Oriental Popery?

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?

  1. bradley

    There are so many angles to take on this.On the one hand, it could show that all humans are faced with the same basic temptations. The apostles spread the basic gospel, and obviously that included worship of some kind (and apparently living together and serving each other in some way). But it's almost inconceivable that the apostle's themselves would've been involved in designing church buildings, art, vestments, gold-plated icons, and the like. Such developments, whether we call them good or bad, could only happen in a post-apostolic age. From the fact that it was a fairly consistent development in churches we can't infer that it was good or bad. We can only infer that there was a consistent common denominator. And all Christians in the world have two common denominators: we are all horrible sinners who mess up everything we touch, and we are all righteous followers of Christ who improve everything we touch. You can look at all Christian denominations worldwide and find examples of roughly the same sins (and systematized defenses of such sins…even murder). Likewise, you can look at all Christian denominations worldwide and find examples of roughly the same virtues. Where exactly do liturgical traditions fall in all this? Hey, don't ask me… And on the other hand, just because we look at the prevailing tradition in centuries past—like the Assyrian Church (which pretty much died out)—it doesn't mean we should overlook the prevailing tradition today. Approximately 1/4th of the world's Christians today are Pentecostal or Charismatic. That's very interesting. Such a "movement of the Spirit" shouldn't be ignored.And on the other hand, the Bible teaches repeatedly that traditions in worship are not of primary importance one way or the other. What matters is following Christ in how we live. The Bible doesn't have many good things to say about 'tradition.' Mark 7: "And the Pharisees and the scribes asked Jesus, 'Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?' And he said to them, 'Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men." You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.'" Now, compare this passage to the Easter Controversy that Bede wrote about. Protestant denominations split over tiny doctrinal issues, and Catholic/Orthodox denominations split over which day to have a party on. I know that you already know everything I've said in this comment, of course. I just felt like saying it.


  2. Donny

    Good thoughts, bradfordley. I'm also wondering if there were groups of protestant equivalents in these other movements. In each case, were their iconoclasts fighting against the icons, incense, etc.?As far as my own thoughts, I'm undecided as asual. Technically. But I'm comfortable opposing it, just because that's what I'm used to.


  3. Bradley,I think I'll have to disagree with you on several points. First, I think you have the priority of doctrine and worship backwards and praxis. More fundamental than how we think of God is how we relate to Him, and that means precisely, how we worship. Moreover, how we act should flow from how we worship, for our relation to our neighbor should flow from our relation to God. Thus worship is of first importance, and though the others are important, they flow from the importance of worship.This is seen in the Old Covenant. How many people were struck down for believing false doctrine? How many were struck down for worshiping wrongly, even for worshiping God wrongly? And how many prophets attack Israel for false doctrine, how many for worshiping wrongly?This concern with proper worship is carried over into the Christian community. Thus the Quartodeciman controversy was extremely early–Polycarp, disciple of St. John the Apostle, took part in it.Second, I'm not sure why the Apostles wouldn't have been concerned with Church architecture etc. For purely accidental reasons you may be correct–there were not enough Christians with enough money to construct Churches–but it seems that if we presuppose things like architecture, liturgy, icons are unimportant, we will conclude the Apostles themselves did not found them; but if we assume they are important, it only makes sense that the Apostles would have been involved in them. In short, that point seems circular.Finally, I'm not sure that as Christians we can easily say that "From the fact that it was a fairly consistent development in churches we can't infer that it was good or bad. We can only infer that there was a consistent common denominator." If we take that tack, we make two mistakes: first, the exact same argument can (and is) used to invalidate Creeds. Do we accept Nicea? If so, we do so because it was and has become the Universal Doctrine of the Church, and on the basis of this, we are able to reject as non-Christian sects like Mormonism. Moreover, we make the Church not speak with authority, which undermines it as the Body of Christ, and the Pillar and Ground of Truth.


