Sometimes we as modern people are quite fond of making a distinction between the head and the heart, between, for example, what goes on at seminary and “what really matters.” We send our young(ish) men off to this small building in west Hamilton where they learn about Dogmatics, and Symbolics, and Hermeneutics, and Poimenics. While those men argue about how far we can go with applying the typological hermeneutic to Scripture, the rest of us get up in the morning and build houses, and milk cows, and mow lawns, and take care of kids. You know, the stuff of real life.
In the first place, sure; there is some truth to that. My son doesn’t need to know how to exegete Tiddler the Fish, and Arenda’s not interested in the final cause of my moustache (which is, of course, contemplative beauty). But if there’s some truth there, it’s also a short-sighted truth. Because these concepts, abstract and austere as they may be, have a very real and pronounced effect upon the world in which we live. The material that gets read about, lectured about, and debated at seminary has been paid for in the past with blood, with fire, and with a great deal of passion. So I’ve chosen a trio of historical tales to illustrate the raw and even adventurous character of the faith that’s been handed down to us.
The first comes from the council of Nicea, in 325 AD. Three hundred and eighteen bishops had gathered to pass judgment on the teachings of Arius, teachings that claimed that Jesus was not equal in divinity to the Father. You’ve probably heard this phrase: “one iota of difference.” That phrase actually comes from the debates that took place at Nicea, in which one iota made all the difference between sound doctrine and the very lies of hell. The words homoousios and homoiousios are similar, as you can see; the only difference being the letter “i,” which in Greek is called an iota. The first word means “of one substance,” which is what we find in our Nicene creed, and the second means “of similar substance.” So, was Jesus of one substance with the Father, or merely similar to Him? The answer to that question is the difference between us and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
But there’s a more important point I want to make, and it has less to do with what the bishop’s were arguing about and more to do with the bishops themselves. That is, while some of them contended for the “i”-less homoousios, they may have actually been eyeless. Because what happened at Nicea was unprecedented in history. Until this time, Christians had either been actively persecuted or grudgingly tolerated by the Roman authorities. Either way, there hadn’t been much in the way of societal acceptance. But at Nicea the Roman emperor himself, Constantine, was present and gave imperial endorsement to the proceedings. For the first time in history, for good or for ill, Christianity was supported by the political class and became a political force. Many of the bishops present, however, had lived through times of persecution and many had been tortured under Constantine’s predecessors. The records tell us that a substantial number of bishops who showed up had been mutilated in the past, bearing the marks of imperial persecution on their bodies. So, next time you read the Nicene Creed in church, understand that it isn’t simply a dry doctrinal statement; but imagine the missing eyes, fingers, tongues, and limbs of the men who passed that on to you.
The second example is more directly associated with Constantine himself. In the Abbotsford Canadian Reformed Church, there is a large symbol at the front that looks like a combined “X” and “P.” It is actually a combined “χ” and “ρ,” which are the Greek letters chi and rho. Those are the first two letters of χριστος which, as you can tell, is Christ in Greek. Anyways, the reason that the symbol at the front of Abbotsford church is fantastic is because of the following picture:
That is the symbol that Constantine’s men apparently wore on their shields as they fought in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. The battle changed history, as after that point Constantine converted the Roman empire into a Christian one. The symbol was a very real acknowledgment of Constantine’s belief that his armies were fighting for the cause of heaven itself. He was probably mistaken in that noble belief, but it was noble nonetheless. So next time you’re in Abbotsford church you can look up at that symbol and think of it as an enormous shield, maybe even the shield of faith from Ephesians.
The final example is less dramatic, but no less devotional. An American theologian whom you’ve probably never heard of, Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, was the last of the great theologians who taught at Princeton University in New Jersey. He had much more of an influence on North American Presbyterianism than he did on our more European heritage; but this only means that your Christian neighbours have probably heard of him, and not Schilder. What is important for this blog post, though, was his loyalty toward his wife. Not long after they were married his wife was struck by lightning, and became an invalid. And this noble man cared for his sick wife for forty years, caring for a wife who in no substantial way could love him back. But such was the force of his beliefs, the beliefs that he expounded daily in an intellectual environment, beliefs that probably sound irrelevant to practical people; such was the force of his beliefs that he loved his wife with an eye to the holiness, goodness, and purity of his God. No doubt when he passed into glory he met his beloved wife again, and they could rejoice together in pure love before the throne of their God.
Maybe you found these accounts moving, maybe not. I did, and I think they’re all part of what makes God’s providence and the Christian faith exciting things to study. Creeds are important, church history is important, and doctrine is important; and each of those have led very real people to make decisions that had profound impacts on their lives and the lives of others. So you never know, the men who sit in those classrooms in that building in Hamilton may one day run into battle all blue-painted and Wallace-like, even if the battle takes place on blogs or in books, and may just change the course of history because they insisted upon a certain point of dogmatics, or resisted the application of an errant hermeneutic. Probably not, but studying church history does make you dream.