29 Dec 2018

Christianity, Forgotten Changes

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Apocrypha, Bible, C. S. Lewis, Church History, Grace, Lord's Supper, Patternism, Sectarianism, Unity

I watch the ripples
change their size
but never leave the stream 
of warm impermanence

– David Bowie 

Christianity has always “changed.”  In fact Christianity has changed drastically over the centuries. Most change, over time, became accepted as “the” way. 

Almost universally these changes produced considerable controversy at the time, sometimes centuries of controversy. As time progressed however the change became the “norm” even forgetting that it was a change. Then the change became a sacred cow. Some historical examples. Some will probably disagree with some of the examples because they themselves have become simply “accepted.”

First, the content and contour of Scripture itself. In the second and third centuries AD, there was plenty of disagreement regarding the status of certain Christian books that are now universally, and without question, accepted. Among examples are the Shepherd of Hermas, Hebrews, Epistle of Barnabas, Revelation, 1 Clement, the Diatessaron, 2-3 John, 2 Peter, Gospel of Peter, and a few others.

Second, the introduction of chapters into books of Scripture. Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton (AD 1150-1228) introduced the system of chapters that western Christians are familiar with in the 13th century when he incorporated them into the Latin Vulgate. 

Third, the introduction of verses into the chapters in the books of Scripture. Robert Estienne, a printer, introduced verses into the Greek New Testament in 1551.

Fourth, the introduction of unleavened bread into communion. This innovation was directly connected with the first major division in Christianity that between the Roman Catholics and the Greek Orthodox. Most conservative, Evangelical Christians in North America are completely unaware of this historical change that produced centuries of bitter conflict between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity.  For more on that arcane controversy see this link, The Bread on the Table: An Ancient Controversy that Changed the Supper.

Fifth, the introduction of hymnals in Christian worship. There was controversy over what should be in the hymnal as well. Many Christians thought that the only songs authorized for worship were from the book of Psalms and other portions of Scripture. Later it was the introduction of musical notation into the hymnals was also incredibly controversial. No song book in the Stone-CampbellMovement/Churches of Christ had “notes” until after the death of Alexander Campbell in 1866. Campbell thought instrumental music was more acceptable than notes. 

“ I would prefer to have an organ, or a fashionable choir as a means of my worshipthan the words of a hymn set to the notes of a tune on which to fix my eyes while engaged in the worship of God.” (Alexander Campbell, “The Christian Psalmist,” Millennial Harbinger [March 1847], 179)

Sixth, The publication of printed editions of the Bible. As a rule no one in the first 1500 years of Christianity owned a personal copy of “the Bible.” The Bible was encountered in a corporate context in worship. The Reformation certainly bears witness to the controversies here.

Seventh, the place of the Deuterocanonical/Apocryphal books. Before the Reformation there is no known manuscript Bible that does not include these books (i.e. Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Maccabees, etc). There was plenty of discussion on both sides of the matter from the third century on (which just establishes the point being made here) but they were included in the manuscript Bibles regardless of the position accorded them in various Fathers. They were always used in worship and never regarded in the same fashion as Gnostic texts. During the Reformation, Luther rejected the canonical nature of them while affirming the high value of them.  He placed these books in his Bible and all Reformation Bibles followed suit by incorporating them between Malachi and Matthew. Then, when the British Foreign Bible Society decided to print Bibles without the Apocrypha it caused major division among Protestants (not Catholics).  Today most North American Evangelical disciples know nothing of these books. 

Eighth, the introduction of vernacular Bibles into English Christianity in the 19th and 20th century because if the KJV was good enough for Paul it is good enough for us (the KJV included the Apocrypha btw). The American Standard Version, Revised Standard, Today’s English Version, the NIV have all been greeted with bitter controversy and rejection.

Ninth, the introduction of Sunday School, something most churches today do not even think there can be church without them, was introduced after the Civil War into American churches and were the occasion of massive church fights and church splits.

Tenth, the introduction of individual communion cups, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was accompanied by flares and burnouts and permanent ruptures in fellowship.

Eleven, exclusive congregational singing is a modern innovation that folks in my tribe think is the only way it has ever been done or can be done. Going biblical on this one can get you charged with change agentry!

C. S. Lewis once lamented those who imagine the world began with the dawn of their own consciousness. It didn’t. This little exercise can open our minds and, perhaps, be a little less judgmental.

For Shalom

9 Responses to “Christianity, Forgotten Changes”

  1. Michael Arena Says:

    There was a time when I thought I had all the answers. Now I realize that I don’t even know the questions. When we stop cherry-picking verses we may learn the true meaning of gospel.

  2. Patrick Mead Says:

    Brilliant. One of your best. And that’s saying something.

  3. Dwight Haas Says:

    We in the coC often practice revisionist history, where history replaced tradition that was introduced a short time ago and then the that history became truth.
    Grape juice and multiple cups were introduced in the churches around the late 1800s, with great opposition and yet were adopted and yet for some reason because instruments were introduced around the 11th century that makes it wrong.
    I used to believe that unleavened bread had to be used in the Lord’s Supper and yet Jesus never did refer to himself as unleavened bread, but bread. And those who fight for unleavened bread, don’t fight for wine with the same gusto.

  4. dwight Haas Says:

    One things we must realized about the bread used at the meal that became the Lord’s Supper, is that if a Passover meal, the bread was commanded to be unleavened because the Jews were to leave in a hurry, but in the Lords Supper account, there is no command about what to use or why. Jesus called himself the bread (artos) of life, because bread (artos) was life giving…unleavened bread not so much.

    • Bobby Valentine Says:

      That is part of the question, isn’t it. But either way even if it was a Passover (and I think it was) the early church did not understand that to be determinative for the mechanics of the Lord’s Supper. See the link within the post.

  5. Steve Allison Says:

    Yesterday I read a Twitter thread by a woman of Anabaptist heritage. She described the high rate of mortality of the first generation of Anabaptists. They were executed for things we would consider quite normal Christian practice today. I knew this already but it was good to be reminded. So I would say an important change in Christianity that finally happened after about 1600 years was the removal of the death penalty for having non-state-church-approved beliefs and practices. This is so normal now that we do not think of it.

  6. James Thrasher Says:

    When I was growing up in Middle Tennessee in the 1950’s and 60’s, the battle over Sunday School was still quite strong. I remember debates; both sides were convinced that Scripture proved their point. Along the same time, I remember the debates over Fellowship halls and kitchens in the church buildings. I remember preachers using “silence of the scripture” to prohibit what they opposed, and to allow what they wanted. Congregations were split, and we’re still reaping the results today.

  7. Andrew Says:

    I’m glad you mentioned the Deuterocanon. When I learned about that controversy, it became the biggest example I could think of about “accepting a change as a norm.” Today, so many Christians believe that the Holy Spirit inspired 66 books. But the truth is, Martin Luther “uninspired” the Deuterocanon. It saddens me that Luther’s canon has become the norm and the sacred cow for mist Christians.

Leave a Reply