Thursday, October 18, 2007

Building a Culture of Faithfulness (Part 6)

Section 2 - Our Historical Setting

Western Religious and Intellectual Heritage

The preceding material has, in a very basic way, explained our Christian view of the world. We have learned who God is and what he is doing, who we are and what we are doing, and the purpose for all of this being and doing. But in order to live faithfully in this world, we also need to have some idea of how to apply this to the time and place in which we live today. What exactly is the nature of our times? A look at our history will help us see the ideas and actions which have shaped our times.

Here we will examine the two worldviews which have had the greatest influence in shaping the mind and heart of the society in which we live in early 21st century America. The two worldviews with the greatest impact upon America are paganism and Christianity. Do not be thrown by the label “paganism.” I am not using it in a pejorative sense, but only in the sense of any belief rooted in the idea that ultimate reality is part of this world and is open to our experience.[i] Let’s briefly examine the pagan worldview through what it holds the story of the world to be – its story of creation, fall, and redemption.[ii]

· Creation: How did it all begin? Where did we come from?

o This will tell us what paganism believes about prime reality and its nature, about the nature of mankind, and about how we can know things.

· Fall: What went wrong? What is the source of evil and suffering?

o This will tell us what paganism believes about right and wrong.

· Redemption: What can we do about it? How can the world be set right again?

o This will tell us what paganism believes about how a person can be rightly related to reality and about the meaning of human history.

Paganism – Plato and Aristotle through Kant to today

  • Creation – Paganism holds that ultimate reality is part of this world. This world has always existed in one form or another, and the “gods” which inhabit it are part and parcel of it. Aristotle believed in a Prime Mover that started everything we see and know. Mankind is the product of these “gods” or forces. Man knows what he knows only through the resources within himself (in Western history, this is usually reason). Plato has been particularly influential through his dualism. He said all of reality consisted of two realms: the realm of the Forms and the material realm. This applied to human nature as well. According to Plato, we are made up of form (mind) and material (body).
  • Fall – Paganism generally holds that morality (good and evil, right and wrong) originates in man, through his reason or desires. Paganism has real difficulty determining right and wrong. Common attempts have been to determine right by what achieves the highest good, by doing one’s duty, or by acting from proper motivation. Aristotle produced a sophisticated synthesis of these ideas known as “virtue ethics.” Kant produced his “categorical imperative.” The problems in the world are due to a lack of harmony of the appetites or desires within a man, or to a lack of the use of reason, or to a lack of willing the good. In practice, man becomes the measure of all things.
  • Redemption – Paganism commonly holds that a man can achieve the highest good through following the proper course of study or action and thus having “virtue.” In practice, man is the one who “saves” himself.

Christianity – Paul through the Reformation to today

We have already laid out the basics of the Christian worldview. But it is still helpful for us to have an understanding of how that worldview has been put into practice throughout history, both in good ways and in bad ways.

· Ancient Church History (A.D. 30 – A.D. 590)

o The apostolic era (to 100).

o The post-apostolic era (100-313), or the age of martyrs. This was the age of the recognition of the NT canon and of development of early statements of belief. However, it was also the time when a monarchical bishop developed in the church at Rome who claimed to be the successor to the apostle Peter. In the year 313, the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which made Christianity a legal religion in the Roman Empire.

o The old catholic imperial era (313-590), or the age of Christian emperors and patriarchs. This era is known for its councils which combated heresies and for its missionary work. However, there was also the development of monasticism, an elevation of materialistic, symbolic liturgy, and the development of the full primacy of the Roman bishop. The church became thoroughly integrated with the state.

Christianity in this era was sometimes influenced by Platonic ideas. For example, the most well-known thinker of this period, the brilliant Bishop of Hippo, Augustine, expressed some Neo-Platonist ideas.

· Medieval Church History (A.D. 590– A.D.1517)

o The rise of Latin-Teutonic Christianity (590-800).

o The Holy Roman Empire and the Great Schism (800-1054). Growing disputes between the eastern (Constantinople) and western (Rome) branches of the church culminated in 1054 with a split. On July 16, the Roman legates put a decree of excommunication on the patriarch of Constantinople. The patriarch responded by anathematizing the pope of Rome. (These decrees were finally removed on December 7, 1965.) There were now two “churches” claiming to be the true church. We will follow the story line of the Roman Catholic Church, for this is the major part of our heritage.

o The age of papal supremacy (1054-1294). The popes became particularly powerful at this time. There was also the development of the worship of Mary (including her immaculate conception), the worship of relics, and the dogma of transubstantiation.

o Corruption and controversy (1294-1517).

Toward the end of this era, Christianity was strongly influenced by Aristotle’s ideas, brought in particularly through Thomas Aquinas (1224/5-74). Aquinas maintained that a man may know truth apart from special revelation in areas of natural knowledge but that he needed additional light for that which transcended natural knowledge. He believed that humans were capable of doing good in their natural state, just not of doing the whole good natural to them. The natural ability of man was not grace, although it did come from God as the prime mover. Thus it in his system it was possible to develop law and ethics through reason alone.

· Modern Church History (A.D. 1517 to the present)

o Reformation and Counter-Reformation (1517-1648). The explosion that rocked the Roman Catholic Church and the Western world of that day is known as the Reformation, led by men such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. It is known for its doctrines which contradicted Roman Catholic teaching:

1. The Bible is the ultimate authority for faith and practice. It is a complete and sufficient revelation from God for faith and life.

2. Justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

The Roman Catholic Church responded with a vigorous effort known as the Counter-Reformation. A key part of the counter-reformation was the Council of Trent. There were now three major groups which claimed the name “Christian:” Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the Protestants.

o The Reformed Christianity came to America with the Pilgrims and Puritans. It held sway through the colonial era in New England. Nevertheless, by the time of the War for Independence, noticeable changes had taken place as the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment began to affect common thinking.

Immanuel Kant had a decided effect upon all European (and hence American) thinkers. His version of Platonic dualism is what he called the noumenal realm and the phenomenal realm. He believed that we can only know the phenomenal realm, but we have to postulate or suppose that there is a noumenal realm in order to explain certain features of our world, such as our idea of justice.

Christianity and paganism have interacted throughout our history as Americans. Christians have always been the poorer when they have embraced pagan (non-biblical) elements into their thinking. At times the pagan elements have effectively overshadowed truly Christian thinking.

Today one of the most pervasive impacts of pagan thinking upon Christian thinking is dualism. We tend strongly to think of life in split categories.

Sacred – revelation, faith


Secular – reason, empiricism

We tend to think of our everyday lives in rationalistic categories – medicine, engineering, law, politics, economics, etc. These are all things that we figure out on our own, things that God is supposed to be involved in only in a secondary sense. But our “spiritual” lives – going to church, understanding the Bible, etc. – these are all things we have to go by what God says. But this is pagan thinking that has terrible effects on our ability to glorify and enjoy God.

[i] The definition of religion is a vexed issue without much consensus, but I have found Roy A. Clouser’s work The Myth of Religious Neutrality (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005) to be helpful in this regard. For his definition of paganism, see p. 44. Paganism, in this conception, is the inverse of pantheism, which holds that everything we experience is part of ultimate reality.

[ii] Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 25.

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