Tag Archives: Christianity

Birth of Christendom: Coronation of Charlemagne (800)

By the dawn of the ninth century, the celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25 was a well-established practice. And so was the odd mixture of Christian content and pagan festivity that so characterizes Christmas celebrations. But something also happened on Christmas day in the year 800 that greatly changed the face of Europe and the course of history in the West.  The turning point happened in Rome at St. Peter’s church. At the end of the day’s main service, Charles, king of the Franks (modern France and much of Germany) rose from praying before the tomb of the apostle. As he did, Pope Leo III walked forward, and in the words of an eyewitness, “the venerable holy pontiff with his own hands crowned Charles with a most precious crown.” Then all the people apparently arose as one and having been told what to say, shouted three times: “Carolo Augusto a Deo coronato, magno et pacifico imperatori, vita et victoria” or in English: “To Charles Augustus, crowned by God, great and peace-giving emperor of the Romans, life and victory.”

Now what happened was not on the same level as the Nicene Council or the founding of the monasteries. If these events had not occurred, the same results would have most likely marked the progress of Christianity during the Middle Ages. But what happened was a dramatic symbol of relationships undergoing permanent change. It also anticipated the future and outlined the shape of Christianity for the next seven or eight centuries.

There was the rise of papal power. Now the coronation of Charlemagne did not represent the height of papal power. But rather a strategic alliance between the papacy’s expanding influence and a political house that was also expanding in influence.

There was also the rise of Northern Europe which had the expansion of Islam to thank for its rise in power and influence. Due to the expansion of Islam in the East, there was a geographic refocusing and a papal willingness to give up the ideals of a Mediterranean Roman Empire for one centered in the North. When the crowds addressed Charles as Augustus, they were evoking the past majesty of Rome. The papacy realized that the connection between Rome and Constantinople was now bankrupt. You therefore had the transition of Western Christianity from a Mediterranean eastern-oriented faith to an strictly European northward-looking faith.

Charlemagne’s grandfather was the famous Charles Martel who led the Franks to victory at Poitiers in 732 and halted the western expansion of Islam. It is no exaggeration to state that Charles Martel and his successors came to be seen as the saviors of Europe. Charles Martel initiated friendly relations with the papacy and his son and grandson succeeded to this alliance between them and Rome. When Pope Leo III crowned Charles emperor, he was only solidifying a connection that had been developing for more than fifty years. The papacy had turned to the north where a new imperial household was emerging. The link with Rome was now secure. For the next eight centuries and more, the politics, learning, social organization, art, law and economics of Europe would be “Christian,” not in the sense of fully incorporating the gospel, but because the fate of the church in the West was so decisively linked with the imperial household across the Alps.

Charlemagne and those who succeeded him bequeathed Christendom to Europe and Christendom would endure as the shape of Christianity in the West. It affected the practice of the Christian faith in every way. Today we regard the sacred and secular spheres separate. But Christendom harmonized those two spheres of life. This ideal was symbolized by the integrated view of life in which everything from politics to religious life was based on the Christian life as communicated by the Church and protected by the actions of secular rulers.

But Christendom did not function with the harmony and efficiency that the ideal suggested. But for all of its failures, Christendom remained a powerful ideal. At the heart of it was the all-encompassing presence of divine grace in every aspect of life. And in practice of this ideal was the cooperation between church and state.

After many centuries, Christendom would be fatally wounded by the Renaissance, Protestantism, the modern nation-state, atheism, and the spread of of the Christian faith beyond Europe. But as a symbol for the inauguration of a new, long-lasting and far-reaching era of Christianity, it is tough to beat the coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas Day 800.

