Setting the Scene
The girls and I attend a home parish different from Mother M’s. That’s only because we wanted a stable location for the girls that had a strong youth program before M became a rector. It’s a very diverse parish ethnically, theologically, and liturgically; in many ways, I see it as the kind of parish that the current leadership of the Episcopal Church wants itself to be composed of. So, it’s a fascinating look into one direction that the church is moving in.
The Adult Forums are a mix of things from the parish family; many connect to some form of social justice work in our local community, but we did a series on the hard work of forgiveness in Lent and on the Resurrection appearances of Jesus in Easter. On occasion and as my schedule allows, I’ll speak on a subject myself.
One fellow from the parish did a presentation on a weekend seminar that he and two other parishioners had attended: a “Jesus on the Road” seminar from the Westar Institute. If you’re not familiar with Westar, they’re the official name of the group running the Jesus Seminar, the group founded by Robert Funk et al. that kicked off the popular writing careers of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan and others. This was in the early/mid ’90s; when I was a senior in college (1996) I heard J. D. Crossan speak at an RC church in Minneapolis. My doktorvater wrote a blistering takedown of the Jesus Seminar and interest in them largely waned from the public eye.
But apparently they’re on the road now and trying to be relevant again…
The presentation given by my fellow parishioner was accompanied by a very slick PowerPoint presentation, well-branded with Westar information, containing embedded videos. While the presenter is a computer science guy, I don’t think he put it together—it looked like part of a professional marketing package.
I’m not going to rehearse everything in it, but I do want to emphasize some key take-aways that I found particularly pertinent…
Insistence on a “late” date for Christianity
One of the talking heads made the claim which is now axiomatic in certain circles that “while Jesus may have lived in the first century, Christianity wasn’t invented until the 4th century.”
This is a core talking point for a lot of folks and is widely believed both inside and outside of the church. I call it the Dan Brown School of Christian Origins. Indeed, I’ve said before that the single most influential source of pop-culture knowledge of Early Church history is The Da Vinci Code: and that should scare us. There are a variety of flavors of this from statements like the one I heard to the notion that Constantine was the guy who declared Jesus a god.
Here’s the truth: Early Christianity (and, if you want to be completely comprehensive, Early Christianities [acknowledging those that were considered heretical later]) was first and foremost a social phenomenon. It was a community of people. This organic body began with the apostles (the twelve guys in the inner circle of Jesus) and the disciples (the wider group of folks including the family of Jesus and many others who followed him around and listened to his teachings). Like most movements of this sort, Christianity spread through social networks—people who knew people who knew people. These groups started with the Old Testament (usually in its best known form, the Greek translation of Hebrew called the Septuagint) and verbal teaching about who Jesus was, what he did, and what happened to him at the hands of the authorities—and at the hands of God his Father who raised him from the dead. And it was through and for these networks that we begin to have the writings that would become the New Testament.
The Bible did not create the Church, the Church created the Bible to better transmit the faith that the baptized body believed.
Let me underscore this in the best way I know how to do so…the end of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Paul had never been to Rome; the Letter to the Romans was essentially a letter of introduction laying out his credentials and the kind of things he taught so the Romans could judge if he was the kind of teacher they wanted to bring to town. The last chapter is one of Paul’s strongest arguments:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well. Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ. Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. Greet my relative Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother—a mother to me also. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who are with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. (Rom 16:1-15)
tl;dr: Paul knows people and they know him. At this point—we’re talking somewhere around the year 57 AD—there’s a significant set of people across Asia and in Rome that Paul is naming and demonstrating connections with.
People—this is Christianity! Christianity is not a drawn-up list of doctrines ratified by authorities but a collection of people who gather together to declare “the gospel concerning [God’s] Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord…” (Rom 1:3-4).
Now—some folks will try to wiggle out of this by asserting that saying that Jesus was “Son of God” is different than saying he was divine and that no one thought he was divine until Constantine said so. Again, this only works if you ignore the evidence. The clearest evidence that this is not the case is the confession of Thomas—yes, that Thomas—who gives us the most thorough confession of how Jesus was seen and understood: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). It’s kinda hard to hedge that one away…
Early Christianity believed a lot of different things and there were other writings than those in the Bible. The notion of “Orthodoxy” was simply a power play by powerful men to shut down dissension and to seize and maintain power for themselves.
The argument here is an emphasis on the diversity of Early Christianity. The thought process suggests that if various people thought various things, those other works may have value, either historical value or spiritual value. And, if these works could be valuable, then as enlightened modern people free from the prejudices of the ancient Mediterranean world we can do a better job of judging what is valuable than they could.
The undercurrent of the argument taps into suspicion around authorities and especially into authorities tied into imperial systems of power. I don’t forget if it was said explicitly but it was certainly heavily implied that Christianity became an ideological tool of the state and its doctrines were shaped by the state for the purpose of asserting imperial control.
