There are men we call “church fathers”. We call them such, because they “fathered” the faith, or bore it along throughout their own generation. Many of these are considered saints by the Catholics. After the reformation, these men are heralded by Protestants as being giants who progressed us out of darkness and back to God. Yet, when you study the lives of these men, and also their teaching in many parts, you find a glaring contradiction. The same ones who are heralded as being giants of the faith are some of the ones who wrote and acted the worst crimes against humanity possible. Put shortly, if our Gospel is a doctrine, and our love is “truths”, then we are candidates to annihilate the heretics. They who disagree, or who stand to potentially discredit our beliefs are seen as enemies, and often in history this has resulted in the slaughter of masses. In many cases, but not all cases, it was condoned, or even stirred, by the very ones we call “church fathers”.
Our Gospel has a Subject, and our love should be of a Person. To love factual statements more than what the factual statement is conveying is not a love of the truth, but a love of self. We see self as being correct, and therefore love that which agrees with us. It is something altogether different to then love your brother, even when they are not in agreement. Without this we are left bankrupt of the orthopraxy, and therefore show ourselves to ultimately be much less spiritual than our “doctrine” and intellect portrays us. We might think ourselves quite spiritual by the depths we comprehend, but how spiritual can we truly be when we are inflamed with rage at they who simply say they aren’t calvinist, or dispensational, or they don’t believe penal substitution, or they claim that the King James Bible isn’t the inspired word?
As early as the second and third century, we have a struggle arise within the early church. They were tested by the gnostics. The title comes from the Greek γνωσις, which means knowledge. They believed that we hold a hidden knowledge, and that this mysterious knowledge is something that causes us to have connection with God. One of the essential teachings that came from the gnostics was that everything happened within the mind. Your salvation, your faith, your Christian walk, and everything within you spiritual life was all in the mind. It is embraced as heresy today, and the gnostic teachers and writers are shunned, but I believe that this specific teaching has infiltrated and infected much of Christianity – especially within the realm of orthopraxy.
The way this bleed into what we practice is simple, if not obvious. It all comes down to what we believe, and our heart. If we believe the correct doctrines, then we have believed the Gospel. The Gospel is then robbed of its cogency, and replaced by a set of creeds or a “mission statement”. Suddenly instead of it being about the Gospel, it is about Gospel according to Luther, or Calvin, or Wesley, or some other person. Suddenly instead of it being about the God who saves, it is about the correctness of understanding that God who saves. The difference is frightening. No longer is the care to know God, but rather to know about God. And as long as our heart is right before God, then we only need confess and repent.
Marcion wasn’t specifically a gnostic, but did have a lot of dabbling within that mindset. He was convinced that the world was evil, and that the creator of this world was a lesser and evil god. He reasoned that the god of the Old Testament was an evil being, but the God of the New Testament was a merciful and loving God. The same kind of dichotomy happens today. In the end, Jesus would forgive everyone, and therefore there would be universal salvation. It was actually this man’s errors that the church fathers began to make creeds and lists of inspired Scriptures. In many ways, this was beneficial, but in other ways, this also led Christianity into a negative. It isn’t specifically everyone, however, there is a general broken link between orthodoxy and orthopraxy in the so-called church fathers.
Maybe it should be pointed out that simply believing in something doesn’t mean that you understand it, and even understanding something doesn’t demand that you apprehend it. I can understand that salvation is of grace through faith. That doesn’t mean that I’m saved. Salvation is an actual thing, an event, a moment when God breaks in upon the heart of a sinner, and that sinner is converted. The heart no longer longs for wickedness, but now is striving for righteousness. The heart is no longer indifferent to the things that God cares for, but now seeks to know God’s thoughts and ways.
With that being said, we can then ask the question of what anabaptists call the pilgrim church. There are indeed cases of people who believed the words of Jesus, desired to live it, and who believed that they were a part of a Kingdom on earth. They were severely persecuted by those who also claim Christianity, but don’t believe in the Kingdom on earth, and don’t believe that it is possible to live the words of Jesus. Even within the first few centuries of Christianity you have men like Augustine, who condoned the slaughter of heretics as long as your heart is right before God when you do it. Mass murder took place in the name of Jesus Christ, condoned by some of the greatest names within Christianity, simply because they believed that their hearts were right before God.
The anabaptists in the time of the reformation were horrendously persecuted. The Catholics preferred to burn them at the stake, calling them heretics for not believing in infant baptism. The Protestants, however, took a much more merciful means of murder: beheading or drowning. If you have the chance to read The Martyr’s Mirror, you will read of story after story of they who were killed for their faith, often by people claiming to be Christian, simply because they lived differently, thought differently, or threatened the institution. No one in church history has ever been killed for feeding the poor, taking care of orphans and widows, loving their enemies, and living like Jesus tells us to. Murder and genocide of denominations has come through the guise of heresy.
Simply claim that a certain teaching is heretical, and you have the power and authority to kill off anything that might threaten your way of life. While this might not be true today, or at least not fully true, it has classically and historically been the case. What I find to be more than coincidence is that the very moments in history when the pilgrim church and the anabaptists were being hunted down the most intensely are the exact moments in history that the Jews were also being killed by these same ‘Christians’.
Martin Luther claimed that the anabaptists were demon possessed. It wasn’t their teaching that led him to believe so. Rather, his opinion was influenced by their lifestyle. He reasoned that their lives were too holy, and that no one was able to truly live in that manner of righteousness and holiness. Therefore, they must have that lifestyle by the means of demon possession. Calvin wrote a treatise against the anabaptists and the libertines, where he condemns them as heretics. He also sat on a counsel and judged for a man to be put to death. Although, it wasn’t as bad as it sounds, because Calvin voted for the more merciful death.
These kinds of statements shouldn’t exist within so-called Christian giants. The majority of people don’t know this, even educated and studied people, because these are embarrassing to admit. How could a man like Luther call the anabaptists demon possessed, and write that the synagogues should be burned with the writings of the Jews? How could someone like Calvin, who was the prince of the reformation, vote for someone to be put to death? Certainly of all men he has read and known of a Jesus who does not condone violence. And yet, these are the very facts of history. There are many more examples, but what is more important is the emphasis not be lost.
Orthodoxy only goes so far. It might be true that Luther contributed a lot of great theology to Protestantism. It might be true that Augustine wrote and spoke quite boldly for God. It might be true that Calvin quite openly denounced the atrocious acts of the Catholic church. Yet, with these, and with the many other examples that could be added on, is it truly enough to say that they contributed to doctrine? Or, is there something more important than doctrine and dogma? Orthodoxy cannot remain alone. It must also be coupled with orthopraxy. Even the modern world proclaims that we should “practice what we preach”. Are they who’ve gone before us required less of because of the age they lived?