Two great theologians I read have made critical comments about modern “western” individualism in Christianity. Krister Stendahl (Paul Among Jews and Gentiles) and N.T. Wright (The Challenge of Jesus and Jesus and the Victory of God). I have benefited from both of these theologians, but I disagree with their critical comments about “western” individualism (I think they are both mainly talking about American Christianity).
The recent Asbury Revival has also triggered some negative attacks on individualism. Recently an Indonesian theologian on Facebook posted a comment saying the need to seek revival is an “American-centric phenomenon.”
Over the next few weeks I want to address this concept that individualism in Christianity is “western-centric” and wrong. I will illustrate how individualism in Christianity is not a modern, nor a western phenomenon. My intention in the first instance is not to defend “individualism.” I do not disagree with Stendahl and Wright when they suggest that “community” was/is the primary focus of the gospel. However, a fair reading of the scriptures, along with a fair reading of early Church history shows that individuals have always tended to read (or hear) spiritual messages as individuals. Christian individualism is NOT a modern, nor a western phenomenon.
I will offer evidence of individualism from ancient Christianity in a three part series:
1. Personal Forgiveness in the New Testament
2. Individual Forgiveness in Primitive Christianity
3. Individualism in the earliest Monks, the “Athletes of God”
Stendahl believes we have imposed Reformation ideas into Paul, especially his letter to the Romans. Like many New Testament scholars, N.T. Wright agrees with Stendahl. Both focus on the intention of Jesus (and Paul) to bring redemption to Israel and both express concerns that the message of salvation has been incorrectly reduced to the individual. Stendahl blames the Reformation, perhaps Martin Luther more than others. Wright seems to lay the blame at the feet of Augustine and his Confessions. Here is a comment on Wright’s blog defending his earlier statements:
Forgiveness in the Jesus Sayings IS Personal
Personal forgiveness is the lens through which most Christians understand the famous statement in John 3:16. “Whosoever” simply put, is directed at the individual. John the Baptist preached a message to individuals as well: “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Lk 3:3) Luke includes individuals (specifically tax collectors and Roman soldiers) approaching John asking “What should we do?” Although this text uses first person plural, it is clear these individuals are seeking personal guidance, not attempting to find some kind of communal or national understanding of John’s message.
In Luke 6 Jesus says, “Forgive and you will be forgiven.” This seems to be a well-known teaching of Jesus as it appears in several similar sayings and parables. This is also a focus on personal forgiveness. Perhaps most famously, this is included in what we call “the Lord’s Prayer” [or the “Our Father”] in Luke 11:4, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Again, the text uses first person plural, but Jesus makes it quite clear that this message is aimed at the individual.
In Matthew 18 we have the same teaching – Peter asks Jesus “how many times must I forgive my brother who sins against me? Seven times?” (v21) Jesus answers, “not seven, but seventy times seven,” then Jesus tells the parable of the unmerciful servant. This servant is forgiven for a huge debt only to then throw a fellow servant into prison for failure to repay him a very small debt. The master hears about this and calls the first servant “wicked” because he did not show the same forgiveness he had received. Then Jesus closes the parable saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Mt 18:35, emphasis added) Again, this is forgiveness on a personal level…thus individualism.
Forgiveness of “One Another” in Pauline Material
Stendahl is correct when he says that forgiveness is “spectacularly absent from [the] works of Paul.” (p.24) Even though the gospel materials were probably not circulating yet, Paul must have known some of the forgiveness sayings of Jesus. I agree with Stendahl that this lack of “forgiveness” from God in Paul likely reflects his unique mission, however forgiveness seems to be implied in another very important Pauline theme: allelous. This Greek term is typically translated “one another.” Paul uses allelous 24 times in the 13 letters traditionally attributed to him, with several more texts where “one another” is strongly implied or obvious. This term helps to describe the community of believers that Paul expects to find in the local church: “love one another,” “honor one another,” “do not judge one another,” “greet one another with a holy kiss” (used four times).
This term allelous is coupled only one time with forgiveness in Paul (Col 3:13), but many uses of allelous seem to imply that forgiveness is essential in Christian community. You cannot “honor, accept, greet, kiss, encourage and love one another” in sincerity without mutual forgiveness. Allelous for Paul is essential in the family of God, and forgiveness is essential for the kind of allelous Paul describes. ALL of this impacts each Christian on a personal level. So we have individualism…again.
It is interesting that Paul seems to neglect the concept of “forgiveness” of sins by God. He only uses the Greek term typically translated “forgiveness” one time, and it is joined with allelous. It is also interesting that Paul rarely cites or alludes to a forgiveness saying of Jesus. The only occurrence is Colossians 3:13:
The gospel material typically has Jesus using the Greek term aphesis in accounts when He speaks of forgiveness in this context. “Paul” uses charizomai in the Colossians 3 citation even when alluding to a Jesus saying. Anthony Bash offers some interesting insights into how these Greek terms translated “forgiveness” are used in the New Testament. He appears to confirm both what Stendahl put forward AND what I am presenting in this article:
Paul generally seems to make no distinction…when speaking of God’s forgiveness. However, he does not use [the term used by Jesus] to refer to person-to-person forgiveness. He only uses charizomai.
While I agree with both Stendahl and Wright that personal forgiveness is not Paul’s main concern, I find Paul’s idea of justification coupled with allelous is not very far removed from the kind of personal forgiveness we find in Jesus. James Dunn, another great New Testament scholar makes this same observation in his book Unity and Diversity in the New Testament.
Next week I will focus on the early second century “Apostolic Fathers.” I will give very clear evidence of how early Christianity AFTER the apostles continued to have a strong focus on the individual believer. Remember, my argument is that Christianity has ALWAYS had a strong component of individualism – you cannot blame “The Western [American] Church” for this phenomenon.