Archive for the ‘History’ Category

ANF – The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna

January 17, 2018

This post is one of a series of reviews of the early Church Fathers, who are technically referred to as the Ante-Nicene Fathers (before the Council of Nicaea).  To find other reviews of these ancient writings, use the search bar on my blog and search for ANF.

An encyclical describes a letter that was sent from one Church to the next within a given area.  It was a means by which the words of one person (often a Bishop) could be shared with multiple congregations without the need for the Bishop to send multiple letters himself.  Over time the term has come to mean any official correspondence sent by a Bishop, and now refers specifically to official letters from the Roman Catholic Pope.  The word derives from the Latin encyclios, which means circle or round, and is the same root word for our English word encyclopedia.

Thus, The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna.  Sent from the Church at Smyrna (one of the seven churches addressed in the Revelation of St. John) to the Church at Philomelium.  Some versions of this document say Philadelphia instead of Philolium, perhaps in deference to the book of Revelation, but the textual evidence supports Philolium better.  The letter was then copied and sent to other congregations nearby.  The bulk of the letter is a detailed account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna.  He was the twelfth Christian to be martyred in Smyrna, and undoubtedly the one of highest rank in the Church, thus occasioning the letter.

These Christians were referred to as Atheists – those who refused to accept a multiplicity  of gods and instead insisted on there being only one God.  The letter recounts the details of several other martyrs, including a Germanicus who, when sentenced to death by wild animals with other Christians fought against the animals and had them kill him first.  Mention is also made of Quintus, who apparently thought that the right thing to do was to surrender voluntarily to Roman authorities and accept martyrdom.  Yet when he was faced with martyrdom by wild beasts, Quintus grew afraid and agreed to offer sacrifices to other gods and denounce Christ.  The letter asserts the policy, based on this situation, that people should not actively offer themselves up for martyrdom because this is not directed by Scripture.

The letter describes Polycarp’s prophetic dream whereby he knows how he will be martyred – by fire.  But then when his martyrdom arrives, the fire is unable to touch him, and he has to be killed by a sword instead.  I love Polycarp’s response when asked/commanded to denounce Christ and offer sacrifices to pagan gods – Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury:  how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?

Polycarp’s martyrdom is attended to with miracles.  He tells them not to nail him in place because God the Holy Spirit will ensure he doesn’t attempt to escape the flames.  When the fire is kindled it does not touch or harm him in any way.  When the sword pierces his left side, in addition to a flow of blood (likely because his heart is pierced) a dove also emerges.  There is controversy over this latter detail though, and some early copies (Eusebius) omit it all together as incorrect.  The Greek for dove looks similar to the Greek word for “on the left side” and could possibly be an error in copying.

This is likely the first of the martyrologies – works recounting the deaths of Christians on account of their faith.  It serves as both a warning to what awaits those who persist in the faith, as well as an encouragement that, even in the hour of death, God does not abandon his children, and will give them the necessary courage to endure whatever is put upon them.

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True Worship II

December 20, 2017

Thinking further about this, it came to me that it isn’t just a matter of people deciding not to go to church any more on Christmas that is at issue.  Once again, it’s a complicated subject.  One that is complicated to great extent by our mobile culture and our oft-cited idea that one can (or even should) work and live wherever they want.

I’ve ended up doing this more by hook than by crook.  I understand the appeal of living in different places and seeing different parts of the world and learning about culture and food and all sorts of ancillary aspects of God’s amazing creation (and sometimes our sinful twisting of it).  We recently bid farewell to a young woman headed for multiple parts of the world over the next six months, after living four years away from her family so she could attend university and then another two years after that as she waited to figure out what her next moves (heh) in life would be.

But this mobility is a somewhat new phenomenon, historically speaking.  It used to be that in general, you stayed where you were raised.  In great part because work and family were more closely intertwined, and so the odds of going away from home and finding work were much smaller for most people than the odds of already having work at home.  Most people didn’t go off to work, but lived and worked all in the same or closely related setting.

