The history of Christianity is marked by debate.
Each of the Gospel authors records extensive back-and-forth between Jesus and just about everyone He encountered. After the Resurrection, some Jewish and Roman leaders conspired to spread the story that His body had been taken by the disciples. Acts 15 records the Jerusalem leadership’s decision regarding the conflict between Jewish and Gentile believers over circumcision and (by extension) the keeping of the Moasic laws. Subsequent centuries saw councils and volumes upon volumes written upon crucial topics: What was the nature of Christ – monophyte, apollinarian, nestorian? The answer came in the formation of the doctrine of the hypostatic union. Did the Spirit proceed only from the Father or from the Father and the Son? The answer to this created the filioque controversy, a factor that continues to contribute to the separation of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. How was the Christian life to be lived? An anonymous author or compiler tackled this in the Didache. What books should be included in the canon? (The subsequent question, “how was the canon formed?” is one of the major differences between Catholics and Protestants).
Justin Martyr passionately defended the faith. Irenaeus eloquently dismantled Gnostic heresies. Origen, regarded as a Church Father but not a Saint, was anathematized (condemned as a heretic) for (among other things) his views on subordinationism, accepted within the Christian community until the final formation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Tertullian blasted Marcion across five books, but later became suspect due to his Montanist views, streams of which flow into today’s Pentecostal and Charismatic oceans.
Where am I going with this?
We make a mistake when we assume that the Christian faith was handed down in toto one afternoon. The centuries of wrestling, of struggle, are certainly evidence of human frailty in attempting to combine antagonistic philosophies into one; there is no holding on to false belief (not forever, at any rate) when God has won a person over. It is also evidence, to be sure, of the Enemy’s activity in taking truth and manipulating it into a lie. However, in these debates and worries, we also see evidence of the working out of salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). The person devoted to God longs to please Him, and therefore desires to know what is right.
This longing and desire often leads to legalism.
Confession: I like legalism. I like lists of rules. I like knowing exactly what the standards are. As an anxious perfectionist, I like to be able to point to something and say, “There. I did it.” For some, the appeal lies in pride and the hope of controlling others. For people like me, the appeal lies in fear. If I’m keeping the rules, then I’m okay. People like me are terrified that God’s grace will run out. We are afraid that He will wake up one day and no longer love us – because we broke the rules one too many times.
I’m not an advocate for the other extreme – the cheap grace of libertinism – but a rule-bound life is stressful in the extreme. It is that stress we are going to examine through the Not the Fundamentals series. The title is drawn from a four-volume set of 90 essays entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth, published between 1910 and 1915. (Volume 1 is available in PDF format here). What the authors of The Fundamentals set out to do was re-articulate key positions in orthodox Christianity in a shifting culture that had given rise to historical criticism and the social gospel. Unfortunately, that re-articulation led directly to a rigidity of focus on the externals among many Christians. It is to this we turn our attention.
Before we part ways, allow me to make one thing clear: This series is not directed at any individuals or churches. If and when I link to any sites or blogs, I do so only to illustrate a point from the source itself. We will not walk in a spirit of condemnation here. Remember, I group myself with those who are drawn to rigidity and legalism. I understand. What I want is to live the abundant life Christ offers, free of fear and based in love. This is the end we strive for.
For all the posts in the Not the Fundamentals series, go here.