Category: Church History

WikiGodPod: Our Stories Shaping God

Modern and Postmodern Christianity

WikiGodPod: Our Stories Shaping God

A while ago I was talking about stuff on WikiGodPod, a podcast out of the Greater Toronto Area (I live close to the GTA in Kitchener) centred around our stories and how that shapes how we understand God. I’m not somebody who speaks well without preparation, so the potential questions were sent in advance and I spent a few hours the night before and morning of planning. I figure since I already spent those hours writing notes, I may as well clean them up a bit and publish them here.

You write that the decline of the church is happening because of our obsession with possessing the “truth;” “The message sent by the modern churches view of truth is that it is more important to assert opinion as absolute truth than it is to actually connect and share Jesus with the world.” Why did that work for so long but no longer today?

It worked because that was the modernist epistemology that was the world was primarily operating under. It aligned well with nationalism that taught our nation was better. It aligned well with colonialism based on one culture being better than another so you justify forcing that better culture on them by any means necessary.

WikiGodPod: Our Stories Shaping God

Developing the Cult of the Bible

WikiGodPod: Our Stories Shaping God

A while ago I was talking about stuff on WikiGodPod, a podcast out of the Greater Toronto Area (I live close to the GTA in Kitchener) centred around our stories and how that shapes how we understand God. I’m not somebody who speaks well without preparation, so the potential questions were sent in advance and I spent a few hours the night before and morning of planning. I figure since I already spent those hours writing notes, I may as well clean them up a bit and publish them here.

How did what I call “the cult of the Bible” initially develop in/after the Reformation period?

That’s a good phrase that I haven’t run into. I went to a church once that actually sang a song to the Bible about how great the Bible was. It was a great church in a lot of ways, but cultish is definitely an apt descriptor for how I felt during that song.

Christianity’s Dangerous Idea

I’ve already dropped a few quotes from this book as I read along: about the birth of proof-texting, about the origins of the KJV and the Enlightenment, and concluded recently with 2 different approaches to Protestantism. Let’s wrap it up with a full review, shall we?

The “dangerous idea” of Christianity that McGrath is really more accurately the dangerous idea of Protestantism (that Catholicism has adopted to some degree since the Reformation era). It’s the crazy idea that individuals can interpret Scripture, and thus formulate a conception of faith, for themselves. Of course this is successfully lived out to varying degrees – those in power will always try to push their understanding as better than other understandings – but I am not sure of other major religions that even proclaim this as a theory.

2 Approaches to Protestantism

Alister McGrath’s brilliant work Christianity’s Dangerous Idea (full review coming) has this to say in its final section:

For the historian, such cycles of review and renewal seem to be an integral part of Protestant identity….

The pressure of these changes has created a furious debate within sections of Protestantism, leading to a confrontation between two very different visions – one static, the other dynamic – of Protestant identity. On the one hand are Protestant traditionalists who hold that the essence of Protestantism can only be preserved by “freezing” defining moments in the past… For such traditionalists, fidelity to the past is the touchstone of authenticity and integrity.

Bible

Origins of the KJV and the Enlightenment

Time for some more historical tidbits. I know, I’m doing these a lot lately but I’m reading a couple of great history books. I recently read a chapter in Alister McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea about events in England following the Reformation. Interestingly, even with all the history I studied in seminary, this was mostly a knowledge gap between the establishment of Anglicanism and the revival of Wesley. Two related points, though, that I learned in this chapter.

The first has to do with the creation of the KJV. We pretty much all know that it was politically authorized by King James I. What I didn’t know was that it was designed as a way to combat the Geneva Bible, an English translation complete with margin notes, many of which encouraged the Reformed understanding that citizens can and should violently rise up against a tyrannical political leader. You can see why James didn’t like that very much. Banning the Geneva Bible didn’t work nearly effectively enough, so James authorized his own Bible version which would have no margins. Interestingly, it didn’t work – the Bible was a complete flop – until after the English Civil War, the failed attempt at Puritan governance, and the Restoration of the monarchy.

