Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Patristic Studies: Debugging Christian History

Sometimes my children are working through a problem in math and find, by looking at their final answer, that they must have gone wrong at some point. The approach I have taught them is a time-tested approach: go back to the beginning and start over. Rework the problem forward step by step. Show all your work. See if you can spot the mistake.

I think this is why there is such a renewed interest in patristic studies in the church. We can look at where we are, and it is very plain to most of us that Christian theology and fellowship have gone very wrong in some ways. So we go back to the beginning and trace forward.

It is very tempting in patristics studies to look at the details, attempting to locate what is the problem. We can trace through doctrines, views of Christ, views of Scripture, views of church authority, views of the sacraments, and any other difference that plagues us we can review in all its history. But patristics is a vast field, and our current differences in Christian belief are a vast field. So pursuits like that -- as informative as they are -- have so far been unfruitful.

Sometimes, when tracing through a problem, we think we realize how a mistake occurred -- we spot a mistake in method. I very nearly wrote this post on Vincent of Lerins' Commonitorium as a case study in how problems of church doctrine were solved in the middle of the patristic age. The idea is that once a method could be established and agreed upon, then it was a matter of tracing forward from the earliest days of the church using that method, and we could then determine exactly when and in what way we made a wrong turn in method. We could apply the right method and see what results should have followed. Still, the very matter of method -- of how problems should be solved -- has become part of the field of disagreement.

Sometimes, when there is so much disagreement all around, the first thing to do is to determine when a problem occurred. I think this is our first necessary step because it is often possible to recognize when a mistake occurred even before we identify what the mistake entailed or how it was made. For example, in my own field of programming, when a certain type of problem occurs and resists a quick analysis, the thing to do is debug the program: trace through step by step looking for tell-tale signs not of what the problem is or how it came to be, but of when the problem begins. Finding exactly when the problem begins is then the biggest clue in identifying the exact nature of the problem and setting things right.

In order to spot a problem, we need a flag to say when a misstep has occurred. If we take "one, holy, catholic (all-encompassing) and apostolic church" as our benchmark for spotting a problem with the church, then we look for when the church stopped being one, holy, catholic (all-encompassing) and apostolic; the problem must have occurred before then.

Tracing through step by step, I think we're on safe ground to say that the apostolic church was still one, holy, and catholic (all-encompassing) at the end of the apostolic age, roughly 100 A.D. Likewise, the church still met those criteria in 200 A.D. and 300 A.D. By the time we get to 400 A.D. I'm not quite sure. Inching forward from 300 A.D., we get to the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. and find the apostolic churches are still in fellowship. At the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. the apostolic churches are still in fellowship, but it is strained. The Bishop of Rome did not attend the Council of Constantinople and some of the decrees of that council were, to say the least, involved in later controversies. By the time we get to 451 A.D. the apostolic churches have split into at least three separate groups which still exist and have never reconciled. So I would, just in broad terms, place the date when serious mistakes were made no earlier than 325 A.D. and no later than 451 A.D.

But, given that there were such early splits, can't we set aside those and concentrate only on the more recent ones? Aren't the more recent ones the most relevant? What about the split between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic church, often dated to 1054 A.D.? What about the Protestant Reformation, beginning in 1517 A.D.? Why focus on such early splits?

Again, it is tempting to trace the roots of the disagreements in those later splits back to the earlier disagreements between 325 A.D. and 451 A.D.; the roots are certainly there. But that would be a misstep for my present purposes; it is not necessary for later disagreements to be the same ones as those earlier disagreements in order for those earlier disagreements to be relevant, even for those earlier disagreements to be critical. No, the more pressing point here is that these later disagreements cannot possibly be resolved without first having resolved the earlier disagreements on more basic things. It is possible, in working a long and complex math problem, for there to be more than one mistake. But when there are two or more mistakes, fixing only the latest one does not fix the entire result. In fact, much work fixing a late mistake may well be wasted effort if there is an earlier problem underlying it.

So I would invite everyone reading along, and all those who would direct their studies towards the eventual reunification of the church, to rework the problem with me. The study of patristics is, in that sense, the record of the church "showing its work" as it worked out the meaning of the amazing things that happened among us.


D. P. said...

Brilliant! Thanks for "showing your work" in this post :-)

P.S. an after-thought said...

I understand the math analogy, but it leaves out the Spirit's work. Jesus always turned logic upside down, so I'm thinking he could turn the analysis upside down as well, and let us start from the here and now. Besides, when people look back, they aren't going to agree on just what the problem is anyway. And some of the modern strains of Christianity don't study the historical context, so they have no frame of reference.

I don't either, mostly, although I did have some of that in college.

I like your bench mark: "one, holy, catholic (all-encompassing) and apostolic church" but now there is controversy about the apostolic part.

Human analysis just doesn't work too well. Too much of the apple from the garden is left in our thinking.

Bob MacDonald said...

I think your use of the programming analogy is useful and I have used it myself in a couple of posts. E.g. see this post on theological engineering

The fix is however, from the end, and the end is Christ who has made of the two, one. We have a great deal of difficulty - and it is from our beginning, making two, one. Even the shema is a promise - not a reality we achieve on our own effort in avoiding mistakes.

Bob MacDonald said...

An afterthought - I do not see the one holy catholic and apostolic unity even in the NT - the disagreements reported are pre 100 and are substantial and of many forms.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi P.S.

