THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CONCEPT Of "ORTHODOXY"
IN EARLY CHRISTIANITY\*/
[reformatted and supplemented 22 March 2007; new materials added in green]
\*/This is a revised form of an address delivered to the students and faculty of Eastern Baptist College (St. Davids, Pennsylvania) on February 20, 1969. It appeared in printed form as pp. 47-59 in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation: Studies in Honor of Merrill C. Tenney Presented by his Former Students, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne (Eerdmans 1975) 47-59. [The scanned electronic form was produced in January 1997; copyright Robert Kraft.]
At the time of publication (1975), Robert A. Kraft was Chair of the Religious Thought Graduate Group at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
By the year 400 of the common era, there had developed what can be called "classical Christian orthodoxy." This type of Christianity became mainstream Christianity in both the eastern and the western world prior to the time of the Protestant Reformation. It not only defined its beliefs in terms of standard creeds, such as the so-called "Apostles' Creed" and the so-called "Nicene Creed," but it judged the conduct of its adherents in terms of certain prescribed rules and practices for worship and for private life. It not only appealed to a standard collection of religious writings as authoritative, but it also acknowledged the presence of institutional authority in the leaders of the church, an authority believed to have been passed down from generation to generation in a line of spiritual transmission that could be traced back to Jesus Christ himself. It not only actively sought to bring non-Christians into the fold, but it also actively fought to exclude so-called "heretics" and to prohibit such "heretics," insofar as that was possible, from providing competition for so-called "orthodoxy." This classical Christian orthodoxy called itself by such names as "the holy catholic and apostolic church," and by the end of the fourth century had already gained the full support of the Roman government in establishing itself as the only legitimate type of Christianity in existence in the Roman world, both eastern Greek and western Latin. To resist this orthodoxy was to resist the Roman Empire and its laws.\0/
\o/ On "orthodoxy" and "heresy" in general in early Christianity, see n.7 below.
Things had not always been that way; nor would they always remain so. For several years now, I have been amazed, if not amused, to discover what an ambivalent attitude my conservative Protestant tradition has unconsciously taken to this classical Christian orthodoxy. We seem willing to die, almost, in defense of its collection of scriptures and its awesome reverence for these scriptures, but we scoff at the concept of transmitted institutional authority, or "apostolic succession," as it is called. We vigorously [] maintain, although often from ignorance, the doctrinal formulations of classical orthodoxy -- like the concept of the trinity -- but we pick and choose among other matters also held dear by these same formulators of orthodoxy, such as formalized liturgy or sacramental theology, or the separation between ordinary church members (laity) and the (celibate) clergy leading them, or, in our day and age, their rather strict ideas on such matters as birth control or on women having their heads covered in church.
In most cases, we are not conscious that any problem exists. We know only what we have been taught, and modern Protestant Christianity has not been known for its attention to the details of early church history beyond the so-called NT period, despite the real relevance of such a broader awareness.
What follows is an attempt to outline briefly how "classical orthodoxy" developed in the first three centuries of Christian history. Hopefully, an awareness of this material will be of value for a contemporary Christian in assessing his or her present position and attitudes, as well as for understanding whence these Christian traditions have come. Such a survey might even have some immediate relevance for the question, "Where do we go from here?"
