Posts Tagged Christianity

Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not

The beginning of the first century AD saw the rapid rise of the Roman Imperial Cult. This religious cult was based upon the proclaimed divinity of Augustus Caesar (c.62 BC – 14 AD / Reigned 31 BC – 14 AD) and subsequent Roman Emperors. This Imperial Cult was a unifying political and religious factor across the whole Roman Empire in the first century. The emergence of the Imperial Cult preceded, but also developed with, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The earliest written Christian records we have are the Letters of St. Paul from the mid-first century. A good summary of the theme of his gospel message is contained in the Letter to the Romans Chapter 1, Verses 3 &4: “…concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead…”.

In the opinion of British theologian N.T. Wright, “Despite the way Protestantism has used the phrase (making it denote, as it never does in Paul, the doctrine of justification by faith), for Paul “the gospel” is the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Lord.”

Wright goes on to explain that Paul’s euangelion, his gospel (Good News) message, was every bit as much a confrontational and subversive political proclamation as it was a religious one: “Paul was announcing that Jesus was the true King of Israel and hence the true Lord of the world, at exactly the time in history, and over exactly the geographical spread, where the Roman emperor was being proclaimed, in what styled itself a “gospel”, in very similar terms.”

Later, Wright applies Paul’s gospel message to his [Paul’s] vision for the ekklesia, the church. His basis for this comes from Chapter 3 of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Wright tells us: “We may begin with 3.20.  “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await the Saviour, the Lord Jesus, the Messiah”. These are Caesar-titles. The whole verse says: Jesus is Lord, and Caesar isn’t. Caesar’s empire, of which Philippi is a colonial outpost, is the parody; Jesus’ empire, of which the Philippian church is a colonial outpost, is the reality.”

Wright goes on to discuss the implications of Paul’s vision of this empire of Jesus: “if Paul’s answer to Caesar’s empire is the empire of Jesus, what does that say about this new empire, living under the rule of its new lord? It implies a high and strong ecclesiology, in which the scattered and often muddled cells of women, men and children loyal to Jesus as Lord form colonial outposts of the empire that is to be: subversive little groups when seen from Caesar’s point of view, but when seen Jewishly an advance foretaste of the time when the earth shall be filled with the glory of the God of Abraham and the nations will join Israel in singing God’s praises.”

Paul’s vision for this ekklesia, as subversive colonial outposts of the coming empire of Jesus, could not be realized after a series of events in the fourth century.  In AD 313 Constantine the Great issued the Edict of Milan, a proclamation of religious tolerance that officially ended the persecution of Christians.  The Christian Church greatly increased in power and influence in the fourth century under Imperial patronage.  The Church quickly became fully integrated into the political and cultural fabric of the Roman Empire, culminating with The Edict of Thessalonica, also known as Cunctos populos, issued on 27 Feb 380, by Roman Emperor Theodosius I.  This edict ordered all subjects of the Roman Empire to profess the faith of the bishops of Rome and Alexandria. The edict officially made Nicene Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.

And the Church has been “sleeping with the enemy”, the world’s domination systems and institutions, for the entire 1,700 years since.  This is Christendom.  This is not the vision of the ekklesia of the Apostle Paul.

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Why is Theology Important?

What is our theology?  Is it based on a world-view that God is good and the universe is good?  Is God ambivalent, aloof and un-involved in a neutral, Newtonian physics-driven universe? Is God angry and vengeful over our sin, waiting to throw us into the pit of hell in a threatening, violent universe?

 Does our theology promote a search for spiritual understanding? Or does our theology seek security and certainty in dualistic yes/no, either/or, right/wrong answers to spiritual questions?

 Is our theology based on a big God who is broad, expansive, and inclusive in dealing with man?  Or is God small, exclusive, and tribal, belonging to this group (e.g., Jews) or that (e.g., Baptists), with everybody else on the outside looking in?

 Is our theology built from a viewpoint of God’s relationship with man (as experienced and recorded in Scripture and Tradition)?  Or is it based on man’s rational concepts of God based on Scripture and philosophical speculation?

