Open Bible

Engage the culture, but never at the cost of marginalising doctrine

What unites […] various reactions to the collapse of Christendom is the marginalising of doctrine. Anyone who knows the history of Christendom, however, will not be surprised. As Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) observed as part of his argument for the revision of Belgic Confession article 36, the church-state complex (Christendom) was never a great friend to orthodoxy. The list of creedal and confessionally orthodox civil magistrates is rather short. Most of the time, magistrates were either hostile to orthodoxy (for example, during the struggle for orthodoxy in the wake of the Council of Nicea) or indifferent to it.

The assumption by theocrats and theonomists that when they are in charge things will be different is as hubristic as that those Marxists are assure us that when they are in charge, there will not be another slaughter of millions of Kulaks or another Cultural Revolution. Sure, the Soviet Union was never able to meet a single one of their vaunted “Five Year” programmes for food production, but next time they will get it right and Communism will work. The word risible comes to mind.

Christendom always marginalised doctrine in favour of an alleged higher social good. Magistrates are rarely more concerned about the heavenly kingdom (Phil 3:20) than they are their own. Magistrates, whether hereditary or elected, love power and control. Some of them are positively Messianic in their aspirations for this world.

[…] We would all be better served if we acquainted ourselves with Christianity as it existed before Christendom (that is, pre-AD 381), since that is the sea towards which we are now sailing.

We ought to be looking at Ignatius of Antioch, the treatise to Diognetus, Justin Martyr, Polycarp and Irenaeus for clues on how to navigate a culture that is by turns ignorant of or hostile to orthodox Christianity. None of these writers and pastors sought take over the Roman empire for Christ. They did not flee the culture […] Rather, they sought to be faithful where they were.

The theologian who tried to persuade Diognetus, perhaps a Roman official, to become a Christian said that, unlike the pagans, we do not worship idols made by hands, and unlike the Jews we do not have our own language, food, dress and “fussy” (his word) approach to the Sabbath (although the Christian Sabbath was a given already). We lived cheek-by-jowl with the pagans. We share our food, he said, but not our wives. Unlike the pagans, we do not put our infants on the stoop to die. Rather, the Christians baptized their children (which was also misunderstood by the pagans), loved them, and catechized them. They took care of one another and strongly emphasized the necessity of piety and sanctity before the eyes of a watching and suspicious pagan world.

Neither did they set aside Christian orthodoxy in the interests of transforming the Roman empire. Even as they were being persecuted for the sake of Christ, they worked out what would become ecumenical orthodoxy in the Rule of Faith (Regula Fidei), the elements of which appear as early as AD 114. Justin articulated it even as he defended the faith against its Jewish and pagan critics. Irenaeus articulated the Rule of Faith against the Gnostics and Marcionites.

In the early third century, Tertullian articulated what would become a core plank of the Definition of Chalcedon. At Nicea, after Christianity had been legalised, but during which the Christians were co-existing with and not dominating the pagans, the Christians sought to refute the Arians. Read the full article by R. Scott Clark.