Friday, November 6, 2009

A Very, Very Brief History of Christian Thought

Prompted by a conversation with a friend (and roommate) of mine that got me thinking on this and then I couldn't get it out of my head, so I started writing… Also prompted because I think its important that we understand our heritage as Christians in terms of the history of where the things we believe came from.

Christianity starts out as "Judaism fulfilled"- a group mostly consisting of Jews and gentiles who were already sympathetic to Judaism who proclaimed Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophetic promises of a messiah. They consider themselves part of Judaism and not a separate movement.

As persecution breaks out, and particularly after the Jewish revolt against Rome, Christianity and Judaism part ways until Christians find themselves as a separate entity in the eyes of the world. In response to charges of being a group of crazies from many Roman onlookers, Christianity begins to adopt more Greco-Roman philosophy (moving away from its Hebraic roots) to explain its doctrines. This eventually results in the emergence of classical theology. It also, however, results in the rise of many heresies that are based on Greco-Roman ideas applied to Christianity and taken too far. In response to these heresies, the Church develops a body of tradition (there isn't really a clear view on a canon of scripture yet) that becomes the Ecumenical Creeds (Apostle's Creed, Nicene Creed, etc). These creeds become the "cornerstone" of Christian orthodoxy in a sense- they are written to denounce heretical views and provide a basic core of doctrines that all Christians are expected to adhere to (things like the Trinity, the deity and humanity of Christ, the incarnation, resurrection, ascension and return, etc.). There is also a strong sense of community in the creeds- one of the primary defenses against heresy is the declaration that all churches hold these doctrines, so heretics are proven wrong by their going against what the whole Church teaches. This focus on the universal (catholic) church kinda gets lost after the Reformation (and particularly after the rise of Baptist churches), but that's another story.

The church doesn't stay unified for very long. The Eastern church follows a much more "mystical" road and eventually comes to see tradition as king in theology (because there is only so much we can know propositionally when we are mystics). The Western church becomes more "logically" based- they want to write theology and not just mystically contemplate it (I'm really oversimplifying, I'm sure)- and so they see rational thinking and scripture as equal sources of theology with tradition in theory. In practice, the decrees of the Pope become more and more powerful and begin to shift in a more and more questionable direction, prompting the Reformation.

The Reformers are reacting against a Roman Church that sees itself as the source of true doctrine. So they put forth the idea of "sola scriptura"- that only in Scripture can we find true doctrine. This is the basic idea of Evangelicalism (which is Europe is more or less the catch phrase for all Protestants). However, scripture has to be interpreted for us to understand it, and this to some extend depends on philosophy, tradition, and other similar factors. This results in a lot of division among Protestants over doctrinal issues- Calvin vs. Arminius vs. Wesley, for instance. Or debates over infant baptism or church government structure. Eventually, after the Enlightenment and the rise of Modern Philosophy, many Protestants will claim that the scriptures are just a human writing and that we need to build our beliefs purely from a human, philosophical understanding. This gives rise to Liberalism. In response to this came Fundamentalism, a very radically conservative movement that tended to create large lists of things that were "fundamental" beliefs in order to try and brand all their enemies as "heretics" or "non-believers" who could be dismissed and ignored. Fundamentalists got very quickly laughed out of the academic world, started fighting with each-other over what qualified as "fundamental" and really disgraced themselves in a lot of ways. Modern Evangelicalism/Conservative Theology is an attempt to correct Fundamentalism by claiming the essential Protestant beliefs that it is primarily from scripture that we derive doctrine, but also acknowledging the role of philosophy, tradition, history, etc in interpreting scripture and being more open to a variety of viewpoints so long as those viewpoints can in some sense be derived from the Bible.

There are many other things that play into each of the viewpoints we have very briefly described here. This mainly just discusses their view on the authority or source of doctrine, though I have left the content of that doctrine alone for the most part. So in addition to these distinctions we could talk about individual denominational distinctions that are mostly based on their views of particular doctrinal issues. But I'll leave that alone for now...

No comments:

Post a Comment

Blog has moved, searching new blog...