Making Church History Relevant for Pastors & Students (Part 2)

From Faith Pulpit, Summer 2015. Used by permission, all rights reserved. Read Part 1.

Example: Transubstantiation

The Fourth Lateran Council of the Catholic Church in 1215 mentioned the term “transubstantiation” to describe what happened in the Mass. Transubstantiation taught that the bread and wine actually and literally became the body and blood of Christ. But how could this be, seeing how everyone still tasted bread when they partook? The doctrine had been building steadily for some three centuries prior, but how could the scholastic intellectuals of that day explain and justify something which obviously went against the experience of everyone who participated?

As Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) would clarify, when the priest pronounced the words of consecration, the “essence” of bread and wine changed to become the essence of Christ’s body and blood. The “accidents” (the external characteristics of the bread—salty, sweet, crunchy, soft) remained the same. How can the RAMHI help us understand this monumental doctrine of the Catholic Church?1

First, who was in charge? The answer is the scholastics of that day, and Thomas Aquinas in particular. They sought to give a “scientific” or credible explanation for this unusual occurrence.

Second, what did they want to change or keep the same? The intellectual community of the Catholic Church wanted to codify and support with sound reason the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding this most important ritual.

Third, what authorities did they use to justify this teaching? Here is where our example gets interesting. The philosophical theory of substance and accidents did not come from Aquinas or even from the revered and ancient church authority of Augustine. It came from the pagan philosopher Aristotle, whose philosophy had been gaining enormous popularity with the scholastics of the Middle Ages.

Fourth, why was this authority convincing to those who followed it? Aristotle’s philosophical theory provided scholarly Catholics with an esteemed and persuasive account of how the bread and wine turned into the body and blood of Jesus Christ when they celebrated the Mass.2 The irony of using a non-Christian theory to explain a sacred Catholic ritual is not lost on modern scholars. One historian of the Reformation observed:

Those who remained in the Roman obedience generally did this [continued in or returned to Aquinas’ theory]; but in the sixteenth-century Europe, thousands of Protestants were burnt at the stake for denying an idea of Aristotle, who had never heard of Jesus Christ.3

This model does indeed identify for us the authorities behind the foremost rite of the Catholic Church. It also gives us a basis of comparison relevant to our present day. Do Christians ever “borrow” from non-Christian philosophies which command authority and respect today? I think the answer is all too clear that they do. My second article will deal with one of these situations.

Example: Constantine’s Legalization of Christianity

Let us examine another fruitful incident from even earlier in church history. Many church history textbooks include glowing reports of the Roman Emperor Constantine’s decision to legalize Christianity in A.D. 313, after winning a decisive battle over his enemy the year before. Before this battle, he is said to have seen a vision to conquer under the banner of the Christian God. He did so, and history records his triumph.4 While it was certainly a welcome relief for Christian believers to be liberated from the threat of brutal persecutions, not everything that came with that freedom was positive for Christianity.

Again, we will use the RAMHI. First, who was in charge? Constantine, the great Roman emperor, but he brought with him his pagan background which included the necessity of adhering to the state religion. Under previous pagan emperors, all peoples were to make a sacrifice to an image of Caesar. Second, what did he want to change or keep the same? Constantine wanted the same union of religion and state that functioned with pagan gods to continue in his newly-envisioned “Christian” empire.

Third, what authorities did he use to justify his actions? Constantine used the authority of past (pagan) precedent that had been common in the society of his day and his own authority as emperor. Church leaders under Constantine were now considered government workers who were expected to bow to the emperor’s will. Remember, it was Emperor Constantine who called for a council of church bishops to settle the Arian question of Christ’s divinity at Nicaea in A.D. 325. And he, as well as subsequent emperors (even those who opposed Constantine’s view), ensured the verdict went the way the emperor intended.

Fourth, why was this authority convincing to those who followed him? Besides the relief from persecution, Christians found many benefits to Constantine’s decision. Christianity could thrive with its new favored position in society. Many Christians of the day (notably the church historian Eusebius) viewed Constantine as bringing in a new era of salvation.5

However, resulting history has dampened much of that enthusiasm. Doctrine was affected by Constantine’s decision as every succeeding council would have to take the state’s views into consideration. Society was affected as Christianity became Christendom. Eventually, everyone born in Europe was considered “Christian” regardless of evidence of regeneration. Administration of church functions was impacted as well since only someone ordained by an official state-approved church could perform the sacramental rituals necessary to bring salvation to the masses. For centuries after, theologians (including those in the Reformation) looked to Constantine as the ideal Christian ruler.6 The examples of Old Testament Jewish kings were used by them as an additional authority to bolster Constantine’s precedent to control the belief systems of a given location.7

Therefore our model has relevance for us today because it highlights not only important truths for how we view society today (one capable of many belief systems) but also the origin of some Christian ideals for society that have lasted some 1,500 years. In my next article I will deal with some specific issues that arise in churches today and show how this model helps address these issues.

Notes

1 This understanding became the official understanding of the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century, though the term “transubstantiation” was not used.

2 This would not necessarily be true of some later scholastics.

3 Diarmaid MacCullouch, The Reformation: A History (New York: Penguin Books, 2003): 26. See discussion from pages 24–26.

4 An ongoing debate among many Christians is whether Constantine ever fully embraced Christianity himself, judging by his actions as a fairly ruthless Roman emperor.

5 Note the statement, “The conversion of the world seemed near,” in Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 4th ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013): 102.

6 The Constantine ideal lasted long. It would continue to dominate Western civilization until the Enlightenment era. Some religious groups around the world still hold to it today.

7 The fact is that the New Testament contains no mandate for the government to control church functions (or vice versa). A contrast throughout history is clear between those who supported one belief system in a geographical area and those who promoted freedom of conscience (a principle dear to Baptists called “soul liberty”).

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