Archive for the ‘Church history’ Tag

Further Reflections on Clement and Ignatius: Authority and Doctrine   Leave a comment

[This post is part of a personal reflective journey through Christian theology.  An introduction to this project was given in the first post of this series.]

Why this blog post

In the previous posts in this series on Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch I did not discuss much a key theme in both of their writings that was highlighted in Daryl Arron’s book.  That it is authority and doctrine in the church. Here I mean authority over the body of the church’s teaching not discipline of the behaviour of individuals.   In fact, this theme is inherent in the very title of Arron’s book “The 40 Most Influential Christians Who Shaped What We Believe Today“.

My thoughts were directed to think about this further by two events this week.

Firstly, a friend posted a link on Facebook to a London talk by Joseph Atwill, author of “Caesar’s Messiah”.

Then, wanting something to eat my dinner in front of one evening, I watched a repeat of an old TV documentary I saw years ago on the Gnostic and other non-biblical Gospels. [Discovery Channel, “Lost Gospels”]. (I have seen better documentaries covering the same ground e.g. the BBC documentary of the same title presented by Pete Owen Jones.)

Personal Reflections

I am not going to discuss Atwill’s writings in any detail here. (I am preparing a separate blog post on the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth). However, Atwill’s hypothesis (he would put it stronger than that) is that Christianity was a fabrication of the Flavian Imperial Roman dynasty (69 to 96 CE) to help suppress Jewish revolt.  There is plenty of discussion of this on the WWW with some scholarly debunking from biblical and historical scholars of both Christian and non-Christian standpoints.

What Atwill’s claims made me think, in light of my reading about Clement and Ignatius, was how difficult such a fabrication would be and how unlikely an explanation it is for what we know about the first century or two of Christian history.  Both Clement and Ignatius show the lineage of the Christian message from Jesus, to the apostles and then to them who are the next generation of Christian leaders.  It is important in their understanding of the handing down of authority.  Indeed there is a whole web of characters mentioned both in the canonical Bible and other early Christian writings.  Many of these like Ignatius were martyred because of what they believed and taught.  Not many people would be martyred for what they think to be a fabrication.

This blog series is not a set of apologetics, for what the church (or different parts of it) have taught and thought through history, but a recording of personal reflections on reading or re-reading through a selection of that.  Nor, should it be apologetics for what I believe at this point in time, but the record of a personal reflective journey.  I am going to have to keep reminding myself of this as I do here.  Hence I ended the theme of the previous paragraph where I was tempted to research into details of source documents and earliest extant manuscripts etc.

The existence, in addition to the canonical ones, of numerous other gospels, in fragment or complete versions,  is indicative to me of this period following Jesus’ life where numerous people, in different groups, were groping with the questions of who was Jesus and what meaning did he have for them.  A few of these gospels, are possibly contemporary with Clement and/or Ignatius but most are thought to be from later in the 2nd through to the 4th century CE. Of course much of the teaching, and discussion at this stage would have been oral and we have no record of it.  It is in this context we have Clement and Ignatius being concerned about unity and false doctrine and noticeably in Clement’s writing love (or arguments about doctrine not showing love).

My reflection at this point was how did they discern what they considered to be true or false doctrine, and more relevant to this exercise how do I?  For myself, firstly this is not a simple black and white issue.  Perhaps a better expression of such questions would be:

  • “What is the truth in that?”

Truth for me, – how shall I phrase it?, let’s say – about matters of the divine and his/her interaction with creation, is sublime and of necessity often only understandable allegorically.  I use the term , without defining it, “poetic truth”.

A key part of the process of “discernment” for me is working through tensions in my world view.  A process I recently captured in a phrase that jumped into my head (I think I have coined it):

Now, I have been subject to decades of Christian teaching from different traditions, from people who I think honestly with St. Paul would say “what I received I passed on to you” [1 Cor 15:3].  I imagine this being very much how Clement and  Ignatius thought of their roles as Bishops in their respective churches.  However, certainly since my early teen years, and probably before, this has been received by me with a questioning mind.  How does this bit fit with that other bit of Biblical or Church teaching?  How does this fit with my scientific or historical understanding of the world?  What about these insights from other religions of philosophies?

