Continuation of part one and mainly about Church History in Plain Language, by Bruce Shelley.
We don’t usually recite the creeds in our current church’s order of service – but many churches that I’ve been to over the years have. Reading about the history of the creeds helps me to gain a better appreciation for what they are about. The statements of faith seem to have arisen from a combination of pressures from false gospels, the will of Roman emperors (eg. Constantine I in calling the council of Nicaea), and the work of church leaders.
In the early Apostle’s Creed –
“God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…” countered the false gnostic idea of God as purely spiritual, unrelated to the material world which is evil.
“Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary…” countered the ideas that decoupled the spiritual work of Jesus from historical physical events of his birth, crucification and resurrection from the dead. This is consistent with the 1 John, which strongly refutes the idea that Jesus was not truly human. The later Nicene Creed, from the council of bishops in 325AD, expands on the divine nature of Jesus, being of the “same essence as the Father”.
“I believe in… the holy catholic Church” – this is often a point of confusion if Protestant churches don’t explain its meaning to the congregation. Catholic as in one body of the church, as opposed to the specific local church. What we think of as Roman Catholicism today did not exist as a distinct branch back then.
Religion, politics, and power
With the Romans, there was this ever-present interplay between religious and political power, which is somewhat unsettling. Shelley in his book describes how on the one hand, emperors often controlled which bishops or schools of thoughts were in favour – and on the other hand, how bishops had the power to even threaten ex-communication to emperors.
On the same UK trip we visited Scottish museums and were surprised at the amount of church history mentioned alongside the political history of the British royals. Again, there was this coupling of religious and political power when it came to the Reformation in the 16th century. Did the kings and queens pick Catholicism or Protestantism primarily for theological or political purposes? How close should the state and the church be?
Some denominations – Anglican and Lutheran for example – favoured close ties with the ruling state. Other movements sought separation of state and religion.
Which leads to the point of denominations. In a country like Australia, we know churches as Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, independent and so on. When visiting cathedrals and church buildings in the UK, we were confused what denomination was the Church of England (Anglican), or the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian).
Shelley writes that “separation does not of itself constitute schism” and makes an interesting contrast between denominations and sects. Denominations recognise our inability to see truth fully, and acknowledges different expressions of faith – as long as fundamentals of the Christians are not compromised. Sects claim truth for itself.
Early this year someone at Bible study was asking whether Rehoboam (king of Judah, son of Solomon) did not turn out to be a good king because kingship was given by succession. As in – was the system of succession to the king’s son the problem? Would God directly appointing and anointing a king guarantee that they would be a good king?
If we look back a little, Saul and David were specifically anointed to be king. One followed God with his heart and one did not. If direct appointment by God via his prophet can have different outcomes depending on the heart of the elected king, it’s hard to imagine how any system (eg. monarchy, democracy, communism) can guarantee a good leader.
At the height of the Hong Kong democracy protests, there was some tension within our local Christian community between mainland China migrants and the pro-democracy young people from Hong Kong. Last year, there was a lot of prayer for unity within the church in UK – with strong convictions from Christians on both sides of the Brexit debate. Whenever it comes to election time, say with the recent US election, there is often a side that claims to represent the voice of all Christians.
It’s enlightening to see what we face is not new. There was a time where a united Roman empire was seen to be a united church. In more modern history, some Christian movements identify closely with socialism. But our primary identity and salvation is not in these systems. Not to say that Christians should not have political views. Often, some governments, some political or legal systems, are better for an era. But even as we advocate for change, we should acknowledge the limitations of these human leaders and institutions.
“Time has a way of sifting and testing human achievements. Men design their social and political systems, and for centuries people regard their own order as the best that can be imagined. They go to war to defend it because they believe deeply that if that particular organization of the world collapsed there would be nothing left to make life worth living in their own time or in the future. Yet the river of time is littered with the ruins of social and political – city-states, empires, dictatorships, monarchies – and we wonder why those who lived under them should ever have defended them or valued them so highly.” – Church History in Plain Language