Pathways to Truth

St. Augustine of Hippo.

St. Augustine of Hippo.

As one who grew up in a traditional church and later became a Christian, to me the normal way of getting at the truth appears to be by clearing away the accretions of tradition and extrabiblical authority and getting back to the core principles that motivated the apostles. Everything about ceremony and dogma and ecclesiastical hierarchy – all the saints and feast days and special titles and vestments – appears to be so much unnecessary junk that merely obscures the simple truth of the gospel.

As I said, this is my own experience. I grew up hearing a muted gospel in a church full of nominal Christians, who were all about social action and having a pleasant worship experience, and not at all about repentance and the transforming power of Christ within. When I was presented with the bare gospel message, as a nineteen-year-old college student, it sounded fresh and unique to me. I honestly wondered how I had never been told about this previously. I came to resent the church of my childhood, and from this experience came a sort of mental picture: a simple yet revolutionary message being systematically stifled by the evil machinations of a church hierarchy, like a beautiful flower being choked by weeds and overgrowth. Thus, for me, the way to get at the truth is to clarify rather than to obfuscate: to hack away at the vines and roots that have encumbered and restricted the gospel.

Verses like this resonated with me:

But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.

Galatians 4:9-11

“Now that you know God,” Paul says directly to me in 1982, “why would you want to go back to those traditions?” Why indeed? “You are now born again – you know it is true, and nothing from your former tradition was any help in getting you here.” As the apostle writes later, concerning his own departure from his lifelong religious traditions,

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him…

Philippians 3:7-9

This of course led me to an evangelical mindset, and I remain an evangelical to this day. The evangelical approach to tradition and history is to downplay it, because the real truth is to be gotten by digging beneath those layers.

But others see the situation differently. It would be wrong for me to presume that my view – admittedly based on my own experience – is the only correct one. I have a group of friends (representative, I think, of a larger group) who grew up in evangelical settings, hearing the plain gospel preached repeatedly. Later in life, however, they rejected the evangelical church in favor of more liturgical or traditional churches.

Consequently, their approach to tradition and history is entirely opposite from mine. Their experience is one of cold nakedness in their upbringing, a bad experience with “fundamentalism” and simplistic “proof-texting” from the Bible, and a gross neglect of the wisdom of the saints and ecclesiastical bodies of the past two millennia. To them, the oversimplified “biblicism” of their childhood is a thing to be grown out of. Without discarding the essence of the gospel (one hopes), they grow to find meaning and value in history and tradition and canon law, which capture and perpetuate vital truths. (Case in point: The Russian Orthodox Church persevered through the Soviet era and emerged on the other side with its traditions and its truths mainly intact. I doubt that a modern American evangelical church would have done as well in that respect.)

Such people value things like apostolic succession, the authority of church writings, and history. To me these things may be of scholastic interest, but lack any value in my life and growth as a follower of Christ.

But — what does this make me? Am I one of that dreaded last group in Paul’s list?

“My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’

1 Corinthians 1:11-12

It’s that last group that gives me the most trouble. And that’s, unfortunately, where we evangelicals like to place ourselves. “You follow Saint This-or-That,” we say, “but we … heh-heh, we follow Christ. We’re not in any line of succession; we follow Christ directly, without any mediators or priesthood.” That seems to me to be arrogant, and it demonstrates a blindness to the pitfall that Paul is admonishing us about – the perceived need to distinguish and separate ourselves from other believers. This is a sin and a shame.

I’m old now. I think how I think. I probably won’t change. But I want to be aware of the way others think, and not dismiss their comments out of hand. I must admit that my perspective is partly the result of my personal ontogeny as a Christian; clearly not everyone shares that experience. Learning to rise above one’s own biases is vital to understanding and learning from others.

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