Gordon-Conwell Blog

A Tale of Three Battles | Faculty Blogger

May 01, 2014

Donald Fairbairn

Dr. Fairbairn authors a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here; Part 12 here; Part 13 here; Part 14 here; Part 15 here.

It is often said—correctly—that the Battle of Tours in 732 changed the course of history. It took place exactly a century after Muhammad’s death, during the great wave of Arab expansion that re-drew the political and religious map of the world. Arab Muslim forces crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain and then over the Pyrenees into France. Had they been able to continue their advance, they would likely have overrun all of Europe, but they were defeated by Merovingian forces from northern Europe under the command of Charles Martel and forced back into Spain. Charles Martel’s grandson Charlemagne would go on to solidify his control over the region and start a great renaissance of learning in the ninth century, and Western Europe would begin its slow rise to world prominence.

As we tell that familiar story, we often forget that another, equally fateful battle took place at about the same time. In 717–18 in Constantinople, Byzantine Emperor Leo III and his forces narrowly defeated Arab invaders, forcing them back into what is today Turkey. The close call led to an enormous amount of social and theological soul-searching in Byzantium (among other things, the Iconoclastic Controversy arose out of the ideological battle with the Muslims), but it would be more than seven centuries before Muslims (Turks, not Arabs) would conquer Constantinople in 1453. The siege of Constantinople in 717–18 could easily lay claim to having “saved” Europe just as much as the Battle of Tours fifteen years later.

But not long after the Arabs failed to take Europe from either the West or the East, a third, far greater clash took place halfway around the known world. For we need to remember that the two great powers in the world in the eighth century were the Arabs and the Chinese, and the Arabs were much more interested in expanding eastward along the Silk Road than westward or northward. (In fact, it is likely that part of the reason they failed to take Europe was because they devoted much more energy to taking Asia.) After the resolution of an internal conflict brought unity to the Arab forces, they squared off with the Tang Chinese army in 751 at the Battle of Talas, in what is today Kirghizstan. The Arabs were victorious, and China began its slow decline from world power to isolationist kingdom. The Arabs solidified their hold on most of Central Asia, and the region became solidly Muslim.

These THREE almost contemporary battles—not just the one we Westerners are familiar with—changed the course of history. But what about CHURCH history? The picture is varied and complicated, but it may not be too much of an over-simplification to say that the churches in most parts of the world at that time were too closely tied to the local kingdoms. In Western Europe, the church rode the coattails of the victorious Merovingian kingdom to increase its stature and prominence. At the same time, it is surely fair to say that the church adopted too many of the traits of the worldly kingdom, leading to an increasingly militant form of Christianity that would ultimately produce the Crusades. In China (yes, there WAS a church in China then), the church was equally tied to the local kingdom and suffered greatly as the kingdom became more isolationist and xenophobic in the ninth and tenth centuries. By the year 1000, Christianity had disappeared from China.

In between Europe and China, though, something different began to happen. In the Middle East and Egypt, the churches learned to adapt to a lack of power, to a second-class status in society, and for the most part, those churches have endured and maintained their witness during the long centuries of Islamic governmental control. They suffered through the vicious Islamic backlash against Christians in response to the Crusades and the even more vicious Islamic purges of the 20th and 21st centuries. Those churches have accumulated many problems in their checkered history, and they are far from perfect. But they have also learned something about what it means to bear witness to the gospel through suffering. As Christians in the West face the reality of our declining influence on an increasingly post-Christian society, perhaps we will find that the churches that have stood their ground in hostile territory for over a millennium have something to teach us today. 

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.

 

 

 

 

Tags: Author: Donald Fairbairn , current students , faculty blogger

Add comment

COMMENTS

No comments yet. Be the first!

Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 15

April 08, 2014

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 11 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here; Part 12 here; Part 13 here; Part 14 here.

It is often claimed that “history is written by the victors,” that those who won the battles (whether military, political, or theological) got to dictate the way those battles were described subsequently. And it is certainly true that the story of the great theological battles over Christian orthodoxy in the early centuries of the Church have—for most of Christian history—been described from the point of view of the belief that came to predominate.

Accordingly, more recent scholars have argued that we need to look at the same controversies without prejudice toward the “losers,” and over the last 200 years a new history of the great theological controversies has been written from perspectives sympathetic to the poor “heretics” who had been maligned by earlier historians. These heretics, the new history alleges, were not actually “wrong.” They were just on the wrong side of the political power plays that dominated the early church. Their only crime was that they lost the war, and they were painted falsely by the victors as malevolent souls intent on destroying the church.

In some ways, the new history does give us a more complete view of the past. It tends to focus on political and social issues more than theological ones, and as such it reminds us that there is always more than theology going on in theological controversies. The new history also reminds us that the victors—the “orthodox”—sometimes twisted the words of the “heretics” or took them out of context to make the losers seem worse than they were. Even more important, the new history reminds us correctly that the heretics did not SET OUT to destroy the faith. No serious Christian tries to ruin the church on purpose.

At the same time, the new history is beset with serious problems of its own, problems that are rarely acknowledged. First and most important, this new history is ALSO being written by the victors. If the traditional history was written by the ANCIENT victors, this new one is being written by TODAY’S victors—the scholars who represent the assumptions and perspectives that are in the ascendancy today. Those assumptions are generally naturalistic (discounting the action of God in history and understanding all events solely in terms of human actions) and relativistic (discounting the notion that there is such a thing as “truth,” and therefore discounting the church’s long-standing insistence that it MATTERED whether, for example, Jesus was fully divine as Athanasius said, or semi-divine as Arius implied).

