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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Theology Tuesday: Unity and Perspective

Unity. It's always popular to tell the faithful that they should be more unified. Of course, what this unity means is seldom clearly defined. Sometimes it is about letting go of traditional methods in favor of ones that may work better - which makes some sense. Other times it is a desire to abandon doctrinal differences in the name of unity. Still other times it is merely a call to relegate disputes to a sidebar and work together as one Body in Christ.

However, oftentimes it is a call for one party, typically the more conservative one, to abandon one or more doctrines because they are devisive. The idea is that the early church was a lot more "unified" than we are today.

I am studying church history, and have made it into the second century A.D., where some of the early church fathers, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandrea, and Ireneus, for example, penned great works in support of the church. What has given me perspective is not the actual works of any of the church fathers, but the Introduction to "On the Incarnation", by Athanasius. The introduction is written by C.S. Lewis, and is a call for believers to read these works of the early church, which he calls "old books". Essentially, as I have already found, we cannot understand Augustine by reading what John Piper has to say about Augustine. In that case, we just get John Piper's Augustine. Instead, we should read Confessions, or The City of God. To quote Lewis, "if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about "isms" and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said...The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism."

Too true - which is why I am committed to the "old books" for the foreseeable future. However, today's perspective from Lewis is a revelation of what we find in those old books. Hint: it is, and isn't, Unity.

"I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan, I read because they themselves are great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were "influences."...They are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates and ages...In those days in which I hated Christianity, I learned to recognize, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante...It was, of course, varied; and yet - after all - so unmistakably the same; recognizable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life..."

"We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is truly left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared to the swamps, and so broad compared to the sheep-tracks."

To find this undeniable unity that stretches through the ages, even when some doctrines were more ascendant than at other times, try Aquinas, without commentary. Augustine, Origen (not on hermenuetics, though!), Bunyan, MacDonald, Bonhoeffer, Lewis, Pascal, Traherne. My current selections are The Confessions of St. Augustine and De Principiis by Origen. Selections by Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Aquinas, Anselm, Gregory, Benedict, and Irenaeus will follow. I'll drop a summary when I get a chance for each - but don't take my word, or that of your educators. Read them yourself!


  • Come vote for your favorite Anglican/Episcopal blogs by category!

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    ~ The Common Anglican

    By Blogger The Common Anglican, at 9/07/2005 03:23:00 AM  

  • Well written Hammer. Yes, we should read it ourselves (that sounds familiar).

    By Blogger Teresa, at 9/07/2005 06:27:00 PM  

  • Hammer,

    I agree completely ... read the original. And if you're still a student make sure you go to a "Great Books" College or University. And if you're not, of course, don't stop reading. :)

    By Blogger Mark, at 9/07/2005 09:01:00 PM  

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