My Journey into Symphonic Christianity
No Christian walks a different path, but each walks in a different manner on this one narrow path. I love the “Journey” stories here at Conciliar Post. Every testimony recounts how someone effectively turned away from this world by embracing a Christian community and tradition which has stood the test of time. Typically these journey stories tell how someone moved from one historic Christian tradition to another, thereby enabling him or her to cast off what had become lifeless rituals by embracing another historically rich method of spirituality.
Each of the five historic parts of the body of Jesus (Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Assyrian1) offers a wealth of truth, of which we will rob ourselves if we completely neglect the other four parts. We have disagreements between the five, therefore it is impossible for all five to be correct in all things. Yet our search for the right tradition (or rightest) among the five threatens to blind us to unique contributions from traditions other than our own and to distract us from the grand agreements which unite all five.
My journey out of Protestantism began, not by seeing how Protestantism is wrong, but by recognizing how God has used the five divisions of orthodox Christianity to prove the truths which unite us like a symphony orchestra. Percussion, woodwinds, brass, and strings each sound great alone. But together . . .
NEW TESTAMENT SYMPHONY
I first discovered the harmony of Christian division when researching the Protestant question of “eclectic” versus “majority” Bible manuscripts. From their first protesting days until the late 1800’s, Protestants were content to use New Testament translations based on the work of Roman Catholic scholar Desiderius Erasmus whose Novum Instrumentum agreed with the majority of Greek manuscripts. In the late 1800’s, it then became popular for Protestants to rely on rarer but older manuscripts, piecing together an eclectic New Testament from various sources. After more than two centuries, most Protestants have little interest in the topic, but a few still debate it fiercely.
As I studied the question of majority versus eclectic, John Burgon’s classic book The Traditional Text surprised me pleasantly, not by settling the majority/eclectic question, but by educating me about the wide array of very early translations of the New Testament in nations that I had never known were Christian during those first centuries of the faith. Burgon wanted me to trust the majority text because it was supported by Ethiopic, Syrian, Armenian, Latin, Gothic, and Slavonic translations. I said, “Um, you mean there were Christians in Ethiopia and Asia in the 400’s AD?” Burgon didn’t reply because he’s dead, but a whole new world opened up for me to investigate. And investigate I did with great joy.
The divisions of Christianity at Ephesus and Chalcedon2 did not hinder God from working through the various parts of our Lord’s body to affirm the canon and text of the New Testament. Despite vast geographic, political, and theological distances, the New Testament translations of Chalcedonian, Oriental Orthodox, and Persian/Assyrian Christians agreed not only about which books were divinely inspired, but also about the text to be found in those books. The modern skeptic who wants to claim Gnostic books as holy writ must ignore the universal agreement of divided Christians in the fifth century. They had neither opportunity nor motive to conspire with one another because they were divided from one another. How tragic it is that we divided. How magnificent it is though, that God used even our divisions to bolster evidence for the authenticity of the canon and text of the New Testament.3
If God used these disparate Christian communities so beautifully, then I had to ask myself why I would reject their Christianity as inferior to my Protestantism. Prior to my study of ancient translations, I had never heard of Oriental Orthodoxy nor of the Assyrian Church of the East. Now I felt compelled to learn about and to embrace my elder siblings from whose hands we Protestants had received the Scriptures.
OLD TESTAMENT SYMPHONY
As I studied the Christian communities which birthed the earliest translations, I learned to my great surprise that all four early divisions of Christianity also affirmed the Jewish Septuagint version of the Old Testament as holy Scripture, including at least seven books which my Protestant background had derided as “apocrypha.”4 I had been taught by highly educated Protestants that Roman Catholics had inserted these apocryphal books into their canon at the Council of Trent in order to defend unbiblical doctrines against Martin Luther. If it weren’t so ugly an accusation, it would be hilarious that Protestants by and large believe this abject myth. The divisions of Ephesus, of Chalcedon, and of the Great Schism of 1054 AD ensured that there were four orthodox Christian communities who (because of their division) could independently testify to the Old Testament canon. How tragic is our division. How marvelous it is though, that God has used even our divisions to affirm the wider canon of the Old Testament which only modern Jews and Protestants reject.5
While the four apostolic6 divisions of Christianity count their Old Testament books differently (sometimes including one book as part of another), they all agree that Maccabees I, Maccabees II, Judith, Tobit, Baruch, Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach are divinely inspired Scripture. If every Christian in the world prior to Protestantism agreed that these seven books are Scripture, how could I as a Protestant reject them? And at that point, I had to ask myself what it truly meant to be Protestant. I had to wonder what else Protestants might be wrong about too.