My wife would tease me that I think too much and more seriously ask about my relationship with God as opposed to my thinking about Him.  There is some wisdom in that.  However, for me a key factor in that relationship is this continual thinking though my understanding.  Sometimes this thinking is stormy, and the cognitive dissonance remains for a long time.  However, I usually find a place of rest with the thoughts that reminds me of an Old Testament account of the one of the prophet Elijah’s encounters with God:

And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.
[1Kings 19: 11-12, RSV]


Ignatious of Antioch   1 comment

[This post is part of a personal reflective journey through Christian theology.  An introduction to this project was given in the first post of this series.]

Biographical details/context

As well as the book by Daryl Aaron this series is framed around, I have consulted two main sources for a summary of what is known about Ignatius: the Wikipedia entry and the 1913 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia (made available online by New Advent).

Ignatius was born in Syria (poignant given the current civil war there) , between 35 and 50 CE.  He is thought to have converted to Christianity at an early age and to have been martyred, between 98 and 117 CE, by being thrown to wild animals in the Coliseum in Rome.  He was a disciple of John the Apostle (the most theological of the gospel authors). He was appointed Bishop of Antioch (then a major trading city in Syria) possibly by St. Peter. It was at Antioch that the followers of Jesus first got the name Christians (Acts 11:26) which was probably initially a term of abuse.  Together with Clement of Rome, previously written about, he is considered one of the 5 Apostolic Fathers fo the Church.


Following his arrest and during the long overland journey to Rome he wrote seven letters; six to established churches and one to his friend Polycarp who was Bishop of Smyrna.  (Other letters in later collections are thought to be spurious.)  These writings are principally pastoral letters.  However, Arron quotes Roger Olsen:

“It may be fair to say that these letters contain the first real theology in Christianity [beyond the apostles own writings]”

English translations of Ignatius’ writings are available online via Early Christian Writings.

I read first his letter to Polycarp which is mostly encouraging his friend and fellow Bishop and arranging for a replacement for himself as Bishop in Antioch to be selected and sent.  He uses analogies familiar form Paul’s letter’s: the Christian as athlete and the Christian virtues as the armour of God.  His letter to the Romans is difficult for me to empathise with. It is mostly about his welcoming his anticipated martyrdom and asking the Christians there to do nothing to prevent it. (I cannot imagine what they could do.)

In Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians the themes that Arron highlights are more evident.  This includes the role of the Bishops (and other church leaders) in preserving unity and warnings against false teachers and false doctrines.  He addresses the big theological theme of the early centuries of the Church: the nature of Jesus Christ.  To quote from Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians, Chapter VII:

There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first possible and then impossible, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Arron asserts that while stating that Christ was God, Ignatius’ greater concern was that Jesus was genuinely human.  This was to counter a prevalent “Christological heresy” of the time Docetism.  Docetism claimed that Jesus only appeared to be human.  Quoting from Ignatius’ letter to the Trallians (Church at Tralles, now Ayden in modern Turkey):


Stop your ears, therefore, when any one speaks to you at variance with Jesus Christ, who was descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly born, and did eat and drink. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate; He was truly crucified, and [truly] died, in the sight of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. He was also truly raised from the dead, His Father quickening Him, even as after the same manner His Father will so raise up us who believe in Him by Christ Jesus, apart from whom we do not possess the true life.


But if, as some that are without God, that is, the unbelieving, say, that He only seemed to suffer (they themselves only seeming to exist), then why am I in bonds? …


Flee, therefore, those evil offshoots [of Satan], which produce death-bearing fruit, whereof if any one tastes, he instantly dies. For these men are not the planting of the Father. …

Personal Reflections

A caveat

I am going to confine my writings about the reflections I had while researching Ignatius of Antioch to thoughts about the nature of Jesus Christ.  Firstly, a caveat:  I am not trying to persuade anyone to my point of view, nor do I need to.  However, I want to be honest about the understanding I have come to (been led to?) over nearly 50 years of thinking about these things.  I certainly do not want to put a stumbling block in anyone else’s way.  I have come to love the phrase “journey to and with God“, and it would be grossly arrogant of me to think that someone elses journey should go through the same waypoints as mine. Further, my world view is complex.  In trying to sum up my thoughts in a few paragraphs I could easily, though simplification, lead others to misunderstand me.  If what I say is a stimulus or a help to you take it; if not set it aside.  [I think I should copy this caveat to the introductory page to this series.]

