Friday, March 25, 2011

Primitive Christianity Revised?

For most Christians, there is an assumption that the faith and practice of the early Church bears a certain special authority. Some communions express this in doctrines of "apostolic succession," in which the modern-day Church receives its spiritual authority as an inheritance, passed down from the first-century apostles to the present-day church leadership. In other denominations, the canonical Scriptures are understood as bearing this fundamental authority. The Scriptures transmit the story of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and they also provide us with a glimpse into the life of the early Church. The early Church, as we encounter it in Scripture, serves as a model for us today.

The Religious Society of Friends also gives priority to the early Church. The first-generation of Quaker preachers and evangelists understood themselves as a re-emergence of the true, spiritual Church of Christ. One of the principal slogans of the early Quaker movement was "primitive Christianity revived." Early Friends claimed that the Church had fallen into apostasy in the centuries since theClement of Alexandria events detailed in the Book of Acts, and they believed that the new Quaker movement represented not a new sect, but a rebirth of the first-century Church.

The interesting thing is, in many matters of practice, the Quaker movement diverged from the pre-Constantinian Church. The early Church practiced water baptism, for instance. And the Lord's Supper. Within the first few generations of the Christian faith, there were clear hierarchical lines of authority established within the Church spreading throughout the Roman Empire. There were priests and bishops, very similar in their function to the priests and bishops in the Eastern Orthodox communion today.

The Friends movement denied the legitimacy of a human priesthood, calling it a blasphemy against the true and eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ. The early Quakers rejected water baptism, claiming that it was a Jewish rite that no longer applies to those who are in Christ.

Similarly, Friends eschewed the ritual of bread and wine that is so central to most Christians. Jesus, they claimed, never meant to institute a perpetual ceremony for the Church to observe. While the early Friends movement undoubtedly bore the marks of spiritual anointing and apostolic authority, there were many differences between their practices and those of the primitive Christianity that they felt they embodied.

As a twenty-first century Christian in the Quaker tradition, this leads me to wonder about how we as a Church are to relate to our spiritual ancestors - whether they be the early Quakers, the Doctors of the early Church, the Apostle Paul, or the Twelve Apostles or the first-century Church in Jerusalem. How do we makeThe Church Fathers sense of the differences in theology and practice among them? How do we decide who our ultimate guide should be?

If our object is to preserve undefiled the faith and practice of our spiritual forebears, we must first decide which ancestors have primacy. As Quakers, do we privilege the early Friends over the Doctors of the early Church? On what basis? And if we choose to privilege the more universally recognized teachings of the Doctors, how do we make sense of our own tradition as Friends, which certainly differs with the understandings of the early Church on several points?

Most of the denominations that have emerged out of the Protestant Reformation base their faith and practice on a particular interpretation of Scripture. The justification for everything they do is "the clear teachings of Scripture." Scripture trumps the teachings of the early Church - and certainly the teachings of the medieval Roman Church. For most Protestants, Scripture is the foundational bedrock where Christians can go to test all doctrines. Given the plethora of Protestant denominations today, it is clear that this did not provide a complete solution to the question of authority. Ultimately, each denomination stands on its own particular interpretation of what the Scriptures "really mean."

In many ways, Quakers are no different. We have particular passages that we like to harp on. The early Friends focused a lot on the book of James, Hebrews, John and Revelation. Our reading of Scripture is certainly particular, biased, sectarian. We have this in common with the Protestant denominations. The difference, though, is that Friends have always believed - at least in theory -Polycarp of Smyrna that Jesus Christ is literally present with us in the present day. The foundation of our faith as Friends is not the example of the early Church, the early Friends, or even the Scriptures. It is Jesus himself. Here. With us.

Our experience has been that of Paul, who wrote that, "no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ."(1) The early Church, the Roman and Eastern communions, the Protestant reformers, early Quakers, Methodists and Pentecostals have all built upon that true Foundation. There have been many times that we have gotten it right, and plenty of others when we have messed up and missed the whole point. Jesus Christ, resurrected and present with us today, is infallible; we, his Church, are not.

