Most of the Many Differences Between Today’s Divided (Eastern and Western) Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and (Western) Protestant Christians (And “Messianic Jews”) Who Are Already United in Vast Common Faith Are the Same Kinds of Differences Between the Ancient Jewish, Roman, Greek, Egyptian and Syrian “Sister Churches” Which Were No Cause for Division in the Undivided Early Church
[Chapter 5 is excerpted from the full version of my book The Bible’s “Big Picture” – Using “Family Theology” to Understand the Single Overarching Story Told Throughout the Scriptures, Which Makes the Bible Our Family History as Christians, specifically from its lengthy Chapter 1: Introduction to the Bible’s ‘Big Picture’ and its Implications For Christian Unity.]
Theology and Doctrine Are Not Faith and Should Not Divide Christians, as they Did Not in the Undivided Early Church
It is important to Christian unity as Jesus prayed for to realize that different theology among Christians should not divide us (as it did not in the Early Church) because theology is not faith. Faith is an obedient response to what God has revealed,1 and theology is faith seeking understanding, it is the science of human wisdom applied to the data of Divine Revelation seeking patterns of ordered relationship which help us to better intellectually understand what God has revealed which we accept in faith. Doctrines (literally, “teachings”) are simply brief statements of the results of theological research and speculation. As in the natural sciences, in theological science many different approaches are complementary not contradictory, and together shed more light on the subject in question than any one approach does alone. It is good and necessary for there to be a good deal of variety of theologies and doctrines based on them in the Christian Church. The Early Undivided Universal (Catholic) Christian Church understood this, which is why it was a loving unity in diversity, and the ongoing Catholic Communion of Sister Churches today (the Catholic Church in its over 20 unified Eastern and Western Rites) is likewise a huge Christian communion of over 1.1 billion Catholic Christians because it does not make the mistake of confusing differences in mere theology and doctrine with differences in Christian faith (in contrast, there are 35,000 distinct Protestant Christian denominations which are often separated from each other solely on the basis of different theology – as if we all have to have precisely the same intellectual approach to what God has revealed which we all accept in faith before we will recognize each other as Christian brothers and sisters living in one New Covenant Christian Church).
It should also be noted, to aid in Christian reunification, that just like approaches, hypotheses and theories in the natural sciences, theological approaches and doctrines change all the time, they are gradually improved or eventually abandoned, without altering the Christian FAITH in what God has revealed which the theological theories were attempting to intellectually understand better. Both the Catholic and Protestant churches are littered with past theological approaches and theories which were popular for a time in part of one church but were eventually either
1) altered and improved to bear more and better fruit in the Church or
2) abandoned altogether for in the long run proving to lead away from the fundamentals of the Christian faith or growth in Christian love.
The more extreme of eventually abandoned theological approaches were formally condemned as heresies in the Early Church, but often only after the idea had been held by enough Christians for long enough (sometimes centuries) for the idea to clearly show its bad fruit. Trying out different theological ideas and doctrines based on them, to find out which ultimately lead closer to or farther away from the Christian fundamentals and the heart of God the Holy Trinity who is Love, is part of the Life of the Living Body of Christ, the Church, slowly growing up into an only gradually more mature intellectual understanding of the Transcendant Mysteries of Christian faith revealed in Jesus the Living Word of God who lives in our hearts as well as the Written Word of God in the Scriptures .
Just like the Old Testament Family of God, the New Covenant Family of God has gone down some wrong and some less fruitful pathways both in its practice of love (falling short of the moral standards of love the Covenant Father set) and in its detailed intellectual understanding of what God had revealed about Himself and how to most fruitfully intellectually understand Divine Revelation so as to best aid in the New Covenant Family most quickly reaching the consistent level of maturity in love the Covenant Father (who is Love) wishes it to reach before Jesus returns. Many Jews had a poor or insufficient theological understanding of the Divine Revelation of the Scriptures, which caused them to misinterpret what Messiah’s coming would be like and miss it when He came the first time, while others had a better theological understanding which helped them to recognize and follow Messiah Jesus when He came, but even they did not expect all that God did in Jesus. In Jesus Christ the God-man the infinite fullness of God Himself is revealed to humankind who can come to intimately know and love Him, and so be drawn into the Mystery of the Trinity of Love of which He is the Second Person. We must expect that the living, loving, personal experience of God’s Divine Revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ the Living Word of God, and in the Written Word of God the Bible which testifies to this infinite Living Word, is necessarily beyond full human intellectual comprehension, and we will only slowly over many centuries come to intellectually unpack the infinite richness of God’s Revelation of Himself without ever exhausting it. Theology is the attempt of the Body of Christ the Church to unpack the Revealed Christian Mystery and define it in human words ever more clearly to help us better live by it as much as possible, while recognizing the Triune God we love will always be above our intellectual capacities .