Put simply, the view that is “winning” today has no place for theological truth at all, and so it sees “Christian orthodoxy” as an arbitrary construct developed for political reasons and imposed on the church by force. This view is scarcely able even to conceive of a world in which people’s salvation actually depends on whether Christ is like this instead of like that. Scholars who hold to this new relativistic view see nothing earth shattering about the great debates of the church, so they assume that Christian leaders were just being mean when they suppressed the writings of those who disagreed with them.

Another serious problem with this new view of history is that it purports to be objective. Scholars consistently give the impression that by treating the “heretics” sympathetically, they are removing the biases of the ancient victors who dictated the first writing of history. But rarely do those scholars acknowledge that in the process of doing that, they are also introducing biases equally great. To assume that it matters not at all whether Jesus is fully God or semi-divine is CERTAINLY NOT to be objective. Rather, it is to make an extreme value judgment, exactly the opposite of the value judgment the early church made when it declared that it makes all the difference to people’s eternal salvation whether Jesus is fully God or less than God. Indeed, NO ONE in the early church—least of all Arius himself—would have agreed with the judgment that it makes no difference whether Jesus was like this or like that. The new history calls itself objective, yet at the most basic level it carries an assumption with which no one at the time—and indeed no real Christian at any time period—could agree. It is a sad kind of logic indeed that enables one to operate from a fundamentally ANTI-Christian perspective while still claiming to be unbiased and objective.

“History is written by the victors.” True enough, but history is also RE-written by TODAY’S victors. And those of us who think the great truths of theology actually matter—indeed that the salvation of the world hinges on them—need to be very careful about the way we read and utilize the version of history that today’s scholars present to us. 

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.

 

 

 

 

Tags: Author: Donald Fairbairn , current students , faculty blogger , thoughtfully evangelical

Add comment

COMMENTS

No comments yet. Be the first!

Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 14

March 13, 2014

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 11 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here; Part 12 here; Part 13 here.

One of the words that tend to rub contemporary evangelicals the wrong way is “mysticism.” When we hear stories of people who went out to the Egyptian desert in order to fight demons (St. Anthony the Great in the early fourth century), spent decades perched atop pillars in Syria (St. Simeon the Stylite in the fifth century), or spent their lives gazing at their navels while reciting the Jesus prayer (the Hesychasts of Mt. Athos in Greece, in the late first and early second millennium A.D.), we tend to think that the mystics were the class-A kooks of Christian history. And some of the mystics certainly were kooks, although none of the examples just above were actually as odd as we make them out to be.

But according to the definition of the word, a “mystic” is one who is not satisfied with mere association with the church or with knowledge about God, but who instead longs for a deep, direct, intimate experience of God. By that definition, evangelicals are mystics too, or at least we should be, because we of all people should long for direct experience of God. And if some of the practices of the ancient and Medieval mystics in their efforts to grow closer to God seem weird to us, we have to admit that evangelicalism has also produced some strange practices as well, from tent meetings to Azusa Street to the Toronto Blessing. When we assess a phenomenon like mysticism on the basis of whether it is bizarre, we should recognize that bizarre is in the eye of the beholder, and what seems bizarre to us may seem normal to others.

A better way to assess mysticism—in all its expressions—might be to ask the fundamental question of whether mystical practice constitutes an attempt to establish contact with God, or whether it is an attempt to deepen a relationship with God that one has already been given. In my (admittedly subjective) opinion, the best of Christian mysticism follows the latter pattern.

One of the great names in Christian mysticism, and I think one of the best examples of mysticism at its best, is the fourth/fifth century monk John Cassian. He spent over a decade among the Egyptian desert fathers and then founded two monasteries in southern France around the year 410 A.D. Cassian wrote a long work (the Institutes) on monastic practices and a massive work (the Conferences) of alleged conversations between two neophyte monks and various Egyptian monastic fathers. Through these works, Cassian exerted a major influence on Benedict in the sixth century, who in turn shaped all of Medieval Western monasticism.

Cassian’s thought has been variously interpreted, but in my opinion, the foundation of that thought is that we are united to God as a gift through adoption and that our mystical practices constitute an effort to deepen that previously-established salvation. (See chapter 5 of my book Grace and Christology in the Early Church for my explanation of this foundation.) If I am right about this, Cassian presents us with a model for the Christian experience of God that is somewhat similar to that of evangelicalism—God acts first to establish the relationship, but he then calls us to foster that relationship through our spiritual disciplines. Cassian and other mystics like him may thus be valuable resources for us as we seek to know more fully the God who has brought us to himself. 

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.

 

 

 

 

Tags: Author: Donald Fairbairn , current students , faculty blogger , thoughtfully evangelical

Add comment

COMMENTS

No comments yet. Be the first!

Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 13

February 18, 2014

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 11 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here; Part 12 here.

There is a famous passage in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory in which the (unnamed) communist police lieutenant expresses incredulity at the possibility that he might have a soul. The main character, the (also unnamed) “whiskey priest” corrects him, saying, “No, you are a soul; you have a body, temporarily.” With these words, the priest encapsulates what has been a common belief throughout Christian history—the soul is permanent and ultimately all that is important; the body is temporary and inconsequential. Perhaps no mistaken attitude has had more staying power, or been more dangerous to the faith, than this relegation of matter and the body to second-class status. From the second-century Gnostics who denigrated the entire physical world to modern scholars who re-interpret “resurrection” to mean merely the soul’s survival after death, these ideas have had a long history and currency.

