The Foundation of Unity – Stuart Johnson

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Theology in reconAt one time the relationship between God and humanity was confined to the framework of the Jewish institution.  In turn this Jewish system had differing interpretations  held by the various sects which further confined the work of God.  The chosen nation upon which the grace of God was suppose to be mediated to the world had now become turned inward on itself.  There were not only lines of demarcation between the Jews and the Gentiles but also within the Jewish community.  We find contention between the Sadducees and the Pharisees in the New Testament synoptic gospels.  Then there was the problem of those who may have fallen in breach of the law.  There were  others had become divorced, unclean through disease, or collected tax for the Roman empire.  There was as much elitism and exclusivism in this community as we find in the church today.

Yet, with the Incarnation, everything changed.  The nation of Israel now consisted in the humanity of Jesus Christ, in which case all humanity now had been engrafted into the nation of Israel and a new order was established that could no longer be kept within the confines of the Jewish establishment.  In fact, no establishment can confine it within its bounds.  This did not mean the Christian movement was cut off from its roots.  Rather, it grew from the Apostolic foundation in Jerusalem making the fathers of Jewish history the fathers of Christianity.  For some time, as we see in the Book of Acts, Christianity was seen as a sect within Judaism.  For a while there were some sections of the Jewish Christians who insisted on maintaining the Mosaic Covenantal practices on the Gentile converts.  The tension between the universality of the Gospel and the adherence to Jewish Law led to the first ecumenical council in Jerusalem in Acts 15.  Already right here the way was set for the future to safeguard the truth laid down by the Apostles.  Out of the heart of Israel came the Incarnation and the all-important context of salvation from the Jews had to be maintained as the means through which this event was to be interpreted.

Some today maintain Jewish history plays no part in our understanding of the gospel.  Some try to insert a new interpretation that often minimises Jewish cultic sacrificial practises.  Some insist God must be like this or that and construct an image in such a way to try and make the mysterious no longer mysterious.  George Florovsky said that we do not know God.  We only know God is.   If we only know God is then we are limited by how much He discloses to us.  We are limited by how much He wants us to know of Him.  This is only half of it.  We are also limited by the capacity of our mind to comprehend what God knows of Himself.  This is consistent with the view of the ancient church who took very seriously Matt. 11:27.  Irenaeus has told us, “For the Lord taught us that no man is capable of knowing God, unless he be taught of God; that is, that God cannot be known without God: but that this is the express will of the Father, that God should be known” (Against the Heresies, Book 4:6:4)  This is what we believe God has done when He became flesh.  Jesus Christ is God teaching the things of Himself, on His own behalf.  When we hear Him teach us things of Himself, we hear the teachings of the Father also.  Yet, what we are told is not exhaustive.  We can apprehend Him but we cannot comprehend Him. The infinite and boundless God cannot be made comprehensible by a few words of human speech (Hilary of Poitiers De syn 62 & 69).  We may find that we are unknowingly running headlong into idolatry if decide to go beyond what we are given to know.  This is following on from the fathers of the Jewish tradition.  We should take great care to make room for God to be God on His own terms and not ours.

We as the church receive the benefits of our gracious ingrafting into the trunk of Israel.  Can we see in epistles of Paul the great care who took not to abandon his heritage?  If we abandon it then we are in danger of building a conversation that is somewhat different to the ancient church.  This places even more strain on the endeavour to work towards unity within the Body of Jesus Christ.  Even though we acknowledge there was the House of Israel of which God dwelt within, we now see the house has opened its doors to allow strangers and foreigners in who were not partakers of the covenant promises, without hope and even without God.  It was by God’s gracious initiative that made this happen.  We enter into this house and learn the context from which the gospel was birthed.

In history we see the Jews and the Christians did turn on each other in the first and second centuries creating a schism between Christianity and Judaism.  The result was the Christian church unseated itself from its non-dualistic Jewish foundations and planted itself in the Gentile world rife with dualisms.  The whole way of life and socio-legal structures that were distinct to Jewish culture were now under the powerful influences of the Latin and Greek worlds.  Because of the animosity that existed between the Jews and the Christians the emphasis of the Hebraic foundation for Christianity was at risk of making its way for a foundation of sand.  The mind of the Christian church was also at risk of turning away from those who know worship and the community from which the Incarnation came out of and turned towards those who knew nothing of worship (John 4:22).  Foreign concepts of worship, social behaviour, reflection and action and the integration of the Christian way of life into human activity were under the threat of being shaped by a Roman/Greco dualistic mindset.

We can see these struggle begin to develop in the first few centuries of the ancient church.  Firstly it was Gnosticism and then Arianism that tried to assert the foreign framework of thought into the church foundation.  The common things that were taken for granted in the Gentile world such as its emphasis on the spiritual/material, body and soul, the intelligible and the sensible, the sacred and the profane as well as the impossibility that God could actually interact with the world made attempts to enter into the gospel.  As far as they were concerned, the conversation they had with the Christian church did not make sense to their worldview.  To preserve the Christian faith, the church, particularly in Alexandria, was to provide clearly the implications of the Incarnation in a Jewish-Christian way so as to transform the common worldview into a conversation that was a precise and accurate defence of the gospel.  Not only did this provide a context for interpretation for the incarnation but a method of investigation as the foundation for which modern science would ultimately rest.

What arose out of the conflicts between the ancient church and the ancient world were precise dogmas that clearly articulated the understanding of the way the universal church testified itself to be, using Jesus Christ according to His Jewish foundations as the rule of its faith.  The confession of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed became the touchstone for the church with which it could re-orient itself.  This confession and the explanations that were provided with it gave the universal church the guide to traverse its way through the very stormy waters of the world’s views.  The main aim of the church was to uphold God as Father, Son and Spirit in such a way that could be understood and defended.  Its primary drive was to clearly show God’s self-revelation as the Man, Jesus Christ who was God of very God revealing to us the heart of the Father.  Thus, the centre of Christian knowledge lies in the event of the Incarnation of the Word bringing to us in His Words and Acts the very nature of who God is in His very own Being.

With Jesus Christ as the centre for all the ways and works of God and the only One who knows the Father, no one can have a monopoly on the knowledge of God.  The ancient church structured their statements about God using Jesus Christ as the objective for all they said. This created a community that minimised elitism and exclusivism.  It is very worthwhile turning to this point in history and sit at the feet of fathers to gain a greater depth of understanding their worldview.  We should be able to agree on who they claimed Jesus Christ to be.  As all knowledge of God came from outside of us and the only means through which the knowledge of God can be communicated to us is through God Himself, then it is to Him we must turn.  We turn to Jesus Christ as the only point of contact for all in due respect that He is God with us and God for us.  If we cannot agree on this  then some of what we testify Him to be may not be lining up with who He claims Himself to be.