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The period between roughly 95 and 350 AD was marked by tremendous growth, change, and structure within the young Christian church(es) around the Mediterranean Sea and Asia Minor. many factors contributed to this growth and change - some of these include
Location, Language, and Politics.
Just as we see a diversity in churches and denominations today, we can look back to the earliest days of the church and find great variety of thought and belief. The feeling that there was some "original unity" to the Christian church that we have somehow lost over the centuries is largely false. Instead, we find that church practice in the first centuries was as varied as the languages that the many different churches spoke in their regions.
Our Old Testament was written in Hebrew, originally, but the version the Apostles were most likely familiar with was in Greek. The New Testament writings that have been canonized were written in Koine Greek, but the events they reflect deal largely with speakers of Aramaic. Within a century of the death of Christ you begin to have various translations of writings into a series of other languages, and by the third century there are several translations of the whole Bible into Latin. So if you are a church in one town tryin gto settle a dispute about belief with a church in another town, one of the questions you have to settle first is
which version or translation of the Scripture will you use to decide?
To give but one example: it is an important article of early Christian faith that Jesus was born of the
Mary. This doctrine finds Scriptural support in the
translation of the Book of Isaih: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive." The origianl Hebrew text, however, is more ambiguous. The word translated as "virgin" in the Latin can mean either "virgin" or "young maiden." Now, of course, it might be reasonable to
that the context and implication of Isaiah is clear, but the fact is that, in the end, the text alone does not give us the full answer.
That the church embraces the virgin birth of Christ in the first centuries is as much (or more) a matter of
than it is of Scripture. To have Christ born without human sexual intercourse allows some early writers to conclude that he is born without
(which was thought by some to be spread through the sex-act). Thus a tradition of
an unclear text a certain way arises. This process of
reading clarity where there is ambiguity
is going on continuously - even in churches today - and it was certainly at work in the disputes of the early Church(es).
In the first centuries, where your church was determined what language(s) you spoke, and many conflicts over "right readings" of Scripture arose over this simple fact. Compounded on top of this problem was the matter of politics: each church community had to negotiate in a sea of other cultures and expectations surrounding them. Churches had to justify first to Jews and Synagogue leaders that they were not a heresy (although this eventually failed), then to Roman authorities that they were a real religion independent of both Judaism and the state-sponsored polytheism. And most importantly, churches had to justify their doctrines and belief and readings of Scripture
to each other.
2.2 Patristics (continued), Councils and Creeds
As we have discussed, the early Christian church inherited worldviews and themes from both Jewish culture and Hellenism. One of the most profound structures the church inherited was the idea of a
In other words, from the Jewish culture and (to a certain extent) from Roman Hellenism, Christianity was given the notion that the world divides into three stacked "realms":
From the first commandment we know that the topmost realm, "God," can only have one inhabitant. The realm of "Creation" is everything we can see and touch. Somewhere in between is a realm of angels, demons, and false gods (see for example Isaiah and Job). These levels, and their interaction, were discussed not only by the Patristic writers, but also by the jewish leaders and the philosophers of the Greek tradition. While they did not always use the same words or come to the same conclusions, the fact remains that the basic structure was the same.
Scripture, as it began to become more solidified and agreed upon, then presented a tremendous problem for the Patristic writers. There are a variety of claims made about Jesus, ranging from what we would term
(Jesus was just a man - though chosen of God and an example of perfection - an account such as we read in Mark's Gospel) to
(Jesus is a divine being and greater than a mere man - such as we read in John's Gospel). The question the Patristic writers faced, then, is
which part of the three-level universe is the right place for Jesus?
This question forms the heart of what we might call the early church's
Not every writer in the Patristic period agreed o the same answer to the problem. In fact, we find a great variety of answers to this question through the first three and a half centuries of the church (and even after, though the politics of disagreement had changed, for reasons we will see in a moment). Some writers thought of Jesus as mere human. Others placed him as part of the spirit realm, created but not mere human, acting as God's "hands" in the world, getting things done. Still others wanted, from the very earliest days, to claim Jesus was in fact God on Earth - the Messiah.
Each of these answers had its merits and its problems. At some point, Scripture and tradition both agree and disagree with putting Jesus in each level. What we see in the disagreements and arguments in the early Church are many people trying their best to faithfuly read Scripture (though each is reading it differently).
Around 300 AD, we see a series of events take place that would change the course of these questions - and the church itself - forever. The Roman emporer Constantine - who had been (and probably remained) a Sun-worshipper - was victorious in battle after having emblazoned the shields of his warriors with the Chi-Rho, a symbol of the Name of Christ. While it is debatable whether this victory caused him to "convert" to Christianity, he did harbor a newfound respect for the Christian God.
Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire - though not for the romantic reasons often assumed. He was being very practical. The Empire was faltering, and under attack on several fronts. Constantine hoped that by rallying the Roman citizens around "One Empire, One Emporer, One Faith" that he could restore stability. Christianity - with its well-connected network of Bishops in major cities throughout Roman lands - was the ideal candidate to become the "One Faith" Constantine was looking for. Suddenly, this fledgling, sometimes outlaw religious sect became respectable and legitimate.
What Constantine failed to realize (though he quickly became aware of it) was that - in addition to inheriting the strong infrasctucture of Bishops - he had also inherited the Christological problem. The Bishops, while well-networked, were not unified at all on the question of Jesus (nor on a whole host of other questions). There was bitter, and sometimes violent, disagreement among them (and their followers in the various cities they served).
Constantine decided to take action, and in the year 325 he called together a representative (though selective - not everyone was invited or allowed to speak) assembly of Bishops and convened a church council in the city of Nicea. The council continued to meet for several years, and eventually produced a declaration of basic Christian faith known as the
It is useful to compare the wording of this creed with that of the
which was written probably a hundred and fifty years or so before the Nicene council. When we look at them side-by-side we can see both similarities and stark differences. For example, both creeds find their chief puropse in explaining Jesus as a being with both humanity and some form of divine nature. The Apostle's creed, however, stops short of explicitly naming Jesus as God, and does not elaborate in the slightest about the nature of relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father or Jesus. The Nicene creed, in contrast, makes explicit the divinity of both the Spirit and Jesus (as the Son). This is but one example. In class we discussed several others.
If you'd like to read more about these creeds and their development, here are links to two excellent articles from the online
New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia
TH 301 Week 3
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