...are the ones that make the biggest difference


Exposition of the Faith

Now that majority of home-improvement projects are over, I've been taking some more time to read through the Church Fathers. I hopped around a bit, reading a few random things here and there, but then I spotted St John of Damascus on the spine and thought I'd give his Exposition of the Faith a go. It starts off a little on the light side, with a few short chapters that deal with questions of the existence of God and his nature in almost casual fashion. Not that St John is treating those issues casually, but its clear that they are not the primary focus of this piece and he appears to assume that his intended audience may well have already settled those questions for themselves quite satisfatorily. However, when St John gets into his discussion of the Trinity, his writing becomes quite intense and meticulous. Certain descriptive phrases are repeatedly presented to qualify his statements and, apparently, to make sure that his readers understand exactly what he means. For instance, when speaking about Christ's begotten-ness, St John almost always says something like "like the Father in all things except in subsistence". This and similar clauses pepper the page, making for long sentences and sometimes dense passages, but overall, his meaning is quite clear. As is his intention: precision & accuracy in every possible detail. He wants no mistakes, no ambiguity, nothing that can be twisted or misused by another party.

And this is, of course, quite understandable. John wants neither to lead anyone astray through an easily avoidable misunderstanding, nor does he want to feed the flames of heresy by failing to ensure that the proper meaning, and only the proper meaning, can be taken from his words. The latter is likely the stronger factor, because it is clear that St John's world was permeated by people who think. It would seem a significant segment of the population was capable of deep-thinking, of analyzing his arguments for weaknesses, holes or mistakes. Obviously, though, the majority of the population was probably not able to read his arguments, much less pick them apart, and in that, things are not too dissimilar from today. Even a brief perusal of any Christian bookstore or the Christian section of a larger retailer, will show a distinct negation of theology and thinking. Just about everything is a how-to book of some kind, claiming to contain the secrets to happiness, abundance, prosperity, spiritual wholeness, etc, conveniently provided in 7 easy steps. No difficult drudgery of actually reading the Bible for yourself, or learning the difficult work of prayer through long, persistent hours - just $16.95 plus tax and would you like your receipt in the bag?

Of course, not everyone is like that and there are still many Christian authors who produce carefully considered works of theology and philosophy. I think the primary difference between then and now, though, is that these authors are unto themselves. Whereas in St John's day, church leadership was greatly concerned with correct theological discourse and took great pains to guarantee that no false thing entered the doctrines of the faith, today we are (in the Protestant evangelical church) largely saddled with leaders who are not theologically minded and frankly, measure success by factors other than fidelity to the deposit of faith. Scholarly works never cross their desks or night-stands, and it would appear most are not capable of deep, analytical thought. They are un-thinkers, operating at the shallowest levels of thought. They have not been trained in deep thinking and don't see any inherent value in such efforts - that is left up to to others, who will hopefully trim it down to 5 easy steps and come out with a paperback edition in the near future. This, I think, is one of the largest departures from the church of St John's day. We are a church of unthinkers, lead by unthinkers.

This obviously has a huge impact on the form, function, theology, worship and bonds of the modern church - which I won't discuss here. Since I have been reading 1 John of late, with its emphasis on abiding, I am considering whether this departure into unthinking also represents a true break from the historic faith. Not in the sense of a mere difference, however incorrect that may be, but a going out as described in 1 John 2:18-19. The question then, in my mind, is whether opening the door to this intellectual and theological frailty, to this antipathy towards deep reflection on God, is itself an antichrist in some way?


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