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The fourth, and currently last volume, in Nick Needham’s history of the church (2000 Years of Christ’s Power) is entitled The Age of Religious Conflict. This volume covers the 16th to 18th centuries. Just as the early church struggled with conflict within, so the post-reformational church struggled with conflict within. This book still includes some conflict between the branches of the church (particularly in the section on Eastern Orthodoxy).

This volume acknowledges the help of old friend Keith Mathison. It does change the format slightly which threw me off when approaching it. The major sections of chapters are numbered and start on new pages as if they were themselves chapters. This briefly messed with my reading schedule. A tiny, inconsequential thing.

He addresses these conflicts in Lutheranism, the Reformed Church (continental), England, Scotland, the Roman Catholic Church (centered on France) and the Eastern Orthodox Church (centered on Russia). The focus is on England which occupies two chapters in the volume. Throw in Scotland and you have 3 chapters on the British Isles. He does have 2 chapters on Roman Catholicism as well. We see the book is heavily weighted toward Protestantism and particularly light on Eastern Orthodoxy. Thankfully he does cover EO, which so many histories seem to neglect after 1054.

One conflict that runs throughout the book is the relationship between church and state. We’ve seen this conflict before, particularly between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. Now it unfolds in a number of nations as various kings and tsars want to control the church and various popes, patriarchs and archbishops want to either be free from state control or control the state. It seems that no good equilibrium could ever and can ever be achieved. The conflict between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman will always be played out on this field of battle until King Jesus returns to set all things right. To those willing to listen, there is much that applies to their particular situation. The quest for power and control exacts a great toll.

A second conflict that runs through much of the book is the place of Augustinian theology in the life of the church. The questions of human depravity and election rise in each of these church bodies. I think this illustrates for us the importance of this question as one that should captivate the church.

In Lutheranism, the death of Luther meant it lost its earthly center, the figure who drew all the strands together. The theological tensions, understandably, began to pull the church apart. Such a focus on theological controversies led many to view them as falling into dead orthodoxy. Pietism rose to call people to faith and sound practice, not the pursuit of theological subtleties. In the midst of this was the Thirty Years’ War which ravaged northern Europe. The root of the war was state control of the church. In one of those ironies of real life, Catholic France supported the Protestants against the Holy Roman Emperor in order to weaken him and gain power for France. War can create strange bedfellows and alliances.

Image result for synod of dort

Synod of Dort

In the Reformed church there were two theological controversies that occupied most of the energy: Arminianism and Amyraldianism. Surprisingly he didn’t trace the shifts in the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper very much. I say surprising because it was a frequent topic in the 3 previous volumes. The first of these controversies had some sort of settlement at the Synod of Dort. This did not put an end to Arminianism, of course. Much of Protestantism is Arminian today.

The lesser known and understood conflict was a result of the teaching of Moise Amyraut: Amyraldianism. He was the son of Huguenots. He was no stranger to controversy. Some political (refusing to kneel before King Louis XIII since Roman clergy didn’t have to) and some theological. At a time when the Huguenots were an oppressed minority, the battle over his theology split them as a kind of civil war. This civil war spread to England and other branches of the Reformed church.

Since this controversy is less known I will try to briefly summarize. Amyraut was distressed that many in Reformed theology held to double predestination and the idea that God created much of humankind for the purpose of damnation. Being in France, he was sensitive to the (mis)characterizations of Calvinism by French Catholics. He saw himself as rescuing the Huguenots from this caricature of God as “capricious, unjust, and unloving.” He viewed election in light of the cross instead of the cross in light of election. Therefore, Jesus did not die to save the elect, but died for all humanity. Salvation was conditioned upon faith. Since faith is not possible for fallen sinners, God elected some to salvation. In some ways this is a quibble about the order of decrees (which in my opinion is part of the secret things referred to in Deut. 29:29). In my opinion he presents a very confused God. This view is sometimes called the hypothetical atonement. He’s trying to walk a mediating position between Augustinianism/Calvinism and Arminianism. To me it seems an untenable position- logically unstable and unable to stand long before lapsing into greater problems.

In England there would be a literal civil war as various kings sought to control the church. England has some who wanted an Episcopal church, whether of Arminian or Calvinist leanings, some who wanted a Presbyterian church of England with a solid Calvinist bent. The Independents wanted religious freedom so that England could have Episcopal, Presbyterian and Congregational churches who held to Arminian or Calvinist views. As mentioned, Needham spends two chapters laying out the groundwork for the civil war, the war itself, life under Cromwell and the restoration of the monarchy which again ruled the Church of England too. In many ways this is a sad tale as so much blood was spilled to accomplish essentially nothing. Christians should be wary of taking up arms for the sake of faith (see the Thirty Years’ War as well).