Family members were more apt to stay put, which meant you had larger networks of extended families all in the same location.  Which meant that Christmas worship wasn’t something that was separate from all your other Christmas traditions – it was a part of them because practically all of your extended family was going to be at church as well.  Church was a more natural part of the larger family celebration of Christmas (or Easter, or just an average Sunday).

Now that’s not as often the case.  Most of the members in my congregation have to travel somewhere else to be with their kids and grandkids for the holidays.  Or their family has to travel to them, often from multiple locations around the country, which of course is hard to coordinate and often doesn’t happen.  Our Sunday Happy Hour Crew is mostly still of the age (early 20’s) that they go home to be with their parents for Christmas.

This sounds at one level as though not much has changed.  Family is still together on Christmas, so they should naturally be at church, right?  Sure, I can agree with that.  Except that mom and dad’s church may not be son and daughter’s church.  Or it may be the same church with a new pastor.  Or the pastor may be the same, but son and daughter were whisked away to children’s church every Sunday and never formed relationships with the pastor or the other adults in the congregation, so effectively their parent’s church really is a different church from the one they went to, even if the location and the preaching pastor is the same.

All of which continues to contribute to a sense that church really isn’t part of the family’s Christmas observance, even if technically they were all at church together before.

I’m not advocating throwing our hands in the air and saying well that’s that, we might as well cancel our Christmas worship.   There are plenty of people who still incorporate church as part of their Christmas day celebration.  There are still a few who will wander out on Christmas by some indefinable prompting even if they don’t go to church the rest of the year.

And while people may relocate away from family more often these days, this highlights the important aspect that church can play as a new family to transplants.  Few of my parishioners were born and grew up here.  Most came from elsewhere, generally in their 20’s with spouses and children in tow.  But they found a home away from home, a family away from family in their congregation.  I visited a woman in the hospital who is 91-years old.  She was sitting and talking with a woman she has been best friends with for 60 years.  Many of the people in my congregation have known each other for more than half a decade.  They are family to one another, which is an incentive for them to come to worship regularly.  They’re getting to see their family that they didn’t get to see most of the rest of the week.

Just like people did centuries ago.

The rise of the Church and particular celebratory observances was facilitated in great part by the fact that families – extended families – would all go together.  It was part of their tradition (and if they were Roman Catholic, also an obligation on their part!) together.  While we can lament that this is no longer the case, we should at least acknowledge that this will have an impact on church attendance patterns on holy days.  And we should, as the church and parents and grandparents, be encouraging our kids and grandkids to plug into congregations where they live, so that they can begin building the relationships that will serve as surrogate family to them all the rest of the year when they don’t travel home to be with Mom and Dad and the rest of the clan.

Suspecting the Past

November 29, 2017

Five years ago I returned from a ten-day tour of some of the major holy sites in Israel.  I was blessed to accompany members of my congregation and other folks in a small group (less than 20 of us!) as we visited Bethlehem, Jericho, Nazareth, the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, and of course, Jerusalem.

I think I’m still in a state of overload from that trip, which seems as much dream as reality.  But I know that while I was there, there were times when my cynical and skeptical nature was in full gear.  After all, in a city like Jerusalem, that has traded hands multiple times and been knocked down and rebuilt in major sections, how confident could I be, should I be, that the places presented to us as associated with the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth actually were those places?

I find it frustrating and ironic in myself that as someone who teaches and preaches the imminent reality of the Biblical witness and the Christian faith, and who insists on grounding what we do and say in the literal and physical birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of the incarnate Son of Man, who regularly insists on the uniqueness of the Biblical witness and Christian faith in this regard compared to literally any other religion  – that we are grounded in historical and geographical reality – should waver in trusting 1700+ years of tradition associated with the sites of Jesus’ life and ministry.

