Tuesday, September 15, 2009

More Like the Early Church

[Some edits have been done to clarify who the hobbyist is that I corresponded with, and to attempt to give him the credit necessary to avoid the plagiarism of putting my words in his mouth as well as the plagiarism of taking ideas I got from him as my own; these edits were of my own volition, and in fact should have been in the initial post. There were probably one or two others, but the content, the ideas I claim to be putting forth, have remained unchanged.]

[[A second edit, double-bracketed unlike the first which was too large and variable to be unmarked, to erase a brief gap in thinking.]]

My words will be in plainer text.
The words of the 'voice in bold,' which represents absolutely nothing except perhaps my need to get out more often, are naturally in bold. The voice in bold will begin:


So, it seems like Churches aren't really 'staying together for the kids' anymore. Why does the One Way to heaven have so many different representative groups?

It's a general pattern in the splitting of Churches, which Catholics call schism, that the church which does the splitting, the rebelling, the Reforming, or the group which is split off or "kicked out" but does not walk out, to claim that they are the ones returning to the original teachings of Christ, to the Early Church. This is at least indicative that they desire to establish a greater continuity with that purer Christianity which was less worn and sullied by time and developments in doctrine.

So we want to go back to the time that we were [pure and simple] Christ-followers?

Yes, and it's an admirable desire. Never mind, of course, that said Early Church was in turn a tree sprung with the roots of Judaism, certainly a religion that already had plenty of doctrines and developments and a people, if not a system, worn and sullied by time. Never mind that, as soon as (if not before) it changed from the Earliest Church to the Early Church, it was already absorbing also the much more monstrous thing known as Greek philosophy. But I digress.

To restate that desire: "We want to be more like the Early Church." Or alternatively, "we want to be truer to the teachings of Jesus."

*Groan.* "We want to be more like the Early Church, or alternatively, truer to the teachings of Jesus."

But the second really boils down to the first, unless we want to work off of the supposition that the Early Church would not be the best available source to go to for the first and purest records and interpretations of the teachings of Jesus. In that case, since the Earliest Church is the source of all of our Sacred Scripture, and the Sacred Scripture is the source of basically all we claim as Christians to know about Jesus, we're in trouble. We could save ourselves with some 'dictation theory' of Scripture, but that still leaves us with the problem of how the Late Early Church, which is of course unreliable (since its ancestor the Earliest Church is unreliable) figured out what Scriptures were which; in turn we are forced to a similar 'dictation theory' of the Canon's development; eventually, we shall be forced to admit to two or more counts of special pleading, depending on how far we've got into this line of reasoning.

So, let's restate that desire, people! "We want our church to be more like the Early Church."

*Sigh.* "We want our church to be more like the Early Church."

Oh. You want to be more like the Early Church? (To get a full grasp of my tone here, it's very important that you make your voice higher when you begin to say "Early" and slide down from the "Earl--" to the "lee." It would also work okay if you started lower on "earl" and slid up to "lee," but said slide should be less dramatic than your downward slide.)

So, you're going to answer your obviously leading question how?

Let's see. For the Early Church, we've got roughly three basic groupings we can put our sources into.

The first is the Earliest Church. We take as a point of definition the New Testament itself, many books of which are believed by Tradition if not by modern scholarship, to have been written by the Apostles themselves, in addition to the Earliest Church's theological heavyweight, Paul and up to a few other persons who are members of the Earliest Church and have come into some kind of contact, via community or personal relationship, with the heavyweights of Christianity. So we've got the Earliest Church, recorded in the New Testament writings and the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.

Next let's move on to the Ante-Nicene fathers. Note that many of the persons listed here had one or two degrees of separation from the Earliest Church. For sake of fun, I'm going to call these guys the Middle Early Church. These guys wrote volumes of theology that still survive today, and they include systematic developments of things like:

* The unity of Scripture. See for example Irenaeus's "Against Heresies", which seeks to establish among other things that the God of the Old Testament and of the New Testament are one and the same. It is not of course his idea, but it is under attack and he does give it further systematic development than that previously given in, well, pick any New Testament writer.

* How church is done. Ignatius of Antioch's letters to the churches on how to do church, and how to conduct oneself, and a little bit of stuff on heresy--and the Didache, which discuss how church is done but certainly don't shy away from Pauline lists of wrongdoings.

* The doctrines Christians associate with the Trinity and Christ, including but not limited to whether Christ was truly equal to the Father and whether Jesus of Nazareth was fully human and fully divine. Justin Martyr, Origen, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and many others, all contributed to the work on these problems.