The nature of Jesus

Firstly, I have no problem accepting that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person.  I think anyone, theist, atheist or agnostic who spends a little time looking into this would come to that conclusion.  There are fragments in existence of the Biblical gospels dating from the 2nd century CE (100-150 years after Jesus’ death) [see Wikipedia].  Compare this with the works of Julius Caesar (approx. 100 years before Jesus) where the earliest manuscripts in existence date from the 9th century CE [see summary in blog post by Roger Pearce].  Then there is the non-christian references to him and key facts of his life and death in the writings of the Jewish / Roman historian Josephus (b. 37 CE d. after 100 CE).  Then there is the rapid growth and spread of the “sect” that became Christianity led by those who claimed to have been his disciples while he was alive; many of whom subsequently died for their beliefs about him.  So the historical existence of Jesus and  Ignatius’ assertion that Jesus was fully human presents me with no challenge.  Of all the heresies I may be guilty of Docetism is not one of them.

I have long seen a loose analogy between the theological deliberations throughout church history and my own faith journey (although the order is different).  I characterise the first 300 years or so of church history as one when it wrestled with the nature of Jesus.  (More of this to come in this series of reflections).  For the church this culminated in the setting forward of the Nicene Creed at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.

I know I had questioned things through my teenage years.  I had certainly noticed that the prefered title for Jesus in the Gospels was “Son of Man”.  However, it was from my mid-twenties that this issue really came to dominate my thinking and more generally where I was spiritually.  By this time I was a least some of the time attending an Anglican church where the Nicene Creed was part of the liturgy.  So, I would say these words asking myself “what do I mean by this?“; and sometimes I could not say them at all:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father;

through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven,

was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary

and was made man.

This state of sometimes wrestling with, sometimes sitting with, this questioning lasted at least 10 years.  Then it came to be less important.  There was a more sublime truth underlying this thinking and form of words which I might simply express as follows:

  • God is love
  • God seeks relationship
  • God forgives
  • God is completing His creation

The mechanism of this, the human groping in the dark with theological/philosophical explanations, often led to complexities that were obstacles, rather than, pointers to God.

I will not be shying away from some of these complexities as this series progresses, but that seems a fitting place to end this post.

Thursday 22 December 2011 – “Turning the world upside down”   Leave a comment

The Bible passages set for today were 1 Samuel 1: 24-28; Luke 1: 46-56.

We are back with pregnancy and the huge potentiality of every new birth. Any child may be used to “turn the world upside down.” Today in Samuel we read of Hannah’s dedication of the young Samuel, who she had prayed for so long, to the Lord and bringing him to Eli to be brought up in the house of the Lord. Then in Luke we have the Magnificat, Mary’s beautiful song of praise uttered while she was pregnant with Jesus and when staying with her older cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist. That is 3 babies that went on to change their worlds and in different ways many later and geographically spread parts of the world.

I have always loved the story of Samuel since I was a child. I wanted to be able to hear that voice of God and respond ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’ [1 Samuel 3: 10]. In my 20s I had the opportunity to learn yachting and longed to have a small yacht of my own. It was a period when I still made such prayer requests to God and I prayed for one, resolving to call it Samuel if I ever got one. Samuel went on to be a wise Judge of the people of Israel. There is a story in I Samuel 6 that provoked an insight that is important to me on my faith journey – but I’ll save the telling of that for another blog post. 

It was Samuel who anoints the first kings of Israel (Saul and David). The beginning of this story in 1 Samuel 8 for me is one of those points in history that to my view things would have gone better for God’s work on earth if different decisions were taken. Samuel counsels against having a king but in the end he (and apparently God) relents because of the people’s demands. From what I can tell at this historical distance and the biblical accounts the wise Judges and the tribal elders seems a lot more wholesome form of Government than an autocratic king. I also think that the subsequent images of God based on kingship give a distorted image of Him/Her that was particularly negative in influence through the medieval period of church history. 

There are two instances of Church history in particular that I wish had gone a different way. Firstly, when Constantine adopted Christianity as a state religion of the Roman empire (c. 313). This embroiled the church  in political power games that were to show many unChristlike attributes down the subsequent centuries. Christianity became Christendom. More nationalistically I am saddened that at the Synod of Whitby in 664 the indigenous Celtic church put itself under Roman authority. We would have had a very different national spirituality if that had not been the case. However here we are back at the point of Monday’s reflection. God takes risks with the unfolding of history by entrusting much of it to the decisions of His/Her conscious  creation.

How are we influencing the world in which we live?

Saturday 3 December 2011 – “Jesus trusts us”   Leave a comment

The Bible passages set for today were Isaiah 30: 19-21, 23-26 and Matthew 9:35 – 10:1, 6-8.