 These are the types of questions theology asks and this is why theology is important.  It is the foundation of how we experience and relate to God and the universe.  It is the reason that God gave each human being a fully functioning nous (mind, intuitive conscience, spiritual intellect) to discover and use. 

Theology is important because it ain’t necessarily so just because grandpa or somebody behind a pulpit said it’s so.

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Christian Traditions: Western Latin and Eastern Orthodox

I speak alot about the two different Christian Traditions: The Western Latin tradition and the Eastern Orthodox tradition.  I thought I might devote a post to explaining what these are, so that I don’t confuse anybody into thinking that the former is some New Age philosophy or the latter is some Eastern Oriental religion (e.g., Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism).  The Western Latin tradition and Eastern Orthodox tradition come from the same root: Pentecost ca. AD 33.  The early Christian Church was united and had five traditional centers or co-equal Patriarchies; Jerusalem, Alexandria (Egypt), Antioch (Syria), Constantinople (Byzantium), and Rome (Rome laid claim as “first among equals”).   So, there was really one Christian Church for more than 1,000 years, half of its history.

The Church split into two parts in the Great Schism of 1054; the Western Latin Church controlled by Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Church loosely led by Constantinople (with Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria).  Because the Western Church used Latin as its liturgical language and the Eastern Church used Greek, the two traditions are sometimes still referred to as the Latin and Greek churches, respectively.

A little on the Great Schism:  The Western Latin Church started to develop its own theology under the influence of St. Augustine of Hippo (in North Africa) at the beginning of the 5th century, just as the Western Roman Empire fell to the Visigoths (AD 410) and, later, to the Franks and Lombards.  Remember, the Eastern Roman Empire, centered in Constantinople, did not fall for another 1,000 years (1453).  The Western Latin Church and its Roman Papacy were significantly influenced by the occupying Germanic tribes who enthusiastically embraced Augustinian theology.  That drove a wedge in the Church, as the Eastern Orthodox never took Augustine’s theology very seriously.  Turn the clock forward through 500 years of political and theological acrimony and disagreement and you have the Great Schism of 1054.

So, when I use the term Western Latin Christianity or tradition, I mean the Roman Catholic Church and later spin-off (1500’s) Protestantism (geographically roughly Western/Northern Europe and North America).

When I use the term Eastern Orthodox Christianity or tradition, I mean the Eastern Christian church, officially called the Orthodox Catholic Church (geographically roughly Eastern Europe/Russia, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Middle East).  These are the churches of St. Paul.

It’s important to keep in mind that for more than half its history, the Christian Church was one and undivided.  We in the Western Latin tradtion tend to forget or overlook this fact.

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The Church: Structure and Authority vs. Freedom and Personal Experience

People often speak of the tension between what some call the Priestly vs. Prophetic strains of religion.  This is where the priestly class controls the “temple worship”; Scripture, material, structures, creeds, laws, liturgy, and ritual.  This is opposed to the prophetic strain which, in the words of Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, “was working for social justice, making a difference, solving problems, fixing the world, and bringing about the Kingdom of God.”  I understand this concept of Priestly vs. Prophetic on a broad intellectual level, but how does this apply to the Christian Church?  And more specifically, to the Christian Church at the beginning of the 21st century?

I think Fr. John Meyendorff, Orthodox theologian, captures the essence of the problem in the Christian Church both historically and currently.  In discussing the Orthodox theology of the Holy Spirit, he observes:

“Thus, the theology of the Holy Spirit implies a crucial polarity, which concerns the nature of the Christian faith itself.  Pentecost saw the birth of the Church – a community, which will acquire structures, and will pre-suppose continuity and authority – and was an outpouring of spiritual gifts, liberating man from servitude, giving him freedom and personal experience of God.  Byzantine Christianity will remain aware of an unavoidable tension between these two aspects of faith: faith as doctrinal continuity and authority, and faith as the personal experience of saints.  It will generally understand that an exaggersted emphasis on one aspect or the other destroys the very meaning of the Christian Gospel.”