It should not surprise us, then, that the task of affirming the importance and redeemability of the body was job one for the early church, and among the church fathers who most insistently argued this point was the North African Tertullian at the end of the second century. He may have overdone it when he famously asserted that even the human soul is corporeal, but be that as it may, his arguments for the importance of the body in the Christian scheme of redemption are worth our attention. Among them are the following: 

  • He points out that in Genesis 2, the man starts out as clay and then becomes a living soul when God breathes into him. The physical component comes first and is indispensable. Human beings are meant to be bodies and souls, not souls that merely possess bodies temporarily (On the Resurrection of the Flesh, par. 5).
  • He argues that as God created man, he had in mind the form that he would give to his Son at the incarnation. The goodness of the body implied in the incarnation is anticipated in the original creation of humanity as bodily (par. 6).
  • He argues that no soul can receive salvation unless it believes while it is in the flesh. Thus, bodily existence is the very condition on which the soul’s salvation hinges (par. 8).
  • If one’s soul were really the only part to be saved (as the Gnostics alleged), then one could not even regard the person as saved. Only half of a person would be saved, and the other half condemned. The Bible could not even speak of the salvation of a human person in that case (par. 34).
  • If Paul’s references to “resurrection” in Acts 17 had meant only the continuation of the soul after death, then the Athenians would hardly have noticed. Their philosophers had been saying that for centuries (par. 39).
  • Paul could not have asked us to present our bodies as living sacrifices (Rom 12) if our bodies were ultimately going to perish, or holy sacrifices if our bodies were soiled beyond redemption, or acceptable and pleasing to God if God had peremptorily condemned the body.


These arguments and others like them remind us just how unique a message the Christian faith offers to the world. History has been full of philosophies that exalted the soul at the expense of the body, and even more full of religions (and non-religions!) that glorified the body to the detriment of the soul. Christianity, the church fathers correctly recognized, is almost alone in affirming that we are meant to be both material and immaterial, that God is concerned about us as whole persons, and indeed that we will spend eternity with him not as disembodied spirits, but as persons on this (reconstituted) earth. These most fundamental of Christian truths have wide-ranging implications for all aspects of life on this planet, yet for much of Christian history, we have obscured them with a popular theology that has exalted the spiritual to the detriment of the physical. We would do well to take a page from Tertullian’s writings and to recognize anew the importance of being in the flesh.

 

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.

 

 

 

 

Tags: Author: Donald Fairbairn , current students , faculty blogger , thoughtfully evangelical

Add comment

COMMENTS

No comments yet. Be the first!

Comparison, Christmas and Crimson | Seminary Student Blogger

December 12, 2013

Melissa Zaldivar

It’s Christmastime—which means that we get to spend time celebrating Advent, attending church services and singing carols. It also means that we dress up in wintery colors and make our way from the chilly weather into warm homes to trim trees and eat together. We don our Christmas sweaters and drink eggnog and Instagram things too much.

There is something spectacular that happens when we enjoy one another’s company over food. We are fed physically, but also relationally. I’ve always adored the idea of dinner parties and the chance to spend the season of Advent with people that I care for.

I arrived in Cambridge right on time, which meant that I was the first one there (fashionably late would have, perhaps, served me better socially in this scenario) and made my way inside. Beautifully and festively decorated, I found it to be something very familiar to me. The house of a host at Christmas.

What was different about this house was that it was the house of my professor who serves as the Minister at The Memorial Church at Harvard University. It was a gathering for the students in the class that I took this semester called, “Peasants and Proletarians: Black Religions and the Social Sciences in the 20th Century.”

As a part of the Boston Theological Institute, Gordon-Conwell students have the opportunity to take classes through other grad schools and seminaries in the Boston area. My friend from Gordon-Conwell and I decided to take one at Harvard Divinity School. While I will admit that much of the allure was the promise of Ivy League education, I soon found that the education I had the chance of experiencing was something new that would change the way that I learn completely.

When other people (especially outside the Gordon-Conwell community) hear that I’m taking a class at Harvard, they assume a few things. First, that I’m unrealistically brilliant; second, that I’m somehow more intellectually worth something for gaining a “legitimate academic experience.”

This view of BTI is harmful because it degrades the seminary and it glorifies one college experience (based, I’m sure, on movies like “Legally Blonde” and “The Social Network”) over another. It divides us into groups of “them” and “us.”

I had that mindset going into this class. I was intimidated and overwhelmed by something different and during the break on my very first day, I called my brother-in-law. A seminary graduate himself, he reassured me as I blurted out, “These people are brilliant! And I don’t know what on earth I am doing here. I know nothing about black sociology and I feel like I can’t do it.”

He lovingly said, “If you are in this class, you can do it.”

He was right. These students, while more well-versed in the topic of the class, were still fellow students. They were still learning and eager to do so. I swallowed my pride and continued on with my class.

It became clear to me that what was keeping me from fully pouring into the BTI experience was a division between academia and humanity. These were students with more intellectual experience than I, but they have parents and histories and passions and dreams and personalities. As weeks went on, we learned to understand one another better and from a different perspective than that of Gordon-Conwell and I believe that it made me a better person. And isn’t that the point of education?