In part, it’s because I suspect I suffer from an affliction common in our day and perhaps always – the affliction that presumes that right now, this generation (and those that come after) is the apex of human reliability and accuracy.  Everyone and everything before us is suspect to varying degrees, whether it’s my parents or the ancient Church.  Part of this is bound up in the post-modern suspicion of anything beyond personal experience and knowledge (which, frankly, is pretty much everything).  I hold belief in suspension at times because I can’t personally prove it to myself (as though I really had the inclination and motivation and time to personally validate everything).

So just because the site of the Holy Sepulchre has been venerated for 1700+ years, how can I trust all those people?  All those generations without iPhones or televisions or Wikipedia or National Geographic?  Should I trust that nearly two millenia of people got something right and kept it right when I’m not terribly concerned with remembering what I had for lunch yesterday?

In the end, I made a peace with it.  The events of Jesus’ life happened somewhere.  Any objective historian would say we have more than enough evidence of his life to  validate this claim.  If this isn’t the particular upper room then, what matters of it because there was an upper room?  And if this isn’t actually the site of Jesus’ tomb, it was a real tomb somewhere.

But perhaps I need to take the claims of history more seriously, particularly in regard to a singularly important individual like Jesus.  The guy who came back from the dead made a really big impression on a lot of people.  Should I think that they never brought people to the actual tomb to show them?  To describe what they saw there that morning, or didn’t see?  Should I expect that people who were willing to suffer dismemberment and death rather than reject the assertion that Jesus is divine and alive from the dead would be so careless as to forget where his tomb was and make some effort to mark it for future generations?

It doesn’t surprise me, then, that archaeologists and historians are declaring what people have been saying for 1700 years – there is good evidence that what sits at the center of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is indeed a tomb structure that dates back at the very least to the early fourth century (when the church is rumored to have first been built, under the direction of Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena).  It doesn’t surprise me that being skeptical is no indication of actual truth, and I’m happy to have my skepticism not only proved wrong by mankind over and over again, but forgiven by the Savior who rose from that tomb to save me from my cynical skepticism.

 

Reformation Day

October 31, 2017

If I am obliged to talk about the Reformation on it’s 500th anniversary, at least I can do it from a somewhat different angle.  Unfortunately, it’s an angle I don’t really care for – beer.  Still, it’s good to remember how impactful Luther was on so many different aspects of our culture today.

Book Review – The Blue Coat

October 29, 2017

The Blue Coat by Margie Brown.  Private printing.

The members of my congregation are by and large post-retirement age.  They are a delightful group of people with an amazing diversity of backgrounds and experiences.  But being of that age, there are several who lived through The War (World War II).  Several who lived through it in Germany or escaping from Germany.  Margie is one of those.  She was nine as the war was raging and bombs were falling on her hometown.  Nine years old as her father was fighting on the front lines in Russia, as her mother was sick and sometimes bed-ridden, and as her younger siblings were lost and rediscovered in the mad shuffle to try and keep people safe.

Margie suffered with nightmares for years, and when she married her husband suggested to her that she write down some of her war experiences.  The result is The Blue Coat, a short and simple telling of some of the key events of her life as a nine-year old in the midst of war.  Although she was encouraged to write more of her story during those years, she opted to keep it brief and focused.  Her nightmares went away.  And her family and a few privileged friends now have the opportunity to peek into a nine-year old’s view of the war.

Not surprisingly it is not about ideologies or political agendas.  It is simply about a girl trying to keep her family together – a task sometimes made harder by well-intentioned strangers.  A girl following instructions in order to remain safe from bombs and hunger.

It’s shocking, to think that a nine-year old could endure such things, but of course there are plenty of nine-year olds around the world today (or younger) who endure similar or worse, and for longer periods of time.  I grew up in a peculiar bubble, culturally and historically.  I didn’t need to fight in a war.  I haven’t had to worry about my house being bombed.  My family tucks one another into bed at night in peace and security.  The fact that people can survive and eventually thrive under opposite circumstances is incredible.