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Matthew the Apostle

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This past weekend we celebrate the feast of one the apostles and gospel writers, Matthew also known as Levi. He is one of the original twelve disciples. We find his calling in Matthew 9:9: “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.”  He was a tax collector from Capernaum who was named among the Twelve (Matt. 10:3; Mk. 3:18; Lk. 6:15 and Acts 1:13). He is called Levi, son of Alpheus (Mk. 2:14 and Lk. 5:27). He was a 1st century Galilean and he had been a tax collector for the Romans during the reign of Herod Antipas, a profession hated and detested by Jews and Gentiles alike and the basis for his patronage of banker and accountants. His tax office was located in Capernaum. Jews who became rich in such a way were despised and considered outcasts. The Jews would also have considered Matthew and his colleagues as traitors, since collecting taxes entailed cooperation with their Roman occupiers. But as a tax collector, Matthew would have been literate in Aramaic and Greek.

It was in this setting, near what is now Almagor, that Jesus called him. After being called, Matthew invited him home for a feast. Upon seeing this, the scribes and Pharisees were indignant and criticized Jesus for dining with tax collectors and sinners. Dining with someone was serious business in the first century. But upon seeing this, Jesus answered them, “I came not to call the righteous but sinners.” (Matt. 9:13; Mk. 2:17). 

Matthew was one of the witnesses of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. After the ascension, he was with the disciples in the Upper Room (Acts 1:10-14) and was there at Pentecost. Church Fathers such as Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria hold that Matthew preached the gospel to the Jewish communities in Judea before going to other countries. But ancient writers disagree as to what countries those are. Tradition has it that he was martyred in Ethiopia or Persia. 

The precise date of the writing of Matthew’s gospel is unknown. In light of Irenaeus’ assertion (c. A.D. 175) that Matthew composed his gospel while Peter and Paul were still living, it is traditionally dated to the late 50s or early 60s. 

 

James Strong (1822-94): Biblical Scholar & Educator

287px-James_Strong_theologian_-_Brady-HandyMost Christians know of Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, but few probably know of the man behind it. He was a Methodist biblical scholar and educator who was born in New York City on August 14, 1822. After graduating from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, he taught ancient languages in the Troy Conference Academy in West Poultney, Vermont for two years (1844-46). Withdrawing from teaching for two years, he served as president of the Flushing Railroad Company. He was also active in civic affairs and during these two years he continued his study of ancient languages. In 1853, he again entered teaching as a professor of biblical literature and acting president of Troy University (1858-63), professor of exegetical theology at Drew Theological Seminary at Madison, New Jersey  from 1868 until his retirement in 1893. He was a prolific author: English Harmony and Exposition of the Gospels; Harmony of the Gospels in the Greek of the Received Text and Sketches of Jewish Life in the First Century. His most important work was the Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, with two supplementary volumes.

His most well known work is his Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible first published in 1890. It was the fruit of 35 years labor by Dr. Strong and more than 100 colleagues, his volume has since become the most widely used concordance ever compiled from the King James Version, still the standard English version of the Bible. Assembled without the aid of computers or other electronic devices, Strong’s has stood the test of time and has confirmed Professor Strong’s vision for a complete, simple, and accurate concordance that would become “a permanent standard for purposes of reference.”

He was conservative in his theology. He strongly defended the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and contended that there was only one Isaiah. He also supported the theory that the apostle Paul was the author of Hebrews. He was also a member of the Anglo-American Bible Revision Committee.

Professor James Strong passed away on August 7, 1894 in Round Lake, NY at age 71.

The American Church: Voluntary, Pragmatic, Primitive

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The American church is something unique. The dawn of religious freedom brought a whole new situation to the new nation. For the very first time, a predominantly Christian nation released the church from state control and allowed different denominations to compete for members and operate freely. The end result was that no church could rely on state imposed authority and had to work hard for the voluntary response of the people. Gone were the days when being in Massachusetts automatically made you Congregationalist. You could be a part of any church you chose. It was entirely your choice where to attend worship. And that was something entirely new.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “The Americans demanded that they were free, masterless individuals; they sought absolute independence and equality of status. They imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands…They acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone.” (Democracy in America)

What you had were not churches in the traditional sense nor exclusive sects, but rather denominations that were purposive in character, what Sidney Mead described as “a voluntary association of like-hearted and like-minded individuals, who are united on the basis of common beliefs for the purpose of accomplishing tangible and defined objectives. Even Lyman Beecher, a Yankee Congregationalist, who had much to fear with the end of state support, came to believe that it was “the best thing that ever happened to the State of Connecticut.” The churches were thrown “on their own resources and on God,” had increased dramatically their influence “by voluntary efforts, societies, missions and revivals.”

