Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Gospel did not arrive prepackaged

Katie Sherrod has posted an essay written by the Rev. Bruce Coggin that brilliantly describes the various strands that make up what we know as "orthodox" Christianity and the long process it took to weave these strands together.

The point of the essay that the use of Jude 1:3 as a slogan for the reasserting and realigning members of the Anglican Communion, especially in certain quarters of the Episcopal Church, is just that: a slogan.

It is a common notion that there was one single interpretation of Jesus' teaching, ministry, life, death and resurrection and that there was once a golden age when all the church was united in sharing this one truth.

Sometime read the New Testament chronologically beginning with the earliest materials (the Pauline epistles) and end with the last (the Pastorals--including Jude--and the Apocalypse) and you will see some concurrent truths:
  1. There was remarkable sophistication about who Jesus was, what he did and what it meant very early. The earliest epistles show us that there was the beginning of both incarnational language and trinitarian language as early as (plus or minus) ten years after the crucifixion.
  2. Jesus' activities on both sides of the cross were well remembered by actual witnesses and that the followers of Jesus were growing.
  3. Even with that available living memory, most Christians met Christ through his followers (that's another post for another day).
  4. There was remarkable diversity in the interpretation of the meaning of what people witnessed and remembered Jesus doing.
The idea that there was One True Gospel that later split into several denominational traditions is simple, easy to understand romantic myth. Instead, it appears that whatever unity the early church experienced was (a) hard won and (b) based on common faith and allegiance to Jesus Christ that transcended cultural, national and religious barriers.

If one must get romantic about the unity of the early church (and I do, all the time) it was a unity around Jesus Christ and following him in new community. It was when these communities struggled with what the content of that spiritual unity ought to be that things began to get dicey.

What we do know is this: the record we have of the early church was of communities that were often effective, joyful, infectious community and, at the very same time, struggled with fully understanding who Jesus is and what following him means.

The Book of Acts is nothing if not a description on how hard it was for at least two strands of Christianity to learn to live together and still do mission.

Whatever unity they had and we have is a gift of the Holy Spirit is centered on Christ and gives glory to God. The church's most effective and infectious unity was not forced or driven by machinations that says through gritted teeth "agree with me or die."

Here is a portion of Coggins essay on Katie's blog:

For the sake of concision, here follows an abbreviated account of the principal types of pre-Nicene Christianity. There were dozens, but we will deal with only the most important variations we know about :

• Primitive Jerusalem Christianity: no records; fresh, mysterious, simple; its message, the kerygma—God has acted again in history, the final age has begun in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus; history will close upon his imminent return; visions, ecstasy; Jesus seen more as messiah than divine being; amorphous organization around the apostles.

• Primitive gentile Christianity: the concept of messiah means nothing; the gentile church had no eschatological background for Jesus; Jesus is son of God (raises questions about Jesus’ relation to God the Father); Jesus is Lord (therefore present now, not postponed to a second coming); Jesus the son of God came to earth, died, was resurrected and restored, is now Lord and present to his worshippers; rejection of Torah.

• Pauline Christianity: what we learn in Paul’s writings and those attributed to him; Paul knew primitive Jerusalem Christians but went to the gentiles; the gospel is universal; the gospel is about God’s grace (salvation granted to the unworthy); accepted messianic eschatology, the end coming soon—but not a paramount concern; rejected exclusivity for inclusivity; sin is real, the Mosaic law makes us aware of it, we invariably violate it, no human way out, leads to death; Christ supersedes the law, is condemned by the law but vindicated by God in the resurrection, power of sin broken; life in Christ produces what the law cannot but with few hard and fast ethical rules; love, not law: little interest in Jesus’ life, emphasis on him as Second Adam, something new, “in the form of God” became man and died, God raised him and made him Lord; justification, reconciliation, redemption, grace; church is those who wait for Jesus and live in Christ; initiation in baptism, sustenance in the eucharist.

• Johannine Christianity: what we learn from his gospel and letters; Jesus’ life secondary to his relation to the Father and the divine nature of Christ; truth about God exists independently of history, so Jesus is more revealer of God than actor in history; introduces Greek concept of logos, that which makes God’s being intelligible to humanity; the preexistent divine logos is incarnated in Jesus, and both are now present in history (via the Holy Spirit, the paraclete) and eternity; history is a medium of revelation; judgment is now; life in Christ resembles Paul’s but more mystical, sacramental understanding (Cana/water/wine; Nicodemus/born again; feeding/bread of life); all guaranteed by the paraclete, “only spirit gives life, flesh is no avail”; skirts gnosticism (see below) but seeks to communicate Jesus’ significance to the wider Greek culture.

• Jewish Christianity: various records; outgrowth of primitive form, led by James and successors (Jesus’ family), hounded in and out of Jerusalem, none there by A.D.135; a continuation of Judaism, Jesus is messiah in succession to the prophets, not divine, not virgin born, will be Messiah/Son of Man at return; rejected temple ritual but retained much of Torah and OT; an ethnic religion; they loathed Paul.

