Though this information is easily accessible and is taught in many Bible colleges, there are still many contemporary Christians who do not know that many of the things people define as “traditional” Christian doctrine and beliefs are actually modern inventions. The Christian church today looks nothing like the early church–this is undeniable. Whether current Christians should feel any obligation to live as early Christians did, or even believe what they believed, can be debated. Is a belief or practice more authentic simply because it is more ancient? This, too, can be debated.
However, before such discussions it would be useful to clarify what Christians did and did not believe in the past. One cannot say we should return to “traditional” beliefs if we have a distorted sense of what those beliefs are. Many people assume that because a certain belief was taught to them by their parents and grandparents, that it has always been a part of Christianity. In fact, many of the so-called core tenets of contemporary evangelical Christianity date back only as long as that–to our grandparents.
I’m making no judgment as to whether these teachings are right or wrong, but I think it would be useful, at the very least, to understand the relative newness of some of these beliefs.
1. “The first two chapters of Genesis are literal.” – There were some early church leaders who believed Genesis 1 and 2 were literal historical accounts of creation. However, many of the earliest church fathers did not, including highly respected men such as Origen and St. Augustine, perhaps the most influential theologian in church history. Even Protestant leaders like John Calvin and John Wesley did not support an entirely literal reading of these chapters. (And, indeed, the Apostle Paul, himself, treated parts of Genesis as “figurative”-this is his word, not mine. See Galatians 4:21-28.) It should come as no surprise then that, as Conor Cunningham points out, the theories of Charles Darwin did not cause much of a stir when they were first presented. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1960s in the United States that a strictly literal view of Genesis surged in popularity. (Even William Jennings Bryan who, in 1925, famously prosecuted John Scopes for teaching evolution was an old earth Creationist and thus didn’t take Genesis literally, either.) Note that this fact defeats both the Young Earth Creationist view that their teachings were always held by Christians, and the atheistic view that Christians have only recently re-interpreted Genesis after it was proven to be non-scientific. Both are incorrect. Long before Darwin, Christians and Jews knew that the first two books of Genesis were presenting readers with a much more nuanced truth than a literal scientific account of creation. Genesis as science document = modern invention.
2. “The Book of Revelation refers primarily to future events.” – Despite the insistence of some contemporary pastors, most New Testament scholars agree that the Book of Revelation refers to events that have already occurred. The book was written very specifically to seven churches that existed at the time it was written, and the events recorded were said to take place imminently, not thousands of years into the future. The futurist interpretation of Revelation did not become popular until after the Protestant Reformation. For the first 1500 years of Christianity, Christian leaders primarily espoused the Preterist view (that the events occurred in the 1st and 2nd century), or Idealist view (that the book is symbolic and speaks of spiritual rather than physical realities). While some took the Historicist position (that it refers to current events throughout history, a position popularized by Reformers, and still used by some, to paint the Catholic church as the antichrist), there is no indication that Christians believed the now-popular Futurist interpretation (the Left Behind view that the Book of Revelation mostly refers to future events), until after the Protestant Reformation. All of this does not mean there aren’t principles to derive from the reading of it, as there are from the reading of the Old Testament, but the idea that it refers mostly to events yet to come is a relatively modern invention.
3. “Abortion has always been considered wrong.” – Whether rightly or wrongly, most Evangelicals did not view abortion (which was a known practice all the way back to ancient times), as problematic until the late 1970s when it became politicized by opponents of Jimmy Carter. This was some years after its legalization in the United States. During this time, Evangelicals dismissed it as a “Catholic issue.” (While Catholics have been more consistently opposed to abortion throughout history than Evangelicals and other Protestants have, the topic was more nuanced than some may realize. Augustine did not believe life or the human soul began at conception.) As discussed in a must-read article by Randall Balmer, conservative Evangelical magazines such as Christianity Today did not characterize abortion as a sin as recently as 1968. This was a common Evangelical position well into the 1970s. At the time of Roe v. Wade, W.A. Criswell, the former President of the Southern Baptist convention, said, “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person.”
4. “Drinking alcohol is wrong.” – I’m sure most people know this one by now, but Jesus and his disciples consumed alcohol. Yes, there are biblical teachings against drunkenness, but there are absolutely no commandments for total abstention. Even socially conservative Christian groups like the Mennonites routinely drank in moderation until they came under the influence of fundamentalist teaching in the 1920s. When the Mennonites moved to Czarist Russia in 18th century, they negotiated with the imperial powers for the right to distill brandy; it was listed along with other guarantees such as the right to worship as they pleased and abstain from military service. Plus, Christian monks all over Europe have been brewing and drinking beer for centuries.
5. “The Biblical Canon Has Always Been Considered Untouchable.” – Of course any one of you can do some research on the formation of the canon, how each book was selected and so on. I’m not going to argue the books were chosen merely to appease the emperor, as some have suggested, or that it was a random haphazard guess. There’s good reason to believe most of the canon was established quite early. However, I think some Christians might be surprised to know that, even after its establishment, the canon was not always considered untouchable or unchangeable by church leaders. It is not simply modern liberal theologians and scholars who wish to rip the Bible apart. 16th century Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, for example, argued the Book of Esther should be part of the Apocrypha, and that Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation should be eliminated from the Bible completely. Right or wrong, the point is the canon is not as set in stone as some would suggest. Likewise, even if all Christians agreed on the books to be included, it’s quite obvious, given the number of churches, that they certainly do not agree on how these books should be interpreted and applied.
Again, I’m not at this time, arguing in favour or against any of these positions, only pointing out that these beliefs are new, not old, and therefore cannot be characterized as traditional, unchangeable, components of Christianity. Some of these ideas are quite likely to be viewed by future generations as anomalies, quirks of the 20th century, or perhaps, even – gasp! – heresy. Say they’re right, say they’re wrong, but don’t say they’re traditional.