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