How Did The Bible Get So Filled…

What About The Bible… ? (Chapter 3)

How did the Bible get so filled with things that have nothing to do with the messages of Jesus? That is one of many questions I have pondered over the last decade.  I want to study more about King Constantine and how the Bible was put together under his watchful eye.2014-02-13_11-37-06 Here is the crux of what I know now.

Constantine was a king during the age where the Roman empire’s power was dwindling. He was losing his grip over his kingdom. Some say that is why he grabbed on to the idea of making Christianity a mandated state religion. I know he was not baptized until soon before his death so that puts his sincerity at question. Was he just covering his bases? There is very little historical text now available that pre-dates the first compiled Bible so we really can’t be sure just what is not in Constantine’s Bible or what was added. These types of questions need to be understood in order to put the Bible in its proper sphere of influence. Was it written by God or redacted to meet the needs of the most powerful world government of the time?

2014-02-13_11-39-37I personally take the Jeffersonian stand of Christianity to at least one degree or another. That is Thomas Jefferson’s belief that Paul took the simple message of Jesus and made it complicated. I’m sure he was well-meaning but given his background it was inevitable that he would add rule after rule on being a Christian.  After all he was educated and trained by the Pharisees of his time and if nothing else they were absolutely about rules. Upon serious reading of Paul’s many letter it is surprising how little his teaching overlap with any of Jesus’ word or messages.  In fact he seemed to know very little about Jesus other than his brief personal experience on the road to Damascus.

We know that the documents that eventually made up the first Bible were generally not written until at least forty years after the events took place.  Before that all the biblical stories were likely passed down as was very typical of the time via an oral tradition.  We also know that except for Paul, who was not one of those who sat at Jesus’ feet,  most of the other leaders of the early church were very likely illiterate.  This necessitated that someone else would take their stories and put them into literary form.  For the most part we still don’t know who those scribes or the authors actually were. Under these types of conditions it is very likely that myths and fables were included in the written text.  Thomas Jefferson believed that is how most of the miracles of Jesus were established. It was just overzealous people adding a little bit to enhance a point. Those who study other historical sources know this is a very common thing of human nature.  George Washington was almost a god in early America and many myths were generated  and recorded about him. The most similar is probably about chopping down a cherry tree.

In closing I am not saying that the Bible is without value simply because human foibles are contained in its text but it is important to understand that possibility when trying to put this document into the proper perspective in today’s church.  The messages of Jesus that are contained within these various writings, even though they were very likely tarnished by human actions,  are what is paramount to our following Jesus.  The Bible itself is just a means to convey those inherent messages.

What is Heresy??

Many people throughout church history have been put to death because of heresy. But, just what is heresy? That is what this post will be about. Many church leaders have charged others with heresy many times in its history. The most recognizable instances are the inquisitions, post-Constantine period, the Crusades, and of course Galileo and Joan of Arc.  Of this list I am the most familiar with the post-Constantine period. It is estimated that about 25,000 Christians were put to death for heresy during the two centuries after the Roman King Constantine made Christianity a State religion. That number far surpasses those put to death by the Romans in the Coliseum.

Let’s look at the definition of heresy:

1.  opinion or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine, especially of a church or religious system.

2.  the maintaining of such an opinion or doctrine.

3.  Roman Catholic Church . the willful and persistent rejection of any article of faith by a baptized member of the church.

4.  any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs, customs, etc.

Harvey Cox in his book The Future of Faith tells us that heresy is a man-made invention that came about many years after the first Christians.

In the last few decades, however, all these assumptions have proven erroneous. The following are now evident. First, there never was a single “early Christianity” there were many, and the idea of “heresy” was unknown. Second, it was not the apostles themselves, but subsequent generations who invented “apostolic authority,” and both creeds and hierarchies emerged much later than had been thought. Third, an essential key to comprehending the earliest Christians, including those who wrote the New Testament, is to see their movement as a self-conscious alternative to the empire that tyrannized them. And the best way to understand the succeeding generation of Christian leaders is to notice how they reversed course and gradually came to admire and emulate that empire.

It turns out that heresy is almost exclusively about beliefs and has nothing to do with “being” a Christian. Why does this problem between beliefs vs being crop up so frequently in the church?  I think much of it has to do with the power structures built up by the church and of course the egos that go along with  that power. No, the church is not exempt from the old saying that Power corrupts and absolute power absolutely corrupts. Throughout its history the Christian church has had a very vertical hierarchy. As a result almost all change comes from the top down. Grass roots change is very rare among any Christian church structure both before and after the Reformation.