The Greek word "orthodoxia" (ὀρθοδοξία) which means "correct belief" or "right opinion," does not occur at all in the NT writings, nor for that matter in the Greek Jewish scriptures used by early Christians. It is frequent in the literature from the fourth century, when Christianity became the leading religion of the Mediterranean world and the Roman Empire.\1/ But to say that the word "orthodoxy" (or even the adjective "orthodox") does not occur in the earliest Christian writings is not to deny that some early Christians believed themselves to be "right" while they considered others to be "wrong." The related term "heresy," for example, is already found in the letters of Paul -- the oldest Christian writings preserved for us -- with a somewhat negative thrust. It should be noted that in the early period of Christian history, the Greek word hairesis (αἵρεσις) (from which we get our word "heresy") also could be used in an entirely neutral sense to designate a subgrouping or a school of thought within a larger designated unity -- for example, the Jewish "haireseis" of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes.\2/ In fact, in the NT book of Acts early Christianity is sometimes described as a subgroup, or hairesis, within the Jewish framework! But in his letters, Paul uses the word to refer to subfactions existing in places like the Corinthian Christian community (1 Cor 11.19), and comments (probably sarcastically) that it is necessary for such subgroupings to exist so that God's approved representatives might stand out the more clearly! Again in Galatians, Paul includes "factions, divisions, haireseis" among the "works of the flesh" to be avoided by God's Spirit-led children (5.20). When the author of the letter to Titus, whom many scholars do not think was Pau1,\3/ warns []his readers to avoid a person who is hairetikos (3.10), this may represent the technical negative use of the term that later becomes standard, or it might refer less technically to a "factious" person in general. In 2 Peter, which most scholars doubt was written by the "apostle" Peter,\4/ the reference to "false teachers" who bring "haireseis" of destruction (2.1) also borders on the polemic technical use that seems to appear more clearly in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch (Eph 6.2; Trall 6.1), a Christian bishop who died as a martyr before the year 120, as well as in other Christian documents of the second century including the work by Irenaeus entitled "Against the Heretics."\5/
\1/See the relevant entries in A Patristic Greek Lexicon, ed. by G. W. H. Lampe (Oxford, 1961). [And subsequently, in the TLG data bank; as of 26 March 2007, there were 4,542 (4,636 according to the index) "hits" on the stem ὀρθόδοξ- of which 891 were forms of ὀρθοδοξία. Eusebius uses the latter 15 out of 19 times (HE 3.23.2 [ecclesiastical = Iren, ClemAlex], 3.25.7 [true writings, vs αἱρετικῶν], 3.31.6 [apostolic writings], 3.38.5 [apostolic writings style], 4.21.1 [of sound faith (2nd century authors)], 4.23.2 [instruction in (Dionysius of Corinth], 4.23.8 [in the faith (Pinytus)], 5.22.1 [of faith (several)], 6.2.14 [concerning the faith (Origen)], 6.18.1 [ecclesiastical (Ambrose via Origen)], 6.36.4 [Origen's], 7.30.18 [fallen from (Paul of Antioch)]; EcclTheol 1.contents [sound and ecclesiastical]; EclProph 2.29 [sound], 115.12 [of ecclesiastical faith]; the other 4 uses of the root are HE 5.3.4 [most orthodox judgment], 5.27.1 [lost orthodox authors], 6.33.2 [unorthodox ideas of Beryllus corrected by Origen], DemEv 6.18.31 [sound and orthodox gnosis]); before him, Clement of Alexandria uses the root once (Strom 126.96.36.199), Origen five or less (Sel Pss 12.1668 [contrast to heresy], Comm in 1 Cor 15.46 [unseen dogmas], Philocalia [3 times]; it is frequent (19) in pseudo-Justin Martyr writings, one of which is addressed "to the orthodox"]
\2/This terminology is used by Paul's younger Jewish contemporary, Josephus, in Antiquities 13.171 (see also War 2.119), and by the author of Acts (5.17; 15.5). [Hairesis (αἵρεσις) occurs 1,430 times in the TLG Corpus (9 in Eusebius) and the root haires 12,668 (207 in Eusebius) -- there are also numerous prefixed forms; the root form αιρετικ- appears 5,021 times. In Eusebius' HE, we find 24 uses of the latter root starting in 3.19.1 [rival group members? (Hegesippus report)], 3.25.6-7 [writings attributed to apostles], 3.32.2-3 (Hegesippus report), 4.14.5-8 [Polycarp, in reference to Valentinus & Marcion], 4.22.9 (Irenaeus on fabricated books), 4.23.5-6 (Dionysius of Corinth guards against heretics, but readmits repentant ones), 4.24.1 (Theophilus of Antioch, inter alia, opposes), 5.20.4 (Irenaeus against), 6.2.14 (Origen's contact with and separation from), 6.18.2 (instructed by Origen), 6.19.12 (Origen's explorations), 7.5.4-9 (Dionysius of Alexandria against rebaptism of heretics).
