22 May 2017

A Brief History of Continual Change

The ground looks fixed, but it's actually moving. Sitting in the doctor's waiting room other week, I read an article in a well-thumbed science magazine. It was about the outer crust of the earth being comprised of 7 or 8 huge tectonic plates which move toward or away from each other by around 100mm a year. That's pretty slow, but nonetheless, we are all on shifting ground and sometimes it feels like an earthquake...because it is.

For a few thousand years Christianity has been moving too. Our understanding of God as revealed in the Bible has been, for centuries, hammered out on the anvil of people believing in Jesus, yet thinking differently. It is easy to take their hard fought battles for granted.

From the beginning, Christianity was a movement discovering how to hold in tension its tectonic Judaic foundation with the radical teaching of its founder Jesus and the Apostles. Early in Acts we see the first great shift, with the followers of Jesus forming a community that challenged the social norms of gender, race and slavery within Jewish society. Then Peter receives that unimaginable revelation of the gospel being open to Gentiles. And by the mid first century, the Council of Jerusalem endorsed Paul to take the gospel to Gentiles - mostly detached from Jewish custom and ceremony. These were not minor tremors, they were a 9 on the Richter scale!

For the next few hundred years the church endured turbulent councils and conflicts around core dogma. The church of the East split from Rome, and for the next thousand years, both shifted slowly away from their origins. Europe became a dark place, exemplified by the inquisitions of Spain and Rome established to enforce its version orthodoxy by exterminating dissenters.

But an earthquake on a fault line is just a matter of time.

500 years ago in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg sparking a theological revolution. From the selling of indulgences, insisting that the Pope had no authority over purgatory and the Catholic doctrine of the merits of the saints, Luther demanded many beliefs had no biblical foundation.

The reformation was a return to the foundations of Scripture as sole authority (sola scriptura) and faith as sole basis for righteousness (sola fide). After the reformation, the rate of change accelerated with the expansion of Protestant thought and its denominational expressions.

In the modern era we've witnessed shifts in the church on many matters - the abolition of slavery; apartheid; women in leadership; creation and evolution; Sabbath keeping; contraception; divorce and remarriage; consuming alcohol; medical ethics; worship; dress codes and yes, even dancing! All of which were biblically justified and biblically contested by intelligent, scholarly Christians.

My point today is that our beliefs are not always as immovable as we would like to believe. If history is any guide, constant change is inevitable and we won’t all see eye to eye. From the beginning the church has been wrestling with its thinking and every generation has theological and moral earthquakes to respond to.

What are the earthquakes of our time?
Would you say you are fixed in your thinking on most issues?
Do you tend to shut down or become agitated when something you believe is challenged? 
Is it all just too hard and not worth thinking about at all?

Our lives and behaviors are formed from thousands of beliefs, some conscious, and many unconscious. So if you are an echo of your beliefs I wonder how important it is then to know what you believe and why you believe it. Let’s explore that further next time.