DIGGING DEEPER: The Early Christian Church, and the Period of Naivety

Written by Abraham Kuyper,

 coptic-painting-17[This is a little bit deeper post than usual; the argument and thought process is more nuanced and couched in precision. As such, younger Christians may not find this piece as easily significant for themselves as others.  I am posting this section of Kuyper’s book (which for me a 600+ page, magnum opus) because it deals with a period of Christianity that most Protestant Christians today are largely unknowledgeable about. Kuyper wrote this book at a time when the church was quickly descending into the hyper-critical analysis of scripture which we know as “higher criticism.” In looking at the deep scholarship that was in his field in his day, if Kuyper was not a “lone voice” he was at least a very singular voice for biblical conservatism. And I think it interesting that Benjamin Warfield wrote the preface for this Dutch to English translation which I took this excerpt from. Each of these men I consider to be part of the “seven thousand that did not bow their knee to Baal.” –MWP]

As soon as the Church had freed itself from the swaddling clothes of Israel’s national life,the Christian religion went out into the world as a militant power.

“Think not that I am come,” said Christ, “to bring peace on earth, but the sword. For I am come to set man at variance with man.” Also, ” I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?” Which sayings but delineate the character of Christian heroism in contrast to a timid irenics, which fills in every gap, and covers up every difference.

Conflict might have been in part postponed, if the world of that age had still been confined to the stage of infantile unconsciousness, or if a tabula rasa could have been made of all development attained. But this could not be, since the Christian religion was commissioned to appear in a world which boasted of a very ripe development, and spoke at times of the golden age of emperors, and which, notwithstanding its spiritual dearth, prided itself on great things.

This placed the Christian religion as an opposing force over against the historical results of a broad, and, in part, a deep searching development, which was sufficient unto itself, and which would not readily part with the sceptre of power over the spirits of men. Sooner or later the Christian religion was bound to conflict with the existing state of things at every point,and was forced at once to do this:

(1) with the pseudo religions, which were still dominant;

(2) with the world of thought, which it first depopulated, and then undertook to populate with its own content; and

(3) with the actual world, both national and social, the whole machinery of which it resolved to place upon another pivot.

This threefold antithesis shows itself at once with the appearance of the apostles, who would have been utterly impotent but for their spiritual heroism. Which heroism also, for the most part, they sealed with their blood. From the very beginning the conflict assumed the character of a life and death struggle; on the one side being arrayed the ripest products which unregenerate human nature had thus far commanded, and the richest development the human consciousness had attained to without higher revelation and enlightening; and opposed to this, upon the other side,the “foolishness of the cross,” which proclaimed the necessity of palingenesis, prophesied an entirely different condition which was to ripen from this,and at the same time announced a “wisdom ” that was to array itself antithetically against the “wisdom of the world.” The outbreak could not tarry. What existed and bore rule was rooted too firmly to allow itself to be superseded without a struggle; and the Christian religion, which was the aggressive force, was too heroic in its idealism to be silenced by satire or shame, by the sword or fagot.

The conflict indeed has come; for eighteen centuries this strife has never come to a truce except in form; even now the antithesis of principles in this struggle is frankly confessed from both sides, and this contest shall be decided only when the Judge of the living and the dead shall weigh the final result of the development of our human race in the Divine balance.

It was natural that at first the Christian religion should stand most invincible in its attack on religion. In its strength of early youth, aglow with the fires of its first love, it presented a striking contrast to pseudo-religion, aged and worn out, maintained for the most part in forms only, and held in honor among the illiterate more than in the centres of culture and power. Within the religious domain Paganism has almost nowhere been able to maintain itself, and without exaggeration it may be said that almost from the very first the chances for the Christian religion as such were those of a veni, vidi, vici.

Within the ethical-social and national domain, however, the struggle was far more serious, and it took no less than three centuries of bloody fighting before in Constantine the first definite triumph could be recorded. But much more serious still was the first attack in that strife within the intellectual bounds. Here at its first appearance Christianity stood with but a “sling and a stone from the brook” over against the heavily armed Goliath, and thanks to the providential leadings of the Lord, this Goliath also was made at length to eat sand. Christ Himself had drawn this antithesis in the intellectual world, when He said: ” I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.” And since theology belongs to this domain, and to no other, it is entirely natural, that at its first appearance theology bears the character of naivety.

Not as though there had not been given in the Revelation of the New Testament itself the clear and entirely conscious tendency of this antithesis also in the full sense of principles involved; but it was reserved for later ages to bring out in all its deductions what was potentially revealed in the Scripture. Even now this task is by no means ended, and our own age has been the first to grasp the antithesis in the higher intellectual world between science within and science outside the sphere of palingenesis.

Hence in this period of naivety there was no question whatever of a theology as an organic science, in the sense in which our age especially understands it. What the apostolic fathers offer is little more than exhortation, pious and serious, but as to principles very imperfectly thought out.

. . .

If it is asked whether in this first period there was no manifestation of an impulse to apply oneself in a positive sense to that intellectual pursuit in which theology finds its appointed task, then be it said that this positive element soon presented itself; for ministers needed to be educated, preaching necessitated exegesis and fixing of ethical standards, the organization of its own power gave rise to the problem of Church government, and, after some time had passed, the need of a review of history became urgent of itself. But for no single moment did these positive studies rise above the primitive water-mark; or where this was the case, as at Alexandria, they made too vain a show of feathers borrowed from pagan speculation, so that almost instinctively the Church perceived at once that this rich development promised more danger than gain. If it takes small pains to observe in this first period of naivety the first buds of almost all the departments of theology, it cannot be said that at that time theology had already matured as a self-conscious power in its organic unity. For this the needed data were wanting; the element of genius was too largely absent from the persons; and where this genius was unmistakably present in men like Origen and in a few teachers in the North African school, it soon showed itself top-heavy, and by its one sidedness became heretical. The growth was too early and too exuberant, but there was no depth of soil, and because the development in the root was unequal, this element of genius soon outgrew its own strength. There was conflict between a twofold life- and world view, which undoubtedly governed the general state of things, but the first issue in this struggle with Paganism is owing to other factors than intellectual superiority. And in this first period, which was entirely naive, theology neither attained unto a clearly conscious insight of its own position, nor to a clearly perceived antithesis in opposition to “the knowledge falsely so called.”

Hence, when, after Constantine’s appearance, Paganism withdrew, there was almost no one to perceive that the real question of difference on intellectual grounds was still unsolved, much less was it surmised that fifteen centuries later the old assailant would again war against the Church of Christ, and, armed to the teeth, would repulse her from more than half the domain which, through the course of the centuries, had appeared invincibly her own. Naively they lived in the thought that Goliath lay vanquished once and for all time, and that the Lord would return before the antithesis had also been exhibited in the world of intellect, both as a conflict of principles in the lowest depths of our existence, and differentiated above in all the branches. But however naive this first development of theology may have been, even then it showed potentially all the richness of its colors. In two respects: first, although theology is no abstract speculation,but as a positive science has its origin from life itself, in this first period it furnished a so-many sided intellectual activity, that to-day there is almost no single department of theology which does not trace its beginnings to this first period.