* The Canon of Scripture, which was ratified a couple of times in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., was developed not in quite as rigorous a fashion as other doctrinal issues, in my humble opinion, but in a more unsystematic and fluid fashion, partly by use and gradual acceptance (or non-acceptance) of the Canon (or the non-Canon). So this one actually belongs to at least a couple of the Post-Nicaea Fathers as well.

These are just a few of the doctrines that developed, rightly or wrongly, by the Church that has the most access to the Earliest Church's material and meaning, with the exception of the Earliest Church itself. So to recap, so far we have the Earliest Church and the Middle Early Church, the first containing (perhaps arbitrarily) whichever persons authored the New Testament, and the second containing the group of Christians immediately following this (though depending on dating, one or two of their documents may have ultimately come before one or two of the documents contained in the New Testament.) Let us now turn to the Late Early Church, the Church after the Council of Nicaea.

A fun side-note: The Council of Nicaea, which ratified in its Creed the divinity and humanity of Christ, among many other things Christians take as true, was the event at which St. Nicholas (yes, that St. Nicholas) is known or at least legend-ed to have slapped the heretic Arius, who taught that Christ was not "eternally begotten of the Father" but was rather a created being. A pastor whom I very much love and love to hear speak, Joe Woodruff, once told this story in a sermon and noted how very amusing he thought the idea of Santa Claus slapping a heretic was. I concur. This is however entirely a red herring, and doesn't have any further bearing on this tangent. I just think it's a good story.

The Late Early Church, as said before, did the deed of ratifying the Canon of Scripture, and includes such luminaries as Augustine of Hippo, who wrote volumes of theology and philosophy and contributed significantly to controversies regarding whether humans needed God's grace to be saved, and also how salvation worked in terms of Sacraments. I won't get into what a Sacrament means to the Early Church, or why and how its effectiveness was being disputed, just right here. That's not the point of what I'm doing here. Also, it would require me to do a bit of review on both points and probably expose many of the weaker points in my historical-theological knowledge and embarrass myself. Maybe I'll embarrass myself another time.


Yep, yes I am.

So, summarize that piece for me.

So we have contained in our Early Church: the Earliest Church, the Middle Early Church and the Late Early Church. All of these are closer in space-time context to the actual person, Jesus of Nazareth, than we. Now remember, it is a fact affirmed by all of orthodox Christianity that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God, more precisely the Son of God the Father, also known as the Second Person of the Trinity, also known as God. But it took approximately three hundred years from the Birth of Christ for this to be formally recognized. It took painful and sometimes bitter debate to establish what was there in the Scriptures written by the Earliest Church, in no small part because the Middle Early Church (not as much the Late Early Church) didn't quite have all that was to be considered Scripture yet established for itself, and in spite of what canon they did have vaguely established.

So uh, how do we know they got the right books?

I was just going to say: And this ultimately raises the question of how we can trust that the canon eventually ratified by the Late Early Church was really the correct cannon. Let us leave aside for a moment the fact that nearly every if not every church-split including the Reformation split itself was made by persons who rejected many of the books in this Late Early Church canon. (In other words, to some degree or another, many of the persons involved in the splitting of churches patently don't trust that the right Canon was ratified way back when.) Let's at least agree that the non-Deuterocanonical books ratified by the Late Early Church were really supposed to be in the canon. How can we know that they were supposed to be there?

Most curiously to myself--what is the relation of Tradition, in the Early Church, to the Scriptures?

I see where you were going with this, you proto-Papist.

Okay...At any rate, another fun side-note here. Jerome was considered a Saint in Catholic tradition and known as a famous translator of Scripture of the Late Early Church and possibly the Middle Early Church, as well. And he's known for having been ordered to translate the Canon as ratified, including the Deuterocanonical books, and legend-ed at least for having complained that they weren't Scripture (though he was obedient and translated them anyway.) He's known for having been a crotchety man, often portrayed holding a human skull, and it gives me great joy to imagine Jerome bent over the Deuterocanonicals, translating them and muttering to himself in Latin, "I can't believe they're making me translate this...not even Scripture..." This red herring will come back later, I promise.

So, how do we know Things?

At any rate. In my mind there are two particularly appealing historical theories. The first corresponds to the modern position taken by the Roman Communion and a few other groups, which is that ultimately Scripture and Tradition are each in and of themselves sources of revelation. The second corresponds to the modern position taken by the vast majority of Protestantism, which is that sola scriptura or "scripture alone" is the authority. For the sake of this argument sola scriptura may be treated as roughly equivalent to, at the least, the Protestant formations of prima scriptura, such as the placements of Scripture and Tradition in John Wesley's Quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. If it turns out that sola/prima scriptura are not here treatable as the same, then I suppose I will find myself in some sort of error and would be much obliged to be corrected as to how and where; indeed I already suspect that this could happen, and know exactly what to do if it is agreed that I have erred in treating them together: A simple division into cases that will pretty much leave me with what I started with.

