Doctrinal Purity: A Persistent Illusion

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.
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Mick Turner

It intrigues me that conservative and fundamentalist believers put so much stock in the Bible and the traditions of the early church. These rigid Christians view those traditions as orthodox and any deviation is usually branded heresy, apostasy and worse.

The Internet is filled with websites and blogs, written by supposed “Watchmen on the Walls,” dedicated to the mission of ferreting out any deviation from what they consider to be the orthodox faith. Usually their targets are writers and teachings that have dared to breathe any life into a faith that has, in large part, proved negligent and devoid of transformative practices and life-changing theology.

The usual complaint launched by these rigid, myopic “defenders of the gospel” is related to these writers and teachers bringing some “outside influence” into the church. Recent examples of those unfortunate enough to be in their crosshairs include supporters of contemplative prayer, lectio divina, and similar practices, which have been part of church history far longer than the brand of legalism advocated by these self-styled and self-appointed inquisitors. Father Thomas Keating and Quaker writer Richard Foster are examples of the innovators targeted by the “Watchmen.” Claiming that these practices are little more than imported “Eastern mysticism,” the inquisitors show a complete ignorance of the history of their own faith.

Of course, anyone associated with the Emergent Church movement have frequent shots fired across their bow as well. Brian McLaren has been called everything but Beelzebub himself and long-time scholar and writer Marcus Borg is viewed in a similar light.

Word of Faith teachers and preachers are also slammed on a consistent basis. Now please, don’t misread me here. I am no supporter of the extreme views held by many of the Word of Faith teachers, but I don’t agree with the reasons the Watchmen have them in their gun sights. Word of Faith teachers are criticized for bringing “New Thought” philosophy into the church. Even though the Word of Faith leaders deny New Thought influence, it is clearly evident that ideas from the New Thought movement helped inspire the early pioneers of the Word of Faith teachings.

My point here is, “so what?” From the outset, Christianity has been strongly impacted by the culture(s) where it grew. Bringing teachings of a cultic nature into the Christian faith is not anything new, and in fact, it can accurately be said that it is the norm. Anyone with enough objectivity and enough sense to conduct a thorough study of church history can prove this for themselves.

The fact is, however, that few of these ardent believers have any inkling of the historical facts surrounding the canonization of scripture and the political climate of the day. For example, it is generally accepted that Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire after reportedly having a vision of the cross before a decisive battle. The fact is, and solid research is bearing this out, that Constantine may have fabricated the story of the vision at a later date. Further, Constantine was strongly influenced by the pagan spirituality of the day, especially Mithraism, and elements of Mitra worship found their way into the traditions of the early church. Consider, for example, the following tidbits:

  • In early paintings, Christ is depicted with rays of sun coming from his head. Mithra, is should be recalled, was associated with Sun worship.
  • The official day of rest for the Christian church became “Sun-day.”
  • The celebration of Christ’s birthday was moved from January 6 (in the Eastern Church, January 6 is still celebrated) and moved to December 25th, which is Mithra’s birthday.
  • The ornaments of the early church, things like wafers, miters, water baptism, the altar, and use of doxology, were all elements of Mithraism.
  • Mithra was a traveling teacher with 12 disciples.
  • Mithra was called “the good shepherd” and also the “way, the truth, and the life.”
  • Mithra was also called “the redeemer,” the “messiah,” and “savior.”
  • Both Mithra and Jesus were called the “Light of the World.”
  • Three Persian wise men visited Mithra, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
  • Perhaps most telling of all, Mithra was buried in a tomb and after three days, rose again.

How many of these rabid fundamentalists and conservatives know these facts? Very few, indeed. That’s why it strikes me as ironic when they loudly voice complaints about so-called “heretics” bringing outside influences into the church. In reality, the version of Christianity that we are familiar with here in the West, and that is supported by the Watchmen described above, is far removed from what went on in the early church. It has been infiltrated by numerous outside influences over the course of 20 centuries and has also been deeply stained by American ideals. To criticize someone for bringing an external teaching into the church is the height of not only arrogance, but ignorance.

These critics and self-appointed guardians of the faith cry loudly that we must be true to the gospel and “keep our doctrine pure.” Listen up fellows: it’s way too late for that.

And it has been for 2,000 years.

© L.D. Turner 2011/ All Rights Reserved


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