I would like to follow up on my review of the book Theology as Retrieval, by W. David Buschart and Kent D. Eilers (see here). This will be a rambling post. If there is a central theme of this post, it is the extent to which I, or my religious background, has established or felt a connection with Christian thought and practices throughout history. Buschart and Eilers say that a number of evangelicals today have adopted traditional or liturgical practices because that gives them a deeper historical connection. How have I approached that kind of issue?
As Buschart and Eilers argue, there are different ways that Christians have approached historical Christianity. Some believe that the early church was a golden age that had the truth, but that things got corrupted, and yet the truth was later recovered with the Protestant Reformation. There are Roman Catholics who would say, by contrast, that the Holy Spirit was active prior to the Protestant Reformation, and who would even go so far as to teach that the traditions of the church are, in some sense, authoritative.
As I have said before on this blog, I was raised in an offshoot of Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God. How did Armstrongism address these sorts of issues? Well, it held that the first century church had the truth, and that things got corrupted early on. I have heard that Herbert Armstrong believed that he was the one who recovered the truth, which, on the surface at least, would express a pretty low opinion of Christianity between the first and the twentieth centuries. At the same time, the Worldwide Church of God did produce a pamphlet that contended that God’s true church has existed throughout history—-that there have long been groups of Christians that have kept the seventh-day Sabbath. They said that the Waldensians fell into this category, but that has been disputed. Moreover, my understanding is that Armstrongites did draw from church fathers and historic Christian thinkers whenever doing so suited them. I recall an Ambassador College Correspondence Course making the point that Martin Luther disagreed with the immortality of the soul (which Armstrongism rejected). Within Armstrongite circles, people read Seventh-Day Adventist scholar Samuele Bacchiocchi’s From Sabbath to Sunday, and this book said that Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John, supported the observance of the Passover, which resonated with Armstrongites, who believed in the observance of the Old Testament holy days.
I suppose that a related question is, “What is a Christian?” My understanding is that Armstrongism held that true Christians obey God’s commandments, and that would include the seventh-day Sabbath. The Christianity of the world was not of God, according to this view, and Catholics and Protestants were presenting another Jesus, not the true one. Again, this view would not encourage people to draw from the resources of historic Christianity. This view was not necessarily held with iron-clad consistency, though. I remember hearing a sermon that referred favorably to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Bunyan was not a seventh-day Sabbathkeeper—-actually, Bunyan wrote against the view that Christians had to observe the seventh-day Sabbath. But the person preaching that message may have felt that there are so many resources from the past that can encourage and edify people as they try to live the Christian life, so why ignore them?
Where have I fallen on these issues? Well, reading different things in high school certainly made me open to the thoughts of Christians who observed Sunday. I came to identify with Martin Luther and his thirst for grace. For a while, although I liked Augustine, I tended to recoil from the writings of the church fathers, for they struck me as legalistic. I have come to enjoy their writings and sermons even more, though, for there is a side of them that embraces God’s love and grace, and the ones who champion solitude definitely speak to me, as one with Asperger’s. In terms of my religious practice, I am currently not the sort of person who thirsts for some sense of historical connection. I really don’t care if my church recites the Nicene Creed—-if it does, that’s fine, but whether it does so or not is not particularly important to me. I do not practice Ignatian spirituality. Maybe I will at some point, but I am hesitant to dive into that unfamiliar territory right now. As I said in my last post, though, I respect Christians of the past as people seeking intimacy with God and a virtuous life. I overlap with them in that sense, even if I do not agree with everything that they said and did.
I would like to say something about that whole scenario of the early church being some sort of golden age, and of the church being corrupted. On the one hand, that does not resonate with me. In the New Testament, there are warnings about wolves entering the church, but I think that it is a stretch to go from that and to say that the wolves will become the church, which is kind of what I got from Armstrongism! On the other hand, I cannot deny that there have been abuses throughout church history, and that ritualism can lead to a spirituality that is not particularly vibrant. Still, who is to say that the Spirit was not active even then, drawing people into a deeper relationship with God?