Thursday, March 13, 2008

Judging historical theology

For some reason it cracks me up when modern scholars pass judgment on ancient theologians for failing to have "correct" or "biblical" doctrine. (In other words, failing to agree with that scholar's own denomination's theology, especially their interpretation of Paul's writings) I think part of why I find it hilarious is because I so often agree with the ancient theologians' interpretation of the bible and think the modern scholars are wrong (as, for example, the NPP has demonstrated).

The apostolic fathers is the title given to a dozen or so Christian writings in the period 90-150AD. Here is an example of one biased commentator's negative views of them:
"...occasionally these fathers of the generation after the apostles gave the gospel their own unique interpretations that began to turn it way from the great themes of grace and faith so strongly emphasized by Paul and the other apostles and more toward the gospel as a "new law" of God-pleasing conduct and behavior. Justo Gonzalez takes nothing from the apostolic fathers' importance or value when he rightly notes that "not only in their understanding of baptism, but also in their total theological outlook, one senses a distance between the Christianity of the New Testament - especially that of Paul - and that of the apostolic fathers. References to Paul and the other apostles are frequent; but in spite of this the new faith becomes more and more a new law, and the doctrine of God's gracious justification becomes a doctrine of grace that helps us act justly." Of course this shift was subtle and not absolute. It was a barely but definitely perceptible turn in these second-century Christian writings toward legalism, or what may be better termed "Christian moralism.""
From The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform by Roger E. Olson, pg 40-41

One particularly amusing commenter is Seeberg in his Textbook of the History of Dogma:
"It may be said, indeed, that Clement [of Rome] has not grasped the saving efficacy of the death of Christ in its full biblical significance" (pg 57)

[In the Apostolic Fathers] ""Righteousness" is always merely an active, actual righteousness." [and not the imputed righteousness of Protestant theology] (78)
..."the Pauline idea of justification was lost sight of, and a moralistic element readily became interwoven with them." (79)

"Thus we note the second great defect in the doctrinal conceptions of this period. As the work of Christ is not understood as having directly in view the forgiveness of sins, so there is naturally a failure to obtain this forgiveness as an essential object of faith. Good works are considered necessary in order to become sure of the forgiveness of sins. It is perfectly proper to speak of the "moralism" of such views. Faith is more and more robbed of its significance. Love assumes the leading place in the soul, but, having by the depreciation of faith lost the inner impulsive power, it turns to the fulfillment of the commandments and the performing of good works. Thus was lost, however, the attitude of soul which distinguished primitive Christianity, the sense of receiving everything form God by his gift. Instead of this man's own works now occupy the foreground. This moralistic modification of the primitive Christian position was, indeed, brought about by means of the popular Greek-Roman ideal of human freedom. It Hellenized, but at the same time it proved a doorway through which Judaic legalism forced its way into the church." (80)
He doesn't seem quite to know what or who to blame it on, so he spreads the blame far and wide:
"A lack of comprehensive understanding and profound apprehension of the gospel itself is here undeniable. And this defect certainly reaches far back into the apostolic age. The legality which here appears is not of the Jewish sect, but it, nevertheless, without awakening suspicion, prepared the way for the intrusion of Judaic influences. The moralism is that of the heathen world, particularly in that age, and has its origin in the state of the natural man as such. The misconceptions of the gospel may be traced directly to the fact that the Gentile Christians did not understand the Old Testament ideas presupposed in the apostolic proclamation of the gospel. But moralism always serves the interests of legalism. Making much of man's own works, the age accepted the legalistic works of the later Jewish piety." (115)
When he gets to the Apologists he is no happier:
"It may be said of the majority of these writers that they had no clearer conceptions of the gospel than had the Apostolic Fathers... In defining the work of Christ, it is first of all emphasized that he became a teacher of the [human] race, as he had already shown himself before his incarnation. The content of his teaching is found in the ideas of the One God; the new law, requiring a virtuous life; and immortality, more strictly speaking, the resurrection, bringing with it rewards and punishments... Man has the ability to keep these commandments, since God created him free. Although man, by disobeying the commandments of God, fell and became subject to death, he is nevertheless still free to decide fore God through faith and repentance" (115)

"The Apologists... make it evident that the general conception of Christianity in that day labored under the same defects and limitations as in the generation immediately preceding them (the work of Christ; moralism)." (118)
He is also upset they don't hold the Protestant interpretation of 'grace':
"Grace is no more than the revelation of doctrine and of the law." (116)


Blogger Lars said...

