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HISTORY of Christian Theology

In the prior post we explored how one’s worldview and scripture have influenced Christianity’s belief in orthodoxy. We continue this analysis by exploring how tradition, reason, emotion, and moral results have influenced this quest and shaped a balanced approach in Christianity’s search for truth.

III. Tradition

The Catholic response to liberal theology was to double-down on its tenets regarding papal authority and tradition.

In 1854 Pope Pius IX, the longest serving pope in history, declared that the debated doctrine of the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception was official Church doctrine, and that those who disagreed would be subject to both ecclesiastical and civil discipline. This was the first time that a pope had affirmatively declared doctrine without convening a council of bishops. Up to that point in time, councils affirmatively declared what was official doctrine while the pope on occasion would declare what was heretical. This took place at the same time liberal theology, modern philosophical ideas and liberal political thought was making great inroads in society.

St. Thomas AquinasSome Catholics, including high-ranking officials, felt that the Pope was over-reaching his authority. Pope Pius had had enough of this push-back and what he viewed as undermining of the Church and the corruption of society. So, in 1864, he published an encyclical (official letter) with an attached Syllabus of Errors where he declared most aspects of modernity to be an anathema to true Christianity, including freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and the sovereignty of the people. Then, in 1869 he called the First Vatican Council, where the bishops for the first time officially confirmed a long-standing belief that the pope was infallible when he speaks in his official capacity, ex cathedra. A few years later in 1879, Pope Leo XIII sent out an encyclical declaring that the traditional theology taught by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century was the correct basis for Catholic thought. In 1914 Pope Pius X decreed that Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy was beyond debate. On top of all this, in 1910, the Catholic Church required all of its clergy and seminary professors to swear an Anti-Modernist oath. Regardless, debate continued within the Church and in 1962 the Catholic Church convened the Second Vatican Council which embraced modernity and ecumenical principles.

The initial Catholic knee-jerk reaction to liberal ideas did not occur in a vacuum and mirrored the fundamentalist reaction in Protestantism. This was a continuation of a long-standing debate that came to a head during the Protestant Reformation. Protestants objected to the high regard the Catholic Church gave to tradition and insisted that the sole arbiter of truth was the written word of God independent of tradition. The Catholics countered that the Bible can only be properly interpreted through the lens of tradition. They argued that ecclesiastical authority had primacy over scripture because Church authorities were the ones who selected which writings would be contained in the canon of scripture to begin with. They also argued it would be too easy for unsophisticated people to err in interpreting scripture. They insisted that debate regarding the meaning of the word of God was best handled by educated clergy and theological experts in the halls of the universities. Allowing private interpretation by common people in the streets would open pandora’s box to all sorts of subjective ideas leading to doctrinal anarchy and moral decay. They maintained that custom and tradition developed by many learned holy men over centuries provided the best means to correctly understand the word of God. Additionally, when people undermined the authority of the Church, they subverted the authority of the state that kept society from falling into bedlam and chaos. Yet, the Protestant Reformation found traction among many segments of society. Finally, the Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent to address the issues raised by the Protestant Reformation. The Council mandated a number of reforms, but it reaffirmed the Church’s tenet that both tradition and scripture are authoritative.

This whole debate regarding authority and tradition seems strange to us in our modern world largely because Western culture was transformed by the Reformation that infused it with an enhanced value of independence and individualism. Yet, with all of our individualistic and democratic ideas, we have largely lost sight of the value found in tradition. Traditions are the roots that nourish our homes and society from the depths of our heritage to provide stability and bring flavor into our lives. Even Martin Luther, who launched the attack on the authority of Church tradition, valued the creeds and Augustine’s writings. Even though Lutherans and Calvinists echoed the refrain of “scripture alone,” they turned to the respective writings of Luther and Calvin for guidance to understand the meaning of the scriptures they prized. Both Luther and Calvin were opposed to private interpretation of scripture and adamantly insisted that only their respective perspectives were the correct view. As an example, after Luther met with Calvin’s predecessor, Zwingli, in an effort to resolve their doctrinal differences, Luther refused to shake his hand and later asserted that Zwingli was an agent of the Devil.

It is human nature for communities to sustain authority and the value of traditions, so it should be no surprise to realize that these tendencies are found in nearly all religions. We also generally undervalue the positions of others that do not concur with our own opinions. Today, most Christians doubt that anyone can infallibly speak for God, yet they don’t question that it was God’s pattern in the Bible to speak authoritatively through prophets and apostles. Catholics and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) who believe that at times their leaders speak for God are not really all that different from most Christians who value what the founders and leaders of their particular religious traditions have to say. Most people who attend church on Sunday go to hear the word of God spoken through the voice of their minister. Even when we do not fully accept the direction from God’s purported mouthpieces and the wisdom of the ages as absolute truth, tradition and instruction assist us in identifying issues and seeing different points of view, which invariably informs and enhances the quality of our personal beliefs. Individuals evaluate the veracity of various positions and elect to follow those ideas that make sense to them, typically based on today’s primary standard of truth, reason.