C.S. Lewis once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I realized that I was robbing myself of truly connecting with other pilgrims by acting like I was a Gordon-Conwell student who was sitting in on a class at Harvard Divinity School. Instead, I needed to fully invest myself into being a part of that class as a peer and fellow traveler.

More guests arrived at the house and I felt myself relax a little more with every familiar face that entered into conversation. I asked if I could capture a few images and felt a little mom-ish asking everyone to get together for one group photo, but I am so glad that I did. It reminds me that the people we once knew nothing about can become peers, daresay friends. It reminds me that there is a great deal of unnecessary pressure that we can put on ourselves when we see things through a lens of stereotypes and ignorance. And it reminds me that one a cold night in December, I celebrated the holidays and the pursuit of knowledge in true holiday fashion.

We laughed and we engaged in good conversation and we ate food. We took pictures and we trimmed the tree. And while some of these souls are the most brilliant I may have encountered, the great honor of knowing them does not come from their GPA’s or their aspirations. The honor comes from the realization that we learn best when we learn from one another.

Melissa Zaldivar is an MATH student from California. She loves golf, theology, Jewish holidays, people falling in love, Jonathan Edwards, chocolate chip cookies, her adorable niece and telling stories. When she's not filming and photographing weddings, you can find her reading news articles, watching Parks and Recreation or playing Super Smash Bros.
 

 

 

Tags: Author: Melissa Zaldivar , biblically-grounded , current students , student blogger

Add comment

COMMENTS

No comments yet. Be the first!

Target Practice | Seminary Student Blogger

December 10, 2013

Kate Hightower

We had 25 people at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving. Seventeen of my Kentucky relatives converged on Ocala, Florida, and packed the place with the bustle of the holidays that I know too well. Rich southern drawls echoed the halls of my childhood, guitar jam sessions on the porch, and food for days stretched the extent of the weekend. One night, after a day of the merriment, I was laying in my bed, almost asleep, when my eyes fell on my longbow hanging on the wall beside my bed. My mind started to race with the glisten of fascination that had been lying dormant for so many years. I love archery. Before I went off to college, I spent hours in a hunting shop that housed a full-blown archery range and tore their targets to pieces.

I never hunted anything. For me, the gold was never in the kill, but in the art of the process. Archery always seemed really straightforward to me. But it wasn’t until I really got into it, that I discovered that it’s a pretty complex and takes a boat-load of practice to master. The primal, earthy wonder of it seemed even deeper than that. So the next day, I decided to wake my longbow from its slumber and see if I could put words to it.

My family spends the day after Thanksgiving as far away from the Black Friday melee as humanly possible. We do some fishing. We make sugar cane syrup. The men go hunting. I slipped off on my own for a little while and set up my target. The early morning quiet was a welcome to my ringing ears as the only noise seemed to be far off-voices and the dew’s soft brush against my boots. I laced up my finger guards and set an arrow to the string on my longbow. I pulled back slowly and took aim. I was pleased to feel the muscle memory spill through my arms as I took my first shot. The seductive pang of the string sent the arrow soaring smoothly through the air and thwacked just off center on my target.

I set another arrow and took aim. It was then in the seconds before I’d release the string that I discovered it: the magic of this sport that touched me so deeply.

Balancing your grip on the bow and the pull of the string is a lot to ask of your arms, so taking aim can’t be a long process or you’ll sacrifice the accuracy of the shot. In that moment when the string is back, there are still so many things that could go wrong. One last-second pull on the bow upon release could destroy the aim you worked so hard for. Any subtle motion, or quick glance elsewhere could make you lose your line of sight and send the arrow off course. For success, you must ask your entire body to focus in silence and stillness. There’s an unspeakable vulnerability here, one that, through a few stormy years of my life, shelved something I loved because it asked for just that.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stood in the middle of my life, even at its most chaotic points, and cried out to God with little hope that He’d answer. I almost grew defensive with the idea that I would need to make any steps toward Him. That He could actually bother to ask me to do something in order to get to Him, like read His word or pray. My aim didn’t go any further than the length of my own nose. I wanted God to satisfy what I needed for what I wanted without surrendering myself to Him or His will at all. And since I knew He could do it, I’d get mad when He didn’t. He wasn’t my target. I was my target. And it was pulling me further and further away from Him.

It wasn’t long before He took me down. The next thing I knew, I was flat on my face before His transcendence. That transcendence only furthered by the glory of what it means to have Him as my focus. Because it’s in that moment, when the arrow is set and the string is back, it’s not MY strength or the soundness of MY aim that I’m leaning into.
It’s His. And He never misses.

Kate Hightower is writing to you from the middle of her Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Christian Thought pursuit at Gordon-Conwell—Jacksonville, where she is also a Byington Scholar. She’s an avid Bob Dylan fan, and can always be counted upon for decadent French cooking. And she’s madly in love with her giant, brilliant golden retriever, Stella.

Tags: Author: Kate Hightower , current students , student blogger

Add comment

COMMENTS

No comments yet. Be the first!

Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 12

December 03, 2013

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 11 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here.