  4. Given that the apostles were form a liturgical tradition (Judaism) is it really inconceivable to think that they would’ve involved themselves in designing such things or using them? And “post-apostolic age” is only of a different normative standing if we assume a Protestant outlook. On such a view, even the formal canon of scripture is not supremely normative.As for the Pentacostals, it is also true that at the time of Tertullian, Modalism held sway in terms of what the rank and file laymen adhered to. Was that a move of the Spirit too? We can only assume the former is if we take the term ‘Christian” in the full sense of the word. But not Rome, the Reformers or the Orthodox ever concede that to the enthusiasts. The bible doesn’t have many good things to say about human traditions, that much is so, but not all tradition is such. 2 thess 2:15.And if we cannot infer anything normative or useful doctrinally speaking from universality, then we cannot infer say that the four gospels should be canon from their universal employment as Protestants have consistently argued.


  5. Bradley

    Dear Matt,On the first point, I think you misunderstand me. Yes, I am saying that specific liturgical traditions are not very important. But no, I'm not saying that our specific doctrines are therefore "more fundamental." I reject this dichotomy between doctrine and liturgy. Neither are most important. Worship, as you have said, is the most important. But I think there's some confusion here regarding the definition of that term, worship. Both doctrine and liturgy are important parts of worship, but neither are the most important part. Worship that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction (James 1:27). For the past year my thinking and my actions have been hugely influenced by Isaiah 58. The passage teaches that taking care of the oppressed is more important than liturgy…even a devout and proper liturgy.So then, as you have said, the foundation for our faith is our relationship with God, both as individuals and as a people. That relationship is where worship begins. And the worship God chooses, first and foremost, is this: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke; to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house, and to clothe the naked. To quote The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity: 'Christianity "is not a doctrine, it is not a rule of conduct, it is not a feeling, but a life."' As a side matter, Perry, I believe something like this is what Paul was referring to when he urged them to hold fast to the 'tradition' he modeled for them. 2 Thess 3.6-8: "Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you." The tradition alluded to here is contrasted with idleness, and identified with Paul's living example of manual labor. The reason we work hard with our hands so that we have plenty of food to share with those in need (Eph 4.28). That is the 'tradition' Paul wants us to hold fast to.To summarize: True worship is not specific liturgical practices. True worship is following after Christ. Therefore the Church should stop arguing about liturgies and doctrines and go feed the hungry and heal the sick. THAT is the fast the Lord chooses.


  6. Donny

    To quote The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity: 'Christianity "is not a doctrine, it is not a rule of conduct, it is not a feeling, but a life."'

    Oooooo… bringin' out the big guns.


  7. Bradley

    Matt and Perry: Just for the record, I'm a big fan of Church architecture, vestments, art, incense, and that sort of thing. None of what I have said should be interpreted as dissing any of those things.I only had practical issues in mind when I said the apostles wouldn't have been involved in the outworkings of Christian art and such. Purely for financial reasons and population reasons, such outworkings would have to be the calling of later generations. (I called it "inconceivable" that the apostles would have been involved in designing church buildings, but I guess I was wrong, because some people do conceive of it!)I do not believe any creeds are holy and infallible. Creeds are sometimes right and sometimes wrong…often a mix I suspect. If you do believe certain creeds are infallible, then which ones? Why those creeds, and not certain other creeds? What about all the branches of Christianity that don't accept those particular creeds (many of which are the subject of Bradford's blogpost above, I might add)? Oh, you say that those branches are excluded and automatically don't count? Isn't that circular? If so, what's wrong with drawing the circle somewhere else, around some other creeds? What's wrong with drawing the circle just around the Bible? Oh, you ask, how do we determine what's in the canon? The same way all these other Christian denominations decide which creeds are infallible and which are damnable: I have no idea. Epistemology is a real can of worms. I do believe Pentecostals and Charismatics are Christians. I am happy to use the word Christian in "the full-sense of the word", as you put it. I don't think it's a matter of great importance that we draw incredibly precise and accurate boundaries defining who is and isn't a Christian, because the term has become worthless. Ideally, it seems the word "Christian" should signify the people we love and call brothers and sisters…the sort of people we can worship with in Church, and serve alongside in our daily lives. That's what we should mean when we say Christian. Unfortunately, it seems the word has devolved over time to mean a person who has specific doctrinal ideas within their head. If that's what it has become, then Christian is a word I don't see the point in defining.On the other hand, "Christian" is an awfully cool word. It would be a shame to give it up. So how about we redefine it. Any person or community who loves Christ and acknowledges Him as Lord is a Christian person or community. In other words, anyone who follows Christ is a Christian. Is that really such a radical proposition? I think it's fairy well-grounded:

