Monday, February 20, 2012

“Christ Alone” in Earliest Christianity: No Development Required

Was there ever a time in Christianity when something was believed, as Vincent of Lerins might have stated it, “always, everywhere, and by all”?

Darrell Bock, in “The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities” (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, ©2006), makes the following observations about Walter Bauer’s contribution to the study of the early church fathers:
Two methodological emphases of Bauer have stood the test.
 1. In their desire to refute these [early heretical] views, the church fathers overstated their own case and sometimes were inaccurate about what was taking place, especially when it came to treating all heresies as coming from a singular root, whether it was back to Simon Magus or calling most of these movements Gnostic (Wisse 1971; Beyschlag 1974). Scholarly consensus exists on this point (Harrington 1980).
 This observation about the fathers should not be exaggerated. A check of Irenaeus against the sources of views he challenged reveals that he described those views accurately. Many of the details of views noted in other fathers also stand corroborated. …
 Nonetheless, Bauer’s questioning produced a more careful assessment of the fathers. His call to view the sources from the church fathers in light of their polemics and to listen to proponents from both sides describe and present their views was a necessary historical corrective.
 2. The examination of evidence by geographical region was an important insight. Ideas move across time and space in different directions at different speeds. Sometimes they reflect a variety of cultural factors, with some of those factors being unique to a given region.

My view always has conformed with Bock’s statement here. Whether it’s Clement or Ignatius or Justin or any of the other early church fathers, yes, they provide valuable information, but no, we ought not to take everything they said as if it were gospel.

Still, there was a time, during the period of what is called “earliest Christianity”, when a Christian doctrine was genuinely “believed always, everywhere, and by all”.

In his work Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, ©2003), Larry Hurtado explores the notion that “devotion to Jesus as God” was not only characteristic “always, everywhere, and by all” of the earliest Christians. But such devotion, he said, was “noteworthy phenomenally early”, it appeared with “unparalleled intensity”, and it appeared even in the midst of an “exclusive monotheistic environment”.

In his Introduction, Hurtado writes:
The indisputable centrality of the figure of Jesus in early Christian devotion is the premise for this book, and my aim is to offer a new historical description and analysis of this remarkable phenomenon. Indeed, the key distinguishing feature of the early Christian circles was the prominent place of Jesus Christ in their religious thought and practice. There certainly were plenty of other religious groups worthy of note in the Roman period, and even some that shared a number of important features with early Christianity. … But despite the similarities with other religious movements and groups of the Roman period, all the various forms of early Christianity (whatever their relationship to what came to be known as “orthodox” or “catholic” Christianity) can be identified as such by the importance they attached to the figure of Jesus (pgs 1-2).

Roman Catholics are fond to boast that they have “the fullness of the faith”. But during the era of the Apostles, “the fullness of the faith”, the “faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people”, “the good deposit that was entrusted” to the church, consisted in precisely one thing.

Hurtado says, “For several reasons I contend that Christ-devotion is an utterly remarkable phenomenon [given its situation in the ancient Jewish and Roman worlds], and that it is also the result of a complex of historical forces and factors. Here are some major features that justify us in seeing early devotion to Jesus as remarkable":
1. It began amazingly early, and was already exhibiting signs of routinization by the time of the letters of Paul (i.e., by ca. 50 C.E.), which means that the origins of cultic veneration of Jesus have to be pushed well back into the first two decades of the Christian movement.
 2. Devotion to Jesus was by no means confined to this or that conventicle but seems to have spread with impressive rapidity across the Christian movement, though there were also variations in its expression.
 3. Although at a certain high level of generalization one can draw some comparisons with other Roman-era groups and movements, we have no full analogue in the Roman world, which makes the task of historical explanation particularly difficult (the more so to the degree that historical “explanation” is seen to rest upon analogy). To cite one key matter, we have no other Roman-era example of a religious movement with similar ties to the Jewish religious tradition of exclusivistic monotheism and with a devotional pattern that involved so thoroughly a second figure in addition to God.
 4. Devotion to Jesus was central in early Christian groups and of enormous significance for the historical development of Christianity (pg 7).

Lord willing, I’ll explore some of the ramifications of this in future entries on “earliest Christianity”. 

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