|An Apology for Discerning Counterfeits
AN APOLOGY FOR DISCERNING COUNTERFEITS
By Peter Longley, MA (Cantab)
Author of The Magdala Trilogy
The following is based on a reading for meditation from 1 John 4:1-6 found in the daily series Every Day with Jesus.
'Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God...'
In John's day, as indeed in ours, there were false prophets who infiltrated the Church and produced great consternation. They claimed to speak with divine authority, but what they taught was heresy. Some of them tried to reinterpret Christianity in a way that would be more acceptable to the world. To this end they stripped the message of the offending cross, and reduced the person of Christ to the level of a human being. John, therefore, laid down this clear guideline on how to judge errorists.
'This is how you can recognize the spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.'
Christians must realize that there are spiritual influences loose in the world which do not emanate from God. Satan is busy undermining Christian truth and doctrine all over the world. A minister who speaks from a pulpit and attacks the deity of Jesus Christ, although he may appear to be highly respectable, intelligent and even pious, is, at that moment, albeit unconsciously, the voice and expression of deception—not unlike the Gnostics of John's time.
You may have listened to such a person in recent weeks or months. Let us not quibble about this, for there is such a thing as misguided tolerance of false prophets and teachers. One basis of testing is quite simple; it is the issue of the full deity of our Lord Jesus Christ. If a person will not confess that Jesus is God's eternal Son, the Word made flesh, then whoever he is, whatever theological degrees he has gained or whatever position in ecclesiastical society he may hold, he is not a Christian.
As a theologian with a Master's degree from Cambridge University, and one who was for many years a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal church, I will have to agree. If a person will not confess that Jesus is God's eternal Son, the Word made flesh, then whoever he is, whatever theological degrees he has gained or whatever position in ecclesiastical society he may hold, he is not a Christian. This is one reason that I never became an ordained clergyman and when asked if I am a Christian, I usually reply: "Probably not, at least in the conservative conventional sense, but Jesus Christ is central to my life and my faith is Christo-centric." Whole churches, considering themselves to be within Christianity, fall into this same category, and if not erroneous in doctrine and dogma are fully aware that they are harboring many skeptics. Is it wrong to be a skeptic? I think not, so long as within Christianity such a skeptic remains Christo-centric.
So, let's examine the background to these Johannine Pastoral letters that were circulated in Asia Minor in the middle of the second century AD. First, we can be pretty certain they were not written or dictated by the apostle John. To have been by the apostle's hand, these pastorals would have to have been the work of a man of at least 120 years of age, considering John to have been at least fifteen as a fisherman son of Zebedee at the time Jesus called together the twelve around 28 AD. Such a man would almost certainly be blind and probably senile. Life expectancy in the first century was probably only 50 years at best. These pastorals are not the work of John, but they are representative of the Ephesus church in Asia Minor that has long been associated with John the Apostle. We have no proof that John lived in Ephesus, but we do know that the gospel in his name was a product of the Ephesus church. Again, as this gospel, on current scholarship, is almost certainly no earlier than 100 AD and more likely about 120 AD, it is unlikely to be the work of the apostle either. It might, however, have been based on an unknown earlier work that we would like to call proto-John that possibly was written by the apostle, or whoever the 'beloved' disciple may have been. We can be pretty sure that much of the Book of Revelation was written on Patmos, not far from Ephesus, an island in the Aegean sea off the coast of Asia Minor. Because of its apocalyptic content, it is pretty safe to assume that the Book of Revelation was written during or after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and could thus be the work of the apostle John in old age. In Scripture, one of the principal leads to the association of this Johannine literature with the apostle John comes from our Lord's command to his mother and the 'beloved' disciple for John to take care of his mother. From a very early age, Christianity has believed the Virgin Mary to have lived her later life in Ephesus of Asia Minor and to have died there.
Without written documentation we are in a world of speculation in the first century AD. The letters of Paul are the only documents that we have, but they do show St. Paul's fears and care for the Ephesus church. It may be that the Virgin Mary and the 'beloved' disciple established the first colony of Judaic Christians in Ephesus, leading up to that possible fictitious work proto-John. None of the gospels as we know them were written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, not even the first, St. Mark, that modern scholarship considers to have been written about 75 AD. The Ephesus church may have, therefore, been an early Johannine church in which the Virgin Mary may have held a prominent position. Later, St. Paul brings this church closer into line with his other Asia Minor churches. Some of this is found in the history of St. Luke that is the sequel to his gospel, The Acts of the Apostles, but this is not necessarily a terribly accurate history, possibly not written until as late as 120 AD and no earlier than 95 AD. In the Acts, Ephesus is primarily seen as a Pauline community rather than a Johannine one.
