Thoughts

The Lost God of Jesus IV

THE CHRISTIAN BETRAYAL OF JESUS

Within 300 years of his death and resurrection – upon which the Christian world had founded its faith, Jesus and the God of grace, peace and nonviolence which he represented, were betrayed afresh. Once more, The Compassionate One became engulfed by the violent concepts of the god we see in the Old Testament. As a result, Jesus was rejected by a Christianity which claimed to represent him. Not only so, but as can be seen clearly from history, even down to more recent times, people began to view this god as one who required bloodshed – even human sacrifice, in order to stay the hand of his terror and judgement.

Growing from the mustard seed, sociologists estimate that by the end of the first century, there were less than ten thousand Christians in the Roman Empire. We know from the letters of the Apostle Paul that most churches in his day still met in homes (Romans 16 for example – c AD 57). By the year 200, the number appears to have increased to a little more than two hundred thousand – still well under one per cent of the total population. However, two generations later, by the year 300, Christians are said to have made up some 10 per cent of the population – approximately 6 million. Some estimate that by AD 350, there were as many as 34 million Christians in the known world!

This was at a period in history when, it is important to remember, Christians lived under severe persecution. Furthermore, in something of a question mark for some of my ‘Sola Scriptura’ (Latin for ‘by scripture alone’) friends within my own ‘Reformed’ culture and background, this growth took place in the absence of the ‘New Testament’ or biblical ‘Canon’ as we know it today. For sure texts were in circulation, the letters of Paul being one example. The first ‘Gospel’ in our current Bible – the Gospel of Mark probably dates from c. AD 66–70, Matthew and Luke around AD 85–90, and John AD 90–110. However these were not the only books and ‘Gospels’ in circulation – the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas, are both believed to go back to a very early tradition. However, it was not until the Council of Carthage in AD 397 that the twenty-seven books of our current New Testament were officially agreed upon. Both then and in more times the inclusion of some books were hotly debated.

In the 16th century, Martin Luther argued that many of the received texts of the New Testament lacked the authority of the Gospels, and therefore proposed removing some books from the New Testament, including Hebrews, James, Jude, and the Book of Revelation.

The writings which circulated in the infant church were also diverse in their nature and theology and many would later be rejected as ‘heretical’ and subsequently burned – not being discovered again until 1945 in the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi (The Nag Hammadi library). Furthermore, the Church itself was also a divided entity from a very early date with a multiplicity of leaders, groups and competing theologies. The Apostle Paul himself hints at this very early on when he writes (c. AD 53–54) about divisions in the Corinthian Church – ‘one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,”’. And as the church grew so also did the diversity of its leaders and theologies.

So in this patchwork of communities with their various leaders and teachings, what was it that precipitated the marked growth of the Christian community, particularly between 200 – AD 350? The simple answer is their lifestyle and behaviour! These early Christians did not point to a book – they did not have one. Nor did they point to a set of doctrinal beliefs – many of these had not yet been formulated. They pointed instead to a person and a lifestyle based on simple faith in the non-violent Jesus – and showed the reality of their faith in Him by the way they behaved! The late Tim Keller wrote of this period of Christianity –

They taught forgiveness and withheld retaliation against opponents. In a shame-and-honor culture in which vengeance was expected, this was unheard of. Christians didn’t ridicule or taunt their opponents, let alone repay them with violence. While it was expected to care for the poor of one’s family or tribe, Christians’ “promiscuous” help given to all poor — even of other races and religions, as taught in Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) — was unprecedented. During the urban plagues, Christians characteristically didn’t flee the cities but stayed and cared for the sick and dying of all groups, often at the cost of their own lives.

Furthermore, in a world where babies were regularly thrown onto garbage heaps, to either die or be taken by traders into slavery or prostitution – Christians rescued them and took them in.

The internationally renowned theologian and author Ronald J. Sider further notes –

The earliest Christians embraced Jesus’ message of peace. Indeed, up until the time of Constantine, the early church taught that Jesus forbade his followers to kill. The most profound theological foundation for this conviction was the cross – that Christians should love, not kill, their enemies, as Jesus had shown them.

He goes on –

No extant Christian text from before Constantine says military service is ever legitimate. Numerous treatises state explicitly that killing is wrong, others that Christians should not join the military; Jesus’ teaching to love one’s enemy is connected to Christians’ being peaceful, ignorant of war, opposed to attacking others. The passage in Isaiah about swords being beaten into ploughshares recurs frequently. The message in all remaining Christian writings of the era is clear. Killing is always wrong for Christians. Since some of his (Constantine) rivals favoured continued persecution, it is hardly surprising that Christians cheered Constantine’s military victories as well as his political ones, or that many joined his army. Within a hundred years, only Christians could serve in the Roman Army.

