Tuesday, September 09, 2008

If I were a 2nd century Christian ... and since I'm a 21st century Christian

Phil has posted the current patristic's carnival, and in it I found several interesting posts. I wanted to respond to one from Ecumenicity: If I were a 2nd century Christian. It is a thought experiment which begins:
Where would I have looked to know what to believe about the faith and the Gospel if I were alive as a Christian in the 2nd century of the Church?
It leads the reader through the author's thoughts:
Since properly ordained bishops held the truth, I would have believed about the faith and the Gospel what my local bishop taught me.
The author draws this conclusion:
In the 2nd century, I would have believed that our God loves us enough to give us shepherds on earth, easily identifiable, that we can follow with trust and confidence. I would have followed the local bishop's explication of the Gospel, and submitted myself to his God-given authority.

I start somewhere near where the author does, though I think by the time he has reached his conclusion, he and I have gone down different road. I hope to use this post to point out where we share the same road and where we take different roads.

I think, if I were a second-century Christian, I would learn from those who had been taught by the apostles, or their next-generation successors as available. The refrain from the early church is that the faithful could distinguish the right teachers of Christ from the wrong teachers of Christ by their knowledge of the apostles, especially those who had known Christ in person. Now it happened at times that someone taught something different; but the consensus of the churches founded by the apostles was enough to reliably distinguish teachings which were not in agreement with the apostles.

What made possible this second-century reliance on the consensus of the apostolic church? It was the fact that a consensus existed: there was unity among the apostolic churches. The great apostolic sees of Constantinople, Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem all spoke with one voice and one witness to Christ and his apostles. In those days when the apostolic churches throughout the world were in agreement, it was an easy thing to distinguish what the apostles had taught us of Christ, and what Christ had taught us of God.

The gold standard of the second century was this: what did the apostles teach? And the guarantor was the united consensus of the apostolic churches -- and a fair chance that the bishop had first-hand knowledge of one of the apostles in person in the earliest days of the church, or second-hand knowledge. As time passed, first the bishop's fairly direct and close knowledge of the apostles was lost. And unfortunately, over time the consensus among the apostolic churches fell apart as well. The apostolic churches maintained unity until Chalcedon where the first serious rift was introduced. They drifted apart further as the centuries progressed, so that by the year 1100 A.D. no more than one or two of those five ancient sees stood together, as it is to this day. I do wish I could look through the lens of the ancient united "one holy catholic and apostolic church" from the 2nd century, but that fellowship was broken before the year 500 A.D. That is one reason why I cannot take my answer "if I were a 2nd century Christian" and apply it to "since I am a 21st century Christian": the terrain has changed much since then, and changed in exactly the points that matter.

Fortunately, before the knowledge of the apostles faded and the consensus of the church fell apart, the church did recognize the writings left behind by the apostles, their companions, and their chroniclers. They set aside these books in a single volume and designated them as uniquely authoritative. They recognized these teachings as the teachings which had been their foundation. All the writings of the apostles, their companions, and their chroniclers were included -- even though a few writings may have been admitted under "benefit of the doubt" clauses of various types. That is another -- and likely the most important -- reason why I cannot take my answer "if I were a 2nd century Christian" and apply it to "since I am a 21st century Christian": when all these writings were collected, the united church recognized them as an authoritative means to know what Christ and the apostles taught.

The gold standard in the 2nd century was: what did the apostles -- the first witnesses to Christ -- teach? The gold standard in the 21st century is still the same: what did the apostles -- the first witnesses to Christ -- teach? But there have been significant changes since the second century, and a method which presumes a second-century environment will not get the best answer in an environment where precisely the relevant points in that environment have changed so substantially.

In the second century, meeting someone who had known an apostle was the most reliable way to answer that question: what did the apostles -- the first witnesses to Christ -- teach? In the twenty-first century, the New Testament is the most reliable way we have to answer that question: what did the apostles -- the first witnesses to Christ -- teach?

5 comments:

Phil Snider said...

