Unity and Diversity in Early Christianity

In response to yesterday’s post and continuing the discussion on this off-site post by the Rev. Coggin, let me say that we need to recognize a few important facts.

First, yes, there was diversity of thought in Early Christianity. Just like there was in Medieval Christianity. Just like there is in Modern Christianity. Historical distance often has a flattening effect leading to all sorts of over-generalizations about what was or was not believed in various times and places–especially if we try and lump several centuries and many thousand square miles containing different languages, cultures, societies, etc. into one little box.

Second, we scholars of the New Testament and Early Christianity can and have identified quite a number of different theological trajectories in the writings of the New Testament and in the writings of the Early Church. The field of New Testament scholarship has, for most of its life, existed as a subfield within the History of Ideas. As such, it has focused on who came up with what ideas when and how these were then transmitted. This means that the methodological focus of the field is on teasing out, separating, and isolating various theological themes. The key word here is “isolating”. It’s much easier to tease out a singe theme than to understand how it operated within an organic whole and related to a constellation of ideas around it. Since the separating task is logically and pragmatically prior to a synthetic task, it receives most of the focus. Axiom: it’s a lot easier to tease distinctions out than to weave them back together!

Indeed, we in the field have a mania for drawing out distinctions. There are schools of scholars who have identified as many as five different strata in Q—a hypothetical work that we’re not certain even existed… With the recent trends that combine redaction and social scientific methods, independent communities are posited for every single theological trajectory that someone thinks they can detect in a group of texts. Or even in a single text. The much learned and well-respect Ray Brown took this entirely over the top in his Community of the Beloved Disciple which attempted to map out a complex history of the Johannine community based on little clues sprinkled in the Gospel and Epistles of John that may or may not signal what he suggested they did.

Another mania that we find especially in the left-wing of the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus (best represented by the Jesus Seminar, Burton Mack, Marcus Borg, et al.) is an evangelical Arianism that is ever on the lookout for texts or communities (or communities implied by texts) that didn’t consider Jesus divine. A classic example is how scholars view the Epistle of James. Some will tell you it represents a community that didn’t think Jesus was divine (as claimed by Rev. Coggin). A more accurate reading will reflect that it’s not an issue discussed by the text. A close reading of the text notes the equation between God and Christ in the first verse—remarkably similar to how Paul uses it—and the appearance of “our Lord Jesus Christ the Glorious” in 2:1. No, James doesn’t come out and say: “My community and I believe that Jesus was divine in just that way that Ecumenical Councils will decide he was in the coming centuries”. However, the use of what appear to be common formula with someone like Paul who does explicitly discuss the divinity of Jesus, makes the anti-divine position much harder to sustain.

Third, the whole project of teasing out distinctions sometimes fails to note what seem to be cases of dialogue between items of different “trajectories” Take, for instance, the Book of James (since we’re thinking about it already…). James discusses the issue of faith and works. How interesting—Paul also discusses faith and works especially in Galatians. So what do we have here—two texts that independently take differing positions on a major issue of the faith? Two texts that stand in polemic opposition? Or two texts that offer correctives to one another? Those who prefer to emphasizes the diversity will suggest that we have polemic opposition. Let’s not forget, however, that we find the two books bound into the same canon… Whatever their intent (and I don’t think the texts present definitive clues one way or the other), the retention of both signals that the broader community decided that they could and should be read together. Rev. Coggin states that this Jewish Christian group “loathed” Paul. But I don’t think the text of James supports that. (How the writer of Revelation felt is a different and open question but even there we have hints that can be read as against Paul but nothing clear or definitive.) Yes, there was diversity—but not necessarily antagonistic disagreement. Remember, the church settled on our four different gospels—but only four—by the time of Irenaeus in the mid-second century. Several different theological strands can still be united in faith and practice.

Fourth the notion of diversity sometimes presented—and certainly presented in Rev. Coggin’s text—fails to recognize that the early church itself made distinctions about what kind of diversity was permissible and what was not. The text of the NT itself reflects distinctions between true and false teachers. The very earliest texts that we have (Paul’s letters) display an awareness that there are boundaries to Christian belief. When I approach a text as a New Testament scholar interested in uncovering the history of ideas connected to Christianity in the early empire I draw no distinction between texts on the basis of “orthodoxy”. When I approach a text as a believing Anglican looking for ways to understand my faith and how my ancestors in the faith understood their faith, these distinctions do come into play.

When I look at the texts, I find an urgency and an emphasis on the truth of the incarnation—that Jesus came in the flesh. And, I see a number of passages that seem to me to be creedal formulations that concern themselves with a divine incarnate, enfleshed, Jesus. As we move from the first to the second century, these solidify. Both Tertullian and Irenaeus present clear creedal statements. Also, the baptismal creeds that we’re familiar with (like the Apostles’ Creed) appear then. Finally, as we move further, the creeds become the normative method for setting theological boundaries.

As far as I can see, this is the intent of “the faith once delivered to the saints”. That is, “the faith” as a body of content is the set of boundaries that focus on who and what Christ is—and is not.

I could say more but I think I’ll stop here for now…

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6 Responses to Unity and Diversity in Early Christianity

  1. John-Julian, OJN says:

    Now there you have it!

