Was Christendom an accidental mistake? Did a shrewd and manipulative Pagan politician named Constantine sully the purity of Apostolic Christianity? This is an increasingly popular reading of history. Is it accurate?
The Problem of Primitivism
Often, Protestants confuse purity with primitivism. What do we mean by primitivism? Have you ever heard a Protestant claim that their denomination (usually congregation) reflects the theology and practice of apostolic purity? If so, you have encountered primitivism. Primitivism presents a serious challenge to our doctrine of corporate confession. Critics declare that the idea of a Christian nation seems far removed from the concerns of New Testament Christianity. Rather, it is claimed, the pure church is the one that most closely apes what it believes to be apostolic Christianity. Do we suggest that the Church should have another standard than that of the apostolic church infallibly described in the Book of Acts? Allow me to explain.
The church is built on the foundation of the Apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ being the chief corner stone (Eph. 2:20). Houses are built upon foundations. Christâ€™s church is a house that is being built by God (1 Cor. 3:9,10). As the church is raised, God sets its strong foundation upon the ministry of the Apostles and the prophets. The role of the Apostles and prophets was to infallibly expound the meaning of the person and work of Christ. Having done so, the Apostles left us with a canon of Scripture so that their foundation, once laid, would provide support for the ministry of Pastors, Teachers, and Ruling Elders to do the work of raising superstructure.
Considering the fundamental division between foundation and superstructure we must understand the progressive development of revelation that exists within the New Testament. Not all that occurred during the dynamic days of the Apostles is regulative for church history. One need only compare the description of church life found in 1st Corinthians 12-14 (penned by Paul around A.D. 55) and the relatively subdued, orderly, and normative descriptions found in the â€œpastoral epistlesâ€. Thus, Richard Gaffin warns against the danger of reading Acts, â€œas a more or less random samplings of earliest Christian piety and practice, as a compilation of the churchâ€”a more or less loose collection of edifying and inspiring episodes, usually with the nuance that they were the â€˜good old days, when Christians were really Christians.â€™â€ (Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost, pg. 23).
From Jerusalem to Rome
Why is primitivism so dangerous for a biblical view of Christianity? Should we not content ourselves with the faith and practice of the apostolic area? Count the cost. Recognize that truly biblical formulations of the relationship between the persons of the Godhead were not worked out until the 4th Century. The same is true for well-defined statements about the relationship of Jesus Christ to the Father, as well as the relationship of His divinity to His humanity. The biblical doctrine of justification was not well defined until the 16th Century. The Westminster Confession of Faith, the most biblically satisfying creed in all of Christendom, was a product of the 17th Century. Primitivism adores the acorn but scorns the oak. Thus, the primitivist abhors Christendom. He never tires of telling the story of the good old days when the church was purified by the fires of persecution. Oh, the glorious days of the confessors and the martyrs, cut off, sorrowfully and abruptly, by the conversion of Emperor Constantine. The true church suffers, not only the sanctifying struggle against inward sin, but externally against the beastly kingdoms of men whose worldly interests share no common ground with the Kingdom of God established by Jesus Christ.
Primitivism is not a uniquely Protestant problem. Almost immediately following the conversion of the Empire and its official recognition of the Church, the desert fathers renounced the world and took to the wilderness. The monastic severity of St. Anthony owed its origin to a romantic vision of the primitive and suffering church. More dangerous forms of primitivism would follow. The Donatists of the 4th Century and the Anabaptists of the 16th would make suffering primitivism the mark of their heterodoxy.
With this in mind, I remind you of the risen Christâ€™s words to the Apostles, â€œYou shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8).â€ Luke uses Jesus words to the Apostles as introduction to the organizing theme of the book of Acts. The book of Acts begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome. Do not miss the subtle suggestion. The gospelâ€™s arrival in Rome is far from accidental. The capital of a world empire, Rome truly represented, and ruled, the ends of the earth.
Pagan Romeâ€™s Natural Death?
Let us not jump to an opposite extreme. The early church was not filled with radical revolutionaries obsessed with political manipulation of the Empire to fulfill its worldly desires. Although ferociously persecuted by various Emperors, the church did not raise arms or defend its â€œrightsâ€ through violence. Rather, they responded by praying for their rulers and by showing themselves to be the best of citizens.
The Church Fathers make it clear that the church was anything but a revolutionary institution, at least in any ordinary sense. Christians exercised their freedom in Christ by glad submission to civil and social authority. Authority was to be honored even when it degenerated into tyranny (Roman 13:1-4). Yet, the gospel of Christ crucified, resurrected and ascended was revolutionary nonetheless. As Christ was preached, the old â€œgodsâ€ lost their power (Acts 17:5-8; Rev. 20:1-3). The temples decayed. The worship of the Emperor, the cult upon which Roman culture rested, faltered. T.S. Eliotâ€™s Journey of the Magi captures the political and cultural realities of the dawning age:
â€¦were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutch their gods.
I should be glad of another death. (Collected Poems 1909-1962, pg. 100)
In 313, Emperor Constantine began the long process of Romeâ€™s conversion.
Three years later, in 316, amidst the provincial glory of his retirement palace in Split, Diocletian, the last pagan â€œgodâ€, breathed his last. So expired the Roman incarnation of pagan divinity. Christ had conquered the old gods. Rome was daily being transformed. Nearly two centuries before, Latin Church Father Tertullian boasted, â€œWe are but of yesterday, yet we fill your cities, islands, forts, towns, councils, even camps, tribes, decuries, the palace, the senate, the forum; we have left you the temples alone”. The effect of gospel preaching is organic transformation of all areas of life to the glory of Christ. Rome, once drunk on the blood of the martyrs, was being transformed from inside out. The Psalmist had declared the duty of nations: â€œkiss the Sonâ€. Was Christendom an accident? No, Christendom is the natural (or should we say supernatural) result of the gospel preached to the nations. Only a stunted and deformed sub-Christian primitivism could despise Christendomâ€™s blessed fruit and comforting promise.