Lessons from history

Paul Barnett

Andrew Robinson’s helpful article 'Liturgy Schmiturgy' in the April edition of  Southern Cross prompts the following reflection about a lesson to be learned from early Christian history about the survival and propagation of the Christian faith.  I am thinking of the decades before and after the close of the apostolic age in circa AD 100.  The great apostolic leaders had passed on, there was considerable theological confusion due to Gnosticism and other deviant views and, furthermore, the Lord had not returned. 

One interesting element in apostolic and early post-apostolic Christianity was a willingness to learn from Jewish practices.  Initially, the first Christians were Jews and the Jewish influence in the churches continued throughout the first century, although diminishingly. So Christianity grew out of the soil of Judaism, a Judaism that in previous centuries had survived the fires of persecution on the one hand and the subtle syncretistic seduction of Greek beliefs and practices on the other. 

Learning and adapting

The Jews were careful to adopt activities that enabled them to survive in hostile environments, such was their commitments to their beliefs.  It was no accident that these early Christians learned from and adapted the practices of the Jews.  

•Jews gathered on a fixed day (Sabbath) but so too did the Christians (Sunday). 
•The core activity of the synagogue was the reading and teaching of the Scriptures, but this was likewise the basic reason for church meetings, except that to the Old Testament they added readings from the writings of the apostles. 
•The Jews translated their Hebrew scriptures into Greek and the early Christians translated their texts in Latin, Syriac, Armenian, etc. 
•The synagogues used liturgical forms like the Shema (‘Hear, O Israel...’) and the Benedictions and so too the churches recited their Trinitarian and Christological creeds. 
•The Jews created their calendar to commemorate great feasts (e.g., Passover) but so too did the Christians develop their calendar (notably to celebrate Easter). 
•Jews remembered their deliverance from Egypt in the annual Passover and Christians recalled their deliverance in the remembrance meal, the Lord’s Supper. 
•Jews inducted their children into the covenant by catechetical instruction and so likewise the Christians developed their manuals for instruction prior to the Easter baptisms. 
•The Jewish communities understood the need for a succession of teachers in the appointment of great rabbis to preserve the Mosaic tradition, but so too did the Christians appreciate the principle of a succession of strong and orthodox leaders.
•Synagogue rulers and elders governed the synagogues and the churches developed similar offices, though with different names. 
•Synagogues exercised discipline of wayward members (often by harsh corporal punishment) and the churches suspended or expelled heretics and the immoral. 

In short, in the face of forces that would destroy them the churches consciously or unconsciously looked to the practices of the synagogues as means of survival, and adapted them accordingly.

Their context and ours

The Christians of the second century survived the ravages of persecution and moral syncretism and the destructive influences of Gnosticism and later of Arianism.  Despite the opposition they faced they developed forms of welfare assistance for the disadvantaged, including for those who were not Christians.  By these and other means they won the attention of Constantine and others and, as it is said, the rest is history.  Within two and a bit centuries the tiny Jesus movement became the faith of the Roman Empire.

Today there are groups like the Pentecostals who have grown remarkably.  Sydney Anglicans have not witnessed comparable growth but we have an important role to play in Australian Christianity.  In particular, we can provide a theological and ecclesiastical stability that will buttress and support Christianity in our nation.  An important part of that stability will be our commitment to received practices like use of Bible reading and Bible-based preaching, (contemporary) liturgy, creeds, use of church calendar and the Collects and – not least – willingness to apply constructive church discipline.

There are some who follow these practices out of a love of tradition, a tradition that is often dressed in aesthetic clothing so that these things become ends in themselves.  Evangelicals, wary of such an approach, sometimes merely reject such things as a distraction for the central task of making disciples and building them up in the faith.  As well, evangelicals in their love of the gospel place great emphasis on preaching and the preacher and pay scant attention to liturgy, sacraments, calendar or the ‘form’ of the meeting of the saints.

What can go wrong

This may have several unwelcome consequences.  One is the ‘cult of the preacher’ with the equivalent devaluing of the congregation, the ‘church of God’.  (This diocese is deeply committed to the theology of ‘local church’)  Another is that the emphasis on the existential, the ‘now’ can leave a lesser sense of our past (‘where we have come from’) or our future (‘where we are going’).  The amazing survival of Judaism due to Jewish tenacity to their ‘traditions’ is worth pondering.  Evangelical emphasis on the ‘now’ might mean an impact ‘today’ but little or none for ‘tomorrow’.

Of course, such things as a liturgy that requires Bible reading and reminds us the need for divine forgiveness, creeds that reinforce what we believe, a calendar expressed in special prayers to remind us of great doctrines on are merely vehicles, which of course need always to be articulated in contemporary terms.  Yet they are very useful vehicles and in the long term better than no vehicles.   

These are turbulent times but that is true to a greater or lesser degree of all historical eras. It is the nature of life.  As in every age we face a twofold challenge.  On one hand, we are to ‘make disciples’ and, on the other, we are to ‘contend for the faith’, that is, defend and preserve it.  In our passion for the first we must not disregard the second.  The lessons the early Christians learned from the Jews are worth learning again.  There are practices and structures that have served us in the past and which, as we fill them with evangelical content, will help carry forward into the future.