The story from Matthew is one of various accounts in the Gospels where Jesus sends out his disciples, “on a mission”. In his account it is just his closest 12 disciples but the sending out of the 72 in Luke 10: 1-24 is worthy of note. The notes in the booklet these Advent reflections come from paints a very good picture of this situation, and rang true to my recollection of such things, so I quote it here:

Jesus risks sending out his disciples on mission. You wonder how well they represented him and his teaching, how well they understood him, how well they related to one another. What formation did they have? Were they persuasive public speakers? Did they have good communications skills? How well did they manage?
[Your Journey to Christmas, Redemptorist Publications, 2011, p.10]

I am sure those questions will raise smiles of recollection for anyone who has been involved in some form of church mission, well any team activity in human endeavour. The pictures recalled for me from these questions were the most dominant part of my thinking in this morning’s meditation.

The point drawn out in the notes was that Jesus entrusts his followers to represent him. “He risks his glorious message in their fragility” [same source as quote above].

In many ways that statement sums up the whole history of the church. God entrusting his message to the world, revealed in Jesus, to a very flawed human organisation. And how well has it done?

Taking for me the key question from above and applying it to the whole church:

  • How well has The Church represented Jesus?

I am sure many books could be, and probably have been, written addressing that question. I will just draw out two points, one from my personal journey and one from my thinking and reading of theology (more strictly ecclesiology perhaps).

  1. Conflicts between observed behaviour in and of the church and the teachings of Jesus heard there.From when I was a young child, certainly by the time I was 6 or 7, I begun noticing things (probable just little things) going on in the church that did not ring true with or seem to follow what I was being taught there.One example that still impacts on me today. Sundays were church focussed days when I was brought up (and there is a lot I value from the way we treated Sunday that is lost today). I would be told to put on my “Sunday best” and I would go to at least 1 service, normally 2 and a Sunday School or some form that changed as I grew older. Like many boys of that age I did not like dressing up smart, it was uncomfortable and often meant constrained behaviours so as not to spoil it. So for self-interested reasons I would ask: why do we have to dress up smart for church? Then I can very clearly remember a Sunday School lesson about the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in the temple to pray [Luke 18:10-14]. The point made by the Sunday school teacher (even if it was not the most obvious point in the story) that God does not look on the outside but on the inside; what was in our hearts. Why then I asked did we all dress-up smart for church?

    The above example is trivial, but it illustrates the thing that seems to most offends those outside the church about the church: its apparent hypocrisy. There was a clear example of this in the recent protests against the excesses of capitalism outside St Paul’s Cathedral. As much as I might admire the beauty of the art and architecture, for example, I personally find it hard to square the teachings of Jesus on wealth with the vast material riches in some parts of the church and the prevalence of extreme poverty throughout the world. [E.g. Mark 10: 17-31]

  2. The question is does the Church more closely reflect the teachings of St Paul than those of Jesus?
    This is a question I think I first met in the writings and TV presentations of Karen Armstrong. She published a personal memoir that left an impression on me [Through the Narrow Gate (1982)] of her period leading up to, and when being a Roman Catholic nun then subsequently leaving the order. She is now a leading author, teacher and speaker on comparative religion.The key point is Jesus left behind him no organisational structure. He said to Peter: “on this rock I will build my church” [Matthew 16:18]. Then in the account in the Acts of the Apostles Peter became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. However it was Paul that was key in spreading the Church throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and it is his writings that came to dominate the New Testament when the cannon was collected centuries later.I am not going to expand on any particular issue here but I do find it useful when thinking through difficult areas to ask the question: is this based on Jesus’ teaching or St Paul’s? A key example would be gender issues and the role of women in the church but there are many more.


I am not going to blog about the brief thoughts I had in reading the passage from Isaiah (mainly because I have run out of time and family duties call) however I will close by quoting the verse that stood out for me as I read in this mornings meditations.

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”
[Isaiah 30:21 NIV]

May God guide you in your path.

Tuesday 29 November 2011 – “Knowing him personally”   2 comments

[My normal practice for these and reflections in general is to take some time stilling myself, to use a candle as a focus, and then read slowly the set material and ponder it.  Today to gain some time before heading into the office I did the readings in the bath.  I note that mainly for amusement but also in case it seems to have an impact on what I write.  My mind was certainly jumping a bit but that could also be because of lack of sleep.]

