28 February 2011

Ecclesiology #4- A Theology of Means part 4

With regard to this whole concept of Means.....

What about the Proto-Protestants? What about the Church Fathers?

For me all of this came together at the same time. I remember reading the Church Fathers early on and being very frustrated.

For those unfamiliar with the Church Fathers, I'm talking about the Didache, the Epistle to Diognetus, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and others.

They're writings are certainly not canonical and already you can see certain errors beginning to manifest themselves early on. Some of the errors like the growth and development of the Episcopate stemmed largely from pragmatism rather than a deliberate attempt to change the Church Polity set forth in Scripture.

In fact practical concerns drove many of the errors. You had false teachers running around claiming an Apostolic authority and pedigree. While the New Testament writings are clearly treated as Scripture in the writings of the Church Fathers, the practical emphasis turned away from Scripture and instead focused on the teacher's credentials. It was important to say, 'I'm Irenaeus who was taught by Polycarp, who in turn sat under the Apostle John."

This became the focus. The Scriptures could be twisted, the pedigree could not. The Authority-focus began to change. So early on in the 2nd century the Church even amid the fires of persecution was laying a bad foundation. When full-blown accomodationalism came into play in the Constantinian era the Church no longer had the tools to combat it. Syncretism, the mixing of other religious ideas and practices with Christianity became the norm for the authority no longer rested on the Apostolic Writings, but in the so-called and misnamed Apostolic Tradition.

Some would argue the Tradition doesn't have to be perfect. The Church was and is permitted to change and modify things, develop its own ways of explaining doctrines and worshipping God...

Some would argue the Tradition was inspired and meant to be set alongside Scripture....

If either of those arguments are true, then don't listen to anything I have to say.

If the Scriptures are the only Authority, then we can see where the Church made some really bad turns early on, and the battle for the Truth is the story of Church History. We can learn from it, even when the error was great.
So the Church Fathers are not to be treated as an authority, but they are very interesting and informative.

The modern Evangelical finds the Church Fathers to be quite foreign in spirit and sentiment. Its like stepping into a strange and unfamiliar world and this has always proved a persuasive argument employed by Catholic apologists. The famous Anglican turned Roman Catholic John Henry Newman said he felt like he had come home, that now as a Roman Catholic all the Fathers and church history now belonged to him.

Newman of course wasn't a Christian, but I can appreciate something of what he says and undoubtedly modern Protestants with their Sacalist and Constantinian urges share his sentiments. They want to claim the past for their own. They want to look to the Middle Ages with fondness. They want to be part of the Tradition that brought the cathedrals and universities and some even want to remember with fondness events like the Crusades.

Of course many Roman Catholics have always been proud to extol their heritage. Rick Santorum a Roman Catholic ex-Senator and 2012 Presidential hopeful recently praised the Crusades. He's looked upon favourably by many within the Evangelical community. He's been on James Dobson's Focus on the Family more than once and without hesitation they will pray with him. He's an ally and a brother. Very strange though, for the hosts of that show as well as the recently fired Dobson would find themselves fish out of water trying to read the Church Fathers.

I don't want to claim the Fathers, but I will say this. Their understanding of Baptism and the Church....the Forms as I keep calling them....is quite different from the common Evangelical framework.

Interestingly though Rome would appeal to them...they're not quite Roman either. They're very clearly neither Roman or Protestant, and I can say that without clearly saying what they were... for it's not always clear.

But I do find that with a Theology of Means I can go back and read the Fathers and I don't have to flinch at some of the things they say. When Baptism is tied to salvation and yet a clear and hearty evangelicalism is professed, I'm not left scratching my head. It's not that they were speaking out of both sides of their mouth. Rather it's a rich dynamic at work that many throughout history have seen but have struggled as I do to explain it.

I'm not trying to echo the fathers but I'm suggesting they strike me as neither Roman Catholic nor Baptistic but at the same time a little something of both, which is not unsimilar to the theological ideas I'm trying to express.

Rome is a false church. I wouldn't say that in regard to the Baptists....not at all. Because the Baptists focusing on the substance can maintain something of the gospel even if their understanding of Biblical doctrine ends up being something of a reductionism.

Rome focusing only on form and building on a different authority base ends up becoming an entirely different religion but buried among the muck and filth of their traditions there are still a few truths, some gems. Lutheranism and Anglicanism dug out those gems and cleaned them up a bit but they're still pretty dirty.