IV. Reason

The tension between authority and reason is not new. It did not just spring into existence during the Age of Enlightenment. Records of this conflict go as far back as the early classical Greek period when the father of Greek philosophy, Socrates, willingly accepted death rather than deny the truths that he believed. One of the fundamental principles of Greek philosophy that infused Western culture for millennia was a quest to live a rational life.

The Death of Socrates

Many people do not realize that the tension between authority and reason became a major issue in the middle ages. During the 11th century, the French theologian, Berengar of Tours, created a stir by emphasizing the importance of logic and reason when discussing religious concepts. This upset Cardinal Peter Damian because he felt Berengar was undermining the authority of the Church. Eventually, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Landfranc of Bec, carried the day with his centrist position. Landfranc pointed out that God has given humans a rational mind and God expects us to use it. Yet, he said, there are some truths that are so clear and fundamental that they are beyond the realm of debate. Landfranc’s protégé, Anselm, embraced Berengar’s dialectic approach of using logic to determine the winning argument to theological disputes, and is often credited with being the father of scholastic theology. To this day, people use Anselm’s statement of “belief seeking understanding” as the definition of theology. Over the next few centuries scholars rediscovered the teachings of Aristotle, with its rules of logic and categories of forms, that shaped theological discussion up to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. This heady scholasticism was a favorite target of Martin Luther, yet within 150 years of Luther’s death, Lutheran ministers were trained using a similar scholastic method. We often forget that Luther himself also relied on reason in his famous defense when he refused to recant, stating, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason.” Landfranc was right, humans have a rational mind, and we will invariably use it.

One of the defining characteristics of the Modern Age is the elevated position we give to reason and its child, science. Western culture today generally views science as the ultimate source of truth. Everything is measured against this standard to determine its veracity. If something does not make sense to the rational mind it is summarily dismissed. Yet, just as during the Age of Enlightenment, people realize that something is missing when we rely solely on rational thought. An increasing number of individuals today feel lost in this rational world and seek a connection with an ethereal realm. Just as the Romanticists sought meaning and connection with the infinite through the arts, people today instinctively realize that there is more to being human than just our rational mind. We have feelings. Indeed, as much as we honor reason as the final arbiter of truth, in reality our emotions are what generally drive our actions.

V. Emotional Experience

Religion is a matter of the heart. The emphasis on an emotional connection with the divine in the pietist, evangelical and Pentecostal movements, was not new. From the beginning of Christianity its believers asserted claims that they had experienced the influence of ultimate power, the Holy Spirit of God himself. Indeed, the two primary claims of the early Christians were that Jesus had resurrected in bodily form and that God’s spirit had changed their lives. They boldly proclaimed that God had lifted them out of a state of sin to a state of peace, joy and righteousness, and that this blessed state was available to all believers. It was not simply something that they could hope for in some distant future after death, but it was something believers could experience now, in the present. They testified that this power of conversion was not due to some internal source of power, which today we would refer to as auto-suggestion or self-hypnosis, but it was due to a power outside themselves that rested upon them. Those who struggled with vices were empowered to live virtuous lives. Some with physical ailments were miraculously healed. They saw themselves as being united with God, that his spirit was inside them, infusing them with the power to endure temptation and horrific persecution. They became devoted witnesses of their spiritual experience. The original Greek word for martyr actually meant witness, and many of Christian martyrs made the ultimate witness with their lives.

The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer

Why would anyone do something so irrational as willingly die for the far-fetched idea that a man had resurrected from the dead and that he had shared his power with his followers to change their lives? This is the question many Romans asked themselves as they watch Christian martyrs willingly and serenely accept death in the arena. Tertullian, an early Christian apologist said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” This illogical scene of persons from all classes of life conquering the most intense human instinct―survival―was such a dramatic contrast to their world founded on reason that it provoked many persons to investigate the source of this power, and then become converted themselves.

Humans cannot exist in a state of cognitive dissonance where our beliefs do not jive with undisputed facts. We will either change our belief, dispute the facts or concoct some means to reconcile the two. Consequently, the martyrs’ ultimate testimony of their beliefs elicited examination by many observers. Many of them discovered an emotional conversion experience that defied reason. Christians today often testify of feeling this same transformative power from the spiritual realm. They assert that spiritual things can only be understood through spiritual eyes that are opened by the healing touch of God, and they continue to invite unbelievers to also experience this converting power.