I wish more people were required to talk to and read the notes of those who have lived through terrible events, as a means of sharing perspective.  Our rights of free speech are being openly abridged and stripped away because of concerns that what is said might hurt someone else’s feelings, someone who won’t be able to cope knowing that someone, somewhere nearby, is saying something they disagree with.  It’s a big world out there, full of people who disagree with you.  Sometimes they drop bombs on your houses, and sometimes they don’t.  But knowing that you might be called upon to recover your siblings from homes they’ve been farmed out to might be a good way of reminding people that we need to be more resilient than we apparently are, more able to cope with pressure.  You can’t prepare for these things adequately, of course.  But you can certainly do better than refusing to deal with an offensive world.

ANF – The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus

March 27, 2017

After considerable delay, here is another document in ancient Christian literature and the second document included in the Ante-Nicene Fathers.

The there is no authorial identification or designation, so we don’t know who wrote it.  The traditional title is The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, however mathetes simply means disciple in Greek.   The manuscript for some time was attributed to Justin Martyr, although stylistic differences have resulted in most scholars today dismissing that attribution.  Nor do we have any clear idea of the identity of Diognetus, although some propose that it is the teacher of Marcus Aurelius who we know had the same name.  Although convenient, it is at best a stretch to insist on this connection.  The date of the writing ranges from early second century (perhaps 130 AD) to sometime in the late second century, and is likely the earliest surviving example of Christian apologetics.

The letter purports to explain to Diognetus more about the Christian faith and how it differs from both Jewish belief and pagan religions.  The letter cites Christianity as a new kind of practice, arguing for a very early dating for the document.  The author also claims to be a disciple of the Apostles, which many argue means a very early dating but which could also be a description applied to Christians today.  Many scholars dismiss the last two sections as later additions.  Only one copy of this document is known to have existed, and it was destroyed in 1870.  It was first translated and published in 1592.

The author first demonstrates the futility of worshiping physical idols.  Then he moves on to dismissing Jewish religion as equally misguided.  The pagans are foolish in that they offer material things to carved images.  The Jews are silly in that they propose to offer material things to an immaterial God who has no need of them and who is indeed the source and creator of them.  The author then moves on to explain basic Christian theology, emphasizing the Gospel or the sweet exchange in which we who are dead in our sins are credited with the righteousness of the Son of the living God.

It’s a great, brief contrast of the Christian faith to other religions, emphasizing our need for and God’s provision of a Savior.

History Still in the Making

March 7, 2017

Every now and then this local web site posts interesting historical tidbits drawn from newspapers a century or so ago.  This one was interesting because it pictures the first worship space our congregation built a century ago.  Time flies, faces change, but the Word of God continues to go out in our community!

The Common Cup

February 22, 2017

Does your church use the common cup (chalice) or individual cups for the wine at Holy Communion?  How much do you think about how it’s done?

The common cup/chalice is the ancient practice of the church, stemming from Jesus’ words and practice at the Last Supper where it seems very clear that the disciples are drinking from a single cup that Jesus passes to them.  But around the turn of the 20th century, that began to change for many congregations.  For a tongue-in-cheek history, you could read this essay.

One of the major concerns appears to have been hygiene – how safe can it be to all drink from the same cup now that we know about germs and bacteria and the like?  Well, it appears to be a lot safer than we thought it was, or than we think it is now.  For a more official treatment of the topic, you could reference this LA Times article from a few years ago.   The fact that most Communion chalices were/are made from silver or gold means that they don’t host bacteria and other nasties on their own.  Combine this with the (slight) alcohol content of the wine, and the use of a clean purificator utilized in an appropriate way, and you have a very sanitary ritual.

In fact, the cleanliness traditionally began before the chalice ever touched anyone’s lips.  The Roman Catholic mass includes the lavabo, the washing of the celebrant’s hands.  In the ancient Eastern church, this rite took place just before the celebrant would put on the special vestments for Holy Communion (the chasuble).  The chasuble helps to draw greater attention to the high point of Christian worship – as we receive the body and blood of Jesus the Christ in with and under the bread and the wine.  In our Lutheran circles there are still some churches and pastors that utilize a chasuble, but it has fallen out of fashion with the majority of them.  In the Western church, the lavabo rite was performed also just before actually administering the elements, rather than prior to vesting.  The name of the rite comes from Psalm 25:6, which was read (through verse 12) as part of the rite.

