Modern Confusion 1900-Present

A Roman Catholic Priest told me once that there were three pillars on which the Church stands, they are:  Tradition, scripture and history.   The discussion went on the muddy the distinction between the three but I still think it is a useful starting point for this page.  The mud is here but, as mud does, it has settled toward the bottom of the page, hopefully with something clear on top.

The reformation is thought by many of the reformed to have freed Christianity from the crushing weight of tradition and/or the rule of a corrupt elite.  The tradition piece can be rather dangerous as we shall see while the corrupt elite part is less dangerous but can be just as problematic, especially when the new elite develops and it also becomes corrupt.  Corruption is part of the human condition and the church has never been immune.   Perhaps, however, an opposite danger is innovation with no drive to build consensus and thus maintain unity in orthodoxy.  There are those who say that this happened because of the Reformation.  There are those who say this has always been.  There are those who write confusing pages like this!

We have diversity of opinion, polity and practice in the wider Church today even if the outside border is a bit sketchy.  Fundamentally we need to decide if we believe that the Church is more a divine institution with a human purpose or a human institution with a divine purpose.  Putting faith in the institutional church above above faith in God is always a mistake, but so is thinking that church tradition, scripture and the writings of the fathers have nothing to offer.  An Antiochan Orthodox priest told me once that to deny the institutional church, as he thought many protestants did, was to deny the Holy Spirit's ability to maintain the Christian message.  So does the Spirit maintain the institution, scripture or some vague notion of the message?  At this point in history we find people who hold all of these positions and plus just about everything in between.  (How ever one can be between multiple positions.)  I personally think that Christianity has survived both because of and in spit of the organized Church and that is the work of the Spirit. 

Fundamentally the Reformed and the Catholic churches of modern times are both reformed but in different ways.  It is hard for me to believe that the Orthodox Church just sat on the sidelines unaffected though that is what they claim.  In all of Christendom there is increased interest in Bible study especially among the laity, for which the protestant would like to take credit (sola scriptura, you know).  I own an Orthodox Study Bible (the Septuagint in English) with study notes and articles from the Eastern Orthodox tradition.  (The Orthodox, be they Russian, Greek or what ever have traditionally stuck with their languages of origin, even in the English speaking USA.)  Orthodox Bishops have weighed in on whether the heterodox are saved (Philaret).  Since Vatican II the Roman Catholic Church have talked of the protestant churches as "separated brethren."  Evangelical scholars read what the Pope writes.  Pope Pius XII described Karl Barth, a Swiss reformed theologian, as the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas.*  There exists a healthy dialogue and a odd sort of unity with evangelicals often having more in common with their Roman Catholic separated brethren than the other protestant church up the road. 

Being free of man's tradition is one thing but declaring independence from God's revelation is quite another.  This is the accusation that is leveled against many in the modern liberal church.  If the Reformation removed church tradition as a support of Christianity then the enlightenment removed inspired or inerrant scripture.  Many in the modern church have tried to reinterpret Christianity in the light of the materialistic assumptions of the enlightenment which has produced an anti-supernatural christianity, something of an oxymoron to my thinking.  (Here we find many of our Old Line/Main Line denominations and even some Roman Catholics.)

It would seem then that all that would remain would be history to tell us about what has happened to man's relationship with God.  (Much of the effort here has been to tell that story.  There is also the timeline that is trying to make a similar point albeit from a perspective wider than the Church.)  But Modernism and Post-modernism have removed history as well.  Because, they will tell you with Nietzsche that, history is written by the victors and there is no way to recover the true story (if they believe that there is such a thing as truth at all.)  Here we find modern secularists (and a surprising number of them in the church).

Written history intersects with the writings of the Church Fathers and Church Historians.  But these writings are part of the traditions of the Church.  Scripture itself covers much of the history of those who are faithful to God.  But these writing were also preserved in religious circles, be it Jewish or Christian.  To be sure there are secular historians that cover much of this material but as with today's secular academics they have little understanding of the nature and claims of Christianity.  We can look to the secular historians for confirmation of the Christian story but they would not tell it fully.  

The discussion between the liberal and conservative scholars in this regard can be illustrated by this figure from Michael Svigel.  This also brings together our discussion of history, tradition and revelation.  The unity and orthodoxy model is the traditional story that is told by the Church.  What I am trying to do here.  We see groups move away from orthodoxy, we call them heretics, but there is a faithful remnant 'pressing on to the goal' who we call the orthodox.  This parallels with the Biblical story where we find that it is only a minority that remains faithful. 

In the Diversity and conflict model we see what we now call orthodoxy coming out of the chaos of competing ideas.  This model puts Christianity on the same level as say Hinduism where there are nearly as many ideas and sects as there are Pundits, Gurus and Swamis, yet to the western mind they are all Hinduism.  In this model there are many proto-Christian groups and ideas from which our modern notion of Christianity came.  At the root, the main difference between the models is whether Jesus' resurrection was a literal historical event. 

Much has been written lately defending the traditional view with Lee Strobel being the most approachable.  However, working strictly from what most Christians would call general revelation (sources other than the Biblical record and Church tradition) Richard Swinbourne tells us:

... I always emphasized that to show these Christian Doctrines to be more probable than not we require some evidence (though not an enormous amount of evidence) of a detailed historical kind to support the claim that Jesus of Nazareth led a certain sort of life, gave certain teaching, died on the cross, and rose bodily from the dead on the first Easter Day.  (Swinbourne p. v)

He then goes on for some 200 pages of logical argument with, as he says, only a small amount of evidence, but from outside of the Christian tradition, Swinbourne concludes that the resurrection of Jesus is more probable than not.  Again we see that Christianity is tied to history in a way most other religions are not irrespective of what most modern academics would say. 

In the book of Hebrews we see that:

 1 In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. (Hebrews 1.1-3a)

We see that Christianity is also tied to the revelation that God has provided and Jesus is the culmination of that revelation.  And yes, there is a long tradition of people believing both the history and the revelation.  There is also a long history of people who have doubted and denied God and His revelation.  Even in the Apostolic era we find:

They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. (1 John 2:19)

There is also a history of people who have put the traditions of men above the revelation of God.  Jesus tells the Pharisees: "...You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” (Mark 7.8)

For the confused the confusion is indeed old but there is no real excuse for it. 

19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Romans 1.19, 20)

It seems that we are stuck with the three pillars of tradition, scripture and history.  Tradition reinforces what is revealed in scripture and history is witnesses to it all. 


* Church Dogmatics IV.1, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2004. cited on 12/30/10