When in Antioch

I was listening to a particularly “nerdy” Christian podcast discussing Paul Ricoeur, philosophy, hermeneutics and theology. In the course of the show the guest asked the somewhat rhetorical question, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? What does philosophy have to do with theology?” It got me thinking. It wasn’t the first time I had heard that type of statement contrasting the two, where Christians use those type of city metaphors. For instance in a great article I read over at The Gospel Coalition, it looked at how Christians thought they would spend their cultural exile in Athens when instead they were taken to Babylon. For some reason those metaphors really appeal to me, the city being representative of certain concepts, ideas or practices. We do it today too with modern cities. Great cities in the world like New York (immortalized by Frank Sinatra and then Jay-Z and Alicia Keys in song) often have that larger than life appeal. Cities can become symbols. [1]Funnily enough, early Christianity was mainly an urban movement so these city metaphors are historically quite apt.

I live in the sprawling metropolis of Kumasi, Ghana, but whenever I get to travel to different cities it’s like walking through an invisible barrier and entering into a new alien atmosphere. There’s something ineffable about the place, like the city lets you know its presence. You see the sights, the sounds, the people, the activity and you know within that there’s a different vibe. I don’t know if the ancient people of the biblical record felt the same way but I do know that with them cities often became cultural monuments of identity and tradition. People who were not even city dwellers felt a symbolic attachment and the connections inhabitants had could be very visceral. Made famous by Bony M. Psalm 137 talks about aching longing for the city of Jerusalem. The Psalmist emphatically declares if he should ever forget her, his tongue should cleave to the roof of his mouth. The poem powerfully juxtaposes sitting by a river with tears freely flowing from forlorn faces, being mocked in captivity by a city who in the biblical record is the antithesis of Jerusalem. While Jerusalem is the city of God, Babylon is the city of idolatry. You can read scripture through thematic lenses as a tale of two cities.

While it is certainly the city of God, his chosen dwelling place among men, I do not think Jerusalem is most synonymous with theology. It is certainly not wrong or a bad one but I think it does not best fit what the city is known for. It’s the divine dwelling place because the temple was found there. If anything it should represent worship, the worship of the one true God. For us Christians it also represents our spiritual heritage because God was faithful to Abraham and through him blessed all the families of the earth. Athens stands in stark contrast to Jerusalem as the centre of religious and philosophical pluralism. All they did, according to Luke, was spend their time listening to or telling something new. That is where Paul encountered the Stoics and Epicureans on the land the great Socrates once trod. Athens used to be the centre of the world but now Rome had taken over. Rome as the capital of the eponymous empire unsurprisingly represented the glory of totalizing political and military power. In the book of Revelation Rome is recast as New Babylon, the old antagonist of the worship of the one true God and antithesis of the New Jerusalem, continuing the theme of the two cities. In Revelation we have earthly power railing as quest heavenly power. With all these cities representing different things, is there no centre for theology? I think there is but we need to look at a less prestigious but in my estimation just as relevant locale.

First of we need to recognize that theology as with most words has a range of meaning and usages. However, theology proper is largely a Christian peculiarity. [2]Theology as a “loadbearing” activity was something of a Christian innovation even though the word was already known in the wider world. The Jewish people, even to this day, strictly speaking do not do theology though they do have a great tradition of learning stretching to antiquity. [3]As I mentioned in another post, theology was born out of necessity due to missionary work. Instead of writing out long instruction manuals on Christian life, the early missionaries chose to teach Christian congregations how to think about God and therefore what it means to live for him. As the old adage goes give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Missionary activity started with trouble. After Stephen was martyred, the first wave of persecution broke out and Jewish followers of Jesus fled to new cities taking the gospel with them but only sharing it with their kinsmen in the diaspora. Then Peter ministered to Cornelius officially inaugurating the Gentile mission foreshadowed in the tongues of Pentecost. Though the gate had been opened through Peter, it seems it did not immediately lead to great activity on that front from Jerusalem. Instead, we see running parallel to the Peter’s foray into Gentile, some of the scattered believers through persecution independently preaching freely to the Greeks in Syrian Antioch (which is now in modern Turkey.) Without waiting for permission they went ahead to truly take the gospel to all the world and by the grace of God it was received. Jerusalem eventually caught on and sent Barnabas as an emissary. He then brought in Paul and they taught the church for a year. (Acts 8-11.)