The Birth of Proof-Texting

I’m currently working through Christianity’s Dangerous Idea on Protestant history by Alister McGrath. Lots of great stuff overall. In the section on the shift in power from Lutheran Protestantism to Reformed Protestantism (everywhere other than Northern Germany), he had this great point to say:

Yet the process [of shifting power between different Protestant divisions] also affected issues of doctrine. The rise of Calvin’s vision of Protestantism forced Lutheranism to define and defend itself against two rivals instead of its traditional single opponent – Catholicism. Both Lutheran and Reformed communities now defined themselves by explicit and extensive doctrinal formulations. This can be seen as the inevitable outcome of a quest for self-definition on the part of two ecclesial bodies within the same geographical region, both claiming to be legitimate outcomes of the Reformation. At the social and political level, the communities were difficult to distinguish; doctrine therefore provided the most reliable means by which they might define themselves over and against one another. The notion of a core concept of “Protestantism,” with two major branches, became difficult to sustain given the embittered hostility between the two factions and their open competition for territory and influence.

Plato’s Place in Christian Theology

I’ve said many times that a lot of Christianity has as much if not more to do with Plato and other Greek philosophy than it does to do with the Bible and Jewish thought. In Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, Diarmaid MacCulloch summarizes the impact in two dimensions.

First, he uses Plato’s analogy of the cave in The Republic to explain the Platonic idea that all we experience “in this life are shadows of the ideal ‘Forms’, truer and higher versions of reality.” We shouldn’t settle for what we can see and hear, therefore, and our path to the higher reality is through our intellect. It should be easy to see how this influenced a lot of Christianity’s emphasis on getting your ideas correct about God and in many cases ignoring this world, even though Hebrew/Scriptural thought says the opposite and the Gnostics were condemned as heretics for essentially this idea.

The second major area of contribution from Plato came with the idea of God, particularly radical in contrast to the terribly flawed Greek pantheon. MacCulloch says this about Plato’s reaction:

Although Plato’s supreme God is unlike the fickle, jealous, quarrelsom gods of the Greek pantheon, his God is distanced from compassion for human tragedy, because compassion is a passion or emotion.

Atonement - Cross

Atonement Theology in History

Crosses were not used as icons until after Constantine when crosses were no longer torture devices, and did not show Jesus suffering on them until around the same time as Anselm formed his theory

To the surprise of nobody who knows me, the section on how atonement theology fits within history was one of the most exciting parts of The Nonviolent Atonement. Many people won’t accept this, but the simple reality is that our theological positions are always a function at least in part of our context. Most people realize that the context of the biblical writers is important and we can’t just pull individual verses out to support whatever we want. Unfortunately most do not realize that those who have gone before us also always had a context for concluding the ideas that they did. Atonement is no exception.

In the early church, Weaver argues, the mindset was strictly toward what he calls narrative Christus Victor. The most important element from the motif for this aspect of the historical discussion, though, is that it is a very earthly theory with practical applications as to how to approach power and oppression. Jesus saved the world through challenging power in a non-violent way.

Defining Liberal vs Conservative Theology Historically

The words “liberal” and “conservative” get used has a lot of problems associated with it. Among many other things, the terms tend to be very confusingly defined. Today, we have no concrete definition of liberal as compared to conservative theology and the terms usually get used based on the false dualisms of American politics instead. But the labels did at one point hold some more substantial definitions.

To be qualified as “orthodox” in the 17th-19th centuries, you had to believe a huge range of things, a range that changed depending on your denominational tradition. Some of those things, like biblical literalism, had never even been a church hermeneutic until this time when they were suddenly treated as the only thing that mattered. If you rejected any piece of this, you were a not a good enough Christian. When they’re referring to theology at all instead of to politics, this is what a lot of people today usually mean by “conservative” theology: 18th century Protestantism (Lutheran and Reformed).