Here’s how I see it: The Early Church was a body of people who believed that there was something special about Jesus. Some believed that he was God and shared a common divinity with the God of Israel; this is the group that would become the community we know as the orthodox Church. There were others who believed that Jesus was a man who was declaring the God of Israel in a new way. Some saw him as a quasi-divine spirit who proclaimed the God of Israel in a new way. Some saw him as a divine or divinized messenger of a purely spirit-based god who was opposed to the God of Israel and any god who might have anything to do with creation or materiality. All of these things were in the mix and some more besides.
Just because they were in the mix does not mean that they were (or are) all equally edifying.
Yes—there was diversity in Early Christianity. We can speak of Early Christianities. But we can also talk about an emerging orthodoxy that we can trace in the formative documents of the New Testament that testify to a system of sorting out who this particular community who shared these books understood to be inside of it and outside of it. Second and Third John (which we just read in the Office) represent a sample of ephemeral correspondence—most of which didn’t come down to us—about which teachers to trust, which teachers to support financially, and what are the tests to determine which teachers are teaching the same message that the apostles taught: “Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist!” (2 John 1:7). It’s not that the community who would become the church didn’t know that there was diversity; they were well aware of it. The question was what range of diversity was tolerable. What could you believe and still fall within the body’s beliefs structures? Let’s remember what’s at stake here… 1 John teaches Jesus Incarnate. It also teaches a God of love. It combines those two notions in stark declarations like this one: “We know love by this, that he [Jesus] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” (1 John 3:16-17). You see what’s going on here? The insistence on an incarnate Jesus leads to the truth of the real death of Jesus: this shows just how far our God is willing to go to demonstrate love! (Not a spirit who seemed to die but didn’t really, or a nice guy/dupe who followed God’s commands to a tragic end.) If this is how God operates, if this is what God expects, then we need to share our incarnate, material goods with the people who need them as an analogous demonstration that we are incarnating the same God who loved us in the incarnate Jesus.
The argument about materially helping others starts with an insistence on a material Jesus, an incarnate God. The social action is grounded in the belief about who and what Jesus is. Other christologies could not say this. If the real god is a spirit god and we’re all just trying to escape the material creation, then we don’t need to share material goods because these things don’t matter anyway and are simply the bars of our collective prisons. A gnostic spirit-focused christology is contrary to actually helping those in need.
Orthodoxy began organically as the community realized that it needed to create boundaries about what was true and false teaching because—as in the Johannine example—what the community believed had implications for how Christians acted.
Did this decision making process happen in an egalitarian way? No—it didn’t. Not all opinions were considered equally valid. An insistence on the apostolic faith—the set of teachings taught by the apostles and confirmed by the disciples (which included women)—carried more weight than other ideas. Again, 1 John:
“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life–this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:1-3).
The key points here are about community (fellowship) and where the beliefs came from that characterize this community (what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands).
Did the decision-making structures in a Mediterranean society of Antiquity settle into the hands of men and eventually men with wealth and social standing? Yes. That’s part of the incarnate reality of a belief system that has social expression in the world. Should we be somewhat skeptical of the ways these people came to their decisions? Yes, actually—I have no problem with that. How can we possibly do that? We follow the threads of the creeds.
Creedal affirmations about God, Jesus, and their relationship are found in the writings of the New Testament. Creedal affirmations are found in the writings of the earliest Church Fathers. Irenaeus connects the dots between the canon, the creed as a set of interpretive guidelines for the canon, and the apostolic succession as a means of knowing who the teachers are who are teaching the creedal interpretations of the canon.
If something is getting suppressed that isn’t related to or contrary to the creeds, then maybe we need to re-examine if we’re talking orthodoxy or patriarchy… (The Montanists may be an example here, but that’s a discussion for another post.)
Did emerging orthodoxy suppress the power of women in the movement? It does look that way to me. The writings about Jesus and the letters of Paul do have women in important leadership roles, and we see less of this as we move in time away from the origins.Two things: First, some of this shift has to do with the kind of literature that survives. Second, another reason is because of the way that this surviving evidence has historically been read.
First, part of this has to do with who was writing to whom and for what purpose. As the church gained a more institutional structure, we see men in these roles and we see men writing to men about men. When we read narratives—acts of the early martyrs and such—we see a lot more women acting in important ways. This ties into the second piece.
Second, for the longest time we read church records assuming they were about men and that men were the important ones. We didn’t even look for women. In the last several decades, we’ve been doing better job at this and learning more about how women were being active in the church. As I’ve written, the Church Father Jerome is only one of the doctors of the Church because Church Mothers told him what to write and paid him to do so. Let’s not fall into the trap of assuming that women then didn’t understand how to influence the power structures of their day… In fact, I intentionally started off Honey of Souls with stories about some influential women precisely because of this.
