The Roots of American Idealism: Part 1
Jan 17, 2007
In the first few years after Pentecost, Christians were excited and fervent about their new spiritual empowerment through the Holy Spirit. Their optimism about the power of Pentecost to change the world blinded them to the leaven that was inherent in Pentecost (Lev. 23:17). This is natural and certainly understandable.
Because the book of Hebrews had prepared the Hebrew Christians for the fall of Jerusalem with its temple, priesthood, and sacrificial system, they did not despair over the destruction of Judea in the same way that the other Jews did. But as time passed, they too came under persecution from the Roman government. Even this only served to keep the community relatively pure and free of pretended believers.
In 313 A.D. the fortunes of the Church changed dramatically as the Emperor Constantine favored the Church. The Church then enjoyed increasing favor, which could only lead to an increase in political power or influence. Though they were terribly divided between orthodox and "arian heresy," they gained increased optimism in their ability to change the world. When Rome eventually outlawed paganism itself in 391 and 392, it seemed that the Kingdom of God was prevailing. The prophetic idea of all nations being ruled by Christ now seemed to be a distinct possibility. And the fact that it was being done under the power of Pentecost only gave greater prestige to that feast. The feast of Tabernacles was largely forgotten and discarded.
Then disaster struck, when Christian Rome was sacked by Alaric the Goth in 410. In many ways it was the Roman equivalent to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Many Christians were as shattered as the Jews had been earlier. Augustine quickly wrote The City of God as a kind of "Second Book of Hebrews" to detach Christianity from any earthly city. Whereas Hebrews had detached Christians from Jerusalem, so also The City of God detached Christians from Rome (as an earthly, carnal city).
But even so, Augustine was a product of his time. His book inevitably introduced a greater pessimism into Christian philosophy. Since Cain and Abel, he said, there have been two cities. Cain represents the City of Man; Abel represents the City of God. The City of Man was destined to remain supreme in the earth until the end of time. The City of God was destined to be persecuted as it attempted to keep out of the way as Christians focused upon developing their spiritual lives.
The City of God--all believers--must live like strangers and pilgrims in the earth. They must be content with the fact that they have already received the promise of redemption, for they have already been redeemed and have received the earnest of the Spirit.
Such a view put the Church into defense mode and removed the hope of ruling the earth, at least until the end of time. In effect, Augustine argued against establishing Christian government in the earth. In Tuveson's classic book, Redeemer Nation, page 15, he writes,
"Although Augustine could hardly deny that a millennial age when Satan was to be bound had been prophesied, he was compelled to dispose, by rather tortuous reasoning, of any thought that the City of Man could ever become the Kingdom of God and his Christ. His main objection, we may speculate, was that human nature as a whole would have to be miraculously transformed first."
He was correct, I believe, in thinking that the City of Man could never become the Kingdom of God. The City of Man might become a Christian Nation, but not the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God requires perfection; Christian Nations only require nominal subservience to God and a somewhat Christian culture determined to some extent by the divine laws.
In my view, he was right in thinking "that human nature as a whole would have to be miraculously transformed first." This is the purpose of the feast of Tabernacles, which will be fulfilled at the appointed time. Meanwhile, we are under Pentecost and must keep Tabernacles as our goal, even as the Israelites were supposed to keep the Promised Land as their ultimate goal.
I think it is proper to be pessimistic in regard to the carnal mind of man, having no confidence in the flesh (Phil. 3:3). By extension, carnal men cannot establish the Kingdom of God. Christian carnal men can only establish Christian nations, which consist of many non-Christian people as well as many nominal or cultural Christians. To attempt to root them out would only result in a blood bath, and the result would be the rise of another zealous, but oppressive religious government.
The Roman Church made Augustine into a saint in later years, but if the Roman Church in later centuries had truly learned from Augustine, they would not have formed the "little horn" after the fall of Rome.
The downside of Augustine's theology was that the pursuit of spirituality became so other-worldly that Christians forgot how to rule and reign in this life by the power of their own individual spiritual authority. The Holy Spirit was, in later centuries, a holy relic, too valuable to be given to average people. It remained therefore under lock and key in the office of the Bishop of Rome. Few doubted the Pope's access to the Holy Spirit in his decrees, or that the Spirit resided in the corporate Church, but even fewer understood that the Holy Spirit actually resided in them personally. The Church had become defined as the institution, rather than as the people themselves, the "congregation," as the Bible defines the word.
And so the people came to be at the mercy of the religious leadership, and any spiritual blessing they might have wanted had to come from the institution, rather than from God directly. Tuveson writes further on page 16,
"Augustine, moreover, made another innovation which was to prove of first importance. To make possible his interpretation of the Revelation, he had to assume something new; that the millennial predictions are in fact allegorical only. The saints 'reign' with Christ because they enjoy an inward spiritual triumph, whatever may happen to their bodies. . . The doctrine of an allegorical millennium became official."
The idea of reigning with Christ became so internalized that it had little practical use. It was a good thing that his teaching lowered expectations of law and government's ability to change men's hearts. The problem was that it tended to make Christians feel as if "we are born to suffer, and then we die." Prayer could no longer change the City of Man, so prayer focused more and more upon one's personal, inner sanctity rather than actively changing surrounding conditions.
Here is where I disagree very much with Augustine. Though I realize that there are things which God has pre-determined, which cannot be altered, I also recognize that God is training the overcomers to act as His agents for change in the world. This does not authorize anyone to change things by carnal methods, but rather by the power of the Holy Spirit that is utilized in accordance with His will and plan.
If we skip ahead a thousand years to the Protestant Reformation, we find more optimistic times. The secular "Enlightenment" had revived an interest in the classical literature and art of ancient Greece and Rome. Ideas of Greek Democracy penetrated Europe. The development of the printing press made Scripture available to the common people. With the power of Rome diminishing, Protestants began to think in terms of setting up true Christian government that forsook the oppressive spiritual and temporal models of the past.
They believed that Rome failed because of spiritual decay and from a spiritual monarchy that gave no rights to the common man. They believed they could do better!
This is the first part of a series titled "The Roots of American Idealism." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones