Saturday, August 15, 2020

Early Ignorance Of The Assumption Of Mary

Today is the Feast of the Assumption, commemorating Mary's alleged bodily assumption to heaven. There's a significant line of evidence that's seldom discussed that suggests the early Christians had no concept of an assumption of Mary. Many early patristic sources cite Enoch, Elijah, and Paul as examples of people who didn't die, were translated to heaven, etc., yet they never say any such thing about Mary or include her as an example (e.g., Clement of Rome, First Clement, 9; Tertullian, A Treatise On The Soul, 50; Tertullian, On The Resurrection Of The Flesh, 58; Tertullian, Against Marcion, 5:12; Origen, in Thomas Scheck, trans., Origen: Commentary On The Epistle To The Romans, Books 1-5 [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Of America Press, 2001], 5:4:3, p. 340; Methodius, From The Discourse On The Resurrection, 3:2:14; Apostolic Constitutions, 5:7; Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 3:6; John Chrysostom, Homilies On John, 75; Jerome, To Pammachius Against John Of Jerusalem, 29, 32; Faustus, cited in Augustine, Reply To Faustus The Manichaean, 26:1; Augustine, On The Grace Of Christ, And On Original Sin, 2:27). Irenaeus, for instance, writes about the power of God to deliver people from death, and he cites Enoch, Elijah, and Paul (2 Corinthians 12:2) as illustrations of people who were "assumed" and "translated", but he says nothing of Mary (Against Heresies, 5:5). How likely is it that all of these sources, commenting in so many different contexts, would all refrain from mentioning Mary's assumption, even though they knew of it? They're sometimes describing Christian beliefs in general, not just their own, which makes their failure to mention Mary even more significant. If these early Christians held as high a view of Mary as Roman Catholicism does, or even close to so high a view, you'd expect them to cite her more than anybody else. Instead, they don't cite her at all.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Evidence For The Early Prominence Of The Gospels

I want to discuss some patristic evidence that corroborates and expands upon what I wrote earlier this week about the nature of the gospels and their role in early evangelism, missions, the planting of churches, etc. I'll start with a couple of passages in Justin Martyr that have some significance that's often overlooked.

In his Dialogue With Trypho, Justin is told by his Jewish opponent, "I am aware that your precepts in the so-called Gospel are so wonderful and so great, that I suspect no one can keep them; for I have carefully read them." (10) At that point in history, it was common for two or more gospels collectively to be referred to as "the gospel" (which is an indication of the earliness of Justin's Dialogue and the exchange with some Jewish opponents he recounts there). Trypho makes no such comment about other Christian sources, like the letters of Paul. And his comment above came after some remarks Justin made about Christianity in general, not the gospels or any other Christian writings in particular. It's significant that Trypho not only knew of the gospels and read them, but even took the initiative to mention them and didn't cite other early Christian literature in a comparable or greater way.

In his First Apology, Justin writes of Christian church services, "And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles [the gospels] or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things." (67) Again, notice that the gospels are singled out. And they're mentioned before the books of the Old Testament.

Similarly, Celsus and his Jewish source(s) interact with Christianity based largely on the gospels, much more than Paul's letters and other sources. As Robert Wilken wrote, "Pagan critics realized that the claims of the new movement [Christianity] rested upon a credible historical portrait of Jesus. Christian theologians in the early church, in contrast to medieval thinkers who began their investigations on the basis of what they received from authoritative tradition, were forced to defend the historical claims they made about the person of Jesus. What was said about Jesus could not be based solely on the memory of the Christian community or its own self-understanding." (The Christians As The Romans Saw Them [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984], 203) Notice how much, in these examples I'm citing and elsewhere, this Christian focus on the life of Jesus involved the gospels, not just claims about him or oral tradition, for example.

The order of the New Testament, starting with the gospels, is another illustration. That ordering of the books isn't a recent development. Discussions of the New Testament canon often give a lot of attention to the Muratorian Canon as the earliest canonical list we have, from the second century. It starts with the gospels.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Theology of Jonathan Edwards review

Alastair Roberts reviews the book The Theology of Jonathan Edwards by Michael McClymond and Gerald McDermott:

There's also a transcript of the same video. Here's a brief excerpt:

I think there is a lot that can be done with a theology like Edwards’, that is creatively rooted within the tradition; that is rooted within the tradition but is moving out in ways that enable it to take on board insights from the natural sciences, insights from other contexts of the church, insights from empirical experience, and insights from foreign religions. And in these respects, there is something bracing and exciting about Edwards’ theology. He is not just a hidebound traditionalist, but nor is he someone who has abandoned all moorings and has no anchor left anymore, and is going off on the wild waves of the sea into who knows where. He is someone who has bearings and he is someone who has a clear anchor. And yet, he is someone who is able to explore areas that others cannot, because he has a different cast of theology.

A personal narrative of Jonathan Edwards

Personal Narrative

I had a variety of concerns and exercises about my soul from my childhood; but had two more remarkable seasons of awakening, before I met with that change, by which I was brought to those new dispositions, and that new sense of things, that I have since had. The first time was when I was a boy, some years before I went to college, at a time of remarkable awakening in my father's congregation. I was then very much affected for many months, and concerned about the things of religion, and my soul's salvation; and was abundant in duties. I used to pray five times a day in secret, and to spend much time in religious talk with other boys; and used to meet with them to pray together. I experienced I know not what kind of delight in religion. My mind was much engaged in it, and had much self-righteous pleasure; and it was my delight to abound in religious duties. I, with some of my schoolmates joined together, and built a booth in a swamp, in a very secret and retired place, for a place of prayer. And besides, I had particular secret places of my own in the woods, where I used to retire by myself; and used to be from time to time much affected. My affections seemed to be lively and easily moved, and I seemed to be in my element, when engaged in religious duties. And I am ready to think, many are deceived with such affections, and such a kind of delight, as I then had in religion, and mistake it for grace.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

"One way to tell the NT is true"

Stand to Reason has a brief clip on the historical reliability of the Gospel of Luke as well as the NT in general:

This in turn inspired some impromptu thoughts about the Bible:

1. However, though the Bible is historically reliable, it does not necessarily follow from this that the Bible is God's word. What's needed is something additional to move us from "the Bible is historically reliable" to "therefore the Bible is God's word".

