Peter Brown sets forth this third-century Coptic frieze as a prototype for later Alexandrian iconography. It isn’t terribly difficult to connect the dots. In Bede, we find out that Pope Gregory instructed Augustine of Canterbury to retain much of the native religious infra-structure. As late as Cortez in Mexico and Jesuit missionaries in Japan, this same approach was used.
Now, certainly there is some value in bringing Christianity to the world through receivable media. “All things to all people” serves as a sort of Pauline missionary approach, consistent with the theology of Pentecost. But to suppose that this can be done even in the context of idolatry is a bit too much of a stretch. The Jerusalem Council required Gentiles to honor Jewish scruples on these matters, and John reminds his readers to flee from idols.
And so it seems that when churchmen over the ages point out these issues, they should not be dismissed as kooks. It should not require a great leap of the imagination to see idolatry in the Church. It happened in the Old Testament, it is warned against in the New Testament, and we see numerous examples of it throughout the early, medieval, and modern church. To deny that this is even possible really is to voluntarily cover your eyes, something that I view as moral failing.
We’ve got to be able to critique our own traditions, while still claiming them as our own. This is what our Reformers did, by the way. Richard Field explains this in some length. Bucer also argued this way, as did Calvin on the whole. Their harshest critiques were aimed at the minority of hierarchical leaders who either deny that the errors existed or suppose that they are of no special interest, as if submission to an office is the chief concern.
And that’s where the doctrine of justification comes in. If submission is the linchpin of religion, then we’ve got a very different religion from St. Paul.