Interesting points, I think. I had read the Ecumenicity entry rather quickly, but I think you've hit on an important distinction, although my caveat would be to note that, very often, those teachers of the apostolic faith were expected to be the bishops- at least, they were the guarantors that what was being taught in a community was the apostolic faith.

Still, I think it important that the standard of how we looked (and still look, as you rightly point out) is what the apostles taught about Jesus (especially about his teachings, but also about his essence and identity). I think we make a mistake if we identify this standard with an office per se, but rather that that office is meant to guarantee that the teaching is apostolic.

Thanks for a thoughtful entry.

Peace,
Phil

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Phil

I don't want to take bishops out of the picture by any means. I just want to note in passing that our accounts of the early church don't assume that knowledge of the apostles resided only with the bishops, though the bishop had darn well better be someone who had such knowledge.

My main point was to draw out the significant changes in the historical setting so that the same goal ("how do we know what Christ and the apostles taught?") is not best answered by second-century methods anymore.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

... by the year 1100 A.D. no more than one or two of those five ancient sees stood together, as it is to this day.

HUH? How do you reach this conclusion about today?

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Anastasia

Last I heard, Rome and Constantinople and aren't in full agreement. Rome and Alexandria are not in full agreement. Rome and the Antiochan Orthodox still have their disagreements. I think Constantinople still has a "2 natures in hypostatic union" (Chalcedonian) Christology while Alexandria does not, so again there's not full agreeement between Constantinople and Alexandria.

The ancient apostolic sees have their differences, and the whole set has never been in complete agreement since Chalcedon. There has been more fragmentation since (filioque etc.).

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Thos said...

Anne,

Thank you for the interaction. I'm sorry I did not reply sooner when the matter was a little more fresh for your readership.

"That is one reason why I cannot take my answer "if I were a 2nd century Christian" and apply it to "since I am a 21st century Christian": the terrain has changed much..."

Please note that the exercise was meant for the sole purpose of exploring the issue of authority. So the change of terrain should be irrelevant to the answer you give about the authority under which you would have been bound in the 2nd century.

"...when all these writings were collected, the united church recognized them as an authoritative means..." My understanding from reading about canon history is that this statement is incorrect. There was, is, and will continue to be broad disagreement on the canon. I especially recommend looking to the Eastern Churches' views on the extent of canon. There was no unative view on the list of inspired books, and certainly no universal agreement that it was the protestant 66-book canon.

But more importantly, I do not agree with your premise of the guarantee of truth. You posit a two-prong test, that 1) broad consesus of 2) the primitive apostolic teachings demonstrates truth.

"The gold standard of the second century was this: what did the apostles teach? And the guarantor was the united consensus of the apostolic churches -- and a fair chance that the bishop had first-hand knowledge of one of the apostles in person in the earliest days of the church, or second-hand knowledge."

I suggest that both prongs are flawed. First, the broad-consesus test did not exist in the patristic writings. Rather, we see time and again that the test of apostolicity of a teaching was to look to the deposit of faith left with the bishops, passed through their ordination. You seem to trust bishops because they were close to the apostles and had been under their tutelage, or at least under the tutelage of the apostles immediate students. But by this measure, the ordination as bishop is (ipso facto) irrelevant, and what is relevant is their proximity in time to the apostles. But patristics inform us (at least have informed me) that the ordination was itself meritorious toward the end of teaching truth. Consensus, or democracy, is an extra-biblical test, and does not guarantee truth. Would we apply a consensus test today about the substance of the Lord's Supper? If so, who gets a vote? Do we extend votes over time (so to include the dead)? If so, I posit that something at least close to the Catholic view would carry the consensus.

Second, primitivism, the view that truth is found by returning to the primal days of New Testament (post-incarnational) Christianity raises major problems when you apply it to the tents of the Christian faith. To keep it simple, I will propose the single example of Trinitarian doctrine. I propose to you that our Trinitarian doctrine had to be developed over time (over the course of the seven ecumenical councils) to reach its current state. If we were to peel back the faith to its primitive days, we would have something much less robust, leaving us free to wonder into a variety of views that many Christians would consider heresy. We even (arguably) see development on this topic between the time that Mark was written and John was written.

Peace in Christ,
Tom