This meant that the church in America was anything but monolithic. One historian has written, “The colonial legacy of pluralism, compounded now by a certain propensity to divide old denominations and organize fresh ones, left many wondering how to cope with fragmentation as a central feature of church life.” Some ministers who greatly valued tradition found little consolation in the multiplication of denominations.

But the multiplication of denominations was mostly seen in a positive light. One leading evangelical said, “Each denomination is working out some problem in the Christian life, developing some portion of truth. Each has its part to perform, its particular work to do for the Kingdom of Christ, which it, in the present condition of things, is better equipped to do than any other.” As a Baptist editor wrote, “However we may wish all men to become Baptists, we will all become evangelical Christians.” It was this evangelical core that helped maintain in America a surprisingly unified Christian culture.

This voluntary principle brought the Christian faith to the common man. The arcane and abstract gave way to practical insights that could be understood by all. The Presbyterians welcomed into their ranks the young revivalist Charles G. Finney, a man without a theological education or any real knowledge of the Westminister Confession. With the undeniable power of his revivalism, however, theological objections came across as scholastic nit-picking.

An active and success-oriented Christianity perfectly suited the newborn American republic. It was an age inspired by the myths of the self-made man and made rich and prosperous by the efforts of an aspiring entrepreneurs. What you had was an American church with considerable vitality. But this also lead to problems becoming oversimplified, leaving complex issues reduced to bare choice between contrasting alternatives. The Second Great Awakening produced no theologian of great stature. It may have actually given the impression that serious intellectual activity could be counterproductive of genuine piety. One observer was forced to confess, “There is an impression somewhat general that a vigorous and highly cultivated intellect is not consistent with distinguished holiness; and that those who live in the clearest sunshine of communication with God must withdraw from the bleak atmosphere of human science…that an intellectual clergyman is deficient in piety, and that an eminently pious minister is deficient in intellect.”

Elias Smith, founder of the Christian Connection, writing around 1810, “I am a Christian calling no man father or master; holding as abominable in the sight of God, everything highly esteemed among men, such as Calvinism, Arminianism, freewillism, universalism, reverend, parsons, chaplains, doctors of divinity, clergy, bands, surplices, notes, creeds, covenants, platforms.”

Or as the Methodist circuit rider, Peter Cartwright wrote, “The Presbyterians, and other Calvinistic branches of the Protestant Church, used to contend from educated ministry, for pews, for instrumental music, for a congregational or stated salaried ministry. The Methodists universally opposed these ideas; and the illiterate Methodist preachers actually set the world on fire (the American world at least), while they were lighting their matches!”

And the American church made little use of the accumulated wisdom of the ages. Being inspired by the hope of a pure beginning to which return was possible-“the New Testament Church,” Americans usually viewed the intervening eighteen hundred years as a tale of aberration and corruption which was best left ignored. And this ahistorical approach flourished in a republic which took pride in its ability to put aside the decaying traditions of Europe.

But such attitudes brought into question the traditional function and significance of the traditional church. Institutional reordering became the new norm after 1800. An example of this was the formation of the “Christians” by Barton W. Stone (1772-1844) and the “Disciples” by Alexander Campbell (1788-1866). Stone and five colleagues not just left the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky in the aftermath of the Cane Ridge Revival but went on to issue a manifesto, “The Last Will and Testament of Springfield Presbytery,” which denied the validity of any church organization whatsoever. Campbell rejected the notion that the Disciples were a church or a denomination and said that he did not want to even hear the term church government: “We have no system of our own, or of others, to substitute in lieu of the reigning systems. We aim only at substituting the New Testament.” As Campbell also wrote, “Open the New Testament as if mortal man had never seen it before.”