So these theories are what?

The first particularly appealing theory is that regardless of whether Scripture is ultimately on the level of Tradition, or above the level of Tradition in some sense, the Tradition itself is a mode of revelation of the Divine. This theory explains the facts fairly well. We may trust the Tradition's ratification of the Scriptures as Revelation, because Tradition in its own right is a vehicle of revelation. We may trust the Tradition's interpretation of the Scriptures, and should at least value it above other interpretations if not disregard contradictory interpretations.

The second particularly appealing theory will take a moment to explain; I have only in recent correspondence, with a hobbyist almost on the level of scholar of classics and Early Church Fathers by the name of Roger Pearse, even heard of its existence. (Pearse, by the way, is totally awesome.) The key idea of his theory, at least in my mind, was that the invocation of apostolic authority by the Fathers and against the heretics in the early period of the Church was done for primarily pragmatic reasons. It sparked one or two other thoughts and formulations that warranted inclusion in this theory. As such it is not the same theory I heard. (On the off-chance that I have interpreted him wrongly, and it is in fact the same theory he had passed on to me, I offer my sincere apologies.) But here it is, at any rate.

It seems that if we are to hold to any form of sola scriptura (or Protestant prima scriptura), we must hold that God guided the selection of the Canon. Special pleading for the moment of ratification is not acceptable in my mind (it was also not suggested by Pearse) and so more precisely we must hold that God guided the selection of the Canon historically, in the period of about four-hundred years from the birth of Jesus of Nazareth through the ratification.

So either way God's continuously involved. No special pleading in either case?

No. As I was saying, though, in case two: As the years go by in the Church and the authority of a low degree of separation from the Apostles themselves becomes more and more rare, revelation must go from being passed on in a more oral form to being passed on in a more written form. And so any tradition acknowledged by the Early Church Fathers is simply there as a functional placeholder vehicle of revelation, until the Canon can be ratified, at which point the Scripture alone becomes really necessary for one's relationship to God. Thus God in His divine plan makes sola scriptura the rule of the day. In this mode of thinking of course (as I am arguing it), Tradition itself need not be listened to once the Scripture has been duly established, at least not as much as the Scriptures are to be listened to. I maintain that if this theory is true it is not a simple switch at the point of ratification so much as a gradual switch culminating in ratification. This theory seems to explain the facts quite well, as well, and it has a certain elegance about it that is quite distinct from the inelegant notion that God just sort of 'stepped in' at the writing of the New Testament and later the ratification of the Canon to make sure that they would go okay.

To anyone who knows me it is obvious that I prefer the first theory--

Aha! Papist!

--But for the life of me I cannot rule out the second. So I examine what I believe at any rate to be truly the writings of the Earliest Church, the New Testament. I find myself barraged with excellent points on the parts of Protestant and Catholic persons alike who struggle to define what the heck the 'traditions of men' are. For we're all pretty much agreed, at any rate, that we don't want to be passing on anything that are merely the 'traditions of men.'

I find myself truly unable to actually establish when I read the passages these persons quote of the Earliest Church, what exactly was going on with the relation it had to tradition. And this makes a lot of sense. The Earliest Church was probably more concerned with spreading the Love of Christ, its own doctrinal and pastoral problems (as opposed to ours), not being persecuted to death, and the return of Christ. It did not have time to say, "Hey! I wonder if I'm some kind of sola scriptura or if my traditions constitute Divine revelation that needs none (or less) verification from the Scripture?" Along the way, of course, I pick up lots of information about things like the situation of the Church at Corinth, which was much more theologically complicated than most peoples' systems of thought (even most denominational systems of thought) have a prayer of accounting for.

What I've read of the New Testament for myself, on my own time, by myself or in a group, presents a picture of a Church that's much messier and much less systematic than I'd like. The New Testament does not read as a work of systematic theology, because it isn't one. It almost looks more like a panorama of scenes of a culture, of a living entity, of prophecies and pastoral issues. And the more I stare at the picture (looking at it with an eye at least somewhat biased towards 'plain interpretation' where there I think there is one) the more I realize it doesn't look almost anything like the churches I see today. Liturgically it is rather like the local Catholic Mass has met the Pentecostal service down the street in the messiest way possible. Structurally it's like the structures and formalities of those churches have met in a similarly messy fashion. While this Church might be more in continuity with one of these Churches or the other, it's pretty hard to tell which. (And at any rate, once I'd moved past the question of such identification, I'd still be wondering how to even trust that the Earliest Church got Christ's teachings down effectively anyway, or that the Middle Earliy Church got the Earliest Church's writings...etc.)

