Wednesday, January 30, 2008

More on early Christianity

In my answer to Brian Holtz’s challenge, I make the following statement:

Or is it more likely that the first 20% of Christian history was pretty much like the other 80%, with the faith defined by a stable creed authorized by the Church and persisting in the face of heresies that swirled around it?

I would like to expand on this statement a bit.

It is natural, when looking at the condition of the Church and Christianity today, to look for a “golden age” in the past when Christians were united in doctrine and in praising the Lord, and Christianity existed in its “perfect” or at least “best” condition. It is also natural to suppose that this golden age existed early on and that Christian history has consisted largely of various fallings away from that golden moment. This seems to me to be something like the view of a lot of evangelical Protestants, who seem to operate under the assumption that the best way to arrive at the true Faith is to attempt a reconstruction of Christianity as it existed in the first century; that is, they try to overleap two-thousand years of Christian tradition into a supposed early, golden age of Christianity. But is there any reason to suppose that there ever was such a golden moment? Maybe the state of Christianity today, with many different sects voicing competing claims to possession of the true form of the Faith, is the natural state of Christianity. Maybe a cacophony of competing voices is the way Christianity has always been.

The Gospel of Luke begins in the following manner:

Since many have undertaken to set in order a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, even as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write to you in order, most excellent Theophilus; that you might know the certainty concerning the things in which you were instructed.

We see that, even as the Gospel of Luke was being written, there were already many competing narratives concerning Jesus Christ. What does Luke tell us will distinguish his account from the others? Luke’s account is not merely an historical reconstruction of the life of Christ, but is based on the testimony of “eyewitnesses” and “ministers of the word” who “delivered them to us.” In other words, Luke’s account is distinguished from others because it is written with authority. Luke writes as the voice of an already existing sacred tradition, and it is his grounding in the tradition that distinguishes his account from others. The pattern for Christian history is set: The faith is defined by authorized witnesses speaking in the context of a sacred tradition, who periodically publish documents for the edification of the faithful, so that they “might know the certainty concerning the things in which you were instructed.”

Notice that Luke does not appear scandalized by the fact that there exist competing versions of the Faith. He seems to take it as a natural fact; he does not pine for an earlier Christianity in which his voice was the only one. In fact, Luke teaches us that even during the active ministry of Christ Himself there were different Christianities [Luke 9:49-50]:

John answered, "Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he doesn't follow with us." Jesus said to him, "Don't forbid him, for he who is not against us is for us."

Apparently Luke was not worried that there are competing Christian voices because neither is Jesus Christ worried. That has been the natural state of affairs in Christianity from the beginning. But neither do Luke and Christ doubt that there is an authoritative voice in the cacophony, and that such a voice is readily distinguished. It is distinguished as the voice of authoritative tradition [Luke 24:45-49]:

Then he opened their minds, that they might understand the Scriptures. He said to them, "Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. Behold, I send forth the promise of my Father on you. But wait in the city of Jerusalem until you are clothed with power from on high."

The situation is continued in the Pauline epistles. A regular concern in the epistles is Paul’s struggles to keep the churches he founded from straying from the true Faith. Time and again he admonishes his flock not to be tempted to follow other voices. He gives reasons and defenses of the Faith for sure, but the fundamental reason he gives that his Gospel should be followed is the authority with which he taught it.

What we know of early Christianity indicates that it was a lot like late-Roman Christianity, medieval Christianity, early-modern Christianity, and contemporary Christianity. A lot of people running around claiming to have the true interpretation of the faith, with one steady, authoritative voice consistently proclaiming the same Gospel across time. This is why I don't get worked up when the newspapers breathlessly announce the discovery of a new Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Judas or the remains of some bizarre quasi-Christian first century sect, or when scholars announce a radical new interpretation of the Bible that puts paid to orthodox faith. Of course there were all varieties of heresies proclaimed right from the beginning; and of course the New Testament documents can be forced into supporting non-Christian doctrines. It was ever thus. And it gives no reason for supposing that the Church's witness to the truth has not been consistent from the beginning.

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