The first thread. Recently I spent some time doing some equipping with leaders and volunteers at North Point Community Church in the north Atlanta area. This is Andy Stanley's church (though I didn't meet Andy during my visit). The Sunday I was there Andy was kicking off a series called Starting Point. You can view and follow the series online here. The sermon I heard was the very first one, Something Happened.
In that sermon Andy pointed out that for the first 300 years of the church there wasn't a bible. And if that is the case, the bible can't be considered the "starting point" for the church. "The bible says," didn't exist for the first three centuries of the church. For 300 years there weren't any appeals to "book, chapter and verse."
Which raises the question. What bound the church together during those early centuries?
One answer, and this is the second thread, is the Christian martyr cults. This answer was brought to mind by the recent essay by Jason Byassee There's Life in Those Bones: Why Christians Venerate Relics at Books & Culture. Jason's essay is an nice introduction to how the Christian tradition has venerated saints. And among the saints the Christian martyrs took pride of place. For much of Christian history, and still today, people flocked to the churches and shrines of the martyrs and their relics.
Popular devotion to the martyrs was so strong that the early church worried about its ability to corral and control it. The populist glue that held the church together wasn't the bible or the Mass or the creeds or the Mother Church. The glue of the church was the martyrs.
Which brings me to my third thread, the essay of Ben Myers--Reflected Glory: Imitation, Biography and Moral Formation in Early Christianity--regarding the importance of the biographies of the saints for Christian moral formation, especially in the early church. Here is how Ben starts his essay:
It was Christianity's immense investment in the idea of incarnation - the belief that God has entered the world in human flesh - that made exemplary lives so important for the Christian moral imagination. If God's life is definitively revealed and made available in the human flesh of Jesus, then ethical principles, universal values and the like will be relatively uninteresting compared to the actual texture of moral life as one finds it in the experience of real human beings.Pulling all this together I'd like to make the following claim: holy lives are the glue of the church. What holds the church together isn't the bible (for Protestants) or the Magisterium (for Catholics).
Nothing is more illustrative of the whole Christian attitude toward life than the preponderance of biography in the early centuries of the faith. The first Christian biographies, like the Passion of Perpetua (circa 203 CE), commended the heroic death of martyrs as exemplars for others. By the time of Pontius's Passion and Life of Cyprian (259 CE), the martyr's wider conduct and way of life had also become material for study and imitation. As well as holding up Cyprian's courageous death as an example to be followed, Pontius praises the entire person of Cyprian as a sort of moral text to be read and assimilated.
What holds the church together are the saints.
And I think church history bears this out. Before there was a bible or creeds or orthodoxy or an authoritative teaching tradition there were the martyrs and the saints. And it was the veneration of the martyrs and saints that held the church together. If you wanted to point to the heart and soul of Christianity you didn't point to the bible or to the creeds or to the centralized church. Those didn't exist. Rather, you pointed to the saints and martyrs. The saints were the connection to Jesus. The saints were the link.
And I'd argue that the same is true today.
I make this observation because I think we need to recover this point of emphasis. Too much of Christianity today is focused on dogma, orthodoxy and doctrine. Especially in its Internet and social media manifestations, where the coin of the realm is opinions, beliefs, and positions.
Which brings to mind a fourth thread, Robin Parry's recent post about the dangers of Christian apologetics. After describing the ways Christian apologetics often goes awry, Robin ends by focusing on saintliness, the cardinal virtue of which is love. Robin concludes his post this way:
The key apologetic for Christianity—far more important than knowing the right answers to hard questions—is love. Communities of faith that embody the kindness of God in cruciform ‘works of love’ are deeply attractive and are themselves evidence (not proof) of the truth of the gospel...I think that's exactly right. The defense of the faith and debates about the faith aren't rational, intellectual or cognitive. Love is the argument of the faith.
Intellectual apologetics embedded in the context of lives committed to God’s love for the other is a beautiful and fitting adornment. But apologetics divorced from lives of love is like a gold ring in the nose of a pig. Apologetics is never just about being right; first and foremost it is about living right.
Thus, if churches want to defend their view of the faith, for outsiders or for other Christians, the best strategy would be to take a cue from the earliest Christians. Churches should shut up, put their bibles away, and point to their saints. That's the only legitimate defense of the faith and doctrine.
If you aren't talking about biographies you aren't talking about God. That's the truth of the Incarnation. That is why the Spirit is poured out on flesh.
And if saintly exemplars are lacking in the church, well, that exposes something: a radical disjoint between the modern and the early church. Shoot, it's a radical disjoint between the modern church and Jesus. If you lose the saints you lose the connection with Jesus.
And to be honest, to make this sting a bit, I think any personal argument about the faith should echo St. Paul: "Imitate me as I imitate Christ."
Because if we can't give that argument--"Why don't you follow me around today."--then I wonder if we shouldn't be stepping away from the keyboards and the debates. More important things in our lives need to be attended to.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed:
The primary confession of the Christian before the world is the deed which interprets itself.The lives of the saints will always be our confession before the world. Before anything--creeds, church or bible--we point to them.