Thus it is utter foolishness when Catholic and Protestant Christians today still try to justify their continued separation from each other which harms the witness of the Body of Christ the Church to the world on the basis of incompatible 16th Century Roman Catholic and Protestant Reformation theologies and doctrines which were popular at the time but which have long since been altered or abandoned, and which never were part of the Christian FAITH in what God has revealed of each church but were only the current theological attempts to intellectually understand that Christian faith. Roman Rite Catholic theology and (orthodox, not doctrinally liberal or unorthodox) Protestant theology today are much closer to each other today than they were in the 16th Century, and generally much more complementary – largely because theologians on both sides have been listening to and learning from each other’s insights into the common Mystery of God we know personally by faith. We must not judge each other harshly for our different (frequently complementary and sometimes incompatible) intellectual understandings of God and His ways when intellectually we all must bow in humility before this Infinite, Ineffable Transcendent Mystery of God Himself revealed in Jesus Christ, which we all accept in common faith but which we can never comprehend as a whole (if we could, the Infinite God who created our minds would be able to fit inside our finite minds, which is impossible). But we can love God as a whole, person to person , as I love my dear wife without intellectually knowing and perfectly understanding every little detail about her psychology and her entire history and so on. It is our personal loving relationship to God the Father as His adopted children through the reconciling work of God the Son Jesus Christ which restored the indwelling Holy Spirit of adoption to us2 which makes us Christians, God’s New Covenant Family, not our (always developing) precise intellectual theological understanding of our Father and His ways – which is why small children and the mentally handicapped can be Christians, and not just intellectuals and theologians !
There is “one Body and one Spirit … one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:4,5) – baptism being the New Covenant Oath by which we are all formally adopted as God’s children (see Chapter 2 of The Bible’s ‘Big Picture’). All fundamentally orthodox Christians – whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant – share Ephesians 4:4-5’s one orthodox Faith in the one Lord and are united both to God and each other already as Family through the one Baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by which we have been adopted by the one God and Father of all, indwelt by the one Spirit of adoption which makes us all the one Body of Christ already . We need to recognize this great brotherhood under our common Father which already exists and cut each other a lot more slack than we have been with respect to our different theological attempts to intellectually understand our mutual Father and His ways. Saint Paul does not say in this passage that there is “one theology,” and there never has been only one theological way of intellectually understanding the one Faith. Rather, there has always been in the Christian Church a great multiplicity of theologies and doctrines based on them, many of which are frequently altered or abandoned, many of which prove complementary and mutually enriching, and a few are occasionally dogmatized as expressing something essential to the common Christian faith – all in the long process of the New Covenant Family of the Christian Church only gradually more clearly intellectually articulating and defining the contours of the Infinite Mystery of God revealed fully in Jesus Christ – just as a baby knows its mother but can only gradually and by stages come to intellectually articulate the experience.
Dogma (Fundamental Doctrines, such as those in the above Common Creed) Articulates Faith in Clear and Concise Manner and Should Unite Christians, as it Did in the Undivided Early Church
The Old Testament shows how Israelites and Jews gradually developed their understanding of some things, especially the Afterlife. Earlier texts speak of Sheol (the Place of the Dead) as the place of non-communication, human beings becoming mere “shades” of what they were – but later texts hint at a greater understanding that knowing and loving God means never being out of communication, and by the time of Christ the Jews have a more developed understanding that those faithful to God are rewarded in the afterlife, truly living (in a more pleasant place sometimes called the Bosom of Abraham) and those who are unfaithful suffer loss. So the Old Testament Covenant Family only gradually came to a more mature intellectual understanding of God and His ways, and the New Testament Christian Covenant Family has also continued to only gradually come to a more mature intellectual understanding of God and His ways through the process of loving theological reflection upon what God has revealed which we accept in faith.
Many theologies, as mentioned above, are complementary not contradictory and mutually enriching even though different, and many theological ideas and approaches have to be tested through being lived in the Church before they are known to be fruitful or unfruitful ways of understanding what God has revealed which we accept in obedient faith, at which time they may be altered and improved or abandoned. But the process of theology, faith seeking understanding through loving intellectual reflection upon Divine Revelation (“loving God with all our minds”), has also helped to identify and clarify fundamental doctrines, which are doctrines (“teachings”) the Church understands as articulating in a clear and concise way something which God has revealed in the Living Word Jesus Christ and the Written Word of the Scriptures (as lived within the Living Body of Christ the Church) which therefore must be accepted by Christians in faith – and these concise fundamental doctrines are traditionally called dogmas, which intellectually articulate non-negotiable elements of Christian faith (which include things like “Jesus is Divine, one in being with God the Father” and “Jesus is fully God and fully man,” things which are not stated so concisely in the Scriptures alone which is why the early heretical Christians disputed them, as do modern liberal Protestant “Bible Alone” Christians). Theologies and doctrines based on them generally prove to be fruitful or unfruitful in the long run and are gradually altered, improved, or abandoned by the living Body of Christ, the Church, as it seeks to live its life for God, and having different theologies and doctrines between the Sister Churches in the Universal (Catholic) Christian Communion are no cause for divisions. In its dogmas, the New Covenant Family of the Christian Church in its history has made great strides in intellectually understanding Divine Revelation which have borne exceptional fruit in the Church, and which properly unite Christians in common faith expressed in common dogma. The Church as the Body of Christ has learned through living its life the bad fruit produced in its heretical members who came to doubt or deny any of these dogmas – the Church has learned through its lived experience that these dogmas articulate in clear and concise manner something which is absolutely vital to maintaining the traditional and supernaturally empowering3 Christian faith of the original Apostolic Christian community.
