Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Our Muslim neighbours

In our worship service yesterday evening, a minister told us about a young couple living in an apartment building in New York City. There was a Muslim family living in the same building, with children the same age as the children of this couple. The children played together, became friends, and the parents also became friends, often visiting each other. The young man in this account had been feeling under the weather for a few days when the Muslim couple dropped in for a visit one evening. His Muslim friend advised him to just take the next day off work and he decided to do that. This man worked in an office in the twin towers and the next day was September 11, 2001. The point of this little story was that taking the day off saved his life.

As for the Muslim friends, they were never seen again. They left quietly and quickly with no forwarding address. This raises two possibilities: either the husband knew what was going to happen on 9/11 and wanted to warn his friend; or, he knew nothing at all about what was going to happen and was overcome by the fear that his friendly advice might bring him under suspicion.

This brings us to the present day where our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, refers to ISIS and other groups and individuals involved in terrorist activity as jihadists.  Muslim organizations are objecting quite strongly, saying the original meaning of jihad has nothing to do with terrorism and that all Muslims should not be stigmatized by referring to terrorists in this way. President Obama, on the other hand, will not make a connection between Islam and terrorism for fear of radicalizing all Muslims.

Who has it right? I don’t want to get political here, but the fact is that the terrorists refer to themselves as jihadists, and the stated goal of ISIS is to establish a Muslim Caliphate. I am quite willing to admit that most Muslims in our country are not in sympathy with the terrorists. Most have come here because they preferred the tolerance and stability of Canada to conditions in Islamic nations. I am happy to hear their leaders taking pains to dissociate themselves from the radicals and making real efforts to reach their young people with teachings of moderation and respect for others.

I also realize that the victims of these terrorist movements are mostly other Muslims. That brings up a point that needs to be made. Much of the hatred of radical Muslims toward Western society is based on memories of the Crusades, when supposedly Christian armies were sent out to drive back and subjugate the forces of Islam. There is no doubt that many atrocities against Muslims were perpetrated by the Crusaders. But were the Crusaders true representatives of Christianity?

I call myself an Anabaptist, a spiritual heir of a Christian movement that was also the victim of numerous Crusades, and the Inquisition. The plain fact of history is that for hundreds of years the same Roman Catholic Church that was responsible for the Crusades against Muslims also systematically hunted down, tortured and killed many thousands of Christians whose sole offense was that they did not want to be Roman Catholic.

There is nothing sinister about the word catholic, it was originally used to describe the Christian faith as being applicable to all people, of all nations, of all eras. But the Roman Catholic Church appropriated that word for themselves and in the minds of many brought such disrepute upon it that they refuse to use it today. That is not the fault of the word.

It seems to me that Muslims will have to get used to the fact that jihad has been appropriated by the terrorists and it is probably no longer possible to dissociate it from that in the public mind. I am quite willing to believe that most Muslims in our country have as much horror of terrorism as I do. I wish them well in their efforts to make a clear distinction between themselves and the extremists, in the minds of their own young people and in the minds of the general public.

Catholicism or catholicity?

I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

This is the final clause of the ancient confession of faith which is commonly known as the Apostles’ Creed.  It is the earliest complete confession of the Christian faith, and is generally supposed to have originated with the questions asked at baptism: Do you believe in. . . ?

The word catholic in this final clause is a source of embarrassment and confusion to many sincere and devout Christians who do not wish to appear to be confessing a faith in the Roman Catholic Church.  This is not what the word means.  Catholic means to be universally applicable.  The Christian faith, in its pure and original form, is applicable and pertinent to people of every nation, kindred and tongue, in every age.  Thus, the early believers thought it fitting to describe it as catholic.

We know that in the course of time the Christian faith became the preferred religion of the Roman Empire, which led the bishop of Rome to claim preeminence over all Christian churches throughout the Empire and throughout the world.  Thus was born the Roman Catholic Church, a church that could claim to be catholic, but which was never very holy.  This was where our Anabaptist forefathers refused to take their orders from the bishop of Rome and his minions, and began to suffer persecution because of this refusal.

In recent generations Anabaptist and Mennonite people have developed an aversion to the term catholic.  For that reason the last clause of the Apostles’ Creed in the English translation of the Martyrs Mirror has the phrase “the holy general Christian church.”  Maybe I’m nitpicking, but I find the term general to be so general in meaning as to not give much clue as to what it might mean in this context.  I prefer catholic, so long as it is understood in its original meaning.

Catholic, when spelled with an upper case C, and Catholicism, are commonly understood to refer to the doctrine and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.  When spelled with a lower case c, catholic and catholicity refer to the quality of being universally applicable.

I suppose what I am getting at with all this, is to remind myself, and hopefully my readers, that the pure, unadulterated Christian faith is truly holy and catholic.  It appeared at a specific moment in history, among people of a unique ethnicity, culture and language, but it was never meant to remain a prisoner of that ethnicity, culture and language.  Or any other.  It is the only remedy for the very real spiritual needs and aspirations of all people, of every age, nation, culture and language.

And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent (Acts 17:30).

Early Church History

The first recorded separation of the Christian Church occurred in A.D. 251.  Novatian, bishop at Carthage (near the location of the present day city of Tunis) in North Africa, insisted that members who had renounced Christ during the persecution of Diocletian could no longer be recognized as members of the Church of Christ.  He was the first to use the term Cathar,.  A network of small affiliated congregations spread through Western Europe, Asia Minor and Africa.  Members of these churches were called Cathari (pure ones) and members of the larger body Catholics (universal).  Anyone who transferred from the Catholic churches had to be rebaptized.  Novatian is believed to have been martyred about 258 during the persecution of Valerian.

In A.D. 313 Donatus became bishop of the non-Catholic church in Carthage.  He believed they were the true church and required all new members to be baptized, including those who had been baptized in the Catholic Church.  He rebuked thr Catholic bishop for handing over Scriptures during persecution.  Donatus lived until 355, and when the Emperor Constantine supported the Catholic Church, Donatus asked the question “What has the Emperor to do with the church?”  In 394 AD there were 310 Donatist bishops.

Most historians consider Novatian and Donatus and the churches they led to be unrelated historical events.  Those known in later eras as Paulicians, Bogomils, Albigenses, Waldensians and Mennonites are also considered to be unconnected.  By and large, these names have been given by their opponents in the state churches, who have also lumped groups of varying doctrines together under one label, in order to condemn the pure Christians with the errors of others who had in truth departed from the true faith.  It must be remembered that church history has generally written by the persecutors, who endeavoured to destroy all the writings of those they persecuted.

Constantine’s purported conversion and ensuing military victory took place in 312.  As he ruled the whole empire from Rome, he also favoured the bishop of Rome as the supreme head of the Catholic church.  Thus began the Roman Catholic Church and all the familiar pretensions of the papacy.

Augustine of Hippo became a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in 396 and devoted his life to developing a theology to counter the influence of the pure church.  Among the doctrines formulated by Augustine are the following:
– the predestination and perseverance of the ‘fixed number of the elect’,
– the true church is invisible (no man can discern who is truly among the elect),
– the church is a mixture of wheat and tares,
– mankind is absolutely incapable of doing any good,
– the church believes for the Christians,
– grace is received through the sacraments,
– therefore babies must not be deprived of the grace provided by baptism,
– corruption of the priest does not affect the validity of the sacraments,
– coercion of dissident Christians is an act of loving correction.

During the Reformation of the 1500’s, the Lutheran, Reformed and Anglicans all carried Augustine’s doctrines over into the new churches.  Calvin further developed these doctrines into a form of predestination that makes grace almost impersonal, it affects whatever it touches almost mechanically.

Information for this summary is taken from Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity, © 1977.

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