Daily Life.  It is interesting to see the developments in each of these areas over the centuries, but what I find most instructive is to see what else was going on in the world at the same time as major events in Christian history.

For example, The Timetables of History has entries in all categories for 1517 and 1518.  This is when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses in Wittenberg, and was subsequently summoned by Cardinal Cajetan to Augsburg where he refused to recant.  In those same years when the reformation was born, the Turks captured Cairo, and coffee came to Europe for the first time.  Juan de Grijalva explored the coast of Yucatan and discovered Mexico.  Eyeglasses were developed for nearsighted people.

As another example, the 570’s were when Mohammed was born, Benedict I became Pope, and Buddhism was established in Japan.  The Byzantine empire (home of Christianity) was at war with Persia.

OK, I won’t bore you with any more historical trivia.  I just wanted to introduce another resource that I will be using in order to establish historical context as I continue to learn more about the history of Christianity.  Context matters.  The geopolitical situation has always been an  influence on how Christianity has been interpreted and practiced over the centuries.

Gnosticism

I had not intended to spend much time researching or writing about Gnosticism.  But the subject just keeps coming up in my studies of early Christianity.  I have been learning more about the Gnostics, and just completed Stephan A. Hoeller’s book:  Gnosticism, New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing.

Hoeller is a proponent of Gnostic thought, so his book needs to be considered in that light.  However, it is well researched and well written.  It contains a great deal of information as well as extensive philosophical (spiritual) discussion.  I won’t be able to cover all the topics here, but I will share the main points that stood out for me.

A religious cosmology is a belief system’s underlying understanding of the origin, history and ultimate fate of the physical and spiritual cosmos (universe).   Even though the Gnostics are often described as Christian, their cosmology is very different from that of any other branch of Christianity.   Compare the Gnostic principles quoted below from Hoeller’s book with the traditional Judeo-Christian view of God and His creation:

“1- There is an original and transcendental spiritual unity from which emanated a vast manifestation of pluralities.

2- The manifest universe of matter and mind was created not by the original spiritual unity but by spiritual beings possessing inferior powers.

3- One of the objectives of these creators is the perpetual separation of humans from the unity (God).”

Hoeller goes on to explain more about Gnostic dualism — that humans have an outer aspect that is the handiwork of the inferior creators, and an inner aspect that is a “fallen spark of the ultimate divine unity”.  There is also a discussion of Sophia, the personification of wisdom in divine feminine form, who participated in the creation of the world.

What struck me most about all this was not only how different the basic spiritual concepts are, but that there is never any reference to how or why they are believed to be true.  There is no reference to divine revelation or prophets or scriptures or any other authoritative source.  The Gnostics apparently just “know” by their own internal experience.  However, it is only fair to point out that Gnostics do not claim that their knowledge is objective and based on observable fact, but is more based on gaining understanding through myth and allegory.

The final point that I found to be significant is that the Gnostics view Jesus as the greatest Messenger of Light sent to us from the “ultimate unity” in order to impart to mankind the gnostic mysteries and instruct us in the way of gnosis.  They believe that salvation comes from that gnosis, apart from Jesus’ death and resurrection or our personal faith.  The bottom line is that Gnostics revere Jesus as a teacher, but in general do not align with either the Jewish scriptures or with the teachings of the apostles.  I would not include them under the broadest of “Christian” umbrellas, their own claims notwithstanding.

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Footnote:  The Gnostic gospels (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Phillip, etc.) claim that the apostles did receive secret gnostic teachings from Jesus.  These writings include many alleged sayings of Jesus that are not in the four canonical gospels, but even there I do not find any basis for the divergent Gnostic cosmology described above.