    Whoever says 'I know Him' but does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps His word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in Him: whoever says he abides in Him ought to walk in the same way in which He walked. […] If anyone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.


  8. Bradley,Let me answer your questions as briefly as I can. Then I shall pose a few of my own.I do believe that certain creeds are infallible. Which ones? Nicea-Constantinople, Chalcedon, et al. That is all of those formed by ecumenical synods or approved thereby.Other creeds are heterodox and not appropriately authorized. We’d need to talk about what are the conditions for being appropriately authorized.As for other branches of Chritianity, I don’t subscribe to a branch type theory of Christianity. I don’t think the bible does and I don’t think the early church did either. It is therefore an incorrect and a modern innovation, built on and for Protestant presuppositions. I don’t share those presuppositions or needs. Neither to the Assyrians, Copts, et al.My account would only be circular if I proffered a standard and authority that those bodies never accepted.History means something here. I think they are inconsistent, both materially and formally because they did accept them. The Reformers make the same principled claim, we just disagree about the matter of the claim, but not the principles per se.Drawing the circle somewhere else would require justifying the selection of initial presuppositions to do so. I don’t think that can be done in terms of drawing it somewhere else. And it would entail an alteration in the doctrine of God and Christology, which alterations I take to be heterodox and entail incoherent takes on those doctrines. So, I take other bodies that attempt to do so to be inconsistent in doing so. A shift in one place entails a shift in every place. I don't agree with Calvinists about baptism because we have a different Christology. Doctrines aren't stand alone things.Drawing the circle around the bible would require us to know which canon of the bible to do it with. I don’t see why we should privilege the Protestant canon a priori. Just like there is no theory neutral doctrine of God that we all occupy, there isn’t a theory neutral canon and bible which we can all appeal to. Here I am pressing the antithesis or pushing theoretical squatters off my land.If all those other Christian denominations and traditions (these aren’t necessarily the same thing since the notion of a denomination is a distinctly Protestant idea, and a rather late one at that.) established the canon in the same way, we might have a reason to do as you suggest, but they don’t and they don’t end up on the same canon, so I don’t know how this helps your suggestion. Do you have a justified principle to figure out which one we should select? Second, even if they did all agree on how to do so and also what the canon was, that wouldn’t imply on your own principles relative to the fallibility and revisability of all formal theological judgments that they were right. But isn’t that the destination that your suggestion wishes to get us to, the truth? If not, I can’t see how useful it could be and in any case usefulness doesn’t imply truthfulness.The same goes in short for how all of those traditions which do claim infallibility as a divine power in which the church participates. They do not all agree on what it is, how it is gotten and how it is exercised-Rome and the Orthodox are just one prime example.As for Epistemology being a can of worms, it is no more so than any other field of study. It just depends on how far down the rabbit hole one wishes to go. After a while, all fields start looking like Wonderland.My point about conceivability was not merely the fact that I think it is a counter example, but given their Jewish heritage, it isn’t implausible to think that they thought about such things and made judgments concerning them. Last I checked Revelation has something to say about understanding ecclesial architecture. That might be a reason why the ancient churches all more or less look the same. Architecture is theology and mystagogy. I can walk into a given church and tell you what they believe usually without knowing the tradition 9 times out of ten. With modern evangelicals the lesson is simple-God is everywhere in general and no where in particular-ecclesial docetism as it were.If Pentacostals and Co. are Christians in the full sense of the term, why aren’t their churches true visible churches by that fact alone on Reformation principles? Why then do the Reformation bodies not commune with them? Isn’t being Christian sufficient? If not, then they aren’t Christians in the full sense of the term since there is something significant they lack and my point has been made it seems.I don’t think I suggested that we need “incredibly” precise boundaries, just sufficiently clear ones, which is just to say that I don’t take the ones you seem to be assuming to be coherent and sufficiently clear.I am not sure how you support the assertion that we should take the term “Christian” in the way you suggest. It doesn’t seem to operate that way in the NT as people who separated themselves from the church over particular doctrinal matters were seen to be outside of the church, full stop. I do not understand how that could be possible on the view you suggest. For my part it isn’t so much having specific mental content as being in communion with a body that professes certain things. This shifts away from the more individualistic gloss that you seem to chide.As for your definition of Christian, why do the Christadelphians, JW'’s or LDS fail that definition? Why does Rome not fail to fall under it or the Orthodox for that matter? I think the definition is so obviously opaque as to be useless.And as for the Johanine text, do you keep his commandments? And thinking that someone is a sectarian or schismatic doesn’t entail hating them. Secondly, the Johanine statements are in the context of the church, for what do we have to do with judging the outsider as Paul says? We exclude in the Pauline hope that being handed over to Satan, they might repent.