Facts don’t normally make for reading that is as interesting as stories, but sometimes facts are the best way to tell a story. Or perhaps, facts are the best way to expose the need to change the way we tell a familiar story. Such is the case with our understanding of the early church. Even though we know that Christianity arose in what is today the Middle East, we tend to think that the early church was primarily a European phenomenon, or at least a phenomenon limited to the Roman Empire. Some pertinent facts (or at least likely facts—there is controversy about some of them) quickly show the problem with that version of the early Christian story:

  • There was a significant Christian presence in Egypt in the first century and in what is today Iraq in the second. In most parts of the “Muslim” Middle East and North Africa, there have been substantial Christian minorities for the entire history of the church, and these Christian populations began to decline only in the last 100 years or so.
  • There was certainly a Christian presence in India by the third century and likely by the first. There has been a continuous Christian presence in India for at least 1700 years.
  • The Roman Empire was probably only the fourth kingdom to espouse Christianity as its official religion. Armenia and Georgia (both in the Transcaucasus between present-day Russia and Turkey) and Aksum (modern Ethiopia) preceded it.
  • The greatest intellectual centers of the early Christian church were Alexandria and Carthage, both located in Africa. It would be well past the year 500 before the cities of Rome and Constantinople would match the intellectual stature of the two African cities.
  • We all hear that the office of the Pope in Rome, called the “Chair of St. Peter,” has been continually occupied since the first century. But the title of the patriarchate of Alexandria is the “Chair of St. Mark,” and that chair has been continually occupied for more than 1900 years as well. The holder of that chair is still called “Pope” in Egypt today.
  • There has been a continuous Christian history in black Africa (in Ethiopia) since the 330s. The modern Ethiopian Tawehedo Church (often mislabeled as “Coptic” by Westerners) is the heir of that history.
  • By the year 500, in the Middle East and Africa, the Bible had already been translated from Greek into Coptic (spoken in Egypt), Ge’etz (spoken in Ethiopia), Syriac (spoken throughout the Middle East), Armenian, Georgian, and Nubian (spoken in southern Egypt and northern Sudan). Translation into Arabic followed in the eighth century. During the same time period, the only translation into a northern European language was the Gothic translation done in the fourth century (by an Arian missionary!), and it would be 1000 years later before the next northern European translations began to appear.
  • Christianity had demonstrably reached China by the end of the eighth century, although it lasted no more than two centuries there before dying out, not to be revived until the modern period.
  • It was at least the ninth century (and some argue as late as the fourteenth) before the majority of Christians were located in Europe. (And today, the majority of Christians are again found outside the Western world.)

Again, there is controversy about some of these “facts,” but with that caveat registered, it is still clear that Christianity has—from the very beginning—been a faith for the whole world. The details of the story of Christianity outside of Europe are largely unknown to us in the West, but that is changing today. As the contemporary Christian world is more and more centered outside the West, the early history of Christianity in Africa and Asia is garnering increasing—and long overdue—attention. Ancient works never before available in “Western” languages are being translated, and the rest of the early Christian story is coming to our notice.

What will our story of the early church look like 50 years from now? Well, many elements familiar to Westerners will be the same, but a whole new dimension to the story will likely become familiar, giving us an ever fuller glimpse of the vastness of what the Lord has done in leading his people through the ages. 

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.

 

 

 

Tags: Author: Donald Fairbairn , current students , faculty blogger , thoughtfully evangelical

Add comment

COMMENTS

Thank you Dr. Fairbairn for this series and the reminder for us not to neglect the early centuries of the church. There needs to be balance to learn from many saints throughout history regardless of when they lived (time of habitation is not what determines importance but intimacy and conformity to Christ). If you ask an Eastern Orthodox if he/she knows about Amy Carmichael, Hudson Taylor, Jim Elliot, there is a good chance they have never heard of these or other "modern" saints, heroes, martyrs. There is much to learn from the ancient faith, we should not neglect our historical treasure but neither should we neglect what the Lord has been doing down through the ages and continues to do today, it goes both ways :)
Arthur Roshkovski 9:53PM 12/11/13

Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 11

October 24, 2013

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 11 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here.

It is well known that for every person who is famously influential in history, there are many more who are influential without being well known at all. Nowhere is this truth more important than in the history of the Christian church, a history that is full of little-known stories of faithful believers who lived hidden lives that were of immense value to the progress of the Kingdom. One impressive example of such an unknown influencer is Macrina, a nun who lived in Cappadocia (central Turkey today) in the fourth century. I sometimes refer to Macrina as “the most influential Christian you’ve never heard of.”

Macrina was the oldest of 10 children born to wealthy, devoutly-Christian parents, Basil (a professor and attorney) and Emmelia. Her father betrothed Macrina at age 12 to a famed orator, but he died very suddenly before they were married. Macrina called the betrothal a marriage and resolved to spend the rest of her life alone and celibate, rather than marry someone else. In order to secure this resolution, she persuaded her mother (who was widowed by this time) to join her in establishing a nunnery that later became the pattern for all of female monasticism in the Greek Church. Macrina also founded a hospital and an organization to care for the poor, funding them with money inherited from her parents. She was so thorough in giving her wealth to the service of others that when she died at age 52, she owned nothing except the tattered garment she was wearing.

As impressive as Macrina’s life was, we might never have known about it except for one other detail. She also possessed an extraordinary combination of immense education and desire to use her knowledge for God’s glory. She dedicated herself to the education of her nine younger brothers and sisters, and two of those excelled so much under her tutelage that they were later sent abroad to obtain first-rate philosophical educations. But Macrina did not simply give her brothers their start. She also popped the bubble of pride that sprang up within them as their education progressed, and she convinced both of them to use their learning for the service of Christ.

