Christianity and Other Religious Cultures
What does it mean when Christ is revealed, not only as the messiah, but God made flesh? This radical notion caused a seismic shift from the monotheism understood by the Jews and in distinction from the pluralism of the Greek and Roman pantheon. The question posed by much modern scholarship is do we understand this shift from the miraculous revelation of Christ, or from a creative appropriation of the surrounding culture? The (now) famous pagan Celsus charged Christians with falsifying the nativity story and argued for the impossibility of God assuming human flesh.
Part of this question has to do with the use of language. Judaism had no language to express philosophically what the witness of the early church claimed. Yet in the context where these early groups lived, a rich tradition of Greek philosophy contained the ideas and terms to express this newly understood revelation. Hellenism is often thought to be the source material for not just the expressions, but the ideas later described as essential Christianity.
Another rich source for claims of Christian appropriation is from ancient Gnosticism in the early church. Various theories of gnostic influence include both sacramental practice, and syncretistic teachers like Clement of Alexandria, who reflects both Platonic and Gnostic influences. These historic shifts that reflect a real struggle of identity and expression present challenges to the argument that there was any essential Christianity that preceded later corruption. Walter Bauer famously argued that heresy came first, and “orthodoxy” is a later, development.
This thesis has been widely accepted and used, even while refuted by many following works, including an immediate and devastating review by Walter Völker, which sadly was not translated into English. Although problematic in separate areas, and as an overall thesis, Bauer’s model had the benefit of great explanatory power, and is thus broadly accepted by adding qualifications like “generally correct.” Several of the contemporary theories of doctrinal development owe the foundations of their presuppositions to the works of Walter Bauer and Adolph von Harnack. These arguments are especially helpful in framing modern views of the early Church with proclivities towards colonial imperialism and social exclusivism.
Contemporary Theories of Doctrinal Development
History of doctrine has expanded as an academic category since Harnack’s influential work, and there are many sub-categories for the different assumptions, methods and styles which are being published. Bingham offers four high-level patterns of contemporary works on doctrinal development.
Basically, these can be described as devolution, coalescing, trajectories, and hybridity. Adolf Harnak’s model is one of devolution, where original orthodoxy existed, but is quickly and continually corrupt. This model assumes monotheism and views an original “gospel” that is unchanging over time, if hidden by historical accretion. His counterparts in the history of religions school, reject any metaphysics and view development through human effort and achievement where an original disparity, coalesces into an authoritarian orthodoxy.
This view is also represented in Bart Ehrman’s “Lost Christianities,” where following Bauer, the diversity is seen at the outset, but is crushed in the third century by the “proto-orthodox.” In the third view, there is an initial plurality of belief and practices that historically develop their own streams of doctrine. Koester notes for example “at the close of the first century we find at Ephesus several rivaling Christian groups (not several separate churches): the originally Pauline church, supported by the Qumran-influenced Paulinist who wrote Ephesians, but also represented the author of Luke-Acts who in his own way accommodated the tradition of the great Apostle to the expediencies of the church.”
This was the situation pre-canon, and Koester sees the New Testament as even a “new theological departure.” Finally, there is the hybrid model, which seeks to appreciate different expressions without negative concepts that depreciate the “other.” Both Koester and Lieu credit Walter Bauer for the ability to move past antiquated constructs like an original Christian identity. The question then should be asked, are these presuppositions and methods valuable when they contrast the self identity of the historical community? How is the “other” as members of a Christ following faith community being appreciated without divisive and polemical terminology?
Key Philosophical Shifts for Doctrinal Development
All of these models of doctrinal development share at least one thing in common. They all make certain philosophical presuppositions that establish boundaries for what can be considered as legitimate development. While the philosophic influences of Stoicism, Platonism, and Gnosticism on the early church receives detailed treatment, very little work has been done by historians regarding their own philosophical foundations. Historical-critical scholarship is rather construed as proceeding from no theological assumptions and following a method that is scientific and objective, only dealing with empirical evidence.
Adopting an Aristotelian separation of subject matter from spiritual function, tends to deny both an initial deposit of faith, or any legitimate apostolic ecclesial function. Yet the belief that objective method is even possible, defined earlier modernism. Yet this perspective has been refuted by arguments from the philosophy of science for over sixty years. This disconnect between transcendent and natural is foreign to the reception history of Christianity, and creates a cognitive dissonance in understanding even the biblical writers and early church fathers themselves.
Pelikan demonstrates the well established critique of objectivity when he writes that there is “no such thing as an uninterpreted fact and that therefore an exegesis free of presuppositions is impossible.” Further, the claim that scientific method removes subjective bias like privileging self claims is refuted by Kuhn, who gives a detailed description of how community and presuppositions influence theory choice in all practice of science.
Academically, the move past modernist certainties has been acknowledged in some areas of the humanities like literature and history. Yet in biblical studies and the history of Christian doctrine, orthodoxy and its presuppositions represents the current heresy and thus have little voice. Köstenberger suggests that the serious challenges presented against what he now terms the Bauer-Ehrman thesis have become paradigmatic because it “resonates profoundly with the intellectual and cultural climate in the West at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”
Recognizing our own limits and cultural situatedness, at least moves conflicting models into a discussion where the traditional views can be heard with new appreciation. In the next post we will look with new appreciation at the earlier constructs for doctrinal development, and surprising find that they allow for development and diversity within a congruent unity.