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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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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

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.

 

 

 

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Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 9

March 21, 2013

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 5 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.

Sometime around the beginning of the fifth century, a nun named Egeria from the Latin Christian world took a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She re-traced the route of the Exodus, visited Mount Sinai, spent three years in Jerusalem, journeyed east to Edessa to see Thomas’s tomb, and then worked her way through Asia Minor to Constantinople. The story of her travels, written in Latin and called Diary of a Pilgrimage in English, contains a wealth of cultural and geographic information and a number of stories interesting to a general reader, stories that vary from the impressive to the extraordinary to the bizarre. I’ll mention one example of each, all taking place in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

It is impressive that the clergy of the church took such great pains to make sure everyone (including pilgrims from all over the Christian world) could understand the services. The Scripture readings and the liturgy were conducted in Greek, but there was a continuous line-by-line translation of everything into Syriac as the services were conducted. There were also various people present who could explain what was happening to Western visitors in Latin, although they did not translate the whole service. Not only is this a great example of cultural and linguistic sensitivity on the part of the clergy, but it is also a reminder to us that early Christianity was not exclusively Greek and Latin. Indeed, in predominantly Greek-speaking Jerusalem, Syriac speakers far outnumbered Latin speakers.

Egeria’s recounting of the instruction given to those preparing for baptism in Jerusalem is extraordinary. In those days, new Christians were baptized on Easter, and they received instruction in the Christian faith during a period of preparation prior to Easter. (Several examples of such “catechetical lectures” given to instruct the candidates for baptism survive.) Egeria tells us that in Jerusalem this instruction included three hours a day of Scripture reading and sermons, for seven weeks leading up to Holy Week just prior to Easter. During those seven weeks, the candidates would hear the entire Bible read to them and explained. All of us who organize new members’ classes in churches today should be ashamed!

The most bizarre thing Egeria describes is a service on Good Friday. A gold-plated casket was brought out containing wood that was allegedly from Christ’s cross and from the inscription above the cross, and people came forward to touch the wood with their foreheads and to kiss it. But this is not the bizarre part—some readers will know that such practices are routine among many groups of Christians, even today. The bizarre part is that Egeria describes deacons as standing near the holy wood, guarding it. She writes, “It is said that someone (I do not know when) took a bite and stole a piece of the wood of the holy cross. Therefore, it is now guarded by the deacons standing around, lest there be anyone who would dare come and do that again.”

To us, it may seem impossible to reconcile the idea of pilgrim-sensitive, trilingual worship services and extensive instruction of new believers with the idea that someone might think he/she had something to gain by running off with a bite of the cross. Christianity in fifth-century Jerusalem must have been quite a contradictory mix of the profound and the superstitious, we think. But how much different is our version of Christianity? Do not the deep and the superficial, the amazing and the kitschy, sit uneasily side-by-side in most expressions of our faith? Maybe seeing the bizarre in an earlier expression of Christianity will give us incentive to look more carefully at our own, asking whether some of our practices are equally bizarre, but our familiarity with them has hidden that fact from 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 , future students , thoughtfully evangelical

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Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 2

December 07, 2011

Dr. Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 2 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.

Why should evangelicals care about the early church, about the first several centuries after the end of the New Testament? Of the many answers one could give to this question, perhaps the most important answer is that we should care about the early church precisely because we are committed to the authority of Scripture alone. Since we have that commitment, we want to know as precisely and comprehensively as we can what Scripture actually means. And this brings us to a fundamental claim that I often make: What we think the Bible means is influenced by what we think the church has said the Bible means.

Consider this claim for a moment. As faithfully and carefully as we may read the Bible, we never come to Scripture as a blank slate. There is a long history of biblical interpretation that influences what we are looking for as we read Scripture—whether we know that history or not, whether we realize its influence on us or not. In particular, the great issues of the Protestant Reformation (16th and 17th centuries) and the subsequent issues of Pietism and revivalism 18th-20th centuries) have set up the categories with which you and I approach the Bible.

For example, one of the legacies of the Reformation (a legacy that the Reformation itself owes to High Medieval Roman Catholicism) is the tendency to think about the meaning of biblical passages in terms of clear-cut, either/or alternatives. “It has to be either x or y, so let’s go to the Bible to decide which it is.” Salvation has to be by faith (the right answer) or by works (the wrong answer). Sanctification is either distinct from justification (the right answer) or the same as justification (the wrong answer). The atonement has to be either limited or unlimited. (On this one we disagree about which is the right answer.) A true believer either can or cannot lose his/her salvation. (Here again we disagree about which is the right answer.) On these points and countless others, we usually accept the questions the way they are presented to us, and we inquire of the Scriptures to see which of the options is right.

When we read the great thinkers of the early church, however, we find that they often had a different way of posing the issues than we do. Rather than arguing over whether salvation was by faith or by works, they demonstrated their complete reliance on Christ by talking about him, rather than about their own faith or their own works. They regarded both justification andsanctification as things that God gives us at the beginning of salvation, and they defined both as the righteousness that we receive when we are united to Christ, who is the righteous one. And their whole conception of the atonement was one in which the question of limited vs. unlimited could not even arise.

