Monday, August 31, 2009

The Christian Church and the Islamist Threat

[Note: In the following I will use the term “orthodox,” (lower case) in its dictionary definition: “following or conforming to the traditional or generally accepted rules or beliefs of a religion.” I will also mention “Orthodox” (upper case) to mean the Eastern variations of Christianity.]

Phillip Hefner (in Faith and the Vitalities of History) quotes F. C. Baur to the effect that when the early church declared Gnosticism and Montanism heresies, it was in effect countering “Christian” positions that could end the “progress of the Church.”

On page 19 Hefner writes “Gnosticism posed the danger for Christianity of dissolving its specific historical character into the thin element of a general transcendental view of the world. It played up to that aspect of catholicity which sought to rise above everything particular and merge it into the universality of the Christian principle . . .”

On the other hand “Montanism threatened the complementary danger of particularism. Millenarianism, coupled with ecstatic prophecy and rigoristic morality characterized its reactionary effort to re-implement primitive Christian views. If its emphases were carried out consistently, particularism would reach its culmination in complete withdrawal from society. Further development in Christianity would be precluded.”

Catholicism in opposition to Gnosticism emphasized “the positive historical elements of Christianity.” Against Montanism it planted “itself firmly in the world and [developed] as broadly as was necessary for its healthy survival.

I have often puzzled over the early Christian heresies, especially over why their dangers aren’t emphasized today. Some particular heresy, I read, almost destroyed the church, but few outside of seminary have heard of it today and no one considers it a modern danger. Why is that?

The Catholic Church countered Gnosticism and Montanism, with authority and dogma. No teaching could be considered authoritative, it declared, unless it descended in an unbroken line from the Apostolic father Peter, to whom Christ gave the Keys to the Kingdom. Also the “new” teachings of the Gnostics and Montanists were discredited by virtue of their non-Apostolic dogma.

Gnosticism and Montanism are still with us. The Gnostics are, perhaps, more easily marginalized in that they have embraced or at least not distanced themselves from a variety of “spiritualist” teachings.

The Montanists have resurfaced as Pentecostals and Charismatics, but they have to some extent learned the lesson of Montanus and not hinged their validity on some particular date for Christ’s return. But a typical description of Montanism would sound familiar to any modern-day Pentecostal or Charismatic: “First, a strong faith in the Holy Spirit as the promised Paraclete, present as a heavenly power in the Church of the day; secondly, specially a belief that the Holy Spirit was manifesting Himself supernaturally at that day through entranced prophets and prophetesses; and thirdly, an inculcation of a specially stern and exacting standard of Christian morality and discipline. . . To these must be added a tendency to set up prophets against bishops and an intense expectation of the imminent return or our Lord.” [from Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, 1960]


What I am interested in here is that the Church declared Montanism and Gnosticism heresies to some extent for the mundane reason that their teachings inhibited the continuation of the Christian Church. The Gnostics escaped into an esoteric exclusivism and were not interested in mundane concerns. Montansts expecting the imminent return of Christ did not believe in the long-term existence of the Church. So our Church Fathers created creeds and that spelled out what was orthodox (the Catholic Church) and what was not (Montanism and Gnosticism).

As time went on, and new heresies surfaced, new creeds were created to counter them. But perhaps the Church did not look closely enough at the “mundane” reason for their creeds, the continuation of the Church in the world. There was always the tendency to freeze a creed in time and resist the movement of the world beyond it. Do the early creeds seem strange? That is because the threats they sought to counter are no longer threats. Here the Church is continuously remiss, new threats regularly arise.

Consider the Reformation: why did it occur? It occurred because the Catholic Church had not only frozen itself in an earlier period, but had become degenerate in its confidence and practice. So we had a Reformation. The Catholic Church fixed its problems, but it was too late. Now Lutherans and Calvinists were in existence. These latter two couldn’t trace their roots back to Peter’s authority, but they no longer found that necessary (and neither did the “Orthodox” Eastern Christians). Their emphasis was upon dogma. During the Reformation the Catholic Church didn’t have dogmatists to match Luther and Calvin.

But look at what has happened in the Calvinist tradition, for example. We have several 16th century “confessions.” And in the Presbyterian line, we have “The Westminster Confession” in 1647. Since then, the various “denominations” have created their own variations of these confessions, but in all these the “mundane” has been lost sight of. To be “orthodox” one needs to adhere back to a confession or creed. “Modernism” or “new ideas” are almost by definition heretical.

And here we see this weakness in the Modern Christian Church, whether it is Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic or any of the Protestant denominations: It no longer knows how to “progress” in the modern world. I will grant that many theologians have seen the need for adjusting in some way to the modern world, but how is it to be done? Some have decided to “compromise.” But that offends those who believe the Church should be “in the world but not of it.” Those who “compromise” are too much “of it.”

But attempting to recast the Gospel message in modern terms without compromise is also a risk. It is at risk first from those “simple folk” who love the old translations, old interpretations and old creeds. Anything “new” is to them anathema. But it is also at risk from more serious “orthodox” theologians who find fault with new theology. These serious “orthodox” theologians aren’t willing to launch out into their own newness so in effect they aren’t willing to go beyond the “simple folk.”

And yet a Christian “newness” is demanded by these modern times. Where is the Christian counter to the Islamist Threat? In Europe and in the Christian East, Islamists are making inroads because what they preach is new and dynamic. The Christian message can be newer and more dynamic but it will take courage. Whoever does it will risk being denigrated by those who would rather hark back to the earlier times. They would rather live in the past than confront the present.

Perhaps the Bush initiative has set back the time-table of the Islamists, but they have not given up. They have no large armies; so they cannot confront the larger military powers directly, but there was a time during the Roman Empire that could have been said about the Christian Church as well. And there was a later time when the Christian Church could be seen as victorious. Today, harking back to an “authority” that can be traced back to Peter and a “dogma” that can be traced back to the Apostolic Fathers is not adequate. By that I mean, what do the Islamists care about such matters? Are they threatened or offended the way the Gnostics or Montanists would have been? Of course not.

So what does the Christian Church, whether Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant have to threaten Islamism? Yes, yes, the Gospel message, but how do you tell that anew so that those being tempted by Islamism can see Christianity as a viable alternative?

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