So, in other words, in the oldest practices of the Church, the common cup/chalice has been a safe means of sharing in Holy Communion – certainly far safer than other traditions such as the passing of the peace or the traditional time of fellowship after worship.  I’ve just reinstated the use of the common cup/chalice in our congregation, offering it as an option for those who request it.  Most don’t, but more and more are beginning to.  And if they so choose, hopefully they’ll realize that it is relatively safe to do so!

Deceptive Smugness

February 9, 2017

History has always fascinated me.  While that makes me marginally useful in trivia battles, it also (hopefully) provides me with valuable perspectives on life today and how we see ourselves.  The habit of looking at people in the past ought to condition how we look at ourselves.

As such,  I found this essay from Scientific American interesting initially because of the historical trivia.  But what I found ultimately more interesting is his philosophical application of the trivia.  He mocks doctors from 140 years ago for rejecting a new scientific idea circulating at the time which attributed infections to bacteria in the air and elsewhere which could only be seen under a microscope.  Of course today, when this has been well-proven it is easy to laugh at someone 140 years ago who doubted the novel assertion.

Germ theory is generally claimed to have emerged in the 1860’s or later. One of the doctors being mocked in the essay, Frank Hastings, graduated from medical school in 1835. The other, Alfred Loomis, graduated in 1852.  They can reasonably be excused for being suspicious of a new theory of infections.  But the author of the essay uses their initial disregard of germ theory as an example of how we shouldn’t miss opportunities to become smarter.  He then applies this to current politics and observes that “we insist on staying stupid when becoming smarter is an option.”

I don’t know many people who willfully remain stupid.  I know a lot of people who, like Loomis and Hastings, are skeptical about wholeheartedly endorsing whatever the latest scientific fashion or hypothesis is, particularly when we live in an age of information overload and so much of what we are told one day is seemingly reversed and contradicted the next.  Depending on who funds the study and what their perceived bias’ might be. Historically speaking, becoming smarter is a decidedly difficult thing to do properly.

Our country continues in the throes of violent (physically as well as verbally) disagreement over the trajectory of our nation’s policies.  The status quo – tacitly agreed to by both political parties – has been thrown off course somewhat by an unexpected President who  holds little regard for either political party and is attempting to implement some rather massive changes to the political system.  He doesn’t appear to have any major reason not to push for changes he actually thinks would be helpful.  He’s quite successful personally and isn’t reliant on political connections to further himself personally now or after his term ends.  He appoints outsiders and people who haven’t been part of the system to head major agencies.

This infuriates those who disagree with him, who are unable to understand how and why anyone without relevant experience in a given area, or with experience that is deemed undesirable in an area should be placed in charge of a government agency.  They seem convinced that the system is just fine.  In need of some tweaks and fine tuning, perhaps, but essentially functioning properly.  In the case of education, this means decrying the appointment of someone from outside of the teacher’s unions and without relevant bureaucratic experience as Education Secretary.  Despite the fact that a long string of far more qualified people have failed to improve substantively the quality of public education as a whole.

We could be in the middle of a difficult and surprising transition, an opportunity to become smarter despite the prevailing wisdom which is grounded in ideas and policies of the past.  How shocked many people would be to look back in five or ten or twenty years and recognize that the major changes suggested by an unpopular and inexperienced administration could actually be smarter than the advocacy of staying the course or doing things the way they’ve been done for years!  I imagine that critics today, confronted with their obstinance at some point in the future, would defend themselves by saying that there was no way that anyone could have known that such changes were actually smarter than prevailing wisdom, just as Loomis and Hastings undoubtedly would say in their own defense today.

