In the first and second centuries, the leadership capacity of a Christian was seen in whether they had been with Jesus or had been associated with one of the original disciples rather than what they believed. What they taught or believed was overshadowed by whom they had been with. Relationship with Jesus or his disciples, not what one believed, was the foundation of faith. Christianity was never meant to be explained; it was meant to be lived. Over the centuries attempts to explain, systematize and codify Christianity has distorted Christianity.
The shift in emphasis came in the third and fourth centuries with the emergence of the seven great Councils of early Christianity. In these Councils the basic motifs of Christianity were changed from the dynamic, historical Hebrew thought form of the Old and New Testaments to the classical metaphysical and ontological theism of Western and Greek thought. Although it was born out of an oriental culture, Christianity found itself being interpreted and defended by a Hellenistic culture that did not think like the biblical writers. How one was related to Jesus and lived out that relationship was replaced by what one believed. In other words, doctrine trumped faith. It was only a step away from Christian leaders taking sides based on which doctrine they followed rather than how devoted they were to living out what Jesus died to make possible.
Hebrew thought-forms were quite different from those of the Greek world. The Hebrew mind was concerned almost exclusively with the “who” of life, i.e., God, and how that affected how we lived. The biblical writers were not concerned with the “how” and “why” of God’s actions, but only with the fact God had created and acted in their world and as a result their lives were different. Thus, the Hebrew mind was very inquisitive in matters of ethics, but had little interest in matters of metaphysics or ontology. As a result, the New Testament was interested in the ethical results of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and had little to no interest in the ontological relationship of this Jesus to God.
The seven Councils changed everything. They took the narrative of God’s visits among us and tried to make systematic sense out of them when all God wanted was a relationship. We were never meant to understand God or how God functions. God is God. That’s what faith is. To talk about the ontological being of God is pure nonsense. Our attempts to explain what theologians call the Trinity are perhaps the best example of our folly.
To the Hebrew mind, God was the holy, living God, not the never-changing God of the Patristic Fathers. Life was the primary concern for the Hebrew. God was eternal only because He was living (see Jacob). And because He was living, He could care for and relate to us. They spoke of God as living because they had experienced His presence in their daily lives. This presence was made even more concrete in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Christianity is concerned describing God only in His relation to us, and not as He is ontologically in Himself. The biblical writers were concerned with the work of Jesus and spoke, whereas the Greek writers were concerned with the person of Christ and His ontological relationship with God. Thus Barth could say that the Trinity is real because that is the way God was in himself – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus the emphasis was shifted from an emphasis on the revelation of God in Jesus and what that meant to questions like “who is Jesus Christ,” and “what is God like,” and “what is the relationship of the two?” Thus doctrine was born and has been fought over ever since while the world burns.
We should be focusing on what God has done and will do and what that means for how we live and die. Focusing on doctrine divides us; focusing on God unites us.
One of the bright hopes for the future of Christianity and the world is the recent coming together of pastors from different cultures and doctrines around church planting. I’ve been around the conversations of hundreds of such pastors without a hint of doctrinal questions. Much like the Apostles, their only concern is mission. Mission is where our focus should be; not doctrine. It’s time to return to original intent of Christ and allow mission to dictate all that we do.