In the 4th century, as Christianity was crawling out from underneath the oppressive thumb of persecution, the “Golden Age of Theology” arose. Free from persecution, Christians had time to sit and contemplate on all that they already had believed, but could now look at terminology that better described it. While Christianity was never without its thinkers, its philosophers/theologians (for in those days it was all one in the same), and its apologists, it was difficult for Christianity to form a unified terminology concerning how they spoke of Christ. While Christians had standards, those standards weren’t exactly spelled out; after all, when you’re avoiding Roman soldiers, it’s best not to hold major councils.
But during the years of persecution and even during the first few centuries of acceptance, when pagans and Christians lived in relative peace together (though certainly it was an uneasy peace as many Christians adopted the new state religion while still holding onto their paganism), Christians accomplished two things; no one could out-think them and no one could out-serve them. No doubt such a reputation came from the general populace of Christians taking to heart the commandments to both love God with all that we are (including our minds) and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Emperors and statesmen were astonished with Christians and both hired them to teach their children and lamented the fact that Christians took care of the poor better than the pagan Romans did. In fact, Justinian the Apostate, who attempted to reintroduce Paganism in the post-Constantine era was quick to remove all Christian teachers from the Academy in Greece and also to write how he hated the fact that the Christians not only helped their own poor, but the poor of the pagans. Such was the reputation of the early Church, even post-Nicaea.
It is during this period where we learn about the Incarnation from Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, the purpose of practical living as a holy calling from John Chrysostom, the Trinity from numerous sources, and the list goes on. What is even more amazing are two facts; (1) most of these books were written for general consumption among the populace of Christians, books that we no longer read today because we have lost the ability for deep thinking and (2) books that weren’t letters or simply books in general were actually sermons; some of the material that your average deacon or pastor would struggle with today was a sermon meant for the ears of a twelve-year-old of yesteryear.
Such a lack of depth has not always been a problem in Christianity, even during the Schism of the 11th century and the Reformation of the 16th century both held intact the intellectual heritage of Christianity (though the heritage of love, our most important heritage, had fallen by the wayside long ago). During the late 1600’s and all the way to the early 1800’s, Christianity again began to produce both intellectual leaders and spiritual leaders, who implored their congregations to good works and service in the community. These were not intellectual lightweights, nor would they look with anger upon a beggar.
And yet today, most congregants cannot tell you the last time they heard a sermon on the Trinity and, sadly, most evangelical pastors could not explain the Trinity to you without imploring some form of an analogy (which, ironically enough, almost always ends as a representation of heresy). What is worse is that we are not only Philistines intellectual growth, but quite cold-hearted as well. Not only would the vast majority of church-going evangelicals fail to sufficiently explain both the Trinity and Incarnation to you, were you to appear poor or in need, they would still look down their noses at you.
There is something to be said when comparing early Christianity to modern Christianity. Even the children were well-instructed in the faith, because faith was taken seriously. The local church often lived in communion with one another, mostly so the poor could find shelter and food. Compare this to the modern church you walk into, where the average member knows far more about who has the best shot on winning “Dancing With the Stars” or more about Sarah Palin or Barack Obama than they do the concept of theosis or about Athanasius or even Augustine. At our bigger churches the parking lot can rival that of a Fortune 500 company’s parking garage in terms of quality cars filling the stalls. There is something wrong with this picture.
The great controversy for local churches in early Christianity was what to do about those who denied the deity of Christ. Today it is over the style of music we have (for we know what to do with those who deny the deity of Christ; make them spiritual leaders and attend their political rallies). The great actions of the early Church were to help the poor (those who were truly poor, not the lazy), the widows, the orphans, the sick, and the imprisoned. The actions of Christians today are to attend rallies and to speak out against government policies that would help the unfortunate (completely forgetting that such policies are only a necessity since the Church has failed to live as Christ called her to).
There is something desperately wrong when you read a sermon of John Chrysostom and experience depth that has not been seen before, but turn around and attend a “big box” church that focuses on entertaining you and not feeding you. Even in churches that focus on teaching Scripture, the sermons tend to be focused solely on the practical, because we are an unimaginative, unthinking, practical people. We want to be told what to do and what to think, not how to think for ourselves. The Kingdom of God, however, is not meant for the practical person.
I am not against practical sermons. They do have their place, especially for congregations full of young or immature congregants. But at some point a pastor must take on the deeper things. He must preach a sermon that challenges the listener, both intellectually and spiritually. Pastors tend to think “that sermon went over my head” is a complaint (and often it is lodged as one). Sometimes, however, it should be a compliment. Sometimes a congregation should wade out into the depths and have to struggle to stay afloat. For it is here that true growth is found.