Lest you continue rolling your eyes at my strange illustrations I turn to the Proto-Protestant groups. There's no consensus here for these groups functioned as cells or congregations. They did not have a central structure or ecclesiastical polity which allowed them to formulate specific creedal statements and so forth. This is a good thing to my mind.

Nevertheless with the scant evidence we have from the writings of some of them, the records of those who wrote of them, and the Inquisitors who tormented them we find a variety of doctrinal expressions.

Some were definitely Baptistic in flavour. The Petrobrussians in France were Baptistic without being Baptist in the modern sense.

The Anabaptists who appeared in the early 1500's were definitely Baptistic in their understanding of Christianity, though the early Anabaptists were not as much so. Primarily they were rejecting Baptism in a Constantinian context. Persecution led them to refine their theology and become more steadfast in their Credo convictions.

For those unfamiliar with the terms...
Credobaptism (as in Creed, Creedo) is believer's baptism. Paedobaptism (as in Paediatrics) refers to Infant Baptism.

The Anabaptists were influenced by and no doubt numerically enhanced by the Protoprotestant tradition. It's very likely some of the earliest members came out of the Waldensian tradition.

The Hussites were not Baptists. The more moderate Utraquists wanted Scriptural reform but were not completely rejecting the Roman system as a whole. The violent Taborites were Biblicists but mixed this with a fervent Czech nationalism that led to them taking up arms in a very impressive manner. Zizka their general has rightly gone down as one of the most brilliant in history. It doesn't mean their cause was right, but Zizka was brilliant.

This will make many very uncomfortable but the Roman Church practiced Paedocommunion (Infant Communion) up until the formalizing of Transubstantiation. It had become less common by the 11th century or so but was still practiced up until the 13th century. Its decline was recent enough that the Hussite Utraquists took up the cause and argued for it and in fact reinstated it for a time.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches have never abandoned it and continue it to this day.

Baptists would argue it was a tradition added to the Church. If this is the case it came very early for we have clear record of it in the 3rd century with no voice of dissent. Tertullian in the 2nd century protests paedobaptism but not for Baptist reasons. He argues against it because of the dangers of committing a 'mortal' sin post-baptism. That's quite a different position.

Aside from the Utraquists and Taborites there were other dissenters in Bohemia and Moravia, other groups with no specific name.  Petr Chelcicky had followers and these later blended with Utraquists and ex-Taborites to become the Unitas Fratrum, the Unity of the Brethren. This group maintained it's separate identity through the Reformation and after the Thirty Years War morphed into the group that became known as the Moravians.

The Unitas were not Baptists. Chelcicky and others among them had a definite understanding of Means Theology and they practised Infant Baptism.

The Lollards in England were something of a mix. Some did seem to express something along the lines of a Baptist position, though many did not and wrestled with the validity of the Roman Church. The Lollards eagerly joined the Protestant Reformation but you don't really see Baptists in England until the 1600's and even men like the famous John Bunyan weren't as Baptist as many think. He baptized several of his children, and not all early on. He obviously struggled with the issue until late in life.

Often these pre-Reformation groups wrestled with whether to live as dissenters or establish parallel underground churches with their own signs and forms. There are examples of this being done as well as examples of people meeting at night in secret with the dissenters but still attending the Roman Mass.

People were confused then just as our situation today is very confusing.

I think where some get confused with statements made from Lollards and Waldensians is you'll find quotes that sound completely evangelical and clearly reject the Papal authority...and so it is then assumed by Baptists that they too were Baptists.

But it's simply not the case. Some were Baptistic by conviction but the majority baptized their children, in some cases must have communed their children, and certainly had efficacious view of the Signs, all the while trusting in the fact that salvation was from God alone and the Roman gospel was a false one.

You will not find this Means Theology clearly spelled out in the fragments of writings that we have, but I contend it is an explanation of why and how someone can seemingly hold to a strong Evangelical-Gospel conviction while also maintaining Sacramental Efficacy.

I can believe in Election and Justification by Faith Alone because the Bible teaches them but I can also call Baptism the Washing of Regeneration and say that it saves. These are Biblical expressions that we don't need to fear. I can call the Supper the Bread of Life and the Cup of Blessing, or to put blessing in stronger terms...the Cup of Salvation.

I grew up a Baptist and it is a hard thing to set aside those lenses. You feel like you're flirting with Rome. I reject Rome as a false church, a corruption, a whore, but I don't need to force my Bible into a grid which seems to be more than anything commited to being anti-Rome, a reductionistic system based on logical deduction rather than the full scope of Divine Revelation.

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