But the hope that a New Testament polity could emerge naturally had an unsettling effect in several denominations. Defections and splintering were rampant. The Methodists whose discipline and hierarchy never pretended to be democratic, were particularly beset with defections on issues with polity. The ideal of primitivism which American democracy had accelerated, made fragile any ecclesiastical polity that did not spring from the uncoerced will of the individual.

Prayer & Work Together: The Rule of St. Benedict

St._Benedict_St. Benedict (540-604) lived in central Italy during the fifth and sixth centuries. He was born in the town of Nursia and as a young man he went to Rome for his education. The young Benedict was appalled by the secularism and hedonism that he saw. He then went into the mountains and spent some time as a hermit in a cave. His way of life and the healing miracles he performed attracted followers. Benedict was asked to be an abbot of a local monastery, but his strict rule soon led to the monks attempting to kill him. They first tried to poison his drink but when he picked up the cup the cup shattered. The monks then tried to poison his food but a raven flew in the window and snatched the bread and carried it off. The wise Benedict then left that monastery. This is most likely the reason why Benedict is some depicted with a raven.

He went on to found a string of twelve monasteries including Subiaco and most famously at Monte Cassino. It was at Monte Cassino that he wrote his famous Rule. Like earlier rules for monastic life, it depended on earlier sources such as the desert fathers but also benefited from his own wisdom and experience.

With genuine humility he called it ” a minimum Rule for beginners” and a “school for the service of the Lord” and he hoped that it would lead faithful disciples to the “loftier heights of doctrine and virtue” of other monastic authorities. The wise and humble monk wrote nothing else. His contemporaries took no note of him, at least not enough for him to be mentioned in any document of the time. What we know of his life and work comes from Book II of the sixth century Dialogues of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, which Gregory says came from the testimony of contemporaries and near contemporaries of the recently dead abbot saint.

When it comes to St. Francis, one is drawn by the stories told of him which are known to Franciscan and non-Franciscan alike. They are great stories about how he embraced the leper, stripped himself of his garments, rebuilt the ruined church, gathered disciples, journeyed to the Holy Land and received the stigmata. But stories is not how Benedict is known. Gregory tells how we are drawn to the abbot:

“With all the renown he gained by his numerous miracles, the holy man was no less outstanding for the wisdom of his teaching. He wrote a Rule for monks that is remarkable for its discretion and its clarity of language. Anyone who wishes to know more about his life and character can discover in his Rule exactly what he was like as an abbot, for his life could not have differed from his teaching.”

Benedict was thoroughly immersed in the two hundred years of monastic tradition that preceded him and reflects it in his Rule. St. Benedict would not have seen himself as an innovator. His way was simply the monastic way. His work was to codify that way for his own community and other communities which might find his way helpful. Innovator or not, his version of the monastic tradition “was so imbued with his own wise personality that it won an acceptance which would eventually eclipse all other monastic rules.” Above all, his way was marked by moderation in all things. It was the simplicity of a life lived in common, reticence in speech, humble obedience to a spiritual master, the willingness to allow personal ambition and career to be set aside for the good of the community, work and prayer and a discipline known as lectio divina.

His Rule is famous for its codifying vows of obedience, stability and conversatio morum (continual conversion). It was noteworthy for its far-sighted concern for what it would take to keep individual monks and entire monastic communities on an even keel. It was also intentionally flexible and could be adapted to different conditions. Yet it was not a manual for slackers. It was clear that even younger members were to join in in the search for perfection. But it was stern for theological reasons. Benedict writes, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brothers should have specified periods of manual labor as well as for prayerful reading.” His grouping of physical and mental labor together would open the way to the monks’ great contribution to learning that would be sustained almost from the first.