I am not calling on everyone to have a seminary education. Truth be told I have been to a seminary and even there I am not impressed with the knowledge concerning the deeper things of Christ. The neo-Calvinists are far too concerned with the Reformers and whether or not God predestined 1,000 angels to dance on the head of a pin or if it was 1,001 angels. The non-Calvinists are too busy thinking of ways to bash the neo-Calvinists, or creating new and inventive ways to bring people to Christ (I hear we should expect “Left Behind: 3D” or “The Greatest Story Ever Told in IMAX” at any point). No, a seminary education will not do, for even when it does, it often leads to a cemetery life. Besides, I have met laypeople with hardly a GED who knew more about the Trinity and better used this knowledge to serve the community than the greatest scholars at a seminary (I am not against seminaries either, but just see them as superfluous if we avoid the deeper doctrines, or merely spend a class on them).
Some might object and point to the rise of people like Mark Driscoll or others. While such people are to be lauded for standing up for truth, if you must point to an individual that is outside your local church, or outside yourself, all you have accomplished is admitting you are part of the problem (in the end, we all are part of the problem anyway). But where are the champions of the Christianity of Old? Even these modern voices who call out for an intellectual and spiritual renewal leave out the democracy of the dead. If they bring up our Christian past it may only extend back to the Reformation, and only rarely to Augustine or (if they are daring) Athanasius. But if you spend any more time prior to 1517 then you run the risk of being called a Papist, or worse, a wishy-washy, mystery-loving Eastern Orthodox! Yet, Christ did not die in 1517 and the disciples did not spread through Germany, France, and Switzerland, proclaiming the good news and that the Pope had failed in his inquisition of Christ. Christ died under the pagan Romans and our foundation must begin there, in the ancient writings that sometimes make us writhe in thought and dare to keep us up at night (for we are confronted with the fact that we could be wrong on some things, and must consider if we have overreacted against the excesses of Medieval Catholicism). But in the end, it is far easier to simply pick up a John Piper book, feel good about ourselves, and go back to thinking we’re radical by attending our small group and feeding the poor once a month.
Christianity in America is dying. Yes, 70% might claim to be Christians and in pockets we might still find a Christ-centered culture; but who’s Christ? Do we speak of the Incarnate Christ, or do we fail when we struggle to understand exactly what “Incarnate” means? My critics would point to Scripture and say, “You heretic! Did not Christ say the gates of Hell would never prevail against His people?” My retort would be quite simple; gates don’t move forward. That the gates of Hell would not prevail refers to our invasion of Hell, to our approaching the gates and breaking through them. This refers nothing to the death of Christianity in a culture (which can and has happened), but to the fervor with which Christians desire to be conquerors. Certainly, when Christianity dies in America it will not be because Hell has waged war against us and won; it will be because we have finally succumb to a slow ghastly suicide.
Do not be so arrogant as to think America can lose Christianity. Other cultures have done so, some because of conquest, but most because the populace simply became apathetic towards Christ. In such instances, when Christianity dies, it is either forgotten, or the small remnant is persecuted. The former is a punishment upon the culture itself (for all hope is removed), the latter is a form of discipline for Christians. Only under persecution can apathetic Christians begin to learn.
I close with this analogy:
Imagine a kid who is active among his group of friends. When one falls down, he is the first one there to patch up any injuries. When one needs help with homework, he has the answers. But as time goes on, for whatever reason he becomes more introverted. He is less willing to help bandage the wounds of his friends, though he’ll still help with homework. Then one day a friend questions an answer given by the young man. Rather than taking the time to answer his friend, the young man simply walks away from his friend. He begins to fear that his other friends are out to get him. The person asking for help to bandage the wound only wants a handout from the young man, or so he thinks. The friends working on homework are ultimately ignorant, thinks the young man, and in rebellion he begins to despise the studies he used to love.
Eventually the young man runs away from his friends and hides from them. While in the woods, where he can still see them, he finds an area full of strange bushes. These bushes produce all sorts of candies and when mixed with water, produce the best soda you’ve ever had. The young man sits there and gouges himself on the never-ending supply of sweets. As he does so, he yells at his friends and the error of their ways; he can tell that some of the children are still injured, but attempt to act like they’re not. He notices that bullies rise up and beat down more children, injuring them, but the young man goes back to eating his sweets. His intellectual friends end up with the wrong answers on the homework, and he can tell the answers are wrong, but instead he goes back to eating his sweets. As we all know, too many sweets can harm you, and as his immune system wears down and sickness lets in, he feels he must eat more and more. Eventually he cries out to his friends that they have caused this, but they no longer hear him as he is completely irrelevant.
The young man then throws the candy at them to entice them to come to him. At first there is interest, but the children say to themselves, “We can get the same candy inside.” Besides, the injured children are too injured to walk to the boy and know that he’ll simply put them to work getting more candy for him and the intellectual children know that candy harms the mind. Sadly, the young man succumbs to his eventual death, but none of the friends notice for they had forgotten about him long ago.
This is the future of Christianity in America. Unless we go back to the meatier teachings, the more abstract teachings (and rest assured, these abstract teachings have a practical purpose, but such a purpose is often found in wisdom and not instruction), we have no hope. Unless we begin to live in love and live out the principles of the abstract teachings, we will simply become more irrelevant. And many years from now Christianity will die in America, not at the point of a tyrant’s sword, but on its back in a deep sleep caused by its own pleasure-induced coma.