It was something of a shock to me in my naiveté many years ago to discover that most people, leaders and otherwise, within my fundamentalist evangelical background did not hold to Jesus’ teaching of nonviolence. Most in fact appear to support the ‘just war’ theory developed by Augustine of Hippo (AD 354 – AD 430). The dates here are interesting, in that up until the time of Augustine, Christians opposed all violence. However, once the church was officially accepted by the Roman Empire, as outlined in the Edict of Milan (313 AD), things began to change.

Later in history it was the church itself which launched its ‘just wars’. The Crusades were presented as ‘holy wars’ directed by Christ to capture and free the Holy Land from centuries of Muslim control. Prominent church leaders summoned Christians to slaughter ‘the infidels’ controlling the Holy Land – Jews as well as Muslims were killed in their thousands.

But there is also evidence that the light of the true Jesus survived through our history and down to more modern times. Although within so-called ‘Protestant traditions’ – Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican – ‘just war’ was affirmed and taught others disagreed, prominent among them Anabaptists and the Moravains who were, in their day, the largest missionary movement in the world.

From its beginning in the early twentieth century, the Assemblies of God, today’s largest Pentecostal denomination, occupied a strong pacifist position. This remained the official position of the Assemblies of God until 1967.’

(Sider).

Prominent among more recent followers of the non-violent Jesus were the famous evangelists Dwight L. Moody, Catherine Booth, cofounder of the Salvation Army and Charles Haddon Spurgeon, one of the most popular preachers of the mid-nineteenth century.

Interestingly, I recently read an article on a fellow Scotsman – the late Finlay Beaton (1883–1974) a highly regarded Free Presbyterian Church Elder in Inverness, Scotland, my home town and from the very church and denomination of my maternal forebears. Finlay refused to fight in WW1. As a result, he was initially fined and then imprisoned. He was court-martialled on 14th June 1916 and incarcerated in Inverness Civil Prison from 8th July 1916. A further court martial in Inverness on 28th November 1916 resulted in a sentence to hard labour; he was in Wandsworth Civil Prison from 13th December 1916 until 28th April 1917. A court-martial the following month in Inverness saw him sentenced to two years’ hard labour. He was in Aberdeen Civil Prison from 14th November 1917 until 19th May 1918. He was subsequently sent to Wormwood Scrubs, not being discharged until 9th April 1919. (See – Finlay Beaton (1883–1974) Exhorter, chronicler, and eschatologist by Norman Campbell, Scottish Reformation Society Historical Journal, 13 (2023), 177-238). Such is the cost, and sometimes much worse, for daring to follow Jesus. However, it must be said, that while Norman was so directed by his conscience most within his small denomination were not.

But it is not in the area of war and conscience that we see the abandonment of The God of Jesus most starkly but, within religion itself, where we see so many ‘green on blue’ attacks. It is a matter of historical record that thousands of peace-loving believers were drowned, beheaded or burned at the stake by Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed ‘Christians’, for the theological differences – especially the sin of rejecting infant baptism.

The Washington Post’ in a 2004 article, recorded –

In the early 16th century, groups of European Christians started splitting from the Roman Catholic Church in what is now known as the Protestant Reformation. But while Protestants and Catholics were at odds, they had one thing in common: Anabaptism had to be eliminated. The Reformed Christians drowned Felix Manz, the first of thousands of Anabaptists martyred over the next two centuries. The Catholics burned at the stake Michael Sattler, author of the first Anabaptist confession of faith. Even Martin Luther, who is credited with ushering in the Reformation, urged the execution of all Anabaptists as heretics.

Boring down to the heroes of my own cultural and religious tradition – ‘Reformed Calvinism’,  things are little better. In a recent article relating to John Calvin, Paul T. Penley has noted –