“Knowing him personally”, meaning Jesus, would certainly be important language in the non-conformist evangelical tradition of my upbringing.  It always heartens me, and raises a wry smile, when I see the same things in catholic and evangelical traditions because sometimes we seem to project to the outside world, and some feel internally, that there is a huge gulf, but to my view there isn’t. [Note to self – watch your spiritual pride! I am in danger of thinking my self a knowing liberal looking on, but I am a part of the Church and have much to learn from brothers and sisters of all traditions.]

My initial reaction to the title was that I seem to seek to know Jesus’ teaching more than know him as a person. Although I do contextualise that teaching within an image of the person delivering it.  For example,  where Jesus says:

“How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”
[Matthew 7:4 NIV]

I imagine him telling it as a joke, an absurdity, with a chuckle.  I remember the source of this perspective.  A fiercely intense but dear nun Sister Irene Mary CSMV , who taught me Religious Education (Divinity as we called it) at school, and remained a friend for many years afterwards.

About 22 years ago I didn’t hear a sermon that had a lasting impact on me.  I say didn’t hear because for reasons I don’t remember I was not at the service where it was delivered by the then Chaplain at Reading University, Peter Jenner.  Peter and I were good friends, he was best man at my first wedding, we spent a lot of leisure time together as well as going to the same church and interacting at the Chaplaincy (I was a mature student at the time).  So although not hearing the sermon I was party to informal small group discussion of it afterwards.  The sermon asked a question:

  • ” Which member of the Trinity do you most relate to?”
It posed the hypothesis that most Christians related more closely to one member of the Trinity [I will save my heretical musings on the doctrine of the Trinity for another blog post].  For me the answer was clear and it remains the same now: God the Father.  And it is not even the fatherly aspects of God I most related to but Him as the creator and sustainer of the universe, the omnipresent God, the power and the majesty but in all that being of very essence Love [1 John 4:8].  So in this context “knowing Jesus personally” does not have a strong resonance in my spiritual life and has not done for many years.  There is another sign of spiritual arrogance here, a besetting sin of mine.  Colloquially put: I go straight to the top man.

[A question for another time is why are these Advent reflections bring up so many points from a period of my life around 25 – 20 years ago? – It may have been a time of substantial growth, a Fowler stage transition.  It could reflect an  impoverishment in my spiritual journey more recently.]

Another thought came to be this morning, lying in my bath, thinking about Jesus.  A standard teaching of the church is the doctrine of Incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas; God present in humanity in Jesus.  As you might infer from the above I am more inclined to the understanding of  the incarnation in its more general (universal) sense, God present throughout , I like to use the phrase entwined with, His/Her creation.

There is a programme on BBC Radio 4 that I like a lot called the “Infinite Monkey Cage“.  It is a light-hearted conversational show about science.   In the edition  broadcast 21 November 2011 (podcast available from the previous link)   Brian Cox, a Physicist, had a bit of banter with the Biologist Matthew Cobb.  Brian Cox made a statement to the effect “Life, that’s just mess!” and went on to contrast its complexity with the relative simplicity of the laws of physics that underpin the Cosmos.  [There was a then a short exchange as to whether the two disciplines would ever converge and simplistically put if the laws of physics would ever explain life. I refer you to the podcast if you want more about the science.  This exchange in question occurs at 20:00 min]

That is just a long preamble to make a simple, but possibly profound, point:

  • Life being mess, Jesus represents God in the mess.
For me noticing that mirroring of the relationship between the Cosmic God and Jesus in the relationship between Physics and Biology (which needs extending to include Neurology, Psychology and Sociology and possibly a few other disciplines too to adequately describe life) is new and ripe for further pondering.

A final thought from this morning’s bath:  The notes for today’s reflection concentrated on the difference in the experience of those that actually knew Jesus when he lived on earth and those that have subsequently known him through faith.  They quote the verse “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” [John 20:29 NIV].  A dominant theme in first 400 years of Church history was: who was Jesus, and what was his nature? This is also a personal journey for all Christians and inquirers since.  I find a link between Church history and my own personal faith development.  I can often find that themes the Church was wrestling with at different stages are mirrored in those encountered in my own journey.  As to the questions: who was Jesus and what was his nature?  There has been a lot of personal wrestling .  However reflecting now on my thinking in recent years perhaps, and only perhaps, I have passed through dogma and am beginning to glimpse some light behind it.

The Bible passages set for today were: Isaiah 11:1-10 and Luke 10:21-24.