    As Marshall asked in a comment on the previous posting: “How narrowly must we define the ‘core’ so as to be reasonably accurate?”

    I utterly agree with your thoughts about the fairly consistent identification of Jesus’s divinity from apostolic/biblical times – subtle, sometimes — little more than a “subtext” sometimes – but fairly reliable. And I also completely agree with your criticism of the scholarly teasing out of opposing positions based on very little shadowy evidence.

    I also think that the Trinitarian traces are equally (if subtly) present (although I doubt that Mark would have easily swallowed Nicaea without wincing a bit — or at least thinking it over for awhile first).

    But I don’t think it is Incarnation and Trinity that the reasserters (or whatever their current label is) are referring to when they speak of the “faith once delivered”. [In passing, if this were only this, then a Covenant would be easy as pie.]

    An example: I think it would be more difficult to defend the doctrine of the Real Presence in Eucharist in its present form(s) as “apostolic”. And when we come to moral theology, I would be ready to argue strenuously that very serious change and development has been going on from the very earliest evidences to the present.

    And I think it is especially in the moral theology department that the right-wing claims of an unaltered and unaltering tradition free of cultural influences and “once delivered” are dead wrong and blindly over-simplistic.

    If we want to see any practical results, we need to face (and answer) Marshall’s question: “”How narrowly must we define the ‘core’ so as to be reasonably accurate?” [I chuckled so at the Canadian Church’s study that the issue of same-sex unions was “doctrine”, but not “core doctrine”.]

    That consistent and reliable “core” needs to be defined,and it is not an easy job!

  2. I tell you what, though, Father, the way I read the New Testament, its morality is a system fundamentally borrowed from the Stoics. (And this really isn’t a surprise to those who know their philosophy—even the later Academy essentially flipped into default Stoic mode when speaking of ethics; Cicero certainly does… ) From there the most comprehensive early description of Christian morality and spirituality is John Cassian—which again uses fundamentally Stoic categories. The reasoning that lay behind “the morality handed over by the saints” is thus the language of virtue and vice and that’s precisely how I believe we need to be analyzing the current debate. And where the liberal side is shooting itself in the foot by ignoring it and taking an “anything goes” perspective so easily mocked and dismissed by conservatives…

  3. Anastasia says:

    I would also add that some of the diversity that gets folded into the conversation at a popular level includes communities that were potentially not even christian. I have in mind, of course, gnosticism, which turns up in the original piece as “gnostic christianity.” There’s a problem with terminology just there. It isn’t that there weren’t gnostic christian groups but gnosticism encompasses a broader swath. and yet, the original piece makes claims about gnostic christianity specifically–that it predates other forms, for instance–that were formulated with reference to gnosticism in general, as in Baur.

    Moving beyond Baur, scholars have isolated many strands within gnosticism, some of which are christian and some of which just don’t seem to be related to anything that can be identified with christianity. That’s what makes the conflation of gnosticism and gnostic christianity especially misleading in this case. It’s unclear whether which if any of Baur’s claims about gnosticism as a movement actually hold for any given gnostic group that might individually be associated with Christianity.

    Even after all that, gnostic forms of christianity seem to have fallen outside acceptable bounds of diversity, which is the point you’re making here and with which I agree.

  4. Yes, Ansatasia, that was one of the things about the Coggin piece that made me flip my lid. Gnostic thought was alive and well in early Christian period and many of their texts mention Jesus but that in no way means that they should be included under the mantle of Early Christianity.

    By that line of reasoning we should include the corpus of Greek Magical Papyri as Early Christianity because they mention Jesus alongside Isis, Serapis, Mithras, Helios and others.

    (Though I grant you, PGM IV.3007-86 is a doozy… )

  5. If you reduce the core to a bare minimum you get Protestantism, which collapses under its internal contradictions (which are not the same as the diversity of Catholic schools of thought and cultures) as one can say is happening to the Anglicans now.

    (I also believe that, without the state artificially keeping them together, eventually the four Anglicanisms, Catholic, Central, Evangelical and Broad, naturally fly apart. The first essentially have been driven out and the third and last are going after each other, most of the Third World versus TEC, with the second — quintessential Anglicans — and the few remaining Catholics caught in the crossfire. My prediction: when this row is over the next will be between the Christians and ex-Christians in the Broad camp.)

    I mentioned in the other thread that Coggin’s approach to revelation is like the Mormons’. If in his approach you lump the gnostic pseudo-Christian groups with the Catholics you should also include the Latter-day Saints (non-Christians who claim to hold the faith of the true Christians before Nicæa loused it all up).

    So no, Coggin’s liberal Protestantism is not the answer. (Conservative Protestantism eventually self-destructs too.) But you knew I’d say that.

  6. YF, the narrative of Protestant collapse would be much more compelling had the movement folded after 50 or so years—rather than still going strong after 500… ;-)

    I won’t deny it’s got some problems (like the rest of Christendom) but would suggest (again, like the rest of Christendom) that its weaknesses are shadow sides of its strengths.

    As for a core—this is what the Fathers say. If you think that it’s broader, feel free to show me some citations.

    The strongest place for you to head is, in fact, to the notion of the apostolic succession which is worth a post in itself. If you don’t mind, I’d like to hold this thread to this topic, but will put something up on apostolic succession where we can chase those rabbits.

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