Suspiciously contemporary questions

Rowan Williams’ Arius: Heresy and Tradition was published in 1987. He was a professor at Oxford, at that time. So perhaps he would find these words to be surprisingly prophetic, since now he, as the Archbishop of Canterbury, is facing a not too different situation with Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria at the height of Arian controversy, who struggled really hard to keep his church intact: “The beginning of Arianism lie, as much as anything, in the struggles of the Alexandrian episcopate to control and unify a spectacularly fissiparous Christian body — and thus also in a characteristic early Christian uncertainty about the ultimate locus of ecclesiastical authority itself… Alexander, as his letter to Alexander of Byzantium about the local troubles amply shows, felt himself threatened with the virtual disintegration of the Alexandrian church into a bundle of mutually hostile sects.” (p. 46)

But I guess he would not find it completely unexpected. Indeed, “I am aware that, in some of what follows, I shall not have avoided distortions of one kind of another: my reading of the material suggests various patterns in the life of the Alexandrian church of the early fourth century strongly reminiscent of developments in contemporary Christian experience — conflicts about authority between the representatives of an hierarchical institution and the charismatic leaders of ‘gathered’ congregations, house-churches of various kinds, conflicts over the right theological use of Scripture, and so on; suspiciously contemporary questions. But the point at which an authentic and illuminating analogy turns into a Procrustean bed on which evidence is tortured is never very easy to identify. The reader as well as the writer needs warning here.” (p. 2)

History can’t escape the present; we thrust ourselves as well when we look into history. Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that the distance completely collapses altogether. Evangelicals do typically assume that history engages the present. Yet, although perhaps we earnestly ask, “What can we learn from the text?”, in the end sometimes we tend to see much of ourselves when we read history. Hence, we must not let this assumption to strip us off from our critical sense of the past. Otherwise, all histories would simply become autobiographies.


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