Did the faith get tied into the imperial power structure and were some declarations of the shape of the faith tied to imperial power politics? Yes, actually. I believe that I see evidence of this in some of the later Ecumenical councils where orthodoxy and heterodoxy were decisions consciously made in negotiating the power dynamics between peripherally Roman spaces and Constantinople, the commercial and political power of the Roman East, and the spiritual power of bishops who took orders from a highly-placed, politically appointed, patriarch in Constantinople.
There is a reason why the early medieval West in particular talked about four Ecumenical councils (Aelfric is an example of this), and why the Reformers went with that number as well.
The Early Church fled Jerusalem with the destruction of the Temple and went to Nag Hammadi, Egypt, and buried their texts there when Imperial Christianity came and started oppressing them.
The contention made was that the documents buried at Nag Hammadi and discovered in 1945 represent an authentic form of apostolic Christianity which was suppressed by the state version of Christianity.
On the contrary: The Nag Hammadi Library contains a mix of materials with a strong core of Gnostic texts. Some of the documents are not inherently gnostic, but generally do have a world-view congenial to gnostic readings. There are also some Platonic and Hermetic which also hold materiality in rather low regard. These are not the teachings of apostolic Christianity which insists on the goodness of creation and the incarnation of Jesus
The presence of books labelled “Gospels” can lead people unfamiliar with the topic to assume that these are writings contemporaneous with the canonical gospels that could provide new historical details about Jesus. This is not the case. The majority of these documents are from the 3rd century and later and contain no new historical information. They can’t give us new access to independent information about Jesus, they can only tell us what people thought about Jesus at the time in which they were written.
The presentation spoke enthusiastically about social justice, progressive causes, and the rights of indigenous peoples, contrasting these with video clips of Jerry Falwell.
The implication here is that progressive social beliefs go hand in hand with the attempt to topple religious orthodoxies; that all movements in favor of Christian orthodoxy are contiguous with social conservatism.
On the contrary: This is not the case at all. The rhetorical play here is to connect orthodoxy to conservatism; if you are against the Religious Right than you should also be against the orthodox construal of the faith. One of my big issues here is that I don’t see the Religious Right as being particularly orthodox (and certainly not catholic) in either the proclamation of their brand of Christianity or in the political implications they draw from it. But by this point we should know that this isn’t about argument and facts—it’s an appeal to an anti-establishment ethos.
Neither major American political party and their accompanying ideological movements are in line with the social and political teachings of the Gospel. This should be readily apparent to anyone who can read a Bible and pay attention. Just note the number of politically conservative American Roman Catholics who celebrate papal teaching on Right to Life issues and then act with shock, dismay, and amazement whenever the Pope (even the ones they do like) starts talking about social and economic issues…
The Bottom Line: It’s About The Bottom Line
My main take-away from the slick presentation recapping the seminar is that it was about selling books. I don’t know if they sold tickets to the event as well, but several of the major talking points were plugging the most recent books of one of the speakers.
Now—living in a glass house compromises my ability to throw stones here to a certain degree. After all, I lead seminars on liturgical spirituality, and sell my books there! In a wide-open religious marketplace, how can I begrudge these folks an opportunity to make a living writing their stuff even if I don’t agree with it?
There’s a difference, though: I write my books based on historical facts that experts in the various fields would find non-controversial. These folks are peddling books based on a disingenuous construction of Christian history built on half-truths and untruths. Christianity was not “invented” by Constantine in the 4th century. Gnostic texts were not kicked out of the Bible—they were never in the Bible in the first place! (And there’s a whole discussion, too, of the simplistic notion and presentation of “Bible”—as if it were a book within covers—that was bandied about; if I get started on that, I’ll never get this post finished…) From what I’ve heard and seen, the writers proposing the reintroduction of these gnostic works don’t discuss the implications of this system of belief–why gnosticism was rejected by the church; why it is that gnosticism doesn’t live well.
This isn’t the first time that we’ve seen stuff like this, and it won’t be the last. The key to addressing it is inoculation with facts. We need to be teaching people not just about the history of the Church, but why the heresies (especially Arianisms and Gnosticisms [plurals intentional; there were/are multiple stands of both]) were considered heresies. People need to know why these things don’t live well, how their logical implications compromise not just how we think but how we act.
My final thought on the presentation was a sinking feeling of complicity by means of silence. Not because I teach or advocate for heresies, but because I’m one of the voices that knows better and ought to be part of the solution. More of our people in both pulpits and pews need to know why we teach what we teach, what the actual narrative of Christian origins is based on sound scholarship of the texts and archaeology and evolving social models. And the only way for this knowledge to get out there is to start producing it and circulating it. Hopefully posts like this will do something in that direction.
And so, I’m going to end with a counter-sales pitch of my own… I’ve started a Patreon page. If you use the St. Bede’s Breviary, if you profit from the things that I write here, please consider supporting this endeavor. It will enable me to post better stuff more frequently, and expand the kind of teaching I can do. Because this stuff—authentic Christianity that lives well—is worth arguing about and fighting for.