\3/Cf. M. S. Enslin, Letters to the Churches, Bible Guides 18 (London and New York, 1963), 32-35; C. K. Barrett, The Pastoral Epistles (Oxford, 1963), 4-12; R. M. Grant, Historical Introduction to the New Testament (New York, 1963), 208-15; P. Feine and J. Behm, Introduction to the New Testament, rev. by W. G. Ku%mmel, trans. by A. J. Mattill, Jr. (Nashville and New York, 1965), 261-62 for a summary of other scholars who reject Pauline authorship. For a relatively recent discussion of the problem of the Pastorals which argues for Pauline authorship from a scholarly point of view, see chap. 3 of E. E. Ellis, Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Grand Rapids, 1961). Pauline authorship is also defended by 0. Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles (New York, 1964), and New Testament Introduction: The Pauline Epistles (Chicago, 1961); and by J. N. D. Kelly, The Pastoral Epistles (New York, 1964).
\4/But for a scholarly presentation of the arguments for Petrine authorship, see D. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction: Hebrews to Revelation (London, 1962), and the detailed 1960 Tyndale Lecture by F. M. B. Green, 2 Peter Reconsidered (London, 1961). This was even a disputed point among some Christians in the period when classical orthodoxy became established; see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.25.3-4, following Origen, Comm in John 5.3 (Eccl Hist 6.25.8); see also n.8 below.
\5/Especially Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria; see Lampe, Lexicon, under the relevant entries. [In Justin's Apology 26.8, he claims to have written his Syntagma against all "heresies" (after speaking about Christian and non-Christian groups); Justin also applies the term both to Christian and to Jewish sub-groups in Dial 80. As noted, Irenaeus writes "Against the Heresies." The full title of this work, as given by Eusebius (HE 5.7), and indicated frequently within it, was "A Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely so Called," but even Eusebius usually refers to it with the brief title πρὸς τὰς αἱρέσεις (HE 2.13.5, 3.18.2, 3.23.3, 3.28.6, 4.11.2, 4.14.2, 4.18.9, 4.29.1, 5.5.9). Clement of Alexandria uses the term hereseis frequently in its neutral sense, e.g. of philosophical schools or options (Strom 1.9.44, 1.13.1, etc.), but also of Christian positions he opposes (e.g. Strom 7.16.93-97).
But to return to our earliest preserved evidence, we find Paul making very strong claims for what he calls his gospel message, in contrast to what certain "others" are proclaiming about Jesus the Messiah. To the Galatians he writes: "I am amazed that you have gone over so quickly from the one who called you in the grace of Messiah to another gospel, although there is no other! But there are certain people stirring you up and trying to turn you from the gospel of Messiah. But even if we ourselves, or an angel from heaven, proclaim something other than what I proclaimed to you, let him be anathema" (ἀνάθεμα 1.6-9). Paul seems to have a rather firm idea of what might be called "right belief"! lt is what he claims to believe and to have preached among the Galatians. Elsewhere he makes similarly strong statements. In combating what he feels are false or inadequate approaches at Corinth, he claims that he knows the "mind of Christ" (1 Cor 2.16; cf. 7.10, 12, 40,; etc.) and has the "Spirit of the Lord." Of course the problem remained for Paul's listeners whether to accept such weighty claims or to accept the claims of his Christian rivals. To put it another way, by what criteria are such claims of correctness or authority to be evaluated? Should we accept a man simply on his own word? We will return to this issue later.