2. Granted, if the Bible is even approximately true, this could be sufficient to prove Christian theism.

3. There are many reasonable arguments that may help move a person from historical reliability to God's word. Each argument isn't necessarily entirely persuasive on its own, though the cumulative effect of all these arguments could be greater than the sum of their parts. And different arguments may be more convincing to some people than to others.

I'm thinking of arguments such as:

Monday, August 10, 2020

Early Distribution Of The Gospels

When issues surrounding the origins of the gospels are discussed, some important sources are often neglected. Some examples are Quadratus and his colleagues, who are mentioned in section 3:37 of Eusebius' Church History. Here's a portion of the passage, as found in Jeremy Schott's recent translation of Eusebius' work:

For indeed, many of the disciples at that time [late first and early second centuries] had their souls struck by the Divine Logos with a deep desire for philosophy, and first fulfilled the salvific command to distribute their property to the needy, and then went out on journeys to perform the work of evangelists, aspiring to proclaim the report of faith to those everywhere who had not heard it and to provide the written text of the Divine Gospels. Once they had established foundations of the faith in foreign places they appointed shepherds and selected others along with them to help in the husbandry of those who had just been herded together. They then went again to other lands and peoples with the grace and cooperation of God, since many miraculous works of the Divine Spirit were still being done through them at that time, and as a result, upon only an initial hearing whole crowds right down to a man eagerly accepted piety toward the demiurge of the universe into their souls. (The History Of The Church: A New Translation [Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019], 162-63)

This passage brings up a series of important issues related to the origins of the gospels. I want to highlight some of them.

In a recent post, I discussed some contexts in early church history in which two or more gospels needed to be distinguished from one another, which implies that the purported authors of the documents were being named at that time. You can read the post just linked for further details. Two contexts are often discussed in which there was such a need to distinguish among the gospels by naming their authors. We often hear about the use of gospels in church services and their use in libraries. But the passage from Eusebius quoted above illustrates another context in which there would have been such a need to distinguish among the gospels. Evangelists and others distributing copies of two or more of the gospels would need to be able to distinguish among them (to avoid giving people two copies of the same one, to make it easier for the people receiving the gospels to distinguish among them, etc.).

Secondly, notice that Eusebius refers to this as a widespread practice. It wasn't just done by one or two individuals. And it wasn't just done in one or two places or a small geographical region.

Third, note that the gospels were being distributed somewhat rapidly and in contexts like conversion and the planting of churches. The gospels were being distributed by people who were traveling and had strong motivation to keep traveling further. Eusebius puts a lot of emphasis on how motivated they were, how widely they traveled, and how quickly they often were able to accomplish what they had set out to do (conversions "upon only an initial hearing"). They weren't just giving the gospels to people who had been faithful Christians for a long time, people a church hierarchy could in some relevant way control so as to make sure the gospels and information about them were only given to select individuals, etc. Inevitably, the people who received these gospels would have ranged across a spectrum: people who professed to be Christians, but weren't; people who were Christians, but gave the gospels to non-Christians to read; etc. In other words, this was a situation in which the gospels and information on them were being disseminated widely and without much control from a church hierarchy or some equivalent.

Fourth, the widespread agreement among later sources about matters like the dating, authorship, genre, and historicity of the gospels is all the more impressive in accordance with factors like the ones discussed above.

We don't have much reason I'm aware of to doubt the general historicity of what Eusebius is reporting. And we know he had documents from the relevant timeframe that we don't possess today, including an apology he attributes to a man named Quadratus (Church History, 4:3), regardless of whether he was the same Quadratus discussed above. And what Eusebius tells us meets the criterion of coherence. For example, what he reports helps make sense of why Papias was writing on issues surrounding the origins of the gospels around the time of Quadratus and was citing a man he refers to as "the elder", a first-century figure, discussing those subjects even earlier (Church History, 3:39). See my recent post cited above for more examples of early sources whose comments make more sense in light of what Eusebius tells us. See here regarding how widely the gospel of Matthew had already been disseminated during the relevant timeframe. And so on.

Even if we had some reason to doubt a significant portion of what Eusebius reported in the passage in question, the large majority of what I've said here stands. There would have been many evangelists and other relevant figures traveling in the late first and early second centuries who were doing the sort of work I've outlined above, as reflected in the gospels, Acts, Paul's letters, the Didache, etc. We know that some of the purposes for which the gospels were written were evangelism (John 20:31) and the instruction of Christians in the faith (Luke 1:1-4). (Notice the implications of the opening of Luke for other documents, like Mark, which is widely thought to be one of Luke's sources. Luke refers to the existence of "many" attempts at accounts like his, which makes more sense if there was widespread interest in such accounts rather than only a small amount of interest.) And sources other than Eusebius and Quadratus and his colleagues suggest that the gospels were being distributed widely early on. It's good to be able to fill in some blanks with historical names, like Quadratus, and historical reports, like what Eusebius relays. But even without such specifics, it would still be probable that things like what Eusebius reported were happening.