Andrew, your blog continues to be one of the most interesting one on theology, keep on writing…

Blogger PamBG said...

Coming out of a Wesleyan background I really don't understand people who criticise 'actual righteousness'. Nor do I understand what is so difficult about the concept 'We are saved by grace and grace then transforms our lives.'

Apparently God can save us for everlasting life but if he changes our behaviour in the here and now, then it's legalism?

I don't get it.

Blogger Bryan L said...

I don't think it's too out there to think that the early church fathers may have gone a different direction than the writers of the New Testament or jsut misunderstood them. It's not like all these church fathers had a direct unbroken link with the apostles and the writers of their documents. Look at the issue of canon formation and the debates that take place over various books about who their authors were. They weren't just passed down and with the correct interpretation given with them.

Besides it's not too hard to see that change could have taken place even during the time of the writing of the New Testament. I mean many scholars think that there were major changes happening even between the earliest writings and the last. They look at books like the Pastoral Letters and see a moving away from the free, spirit inspired egalitarianism of Paul's churches to a more hierarchical structured, patriarchal church of 1 Timothy.

It's not hard to believe that there could be change, even major changes between the writings of the NT and the church fathers, especially when you start considering all the different influence they had on them and the hermeneutical lenses that they were reading the Bible with.

Have you read any of those Ancient Christian (or is it Church?) Commentaries on any New Testament books?

Bryan L

Blogger Andrew said...

Thanks Lars.

I often tend to find myself in agreement with people from the Wesleyan tradition. It's no secret, after all, that Wesley was heavily read in and influenced by the early church fathers.

I too have never fully been able to fathom the Lutheran and Reformed objections to "legalism" and their horror at the thought that we might by God's power working in us and our commitment to following Christ's teachings and example, need to actually become righteous and actually imitate Christ.

I struggle to believe that for a two hundred year period starting at the close of the New Testament that the church universally moved relatively instantaneously into totally incorrect doctrine and stayed there, and that they universally misunderstood Paul despite the fact that generally were native speakers of koine Greek and lived in roughly the same culture Paul lived and wrote in and thought that they were being true to his writings.

Isn't it far more likely that it was the sixteenth century theologians, who barely understood Greek (all knowledge of the Greek language had disappeared entirely from Western Europe and was only beginning to be rediscovered in the century before the Reformation during the Renaissance period due to Greek scholars fleeing the fall of the Byzantine empire), who lived in a radically different culture to the early church, and who read Paul's writings in a way as to make their theology and emphases quite different to what we find elsewhere in the New Testament, who are the ones who misunderstood Paul? In fact, in the last thirty years, as there has been a burgeoning of interest within biblical scholarship to focus on understanding the ancient world better in order to help understand the bible better, there has been an increasing recognition that the Reformers did make mistakes in their interpretation of Paul, and that when these mistakes are not made quite a different perspective on Paul emerges.

I find it difficult to believe that if the apostles all taught good Lutheran doctrine that the next generations of the church worldwide would universally believe in final judgment by works not faith, in human effort and not grace alone, and that Christ was a teacher of righteousness not a penal substitute.

[i]Have you read any of those Ancient Christian (or is it Church?) Commentaries on any New Testament books?[/i]

I own the one on Romans which I bought mainly because it includes quotes from Ambrosiaster's commentary on Romans (which is one of the best ancient commentaries on Romans but is not available in English translation :(, though Theodore de Bruyn and David Hunter have been writing one for the past five years... one can only hope they'll eventually publish it). I have not found the work particularly useful though, as the snippets quoted are not always helpful in understanding the ancient writers' views. Better is to pick some ancient commentators and get the fully text of their commentaries in English. (eg Origen's or Pelagius') The apparent bias of the editors of the ACC collection toward Calvinism I also found to be unpleasant at times.

Blogger PamBG said...

Andrew, yes indeed Wesley was very well-read in the Church Fathers.

Re the 'horror of legalism', if you hypothesise - as some have - that Luther might have been OCD and if you assume that he was scrupulous, 'the horror of legalism' makes some sense.

