Sunday, September 17, 2006

Tradition and Early Christianity

This week, I've had an interesting discussion with Phil Harland over at Religions of the Ancient World about the canon, which settled into a discussion about the position of (proto-)orthodox Christians in the early Church. We disagreed, which is fair enough, but what the discussion led me to think about what the nature of traditions in an ancient society. The reason for this is that I think Prof. Harland may be assuming that I'm coming from a naive Eusebian position (see Dr. Harland's outline of three classic scholarly positions on the early church here). I'm not, but it takes some explaining to make that clear. So that is what I'm going to try to do.

I think that the key point of difference between what I'm trying to get at and what I may be coming off as trying to get at is what I mean by an orthodox tradition. Or, more specifically, what I mean by tradition. This is a tricky concept, partly because the term tradition has become something of bete-noire in intellectual circles after the Enlightenment and partly because it has become a polemical term in our more modern culture wars. Yet, I think we need to unpack what a tradition actually is. Here astute readers may recognize the influence of Alasdair McIntyre, a Catholic philosopher out of Notre Dame.

A tradition, in my view, is a relatively coherent body of thought which is characterized both by a narrative featuring a coherent group of people and how they believe they fit in the world and by a running conversation or commentary over time about how this narrative should be interpreted and appropriated by the individuals in that community. It is not calcified belief, but rather must be dynamic as it encounters both internal and external challenges to its status as a truthful narrative. Indeed, the moment that it becomes calcified tradition, with little relation to what is going on in the world or with its followers, it loses it coherence and its ability to explain the world. What follows is that this tradition rapidly loses its appeal and, ultimately, its following.

A healthy tradition, then, is a tradition in which disagreement from within and without is not only expected, but recognized as beneficial. In the clashes and the conversations which comes from these encounters, a successful tradition enhances its narrative' ability to explain the world and, thus, its appeal as an explanation to others in and out of the tradition. This may mean reformulation amid challenges, but these reformulations are made, hopefully, in a way consistent to its original narrative and principles. The risk with reformulation, of course, is that the discord between the reformulation and the tradition's original narrative and principles becomes too much. This can happen and usually results in the emergence of a different tradition which, as it were, piggy-backs on former narrative, but re-interprets it in a fundamentally different way. The conflict caused by this re-interpretation begins as an internal problem, but can, under certain circumstances, become an external issue for a community and its tradition.

Now, the theory here is all well and good, but, before I close off this entry, I really have to do something about application. What I am arguing is that Christianity emerged out of a largely Jewish tradition because of the problem that Jesus and his followers presented to Jewish tradition, especially in regard to the presumed incarnation, resurrection and eschatological hope of a return of Jesus. As the new tradition formed, there was great diversity in interpretations of the basic narrative presented by Jesus and his followers. Among these interpretations was a narrative which, in its outline, posited Jesus as incarnate Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, who was killed by the Romans and Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem c. 30s CE and was resurrected in three days. We have clear attestation of this tradition from the NT writings (which began to emerge in the late 1st century, but was in the process of becoming canonical over the next two or three centuries) to the writings of the Apostolic Fathers to the early Church Fathers like Tertullian, Cyprian, Origin, Cyril of Alexandria, who, pretty much, seemed to agree about these essential elements of what could be called the 'orthodox' tradition (or, at least, proto-orthodox, because it shows the signs of being the early predecessor of what we would later call orthodoxy). Yet, as a dynamic traditions, there continued to be disagreements within this tradition (the Quarto-Deciman controversy, disputes over the authoritative texts to be included in the canon or early Christological disputes), but this was healthy as part of a running conversation on the essential narrative presumed by an assortment of groups.

Clearly, this (proto-)orthodox position was not the only tradition bent on interpreting the narrative of Jesus and his followers. Clearly, there were Docetic, Gnostic, Jewish Christian interpretations of this story among others. Nor should we assume that, just because something we would identify as (proto-)orthodox existed that it was necessarily the strongest strand of Christianity or that it was destined to succeed (these are theological claims, not necessarily historical). Yet, a Bauerian contention that orthodox didn't emerge until the third century simply doesn't cut it either. There is enough evidence to accept that proto-orthodox groups not only existed, but even had contact with each other (see the apostolic travels of Paul and Peter or 1 Clement to the Corinthian church). Christianity was, as Bauer contends, diverse, including many different traditions and interpretations of Jesus' life and death. Why, it also included the (proto-)orthodox tradition, of all things.

I'd appreciate comments on this reasoning as it still is a bit experimental. Just as in a dynamic tradition, I need the input of both those who agree and those who dissent so that I can try to improve my interpretation.