Since God is obviously not in the refereeing business, or he would have taken care of this long ago, he leaves it up to us to work out. Obviously we are not good at it at all! Too many egos in play. It just seems difficult for Christians to allow diversity of beliefs to exist in Jesus’ church

More about that in the next post.

The First Rummage Sale ….The Dark Ages…

Continuing with our study of the “rummage sales” within the Christian church every five hundred years lets look at the first one.  Before we start I will admit that I didn’t know much about this period of time before this study so I relied on several books on the shelves behind me and in my Kindle to help me understand.  I will put those references at the end of the last post on the topic for those who are interested.

The first great rummage sale happened when the church moved from the late Roman period into the Dark ages. When Constantine made Christianity the State religion of the Roman empire around 350CE  he did so primarily to try to shore up his crumbling empire. Long story short it didn’t work. Well it actually worked for a while. The Christian church became a powerful influence in the world.  It became an empire religion. But then the Roman empire started imploding so did the power of the church.

Here is how Mrs. Tickle summarized this. For brevity the following was gleaned as bits and pieces from the book:

During the sixth century, the Apostolic Church…gave way to an organized monasticism as the true keeper and promulgator of the faith….

Stupendous as this reconfiguration was, and has been, for global Christianity in all three of its major parts, the agonies of the sixth century gave something of far more immediate and dramatic use to Western Christianity and culture. They gave the Western world a reconfigured form of monasticism that functioned not only as a way of private holiness but also as a way of societal and political stability….

All these things that are familiar to us now and that had been the Christianity of Constantine and his immediate successors require at least a rudimentary literacy as well as a civil stability that allows the free flow of worshipers from home or business to places of worship and godly instruction. Late fifth-century Romans had neither. What politically and culturally would very swiftly spiral down into the Dark Ages was already at work peeling the Christianity of the Early Church away from the laity and inserting into the resulting vacuum a kind of animistic, half-magical form of a bastardized Christianity that would characterize the laity and much of the minor clergy over the next few centuries.

During those centuries of darkness, and largely because of Gregory’s prescience and acumen, Western Christianity would be held in trust in Europe’s convents and monasteries. The monks and nuns would not all be pure or brilliant or even, in many cases, themselves literate. But enough of them would be so that the great treasures of the first five centuries of the Church would be preserved, and then added to, by the great minds of the Dark Ages.

Next time we will delve a little further into Gregory the Great’s role in this church transformation and talk a little more about some of the quote above, and what happened to the church during this period.

The Decrees of Constantine…

I am going to start this post with an alarming story of Constantine’s involvement in the Council of Nicaea. It is from a book by Harvey Cox entitle The Future of Faith.   If this doesn’t cast out any doubt of man’s involvement in the change from faith to rigid belief nothing will:

Constantine, not Jesus, was the dominant figure at Nicaea, and it is hardly surprising that almost all the bishops, to the emperor’s satisfaction, arrived at a nearly unanimous decision in his favor. Only Arius himself and three other stubbornly independent bishops withheld their approval. Constantine promptly exiled Arius to the remote province of Illyricum. Then, in a statement that suggests he had forgotten his previous view both that this was all a matter of small significance and that all the parties should show forbearance to one another, he decreed: If any treatise composed by Arius be discovered, let it be consigned to the flames…and if anyone shall be caught concealing a book by Arius, and does not instantly bring it out and burn it, the penalty shall be death; the criminal shall suffer punishment immediately after conviction.3 But the emperor’s draconian measures did not succeed. The historic Council of Nicaea, as an effort to unify the church and the empire by imposing a creed, proved a dismal failure. Within months arguments flared up again. One of the bishops who had attended the Nicaea council and had not supported the final decision, Hilary of Poitiers (d. ca. 367), found himself banished to Asia. No doubt his experience tinctured his opinion of councils and creeds, but a letter he wrote from his place of exile at the time pinpoints how little the Council of Nicaea had accomplished and what a debacle it had been. Hilary says: It is a thing equally deplorable and dangerous that there are as many creeds as opinions among men, as many doctrines because we make creeds arbitrarily and explain their inclinations…arbitrarily…every year, nay every moon we make a new creed and describe invisible mysteries. We repent what we have done. We defend those who repent. We anathematize those whom we defended. We condemn either the doctrine of others in ourselves, or our own in that of others; and reciprocally tearing one another to pieces, we have been the cause of each other’s ruin.