A familiarity with history should ultimately lead us towards humility, rather than smugness.  One constant of history is that people have been surprised by major shifts in nearly every aspect of life.  It hasn’t been a steady progression of getting smarter, but often the raucous in-breaking of an outsider’s ideas that have made all the difference.  We’re grateful for their contributions in hindsight, but at the time they were nuisances or written off as charlatans, persecuted and mocked.

In the sciences as well as in every field, we need to train our young people to retain a bit of humility regardless of how  advanced their studies, how many degrees they accumulate, or how many articles they publish.  They may be critical of new ideas and have many good supporting reasons, but they should also be open to the possibility that they’re wrong.  That they’re only human and therefore blind to an opportunity to become smarter.  Not because they’re bad people, but just because they are limited in what they can know. The bleeding edge of becoming smarter is a pretty exciting place to imagine yourself, but odds are that a lot fewer of us are actually on that edge than imagine ourselves to be.

ANF -The First Epistle of Clement

February 1, 2017

One of my goals for many years has been to familiarize myself with the Church Fathers.  Though defined in different ways, I define it as those earliest Christians who left us manuscripts after the Apostles.  Thanks to a generous and very kind gift from Lois, I’m able to begin work on this goal at long last.  Yes, I know there are online resources for many of these things, but I’m old fashioned and like the idea of having a physical book to mark-up and refer to as necessary.

While many folks talk about the Church Fathers, I was never introduced to them properly in Seminary so I assume I will display gross ignorance on a regular basis as I comment on these writings.

Lots of interesting things to note.  Firstly, the Church Fathers don’t generate a lot of interest these days, as the last major translation work was done over 100 years ago (at least in treating of all of the writings and Fathers as a whole).  Scholarship is likely to have improved at least in some respects for some of these writings, but I’ll figure that out down the road, maybe.

The first writing in the compendium is the First Epistle of Clement.  Clement is traditionally held to be the one mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3, which means Clement is a contemporary of Paul and knew him personally – something I didn’t know – and which merits him priority as the first of the Church(post-apostolic) Fathers.   This letter is written from Clement, presumably at Rome, to the church in Corinth – the same church that St. Paul founded in Acts 18 and wrote two letters to that are included in the New Testament canon.  This Epistle is the only writing that is known (at least through tradition) to come from Clement’s hand, although other various writings are less reliably attributed to him.  Roman Catholics refer to him as Pope Clement I.  He is presumed to have been ordained by St. Peter prior to Peter’s martyrdom.  Little is known about his life and death (anything claiming to be authoritative or specific dates from 300 years after his life and death), but he is referenced as early as 199 AD by Tertullian.

The letter itself is a call for peace and reconciliation in the church at Corinth, which was apparently experiencing an even greater division and lack of unity than when St. Paul wrote his 1 Corinthians.  The issue appears to be a group of people in that church who wished to be treated with special honor and prestige, and were causing division in the congregation, to such an extent that word has come to Clement in Rome as well as to other Christian communities.  Clement calls the Corinthians to humility, repentance, and reconciliation.

To do this, he quotes a rather stunning number of Old Testament precedents while also making reference to Paul and the apostles.  Reconciliation is the duty of Christian community, and those guilty of causing discord should be willing not just to repent, but to even bear suffering or eviction from the community if those are the only means by which unity can be restored.  Clement concludes his letter trusting that such measures are unnecessary and looking forward to further reports that his admonitions have been heeded.

It’s not a particularly fascinating read, and is markedly different from the apostolic writings of the New Testament.  The Apostles write with authority – quoting Scripture on occasion or frequently, but for the most part simply saying what needs to be said.  Clement relies far more on Scripture quotations than he does on his own words for at least 3/4 of the letter, becoming more direct and authoritative towards the end.  Clearly he wants to demonstrate that the Corinthians should listen in accordance to the word of God and not just his own word, but even still – it’s a lot of regurgitation on a scale far exceeding the New Testament.