Those two brothers are known to history as Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa. Together with their best friend, Gregory the Theologian, they are styled “the great Cappadocians,” and the three were the Greek Church’s most brilliant Trinitarian theologians in the period after the death of Athanasius. They took the mantle of leadership during the tumultuous years at the end of the Trinitarian Controversy, and they were the most influential figures on the Council of Constantinople in 381, at which what we call the Nicene Creed was ratified.

Gregory of Nyssa wrote a moving biography of his sister, in which he described her life-long ambition to be the bride of Christ, to long for him, and to serve his people. Gregory’s account means that Macrina’s life is known to us, and the story reminds us of how important and influential a single life can be. At the same time, we are reminded that there are countless more lives of faithful, ordinary Christians of which recorded history has no trace, lives that are equally valuable in their obscurity, equally worthy of celebration by God’s people. We are also reminded that we never know what the Lord is going to do with our own (usually obscure) ministries. We never know whether that person we disciple will be a new Basil the Great. Perhaps this reminder can encourage us to continue to pursue our callings faithfully, just as Macrina did.

 

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.

 

 

 

Tags: Author: Donald Fairbairn , current students , faculty blogger , future students , thoughtfully evangelical

Add comment

COMMENTS

Thank you for writing on the life of Macrina. I shared about her life last year at a youth camp in Germany at a workshop I gave. I was blessed to "get to know her" at a History of Christianity course with Professors Justo Gonzalez and his wife Ms Gonsalus. Leaders are said to be influencers, and Macrina certainly was one of them. It was also important for me to see how Christians in all phases of their history have found ways out of the status quo to be able to express their love toward God and their neighbor. Though previously I had looked down on monasteries, I learned that this was a way in which Macrina could fulfill her calling. Like the apostle Paul, celibacy and a life of service were complimentary. Thank you and God bless you.
Jude Enxuto 12:57PM 11/07/13

Trusting Jesus With Seminary | Seminary Guest Blogger

October 22, 2013

Josh Kluth

I used to think life transitions were moments that connected the different stages of life. These life stages include the different social statuses that define many: student, single, married, divorced, employee, enlisted, parent, grandparent, retiree, etc. Or life stages could be identified as emotional seasons of difficulty, joy, maturation or loneliness. However we define them, transitions are like bridges that connect the peninsula to the mainland. The point is to get over them and on to “real life.” The older I have gotten, the more difficult it has become to identify a period of transition from the main road. At times, I wonder if we can even identify the main road.

For some, life seems to be a never-ending connection of transitions that we trust are heading somewhere. However, I’m not so convinced there is a point of arrival at having “made it” this side of the New Heavens and New Earth. After all, what does “making it” look like? Retirement? House paid off? White picket fence and the 2.5 healthy (and perfectly polite) kids? Which of these are the main road and which are the isolated transition points? My wife and my journey to Gordon-Conwell has illustrated this for us.

I first heard of Gordon-Conwell as a junior in college from a mentor of mine who was an alumnus. Curious as to what seminary was all about, I sent off an inquiry and received a packet in the mail describing the different programs. Sheer curiosity. That was 10 years ago. I got a job after college, served in ministry, got married, tried to find better jobs, switched careers, etc. In fact, my wife remembers me telling her that I was determined not to pursue a life in full-time ministry. Seminary wasn’t a consideration. And yet, through a long process of being led by the Lord, encouraged by friends, miraculous provisions in finances, scholarship opportunities and Semlink distance classes, we came to Gordon-Conwell. We left our home in the Pacific Northwest and arrived in the dead of winter in January 2013 just in time to be greeted by Hurricane Nemo. And to be honest, the transition hasn’t been all that easy. Moreover, it hasn’t been altogether clear where God is taking us in the future. However, we feel confident that God’s orchestration has led us to this moment.

We aren’t confident of how to distinguish between a life transition and a life stage. But we are confident that Jesus is the Good Shepherd. As pilgrims in this world, we are confident that life itself may continue to produce transitions. As people being conformed constantly to the image of Christ, we are determined to transition well until the day he takes us home to glory. But for the time being, we are here at Gordon-Conwell determined to lean on Jesus. He is the gate, but he is the way. He is not just the beginning point. He is not a life stage and he is not a transition. There is just no getting over him.

Josh and his wife, Tara, are from Washington State. Josh is pursuing an MAR and MATH while Tara works as a hairdresser in Manchester-by-the-Sea. Together, they are most captivated by the story in which God has placed them in this fascinatingly bizarre world that spins across this universe. In the midst of it all, they are stabilized by what Sally Lloyd-Jones describes as “God’s 'Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love' in Jesus" (Jesus Storybook Bible).

Tags: Author: Josh Kluth , current students , equipping leaders for the church and society , future students , guest post

Add comment

COMMENTS

No comments yet. Be the first!

A Prayer to be Learning Ones | Seminary Student Blogger

October 10, 2013

Amy Gannett

We are the learning ones, by Your gracious calling.

Here, we open our minds to be filled with
knowledge and wisdom,
truth and theories,
facts and opinions.

Our ears have been open to the words of the studied, and quickly our tongues begin to turn out phrases, too:

We believe this and not that.
This is true, that is not.

More than that, we are among those who are called to the same task.
And in this community of the learning, we have come to stake the ground:

Calvinists and Armenians,
Baptists and Presbyterians,
Preachers and Professors.

But as we do,
as we read,
and then as we begin to write,

Would You grant us the grace of pause.

Would You keep us from hard lines in gray territory.
Would You keep us from hard hearts in teachable moments.
Would You keep us from dismissing truth by naming it crude, harsh or immodest.