Sometimes our spiritual ancestors screwed up. Think of slavery. Or the subjugation of women. Despite our failings, however, I believe that our spiritual ancestors have - by the grace of God - gotten more right than we could reasonably expect. We look back to them because they provide such a good example to us. We look back to their discernment, their sense of Christ's presence, the truth that was revealed to them, and we learn a lot. We do not always have to re-invent the wheel.

At the same time, even when the early Church and other spiritual ancestors have gotten it right, context matters. Things that were right for a particular time period may not be universally applicable. For example, I think about the early Quaker rejection of instrumental music, congregational singing, art and literature. I believe I understand why they stood against these things, given the corruption they saw in the institutional Church at that time. Music Clement of Romeand visual art were a big part of the culture of entertainment-oriented church services. Nevertheless, I do not believe that the early Friends' rejection of these things is a universal truth for all times and places.

We face new challenges today. While some of the concerns of our spiritual forebears may no longer be applicable, we are confronted with so many issues that they could not have foreseen. Cars and cell phones, the internet and television, automobiles and air travel. We have a great deal of discernment to do as Christ's Body, and we are not going to get clear answers from our ancestors. Not even from the Bible. But we do not have to let this deter us from embracing these challenges. Jesus is still here with us, and he will show us how we are to live.

How might Jesus be calling us to live out "primitive Christianity revised"? How might the Spirit be upon us to re-think some of the old assumptions that were born of another era? Where are we now? How are we called to faithfully re-mix the gospel for our own era and cultural context? What does the love, mercy and justice of Jesus look like today, in twenty-first century America?

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1. 1 Corinthians 3:11

6 comments:

Comrade Kevin said...

As for where we place primacy, that debate still continues to the present day. I find it curious how mainline Christianity places focus on the conflicts of the 1st Century A.D.

Is it that we need a guide when we are establishing our own models for growth? Is it that we need reminding that something very massive had humble roots?

To some extent, I think achieving one singular scriptural focus is increasingly difficult in this day. I myself have my own leadings, but they can never be easily codified. We have placed so much of an emphasis on individual Truth, that beyond the superficial, what inspires us is exceptionally broad.

Helene said...

I like the way you said "Jesus is still here with us, and he will show us how we are to live."

People -- whether living or dead -- attract my attention first of all by how they live(d) and then only secondarily by what they believe(d). I resonate when I see signs of transformation. Jesus is central in my experiences of spiritual empowerment. I get interested in somebody's beliefs, whether they are a modern-day f/Friend or a historical figure, *after* I have gotten a sense that they have been empowered to fullness of life.

That's my starting point when I'm trying to make sense of the faith-claims of my spiritual ancestors, such as "the Power of the Lord was over all." Our common experience helps me feel like I can understand them. I see us as siblings together, with Jesus as our elder brother and closest companion -- closer than our very breath.

Catholic-Quaker said...

I loved your post. It meant a lot to me. I have spent most of my adult religious life trying to work out the problems you describe. I became a Friend back in 1980, finding in Friends a way of seeing Christ in a way I could accept so I could bring him back into my life; but after becoming a Quaker I never felt comfortable settling into what seemed such a sectarian institution. I eventually returned to the Catholic Church, which seemed to me to embody if not perfection at least an institution that went back to apostolic times.

The Reformation mania with getting everything perfect - the way Jesus and the Apostles intended it - is not possible. But Quakers still have insights into the gospel and into the internalization of Christ's presence that I can't find anywhere else, so I stay with Friends too and do "double-duty" each Sunday, staying attached to the sacraments and historical continuity of the Catholic Church, and then to the commitment to live my life in the power of Christ's Real Spiritual Presence that I find among Friends.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Dear Micah, I am feeling moved to join your wrestling with some of the issues you raise.

