Thursday, June 26, 2008

Does 'All' Mean 'All'?

It's always amusing to see people arguing over whether "all" really means "all" in a particular biblical passage.

There's a nice demonstration here that in numerous and uncontroversial instances, the bible uses "all" to mean "lots" not "all".

I have long agreed with the New Perspective view that when Paul says "all" are sinners, he does not mean "all". Rather he means "some Jews and some Gentiles" (ie "various people of every nationality"). There are many good arguments for such a view, but one I had never seen, has been suggested by a reader of Chris' blog...

Paul writes "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" and immediately follows with "they are now justified by his grace as a gift" (Rom 3:23-24). So if "all" means "all" have sinned, then "they" are also "all" justified. So taking the (reasonable) assumption that Paul isn't teaching universal salvation, "all" in this passage doesn't mean "all".

Sunday, June 22, 2008

What makes something 'another religion'?

I've been pondering lately the question of what makes something a different religion. For example, it is generally accepted that Judaism is a different religion to Christianity. Yet both share much of the same history, worship the same God, share many of the same scriptures etc. Likewise Islam is considered a different religion to both Judaism and Christianity despite a lot of overlap too.

On the other hand, there was a group called the Gnostics in the second century. They believed the creation of the world was an error made by a demigod and that Jesus had been sent by a higher god to help rescue some of the pure spiritual souls that had become trapped in matter. Through secret knowledge of the nature of the cosmos, these souls could escape the realm of matter after death. The Gnostics generally rejected the Old Testament, and had their own New Testament books and gospels. Now I would want to say Gnosticism is a different religion to Christianity. It isn't just a "heresy", but it's another religion entirely. Yet generally it is described by historians of doctrine as simply a heresy. I can't quite fathom that.

Really, the question I have been pondering over the last couple of months, is whether Calvinism can really be called Christianity or whether it must be counted as a separate religion. When I pull my nose out of a book about New Testament or pre-Nicene Christianity and wander out onto the internet, I see statements by Calvinists that simply have nothing in common with early Christianity whatsoever. Of course, the same argument could potentially be made whenever Christian doctrine varies, and thus could be used against all heresies throughout history and all Christians today. However, some differences are obviously more profound than others and Calvinism increasingly strikes me as being so antithetical to early Christianity that it is hard to consider it anything other than a different religion.

If we consider the core doctrines of the early Christian faith:
  1. Monotheism
  2. Christ as Teacher of Righteousness
  3. Final Judgment by Works
  4. Free Will
Catholicism and non-Calvinistic Protestantism vary between endorsing two to four of these doctrines. Yet Calvinism agrees only with the first and is deliberately and implacably opposed to the other three (ie 2. Penal substitutionary atonement, 3. Judgment by faith and grace alone, 4. TULIP). Like the Gnostics, the Calvinist system of salvation bears no relationship whatsoever to the early Christian view. It also adds in a wide variety of additional doctrines (though is no worse than Roman Catholicism in this regard I suppose). Anyway, over the last couple of months as I have reflected on this, I have become convinced that Calvinism cannot be meaningfully classed as Christianity and represents such a complete departure from NT and pre-Nicene Christianity that it should be classified as a separate religion (at least from the point of view of doctrine - the issue of classifying religions is obviously more complex and has to take into account rituals, customs and practices etc as well).

Monday, June 16, 2008

Why did it go so wrong?

In my last post I noted that church doctrine started going very wrong after the merge with the Roman Empire. In this post I'm going to list a few reasons why I think that was.

Reading about the various events, I get the impression that there was no one single problem, but rather a huge variety of problems that were caused by the imperial period. Here is a list, in no particular order, of some of the factors that seem to have contributed to the issues:

1. Direct interference by Emperors in the legislation of church doctrine. At times the Emperors made arbitrary decisions about which theological side to support.

2. Positions of church leadership became positions of great wealth and power which were then sought after by the wrong people for the wrong motives. Some of the church leadership were in multi-million dollar positions and were some of the most powerful people in the Empire. Such positions were doubtless sought-after by atheists with political ambition who pretended to be Christians.

3. Irregularities in the elections of church leaders. The elections of church leaders to prominent church positions of power were plagued with scandals and imperial interference.

4. The notion of Orthodoxy within the Empire. The globalisation of the church brought with it a globalisation of doctrine. Previously, if a Christian in one part of the world invented a new doctrine, the change tended to be geographically confined. However, in an effort to promote Orthodoxy and stamp out heresy, the Councils and Emperors promulgated their decrees throughout the Empire, thus providing a mechanism to deliver doctrinal change to the entire church simultaneously.