Would You give us the grace to truly be the learning ones,
And to rightly fill out our name.

Even as You fill out Yours, good Teacher.
Let us learn to yield to Your Spirit.

Amen.

Hi, friend. I'm Amy. Mostly, I’m just another twenty-something trying to figure out the stuff of life. I am a nerdy seminary student who loves the smell of old books and early mornings in the library. I am an artist wanabee, a liberal to the conservative and conservative to the liberal, guilty social justice groupie, and a recovering Bible know-it-all with the unreal ability to put my foot in my mouth an astonishing number of times each day. I am a sister to eight of the most hysterical creatures ever created. Good theology, used book stores, and autumn make me giddy. I preach passionately, think deeply, and ask too many questions. I write prayers, poetry and prose. I write about preaching bad and good, gender roles in the Church, the sacraments, stupid things we do on Sunday, politics, and almost everything else that you are not supposed to discuss in polite company. I also blog at oneyellowbird.blogspot.com. Welcome to the journey.

 

Tags: Author: Amy Gilbaugh , current students , future students , spiritually vital , student blogger

Add comment

COMMENTS

No comments yet. Be the first!

An Actor’s Faith: What Are You Really Working Toward? | Seminary Student Blogger

October 03, 2013

Tim Norton

Dear Fellow Seminarian,

Why are you at seminary? What is your objective? Are you acting like it or do your actions suggest a different priority? Let me explain.

I was assigned a best friend during my first semester of the music theatre program at Florida State.

No joke. I was assigned a best friend.

Now this isn't like your mom putting together amazing goody bags so kids would come to your birthday party (although...you put together a nice goody bag and miracles do happen). After a few weeks of observation and analysis, my professors paired every student with another from class as "best friends." We were to build a relationship with said best friend over the course of the semester and complete all scene work together until Christmas. I realize now that my best friend was also a pillar of consistency in a class designed to make you feel like a complete failure by finals week, thereby enabling you to start from scratch, without any preconceived notions, in January. My best friend, of course, was Mike the hockey player. Our first task was an "open scene," or, as I like to call it, "actor psychological trench warfare."

The assignment is simple.

"Here's a sheet of paper with 10 lines of arbitrary dialogue,” our prof explained. "You have no back story, no character information. You may create the circumstances as you wish. We'll start scene showings next week."

Mike the hockey player and I began brainstorming immediately. Typical freshman, we were eager to show off and entirely ignorant of just how bad we really were. Our plan was beautiful in its simplicity. "You see most people in this situation panic and swing for the fence" we thought. "They come up with an elaborate story that's entirely too complex." The details of who came up with our golden idea are unclear. So, for the sake of fairness, let's give Mike the credit.

Mike: Dude, I've got it.
Tim: What?
Mike: I've got it.
Tim: What is it?
Mike: You have to pee.
Tim: Nah, I'm good man—what are you, my mother? What's your idea?
Mike: No. Dude, you have to pee.
Tim: I have to pee?
Mike: You have to--
Tim (catching on): I HAVE TO PEE!

I'm pretty sure Edison would've been jealous of our genius. I had to pee. It was perfect. Our scene would be set in a typical room, between two friends, one of them leaving to pee, the other preventing him from leaving. I would be the pee-er; Mike would be the preventer. Summon Her Majesty the Queen! Move over Bill Shakespeare! Tim and Mike the hockey player are creating the scene of a lifetime! We basked in our brilliance, imagining the glorious feedback we'd receive from our adoring yet ever so slightly jealous peers. Life was good.

Fast-forward one week, Mike and I are ready for action. I chug a little bit of water before the performance just to get my head in the game. I dazzle the audience with my best pee dance moves while Mike systematically blocks my exit to the bathroom. Everything runs exactly as we had rehearsed. Ready for applause, we walk back to our professor and peers for feedback.

The ever glamorous and even more brilliant professor Jean says, "Tim, what do you normally do when you have to pee?" I stand in silence, nodding slightly as if admiring the profoundness of the question. "Tim, what do you normally do when you have to pee?" Jean repeated. I skillfully reply, “Uh…well, I normally just walk to a bathroom and...ya know...pee." "Good," she said. "Do it again and show me. What do you do when you have to pee?"

We restart the scene. Suddenly, right as I was beginning my meticulously rehearsed pee dance, a voice cried out from the audience, almost reverberating off the black walls of the rehearsal space. "BS," Professor Jean delightedly exclaimed from the audience. She was smiling as she repeated herself, "BS."

...except she didn't use abbreviations.

"Tim, what do you normally do when you have to pee?"

This question again?? I thought we went through this before. I reply, “Well…"

Prof. Jean: "You just go pee, right?"
Me: "Right."
Prof. Jean: "So go. Right now. Show me what it looks like for you to walk to the bathroom."

I cautiously start walking away, unsure of what is going to happen next.

Prof. Jean: "Good Tim. Now why didn't you do that in the scene?"
Me: "I'm not sure what you..."
Prof. Jean: "Why didn't you walk like that in the scene?"
Me: "Oh, well, I wanted to show that I had to pee."
Prof. Jean: "Ah, you wanted to show me you had to pee."
Me: "Yeah."

And there was the problem. My over-rehearsed, overplayed and overacted bathroom dance looked absolutely ridiculous because it was dishonest. Rather than pulling the audience into the world we created, I slapped ‘em all with the reality of a novice actor who is desperate to do the assignment right. You know what the worst part is? I thought I was being honest. I convinced myself that I was truly fighting for my objective of "get to the bathroom at all costs." My actions, on the other hand, suggested that my actual objective was to "get my class and professor to see that I had to pee."

