Thursday, October 13, 2011

Lessons from Church History: Part 1

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
"See, this is new"?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
Ecclesiastes 1:8-9
If we really believe what the Preacher--under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit--tells us in these verses, then one of the reasons why the study of church history is so important for the health of the church today is because there is nothing that the church in the 21st century is currently dealing with that the church hasn't dealt with at some point in the past (in one form or another). And if we are ignorant (whether purposely or not) of how the church has historically responded to and treated disease when it has begun to infect the the body of Christ, then we (especially church leaders) are like doctors who are ignorant of already existing treatments that have been proven effective because we are ignorantly in search of treatments of our own. But there is nothing new under the sun. So church history couldn't be more relevant for the health of the church today.

While reading for my church history class this week, this quote stopped me dead in my tracks:
Arius was not straightforward in his controversial methods and cleverly tried to cloud the issues. He was deposed in 321, but being an able and charming man he was befriended by eminent ecclesiastics like Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, Eusebius of Nicomedia, and Eusebius of Caesarea, the historian.
--A.M. Renwick, The Story of the Church, p.54
Arius was a church leader between the 3rd and 4th century who taught that Jesus Christ was not co-eternal with the Father but instead was the first being created by the Father. Arius was vehemently opposed by those who recognized the threat his teachings posed to the gospel, most notably Athanasius of Alexandria. Arius was eventually denounced as a false teacher.

What struck me from what I read is how Arius, the man we have come to know as a false teacher, is described. He "was not straightforward in his controversial methods" and he "cleverly tried to cloud the issues."

Earlier this year, Rob Bell released a book entitled Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Before the book was even released, it was swirling in controversy because of the trailer that was released as a preview to the book:

Then, after the release of the book, the controversy continued to stir, with Bell quite literally being put in the hot seat:

Now, I'm not going to lie. I haven't read a single page of Love Wins. And I don't have plans to read it anytime soon (though I'm not opposed to reading it). So I don't have any grounds for criticizing what Bell has written in that book. That's not my point here. Others have already done so thoroughly (e.g. Kevin DeYoung). But, in light of the concerns that others have raised about Bell's teaching, I can't help but recognize how the description of Arius could very easily be used to describe Bell.

Arius is described as "not straightforward in his controversial methods." In the video trailer for his book (first video above), Bell's method for communicating the ideas in his book is no doubt intentional because of how effective it is in creating interest. But, at the same time, this method of asking questions that might or might not be rhetorical (one can only find out by reading the book) is not straightforward, which was undoubtedly one of the contributing factors (if not the contributing factor) to the controversy that arose around the book before it was even released.

Arius is also described as a man who "cleverly tried to cloud the issues." In the MSNBC interview with Bell after the release of his book (second video above), the interviewer has to ask Bell the same question multiple times (the first question is admittedly unfair). The question is simple and straightforward: "Is a person's response to Christ in this life relevant to his or her eternal destiny?"And yet it seems like each time Rob Bell responds he "cleverly clouds the issue" in order to avoid answering the question conclusively one way or another, which is why the same question is asked multiple times.

I'm not questioning whether Rob Bell means well or not. I'm sure he does (and I'm not being sarcastic). But that's not the point. I'm sure Arius had all the best intentions (again, I'm not being sarcastic). He's described as an "able and charming man." And Rob Bell seems to be a very able and charming man as well. But there's a reason why the Bible warns that not many should become teachers. In doing so, we subject ourselves to a judgment of greater strictness before God (James 3:1) and at the same time greater scrutiny before others. It's not possible for a teacher to be completely separated from his teaching. So when we oppose the erroneous teaching of a particular individual, there's unfortunately no way to altogether avoid opposing the individual as well.

But we must "contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). This isn't about Rob Bell just like it was never about Arius. This is about Jesus Christ. His gospel is at stake, just like it was in the 3rd and 4th century when Arius was gaining popularity even as controversy surrounded him.

Is Rob Bell a false teacher? Some evangelicals would say "yes"and some would say "no." However we answer that question today, what we must keep in mind is that there was a time when the jury was still out on Arius. There was a time when his teachings were widely circulated and embraced as the spiritual diet of multitudes of believing Christians. And if he had never been denounced as a false teacher, those teachings would still be widely circulated and embraced as the spiritual diet of multitudes of evangelical Christians today over 1500 years later. Who knows what state the church of Jesus Christ would be in today if Arius had never been denounced as a false teacher?

There's nothing new under the sun. So, for the sake of the gospel and for the sake of the church 1500 years from now if Jesus would tarry, let's learn from church history and, like Athanasius, "contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).

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