Movement or Institution?

December 15, 2003

weekly word
15 December 2003

Poor old Constantine! He gets the blame for so much of what has gone wrong in the church over the centuries. Before he became Roman emperor in 313AD, the church was purged and purified by constant persecution, so the argument goes. Once Christianity was officially embraced, the church became chaplain to the empire, old pagan practices were ‘baptised’ into church ritual, church membership became socially acceptable, the church took on the trappings of power and prestige … and standards of discipleship plummeted.

So, early in the fourth century, the rot began to set in, according to this perspective which I have often taught to others. But on my recent visit to Greece for the prayer summit in Delphi we have mentioned in recent W e e k l y W o r d s, I began to see a different picture.

Among the books I took with me on the trip was David Bosch’s Transforming Mission (Orbis 1997), to read up about the Eastern church. It was the following sentence which first grabbed my attention: ‘What began as a movement had, long before the end of the first century, irrevocably turned into an institution.’ (p.191)

The first century!!? Wait a minute! That didn’t fit my preconception of Constantine’s role. What then had caused this shift from movement to institution?

A few pages further, Bosch wrote: ‘There can be no doubt that, as early as the late first century, a shift in the understanding of the church had set in. In fact, some of the New Testament texts already reflect a situation where the mobile ministry of the apostles, prophets and evangelists was beginning to give way to the settled ministry of bishops, (elders) and deacons.’ (p.201)

Whereas Luke’s writings had emphasised the missionary role of the Holy Spirit, ‘as the One who equipped the apostles and guided them into missionary situations, the Spirit’s work began to be seen almost exclusively as that of building up the church in sanctity’.

The church now filled the entire horizon. Not surprisingly, the Greek Patristic period, also called the era of the Apostolic Fathers, or the sub-apostolic age, bridging the early apostolic church with the Constantinian era, saw a cooling of the missionary fervor of primitive Christianity, says Bosch. The first letter of Clemens (96AD) makes no mention of mission. Irenaeus (late 2nd century) saw the church as the bulwark of right doctrine against the heretics. Pessimistic about the future, Cyprian (mid-3rd century) saw membership of the church as the only means of salvation. “What do we care about pagans who are not yet enlightened,” he wrote, “or about Jews, who have turned away from the light and remained in darkness?”

For the emerging Greek church, paganism came to mean the absence of ‘civilization’, and mission became the spread of culture.

Elsewhere, Bosch notes other differences between a movement and an institution (p.51). The one is progressive; the other conservative. The one is active, influencing rather than being influenced; the other is more or less passive, yielding to influences from outside. The one looks to the future; the other to the past. The one is prepared to take risks; the other is anxious and cautious. The one crosses boundaries; the other guards them. The one emphasises life; the other doctrine.

Bosch implies that as the church was transplanted from the Hebrew context into Greek culture, the early apostolic movement of Jesus followers slowly gave way to an institution, one with a different view of history and eschatology, of time and eternity, and of salvation and sanctification.

History lost its linear dimension looking forward the age to come, giving way to a Platonic ‘vertical’ relationship between time and eternity. Expectations became solely focused on heaven rather than on God’s continuing work in this world. Instead of looking forward to the future they looked up to eternity. ‘Preaching came to focus almost exclusively on the topic of God and the individual soul, without having anything to say about the relation of the gospel to nature and the structures of this world.’ (p.197)

Does this rings any bells? Can we begin to see how all-pervasive this Greek thinking has been, right through to our free church/evangelical/charismatic cultures today, as we proposed last week?

While the Hebrew concept of salvation, yasha, implied salvation for this world, the liberation of captives or rescue from danger, the Greek concept soteria in the Patristic period tended to refer to being rescued from the material world, salvation from this world. Salvation came to be understood exclusively The Christian religion saved from this earth; it did not change or renew the earth. Any expectation of ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ was spiritualized away. Salvation implied divinization, progressing through the angelic order to perfect union with God.

Instead of emphasising God’s future intervention in history, now good deeds, prayers to the saints (in many cases, ‘baptised’ gods and goddesses), and martyrdom were the means to immortality. History was no longer seen as moving towards a goal. Now there were no goals in history and no change or transformation of this world wrought by the Spirit through God’s people would be expected.

While the Hebrews stressed the fear of God to be the beginning of wisdom, the Greeks emphasised that salvation was to be found in knowledge (gnosis). The Hebrew understanding of knowledge through experience was replaced by rational knowledge. Now the tendency was to define the faith and systematize doctrine. Ontology (being) become more important than God’s acts in history. Defining who or what God was became more important than one’s relationship to God.

Accordingly, by the time the first church council since Jerusalem (Acts 15) was held in Nicea (in modern Turkey) in 325, the stage was well set by this Greek influence to produce definitive statements of faith. This council, which produced the Nicene Creed, was called by our old friend Constantine himself, who now drew on this Greek legacy of rational definition of truth to scrutinize people according to whether or not they subscribed to right doctrine. If not, they were anathematized.

‘A comparison between the Sermon on the Mount and the Nicene Creed confirms the point,’ writes Bosch. (p.195) ‘The former outlines a mode of conduct without any specific appeal to a set of precepts. The entire tenor of the Sermon is ethical; it is devoid of metaphysical speculation. The latter in contrast is structured within a metaphysical framework, makes a number of doctrinal statements, and says nothing about the believer’s conduct.’

One effect of this shift was centuries-long debates on concepts like ousia, physis, hypostasis, meritum, transsubstantiatio, etc – and whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or the Father through the Son – as we discussed a couple of weeks ago!

The list of distinctives continues on: holistic versus dualistic; centripetal versus centrifugal; inclusive versus exclusive; dynamic versus static; transnational versus nationalistic; kingdom-centred versus church-centred; body-life versus hierarchy; lay versus clergy…

I suppose the first step in being freed from the influence of such Greek thinking is to expose it, and to ask the Spirit of Truth to transform us by the renewing of our minds. This will not happen overnight. I suspect we are entering a season where God is revealing to his people globally something of the legacy and nature of this Greek spirit.

May He show us his strategy for pulling down this stronghold.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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