The common creed of all orthodox Christians (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant – including “Messianic Jews” with their Protestant roots) represents the bulk of the dogma of the Early Undivided Universal (Catholic) Christian Church and the bulk of the dogma of the ongoing Catholic Communion of Sister Churches (the Catholic Church) today (the only other Catholic dogmas are related to these and are understood to flow from and defend these). The Early Undivided Catholic Christian Church (and the Catholic Church today) has always been united by such irreformable dogma which clearly and concisely states what God has revealed which Christians must believe in obedient faith. At the same time the Early Undivided Catholic Christian Church (and the Catholic Church today) has always been full of different theological approaches to understanding what God has revealed, which result in many different doctrines, many of which are complementary and mutually enriching (and some of which prove in the long run to not be so helpful to maturing in Christian love and are eventually abandoned without having ever been part of the Catholic FAITH in what God has revealed). At the same time the Early Undivided Catholic Christian Church (and the Catholic Church today), the ongoing Catholic Communion of Sister Churches, Eastern and Western, has always had a huge variety of different practical EXPRESSIONS of this common faith articulated in common dogma in DIFFERENT liturgies, worship practices and devotional customs. So COMMON faith articulated in common (irreformable) dogma but expressed in DIFFERENT (reformable) theologies and doctrines and worship and devotional practices is a major basis of the Christian unity in diversity in the Undivided Early Catholic (Universal) Christian Church and the Catholic Church today – and the understanding of this is vital for Christians to eventually heal the current divisions within the Christian Church as Jesus’ prayer for our unity “so that the world may believe” obligates us to work towards. Realizing this shows us we are already much closer to Early Church-type unity than we usually think .
© 2005, 2009 Peter William John Baptiste SFO
Go To Chapter 6: All Divided Christians Have Contributed to the Scandalous Disunity of the Body of Christ the Church (Which Called itself the Catholic Church in the Undivided First Millennium) – Both Today’s Catholic and Non-Catholic Christians must Avoid the Two Ways to Abuse this Book: Catholic Triumphalism among Catholic Christians and Anti-Catholic Bigotry That Attempts to Maintain the Protest Against the Catholic Church at All Costs (Even Basic Christian Orthodoxy) among Non-Catholic Christians
1Note faith is more than simple belief as well – what distinguishes the saving belief in God of Christians from the accurate mental belief in God of the demons which makes them “tremble” (James 2:19), is obedience, or at least the willingness, empowered by God’s Grace, to obey.
2To us who “believe and are baptized” (Mark 16:16) – baptism being the family-making New Covenant Oath by which we are formally adopted – see Volume II Chapter 2. In cases of Adult Baptism, mental belief precedes Baptism/adoption, in the case of Infant Baptism, the norm in the Early Church once Christianity was established and in the majority of Christian churches today (paralleling the prior Jewish circumcision of infants, by which they also became members of the Covenant Family), the mental belief comes after Baptism/adoption – just as my baby son’s limited mental understanding and approval of myself as his father is not what makes him my son, but that comes later. Baptism is adoption and adoption usually happens before mature intellectual assent to the adoption! The necessary mature belief which confirms Christian baptism/adoption into God’s Family is typically marked by some form of ritual of personal confirmation of the infant baptism/adoption into God’s Family when a person baptized as an infant is old enough to embrace Christian mental belief (rituals which parallel the prior Jewish bar mitzvah or “son of the covenant” ritual which confirms the infant circumcision whereby a Jew initially entered the Covenant Family).
3When I use the term “supernaturally empowering” to define traditional, orthodox Christianity, as I do occasionally, I primarily have in mind the fact that Christians through their relationship with Jesus Christ and His indwelling Holy Spirit by whom they are adopted by God the Father, have direct access to God the Holy Trinity of Love who is the Source of all love, life, and power in the universe, and drawing from this super-natural (“above nature”) Source gives Christians the power to live victorious and eminently meaningful lives on Earth. It is drawing from this infinite and super-natural Source of God who dwells with them that has given Christians the power to change both their own lives and even the course of human history for the better. This is the super-natural Source of the wonderful joy that Christians can have even in great adversity, this is the super-natural Source of the love that Christians display in and pour out upon the world, which transformed the brutal ancient world (before Christianity the “popular entertainment” or “television” of the civilized ancient world was torture and murder in the Roman arenas!) and which continues to change people’s hearts, conquer addictions, and bring peace to the troubled soul. However, although my primary meaning when I refer to the “supernaturally empowering” orthodox Christian faith is referring to that super-natural Presence of God which Christians live with which fills them with such love and courage for victorious living if they cooperate with it, I also have in mind the fact that this God who indwells Christians also gives them particular supernatural charisms or gifts described in the Bible (on a regular or occasional basis) and even occasionally uses them as His instruments in performing first-order miracles which temporarily bend or suspend the laws of nature He wrote.