Saturday, May 15, 2010

Contoversies: What's the scope?

For anyone wondering about the intended scope of this series, I would like to say from the outset that this series is beyond me, not only in wisdom and understanding but also in sheer size. What I hope to do -- and I hope you all will help me -- is map out the fault lines within Christianity. The primary goal is that we at least understand where the other person is coming from, whether we agree or not. Anyone who has read my blog for any length of time will already know that I'm not consistently good at that.

When I start mapping out the fault lines within Christianity, in my mind I start in the early days, tracing back to the New Testament and just afterward. Do I count the Gnostics within the scope of this series? No; while the Gnostics are interesting in their own right, my thoughts about the Gnostics are mainly addressed in posts about whether the New Testament contains the best available material on the life and teachings of Jesus. So the controversies in this series will be the controversies among those who adhere to some form of apostolic Christianity -- acknowledging that the people who knew Jesus or knew the apostles are the best sources of information about them.

That much said, the early Christological controversies are still fair game. There are, to this day, non-Chalcedonian groups that have survived from the ancient times. (I'm hoping to make this year's entry into the Trinity Blogging Summit on one of these views.)

At the more recent end of the time scale, what about Mormons? Again, the question is interesting in its own right. For purposes of this series, since Mormons have additional canonical Scriptures that they consider to be on the same level as the New Testament writings, they aren't part of this particular series. That is not to ignore the Mormons; in fact I have a series on the Mormons (already written, but being saved for this summer when I know I'll be too busy at work to write much new material).

I haven't quite decided about the JW's yet, whether they're within the scope.

But the intent of this series is to look at all the groups that are Christian, and all the groups each one considers to be incorrect in their beliefs, and see what exactly is diving us.

Examples of broad families of beliefs:

Oriental Orthodox
Eastern Orthodox
Roman Catholic
Church of England / Episcopal

I don't mean to snub any group by not listing it separately. Take, for example, the Church of Christ or the 7th Day Adventists. They aren't listed above mainly because of their size; I'm not really going to list all 30,000+ groups in a blog post, and the sample groups listed above made the "examples" list because of either their commonness or their historical importance. But before the series is done I hope to have discussed some of the controversies that matter to them, too.

What I don't want to do is get into "Group A's laundry list of complaints against Group B". I want to keep it on the level of the controversies themselves, and steer as clear of partisanship and resentments as is possible considering the topics. Within those broad families of beliefs listed, there are internal controversies; many of those internal controversies are fairly repetitive, such as the creation / evolution controversy which has played itself out within each group in different ways. We've even seen modern groups of Christians form alliances and fellowship based on common ground on the liberal/conservative divide, without regard to the differences about understanding God.

Next post in the series will be on the controversies I have in mind to cover. I will need some help with the perspective on controversies where I don't understand how someone could hold one or more of the perspectives. For controversies where I don't get it, the posts will probably have a "Can somebody explain this to me?" approach.


Scott Morizot said...

Interesting. Not really the purpose of your series, but the modern situation of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox (a somewhat misleading pair of labels) is an interesting one that I've been following with interest. It's within the realm of possibility that full communion will be restored between them in my lifetime and I don't really believe that's true of any other group on your list. (Or, I suppose, some other sort of unification for those groups that lack the concept of communion.)

The situation at the time of Chalcedon was extremely complicated. The monophysite heresy held that Christ had one nature, but in a sense of a single nature alone -- his human nature having been absorbed or dissolved within his divine nature (like a drop in the sea). None of the churches we call non-Chalcedonian today (or Oriental Orthodox) believe that and they all anathematize those who held it. The heresy itself persisted for a long while and led to the 'one will' heresy that was one focus of St. Maximos the Confessor and eventually the 6th ecumenical council. But after that, it eventually ebbed. Like all heresies, I wouldn't say it's gone today, but it's probably less prevalent than either docetism or arianism today.

At the time of Chalcedon, the political situation was also ... complicated. Those churches who did not agree to Chalcedon, but still rejected and anathematized the proponents of monophysitism had varying reasons for doing so. I'll use just one example, the Armenian Church. At the time of Chalcedon, Persia was trying to recapture Armenia and none of its bishops could attend the council. When they received the results of the council, they interpreted it as a resurgence of Nestorianism (that the human Jesus and divine Christ were two 'persons') and condemned it accordingly. (It's also pretty clear that Chalcedon was largely accepted within the bounds of the Empire and more often rejected outside those bounds. For whatever reason.)

The reason I find that interesting is that theologians and hierarchs from the Eastern and Oriental Churches, when they have met and discussed the issues in the last decades, have generally agreed that the Oriental theology of miaphysitism (mia being a different word for 'one' than mono and meaning united rather than singular), that Christ had one united and indivisible nature that was the full union of his human and divine natures and maintaining the fullness of both, is a different way of saying the same thing that was affirmed at Chalcedon.

Since that is the only central theological difference between the two churches, if the long (and often negative) history between them can be overcome, there is real hope for a restoration of communion. That's the oldest continuing schism in the Church. If it can be healed, it gives me hope that perhaps humpty dumpty can be put back together again.

Your list just made me think about that.

Scott Morizot said...

On JW, I will note that they are essentially Arian in what they teach about Jesus. So if you aren't going to include Arius and his followers, I'm not sure there's much reason to include JW. Arius had a much greater influence on the Church in the 4th century than JW will ever have today.

Weekend Fisher said...

I'm also optimistic about the Eastern Orthodox & Oriental Orthodox. I'd celebrate, if they could re-unite.

From the outside, the JW's are a mix of Arian, some odd doomsday stuff involving 1914, and some unique interpretive moves. I may cover the Arian controversy since at some level it's a live issue for many people. It's probably one of the main appeals of the JW's as a group: people uncomfortable with Trinitarian theology looking for something that makes more sense to them.

Take care & God bless

Craig said...

I can't prove this definitively (as if anything could be definitive in theological propositions), but it seems to me that most of the divisions in Christianity (broadly speaking) come out of differences around *who* God is. Even the anti-sacramental stance of many modern-day Baptists flows from an anemic view of the Trinity.

I've grappled with this thought from various perspectives in the past, but it seems this could be a series all by itself.

Martin LaBar said...

That's an ambitious project!

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Craig - what you said reminds me very much of Vladimir Lossky's intro to The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. He was tracing how all the early controversies in the church -- the ones he, as Eastern Orthodox, finds worth noticing -- were basically arguments over who is God and more specifically who is Christ. So you're not alone in your observation there.

Hi Martin - Yes, far too ambitious a project, really. But that's the way I like them. At any rate, I'll get as far as I can & see who around the neighborhood is willing to help me understand views that are mysteries to me.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF