Is the Patristic Tradition Important? – Stuart Johnson

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Theology in reconThere is no doubt the church was grounded on the Incarnate, Resurrected and Ascended Word.  The church is united in Jesus Christ where in principle there is union in the Father, Son and Spirit that flows out of Him as the Source upon which the whole church is fed and nourished.  It is a one way stream of eternal love that comes to us by means of Jesus Christ and our response is wrapped up by Him, sanctified and returned to the Father. We have all come from out of the very same Lord Jesus Christ and it is to Him we are headed.  The question is are we all united in this reality?  It is glaringly evident this is not the case.  The universal church today has suffered such division that it almost appears hypocritical that we dare to call ourselves the reconciled community. In our disunity, we are all united in Jesus Christ by what Jesus Christ has done.  This is the eternal truth given as the most loving kind gift to humanity.  The key to try and make this unity in Christ a reality on earth is to be united in our statement of what we declare Him to be, which is what He declared of Himself from the very beginning.

It has been 2000 years since Jesus walked the earth and much of the context for which his ministry arose is almost non-existent in our modern society.  The kind of disunity we have in the church today, highlights a real problem.  We must ask ourselves, “What is the problem and how has it come about?”  It is the same as trying to diagnose a sickness in a person.  We look to the symptoms to lead us to the root of the problem.  In the same way, we look at the church today and try and diagnose what the root of the problem is in the hope we can take the necessary steps to reverse the problem.   There are many who are endeavouring to tackle this very issue today.  There are significant figures in the past who have laid the groundwork in this area.  We have to acknowledge there is a problem if we are going to take the necessary steps to reverse the problem.  The problem is evident highlighted by the enormous and often bitter disunity within the universal church today.

Is there common ground between the denominations upon which we can all agree?  If we call ourself a Christian denomination, then the common area with which we can agree upon is the very One we all follow, which is Jesus Christ.  Then the common question one might be asked is, “What do you believe?”  It is this question where the relationship not only between denominations but even between individuals in a denomination start to break down.  Any attempt to bring about unity between the denominations also brings about a strain in relationships within and between denominations.  The focus on Jesus Christ can easily be distracted by theological differences, political agendas and personal ambitions.  The powers and principalities have emerged in the church and are setting about destroying any attempt to bring the fruit of the Christ into the life and worship of the church through genuine reconciliation.

The Church can be split into three main groups; 1. Eastern Orthodox 2. Western Catholic and 3. Evangelical.  With each, there have been a general consensus on the acknowledgment of the Apostle’s and the Nicene Creed.  As these Creeds were formulated in the ancient community in the first few centuries of the church, there are numerous documents that gave explanation and expansion of the intended meaning of what was written in each of the confessions.  These confessions were formulated in response to those who posed a threat to the integrity of the gospel and the nature of the Person of Jesus Christ.  The Nicene Creed, in particular, was universal in its acceptance, and is a clear and concise expression and declaration of who the universal church declares Jesus Christ to be.  A careful reading of the documents leading up to the establishment of the Creeds as well as the documents that followed will show there was a high degree of unity of mind.  The so-called differences were mainly insignificant.  Within the church today, we have enormous differences in our understanding of the gospel and a high degree of disunity.  Yet, there is only One God expressed as Father, Son and Spirit, One Lord Jesus Christ, and One Holy Church.  Is it fair to say the church should be a proper reflection of the relationship of the Father, Son and Spirit and the nature of relationships within the community should follow after this pattern?

Is there some way the church can move towards unity without theological differences, political agendas and personal ambitions?  It is possible to press towards unity but it may mean we have to abandon all structures that may obstruct any endeavour to do so.  The three groups categorised above do not have any claim to a monopoly to what constitutes the body of Christ.  Though I will admit I do feel a close affinity with the Eastern Orthodox group.  Institutions in themselves do not have the power to build the church.  This is solely the work of the Spirit of Christ in whom the gates of hell shall not prevail.  However, as we assent to the authority of the Spirit over and above the authority of institutional theological positions, political agendas and personal ambitions, then we become ‘movements’ within the body of Christ in the same Spirit.  Though the goal here may not be to remove the institutions but for them to review everything they believe to be theological in the Light of the Person and work of Jesus Christ that is faithful to what the apostles taught.

