Contradictory Witnesses

From “The Story of Christianity (Volume 1):
The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation”
by Justo L. Gonzalez, b.1937

The history of the church, while showing all the characteristics of human history, is much more than the history of an institution or of a movement. It is a history of the deeds of the Spirit in and through the men and women who have gone before in the faith.

There are episodes in the course of that history in which it is difficult to see the action of the Holy Spirit. As the narrative unfolds, we find those who have used the faith of the church for their financial gain or to increase their personal power. There will be others who will forget or twist the commandment of love or will persecute their enemies with vindictiveness unworthy of the name of Jesus. At other times, it will appear to many of us that the church has forsaken the biblical faith, and some will even doubt that such a church can truly be called Christian. At such points in our narrative, it may do well to remember two things.

The first of these is that, While this narrative is the history of the deeds of the Spirit, it is the history of those deeds through sinners such as we are. This is clear as early as “New Testament” times, when Peter, Paul and the rest are depicted both as people of faith and as sinners. And, if that example is not sufficiently stark, it should suffice to take another look at the “saints” to whom Paul addresses his “First Epistle to the Corinthians!”

The second is that it has been through those sinners and that church (and only through them) that the biblical message has come to us. Even in the darkest times in the life of the church, there were those Christians who loved, studied, kept and copied the scriptures and thus bequeathed them to us.

What those earlier Christians have bequeathed to us, however, is more than the text of scriptures. They have also left the illuminating record of their striving to be faithful witnesses under the most diverse of circumstances. In times of persecution, some witnessed with their blood, others with their writings and still others with their loving acceptance of those who had weakened and later repented. In times when the church was powerful, some sought to witness by employing that power, while others questioned the use of it. In times of invasions, chaos and famine, there were those who witnessed to their Lord by seeking to restore order, so that the homeless might find shelter and the hungry might have food. When vast lands until then unknown were opened to European Christians, there were those who rushed to those lands to preach the message of their faith. Throughout the centuries, some sought to witness by the word spoken and written, others by prayer and renunciation and still others by the force of arms and the threat of inquisitorial fires.

Like it or not. we are heirs to this host of diverse and even contradictory witnesses. Some of their actions we may find revolting and others inspiring. But all of them form part of our history. All of them, those whose actions we admire as well as those whose actions we despise, brought us to where we are now.

Without understanding that past, we are unable to understand ourselves, for in a sense the past still lives in us and influences who we are and how we understand the Christian message. When we read, for instance. that “the just shall live by faith,” Martin Luther is whispering at our ear how we are to interpret those words and this is true even for those of us who have never even heard of Martin Luther. When we hear that “Christ died for our sins,” Anselm of Canterbury sits in the pew with us, even though we may not have the slightest idea who Anselm was. When we stand, sit or kneel in a church; when we sing a hymn, recite a creed (or refuse to recite one); when we build a church or preach a sermon, a past of which we may not be aware is one of the factors influencing our actions. The notion that we read the “New Testament” exactly as the early Christians did, without any weight of tradition colouring our interpretation, is an illusion. It is also a dangerous illusion, for it tends to absolutise our interpretation, confusing it with the Word of God.

One way we can avoid this danger is to know the past that colours our vision. A person wearing tinted glasses can avoid the conclusion that the entire world is tinted only by being conscious of the glasses themselves. Likewise, if we are to break free from undue bondage to tradition, we must begin by understanding what that tradition is, how we came to be where we are and how particular elements in our past colour our view of the present. It is then that we are free to choose which elements in the past (and in the present) we wish to reject, and which we will affirm.

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