That's the thing with objectives. It's possible tell yourself that you are fighting for Objective A. But until someone comes along and calls BS, you have no clue that what you're actually doing is fighting for Objective B. In other words, instead of "fighting to pee," you are fighting to "make it look like your objective is to pee."

As a seminarian, I find myself fighting a similar battle. I find myself less focused on preparing for future ministry than about my academic success. I get so bogged down in the whirlpool of exegesis, reading logs and theological reflections that I forget this isn’t just graduate school. To be sure, it is school. It is tough! And, it should be. But my primary objective isn’t fulfilled in the classroom. The classroom is a preparation for my future ministry to this world. That changes my approach to learning. If my primary concern is future ministry preparation, it won’t be as difficult to put down the books and spend time with the Lord. If my primary concern is future ministry, healthy living habits (like sleep and exercise) become a priority. If my primary concern is future ministry, character formation will trump academic success in my list of objectives. I am the WORST at forgetting this. My objective at Gordon-Conwell, if I’m honest, has been academic success and it has infected my preaching, my prayer life and my relationships.

What is your objective at seminary? I dare you to take a minute and evaluate if your life implies that objective, or perhaps a different one.

Tim Norton is a born-and-raised, small-town Southerner with the sweet tea addiction to prove it. He comes to Gordon-Conwell as a Kern Pastor-Scholar and plans to pursue pastoral ministry in the U.S. after graduation. Tim is a big personality with a strange affinity for the color orange. Currently, he attends GENESIS Church, an Acts 29 church plant in Woburn, MA.
 

 

 

Tags: Author: Tim Norton , current students , future students , student blogger

Add comment

COMMENTS

No comments yet. Be the first!

Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 10

October 01, 2013

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 10 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here.

One of the things about the early church that troubles evangelicals the most is that the fathers seemed to advocate what we would call “works righteousness.” Why, we ask, did no one in the early church understand justification by faith correctly? One of the ways of answering this question is to say that they did understand justification by faith, or at least some of them did, but they did not express it the same way we do. Recently I’ve been studying the way the fifth-century Egyptian church father Cyril of Alexandria’s understood justification, and his way of articulating that great truth may have a lot to teach us today.

Justification is an ever-present theme in Cyril’s biblical commentaries (regardless of what book of the Bible he is commenting on), and there are two major differences between the way he describes justification and the way we often describe it in evangelicalism today. First, Cyril treats justification not in a forensic or legal framework, but in a participatory one. Think about how often we use either courtroom imagery or the idea of “exchanges” to describe justification. We imagine a situation in which a sinner is declared guilty but someone else—Christ—pays the penalty owed for the sin, or we talk about Christ taking our sin upon himself so that his righteousness could be given to us (“imputed,” we say, using the language of Romans 4) in exchange. And of course, these images are perfectly appropriate. But what Cyril focuses on that we often miss is the participatory framework that undergirds the legal imagery. Christ is the only one who is truly righteous, the only one who is righteous in and of himself. When we are united to him, then in him we receive his own righteousness. It is not just that God credits Christ’s righteousness to us, although that is also true. Even more fundamentally, Christ’s righteousness becomes our precisely because we are in him, we are united to him through the Holy Spirit.

The second way in which Cyril’s understanding of justification differs from ours is that he makes basically no distinction between justification and sanctification. We often argue that sanctification is the outworking of justification—once a believer has been declared righteous (justification), he or she becomes progressively more and more actually righteous and holy (sanctification). By distinguishing between these, we seek to combat the perceived mistake of Medieval Roman Catholicism by which it allegedly collapsed justification into sanctification. It may seem to us that Cyril is doing the same thing we think Medieval Roman Catholicism was doing, but he isn’t. Rather, the reason he makes no distinction between justification and sanctification is that he sees both of these as taking place at the beginning of faith and as being directly tied to the righteousness of Christ. Just as Christ is the only righteous one, so he is the only one who is holy in and of himself. When we are united to him, then in him we are holy (that is, sanctified), just as we are righteous in him.

It should be clear that Cyril’s understanding of justification is similar to ours, albeit expressed rather differently. More important, it should be apparent that his way of stating this central truth places even more emphasis on Christ than the way we express the truth of justification. The crucial point is not that faith alone justifies, as if any kind of faith in anyone or anything could justify a person. Rather, it is that Christ justifies us when we trust in him. Because he alone is righteous and holy, the only way we can be credited with righteousness is to be in him, to be united to him by the Holy Spirit.

We live in an age which places all of its emphasis on us, and in religion, that emphasis translates into the idea that if a person believes in something—in anything—then that person is “saved” or “fulfilled” or whatever. Our culture believes that the act of believing is what is important, not the content of what one believes. Christianity teaches otherwise: what ultimately matters is not so much whether one believes, but in whom one trusts. Perhaps Cyril’s way of describing justification can be useful to us as we try to explain this great truth of our faith to a society that thinks everything is about us. It isn’t. It’s all about Christ, the Son of God, the only holy and righteous one. Only in him can we become righteous before his Father.

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.

 

 

 

Tags: Author: Donald Fairbairn , current students , faculty blogger , future students , thoughtfully evangelical

Add comment

COMMENTS

No comments yet. Be the first!

Gordon-Conwell Voices