At its core foundation was a commitment to prayer. And the practice of prayer was to mold a life of prayerfulness: “The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent…This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge in evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial.” But a life of prayer, however, was not to be divorced from a life of service. There were injunctions to care for the visitor, the stranger and the sick. These laid seeds for future charitable work. From such humble beginnings would grow vast monastic enterprises attending to both the body and the soul.

The concluding words of the Rule speak to its judicious and Christ-centered character: “Are you hastening toward your heavenly home? Then with Christ’s help, keep this little Rule written for beginners. After that, you can set out for the loftier summits of the teaching and virtues we mentioned above, and under God’s protection you will reach them.”

Benedict lived at the end of the classical age when Roman civilization had been overrun by barbarian tribes. It was the spiritual sons and daughters of Benedict  who, in the words of Pope Paul VI, “brought Christian culture to the peoples scattered from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia, from Ireland to Poland” and through the law of Christ “brought stability and development to public and private institutions.”

Benedict is still important for us in the modern day. Cardinal Basil Hume says, “The Rule of St. Benedict reminds us that a sense of community has to be created and constantly worked at.” He also says that we are to be a “society of people with a shared interest in each other’s welfare.” This relates to what Benedict says about good zeal: “No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else.” And this applies to everyone. There were to be no elite or exclusiveness in the monastery. The abbot was not to show favoritism. Benedict wrote that the abbot “is to show equal love to everyone.” An abbot is to work for the good of the whole community. This also ties into the Benedictine virtue of hospitality: the monastery is to be open to all and all guests are to be welcomed as Christ himself. We are to have respect and reverence for one another. Brother Tvedten writes, “Being Benedictine means trying a little harder to show the courtesy of love for one another, to see Christ in the people with whom we live, work, and pray and to look for him even in the people with whom we disagree. The Rule has endured because it was written for people who want to dwell together in unity in the midst of their diversity. It was written for people who want to be family, community.”

In closing, there is a prayer that speaks well: “Almighty God, by whose grace St. Benedict. kindled with the fire of your love, became a burning and a shining light in the church; inflame us with the same spirit of discipline and love, that we may walk before you as children of light, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Health Reform: Seventh Day Adventists

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Health reform is nothing new and is not a product of the twentieth century. And if any church is known for being health conscious, it is the Seventh Day Adventists. Since the 1860s, when the church started, wholeness and health have been an emphasis of the Adventist church. The church is known for preaching a message of health that recommends vegetarianism and strict adherence to the kosher laws described in Leviticus 11. Obedience to these laws means abstinence from pork, shellfish, along with other foods that are considered “unclean.” The church discourages its members from the use of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs. Some Adventists avoid coffee, tea, cola, and other drinks containing caffeine.

This emphasis on health goes back to its pioneering founder, Ellen G. White. On June 5, 1863, Ellen G. White, the 35-year-old spiritual leader of the fledgling Seventh-Day-Adventists, joined friends in rural Michigan for vespers. For years she had been suffering from ill health and her husband, James, was on the verge of a physical and mental breakdown. While she was praying, she went into an hypnotic trance and started to receive instructions from heaven regarding the preservation and restoration of health. Mrs. White learned that the people of God were to give up eating meat and other stimulating foods, shun alcohol and tobacco, and avoid drug-dispensing doctors. If ill, they were to rely on nature’s remedies: fresh air, sunshine, rest, exercise, proper diet, and above all, water.

Interestingly enough, such advice was nothing new. Since the 1830s, the Presbyterian evangelist and temperance lecturer, Sylvester Graham, famous today for his crackers, had been warning his fellow Americans of the dire consequences of flesh foods, drugs, corsets, stimulants and frequent sex.

