He who has ears, let him hear.
From communal living I went straight into seminary. I have often viewed the back-to-back experiences of intentional community and seminary as the most foundational periods of my life. While intentional community provided practical insight for daily living, seminary provided the intellectual perspective for these experiences.
The seminary I attended was my denominational one, the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California. It was very pointedly a “biblical” seminary, as opposed to a “theological” one. That is, we were taught to begin our search from the point of view of scripture, and not from a pre-formed theology.
I am incredibly grateful for this education. While only briefly using this education professionally (I am just not cut out to be a pastor!), it opened my eyes when it comes to biblical truth. I would not be who I am today without this experience.
Seminary only began the part of my journey which deals with the scriptures. While it certainly opened my eyes, I have come a long way from my seminary days. I no longer hold the holy writings as highly as I used to. I see that God has many ways of communicating with us, and the Bible is only one. More on this in later chapters.
In seminary I learned the roots of the Christian scriptures. I learned that it is a church document. The writings gathered into the canon of scripture by church leaders happened around the fourth century. As I walk my spiritual path, I am more and more coming to see that this gathering together of documents had a lot of human elements to it. There was agenda at play. There were church personalities at work. It was as much a political as it was a spiritual exercise to put together the writings which comprise the Bible. Methinks that people who put all their stock in biblical truth as the standard do not realize how much of their faith is in the historical activities of the early Church fathers.
I hope that if any of you ever hear me refer to the Bible as the “Word of God”, you will stop me in my tracks. The Bible itself should set us straight on this. Without going into a lot of detail, look at the following scriptures: John 1.1,2,14; Hebrews 4.12; Revelation 19.13. In our day the phrase, “the Word of God” has become synonymous with the Bible. And that, my reader, is skewed.
Don’t get me wrong. I revere the scriptures. I enjoy reading and studying them. There is truth in them. But I do view them in a way closer to what I think God intended for these writings. This is not the same way the Church views scripture.
Looking for a new church home in a new city some years ago, I heard a pastor say they were not biblicists. I was there! I could agree with that. Too, too many churches place way too much stock in the scriptures. And what they do not realize is that it is not really the scriptures in which they are placing their faith. It is their interpretation of the scriptures in which they believe.
I no longer worship the Bible. I worship the Creator of this universe, the Lord over all. Anytime I see a church name with the word “Bible” or “Truth” in it, I cringe. We have fallen a long way from the truth when we claim to have it.
During much of my life I was a worshipper of the Bible. It was in the words that I placed my faith. Sure, those words pointed the way to God. They proclaimed and portrayed God as having entered history, a God who takes intense interest in our world, in our lives, both individually and collectively. But I was not allowed by my context to go beyond the words. Anything outside the current view of scripture could not be tolerated. And I totally bought into that.
We, the Church, have become people of the book. Today I prefer to be a follower of the Way. The Way? The Way Jesus taught us to follow. The Way of love, and Spirit, and community.
One of the things I learned in seminary was that in Old Testament times, God’s voice to his people came primarily through spokespersons, called prophets. The Israelites of old had The Law, of course, written down, which we presume to be the first five books of our Old Testament. But nothing else was written until around the year 500 BCE. And from around 500 BCE and following, little more is recorded as having come from any prophets. Once the words were written, the voices ceased. Could this be mere coincidence? I think not. Once God’s word is written down, it becomes codified, “set in stone”, if you will. And it begins to seem sacrilegious to add anything to it.
I am not an expert on Church history. But the little I know would indicate the possibility of something similar happening in the early days of the Church. Much was being written during the first few hundred years of the Church’s existence. But when the Church fathers felt compelled to “set in stone” their scriptures, nothing else was allowed to be added, or written. The active voice of God fell silent once again. And according to some, it is still silent some 1600 or 1700 years later.
In addition to no more writings allowed into the canon, the Church fathers, in their effort to establish the unified, solid theology of the Church, tried to destroy all writings not deemed to be “biblical”. Anything other than the books they chose to put into the Bible was considered heresy. They not only destroyed the “heretical” writings, they massacred the people who followed these teachings. They had made their political, strategic decision, and would not countenance any opposition to this decision. They wanted to wipe the slate clean, to start with a clear, unquestioned, authoritative version of the “truth”.
Can it be purely accidental that some of these heretical writings have begun to surface in our day? In the last century or so, many of the writings thought to have been completely destroyed by the Church have begun to show up, and to be translated and studied. They reveal many interesting modes of thought among the earliest followers of Jesus.
There certainly is no clear consensus on what all these other scriptures mean; there is no consistent message contained in them. But there are some things which we can glean from these discoveries.
To me, one of the most important conclusions is that there was no one consistent system of belief among the earliest followers of the Way. People who heard Jesus, or who heard of him from his earliest followers, did not all come out believing the same way, or believing the same things. There was no uniformity until it was forced upon the Church by the early leaders.
We know, from the accounts we do have, biblical and otherwise, that both Christians and Jews were scattered around the year 70 CE when Roman soldiers came in to settle once-and-for-all the problem of the Jewish dissidents in Palestine. Remember that Christianity at this time would still have been seen as a sect of Judaism, one of many such. Believers of both faiths ended up in all parts of the Roman Empire. Many miraculous and magnificent stories have survived about those who fled Palestine, and carried their beliefs and ways of life to other lands, other cultures.
As they established themselves in these other lands, they themselves were shaped by these lands, languages, and cultures. This has always been part of human patterns of migration and societies. Along with this, belief systems were also influenced by the lands into which they settled.
The geographical separation was a factor in the diversity which grew up within Christianity in the first few centuries. For the first while, Christians were fearful for their very lives. After some years of settling down in new places, contact would’ve begun to be reestablished with believers in other areas. But by then many new ways of thinking had sprung up. Admittedly, some of this is conjecture on my part, for, as I stated earlier, I am not an expert in Church history. But the knowledge I do have, of both human behaviour and of human culture, would lead me to believe that things evolved much as I am proposing here.
So, what I am saying through all this is that there was great diversity in beliefs among the earliest followers of Jesus. I think this was right and good. And I think this is right and good today as well. I think we need great diversity in ways of believing and living out our faith. So let us learn tolerance toward one another, and perhaps even listen and learn from each other!!