Paul is not alone among NT authors in claiming to have "right" on his side. The writer of the short tractate known as Jude contends against "ungodly men" in behalf of "the faith once for all delivered to the saints" (3-4), and 2 Peter has a similar thrust. A claim of "truth" is also made by and for the Johannine witness (see 1 John 4.6; 3 John 12; Gospel of John [] 21.24). The apocalyptic spokesman of Revelation cryptically condemns various objectionable positions in Asia Minor -- beware of the "teaching of Balaam" (2.14), the "Nicolaitans" (2.15), and the "followers of Jezebel" (2.20). Other Christian writings from the same period, which for various reasons were not included in the collection known as the NT, sometinies also exliibit this defensive attitude of an "orthodox" outlook in opposition to positions with which they disagree.\6/
\6/For example, 1 Clement laments the "schism" that has occurred at Corinth (1.1); Ignatius is continually warning against positions he considers "false" (e.g. Magn 8.10; Trall 6.8; Smyrn 6.7); Polycarp exhorts the Philippians to oppose those who "pervert" the Christian truths (7.12). For convenient treatments of the "Apostolic Fathers" see The Apostolic Fathers. A New Translation and Commentary, ed. by R. M. Grant (6 vols.; New York: Nelson 1964-68).
It is clear, then, that from as far back as we are able to go in Christian history, the claim "I am right," "God (or truth) is on my side," was made by various people in various connections. It is equally clear that such a claim necessarily stands over against some alternative claim by the opposition! Paul was opposing and was being opposed by others who doubtless also claimed to be correct! From his opponents' point of view, Paul is wrong and they are "orthodox," if I may use that concept in this anachronistic manner! But Paul's words have been preserved for us with approval, while theirs have not. From as close to the beginning as we can get -- for Paul's letters seem to have been actually written before the Gospels were edited in their present forms -- I repeat, from our earliest available evidence, we find diversity of approach in Christianity! This raises the vital question of whether there ever was a single, pure, and authentic Christian position, as later "orthodoxy" would have us believe.\7/
\7/On this general problem, see W. Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, ed. with added appendices by G. Strecker, trans. and ed. by R. A. Kraft and G. Krodel, Philadelphia, 1971, and especially the appendix on "The Reception of the Book"; see also the online electronic edition edited by Robert Kraft.
How is it, then, that Paul and certain other early Christian authors and documents stand out for us as "orthodox," to the exclusion of others? "That is, why have some early Christian writings been preserved for us in a special collection dubbed the "New Testament," and have traditionally come to be treated as a special category of literature, not subject to the same questions and criticisms we might offer of other literature (including Christian literature) from the ancient worid? (To bring it closer home, why is it that some of us automatically react rather negatively when it is suggested that Paul might not have written the letter called Titus, and that Peter might not have penned 2 Peter, although it probably would not bother us in the least if it were claimed that the apostle Barnabas did not write the letter attributed to him, or that Thomas did not write the gospels preserved in his name?) Is it that Paul's writings are "Apostolic" (with a capital A), which very claim somehow rescues them for "orthodoxy"? The later church is fond of playing such games with words and labels, but it is startling to find that some of Paul's opponents made an even stronger claim to being "apostles," and of presenting the message of Christianity in the form closest to that taught by Jesus' earliest Jewish followers in JerusaIem! [] Paul, in fact, has to defend himself as being just as "apostoiic" as they were or as they claimed to be (see 1 Cor 9; 2 Cor 11). But elsewhere he also argues that his essential message was not "apostolic" in the sense of being passed down directly from Jesus' earliest followers but that it came to him directly from God by revelation; and the so- called "leading apostles" in Jerusalem did not, he claims, significantly modify his approach (Gal 2).
But as time went on, such subtle and basic distinctions and problems as these came to be forgotten or ignored, and Paul's claim to be an "Apostle" came to be taken at face value by Christians who for various reasons were sympathetic to his person and message. For the emerging mainstream church, "apostolicity" came to signify a chain of transmission, from God to Jesus the Messiah, from Jesus to his appointed "apostles," and from the "apostles" to approved successors, and so on (see 1 Clem 42-44; cf. Ign Smyrn 5). This pattern became known as the doctrine of "apostolic succession" -- a forceful and convenient tool in the struggle with people considered to be non- authorized. In some ways, however, this was in striking contrast to the kind of thing Paul had claimed about himself namely, that his true apostleship stood independent of, and even sometimes in opposition to other "apostles," even when these other "apostles" claimed to have derived their authority from Jesus' "apostolic" companions. To put it most forcefully, some of Paul's opponents seem to have been in an excellent position to appeal to "apostolic succession" in defense of their approach, in opposition to Paul! Paul did not, and almost surely could not make the same appeal!