Scotland had a similar struggle between the Crown Rights of Jesus (church over the state) and the will of a king who wanted to rule the Church of Scotland. We see the rise and fall of the Covenanters who pursued the rights of Jesus and desired a free church in Scotland. At times the Presbyterians won in Scotland. At times kings introduced an episcopal form of government which led to a watering down of the theology of the church. As you consider Scotland’s history of being occupied, any English influence was offensive to them.

Blaise Pascal Versailles.JPG

Blaise Pascal

Needham focuses on France for Roman Catholicism since at this point it had become the most powerful Catholic nation, supplanting Spain. Most of the movements within the Catholic church had their center in France. One of the main controversies was the Jansenist controversy. In a very Jesuit nation which was therefore not friendly toward the influence of Augustine’s view of salvation, a view that was dependent on Augustine would be controversial. The Jansenists were essentially Catholic Calvinists. They still submitted to the Pope and held to the doctrines of transubstantiation and purgatory. But they held to total depravity and election. The most famous Jansenist was French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. The fortunes of Jansenism were often tied to politics. The more power the Jesuits had, the more the pressure on them. When a French king wanted to establish his own power the Jesuit influence waned and Jansenism was able to grow.

What Jacobitism was to the churches in the British Isles, Gallicianism was to France. It was the view that the king of France, not the Pope was the head of the church in France. While there was not outright war, it saw political maneuvering and persecution.

Another controversy that can’t ultimately be separated from the political situation was the growth of Quietism, a form of mysticism that flourished in France for a time. It would fall in and out of favor with kings, surging and shrinking as a result.

In this section he also mentions Jesuit missions to eastern Asia. We see early versions of the Insider Movement as missionaries struggled to be all things to all men. Sometimes they allowed all men to remain in their paganism. Sometimes they required converts to become western. These are struggles that still take place in missions.

Cyril Lucaris 1632 Geneva.jpgAs Needham turns to Eastern Orthdoxy we see various splits form in the church. Some feared the power of the Pope and unification with Rome. They were haunted by the Union of Florence. Seeing the success of Protestants in separating from Rome, some like Cyril Lucaris began to use their methods and some theological distinctives. Cyril is controversial, to say the least. He clearly adopted “total depravity” which affected his view of salvation. His critics claimed he was corrupted by Reformed theology. A quite Protestant sounding confession that bears his name (whose authorship is questionable) was condemned and he was too, if he held to those views expressed that confession.

Others fearing the Protestant leanings or reform of men like Cyril, used the theology and methods of the Jesuits to reform the eastern church. So we find the main reformers in Eastern Orthodoxy at this time drawing on western methods and articulation of doctrine, whether Protestant or Catholic. They weren’t trying to become either but trying to protect Orthodoxy from the corruption of the other.

Since Constantinople was now under the control of the Ottoman Empire and called Istanbul, the Patriarch of Constantinople was under the control of muslims, Moscow grew in power as the “defender of the faith.” We see the same struggles there. Who would be in control: the tsar or the patriarch? With the rise of Peter the Great this was answered once and for all in favor of the state. Peter would also seek to westernize Russia, and the church. We also see a worship war that was far more bloody than ours since it got wrapped up in politics. With the advent of the printing press in Moscow, they discovered variants in liturgies. Their assumption was there was ONE way to worship. So, which was it? Some stuck with the way the Russian church worshiped while others argued they should be worship in accordance with the older Greek liturgies. Our sinful quest for power again corrupts the worship of God and splits the church.

In some ways this was the most difficult volume in the set for me to read. I was familiar with the material covered regarding England and Scotland, so I didn’t learn as much. Due to my existential realities, reading about all the conflict was less than pleasant. One thing is clear is that the Church desperately needs Christ. She so quickly lapses into conflict, splitting over points great and small. She is ceaselessly attracted to power.

This is not to say this wasn’t worth reading. It is an excellent series and this is a very good volume in this set. This is helpful reading for pastors and lay leaders. It is good reading for anyone with an interest in history. Written by a Protestant, this much more information about Eastern Orthodoxy than you are used to seeing. It helps balance our perspective on the Church, and that is a great thing.

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In the 6th chapter The Hole in Our Holiness, Kevin DeYoung shifts gears to talk about the process of sanctification. He had been addressing the need for holiness, the motives and the patterns of holiness in Scripture. So, what is supposed to happen so that we become holy? What is God’s part? Do I have a part in all this?

Years ago I read Hannah Whitall Smith’s The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life. DeYoung mentions it at the end of the chapter. It was part of the Higher Life teaching that used to characterize Keswick teaching. It is passive in sanctification. It assumes consecration is the only part we play in growing in holiness (Packer talks about this at length in Keep In Step With the Spirit). Sadly, some people today seem to hold a similar position.

“It’s possible to be completely biblical and still less than helpful- especially when it comes to pursuing holiness.”

Consecration is necessary, but insufficient for our growth in holiness. This chapter is about the effort we exert. But it is not a do-it-yourself project. The chapter is largely about the Spirit, the Gospel and faith.

(more…)

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