5. The use of force against those deemed heretics. The state became the enforcer of orthodoxy - those deemed heretics were taken away by state soldiers and tended to die either a quick or slow death when exiled to uninhabitable locations or to work in the salt mines.

6. Extremely poor judicial processes for reviewing complaints of heresy. Often those accused of heresy were condemned without being allowed to present their case. Mere things like evidence or fair trials didn't stand in the way of councils ruling on topics. Most councils were not careful inquiries into truth but shams.

7. General civil unrest and nominal Christianity. Riots were commons. The killing of churchmen at the hands of a 'Christian' mob who disagreed over theology was not uncommon. Those in positions of power within the church often instigated such riots for political reasons.

8. Language differences. The Eastern Empire spoke Greek, the Western spoke Latin. This at times led to communication difficulties. It also caused Latin bible translations to be incorrect at times.

9. Attempts at Sola Scriptura. Christian doctrinal tradition for the most part governed people's beliefs. But increasingly there were those who preferred to come up with their own doctrines based on their own exegesis of scripture, which were generally wrong as a result of using mistranslated passages or just poor exegesis. People then claimed the authority of scripture for such views.

10. Lack of peer-review among influential theologians. It seemed common for particular theologians to gain a reputation in a certain geographical area and become the great theological champion of that area. Their theological utterances would subsequently be somewhat mindlessly parroted by Christians in that area without being peer reviewed by other prominent theologians across the Empire. Essentially, the major theologians tended to do their theology somewhat in isolation with little collaboration.

11. Popularity as a measure of success. To a large extent, theological doctrines were measured by popularity - theological controversies tended to get resolved by vote. Particularly, if a theologian became sufficiently popular and respected within their geographical area, they could then begin to teach almost any heresy and their popularity would see them through. Anyone who challenged them could be silenced or ignored.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Church history is somewhat depressing.

I've been reading a lot of books on the history of doctrine lately. Or, more precisely, the sections of them that deal with soteriological doctrines from the Apostolic Fathers to Augustine. I've finished going through the three shelves of them at the university library, so I'll have to find another library I suppose.

What I am finding depressing is the post-Nicene period when Christianity was the state religion. The amount of corruption, church-politics, and imperial interference in the church and its doctrine at that time is simply dumbfounding. The reasons for which decisions were made varied from bad to worse. In fact I would simply go so far as to make the blanket statement that all decisions and decrees made within the church during the imperial period are not worthy of being used for toilet paper. The whole thing was one great moronic political circus.

One historian I was reading today aptly commented: "the thinkers church historians write about are neither as logical, as truthful or as edifying in their morals as the devout usually expect." (Linonel Wickham pg 211 in The Making of Orthodoxy 1989 Ed. Rowan Williams) Another comments "There is no doubt that we would be repelled in the twentieth century should church leaders, professing to follow and practice the truths of Christ, were to use such methods [as were used by Cyril of Alexandria]" (Gordon Harper pg 88 in The Heritage of Christian Thought 1979)

Time after time it was the side that is willing to go the furthest, play politics, manipulate others, bribe the right people, who won. It was virtually never about careful reasoning or informed discussion, but about power and politics. Time and again the arbitrary decrees of the Emperors were the turning point, and whichever side could control the Emperors' decisions won the game.

It is disappointing to me to read of those who called themselves Christians acting like they did. But it is far worse to realize that their decisions which they made affected Christian doctrine and have affected many Christians to this day - although protestants have since escaped from a lot of that legacy.

In case anyone is curious, the people who I am particular pissed off at are:
  • Cyril of Alexandria, uber-super-unmatched-bastard
  • Augustine, arch-heretic and doctrinal-innovator extraordinaire
  • Bishops of Rome, dumbasses with super-delusions of grandeur
  • Athanasius, all-round bastard
  • Church Councils, morons with power
  • Emperors, interfering morons with supreme power

People who come out smelling of roses (perhaps somewhat tarnished by the manure they were living amongst):
  • St Pelagius, defender of orthodoxy
  • St Nestorius, suppressor of the cult of Mary

On a slightly different note, something that surprises me somewhat when I consider it, is that informed scholarly opinion is so unanimous on these issues (eg Augustine being a heretical innovator and Pelagius defending previous orthodoxy against Augustine's innovations) and yet this has so completely not filtered through to people in the church. The books sit there in the library, and yet walking into a church and telling people you agree with Pelagius is likely to have those that have heard of Pelagianism upset at your 'heresy' instead of happy at your orthodoxy. It seems that scholars of the history of doctrine can write books that sit on the shelves all they like and that the beliefs of people in the church will simply carry on the way they did before. It's a funny world.