What we do know, from the pastoral letters John 1,2 and 3, is that a serious schism was apparent in second century Ephesus and its surrounding Asia Minor churches. The Pastorals are, therefore, primarily sermons from Ephesus to solidify the creed of the Ephesus Churches that had as its fundamental the Johannine thought: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (St. John 1:1-5, 14)
It is these opening verses of St. John that define the main difference between the fourth gospel and the synoptics, St Mark, St. Matthew and St Luke. The gospel of John has a constant Christological thread allying the person of Jesus exclusively with the person of God—the Divine Incarnation. The synoptic gospels concentrate far more on the Jewish messiah, 'the anointed one' who will be the savior of Israel, establishing a new law in the Kingdom of God. Each of the gospels, however, represents the viewpoint of particular late first century and second century early Christian communities. None are the eyewitness accounts of apostles. They are not strictly speaking histories, but viewpoints of creed placed into quasi-historical frameworks that often don't agree. By the mid-second century, we now know that there were many more gospels reflecting congregational viewpoints, many of which were found in the texts of the Nag Hammadi library. These have often been referred to as the Gnostic gospels.
By the second century, the early Christian communities had moved from the simpler gospel of the Kingdom of God into a raging debate over the Divinity of Christ. The Johannine pastorals are a part of this debate. The Ephesus church, standing for the total Divinity of Jesus as the only truth, was competing with other thoughts about our Lord's Divinity. Popular was the notion that Jesus was a man whom God had chosen and whose spirit He had poured into him, somewhat manifested in St. Mark's gospel. Some took this further and maintained that the passion and suffering of our Lord was never his historical experience, but merely our perceived experience, apparent rather than real. Such fanciful ideas developed to suggest that Christ miraculously escaped the ignominy of death, by Judas Iscariot or Simon of Cyrene changing places with him just before the crucifixion. Then, on the opposite end of the spectrum there were those who saw Jesus no different from them, truly human, but with a message of Divinity that with our acceptance can embrace us all—we can all become Divine, one with God the Father, once we live in the Kingdom of God.
The writer of John 1, and the later works John 2 and John 3, is doing all he can to purge such beliefs from the Ephesus school of churches in Asia Minor. Ephesus stands for the tradition that the 'Word was made flesh' and not that the Word entered human flesh. Hence the firm command: By this you know the spirit of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the spirit of God; every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not of God. (I John 4:2-3) This is the church of the crucifixion and resurrection, not as historic facts or miracles to prove that Jesus was God, but as God's sacrifice to bring us into his love. There is little evidence that many Christian communities of the first century really saw the crucifixion and resurrection this way, emphasis being placed on the gifts of the spirit and the Kingdom of God. The cross does not itself even become a symbol of Christianity until the third century, the fish and the Chi Ro being earlier symbols, along with the praying woman or angel of death usually found in the earliest sepulchres and catacombs. In the Johannine tradition, however, the cross and resurrection are becoming paramount. Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because he has given us of His own Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent His Son as the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in Him and He in God. So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. ( I John 4:7-16)
This is the creed of the Ephesus Johannine church of the second century. At this time in the second century, however, this was not the creed of many who called themselves Christians.
It was, of course, this Johannine interpretation of the Christology of Christ that ultimately won through the battles of dogma and doctrine that surrounded this continuing church debate over the exact nature of Jesus' Divinity through the first three centuries. Marcionites, Docetists, and ultimately Arians, all fell by the wayside, and at Nicea the official creed of the Christian faith was established in 323 AD. However, the adoption of the Nicean Creed was a consensus counciliar decision, we may well believe, guided by the Holy Spirit, but it does not for certain mean that differing opinions over the Deity of Christ as expressed in the scattered churches of the first three centuries were Satanic. Each church believed in its creed.
The discovery of the Nag Hammadi Texts in upper Egypt in 1945 brought many of these opposing and different beliefs about Christ's Deity to light. The Nicean viewpoint, with minor adjustments had been Christianity's creed for seventeen hundred years. Not even the Reformation could really change its essentials. Now, however, we are looking freshly at original documents within this early Credal debate.
Circumstances are very different today to those of the fourth century when our creed was formulated. In the last century and a half, Christianity has come up against enormous scientific and mathematical challenges from Darwin to Einstein and Stephen Hawking. Although science is no closer to explaining God Almighty as the primary Creator God, in fact, on the contrary has only added to this mystery, it has played a significant role in creating skeptics among Christians when it comes to the Deity of Jesus. The primary creator God is now largely stripped of his human attributes, no longer scientifically seen as a God of human form up there in some heavenly realm, who could logically send his Divine Son as an Incarnation of His Divinity in human form to us on earth. Mankind is scientifically no longer seen as the unique creation of God in His own image, but is now seen as an evolving species among many. Interestingly enough, however, with these new scientific assumptions comes a new concept of mankind's Divinity. If in a post-Einstein world we can envision ourselves as multi-dimensional beings outside the restrictions of the time line that we perceive to be our experience of life on earth, spiritually we become at one with the whole universe at all times. In this light, can we begin to interpret the message of Jesus in a different way? Can Jesus be the Cosmic Christ who gives us the message that we are all God's cosmic Divine creatures, of His, the first cause's, essence? Surprisingly, this is getting close to some second century Gnostic thinking even though in the second century such thinking was not based in today's contemporary scientific theory. It is not surprising, therefore, that skeptics might be looking at such explanations for Jesus' Divinity, in this light, and therefore see a revival of the buried Gnostic gospels as relevant or certainly of interest.
