Hillary of Poitier (300-368) was one of the great defenders of the faith in the early church. He is known as the “hammer of the Arians” because of his vigorous opposition to this Christological heresy which had spread so widely in his day. The Arians believed that Jesus Christ was not the eternal second person of the Triune God, but rather a created being before the foundation of the world. However, Bishop Hillary vigorously reminded the church that the position of Arius was not faithful to the Apostolic witness. In time, Arianism did not prevail, and the church re-emerged. In our own time, many of us have looked around and found that many expressions of Protestant Christianity have pushed beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy and begun to seriously erode the unity of Nicea. Many liberal Protestants – and a few daring Roman Catholics – finally came out in the open and, like Arius of old, denied the true Deity of Christ or the inseparable link between a truly Risen Christ and the Church. Christ, they argued, must be made more reasonable for modern men and women. Christ did not truly, bodily rise they insisted, but arose in the preaching of the Apostles. Some boldly claimed that the Enlightenment had finally delivered the crushing blow and called for the church to re-invent itself along lines more compatible with modernity, lest the church have no future in a secularized world. More recently, in some of the post-modern readings, we are called to all experience Christ in our own way and not be bothered by the confines of some ancient Apostolic proclamation. Post-modernism urges us to live as independent islands in a sea of meaninglessness. Your autonomous opinions, they argue, are just as meaningful and valid as those who deliberated at Nicea or who were first commissioned by the Risen Lord. A hermeneutic of proclamation and faith is replaced by a hermeneutic of suspicion and doubt and both called equally valid. According to this scheme, theology, it seems, is really – after all – only anthropology. The church is a human construct, not a divinely ordained community. Yet, in the face of all of this – though the tempest rages for a season, the church will, once again, be reconstituted into the truth.
With the emergence of global Christianity we are witnessing many new and faithful expressions of the church from other quarters, mainly in the non-western world and the great unanimity of the church throughout the ages marches on, because God is the one who preserves his church and its living witness to Jesus Christ. The church is constantly being reconstituted in the truth. Harvey Cox, in his book Fire from Heaven observes this phenomenon, calling it in the words of the Frenchman Gilles Kepel, “the revenge of God.”1 Indeed, every time the New Testament is opened and the Gospel is proclaimed it happens again and again throughout the world. The church, therefore, is called to persevere as the public witnesses of the apostolic message. We are a living community united to the Risen Christ. The word “saint” never appears in the singular a single time in the New Testament. The word for church, ekklesia denotes a public assembly, not a private cult.2 We are a community of witnesses and we cannot bear witness in isolation from our brothers and sisters in the faith around the world in space or the witness of the church through the ages in time. We are united to them both in worship and in witness in what the Apostles’ Creed calls the communion of the saints, the communio sanctorum. To forsake either that worship or that witness is to cross the boundaries and to cease to be the true Church.
Today, 2000 years into this great proclamation, after having weathered every storm from Gnosticism to Arianism to Protestant Liberalism to the current storm of post-modernism, I remain convinced that the true church will always re-emerge as the faithful witness. I say this because as I review the top eight reasons why I am a Methodist, I am painfully aware that many Methodist churches do not exhibit these great truths today. However, if we are all witnesses and stewards of a worship and a witness summoned forth by the Father, through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and heralded through the ages by countless millions, then our voice joins the great chorus of other faithful Christians throughout the world and back through time. In this respect, despite my deep love for Methodism, I still remain far more identified with the common evangelical witness of all true churches than any particular outpost. As I noted at the outset of this series, our particularity only has meaning if it is built on the great common doctrinal, experiential and historical truths, which unite all true churches together. For if we don’t have doctrinal stability, we cannot have ethical stability and if we don’t have ethical stability we don’t have stability of worship and if we don’t have stability of worship, we are no longer related vitally and necessarily to the headship of Jesus Christ. Our historic boundaries would become lost in a post-modern sea of autonomous self-definitions.
What a contrast from the Apostle John, who gives that final testimony at the end of time which gives us the courage to know that in the Final Day the Church will be preserved out of every snare. For he hears this act of worship in heaven, testifying not to another gospel or something novel, but to the Apostolic proclamation: “You were slain and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation…” and so “to him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power forever and ever” (Rev. 5:9,13).
1 Harvey Cox, Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the 21st Century, (Addison Wesley Longman, 1995) xvii.
2 Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965) 501-536 .