My point here is not that we should necessarily follow the way the early church described Christianity. Rather, it is that by reading the church fathers, we gain another vantage point from which to look at Scripture. By seeing the Bible through their eyes, we can also see the way our own history has shaped the way we inquire of Scripture, the kinds of questions we ask of the Bible. What we think the Bible means is shaped by what the church has said the Bible means. Thus, understanding the history that has led our branch of the church to ask the questions we ask, and also gaining potential insights from Christians who had a different set of questions, can help us move closer to understanding the Bible fully, comprehensively, and accurately.

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 , biblically-grounded , current students , equipping leaders for the church and society , faculty blogger

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Dr. Donald, your post helps me to maintain my observation about the church history in relation to the Authority of the bible. The way the Church fathers described Christianity has a valuable contribution to the present biblical interpretation. I gain knowledge to see the church fathers through the question of “how they have been responding the matter of the Authority of the Bible?’’
Seleshi Andarge 1:28PM 01/07/13

Learning from Our Church Fathers

November 18, 2011

Dr. Donald Fairbairn

We live in a society infatuated with novelty. From clothes to cars to computers to TVs to hand-held electronic devices, we are told we should want the latest, the newest, the hottest, the best. Given our love affair with the new and supposedly improved, it is a bit surprising that people of all stripes today are growing increasingly interested in a period of history we call “the early church” (from about AD 100-600), also known as the “patristic period” or the period of the “church fathers.” Of course, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have long been interested in the centuries just after the close of the New Testament. But today, Protestants and even scholars with no particular religious affiliation are giving the early church a lot of attention. Why?

To explain this phenomenon, I like to use the phrase “historical authority,” by which I mean people’s desire to legitimize their own beliefs (whatever they are) by showing that those beliefs have a long-standing pedigree, that such beliefs were around as far back as the ancient world. Catholics and Orthodox insist that their current practice is directly continuous with the practice of the early church. Liberal Protestants and non-religious people—both deeply imbued with a relativistic spirit—insist that there was no consensus about either doctrine or practice in the early church, but instead there was a vast array of differing “Christianities,” none of which was any better or more “right” than any others. In all of these cases, people find in the early church what they want to find; they discover a consensus or lack of consensus that provides warrant—“authority,” if you will—for their own convictions about the contemporary world.

Where do evangelicals stand in the midst of these forays into the early church? Well, for the most part, we stand on the sidelines. Priding ourselves on our commitment to Scripture alone, we have often demonstrated that commitment by paying little attention to the centuries after the end of the New Testament. After all, something isn’t true just because a church father says it, and for that matter, even the Nicene Creed doesn’t carry the same weight of authority as the Bible. Why, then, should we pay attention to the non-inspired writers of a period in the distant past, when we could be focusing on the Bible itself and on the immediacy of our current situation?

Over the next several weeks, I would like to suggest various different answers to this question—different reasons that combine to show us why it can be valuable for us to attend to the Christians of the first few centuries after the New Testament.

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 , spiritually vital , thoughtfully evangelical

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"After all, something isn’t true just because a church father says it, and for that matter, even the Nicene Creed doesn’t carry the same weight of authority as the Bible." Don, there was a time a few years ago when I would have cried, "not true" to the statement you made above. But, as I have grown in the Lord, I am understanding that as responsible Christians (no matter what denomination) we have to deal specifically with what the Fathers say about certain topics, not just take them at their word. No one human is always correct on spiritual matters. As I have read the Fathers over the last few years (In English I should add), I have been frequently surprised to see that they do not agree unanimously on all things! Indeed, when I read books written from Roman Catholic and Orthodox perspectives I am often puzzled by the authors apparent opinion that the Fathers speak as one unanimous voice on every Christian point of Doctrine. This, of course, is not true at all. I am encouraged when Evangelical Christians seriously study the Fathers, like you do, in the understanding that they have much wisdom to impart, but not above the wisdom found in Scripture. I appreciate your charitable scholarship in this field and I look forward to learning more of what you have discovered through your assessment of Patristics. Joseph
Joseph C. Justice 6:13PM 10/08/13
As you have said that this is the time that we should lead people to concentrate on the Bible rather than the history of the early church fathers. Different people with their different religious background have their own understanding regarding the early church fathers. Some of these religion leaders let the people to worship church fathers. The stories of the church fathers might have an affirmative contribution to our life. Some of their systems of beliefs and doctrinal settings is very important for us.(Like Trinity, the doctrine of Christ..). On the other hand, the traditional religion believers worship their ancestral spirit. Some of them claim that their dead father or grandfather visit them. They should worship and provide sacrifice to the spirit. They don’t have a book but, they overruled by the ancestral spirit. We have the Word of God, the 66 books which is written divinely using kings, shepherds, fishermen, historians, priests, a scribe, a tax collector, a doctor a royal cup-bearer a government official and others. These people were in different place and lived in different time. The word of God is enough as it is said at 2Timothy 3:16 ll scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. In Some place the present evangelical church elders and ministers, try to curse the present and praise the previous believers. According to my understanding this is also the same as of giving the authority for the practice in the early church. As evangelicals we believe in the authority of the Bible not in the practice. Dr. Donald thank you I have learned a lot of things and it helped me to think deeply.
Seleshi Andarge 2:35PM 01/04/13
I'm excited for this series!
Brian Gronewoller 8:56AM 11/21/11