But the later church came to accept as "apostolic" most of those letters bearing the name of Paul. It would also have us believe that such anonymously published documents as our first and fourth gospels, 1 John and the tractate known as Hebrews originated with the "apostolic" figures of Matthew, John and Paul. And other books that vaguely mention their authors, like James ("a servant of God"), or Jude ("a servant of Jesus Messiah and brother of James"), or 2-3 John and Revelation (John the presbyter and John the seer/prophet), came to be considered "apostolic" in some sense, while the anonymous second and third gospels (Mark and Luke) and Acts were attributed to the allegedly "close associates of the apostles." But these are surely, to some degree, rationalizations despite what we are sometimes told in books on the NT canon. The churches wanted to accept these writings as authoritative for other reasons, and after doing so, found justification through the category of "apostolic" origin or association. Why does this seem likely? There are several reasons: for example, there were other equally ancient documents known to the churches and used in some Christian communities which also came to bear "apostolic" names - - documents such as the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of Paul, the letters attributed to Clement (a name mentioned favorably as a co-worker with Paul in Phil 4.3), and the letter attributed to Barnabas (who is called an apostle twice in Acts (14.4, 14], and who was a companion of Paul). But none of these ultimately was included in the orthodox NT collection despite their claim to "apostolicity." further, the "apostolicity" of some of the writings presently contained in the NT was highly suspect by some leading church authorities at various times and places, but they [] finally came to be included anyhow -- for example, 2 Peter, Revelation, Hebrews.\8/ Thus, while apostolic connection may have been a factor in some of the selection, it certainly does not seem to have been the actual determining criterion in the gradual selection of the orthodox NT collection as we have inherited it! Many other more important factors seem to have been at work.\9/
\8/Most of the evidence of such discussions is preserved by Eusebius, the early fourth-century compiler of Christian traditions -- see his Ecclesiastical History 2.23.24-25 (James and Jude), 3.3.1-5 (2 Pet, Heb), 3.25.2-5 (Rev, Jas, Jude, 2 Pet, 2-3 John), 6.20.3 (Heb). See Also above, n. 4. The absence of Jude, 2 Pet, 2-3 John and Rev from the fifth-century (?) Syriac Peshitta revised version of the NT (and presumably from the older Syriac version(s) on which it was based) is also noteworthy. for a useful comprehensive (if old) discussion of canon, see B. F. Westcott, A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament (London, 1896?). Briefer, more up-to-date treatments are readily available in encyclopedias, NT lntroductions, etc.; see especially R. M. Grant, The Formation of the New Testament (New York 1965). [Add, now, Lee Martin McDonald, The Biblical Canon: its Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Hendrickson 2007).]
\9/For a general discussion of the category "apostolic" as it relates to early Christian literature, see W. 8chneemelcher's introduction to Vol. 2 of Hennecke, Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, ET ed. by R. McL. Wilson (Philadelphia, 1963-64), 25-31.
What, then, were some of the high points -- or some might prefer to say "low points" -- in the development of classical Christian orthodoxy with its attendant (1) collection of literature, (2) set of beliefs, and (3) prescriptions for conduct? Human history is made up of real people and their relationship to their own worlds. It refiects situations just as complex as are met today in your life and mine. I cannot hope to sketch here the whole process of early Christian history in detail, and to the extent that I tend to generalize about history, I am in danger of falsifying its complexity -- of unintentionally lying a little bit. Nevertheless, certain periods and events stand out as we look back over early Christian history -- periods and events of crucial importance for the development of certain ideas and attitudes and practices that came to be known as "orthodox." I will mention a few of those which seem most important for the present discussion.