With the fast current changes in scientific, mathematical, and spiritual philosophical thought, Christianity is challenged. It is this that has made some, even from within Christianity, call for new thinking about the Deity of Christ. I think of the title of Bishop John Shelby Spong's provocative book, Why Christianity must change or die? Of course, as an Anglican Bishop he had a platform, and there are those who might not call him a Christian because of his stance. Peter J. Gomes of Harvard University endorsed Spong's work with these words.
"Bishops today are thought to be harmless ceremonial figures who do little, say less, and exhibit a modicum of administrative skill. Once upon a time, however, bishops were the spiritual and intellectual artillery of the church militant. With a courage and an imagination unintimidated by conventional wisdom, Bishop Spong has chosen to fight for the reconciliation of the mind and heart of the church in the contemporary world. Refusing to accept the status-quo as the equivalent of Divine truth, Spong stands in the great iconoclastic tradition of St. Augustine, Bishop Colenso, and John A.T.Robinson, each of whom riled the settled convictions of the day and who, for their troubles, were regarded as turbulent priests. This turbulent bishop, regarded by many as a threat to faith, has made it possible for many more to believe with integrity."
Bishop Spong has also been heavily defended by the much loved Archbishop of Capetown, Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu, who writes of Bishop Spong's autobiography Here I stand as: "The poignant account of someone who loves the church deeply and has frequently been misunderstood."
We see here, three great late twentieth century Anglican Bishops, from England (Robinson), the United States (Spong), and South Africa (Tutu) who have made a stand for theological and social change in Christianity's status-quo. There are many others who are standing and who have stood for theological and social change within Christianity. Are they all to be labeled as unknowing agents of Satan? And, indeed, the very notion of Satan is a matter that is also now much in debate in its clash with contemporary thinking on good, evil, and morality. We no longer live in a black and white world and realize that much of our concept of good and evil is centered on our own code for survival.
Outside Christianity, there are secular and New Age movements that also try to grapple with the reconciliation of spirituality and fast moving scientific theory. However, such movements are usually not Christo-centric. Personally, in my apology for discerning counterfeits, I do not count these in. Christianity is about Jesus Christ. There is no Christianity without Jesus Christ, although there may be innate goodness. I believe in Jesus and I count myself with the curious scholars who are doing their best to preserve the relevance and reality of Jesus in our fast changing world. Just as in the second century, the Deity of Jesus is currently conceived in many differing ways, and our greater knowledge of second century documents has spurred our curiosity.
It is to this end that I started to write my Magdala Trilogy that is a fictitious account of the life and times of Mary Magdalene. In the Biblical Scriptures little is told of Mary Magdalene other than her rather surprising presence at the cross in the crucifixion accounts within the canonical gospels and a handful of references to this in the letters of St. Paul. In the Nag Hammadi Texts, however, Mary Magdalene is given more prominence and for some is seen as Jesus' most important disciple. This could account for her presence at the cross, otherwise somewhat unexplained in the canonical gospels.
I have loosely used these sources to put together an imaginary life of Mary Magdalene that might see her as a reliable source for an interpretation of Jesus' Divinity. Such an interpretation might have been just as real to her followers in the first and second centuries as to the followers of the Johannine school of thought in Ephesus. By the time of Nicea, however, most thoughts on the prominence of Mary Magdalene in the early church were lost, possibly because she may not have ascribed to the idea that Jesus was the Incarnate Son of God, but that maybe Jesus, possibly her lover, taught her the concept of the Divinity of all mankind. This places her closer to the Gnostic texts than to the Christianity that won out in the fourth century at Nicea. I stress that this work is a novel—a Christo-centric novel that is used to explain an alternative viewpoint on the possible Deity of Jesus Christ. It so happens that this viewpoint is also somewhat in tune with the many who have become skeptics within conservative conventional Christianity and yet wish to remain Christo-centric.
Given the creed of Nicea and later councils, I accept that in the conventional sense, much that I write and sincerely struggle with takes me outside the conservative conventional definition of Christian. However, having passed beyond a belief in a primitive struggle for good and evil being played out by superhuman figures of God and Satan, I do believe that Jesus has taught me that I have that Divine spark within me that can ultimately reunite my innate energy with the primal first cause—the Creator God, God the Father. Is that so very different, semantics apart, from the message of I John:
Little children, you are of God. We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. (I John 4:4,6-8) Jesus taught us to love one another as ourselves as a pre-requisite for membership in the Kingdom of God. In its broadest sense this is the 'Christian' Kingdom that Jesus himself described as not of this world.