My latest piece is up on the Cafe today and a follow-up piece will appear tomorrow. It’s in response to Fr. George Clifford’s response to my earlier comments on celibacy.
I engage his points on celibacy, but I’d like to flesh out my initial issue a bit more. That is, he contends—bringing in Elaine Pagels—that since there was a diverse group of religious beliefs all invoking Jesus that there was no “normative” or “real Christianity” to which we can look back and, as a consequence, we all have to find our own spiritual way.
I’ve heard this line or things like it far too often in the Episcopal Church (and other mainline Protestant denominations) to let it go.
You’ll note that the piece over there is long, especially by Cafe standards. Well, what follows is the section that I cut to get it slimmed down enough to be that long…
Fr. Clifford begins with curious section focused on Elaine Pagels. I have not read the book to which he refers (Adam, Eve, and the Serpent) but the logic which he cites is quite familiar to me concerning the multiplicity of early Christianities.
Stepping back, whenever readers note points of conflict or discontinuity within a literary corpus (like the scope of early Christian literature), they have some options about how they will read these materials. Do we 1) read them in such a way to highlight an underlying continuity among them or 2) read them in such a way to highlight the discontinuities? Let it be known that points of conflict and discontinuity appear in the writings of the New Testament and in early Christian literature; this point is not under dispute. So how shall we read them?
Historically, the reading communities that make up the Church have chosen to read the writings of the canon in continuity with one another. We acknowledge differences between, say, Paul and the letter of James, but choose to read them as complimentary trusting that together they reveal the inseparable nature of authentic Christian faith and its flowering in works of Christian love. Strands of academic scholarship upon early Christian literature—sometimes in conscious opposition to the Church’s strategy—have chosen to highlight the discontinuity between the theologies and writings, most famously in the important work of F. C. Baur (d. 1860), founder of the Tübingen school and one of the fathers of modern biblical criticism. A focus on discontinuity has been a central characteristic of biblical scholarship since Baur and, as the discipline was interested in the reconstruction of the history of early Christianity, often went so far as to posit different communities embodying the various discontinuities found in the text. Thus, they posited distinct and different groups of Jewish Christians, Johannine Christians, Pauline Christians, Petrine Christians, Gnostics of various stripes, etc., all existing in discontinuity with one another. In certain academic circles, this positing of communities has grown into a mania where imaginary communities are constructed at the drop of a hat based on hypothetical documents—Burton Mack’s The Lost Gospel being a representative example.
One difficulty with these multiple reconstructions is their basis in history. Aside from parsing discontinuities in texts, our only sources of data on actual historical communities are the writings of the “early Church Fathers”, preeminently Irenaeus and Eusebius. I put “early Church Fathers” in scare quotes because those who argue for a multiplicity of nascent Christianities will argue that the terms “Christian” and “Fathers” are loaded categories: they assume a coherent body called “the Church” and they assume that certain authors are “Fathers”—privileged authorities. And indeed, responsible readers must note that these early writers were writing for the explicit purpose of defining who was “in” and who was “out”, who taught a “legitimate” version of the faith and who did not. Yes, these very writers are witness to the fact that many different groups considered themselves to stand in relation to the teachings of Jesus and the writings of the New Testament.
Now—here’s the key point. Irenaeus writing around the year 180 or so about the various movements and their relation to the beliefs of his community passed along three basic marks that distinguished what his community and those aligned with them believed: a canon of Scripture, a creed or “rule of faith” that insisted upon particular interpretive principles when reading the canon, and apostolic succession—that the teachers of the community had been taught by teachers who had been taught, ultimately, by the disciples themselves. (In his own case, Irenaeus had been taught by Polycarp who was taught by the Apostle John.)
By this time, then—AD 180—there was a common teaching subscribe to by communities across the Mediterranean who distinguished themselves over and against other religious communities by the canon, creed, and apostolic succession. And now the kicker…turn to page 876-879 of your Book of Common Prayer and you’ll find the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral and a resolution from the Lambeth Conference of 1888 stating that the marks of the church are the canon, the creeds, and the apostolic succession (Historic Episcopate) with the explicit addition of the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist.
Yes, there were a variety of early religious communities who claimed a connection to Christ and his teachings. But as 21st century Anglicans we affirm that we stand in historic relation with one of them—the one with whom we share a canon, creeds, and teachers