• Gnostic Christianity: gnosticism antedates Christianity, has roots all over the place and a vast literature; gnosis = special knowledge, the peephole in the curtain between us and Ultimate Reality, revealed through cult initiation; proceeds from a kind of free-floating, non-specific sense of unhappiness with life as it is; strongly anti-Semitic; apocalyptic; emphasized dualism, the struggle between good and evil, creation mostly evil; posits a vast structure of spiritual beings connecting God to us; body and soul are prisons for spirit; deliverance through a divine messenger; Jesus is docetic, an envelope for pure spirit; rejects the world, embraces asceticism; short on concrete terms, relies heavily on myths; the world is not redeemed but rather escaped; tremendously appealing in its humanity, it garnered many adherents.

Except for purely Jewish Christianity, all the above varieties and more were up and running concurrently—and adherents of all called themselves Christians—about the time the woman who became St. Helena went to Palestine and brought back what she promised were relics of the cross Jesus died on. Her son Constantine was running the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Raised a pagan, he converted famously to Christianity and was busy raising it to the status of state religion. But which kind? He gave the various church parties an ultimatum: clean up your act and give me a church that knows what it believes, an instrument of unity and centralization instead of the morass of claim and counter-claim and diversity and uncertainty I see now. So the church did what it always does: it held conventions—or councils or synods as they called them—meetings where people met and argued and voted.

Constantine forced an issue that had troubled the church for a long time, namely that Jesus had not returned to gather in the faithful, and that meant Christians had either to abandon that part of their faith or expand their understanding of Jesus’ gospel to encompass the possibility of a long and undefined future. The first choice was not a choice, so the church had to think: if the Second Coming, the parousia, is delayed or not what we think it is, then how are we to live in history? The councils Constantine set in motion undertook that monumental task. Working with the scriptures—some of which did not get into the Bible, by the way—and the work of people like Clement, Ignatius, Irenaeus, and the other Church Fathers, they started knocking the edges off loose definitions. They excluded the gnostics as too gauzy, the Jews as too picayune and tied to the past. The purely secular need to achieve a degree of unity sufficient to guarantee the church’s survival drove them: there were plenty of applicants for the job Constantine had in mind for the Christians. And it paid off. The Nicene/Chalcedonian formula presented a Christianity erected on four bases: the creeds, the sacraments, the apostolic succession, and the scriptures, all defined by those councils—for the moment.

And a splendid formulation it was and is, still accepted by the majority of Christians today, though by no means all. At least part of its long success is due to the way it excludes and assimilates, rejects the outworn or the bizarre and accepts much that was then new and risky, closes the door on small certainties and opens it to the nudging of the Holy Spirit. Classic catholic Christianity

  • accepts Judaism’s insistence on the importance of history but rejects its obsession with ethnic identity;
  • accepts the gnostic yearning for salvation but rejects its grotesque mythical claptrap;
  • accepts the eschatological hope of eternal life in the Kingdom of God but rejects historical eschatology, a cataclysmic close of history at a predetermined moment;
  • accepts ethical freedom in the context of Pauline love but rejects the demands of the Torah and other hyper-detailed moral codes;
  • accepts John’s Christology and sacramentalism, the belief that God’s incarnation in Jesus expands in history, and rejects the docetist view that history doesn’t really count.
The formula has worked well because it preserves what is essential, lays aside what is not, and remains open to the possibility of adjustment to accommodate undeniable historical circumstance—and to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Constantine’s insistence got good results.
One last note: Coggin focuses on the Nicene Creed. The same process existed for finalization of the New Testament canon in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. That, no doubt, will be another post for another day.

Read the rest of this important essay here.


Marshall Scott said...

It is an interesting post. Readers might also be interested in this reaction from one commenter who went back to his own blog to reflect further.

Andrew Gerns said...

Hi, Marshall, howyadoin?

I read haliweorc's posts that you link to. I agree with him that attacking traditionalism by debunking tradition is bad; and disagreeing with fundementalism by devaluing scripture is equally bad.

They both suffer from the rhetorical error--unless one is really against tradition and scripture!

I wish that he had taken the time in his blog that he had taken in his comment to list the "specific" errors.

His critique is not really a matter of content, in my view, but of delivery. Yeah. Coggin could have mentioned the Apostles Creed, and he could have done a better job pointing out that much of the work had been done before Nicea.

The point was that, however it happened, a number of things came together at once to weave together the strands that existed. The Arian controversy and the need to unify the church for the sake of the empire are only but two.

As for those strands, Derek the AEnglican, says that this reflects more modern thinking than ancient. My response is..."so?" Yes it is more atomized than the actual participants would have thought about, and it is we in retrospect who see the different strands at work.

Look at the difficulty we have, to use a modern example, untangling the different streams at work this past week at the party called GAFCON. Is everyone there conscious of the fact that some are Calvinist, some are Zwinglian in their eucharistic theology, very few are Wesleyan in their approach and others are beholden to the Lutheran- and/or the Reform-oriented reformers of 16th Century England, while others are carrying around influences from the Oxford Movement? Let's not forget the influence of American frontier pietism and post-colonial African thought.

Can we unweave all those strands now or is just easier to say they all love Jesus and are mad at the Episcopal Church?

Someone else looking back can sort out the strands and in that, some atomizing will take place.

I found his comments interesting but less than substantial to the fundamental argument.