Paul represented a radically non-traditional approach to both the Judaism and the Christianity of his world, if the impression left by his writings is accurate. His emphatic personal attachment to his message, and his emphasis on its origin directly from God, by revelation, speak loudly from his writings: "my gospel" (Rom 2.16; 16.25) and "the mystery now made known" (Rom 16.25) are phrases representative of this concern (see also Gal 1.6-12; 2 Cor 4.3, etc.). Further, much of his violent opposition is directed against Christians who operated in a traditional Jewish framework of circumcision, calendar, food laws, and the like -- the way Peter is pictured in the early part of Acts, and the Jerusalem community led by James in Acts 21. Paul's main point is that the resurrection of Jesus, which proclaims him to be God's Messiah, heralds the start of the long- expected last times (the "eschaton"). This view was probably accepted also by his opponents, but what Paul urges against them is that the new situation created by Messiah's coming opens the door of salvation to every human, regardless of [] nationality, cultural background, economic status or gender (see Gal 6.15; 2 Cor 5.17; 1 Cor 12.13, etc.). For Paul, God no longer accepts only law-observing Jews -- if indeed that was ever the case! Salvation is now determined without reference to the traditional Jewish legal system. Paul surely shocked many of his contemporaries with such an approach, including Christian contemporaries! Here is a good example of what was referred to so vividly by Professor Morton S. Enslin in his book on Christian Beginnings:
Many of those in the early and formative years whom men today regard as the pillars of orthodoxy must have seemed far from the light to many of their fellow saints. What a debt every religion -- and Christianity perhaps most of all -- owes to its heretics, for notions dubbed heresy at bedtime often arise the next niorning with a halo of orthodoxy upon their brows.\10/
Clearly Paul deserved to be considered "heretical" in the eyes of many of his Christian contemporaries!
\10/M.S.Enslin Christian Beginnings (New York, 1938, repr. 1956), 1.147.
Especially among non-Jews who embraced Christianity, however, this startlingly new approach represented by Paul (and some others) became an "orthodoxy" of sorts. And in the process, the older, more traditionally Jewish-oriented forms of Christianity themselves came to be considered non-orthodox (heterodox, heretical) and gradually fell by the wayside.\11/ But Paul's "liberalism," if I may call it that, bred new problems. Some Christians seemed to act without any ethical constraint whatsoever -- "Christ has set us free," they echoed from the message of Paul. Paul himself attempted to counter this position by appealing to a sort of (Christian) relativism and pragmatism in which the ideal is to proclaim the eschatological news ("gospel") most widely by becoming "all thing to all men" (1 Cor 9.22). As he put it elsewhere, although he realized that all things are lawful, not all things are constructive (1 Cor 10.23). Such a policy of realistic Christian relativism of action, for the sake of the message, never became the official position of later classical orthodoxy. At the same time, Paul also appealed to certain moral and ethical standards that he doubtless felt were universal "by nature," but which clearly derive from his own Jewish heritage and cultural ideals (see e.g. Rom 1-2; Gal 5.16-26). These came to be emphasized (and institutionalized) more and more by developing orthodoxy.
But Paul had helped to start something he could hardly finish. God gives his children a special wisdom, he maintained, a spiritual insight that is sometimes called "gnosis" in Greek. Paul himself remained a Jew -- freed from bondage to Jewish Torah (law), and led by special "gnosis," but a Jew nonetheless for whom Messiah had come. Others found that their special insight ("gnosis") led them to conclude that the Jewish creator God could hardly be the true God -- the God of Jesus and of enlightened people through [] the ages. Had not the philosophers of old shown that this physical world along with this material body is a tomb ("swma shma" (σῶμα σῆμα), as some philosophical Greeks sloganized), imprisoning the divine spark -- the immaterial spirit -- which seeks for reunion with the ultimate source (deity) from which it origiiially derived? The creator God forged the prison. This is why he prohibited Adam and Eve from eating the tree of "gnosis" -- the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2.17). Man would become divine, he would escape his prison; so the creator God expelled Adam and Eve from the garden and blinded them all the more! This is not the God of Jesus, who has come down from heaven to bring salvation to man. Jesus is a divine redeemer, a celestial agent, not another walking prison of material substance! His importance is in the secret, timeless, heavenly teachings he brings and in the resulting salvation for those who have true "gnosis" about these matters. So these "enlightened" Christians believed and taught.\12/
\12/Discussions of the origins and developments of early Christian "gnosis" and "gnosticism" are numerous, and have been spurred on recently by the discovery of a "gnostic library" in the Coptic language at Nag Hammadi (Chenoboskion) in Egypt. See J. Doresse, The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics (New York, ET 1960), for an extensive, if in some ways now outdated, account. For a more recent survey and prospectus, see J. M. Robinson, "The Coptic Gnostic Library Today," NTS 14 (1967-68) 356-401.
