Friday, July 2, 2010

Primitive Christianity

In his letter "To Dr. Coke, Mr. Asbury, and our Brethren in North-America," which accompanied his The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America, John Wesley wrote, "They [American Methodists] are now at full liberty, simply to follow the Scriptures and the primitive church."  Wesley understood Methodism to be "the religion of the primitive church" (Works 3:586).  Elsewhere, Wesley spoke of the primitive church and expressed his desire that we always be imitators of theirs.

For Wesley, as I discuss in my dissertation and in my article in the upcoming Wesleyan Theological Journal, the primitive Church refers primarily to the Church of the New Testament through the first three Christian centuries.  From this, however, the term can be expanded, at times, in some circumstances, to include the fourth and even fifth Christian centuries (e.g., the Nicene formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity) (Campbell, John Wesley and Christian Antiquity, 25).

In fact, Wesley comments:  "The esteeming the writings of the first three centuries, not equally with, but next to, the Scriptures, never carried any man yet into dangerous errors, nor probably ever will.  But it has brought many out of dangerous errors . . ." (Works 3rd ed. 10:14).

During today's Morning Prayer, I sang Charles Wesley's hymn on Primitive Christianity.  The hymn, as presented in Wesley's Works is divided into two parts.  A number of the verses struck a chord with me, and I would like to share some of them.

Part I

1. Happy the souls that first believed,
To Jesus and each other cleaved,
Joined by the unction from above
In mystic fellowship of love.

2. Meek, simple followers of the Lamb,
They lived, and spake, and thought the same,
They joyfully conspired to raise
Their ceaseless sacrifice of praise.

3. With grace abundantly endued,
A pure, believing multitude,
They all were of one heart and soul,
And only love inspired the whole.

4. O what an age of golden days!
O what a choice, peculiar race!
Washed in the Lamb's all-cleansing blood,
Anointed kings and priests to God!

The rest of the hymn goes on to look for those same true followers of Christ in Wesley's own day, and he declares their true, genuine mark to be love.  The second part of the hymn, especially, pleads that God would pour out God's own love and holiness and so fill the Church of his day so that "In them . . . all mankind [might] behold How Christians lived in days of old."

I join with the Wesleys as they sing about the primitive Church, "O might my lot be cast with these."

10. Lord, if I now thy drawings feel,
And ask according to thy will,
Confirm the prayer, the seal impart,
And speak the answer to my heart.

1 comment:

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Hey great post. Part of my mission in the Church is to help United Methodists discover the Tradition of the Ancient Church. According to the discipline, the Tradtion, after Scripture, is one of our most important doctrinal sources, yet in practice very few United Methodists - even clergy - are familiar with the major teachers or writings of the early centuries.

Unlike Wesley, many of the Methodists (including clergy) I know have a strong bias towards reading only those things published in the last 20 years or so (last 5 years is even better).

I suspect this in part results from the anti-tradition/pro-innovation orientation of our seminaries (where I was once reproved for quoting at length from Luther's Commentary on Galatians in a New Testament paper; apparently Luther isn't appropriate for a "critical" and "modern" and "academic" course in New Testament theology). The whole question of whether the seminaries operate as part of the believing church or part of the secular academy (or how to do both) is one we UMs still wrestle with.

Maybe we would do well to take CS Lewis' advice (from "On Reading Old Books") and read a book more than, say, 150 years old for every recent book we read.