However, IMO, the logical conclusion of this line of thinking is 'I can sin as much as I like in the knowledge that God will forgive me.' The Apostle Paul had something to say about that!

Bryan, I think there are two alternatives: 1) That the church fathers who were closer in time to the apostolic teaching and who lived in a culture that valued the accurate transmission of tradition from one generation to another 'got it wrong' or; 2) That 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st century Reformers got it wrong. I place my bets with the second option.

Blogger Bryan L said...

Or Pam we can say that both got some things wrong and some things right. It doesn't have to be an either or but a both and neither.

Blogger Bryan L said...

"I struggle to believe that for a two hundred year period starting at the close of the New Testament that the church universally moved relatively instantaneously into totally incorrect doctrine and stayed there, and that they universally misunderstood Paul despite the fact that generally were native speakers of koine Greek and lived in roughly the same culture Paul lived and wrote in and thought that they were being true to his writings."

Andrew you act like the apostles and writers of the new testament were teaching doctrine though. Can it be shown that those church fathers in the 1st 200 years after the ending of the NT were able to understand everything that was being said? Did they show an ability to exegete the apostles accruately? That was my point of asking if you've read the ACC or something similar to it, because the early church was not reading and interpreting systematic theology books, they were reading and interpreting letters written to churches and gospels written to communities. And they didn't even have copies of every single one but some letters here and some gospels there and other writings that didn't survive.

"I find it difficult to believe that if the apostles all taught good Lutheran doctrine that the next generations of the church worldwide would universally believe in final judgment by works not faith, in human effort and not grace alone, and that Christ was a teacher of righteousness not a penal substitute."

Not everyone believes the early apostles taught good Lutheran doctrine and Penal substitution. I understand that you have beef with a reformed understanding of salvation but that is not the only option in the church today. Besides in some cases it does look like they misunderstood the NT or tried to fill in gaps and answer questions that came to mind. I don;t think their ransom view of atonement was correct and I think they misunderstood Paul when he employed the metaphors of slavery and being set free in regards to salvation. If they can be wrong on something like that then they can be wrong on other thigs. If the church can change in the first century alone then it can change in the next 2 centuries after that, especially as they move further away from the original apostles and disciples.


Blogger Andrew said...

To my mind, something that is good about second century theology is that it is not dependent (or at least not wholly dependent) on reading and interpreting the biblical texts. Rather, Christian ideas were primarily passed on and handed down orally. Thus Christian doctrine attested worldwide in the second century provides a vector into the theology of the early church that is not reliant merely on interpreting the writings that would (much later!) become the New Testament, but rather represents the tradition of Christianity as it was handed down and passed on by those that came before. Of course there are certainly trends in how views and doctrines changed over time, and I find it fascinating to trace those.

Blogger paulf said...

None of the early church fathers taught anything remotely like orthodox Christianity. Some taught pieces of what became orthodox, but those also combined those ortohdox beliefs with things we deem heretical today.

What makes the most sense to me is that orthodoxy just did not exist. The earliest believers had a wide range of beliefs, and complicated doctrines such as the Trinity, the immortality of the soul, etc., just did not exist and were developed over time.

Justin Martyr, for example, wrote that heretics taught that your soul went to heaven when you died. It is doubtful that the first Christians believed in the Platonic idea of immortal souls. We interpret the Bible to say things that it does not say, either because the words were changed or we just want to see things that aren't there.

In large part, theology was developed to refute "heresy," not because the Bible teaches detailed doctrines.

Blogger Jnorm888 said...


What's wrong with the Ransom view? From what I can recall, some Lutherians picked the view up and call it by a different name. "Christus victor".

It's obvious that they don't think it's wrong......or else they wouldn't of embraced it. It's ok to admit that you disagree with a doctrine, but it's very subjective to say that they were wrong.

Eastern Orthodoxy still believes it to this day.....and we don't think it's wrong. Some Word of faithers believe in a mutated form of it ....and they don't think it's wrong.

So what you said is subjective. It is more likely that the 2nd and 3rd century interpreted Paul correctly.

So things change? Yes, but we can trace the development.


There was a consensus on doctrine. The idea that everything was in chaos is false.

Also, you need to define "orthodoxy". What do you mean by that word?



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