Arius definitely caught the ire of Constantine and his brutality. Not only did he banish this noble bishop who dared to disagree with him on church matters he made even having anything written by Arius a penalty of death!! Sadly these types of stories are somewhat frequent in the years following Constantine’s mandating Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

We will be studying some more about this period in future posts but for now it is important that you realize that Christianity’s history is messy indeed. I am not saying that there are no good parts to what became the Church of Jesus Christ but only that we must be aware that much of the simple teachings of Jesus were later polluted by men seeking to consolidate personal power in earthly focused empires. Power corrupts, even inside the Christian church!

About Those Creeds…..

Most Christians today only know of two creeds: The Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. In reality there were hundreds if not thousands of creeds generated during the 4th through the 10th centuries. It seemed that every time a bishop felt his power threatened he claimed to have another creed dictated by God.  Here is what Harvey Fox said about that in his book the Future of  Faith about the times after Constantine nationalized Christianity:

Meanwhile the Christian bishops went on debating the fine points of theology. Now they argued over what homoousios really meant and the nature of Mary’s relationship to God and Christ. They composed more creeds and excommunicated more people. After the fall of Rome in 476 CE, the ensuing centuries told a dismal story of the repeated failure of using creeds and excommunications to achieve any result, except for further rancor. If, as some psychologists claim, at least one form of mental illness can be defined as doggedly repeating the same tactic over and over again even when it has always failed, creeds could be thought of as symptoms of a long psychological disorder…

The history of Christianity during the decades after Constantine makes for dreary reading. The subversion of the church into a religious empire widened. The bishops continued to bicker among themselves and deployed the power of the state against their theological enemies. Corruption increased.

When I started my serious study of various religious denominations one came almost immediately to my attention and that was The American Society of Friends, better known as Quakers. Quakers are strongly against all of the various creeds that have existed in the church. Little did I know that after years of studying this issue I would fully fall in line with their beliefs that creeds do more damage to the church of Jesus than they ever could hope to accomplish.

As indicated by the above quote creeds have been primarily used to exclude people who are deemed to believe the wrong things.  They are used to exclude rather than include as Jesus clearly did.  To me the ironic thing about almost all of the creeds I have studied is that they are primarily about things that Jesus never taught or said. They are instead about what various leaders thought many years after Christ.

I really don’t think it matters much to Jesus that some believe that his mother was a virgin before and even after he was born. I don’t think Jesus cares if we think of him and God, and the Spirit as three in one or just as three dimensions of the same god.  If  you are interested pull out the catechism from your version of  Christianity and study just what it is you are supposed to believe. You just might be surprised if you really look at the words.

Jesus did not come to earth so that men, some many years after he left, could put together a group of mandated beliefs about God in order to exclude people from their ranks.  Jesus was all about inclusion; much of his current church is about exclusion and creeds are one of their primary weapons. I’m sure this saddens Jesus greatly. ..

Early Christian Practices….

TO start this post here is a quote from Robin Myers book entitled The Underground Church – Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus.

Although Western Christianity would eventually be defined as a belief system about God, throughout its first five centuries people understood it primarily as spiritual practices that offered a meaningful way of life in this world not as a neat set of doctrines, an esoteric belief, or the promise of heaven. By practicing Jesus teachings, followers of the way discovered that their lives were made better on a practical spiritual level.

Given for the past 1500 years or so, or at least since the age of Constantine, Christianity has been pretty much defined by what we are supposed to believe about Jesus it is hard to remember that was not the case for the first four hundred years or so. When we look back at history sometimes we lose track of time. In this instance the institution known today as Christianity went 350 years without a one required set of beliefs that defined them. That is longer than the total history of the United States. There was an accepted diversity in almost every congregation.  Strict alignment to beliefs were just not important to them in those years. Yes, sometimes those outside of their group, such as evidenced by Paul’s letters gave advice but they didn’t dictate beliefs.

We will soon be studying how the change from following Jesus to believing particular things about him happened. Most of the beliefs that we hang our current Christian faith on now were never mentioned by Jesus himself but were instead inventions of men who came later; often times much later.  We will be getting into those details in future posts. To understand the history of the church, even the early history, is to understand man’s involvements in its formation. Yes almost every change that occurred the author claimed divine inspiration as its source. But this is even true for all those things that were thrown aside when the “official” church document known as the Bible was formulated.  Can we really be so sure that everything chosen was from God and everything reject was not?  In order to understand church history it is necessary to look at everything for ourselves and not to just take what others tell us to believe.

This will be especially true in the coming weeks when I start to look at the history of the things that formulated this “Age of Belief” that many are now starting to question.