Prior to Antioch the followers of Jesus were almost exclusively Jews and as such were seen as a sect within second Temple Judaism. At Antioch the full inclusion of Gentiles created something unprecedented. [4]Dr Larry Hurtado explains that religion was a part of a person’s ethnic identity so to change your religion was in effect to change ethnicity. Their religious ambiguity, ethnic diversity and trans-locality meant they did not fit conveniently into pre-existing categories of Jew, proselyte, Greek or whatever. They were something different and the most peculiar thing about them was a crucified criminal called Jesus of Nazareth whom these people followed as their Messiah, which in Greek is Christ. It is this ethnically mixed band of early Jesus’ followers who were first called Christians right in Antioch. I believe this very important because it marked the moment where the Jesus’ mission to the entire world had taken root successfully. In that regard I think Antioch can be rightly called the “cradle of Christianity” because it was there the early Jesus movement gained a recognizably distinct identity.

The church in Antioch was heavily invested in teaching and discipling people from very different ethnic backgrounds. They were trying to get Greeks to inhabit a Jewish narrative which to the Jews had an unexpectedly climaxed in Jesus. Both groups had to re-examine their worldviews in the light of the story of Jesus, which necessitated developing a way of thinking, a theology. They had already shown the initiative to think and act independently of the Jerusalem church yet the wisdom to remain faithful to the gospel. They then began to send their own missionaries into the world establishing them not only as a centre for mission but also the first major Christian centre other than Jerusalem (Acts 13.) Jerusalem still remained very important in terms of heritage and as the seat of the Twelve. Jesus told his disciples to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8.) Acts follows that thematic progression beginning with Pentecost in Jerusalem, then Philip ministering in Samaria and from Antioch it truly went all over the world where the book concludes with Paul in Rome getting ready to preach to the Emperor.

I am not merely speculating they engaged in theological activity because of the unique missionary situation they found themselves. They were the first to successfully integrate Gentiles into the early Jesus movement. They therefore had to make sense of it in the scriptures what was going and what it meant. The evidence of them having developed a theology is that during the Gentile controversy, they were able to martial very strong convincing biblical reasons for their unburdened inclusion, which they sent to Jerusalem at the Church’s first council and won. Paul in Galatians in criticizing the hypocrisy of Peter when he came to Antioch (they probably are separate incidents but they could be related) already had a strong ecclesial theology in response. Not only were the Antiochan leaders ahead of their Jerusalem counterparts in some things theological, they held their positions with wisdom and absolute confidence. (Galatians 1-2.) They had an identifiable theology which is explained by the social circumstances of a multi-ethnic Christian community.

Apart from theology, Antioch became a major centre of prophetic activity (Acts 11:27-30, 13:1-4.) It is from there that we have the major prophecy by Agabus of impending empire-wide famine because of which they embarked on major relief work to support Jerusalem. The immigration of prophets from Jerusalem, among other things, helped cement the [5]third city of the Roman Empire, as the second capital of Christendom. As the first missional and theological centre they unlike us, were unafraid to mix it up with the charismatic. Teachers and prophets, the calibre of Paul and Barnabas, worked side by side productively. For us it is hard to imagine how something as systematic as theology can mesh with something as unsystematic as the charismatic. As some have observed, the entry point into the Bible for Protestants is Romans which is very heavy theologically. For the Pentecostal their entry point is Acts which is very charismatic. Instead of holding them of from each other we must remember they both appear in the Bible and they coexisted. In my view to recover both we must start at Bethlem, with the lowly and oft ignored gospels themselves. Our saviour is both teacher and prophet. We need to get back to a full reading of scripture which requires perspectives from different traditions being brought to the table. (This hyper fragmentation of the church’s various central activities, liturgy, theology, reading scripture, mission and the charismatic, is unnatural.)

The original contradistinction I earlier mentioned between Jerusalem and Athens does still hold up but for slightly different reasons. With that revised typology it seems particularly appropriate for the Western church, which having fought the battle of worldviews in cultural Athens and lost, is facing pressure to conform in a modern Babylon now often backed with Roman legal vigour. However, instead of considering yourself in cultural exile I think we should assume an Antiochan posture, a people who have been dispersed throughout the world to be salt and light, to think missionally. In that state your theology can be sorted out. Instead of relying on the strength of arguments you should rest on the sometimes dramatic power of the Spirit not abandoning the mind but having it renewed in the Spirit. I think the entire church needs to assume this posture where we may be ridiculed because of the one whose name we bear yet we feel honoured to faithfully serve the one who called us. In Antioch we maintain our connection to our heritage yet we are actively moving into every facet of the world to testify of Jesus.

[1] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, p. 129, 1996.

[2] NT Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. xiv, 2013.

[3] David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission, p. 124, 1991.

[4] Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, p.180, 2016.

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demography_of_the_Roman_Empire#Urbanization, 18:37 h, 20th February, 2017

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