This means we have to find what is preventing us from seeing clearly the fundamental implications of the gospel in the ancient period, particularly in the first 500 years.  When the notable differences in theological views of current day institutional doctrines are compared with the doctrines of the ancient church there is the tendency to abandon the teachings surrounding the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Period for the sake of institutional theological statements and confessions of faith.  If this era is abandoned, then we have no other means of objectively reaching a consensus on the fundamentals of the Christian faith.  In modern day Christianity, we are left with an evolved set of beliefs conditioned by a worldview that bears little resemblance to the cultural Hebrew setting upon which the gospel was birthed.  Our modern glasses and framework of thought blinds us from the very things that gave the proper way of seeing and knowing Jesus Christ.  Therefore, to adequately assist us in any quest towards unity, we may need to explore how our worldview might be hindering us from see Jesus Christ as He ought to be seen, the way Jesus Christ wants us to see Him. By sitting at the feet of the church fathers, we can learn what they regarded as heresies and why.  We begin to learn the boundaries of where our truth lies for which we must never breach.  As we begin to allow ourselves to reframe our way of thinking towards a Patristic frame of mind, then we can formulate our necessary statements not only based on what the Fathers say, but on the epistemic implications of Jesus Christ, God who became Man, for our sakes.  This is knowledge that is found nowhere else other than in God’s own self-revelation and self-expression of Himself as the Man, Jesus Christ made available to us through the Scriptures within the cultural context of Jewish redemptive history.  We find here a precise knowledge of God that is grounded in the very being of God and not in ourselves.  Our doctrines of God will take on a Trinitarian structure highlighting the pattern of relationship upon which the image of all humanity is cast.

At the end of the day, we begin our God-talk not with our doctrinal statements, philosophies, concepts, a problem, theory, premises etc.  We do not begin with the question of hell/universalism, violence/non-violence, the sin problem, creation/evolution, science vs religion, anthropology or any other hidden agenda.  We do not look for an obstacle or a stumbling block for our brothers and sisters to trip over.  We  begin with the Person who encounters us, whose new covenant promises us, They will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest (Hebrews 8:11).  We begin with the One whom  by His own hand created all things and in whom the whole universe consists and is held together.  We begin with the One whose affirmation from the Father, My beloved child in whom my soul delights sings within the heart of all humanity.  We begin with the tremendous news that the gospel and consummation of every person is Jesus Christ.  We trust it is the Spirit of Christ who leads us into all truth and reminds us of things we must never forget, the very things God said as the Man Jesus Christ, on His own behalf.  These are things of Himself that we would otherwise never, EVER, know.  What we must not forget is the good news of the gospel, the astonishing and utterly staggering event of the Incarnation of God who now sits at the Father’s right hand, Jesus Christ.  The consequence is that every human being is seated in Christ at the right hand of the Father.

Yet, there is so much we cannot agree on.  We cannot even agree on the nature of Christ’s humanity and/or divinity when this had been clearly communicated by the Apostles in Scripture upheld, confirmed and ratified by the first 500 years.  The boundaries had been clearly established as to what constituted the truth and what constituted error.  Athanasius of Alexandria and Cyril of Alexandria are two such fathers who articulated truth with such clarity and precision. The church of today are so embedded in their own transient theologies which are often popular attempts at cultural relativism that offer a truth that is far removed from what was understood in this ancient period. The truth of the church fathers that confronts the church today appear to them to be a lie and is held with grave suspicion.

As the Trinitarian movement grows, we are finding the powers and principalities that have plagued the universal church and have caused such rampant division and hostility have now crept into the Trinitarian community.  The primary agenda of the Trinitarian movement is to be united under the Triune God, the Father, Son and Spirit, disclosed to us in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.  We declare Jesus Christ and we point all people to Him so that His true power and nature can be unveiled in their heart.  Jesus Christ promises He will be our ultimate Teacher through the Spirit of Christ who dwells in each one of us. 

2Cor 1:1-5
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

These are the pressing questions that each one of us must ask.

  1. Do our statements fall under the testimony of God?
  2. Are our statements just lofty speech or wise words injected into the testimony of God?
  3. Are we declaring so-called plausible words of wisdom or demonstrating the power of the Spirit? 
  4. Are we asking people to rest faith in the wisdom of men or in the power of God?

If unity is to be achieved, I believe we must first place our trust in the Spirit of Christ that He will be the One who demonstrates His power.  If we hold any credence in the Niceno/Constantinopolitan Creed then it is right here we can be informed by the ancient church fathers what they meant by their profound statement of  beliefs.  These beliefs hold firm to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ that provides the foundation of such painstaking attention to detail giving us deep insight into the nature and character of the Triune God.  It is here where we need to stand firm.  This is aside from personal ambitions, political power and our personal theological statements.  It is all about Jesus Christ.