Anglican Essentials: Going Deeper–Introduction to the early Christians

The sources of knowledge

Something new came in with Christianity: when it comes to God, reasoning begins with faith.  Faith begins with the actual facts of God’s revelation, with historic eyewitness accounts. The ancient Apostles Creed, as given in the Book of Common Prayer, affirms that Jesus was crucified, suffered, died, and rose to new life during the rule of the historical Roman Procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate:

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
      was crucified, died, and was buried.
   He descended to the dead.
   On the third day he rose again.

Historical knowledge: depends on trusting reliable witnesses.  In real life we have to trust others.  This gives us real knowledge. Augustine tells us:

In practical life, I do not see how anyone can refuse to believe altogether.

Nothing would remain stable in human society if we determined to believe only what can be held with absolute certainty.

No one believes anything unless one first thought it believable. … Everything that is believed is believed after being preceded by thought. … Not everyone who thinks believes, since many think in order not to believe; but everyone who believes thinks, thinks in believing and believes in thinking.     

Authority (auctoritas) is not coercion, but the authority of a teacher—where do we go to find out what we need to know?  Math from a math teacher, plumbing from a plumber, to play a piano from a piano player.  You learn a skill from someone who has that skill.  A good teacher does not coerce, but invites the learner to gain insights and understanding.

Living the Christian life is like that—we have to learn from those who are practiced in living it.  It has to do with practices, attitudes, dispositions, the ordering of one’s loves.  One gains knowledge over time.

It is not so much a matter of what I should believe, but whom should I believe, that is, trust. “Trust” is the basic meaning of the Greek word pistis usually translated as “faith.” Who and what do we trust? Augustine puts it this way:

Authority invites belief and prepares man for reason.  Reason leads to understanding and knowledge.   But reason is not entirely absent from authority, for we have to consider whom we are to believe.

One can not just blindly follow teaching authorities without doing ones own thinking. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) says:

If the teacher determines the question by appeal to authorities only, the student will be convinced that the thing is so, but will have acquired no knowledge or understanding, and he will go away with an empty mind.   

What is heard and seen by those who witnessed Jesus is more than just historical facts.  There is more to see than meets the eye.  What John and the Apostles saw and bear witness to is the “Word of life.”  The one who is known is the living God—the knowledge is life-transforming. Scripture puts it this way:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. … No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. (John 1:14,18)

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.              (2 Cor. 4:6)

The calling of both Israel and the Church is to bear witness to the knowledge of God:

You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD,
		“and my servant whom I have chosen,
	so that you may know and believe me
		and understand that I am he. 
 	Before me no god was formed,
		nor will there be one after me. 
	I, even I, am the LORD,
		and apart from me there is no savior. 
	I have revealed and saved and proclaimed—
		I, and not some foreign god among you. 
 	You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “that I am God.
										Is. 43:10-12

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
										Acts 1:8

Who should we trust?

Justin Martyr (~100, martyred ca 165) was raised a Roman pagan and studied philosophy. He was converted after meeting and walking with an old man on the beach, and hearing, not of philosophy, but of the Hebrew prophets who spoke about what they had seen and heard…”A flame was kindled in my soulI was seized by the love of the prophets and the friends of Christ…I came to see that this way of life alone is sure and fulfilling.” (Dialogue with Trypho)

Greco-Roman pagans like Celsus (True Doctrine, written against Christians, ca. 170AD), following Plato, believed that the things seen in this world would never lead anyone to God, “If you shut your eyes to the things of sense and look up with the minds, if you turn away from the flesh and raise the eyes of your soul, only then will you see God.” (quoted by Origen, in Against Celsus, 248AD).  How could God possibly become a human being in the flesh? No self-respecting Greek philosopher could believe that.

The problem is similar to that articulated by Enlightenment philosophe Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) ” … accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason … That then is the ugly broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap.” How could the messy and contingent events of history ever establish the pure truths of reason? The problem is just as much with us now as in the time of Celsus. Then as now, Christians are those who trust what the Apostles, the Scriptures, and the Church tell us about Jesus. But as we see below, there is a role for the grace of God.

Origen (born ~185, martyred 250AD) responded that Celsus wanted a “Greek proof” but the gospel “has a proof that is proper to itself and is more divine than the dialectical arguments of the Greeks,” the proof of the Spirit and of power (cf. Paul in 1 Cor. 2:4-5, “my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”).

Celsus also misunderstood the nature of Christian faith: “Some Christians do not even want to give or receive a reason for what they believe, and use expressions such as “Do not ask questions, just believe” and “Your faith will save you.”  Others quote the apostle Paul, “The world’s wisdom is evil and foolishness is a good thing.”  Celsus seems not to have an accurate understanding of Paul.                                                                                            

In a more contemporary setting, “faith” is a favorite whipping boy of the “new atheists.”  Richard Dawkins (1941- ) says “Faith is the great cop out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence.  Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence … Faith is not allowed to justify itself by argument.” Of course, Dawkins has a quite inaccurate and limited understanding of what is meant by “faith.”

The Nobel laureate physicist Max Planck (1858 – 1947) was one of the founders of quantum physics, and knew–as Aristotle also did–that all endeavors start with some fundamental trust: “Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: Ye must have faith. It is a quality which the scientist cannot dispense with.

How do we come to know (“see”) God?

Both the Christians and the pagans valued and used reason and logic.  The central issue between Christians and their pagan critics was where was reason to begin.  Christ brings in something new (2 Cor. 4:6, “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”)  In Christ is the reason, the logos, the logic, that inheres in all things.  Knowledge of Christ comes from a story, from eyewitness accounts, and from the work of God’s Spirit.

Educated pagans believed in one distant high god who made everything, but also in a pantheon of lesser gods who ruled the ordinary world and to whom due reverence and “piety” was owed. To the pagan mindset, how could one possibly argue that one should ignore these proximate gods and worship only one high god?  Origen counter-argued from history in the example of the Jews, who by their life of faithfulness to the one God, introduced others to the worship of him as well.   Jesus is God’s way to extend this worship to all peoples everywhere.

The pagan Celsus asked why Jesus did not appear “to those who had treated him despitefully and to those who condemned him and to everyone everywhere?”  Origen’s answer to Celsus: Jesus only appeared to those who were capable of knowing what they were seeing.  We need to have a certain capacity to receive what we see.

God’s grace—his movement towards us–is crucial.

We affirm that human nature is not in any way sufficient to seek God and find him with purity unless it is helped by the one who is the object of the search.” (Origen, Against Celsus).

It was an act of grace that God appeared to Abraham and the other prophets.  The eye of Abraham was not the only cause of his seeing God; it was God’s grace freely offered to a just man that allowed him to see.” (Origen, Homily on Luke)

“The Lord taught us that no one is able to know God unless taught by God.  God can not be known without the help of God”. (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 4.6.4).

Man can not see God on his own.  If God wills to be seen he will be seen by those to whom he wills to be seen, when he wills, and in what way he wills.” (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 4.20.5).

Our will does not suffice to give us a wholly pure heart.  We need God to create such a heart.  That is why one who prayed with understanding said, ‘Create in me a clear heart, O God.’” (Origen, Against Celsus).

Consider the words of Jesus: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”(Matt. 5:8)

Without love and a purity of heart, there is no knowledge of God.

Christians did not reject reason in favor of “blind” faith, but brought a new confidence in reason based on the story of Jesus.   The goodness of the world, and human experience in the world is validated.  The witness of the apostles is trusted.

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