Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Christianity from the Beginning

Christianity from the beginning
By Fr. John Parker

"Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start; when you read you begin with A-B-C; when you sing you begin with DO-RE-MI ..."

Thus sang Julie Andrews, introducing us to one of the most memorable show tunes of all time. It is not often, I am sure, that this song is offered as a theological lesson; but if we do not "start at the very beginning," if we have no living, active, organic connection to the very beginning, we are guaranteed to be missing something. Any time we are trying to discover what Christians have always believed and why, we must start at the very beginning.

Of course, this is also the case when we are faced in modern times with the resurgence of ancient heresies such as Gnosticism, a religion of secret knowledge found in the so-called Gospel of Judas, in pop culture with a lethal dose of religion, as in "The Da Vinci Code," or a mix of these in postmodernism, summarized beautifully by Tom Hanks' character, "The only thing that matters is what you believe."

Pass it on
In the beginning, in the first decades after Jesus' death and resurrection, the truth about Christ was taught essentially by word of mouth.

Primarily Christ was preached by those eyewitnesses to his resurrection, and then by those who were taught by those same eyewitnesses. The teacher-disciple relationship was not new with Christianity, and this form of oral teaching is not questioned in other venues.

At some point, with the advent of false teachings from without and sin from within, St. Paul and others began to write letters and accounts of what they had seen, heard and been taught. The Epistles (Letters) were, for the most part, written first, and the Gospels later.

What was the task of these writings, which we now know as the New Testament?
They served at least a three-fold purpose:

--To interpret the Old Testament through the lens of Christ crucified and resurrected.
--To correct false teaching
--To pass along (tradition) "that which was from the beginning."

It is this final purpose about which we all need some education, especially to sort through the present Hollywood and News Magazine-hyped muck.

There are two excellent New Testament examples that highlight this purpose, one from the Gospel according to St. Luke, and the other from St. Paul's writings to the Thessalonians.

St. Paul records the following: "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter." (2 Thess. 2:15).

St. Luke reports in the first verses of his Gospel, "Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed."

In these two examples, there are three words that are of critical importance: tradition, eyewitness and beginning.

A witness to the gospel
The Christian Gospel is "from the beginning;" that is, since the advent of Jesus Christ.

St. John demonstrates this important feature in his first epistle, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life ? we proclaim also to you. ?"
Nothing is added. Nothing is subtracted.

John was among the first disciples called by Jesus Christ. Of the 12, he was in the "top three" and was allowed to witness the most miraculous events. Together with Peter and James, he was present on Mount Tabor when Christ was transfigured. The same three were taken into the room wherein Jesus brought a little girl back from the dead. This same John was at the foot of the cross as Jesus was dying, and, while there, was directed by Jesus to care for his own holy mother, Mary. John knew the beginning because he was there from the beginning!

The next important point is that John and many others were eyewitnesses to Jesus' life, death, resurrection and ascension. Take Peter for example, who wrote the following in his second epistle:

"For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the majestic glory, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,' we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain."

He is talking about the Transfiguration. They were there. They did not invent what they wrote. They saw it. They were eyewitnesses.

Delivering the 'package'
Finally, we must understand "tradition." Tradition means "to hand down, to deliver." Luke makes it clear that this truth has been "traditioned," that is, "delivered to us."

St. Paul instructs the church in Thessalonica in the same fashion. It is to hold, believe and pass on "the traditions," which in this case were taught in writing and by word of mouth. Its task was to take what was given and pass it along intact. As I have written before, this process can be compared to a FedEx delivery. The teachings of the eyewitnesses are put in the "package" (the Gospel), sealed (by their authority as eyewitnesses) and delivered ("traditioned") to the next generation of Christians.

Neither the FedEx man nor the recipient may add to or take from the package. The task is intact delivery! The package is not the package without its contents. And the tracking of the pack-age allows us to either: 1) trust its successful arrival or 2) know who made changes, where and when.

The early Christians, who learned directly from Jesus Christ, taught those who followed them. Here is a perfect first-century example. John, who wrote one Gospel, three epistles, and the Revelation, taught a man whom history knows as Polycarp. Today, we can read the very moving account of his martyrdom.

Polycarp "traditioned" what he was taught "by word of mouth and epistle" to Irenaeus, who lived and ministered in Lyons, modern-day France. It is this Irenaeus who already condemned the so-called Gospel of Judas. How did Irenaeus and these others know this so-called gospel was bogus? Because his "grandfather" in the Christian faith was the very "beloved disciple" John, who put his head on Jesus' breast at the Last Supper. He was there!

By this time in history, many such false gospels were disseminated. They were quickly squashed and condemned precisely because no one had ever "seen," "heard" or "touched" anything remotely related to these writings "from the beginning."

They didn't match the teachings of the "grandparents" in the faith. And the way that the Gospel was further maintained was by keeping careful record of who learned from whom, which we call "apostolic succession." This is the "tracking" I refer to in my example above.

Line of succession
Irenaeus carefully illustrates one such line, the succession of bishops of Rome. Eusebius compiled the first bona fide "church history" of the early centuries in writing at the turn of the fourth century. He made a careful list of all the bishops of Jerusalem, starting with James in Acts 15.

To be considered Christian, the teaching, as well as the source of the teaching, had to be traced to the beginning. The teachings of the Gnostics and other heretics simply didn't match up to "that which was from the beginning." And they still don't.

Curiously, "sola scriptura," the Bible alone as authoritative, was already a troubling factor at this time, even though the Bible as we know it today was not yet "published."

The Gnostics and other heretics used the same writings the Christians were using to defend their teachings. But here, Irenaeus offers a brilliant word painting to describe their efforts.

"Their manner of (teaching) is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed ? and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king's form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king." (Adversus Haereses I:8:I).

No writings were authoritative in and of themselves. Critical are the author, content and link to the first Christians.

Also, a trustworthy interpretation was always required, and only those who had seen Jesus personally, or whose spiritual lineage was "from the beginning," could be trusted for such a holy task. And this is still true today.

All of this is the context for this simple position: The great and present frenzy, with reference to the "newly discovered" Gnostic texts, such as the so-called Gospel of Judas, and the release of the controversial "Da Vinci Code," don't really shake the boat of orthodox Christianity.
Generally speaking, we won't have sermons devoted to these sideshows. It is not the place for such an effort. We won't have seminars analyzing it all. We won't write books disputing them. Why? Because these battles have already been fought and won. The books are already written. And we assume that if there is a question, we'll look to what has already been said.

The Preacher said it best: "There is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

In the end, "those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it." But those who know and live "from the beginning" Christianity are not easily moved by tides of heresy and madness, whether ancient or modern.

The truth is that which is from the beginning, which has been delivered to us by those who saw Jesus with their own eyes, heard him with their own ears, touched him with their own hands ? believe it or not.

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in the I'On community. He can be reached at frjohn@ocacharleston.org or by phone at 881-5010.