We recently started watching the recent BBC documentary series “The History of Christianity,” written and hosted by the renowned church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch as a sort of accompaniment to his new magnum opus, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. The first episode focused primarily on the early non-Western forms of Christianity, seeking to emphasize to we arrogant Western Christians that for a millenium, it was far from obvious that Christianity would be a primarily European phenomenon, and the particular forms of it developed in European contexts were only some of the many forms it took. MacCulloch took us on a tour of such exotic traditions as the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Church of the East (the vast Nestorian Church that penetrated as far as China, establishing a large presence there for centuries). Other Oriental churches include the Armenian Orthodox, the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox, and the Chaldean Catholic.
MacCulloch’s purpose was to draw attention to the variety and adaptability of the Christian tradition, and to be sure, this is an interesting theme, but what struck me instead was the uniformity–the uniformity over against Protestantism in particular. Isn’t it a strange thing that those things Protestants consider to be late unbiblical innovations, departing from the true form and spirit of the early Church–things such as vestments, priests, bishops, incense, icons, monks, lots of liturgical gestures, high sacramental theology, etc.–seem to be shared by most if not all of these ancient communions? Note that most of these are churches that separated from the mainstream of Western Christianity way back in the 400s or even earlier; some were semi-independent from the very beginning. They didn’t borrow all these “relics of popery” from later corruptions of the Western Church, they just had them from the beginning, so far as I can tell.
Of course, this doesn’t in itself disprove the Protestant opposition to these things. But it certainly means we need to face up to our remarkable peculiarity–the fact that we are the odd man out when it comes to Church history, not the litmus test by which all else that is Christian can be measured. If Scripture is adamantly against all these things, then perhaps its testimony should prevail over such a universal testimony of church history, but if Scripture is at all ambiguous, it would be hard to resist such a universal weight of tradition as the truest form of Christianity.
21 thoughts on “Oriental Popery?”