Whether Paul ought to be described as "gnostic" I leave for others to debate. I find no evidence that he abandoned the creator God of his Jewish tradition, although "fieshly existence" certainly was characterized by Paul as the major hindrance to salvation. Nor was Paul particularly concerned with the problem of Jesus' historical activity as a man -- rather, the indwelling and redeeming figure of the resurrected Messiah obsesses Paul (see 2 Cor 5.16-17). But about two generations after Paul's death, a Christian leader named Marcion arose, who claimed to be a true follower of Paul and even collected ten Pauline letters (not including the Pastorals). These, along with a briefer version of the Gospel of Luke, formed for Marcion an authoritative collection -- a primitive NT canon, if you like. But Marcion's Paul preached a message suspiciously like that of the anti-creation gnostics, as did his Jesus! After all, for Marcion this consituted the true interpretation of reality, and if Paul and Jesus were true representatives of the true God, they would necessarily be in agreement with Marcion's position! Marcion won many followers and wrote a major work, called the "Antitheses," about his two Gods -- the loving God of Jesus and the inferior creator God of the Jews. Some scholars suspect that a representative of emerging classical orthodoxy may have edited or composed the letters of 1-2 Timothy amd Titus in Paul's name precisely in order to combat the allegedly Pauline Marcionites and rescue Paul for "orthodoxy." Notice the closing words of 1 Timothy -- "guard the tradition, turning from empty babblings and antitheses (ἀντιθέσεις) of the falsely called gnosis; by proclaiming it, certain ones have missed the mark concerning the faith."\13/
\13/For a general discussion of Marcion and his impact on second-century Christianity, see E. C. Blackman, Marcion and His Influence (London, 1948). On Pauline authorship of the Pastorals, see n. 3 above.
Several later Christian leaders also took a clear stand against the developing "gnostic" positions, and emphasized the historical aspects of [] Jesus' existence -- he was really a man who did this and went there, etc.; lived in a Jewish setting, and spoke of the Jewish creator God as his Father; his first followers (who come more and more to be called the "apostles" as a technical designation) were of the same background. The gospels that came to be accepted by emerging "orthodoxy" in this struggle with "gnosis" also emphasize the historical connections of Jesus, even when they tend to picture him as a timeless redeemer, as in the Gospel of John. This is no coincidence. A major factor in selecting these documents as "orthodox" documents was their usefulness in the argument against "gnosis." Not that they were necessarily written or edited with that problem in mind, although the Fourth Gospel may have been. But their emergence as "orthodox" literature is conditioned in this way. The "gnostic" problem provided a catalyst and also provided certain criteria for selection. This also is the situation that produced the opening words of the traditional "orthodox" creeds:\14/
I believe in God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth...;
We believe in one God, almighty father, maker of heaven and earth and all things visible and invisible... --
not in two gods, the creator and the true, but in one true God who created!
\14/For a convenient general survey of Christian creedal developments, see J. H. Leith, Creeds of the Churches, Garden City (New York, 1963); also J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (London, 1950).
