Sunday, March 16, 2008

Misuse of History by Christians

While reading and critiquing Pagan Christianity, I saw that one of the sources in their bibliography was a book that was popular in some circles in the 80's called The Torch of the Testimony by John W. Kennedy.

The book came to my attention at the time because it was making the rounds in my own group, Xenos Fellowship. The book argues the thesis that the Spirit wants to operate His church based on Scriptural authority and direct guidance, but that man always replaces these with his own institutional framework designed to preserve his power and control over others. He argues that throughout the history of the church, God has again and again broken out of the old wine skins in underground New Testament style lay-led movements.

Such a thesis contains much truth, and is very tantalizing to readers from a lay-led New Testament “no frills” group like Xenos. I've written on the subject myself in Organic Disciplemaking and other essays. The question that must be asked in the case of this book is whether Kennedy is a faithful teacher of such an important point. I read the book, and became immediately alarmed that a piece like this could cause serious damage in our church unless carefully critiqued. I felt the need to warn our people that when Kennedy teaches church history, he is not true to the record. These were some of my comments:

Kennedy’s coverage of the themes of Church History are objectionable for two very important reasons. First, his work contains no documentation. A book of this type, which refers to the teachings of historical figures not familiar to the modern reader should be carefully and fairly documented in order to deserve any credibility whatsoever. Apart from such documentation we are really left with the claim of the author that certain things are true, without any proof. In this case the saying of the ancients applies, “Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur.” (“That which is offered without proof may be rejected without proof.”)

Secondly, Kennedy is repeatedly and flagrantly one-sided in his coverage of history. He characterizes various movements and leaders either as eager servants of Satan, or as servants in the very image of Christ, whereas the truth is rarely so black and white. The figures we really meet with in Church History are much more of a mixture of good and evil than Kennedy admits. Therefore his work lacks balance and hence ultimately, truth. A few examples will demonstrate this lamentable feature in his work.

Of the early father Origen, nothing critical is offered. He is praised for having “particularly clear idea of the nature of the church. The church, he held, was spiritually based, and all those who were recipients of divine life belonged to it.” Kennedy goes on to say that “It should not worry us that some of Origen’s views were later stigmatized as heresy... few men particularly used of God...[who have not] been called heretics.”1

Unfortunately, while this may be somewhat true, Kennedy fails to mention that Origen actually was heretical on several key points. He was affected heavily by neo-platonism.2 He taught that humans existed before their physical birth, and that sins committed in the previous life had led to their imprisonment in physical bodies. Origen was also a leading exponent of the allegorical hermeneutic which has generated more heresy than almost any other thing. He taught that even Satan will be saved.3

On the medieval “Cathari” protesters, Kennedy points out that they were iconoclastic, and anti-sacramental. However, he fails to mention that they were Manichaen-style dualists who believed in two gods. Their resistance to icons and ritual was not based on scriptural reasoning, but on a philosophical dichotomization of the physical and the spiritual.4

On the Waldensians, Kennedy recounts their reversion to scripture as the source of authority for the church, but fails to mention that they were essentially Roman Catholic in their doctrine on other points. He also naively accepts the claim of fourteenth century Waldensians that their movement began at the time of Pope Sylvester in the 300’s AD—a position that is absent from all early Waldensian literature, and is not accepted by any competent modern historians.5

Kennedy’s evaluation of the Montanist movement in the late second century includes the thought that “dependence upon learning... was slowly paralyzing the church’s life."6 These dichotomizations between knowledge and form on one hand, and spiritually on the other are so common throughout the book, that they spoil what good historical work was done. As a result, The Torch of the Testimony becomes, not a balanced recounting and analysis of church history, but a one-sided and simplistic sermon.

Even though we may find ourselves in sympathy with some of the positions argued in this book, the absence of balance, and the dishonest omission of important contradictory material place the book, in my view, in the category of irresponsible historical polemicizing. This book should not be read without critical examination of every position offered. Those who are not in a position to check Kennedy’s work would probably do well to stick with a more main-stream historical survey such as Lauteurette or Gonzalez.

Barna and Viola aren't as bad as Kennedy, although they apparently used his stuff, and there were similarities. Unbalanced use of history is invalid and dishonest. I know it's hard to write a popular book that thoroughly covers the whole span of historical findings for these point, but we have to try to be balanced, non-selective, and as unbiased as possible. If proponents of every-member-ministry, early church-style ecclesiology go around shooting off inaccurate statements about church history we aren't going to do our cause any good.


1 John W. Kennedy, The Torch of the Testimony (Golita, Ca.: Christian Books) p.78,79.

2 Kennedy himself seems to have been influenced by neo-platonism. He consistently fails to criticise dualistic heresy, and makes dualistic statements himself. See below on the Montanists.

3 Justo L. Gonzalez, The History of Christianity, Vol.ΓΏ1, (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1984) pp.81,82.

4 John W. Kennedy, The Torch of the Testimony, pp.117,118.

5 John W. Kennedy, The Torch of the Testimony pp.118,119. For a balanced view of this movement see Giorgio Tourn, The Waldensians, (Torino, Italy: Claudiana Editrice, 1980)

6 John W. Kennedy, The Torch of the Testimony pp.82,83 The Montanists were eventually discredited because of wild extremes in practice associated with religious ecstasies and so-called "prophecy" which was actually provably false in many cases. Typically, these facts are not mentioned by Kennedy.

No comments: