Three Pillars of the Old Order – Part One
I frequently have conversations with friends who ask me: “why have you abandoned the old patristic / Greco-Roman synthesis?”
By “Greco-Roman synthesis”, depending on the conversation, they might mean Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or, for that matter, traditional forms of Calvinism or even Lutheranism.
In all cases they expect that I will launch into a laundry-list of complaints about the institutional problems or moral stances of contemporary churches. They are surprised when I instead answer: “theology.”
Then follows a few uncomfortable moments when they realize that I seriously think we need to question several central pillars of the Great Church synthesis, that is, of the central trajectory of Christian doctrinal elaboration since at least the 3rd/4th C, whether in its eastern or western forms.
Their first reaction is to think I’ve gone a bit crazy. To be fair, even three or four years ago, my reaction would have been similar.
But abandoning the classical synthesis is easier, simpler and maybe more plausible than you might think. (Actually, I think most of us already have… but that’s another post.)
In fact, my experience has been that once you seriously question three or four fundamental assumptions, the whole edifice crumbles rather quickly. Almost overnight, what once seemed familiar and normal rapidly becomes quite foreign and strange.
But what are those assumptions? I’m often asked, so here goes:
Pillar One: Scripture as the revelation of God
The idea. This is the idea that Christianity is fundamentally about exegeting the Bible: the Bible is a completely singular, uniquely sacred book that contains all truth about God (or at least, all relevant truth, or the “fullest” truth). Christianity is thus an exercise in understanding and living out this book as far as possible. The best Christianity is the one that ultimately takes best account of and “inscribes” itself and the world into the Bible.
There are many versions of this. There are the contemplative, spiritualizing versions, where the deepest truth of reality and God is found through progressively advanced contemplation of Scripture and its many levels of meaning. Here reading Scripture is understood as a quasi-mystical encounter with the word/Word (think: most of the patristic and medieval tradition). Or there are more fundamentalist or literalist readings, where the Bible becomes a simple word-for-word dictation of God, a divine handbook or law-book (many of the more populist streams of the Reformed tradition). Or there are all the subtler attempts to rephrase Scripture as the essential linguistic or epistemic matrix for true Christian knowing and believing (i.e. the post-liberals, but the root here is B-A-R-T-H.)
But in all versions, Scripture remains the ultimate repository of meaning and truth. The fundamental “process” of Christianity is always understood the same way: as a meditation on this book. Faith is a struggle to understand, obey, and live out this book. And Christian evangelism and apologetics are ultimately about trying to inculcate and justify a special and intense existential relationship with this book. (Check out Barth’s classic “The Strange New World of the Bible”.) Christianity lives or dies in its engagement with Scripture.
The problem. The whole notion of Christianity as an exercise in exegesis of a Scripture is very strange. The centre of Christianity is the proclamation of the Good News of the completely free gift of salvation given in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus, dead and risen for us, is the revelation of God. Now, think about it: here we are, standing at the empty tomb, having received this Good News, this total revelation of God and God’s purpose… and then, surprise, God also hands us a mysterious sacred book to puzzle over for eternity!
No! Christianity doesn’t have a Scripture in this sense. We don’t even have one in the same ways the Greeks had with their “divine Plato” or “Homer the Theologian”. We have the Gospel, and we have some important early writings that have traditionally been used to understand and communicate that Gospel. But the scriptures are – obviously – not the Gospel itself. Even the notion that the Gospel must be understood “according to the Scriptures” is only true retrospectively, i.e. once you’ve already believed the Gospel. Strictly it’s more correct to say that the Gospel can be and has been understood according to the Scriptures (because, of course, it actually takes quite a bit of effort to make many parts of the Scripture proclaim the Gospel, and we have to admit that many of the traditional attempts at this are now little more than historical curiosities, vestiges of various ancient hermeneutics).
A relief. It is a tremendous relief to free ourselves from the scripturalization of Christianity. So much energy – and credibility – has been spent on trying to devise, justify and enforce a “Scriptural worldview”. These energies should instead be devoted to proclaiming the Gospel – which, unlike most “Scriptural worldviews”, is always good news, always liberating, always transcendent, always relevant. Ethically, too, it’s extremely important for us to put down “The Bible” as that compact, sacred totality that fits all too conveniently into our human hands: the potential for weaponization is tremendous.
Does this mean we are demeaning Scripture? Are we dis-enchanting it? Are we depriving it of its numinousity? Severing our many and rich relationships with it?
In a way, yes. We humans divinize everything: nature, things, money – and yes, our books. But the constant movement of Christian faith is to keep averting our gaze away from our divinities and to the Jesus of the Gospel, who alone is truly holy, divine, sacred. I admit that this can be a hard and dispiriting task. But in a way it’s our only task. Ultimately it’s a great relief, as it’s the ultimate movement of hope and trust – a movement from our realities, to something greater, something still promised, something still to come.
But in a way, it’s not really a dimunition of Scripture. We’re simply rediscovering Scripture in a more honest and authentic way: Scripture is a human document that is nevertheless rich for us because of the Gospel. It is not God’s story: God’s story is the cross. But it is our story, or one of them: and inasmuch as it “inculcates Christ“, it is truly holy and numinous.
Pillar Two: The Problem with Deification. This is the idea that Christianity is about “spreading” holiness: salvation is a progressive transformation of all aspects of reality into a more divine form. This is a well-meaning Greek idea that can get us into very serious problems.
Pillar Three: Christian Faith as Knowledge. This is the subtle but pervasive idea that Christianity is a religion of insight, wisdom, and knowledge of the divine. This is the belief that Christianity is the ultimate “philosophy”, even in the broadest sense of the word as a wise or holy way of life. It’s hard to get your mind around the idea that Christianity might not be this, at least not at its core — but once you do, nothing is more decisive in severing our connection with the ancient synthesis.
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