THE PROTESTANT GOSPEL
Two years ago, I began research in hopes of presenting Christianity in strictly masculine terms, believing that our modern, seeker-friendly efforts had largely alienated men by ignoring masculine themes of the New Testament. Since kingdoms and warfare appeal strongly to the Y chromosome, I began compiling the most frequent kingdom phrases of the New Testament, stumbling upon that grand phrase that Jesus employed: “the gospel of the kingdom.” I now love (love, I tell you) the gospel of the kingdom; I’m as giddy as a schoolgirl, just typing this. The gospel of the kingdom was so often on Jesus’ lips in Scripture, yet never could I recall hearing a single Protestant sermon in 18 believing, grown-up years of faithful church attendance. Not one sermon nor explanation! The Greek word for “gospel” is “evangel.” So there I was as a 40 year old gospel-ical (evangelical), realizing I did not know the meaning of Jesus’ own gospel-ing words:
“Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’ ” (Mark 1:14-15)
“The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it.” (Luke 16:16)
“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14)
“But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized.” (Acts 8:12)
“So when they had appointed him a day, many came to him at his lodging, to whom he explained and solemnly testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus from both the Law of Moses and the Prophets, from morning till evening.” (Acts 28:23)
I cannot do justice to the topic of the Scriptural gospel in one article. I wrote a 130 page book about the gospel of the kingdom, contrasting it with the Protestant gospel and detailing an historical investigation of who invented the Protestant gospel. My book “Forgotten Gospel” was published this February by GSET Publishing and received a generous review from Conciliar Post’s own Jacob Prahlow (before we had ever met and before I began to write at CP). For lack of space, all I can say here is that the message which Protestants call gospel is simply not the gospel of Scripture. I know how you feel; it shocked me too!
I could list several more problems with Protestantism, but there is no need. I am not “Post-Protestant” because of the problems in Protestantism. I’m Post-Protestant because of the beauty, the truths, and the rich traditions in Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, and the Assyrian Church of the East. I’m a Christian now. I’m not of Paul, nor of Apollos, nor of Cephas,7 nor of Luther, but of Christ, the Anointed Jesus, the King of all Kings. I am learning from the prayer of Protestants, the charity of Rome, the theosis of Eastern Orthodoxy, the desert monasticism of Oriental Orthodoxy, and the ancient missions of Assyrians into China and Arabia.
As I study the grand histories, theologies, and spiritualities all five parts of the body of our Lord, I no longer scoff at early and universal Christian traditions. I now measure my understanding of Scripture as well against early Christian writings. Inasmuch as the different Christian traditions divide from one another and claim superiority, I cannot identify myself with any one of the five. Inasmuch as they agree (and agree they do) to the essentials of apostolic faith, apostolic hope, and apostolic love; I identify myself with this symphony orchestra of Christianity, the worldwide bride of the one Lord Jesus!
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Shorthand for Assyrian Church of the East
- I have previously written on Conciliar Post about the Council of Ephesus. I view the Council of Chalcedon in similar terms. The positive of Chalcedon was its contribution to clarifying the incarnate nature of our Lord Jesus. It was rife however, with underhanded politics. It also alienated the historic miaphysite Alexandrian Christian faith under the false accusation of monophysitism, dividing what is now called Oriental Orthodoxy from Roman and Byzantine believers.
- The Coptic text of the New Testament is the only translation which disagrees with the majority text and continued to be used from AD 800 to 1800. The Coptic New Testament generally agrees with the “Alexandrian” text type, which is favored by the Protestant eclectic texts.
- When Gnostics tried to offer pseudepigraphical writings as alternative scriptures, the bishops who had been appointed in succession from the Apostles all rejected those alternatives. The term “apocrypha” was applied to such writings, signifying their Gnostic nature. Gnosticism teaches a secret knowledge by which believers can realize their divinity and rise above their fleshly identities. The Greek word “apocryphos” means “secret.”
- Despite Jewish rejection of the wider Old Testament canon after their rejection of Jesus, the Babylonian Talmud contains many reference to books of the wider canon as inspired Scripture. The shorter “canon” lists of Jews and of early Christians refer only to those writings which are liturgically read in the synagogue or church. Shorter “canon” lists do not always equal a denial of the divine inspiration or “Scripture” status of other books.
- “Apostolic” here denotes the four primary branches of Christianity that trace their succession of bishops from the original apostles.
- 1 Corinthians 1:12