Peace,
Phil

6 comments:

Jim said...

Phil,

I do not feel qualified to judge the dispute you report. I do think you are correct in saying that the seeds of what became the Nicene Orthodoxy did not spring to life without predecessor ideas and indeed, a rich history of them.

One obvious piece of evidence is the letters of Paul and pseudo Paul. Clearly, the epistles, while not a fertile source for the trinitarian concept, anticipate all or at least most of the rest of the coming 'orthodox' view.

I hope some more educated scholars comment on this. I may learn something!

FWIW
jimB

Phil S. said...

Yes, I think you're right on both your characterization of Nicene Orthodoxy and the place of Paul's and pseudo-Pauline letters as the forerunners of that orthodoxy. I think another problem which frequently comes up in discussions around the canon and tradition is a tendency to want to see the tradition spring full formed from Paul's forehead. It doesn't, of course, which is frequently seized upon as evidence that we can't trace orthodoxy as a tradition back to Paul. Yet, if one follows it, you can trace a line of development in orthodox thought right back to Paul and the Gospel writers. No doubt, orthodoxy wasn't the only way to interpret these writers, but it was a major way.

Peace,
Phil

Jim said...

Phil,

If those closest to the events and the witnesses to the events developed what would eventually become among others, gnostic and orthodox views, if they could disagree on something as foundational as the nature of Christ, how can we validly claim anything is essential beyond the Nicene formula? For that matter, can we claim that?

I am explicitly ignoring the theological idea of spirit informed discernment for a moment when I pose the question. If as I posit, one has a hard time finding trinitarian aspects of Paul and pseudo-Paul, then this concept arose from without the Scriptur as orthodox thought would eventually define it. In fact it arose from either other thinkers, or the experience of the church or a combination of the two.

That suggests, if the hypothesis can be sustained (I think it can, cf. NTW's What Paul Really Said that those whom we all concede are "real Christians" including Paul and the other epistlers, had a different view, or at least may have had a different view of the foundational question of faith, "What do you say about this man, Jesus called the Christ?"

The faith based answer is I think that the church came to this view via Spirit led discernment. But that arises from both the guidance of the Spirit and our natures, the set of our experiences. Which suggests that it can change over time, not because God changes but because our ability to receive Spirit led discernment changes.

Given the depth into which that arguement can take me, I am not all the comfortable with it. But how do we limit, we limited critters, the unlimitted scope of God if we must rely on our own imperfect spiritual ear?

FWIW
jimB

Phil S. said...

Sorry, Jim, I had typed a reply, but it disappeared off into the ether.

I think, to answer your question, we have to be careful about the nature of tradition here. If it is, as I argue, dynamic, there is room for the development of thinking on an issue which comes out of ambiguities or perceived ambiguities in its foundational texts (here the Bible). Indeed, we should expect it. It would be bizarre and, certainly, ahistorical for a tradition to emerge, as it were, fully armed from someone's head. A dynamic tradition will develop, but in a way which makes sense within that tradition.

Now, how does that work? This is, of course, a missing piece in my characterization. To be truthful, I thought I was getting a little too long on this post, so I left it out. I suspect it will take rather longer to explain what I mean, but, in a nutshell, what I would argue is that a tradition has a grammar by which it makes itself intelligible. Some definition is needed here, but the discernment process of what fits in or which doesn't fit in a tradition is really determined by its consistency to this grammar of the tradition.

What this boils down to is that it disturbs me in no way that Paul didn't explain his conception of the Trinity in precisely the same way that that Nicene formulation did for the simple reason that the Nicene Creed has always been intended to be regarded as interpreting the Biblical discussion on Trinity. The Nicene Creed works because it works within the grammar of the 'orthodox' tradition in a way that other creeds didn't. Yet, it should not be retrojected back as the standard because it is the result of the tradition; not the origin. We still have to go back to the Biblical texts and try to figure out if the Creed works or not. It still does.

Does this make sense?

Peace,
Phil

Kyle said...

It sounds good to me. I wonder if you've seen anything by Daniel H. Williams? He taught at Loyola, then Baylor, and he writes about these things, to introduce evangelicals to 'Tradition.'

Phil S. said...

Hi kyle;

No, I haven't read any Daniel Williams. He does sound interesting, thought. It is interesting that there has been a revival of interest among evangelicals about the Fathers, though. In many ways, I'm influenced by that revival which means that I have a rather different take on the Fathers than my Orthodox or Roman Catholic colleagues. I sense more ambivilence in the evangelical response (including my own) about the teachings, but that makes sense given the way that evangelicals do theology.

Peace,
Phil