I'm completely on board when you say that much of the apple from the garden is left in our thinking. (One of the posts in my "to be written" stack is on Martin Luther calling reason "the devil's whore" and to what he was right.)

But I think you and I have very different assumptions when it comes to the Spirit's work. For example, you say that tracing through logically leaves out the Spirit's work. I'd contend that the Spirit does not work apart from normal means -- just like when the Spirit worked to produce Scripture (pick your model of inspiration), there was still a human author with sentences and meaning and the ancient equivalent of pen and paper. I expect the Spirit to work with us when we're thinking our best, to be integrated into our normal lives and thinking processes.

I'd be interested to hear more of what you're thinking when you say "Jesus always turned logic upside down". I wonder whether we'd mean the same thing by that?

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Bob

Thanks for the links back to your stuff. Have you ever noticed how many programmers / coders / software engineers (call us what you like) are interested in theology? It seems like a real trend. In a sense, we're professional full-time logicians, something that wasn't even conceivable 100 years ago.

On not seeing unity even in the NT, I'm surprised to hear you say that. What I mean when I say there was unity was that the apostles resolved their differences enough to stay in fellowship with each other. When you're seeing disunity in the NT, what kinds of things are you considering?

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Oloryn said...

One thing to watch out for is finding errors that didn't actually produce the problem. Taking this from the programming perspective, I see this all the time - you're tracking down a bug, and find an error, which logically could have produced the bug, but when you correct the error and re-run, the bug is still there. Though you have corrected an error, some other error is the actual culprit. I've seen situations where I've corrected 5 different errors, all of which could have logically produced the problem I'm seeing, but none of which were the error that is actually producing the problem.

This can make 'debugging Christian History' problematic, because we can't "correct an error and re-run" Christian History. We instead have to take into account that just because we can make a logical connection between certain events doesn't mean that the connection is valid. There's a need to be a lot more tentative, and to make allowances for what we don't know (you have to not only consider how what you know connects, but also the likelihood that things you don't yet know are going to affect those connections).

And yes, there seems to be a programmer/theology connection. I think it's not only the logic connection, but also (especially once you're gotten multiple programming languages under your belt) that programmers deal with other things that are relevant to doing theology - linguistics, semantics, the fluidity of language (it is not at all unusual to find the same terms are used for different concepts in different areas of computer science, or to find that a single concept is expressed in multiple different terms - I maintain that to really understand the computing field, you have to be able to carry around multiple sets of conflicting vocabulary in your head, and keep them straight). One thing I find has affected my approach to theological systematics is that as a programmer, I am used to dealing with multiple, interacting systems of which I only have partial knowledge (e.g. I have the API, but not the source code for a system). Again, you have to pay attention not only to what you know, but to what knowledge has been put outside of your reach. Failure to acknowledge the holes in your knowledge can result in making inferences that aren't valid. I'm not always sure that that principle is generally followed in theological systematics.

Weekend Fisher said...

Yep, take Paul's statements that "we see now as in a glass, darkly", and that "now we know in part." How often does that get mentioned in a systematic theology? It legitimizes "I don't know" as an answer, but "I don't know" is used relatively rarely ...

Bob MacDonald said...

"the apostles resolved their differences enough to stay in fellowship with each other" - perhaps - but was there not a decisive difference between the circumcision party and others? And as to the disunity in each assembly in the diaspora - there are many studies of the conflicts and I don't think they are resolved with an apostolic letter. (See e.g. Church and Community Conflicts by de Vos) Sorry to throw an obscure book at you - I don't usually do this. But I do think we paper over the conflicts that are explicit in the letters whether of John or Paul or Peter or even those disciples who penned letters in their names.

I hope some of you techies are coming to the Seattle forum in January - I will be presenting some of my structural work on the Psalms in Oracle and Java Diagramming there.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Bob

Sure, there was a decisive difference between the circumcision party and the others. And after the apostles discussed it, all the apostles were on the same side. So the core of the church -- the apostles -- presented a unified front. That's all I mean by the "oneness" of the apostolic church, not that there weren't problems that arose.

The Psalms in Oracle and Java diagraming? Ooh that sounds fun. (Ok, serious geek appeal, but that's half its charm for those of us who see the underlying patterns and logic in these things.) Makes me wish Seattle were in my plans. Hope you'll post a summary when you get back?

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Oloryn said...

Yep, take Paul's statements that "we see now as in a glass, darkly", and that "now we know in part." How often does that get mentioned in a systematic theology?

And to my mind, that's also part of the point of Job. "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?" There's a time to say "I don't know" and stop. There's a ton of things of which we have no knowledge (which seems to be argument of Job 38-41), so why do we act surprised when we find something is beyond our knowledge? This doesn't mean we can't ask ("I will ask The, and do Thou instruct me"), but it does mean that there's a time to quit running our mouths in the face of lack of knowledge.

L P Cruz said...


Sometimes the fault is on the compiler, all is well but the compiler gives a bum steer. So theologically this can be analogous to say, the method or theologian?


SaintSimon said...

Hi Anne

Thanks for this excellent post, sorry I am coming so late to the discussion.

I like your while approach. THis is I think what the humanists were trying to do, and their studies gave birth to the reformation. As I understand it, Luther thought the problem arose after Constantine, whereas Zwingli saw it as pre-Constantine, and the Anabaptists went right back to the second century. Or something like that. I tend to identify with the Anabaptists. Yes the church was united to 325AD, but I think the desease of power had already set in before that.