The Consistory, a church court that oversaw the discipline of the citizens of Geneva, met every Thursday to review cases. John Calvin led the court. Although the Consistory did not have the power to imprison, exile, or kill those who were guilty, Calvin could still convince the city magistrates to wield such power when his theological opponents contradicted him. When Jacques Gruet, a theologian with differing views, placed a letter in Calvin’s pulpit calling him a hypocrite, he was arrested, tortured for a month and beheaded on July 26, 1547. Gruet’s own theological book was later found and burned along with his house while his wife was thrown out into the street to watch. Michael Servetus, a Spaniard, physician, scientist and Bible scholar, suffered a worse fate. He was Calvin’s longtime acquaintance who resisted the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. However, he angered Calvin by returning a copy of Calvin’s Institutes with critical comments in the margins. So what did Calvin do? You can read his resolution from a personal letter he wrote to a friend: Servetus offers to come hither, if it be agreeable to me. But I am unwilling to pledge my word for his safety, for if he shall come, I shall never permit him to depart alive, provided my authority be of any avail.” – Letter to Farel, 13 February 1546. The next time Servetus attended Calvin’s Sunday preaching service on a visit, Calvin had him arrested and charged with heresy. The 38 official charges included rejection of the Trinity and infant baptism. The city magistrates condemned him to death. Calvin pleaded for Servetus to be beheaded instead of the more brutal method of burning at the stake, but to no avail. On October 27, 1553, green wood was used for the fire so Servetus would be slowly baked alive from the feet upward. For 30 minutes he screamed for mercy and prayed to Jesus as the fire worked its way up his body to burn the theology book strapped to his chest as a symbol of his heresy. Calvin summarized the execution this way:​ “Servetus . . . suffered the penalty due to his heresies, but was it by my will? Certainly his arrogance destroyed him not less than his impiety. And what crime was it of mine if our Council, at my exhortation, indeed, but in conformity with the opinion of several Churches, took vengeance on his execrable blasphemies?” – Calvin. In November 1552 the Geneva Council declared Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion to be a “holy doctrine which no man might speak against.” Disagreeing with Calvin’s view of God was a violation warranting the death penalty according to the way John Calvin interpreted Leviticus 24:16. The Geneva City Council records describe one verdict where a man who publicly protested against John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination was flogged at all the city’s main intersections and then expelled (“The Minutes Book of the Geneva City Council, 1541-59,” translated by Stefan Zweig, Erasmus: The Right to Heresy). John Calvin argued: “Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death, knowingly and willingly incur their guilt. It is not human authority that speaks, it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for His Church.”

At their roots and in their legalistic and violent dogma none of these religious movements, including Calvin and the denominations that were formed in his wake, represent the Father God of Jesus. Yet, I hear ‘Evangelicals’ in Scotland, Charismatics and Pentecostals among them, whether through ignorance or otherwise I do not know, when they pray for revival, harken back to the days of the ‘Reformation’ and ‘Covenanting Scotland’ as examples to be emulated. May God save us from both! Let me say very clearly here I am not judging individuals within these movements, they are my own heritage – and many of all ranks within them see through the inconsistencies of their tradition.

But we do not need to go as far as Geneva to see the pernicious results of a blind adherence to historic Calvinism – the same happened here in Scotland. In stark contrast to the Jesus who forgave the adulterous woman of his day – the Church of Scotland Presbytery of Perth in 1585, condemned Helen Watson and David Gray, both married and who were allegedly caught in adultery, to death. They were subsequently hanged by the civil authorities in front of Watson’s mother’s front gate. The fact that there was ample physical evidence that Helen Watson had been assaulted and raped by Gray, a notorious abuser of women, was deliberately ignored by the Church authorities. This might be an extreme example (among many lesser ones) – but it proves the point and is indicative of a Church (if we can call it such) that was so far removed from the compassion and mercy of the Father God of Jesus as to be unrecognisable as truly honouring the name ‘Christian’. There is also strong evidence to suggest that Watson and Gray were in fact sacrifices to a god whom the people of Perth held responsible for a plague which was then ravaging their community. Historian Margo Todd notes –

Context matters: since the fall of 1584, the black death and a concomitant famine had been raging in Perth. The session made quite clear its presumption of the close relationship between plague and adultery in its ‘supplication … unto the bailies’ for an inquest: they sought ‘justice according to God’s law and the laws of this country lest that otherwise being long winking at their wickedness, God of his justice plague both us and you with the rest of this city as miserable experience has begun to teach us.

After obtaining the required commission the Perth Kirk Session, on 9th September 1598, burned to death three women – Janet Robertson, Marion MacAusc and Bessie Ireland at South Inch, Perth. It had been alleged the three women were witches. Anyone trying to harbour or help a banished person or one under the censure of the church would themselves be severely punished – even if the miscreant was one of your children.

And we must not forget that it was only in 1727 in Dornoch, here in the Highlands of Scotland, that the last person in the UK was burnt to death for witchcraft. Janet Horne, an old lady who was disabled and possibly senile, was accused and convicted of being a witch. The final nail in her coffin was mispronouncing one word in the Lord’s Prayer when asked to repeat it!

However, many will argue that things have surely improved in 2024! Granted, religious authorities today are restrained by the current weight of national Law and I am not questioning the fact that few would wish to return to the violence of our religious history. However, I have personally known Calvinists who have said they would support a reinstatement of the grotesque punishments of the Old Testament. Once again – the god of such people is not the God and Father of Jesus – of that I am certain.

I bring all these things to the light today for one reason – because, in reality, I am convinced, that even 2000 years after the life, death and resurrection of the true Jesus, Peacemaker, and incarnation of God the Father, he has been virtually forgotten. Religion, and most religious people today, at least in my culture, still, deep down, view God as a tyrant who needs to be appeased and not a God of love, overwhelming mercy and true grace.

To be continued .. 

 

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