VI. Moral Results

Sermon on the MountOne of the primary ways Christians through the ages have borne witness to the truth of their beliefs has been through living moral lives. Subscribing to a higher code of ethics than society in general has been a common characteristic of devote Christians throughout history. They strive to follow Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount to let their light shine through good works and to function as leaven to raise the morals of their community. An anonymous 2nd or early 3rd century apologetic epistle called The Letter to Diognetus asserts that, “What the soul is to the body, that the Christians are to the world.” The Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, who Pope Pius XII called the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages, taught that Christians have been chosen by God to bless all of the nations of the earth in fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham (see Gal 3:8). Living moral lives and serving others are fundamental attributes of being a true Christian.

Jesus taught that the whole law was based on the two great commandments to love God and our neighbor, (see Matt 22:36-40) and that we should treat others as we would like to be treated. (Matt 7:12). He further taught that not everyone who professes his name will go to heaven, but those who do the will of God. He said that by their fruits we will know them (see Matt 7:16-23), and the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. (see Gal 5:22-23). Pure religion includes visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction and keeping oneself unspotted by the world. (see James 1:5). One should be able to see the effect of God’s influence on a Christian through their actions. Consequently, one method of evaluating the efficacy of doctrine is through the affect it has on those who subscribe to its tenets.

Early Christians believed that right thinking led to right actions, which led to right standing with God, or in other words, justification and righteousness. That is why the early Church Fathers stressed the importance of orthodoxy, which legacy has remained a cultural priority of Christianity through the ages. Christianity has been subject to greater theological disputes than most other world religions because of this emphasis on teaching correct doctrine. Unfortunately, too often these disputes led to unchristian behavior. We see this distressing result during the formation of the creeds with their Christological disputes, during the inquisitions, and the European wars of religion. In far too many cases, the cure was worse than the disease.

During the Reformation movement Catholics criticized Protestants for their doctrine on free grace, which Catholics alleged gave license to decadent behavior. Even Martin Luther, who felt that this doctrine would liberate the masses to more freely perform good deeds, was appalled by the lack of morals displayed by many of his professed followers. On the other hand, Puritans who tried to show through their good works that they were the elect of God, and some Mormons who feel that they need to prove their worthiness, gravitate to an ego-centric rather than a Christ-centered orientation, which in turn invites the twin dysfunctions of pride and anxiety. Both extremes create a risk of adherents missing the mark. True doctrine promotes moral values by helping people turn to God by recognizing how great God is and how deficient they are, yet simultaneously increasing their assurance of salvation as they seek Him, which produces overwhelming feelings of joy, gratitude, love for God, peace, security, compassion and understanding that inspire believers to become better persons.

VII. Balanced Approach

Most Christians use some if not all of these various approaches to determine truth. Different individuals and traditions give greater weight to particular approaches over others, but they all generally play a role in our search for truth. There is virtue in finding balance between all of these various approaches that we have discussed. Pursuing each of these approaches will open the door to God and invite him to lift us up to become unified with the divine. As we strive to recognize our biases based on our worldview, we open our eyes wider to see a much broader panorama of reality than our previous myopic perspective allowed. As we search the word of God, we learn to recognize His voice so that we can rely on Him instead of just on what someone else interprets God’s word to say. Yet, there is great benefit in learning the wisdom of the ages and the truths that devoted and inspired people want to share. We are rational creatures created in God’s image and he expects us to use his divine gift, our minds, in our quest for truth. Yet, God usually speaks to us through our feelings. He calls us to repent through our conscience. He inspires us with feelings of hope when all else fails. He protects us from harm through intuition. Divine truth always produces good fruit: love, joy, unity, kindness, peace, compassion. As we seek these things, we will find God.

As we proceed with our study of the history of Christianity, we will become more aware of how our predecessors in all traditions struggled to find truth through these various approaches. Hopefully, we will learn from their successes and failures how to hone our skills to discover truth and find God. As we learn from these seekers of truth from different religious persuasions, we hopefully will become more understanding of others and less judgmental. In this pluralistic world, these benefits are certainly worth pursuing.

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What is True?

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Period I – The Early and Medieval church


Philo of Alexandria, André Thévet (1502–1590), [PD-old-100]

Erasmus Text of the New Testament, title page, 1516, [PD]

Portrait of Erasmus, Hans Holbein (c. 1497–1543), National Gallery, London, [PD]

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Matthew Harris Jouett, [PD-old-100]

Italian Landscape with Umbrella Pines, Hendrik Voogd (1768–1839), Rijksmuseum, [PD-old-100]

By Smithsonian Institution from United States – Tennessee v. John T. Scopes Trial: Outdoor proceedings on July 20, 1925, showing William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, No restrictions, Photographer Watson Davis, Smithsonian Institution @ Flickr Commons

Saint Thomas Aquinas, Carlo Crivelli (c. 1435 –1495), National Gallery, London, [PD-US]

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Walters Art Museum, [PD-US]

The Sermon on the Mount, Carl Bloch (1834–1890), The Museum of National History, [PD-US]

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), Metropolitan Museum of Art, [PD-old-100]

ClearStone Publishing hopes that this site will assist you in your quest for truth and your desire to connect with God.


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