  9. Brad Littlejohn

    Oh bother, here we go again. I post something chiding Protestants for being overly-dismissive to the Orthodox, and in come the Orthodox to, instead of thanking me, chide us for not being fully Orthodox…just as happened in the "Aids or Idols" post on images (where, I see, the comment discussion has recently flickered back to life, for those who are interested). A brief word to Perry: I am far from considering these matters insignificant. These are very important questions, and the Church must continue to wrestle through these questions if it is to finally survive…they cannot simply be swept under the rug. However, I agree with Bradley that these are not the most important questions; we must address these but while not omitting the weightier matters of the law–justice and mercy and faith. When Christ separates the sheep from the goats, I have a bad feeling that there's going to be a lot of people who sat around earnestly debating about liturgy and ecclesiology and and bounds of communion who will be among the goats. So, by all means continue the discussion if Bradley wants to (I'm afraid I don't have time to right now), but keep it in perspective.Bradley: the points you raised in your initial comment are well-put. In fact, this corresponds to a recurrent problem in ethics–the difficulty of discerning the natural. We want to be able to look at some universal human practice or conviction and say, "See, this way of being human is natural, and this way (e.g., homosexuality) is not." But this is never as easy as we would like, since after the fall, something sinful may have become a universal human practice or conviction. Universality can go either way. However, as O'Donovan argues in response to this problem in The Church in Crisis this does not make discrimination between the two impossible, or free us from the need to undertake the task, it merely makes it more difficult. So you're right that the universality of "popish" forms, as the Reformers would have called them, could testify to a universality of human weakness and temptation. However, to make this move requires that one give up a great deal of faith in the Church, and the working of the Spirit in it; it seems to undermine faith in Christ's promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church. This was Nevin's core argument in his phenomenal essays "Early Christianity." Do we really want to so hastily say that the whole church was wrong until the 16th century? But while this argument may have a fair amount of inductive and psychological force, it of course lacks deductive, demonstrative force. So I didn't intend to prove anything by raising the points above. Indeed, I'm not inclined myself to think that we should all start kissing icons because the Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox, etc., do so. My point is only to say that Protestants need to be completely honest with themselves about the scale of their protest, and think carefully about what that entails; too often Protestants have been able to comfort themselves by imagining that they were merely resisting the innovations of wicked medieval "popery."


