The early Christian theologian Gregory of Nyssa (c.335–c.395) once complained that it was nigh on impossible to buy bread at the market or even go to the baths without finding oneself asked whether or not God the Son is equal to or less than God the Father. His was a day when Trinitarian questions dominated the public discourse of the churches. Twelve hundred years later, during the Reformation, the major questions had to do with how one is saved and the marks of the true church. In fact, in certain contexts, refusal to confess the doctrine of transubstantiation was enough to get one killed. But these questions of Trinitarian theology or soteriology or the doctrine of the church are not the most burning issues of our day. That place is reserved for anthropological concerns: what it means to be human and questions of human sexuality. Ours is an anthropological moment.
It would be easy to think that the church has never been in such a place before — but such a thought would be wrong. The earliest heresy which consumed much of the church’s energy, Gnosticism, was first and foremost concerned with anthropological matters. Gnostics, who first appeared in the era of the New Testament (see 1 John 4 and 2 John, for example), denied the goodness of the material realm, leading them to deny the goodness of the human body and thus the possibility of the incarnation and bodily resurrection. Their affirmation of salvation by knowledge was intimately tied to a fascination with answering the question of personal identity — all of which sounds so current. Some of the authoritative writings of the Gnostics, such as the so-called Gospel of Philip, argued that the fall of humanity took place when there was the separation of male and female from what was originally an androgynous person. The goal of salvation was overcoming this sexual differentiation. The response of Christian authors like Irenaeus was to affirm the goodness of the original creation of male and female and thus the goodness of sexual differentiation, and by implication, the goodness of sexuality.
Again, during the time of the Reformation, the Reformers had major concerns about what had been central to the medieval ideal of spirituality, namely, celibacy. The Reformers asserted that the married state could be as holy a context in which to live out Christian discipleship as celibacy, and thus marriage was a hot issue during the sixteenth century. The Reformers’ marriages — such as those of Martin Bucer, Martin Luther, and John Calvin — were regarded as scandalous by the Roman Church and forced the Reformers to defend the propriety of the married estate for pastors. Divorce also became a major issue of the era, and Calvin in particular crafted an enormous amount of church legislation about divorce and remarriage.
In other words, our anthropological moment is not without precedent. And wise words from the Christian past about what it means to be truly human are thus of ongoing value and help. Such are the “ancient paths” (Jer. 6:16) that this column will explore in coming issues.
Michael A.G. Haykin is chair and professor of church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies at Southern.
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