Robert Dabney once argued for a classically educated ministry on the basis that …
‘…the modes of thought, the opinions, which constituted the human environment of the New Testament writers, the accurate understanding of which is so necessary to grasp the real scope of what they wrote, all these were the familiar, popular, contemporaneous knowledge of (an) intelligent mechanic in Ephesus. He had imbibed it in his daily observation, reading, and talk, as easily and naturally as the mechanic in Charleston has imbibed the daily facts about current politics, cotton shipments, familiar modern machinery, or domestic usages. But to us now all this expository knowledge is archaeological! It is gained accurately only by learned researches into antiquity.’
Understanding the conventions of the ancient world as well as the average illiterate laborer of the time would have, requires hard work, and when this sort of contextual knowledge is absent, it is almost inevitable that scripture will be misunderstood. In traditions that encourage everyman to recreate the ancient (!!) faith whole clothe from the bible, using only their own limited understanding, all sorts of screwy ideas end up binding consciences.
I came across some arguments for the house church movement; and they reminded me of Dabney’s point.
Apparently, traditional sacred architecture is the result of Constantine’s sinister influence. This is asserted not with historical evidence (which would require some degree of historical knowledge), but on the basis that it necessarily follows because the primitive church met in homes, and worshiping in homes means gathering around a coffee table or with a group small enough to fit in a living room.
Clearly traditional church buildings and their use are an obvious departure from this straightforward, domestic and intimate ideal.
There are a lot of anachronisms on display here. Chief among them is the conflation of the modern nuclear family with a household of the ancient world. Today’s homes are designed to house Dad, Mom and their 2.5 kids. In contrast a Roman household included extended family and many servants.
A small vestibule (for that is what it was called) led to a large rectangular room that was open to the sky. In the center of this courtyard-like room (known as the Atrium ), a shallow pool collected rain water. Around the perimeter were doorways leading directly into smaller rooms, but across from the outside entrance to the Atrium was an extended square shaped, raised area that was named the Tablinum. There was no wall between the Atrium and the raised Tablinum, and the latter served as the Head of the Household’s study and the formal reception area for visitors.
The Eastern Church keeps the ‘Atrium’ clear to this day, and the saints stand in worship as they did when the Apostles first ministered from the raised Tablinum many centuries ago; the West has added pews.
I’m not pointing out the misconceptions so as to show up the one who introduced them. I know he is sincere, and zealous for the truth. Nor am I making some point about how churches ought to be arranged. Rather, I’m interested in showing that the anachronisms are simply there, that the proponent is blind to them. I’m pointing out that if this happens with something as mundane as houses, then what of all those ideas, metaphors and rituals that are removed from us by a few thousand years?
Setting aside the question of whether or not such a thing matters (it doesn’t too much), which tradition ends up with a place of worship that would look familiar to the apostles?