  10. Brad Littlejohn

    Hm, I can't speak to that, Daniel, not having had the leisure to read it yet. Judging by MacCulloch's previous work in his Reformation, I would say yes–that book still stands as far and away the best piece of church history writing, and probably the best piece of history writing period, that I have ever read. I was particularly impressed by MacCulloch's ability to achieve objectivity not at the cost of sympathy, but through sympathy. That is to say, rather than being unbiased simply by trying to be cold and objective and draining the history thereby of life and passion, he was unbiased by entering sympathetically into all the different people and viewpoints in question. At least, that is how I recall it, though perhaps my memory has gotten carried away in its praise for the book.By comparison, I've been rather disappointed with the BBC series he's narrating–not just with the annoying cinematography and editing, which isn't his fault, but with the rather slanted, cynical way in which church history is recounted; few things are overtly negative, but everything positive is stated very backhandedly and with a seeming sneer or scoff just under the surface. I have a feeling that the BBC pushed the script this way in order to cater to the preferences of a post- and anti-Christian audience. So the book may not be at all that way; if you read it and find out, be sure to let me know.


  11. Donny

    My point is only to say that Protestants need to be completely honest with themselves about the scale of their protest, and think carefully about what that entails; too often Protestants have been able to comfort themselves by imagining that they were merely resisting the innovations of wicked medieval "popery."

    How true is that in reality? You have to be careful not to strawman Protestants in an effort to qualify their objections.


  12. Brad Littlejohn

    This was certainly the way the protest was generally put in the time of the Reformation, the period in which I've been working. While of course the Reformers were aware that the Orthodox existed as well, and shared many of the same "corruptions," the Orthodox were small enough players in their world for them to disregard them fairly readily, something that has continued until the last few decades. And it's only quite recently, if at all, that many Protestants have become aware of the existence of the Oriental churches. So I don't think it's at all a strawman to think that most Protestants, insomuch as they think of themselves in opposition to anything, instead of just taking themselves for granted, think of themselves in opposition to the abuses and innovations of Rome. Of course, these aren't merely in the realm of external accoutrements, but most Protestants do tend to be quite preoccupied with these things, and tend to have quite intense knee-jerk reactions to the mere concepts of bishops or of incense or of various liturgical gestures, because they consider these to be marks of Catholic abuses–if this is merely a description of Moscow, so be it, but it certainly isn't a straw man.


  13. Brad,I think you misread my remarks. I acknowledge your self critical point but I wished to point out some problems in the outlook that either turned on confusions or might only be true on protestant presuppositions.As for the most important things, I can’t see that we disagree all that much. But since discussion and especially in this medium isn’t conducive to those things, I can only discuss what is possible here, namely conceptual matters.Part of the reason a la images that the Reformed took the primitive church to lack such things is that in Calvin’s case they relied on the Carolingian iconoclast works. Those works, the Carolini in particular, were limited in scope as far as patristic sources and so didn’t give a full portrait of the primitive church. Calvin uses it for example in an uncritical way.


  14. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks, that's helpful about the sources of Reformation iconoclasm. I always wondered to what extent they tried to justify their position by appeal to the early Church, and to what extent they simply based it on their Biblical scruples.


  15. patrick

    I remember a long time ago hearing a talk given by Fr. David Anderson, he´s since left the Orthodox faith, where he quoted from when the Romans captured and confiscated a Christian church. They found all kinds of liturgical and sacremental stuff which they documented for legal records. How far back do we have to go before there is some general recognition that these things were never gloss overs?


  16. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks for the link, Brad. I think there's definitely something to that, though I think Leithart overstates his point. A lot of the iconoclasm was just wanton fanatical destruction, particularly here in Scotland. Smashing stained glass windows doesn't really help the poor. But yes, this is something I've wrestled with–how do we balance what seems to me to be a biblical and historical call to beautify our houses of worship with a call to use our resources to meet the urgent needs of our neighbors? Certainly in many cases, the late medieval church erred very much on the side of beauty, and to the detriment of its people.


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