Seventh Day Adventists believed in the imminent Second Coming of Christ. In one of White’s early visions, an angel explained that Jesus could not return to earth until the elect obeyed the Ten Commandments, especially the command regarding the Sabbath (fourth). By doing this, she elevated health reform from a physiological to a theological obligation, essential to salvation. From 1863 to her death in 1915, Ellen White proclaimed the gospel of health. As a result, many Adventists adopted a twice a day diet of fruit, vegetables, grains and nuts and gave up tea, coffee, meat, butter, eggs, cheese, rich substances, and “all exciting substances.” Such dietary requirements, White argued, not only caused disease but stimulated unholy sexual desires. According to a 2002 worldwide survey of the church, 35% of Adventists still practice vegetarianism.

The Adventist pioneers had much to do with the common acceptance of breakfast cereals into the Western diet and the modern commercial concept of cereal food originated among Adventists. John Harvey Kellogg was one of the early founders of Adventist health work. He was the leader of the Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek, Michigan, which became a world famous sanitarium. In his spare time, he invented corn flakes. His development of breakfast cereals as a health food led to the founding of Kellogg’s which made a fortune for his brother William. In both Australia and New Zealand, the church-owned Sanitarium Health Food Company is a leading manufacturer of health and vegetarian-related products, most prominently Weet-Bix.

Research funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health has shown that the average Adventist in California lives 4 to 10 years longer than the average Californian. The research asserts that they live longer because they do not smoke or drink alcohol, have a day of rest every week, and maintain a healthy low-fat vegetarian diet that is rich in nuts and beans. The cohesiveness of the Adventists’ social networks has also been put forward as an explanation of their extended lifespan.

Despite White’s distrust of doctors, Adventists run a large number of hospitals and health-related institutions. Their largest medical school and hospital in North America is Loma Linda University and its attached medical center. Around the globe, the church runs a wide network of hospitals, clinics, lifestyle centers, and sanitariums. These play a role in the church’s gospel of health message and worldwide missions outreach. Adventist Health System is the largest non-profit Protestant multi-institutional healthcare system in the United States. It is sponsored by the church and cares for over four million patients yearly.

If not the most original health reformer, White is certainly among the most influential. When she died at the age of eighty-seven, she left behind a string of 33 sanitariums and countless treatment rooms on six continents, a medical school in Loma Linda, California, and 136,000 disciples to preach the gospel of health in the twentieth century. The work continues today and one may say the Ellen G. White would be proud of the church she founded.

 

 

Three Little Words That Divide East & West

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You probably hardly take notice of them. They are three little words in the Nicene Creed and they have divided Eastern and Western Christians for centuries. Those words? “and the Son.” They appear in the section dealing with the Holy Spirit where it reads: “…who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” It is known as the filioque phrase and it has proven to be highly divisive.

It was not a part of the original Nicene Creed that came from the Council of Nicaea in 325 which only read “We believe in the Holy Spirit.” Then the Council of Constantinople in 381 added a fuller statement regarding the Holy Spirit being a fully divine person. But it only stated that the Spirit proceeded from the Father (single procession). It was not until 589 at the Council of Toledo that that seemingly small phrase, “and the Son” (double procession) was added. The West did this on their own without consulting the East which may help explain how this small phrase came to divide the two halves of Christendom.

This phrase was gradually accepted in the West and is therefore in our version of the Nicene Creed. But to this day, the East still rejects it and is they are still astounded at the casualness with which the West added the filioque to the creed. From the sixth century onward, when the West began to insert “and the Son” to the sentence dealing with the Spirit’s procession from the Father, the Orthodox began to complain that the West was violating both the spirit and the letter of Nicaea. They were violating the spirit by acting unilaterally in making the change and the letter by violating an explicit canon of the council that the wording of its formula was not to be changed. Additionally, the East argued that the Western addition was a grievous theological error. In this view, the Western urge to equalize relationships among the members of the Trinity short-circuited the full personality of the Spirit and so crippled the understanding of what the Spirit was to do.

In 1054, the Great Schism between East and West occurred and communication between the two stopped for centuries. But in recent decades, the communication between East and West started up again. In 1987, Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Demetrios I met in Rome, where they recited together the Nicene Creed without the filioque phrase.