“The life of the Church, because it is created by the Spirit, cannot be reduced to either the “institution” or the “event”, to either authority or freedom.  It is a “new” community created by the Spirit in Christ, where true freedom is recovered in the spiritual communion of the Body of Christ.”

So, I object to the use of the Priestly vs. Prophetic model for understanding the Christian Church on the grounds that it tends to obscure the real issue.  The real issue is “Structure and Authority vs. Freedom and Personal Experience”.

So, what is the state of the contemporary American Christian Church?  I think that it can pretty well be summed up with a 2009 Barna Group poll of self-proclaimed American Christians.  This poll disclosed that most American Christians do not believe that the Holy Spirit is a living force. Overall, 38% strongly agreed and 20% agreed somewhat that the Holy Spirit is “a symbol of God’s power or presence but is not a living entity.”  The mere fact that nearly 60% of avowed American Christians do not believe that the Holy Spirit is a living force speaks volumes about the state of the contemporary institutional Christian Church, Roman Catholic and Protestant alike.  Clearly, the “Structure and Authority” people “own” the contemporary American Christian Church, as they have convinced 60% of Christians that the Holy Spirit doesn’t exist as a living force. This precludes the possibility of exercising the personal freedom to experience a close personal relationship with the Holy Spirit!  You can’t experience a relationship with a dead person.  This is tantamount to the Church teaching its members that “God is dead”! Long live the Church…

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God as a Remote Roman Magistrate Dispensing ‘Iustitia’ to Mankind

The real defect in Anselm’s doctrine of atonement is that he built upon the action or the fears of a diseased and guilty conscience in its sense of alienation from God, instead of the pure and free consciousness of Him who is the type of the normal man…

Alexander V.G. Allen, 1884

By building their theology backwards, with man in relation to God, the Western church also developed, not surprisingly, an anthropomorphized concept of God (i.e., attributed human characteristics to God).  God becomes a distant (read “transcendent”) Imperial Roman Magistrate administering iustitia, the secular Roman idea of jurisprudence, on his subjects (man).  Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 220 AD) was, among other things, a Carthaginian lawyer.  He set in motion this hierarchical, magisterial, forensic, Roman view of religion.  This concept was further refined later by his fellow Carthaginians Cyprian, and St. Augustine, whom we just met.  Ultimately, St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) pushed this idea to its absurd limits in the Middle Ages.  Anselm’s vision of God resembled a kind of remote, magisterial medieval lord (God) whose offended dignity could only be satisfied by the substitutionary death of his own son (Jesus) in atonement for his subjects’ (man’s) disobedience.  This doctrine even has a Latin church name: satisfactio activa vicaria.[1]

Given the above discussion, it is clear that many of our Western Christian doctrines such as “election” and “exclusivism” (‘extra ecclesiam nulla salus’)[2] are Afterthoughts of man and not good theology.

Excerpt from the book “First Thoughts“.

[1] See Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man)

[2] Latin: ‘Outside the Church there is no Salvation’

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Augustine’s Mistake: Backward Theology

“Jewish thinkers concur with Pelagius’s position that no human being is tainted by the sins of Adam—but only by his own sinful deeds.”

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Either God is all-goodness, but not all-mighty, or He is all-mighty, but not all-goodness.

Starting with Man and working backward in relation to God is exactly what happened in Western theology in the 3rd to 5th centuries.  In his defensive apologetic zeal to discredit the optimistic British monk Pelagius for claiming that man maintained moral free will after the Fall and for rejection of the doctrine of Original Sin, St. Augustine walked right down the misguided path described in the preceding post. And the Western church, which includes Roman Catholics and Evangelical and Reformed Protestants, has been flailing around with this unsolvable problem, in italics above, for over 1,500 years and are no closer to an answer today than they were when they first made the mistake.  Rather than re-think their theology, the Western church hardened its position into dogma and so it continues to struggle with the problem to this day.  To discuss these Afterthoughts of man with some related additions including sin, heaven and hell, purgatory, faith and sacraments, would be to survey the history of Augustinianism through its various historical phases.

Excerpt from the book “First Thoughts“.

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