Threads of Eternity

Aug 30, 2018

Watching the headlines today is liable to give you whiplash. We are daily reminded of the moral stances - once considered praiseworthy, even a necessity, for public office - that are now taboo or career-ending. The moral revolution continues at a frightening velocity, leaving even those at its forefront uncertain what is now right and what violates the new standards. Helpful glossaries have been published, but you’d best stay subscribed for the latest updates - even these “standards” are living documents, subject to change on a moment’s notice.

Despite the haze of doubt, the moral revolutionaries are certain about one thing: those who fall afoul of today’s standards (whatever those might be) must be punished. They must be shunned from public life, and their permission to buy and sell must be revoked. The revolutionaries will dig up or create whatever pretext they need to bury those who don’t fall in line with their New Order.

As Christians, we have a more stable standard, but on the front of a howling storm like this one even some conservatives are starting to buckle under the pressure. It’s more important than ever to understand the timelessness of our foundations.

A Historical Faith

We can look back on the earliest days of Christianity through to modern times and see the consistent stance the Church has taken on moral issues. Let’s take sexual immorality as one hot-button example (because I like reminding people that, yes, there are still some of us who believe in staying pure until you’re married).

The Didache (~100 AD), one of the earliest non-canonical Christian documents on record, was a handbook for new converts, to give a quick introduction to the ethics and sacraments of their new faith. It reads:

Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not corrupt boys; do not fornicate; do not steal; do not practice magic; do not go in for sorcery; do not murder a child by abortion or kill a new-born infant… Do not be lustful, for lust leads to fornication. Do not use foul language or leer, for all this breeds adultery.

St. Augustine (~400 AD) held to the same standard for sexual immorality:

But in the married, as these things [being religious and chaste] are desirable and praiseworthy, so the others [sexual relations] are to be tolerated, that no lapse occur into damnable sins; that is, into fornications and adulteries.

Thomas Aquinas (~1200AD) again held to the same standards:

“Without any doubt we must hold simple fornication to be a mortal sin…” (Q154)
“Therefore it is evident that lust is a capital vice…” (Q153)
“…it is manifest that adultery is a determinate species of lust, through having a special deformity in venereal acts.” (Q154)

Martin Luther (~1500) taught the same thing:

And [“thou shalt not commit adultery”] really aims at adultery, because among the Jews it was ordained and commanded that every one must be married… Therefore adultery was the most common form of unchastity among them. But… this commandment is directed also against all manner of unchastity, whatever it may be called; and not only is the external act forbidden, but also every kind of cause, incitement, and means.

And in modern times, several prominent evangelical figures have signed the controversial Nashville Statement, reaffirming the exact same ethic:

WE AFFIRM that God’s revealed will for all people is chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage.

Threads of Eternity

When we study what the Church has taught unwaveringly through the centuries, we are reinforced in our conviction. It’s always easier to hold a position when you know you aren’t standing alone.

We are inspired by the battles our forefathers fought. The issues they wrote about were affecting the world and the Church back then, just as they are now. Still, the church emerges victorious.

And we learn from them why we believe some of the things we do. Scripture doesn’t tell us to believe in “the Trinity”. The formula was created to summarize the nature of God as revealed in Scripture. It might not seem important if you aren’t familiar with the background of the issue, and the rejection of the deity of Christ that spawned it.

But that brings up an important question: Christians (and people who claimed to be Christians) have said lots of strange and sometimes contradictory things through the years. When we point back at this grand tradition, are we just cherry-picking the quotes that we like and discarding what we don’t? Are we just picking patterns out of chaos? And why is what they believed way back then important now anyways?

The truth is that when we look back at these patterns, we’re seeing something much deeper and more fundamental: a timeless moral principle, revealed to us in Scripture, and protected in the Church by the Holy Spirit.

Because those principles are timeless, they don’t change from one era to the next. That’s why we see such consistency from the early days of the church through to now. Those moral principles are founded in something outside of this culture, outside of this century, outside of this world. They don’t change based on where or when we live.

Christians throughout the ages have learned to cling to these threads of eternity in the face of the instability of the cultural norms around them. By tracing these threads back both through history and to Scripture, we can reassure ourselves that we are not on the wrong side of history. We stand in a sense outside history, seeing its ebb and flow from God’s eternal perspective.

And that gives us confidence to say the Wrong Things with boldness.