So I move on to the next-best source I have, the Middle Early Church. And the persons continue to confuse me there as well. In one instance I read the commentary of two opposed bloggers on a passage from Irenaeus in which he uses the word "tradition" a few times. First I read the Protestant, and he makes some sense. Then I read the Catholic, who makes a bit more sense. Then I read the Irenaeus, and he makes almost no sense, except I get the sense he's using the word tradition in more than one sense. Two senses, if you sense my meaning.

Dangit, bloggers.

And to be honest I haven't even bothered to really look at the Late Early Church. Jerome isn't really of that much help; either he's the first Protestant, or he's a regular Catholic. But it's worth noting that if he's the first Protestant, he's a pretty poor model. He kept on translating the books just like they told him too, even as they noted his objections; he didn't even have the cajones to disobey the authority and not translate the texts he saw as Apocryphal, much less to split from the Church in an effort to return to the church of four-hundred years past. And if he's a regular Catholic (in this case a particularly good one), well, that doesn't really disprove the sola scriptura or prima scriptura theory, but it would seem if anything a mark against the persons mentioned earlier, who dispute the inclusion of the Deuterocanonical books, that scholar or no Jerome translated them over and above his own objections. In any case, it sure does make the ratification of the Canon sound a lot more fun than it did before.

If by fun you mean 'pain.'

Anyway, I'm not sure if I'm entirely settled either way on the question of authority, tradition, and Scripture. I definitely lean to the Catholics' side, if you couldn't tell. But I still haven't addressed entirely the statement that my hypothetical listener may have had at the start: ""We want our church to be more like the Early Church."

It seems as far as starting-points go that our question of Scripture and Tradition is somewhat academic. Since the Earliest Church, the Middle Early Church and the Late Early Church all serve at least for a few years as the vehicle of revelation in either theory, we must study them as our starting points no matter which of our two theories are true. We must still try and figure out where they stood doctrinally. We must try and figure out how they handled pastoral issues. To start finding an answer to our question, we need not tackle the question of authority, Scripture and tradition.

So this whole post was a waste of time?

We ought to acknowledge, however, that in the case that theory #2 is true, we should be prepared to cull any errors made in interpretation of Scripture by the Church Fathers from our theological systems. We ought to be prepared either way, for even a Tradition serving as a mode of revelation independent of its Scripture might have persons who make occasional errors, but in the case of theory #2 we must be especially prepared to cull errors, and to de-centralize teachings of the Early Church that are not readily accessed via the Scripture--for the Scripture in theory #2 represents well what Christians need to know, and supersedes the Early Church. In the case of theory #1 it seems we're probably stuck with just about any official, Traditional pronouncement from before the finalization of the Canon; our only possible way out of any such pronouncement would then be to make the case that it was thoroughly incompatible with the Canon. So maybe the question of our theories, of sola/prima scriptura versus Tradition-as-revelation, is more important than we thought!

But wait, there's more. If we are to establish any sort of continuity of our beliefs and theological systems and pastoral procedures with those of the Early Church, of course the question becomes again more important; we must try and find out what the authority of Tradition is once the Canon is established, because if it has any authority at all on its own we must be, in the degree of its authority, in continuity with it, for it is in that degree of continuity with the Early Church. So again the theories play a vital role. For if theory #1 is correct, we have quite an extension of data to contend with, and we must then figure out when (if ever) it was that the authority of God ceased to be present in the Tradition of the Early Church, which then became the Middle-Ages church. And at any rate if theory #1 is correct we've certainly stuck ourselves with at least a couple hundred years of new data to contend with: This means new councils that have to be respected and adhered to, doctrinally, in addition to the ones held before ratifying the Canon.

So you actually think this seemingly academic question has relevance for real, everyday Christians?

So, I think the question of these two theories is paramount. We can only go so far into our exploration of what the Early Church can say that we must accept, until we tackle the question of that the purpose of its traditions was to begin with. If theory #2 is correct we need only contend, really, with the data of the Scriptures, for they sum up the Fathers and the Liturgy in a way more complete and literal than the way in which Jesus' two Love commandments sum up the Law and the Prophets. But if theory #1 is correct we must sweat what some would rather call the 'small stuff' of councils and doctrines and developments and hundreds of data in the Early Church and beyond, even perhaps believe in things that aren't readily gotten to from the Scriptures. The question of continuity with the Early Church will be determined largely with data that will itself be selected by the question of history, and we must make a choice to believe, hopefully with some basis, as to how God has acted in that history.

Okay. Let's go find this early church!

Are you ready to look for the real Early Church? Do we even know exactly where we're looking?

1 comment:

llgp said...

Oh my head, it aches so good!

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