You write, “Early Friends claimed that the Church had fallen into apostasy in the centuries since the events detailed in the Book of Acts, and they believed that the new Quaker movement represented not a new sect, but a rebirth of the first-century Church. The interesting thing is, in many matters of practice, the Quaker movement diverged from the pre-Constantinian Church.” (Etc.)

Of course, even “the first-century Church” was a very different thing from “the pre-Constantinian Church”. As you rightly point out, the Church evolved from its ca. 33 AD beginnings to its legalization by the Emperor Constantine 280 years later. But I think it is hard for 21st century observers to imagine how much evolution there really was. That 280 years covered the rise of the orthodox priesthood as a controlling power, and the rise of many great, influential bodies independent of that priesthood and sometimes in direct competition with it, such as the Docetists, the Marcionites, the Montanists, the Valentinians, the Manichæans and the desert hermits. It covers the Church’s long struggle to define itself clearly as something different from Judaism. It covers the long, slow development of the canonical New Testament. And it covers many chapters of the Church’s evolving struggle with the corrupting external influences of alternating persecution and assimilation. It just doesn’t work to treat those 280 years as a homogeneous unit.

There are many Protestant bodies today that say they have returned to the state of the Church before Constantine. But that is very far from the same thing as trying to return all the way back to the state of the first-century Church with its total communism and inchoate half-Jewish theology. It always turns out that they want to hang onto the canonical Bible, though the canon didn’t exist in the first century and wasn’t fully hammered out until well into the third. And it usually turns out that they also want to hang onto any number of post-Constantinian developments such as the theological positions of Augustine of Hippo.

But beyond that, the early Friends were not trying to recreate the first century Church. They were, rather, trying to practice simple complete obedience to the words of the Christ in the gospels and the apostles in their epistles, which is a somewhat different (and in truth ahistorical) thing. The early Church may have practiced water baptism, but what mattered to Friends was that Christ baptized none and neither did Paul, that Christ and the apostles generally treated the outward as a mere symbol of the inward, and that a successful practice of the teachings of the New Testament clearly required baptism in the Spirit but did not clearly require baptism by water. Given these facts, Friends felt led to be consciously different from the first century Church.

You then write, “For most Protestants, Scripture is the foundational bedrock where Christians can go to test all doctrines. Given the plethora of Protestant denominations today, it is clear that this did not provide a complete solution to the question of authority. Ultimately, each denomination stands on its own particular interpretation of what the Scriptures ‘really mean.’

Early Friends, however, pointed out that most denominations do not limit themselves to practices and doctrines grounded in scripture; they add on practices and doctrines that arose in later times, or even that they themselves have invented. And that is no less true today than it was in the days of Fox and Barclay. Friends have always believed that if those later innovations were stripped away, we would all wind up at the same place, as Christ and his Father intended.

— For what it’s worth!

Elizabeth said...

You covered a lot of interrelated ideas in this post, Micah; thank you for tackling it. I'm glad you wrote about context. Early Friends were responding to a culture of rites and legalism that had no spirituality in those practices. As Marshall mentioned, I believe we are still living amidst that cultural Christianity today, as opposed to scriptural Christianity (Friends and non-Friends).

Laura Katherine said...

I find this to be such a generous thought:

"Despite our failings, however, I believe that our spiritual ancestors have - by the grace of God - gotten more right than we could reasonably expect."

It acknowledges that our spiritual ancestors were not perfect, and that they left behind some thoughts and traditions which were not in keeping with the light. At the same time, it is kind towards them as individuals, and gives respect to them for getting more right than "we could reasonably expect." I will hold this close and think of it the next time I am tempted to judge another.

This passage made me think of contemporary mega-churches:

"Things that were right for a particular time period may not be universally applicable. For example, I think about the early Quaker rejection of instrumental music, congregational singing, art and literature. I believe I understand why they stood against these things, given the corruption they saw in the institutional Church at that time. Music and visual art were a big part of the culture of entertainment-oriented church services."

While the rejection of instrumental music, art, and literature may no longer be relevant, I think that we still provide a needed alternative to entertainment-oriented church services. Contemporary Christianity needs this alternative.