Thursday, October 04, 2007

Attitudes toward second century theology

Sometimes when I read scholarship on early Christianity I am struck by the scholar's superior and disdaining attitude toward these writings. Reading between the lines, I get the impression they are thinking something like:
Gee, these guys' theology sucks. They've just got no idea. They don't get original sin. They don't understand grace. Their understanding of the atonement is woefully inadequate. Their understanding of Paul's theology is non-existent. They've just got no concept of the proper Christianity, the good Reformation doctrine that I hold. Really, they can hardly even be called Christians.
Whereas my attitude has always been that the second century church's theology is of great importance in understanding what the first Christians believed. I take the phrase "modern protestant Christian theology looks nothing like second century theology" to mean "modern protestant Christian theology is badly wrong and has radically departed from authentic Christianity." When I read a scholar who writes "Christians of this period had a woefully inadequate understanding of original sin", I mentally translate this to "Modern Christianity needs to reexamine its doctrine of original sin, because there is a serious mismatch with early Christianity." In my view, it is early Christianity that is normative and to which modern Christianity needs to conform and not vice versa.

Now I'm not for a second saying there was no theological development from the time of Jesus until Origen. Of course there was some development - that's one of my fields of interest. But anyone who thinks there was a world-wide 100% u-turn within Christianity with no dissenting voices within a hundred year period is surely dreaming. So if modern theology is substantially different to second century theology on large numbers of major issues, then it surely demands a serious reexamination of our doctrines. We don't necessarily have to end up agreeing 100% with second century theology - we might identify and avoid some of their mistakes as we study the development of doctrine during this early period... however the fact that their theology differs to ours really ought to ring alarm bells and lead to into a serious reexamination of our supposedly 'biblical' theology. Yet so many scholars seem to take a "no way my interpretation of the bible can possibly be wrong, it's just second century theology that sucks" attitude.

What I find interesting to do, is for each of the differences in theology, to trace the development of doctrine from the second century until today and see where and why changes occurred. It has been this process of study more than anything else that made me lose faith in modern protestant theology. I found what is taught today is simply a result of two millennia of theological development where theological changes happened over the course of time for poor reasons. In basically every aspect where modern and second century Christianity disagree, modern Christianity's reasons for its view are poor and unjustified.


Blogger scott gray said...


could you give one or two simple examples?

Blogger Steve Hayes said...

What Ignatius says about bishops, priests and deacons is a case in point. When St Paul writes about them, he simply assumes that everyone knows what they are, and doesn't explain it for later generations. Ignatius fleshes it out a bit.

Blogger Matthew P said...

I might wish to paraphrase along the lines of…
“Sometimes when I read your scholarship/opinions on Reformation (etc) Christianity I am struck by your superior and disdaining attitude toward these writings.”
…and I could continue in such a manner for the rest of this post.

I certainly respect your commitment to understanding doctrinal developments, in an effort to arrive at a true understanding of Jesus, his message, and what it means for us. Of course, in doing so you hold many prior assumptions (presuppositions, if you will) (as we all have when considering anything), concerning which things are true, what are good criteria for truth, and even the methodology employed by which various concepts are perceived.

For example, having decided that our ‘modern’ (post-2nd century) theologies are erroneous (perhaps they are, but have you correctly understood them?) you have sought to understand what true Christianity is by going back to before it all went horribly wrong. So then, the most accurate understandings of what Christianity really is can be found in the earliest of writings, because any change/development thenceforth is one of distortion. This may be fair enough if Christianity were a ‘historo-centric’ religion, which you seem to assume (rightly or wrongly). Thus a correct understanding is a purely historical one, whereas any seemingly novel doctrinal developments are clearly arbitrary aberrations of the historical original. Once this view is accepted, then of course anyone who claims a deeper or fuller understanding of Christianity through such modern doctrines, and even considers earlier writings in the light of such doctrines, must be quite mistaken.

However, there are those who consider Christianity to be a little more dynamic, where God (including the person of Christ, as they understand him) is somehow actively involved in revealing deeper truths (amongst other things), over the course of time to the church, and whom might consider themselves to be something like ‘Christ-living-centric’. Their more modern doctrines, while seemingly arbitrarily novel and perhaps even practically irrelevant, would be valuable in enhancing/deepening/clarifying earlier understandings, and in providing a more robust theological structure for those more practical doctrines. Of course, they may be entirely wrong, and if they are right, it is still possible that they could be logically (to a degree) perceived to be wrong by one holding a different set of presuppositions… as would also be the argument for their perception of another’s position if that instead was the truth. There may be many other (‘something-centric’) Christian positions also.

I’m not attempting to specifically rebut your position or advocate another here, I’m merely pointing out that we ought to be careful when we feel that we can completely write off another position according to our own. I finally find little persuasion for one position over another, unless it addresses the issue of presuppositions in core beliefs and methodologies, and can at least begin to account for and demonstrate the rational superiority of one set of presuppositions over another. To this end I am prepared to ‘hold fire’ over seemingly unreasonable particulars such as certain doctrines (preferring to instead have strong foundations with weak particulars, over having weak foundations with strong particulars). To me, the Protestant position seems the most promising in this regard, as well as in a few other aspects.

Thanks for your honest effort and enquiry into these issues though, and do keep up the good work :)

Blogger Andrew said...

Yup, I have negative views and feelings about Reformation doctrine. You may have also noticed I loathe presuppositionalism.

I absolutely admit, I am taking for granted that what Jesus and his disciples taught and believed constitutes real and authentic Christianity and that subsequent deviations from that represents a departure from Christianity precisely according to the level of deviation. Now someone else could certainly have the view that doctrine changing over time is good and fine. After all, if Israel after the time of Moses had shut their ears to the possibility of further revelation by God, then they'd have missed out.

However, Protestant Christianity generally claims to be true to biblical Christianity - indeed much of the goal in the Reformation was to "get back" to the early biblical view and get away from doctrinal changes that had occurred in the Catholic church over time. Now, in my view, that attempt was far less than 100% successful, but I totally approve of the 'back to earliest Christianity' concept that stands at the heart of Protestantism.

The issue I have with the alleged 'spirit guiding the church through doctrinal changes' idea, is that the Spirit seems to have done a very poor job, given the wide variety of modern Christian viewpoints. How is anyone supposed to know whether it's the Greek Orthodox, Oneness Pentecostals, or Lutherans who have the 'spirit-guided' doctrine? Because doctrine hasn't universally and smoothly changed over time (which is what a guiding force would lead me to expect) - rather, bits of the church has jumped in different directions at different times and the rest of the church not followed, leaving a fragmented mess.


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