Around the same time, a century after Paul's death, a less serious crisis (from our modern point of view) but equally influential in many ways, arose in some of the churches. A man named Montanus took seriously the idea which we find in early authors like Paul, that "in these last times" God gives his true children spiritual gifts, one of the most desirable of which is ecstatic, prophetic utterance. Montanus was not at all happy with what he saw taking place in emerging miinstream Christianity, where the measure of a leader's spirituality was his relation to a growing institution that passed authority along through formal ordination in an increasingly hierarchical structure. lt is the Spirit that gives life, he would have echoed from Paul (2 Cor 3.6); and Montanus even came to see himself as personifying the "advocate" or paraclete promised by Jesus in the Gospel of John -- "the paraclete will lead you into all truth, for he will speak of my things," said the Jesus of that Gospel (John 14.26; 16.13). For Montanus, God's person is a stringed instrument over which the Spirit hovers and watches; an instrument strummed by the Spirit, so that through a Spirit-filled person, God speaks directly to others.
Montanus tried to recapture the atmosphere of fervent expectation of God's impending judgment -- an atmosphere that Paul also clearly breathed. Montanus spoke of the Lord's return, of judgment, of reward. But he was too late -- or perhaps too early. His "new prophetism" and its fervor were rejected by growing "orthodoxy" -- expectation of the end had long since given way to institutional procedures and concerns for the continuity of the Christian community in the often hostile Greco-Roman world. Legitimate ordination had become more important than Spirit-filled ecstasy. And [] to ensure that the literature produced by Montanists which claimed divine authority and content should not sway the faithful, an increasing emphasis is put by emerging "orthodoxy" on the ancient texts that are most revered and most defensibly "apostolic," from the perspective of anti-Montanistic and anti-gnostic "orthodoxy." Whether the book of Revelation ought to be read and circulated was hotly debated in this period to a large extent because it was so similar to the Montanist approach. Montanism and Revelation alike presented a prophetic seer, who sometimes spoke directly for Jesus, who talked of the last times, the descent of the new Jerusalem, and similar matters. That Revelation finally won canonical status some two centuries later should not blind us to the very real problems it faced at this earlier period. Also instructive is the figure of Tertullian, of North Africa, who is remembered as one of the leading spokesmen for emerging Latin orthodoxy around the end of the second century, but who actually spent the last decades of his life as a supporter of Montanist Christianity! History plays some strange tricks.\15/
\15/On the influence of the "Montanist crisis" on emerging orthodoxy, see Bauer, Orthodoxy, 132-46. For a translation of preserved "oracles" of Montanus, see R, M. Grant, Second Century Christianity (London, 1946).
By the year 200, more or less, a rather clearly defined tendency to "orthodoxy" had emerged with its collection of "apostolic" books, its allegedly "apostolic" confessions or creeds, and its institutionalized hierarchical continuity based on "apostolic" succession. It had been a long and hard battle to come this far. But the defenses could hardly be abandoned since opponents such as Montanism and various sorts of Marcionism and "gnosticism" continued to fiourish in various parts of the world. Pockets of more cultically Jewish Christianity were also prospering, especially in Palestine and Syria. Nor were the adherents of "orthodoxy" in any position to consolidate their forces openly, since Christianity, of whatever brand, was not a legally recognized religious option in the Roman world and was looked on with disfavor by the Roman officials in general, as well as by the more culturally sophisticated Roman intelligentsia. There was considerable contact and interchange between like-minded churches, but open, wide-scale cooperation and consolidation still was not possible. Nevertheless, for most of the third century an uneasy peace permitted Christianity to fiourish and to refiect upon its practices and ideas, while sporadic persecution -- usually local in nature -- served to remind the various Christian communities not to become overly complacent.
But the various internal crises already described had caused some Christian thinkers to attempt defining more precisely the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Christ, whom every type of Christianity, whether "orthodox" or heterodox, acknowledged to be in some unique relationship to deity. Words and concepts were adopted both from (1) Jewish and Christian scriptures and from (2) the Greek philosophical heritage in general. Arguments were formulated in such a way as to be true both to accepted logic and to accepted religious vocabulary.\16/ One could [] not choose willy-nilly from an undefined and unlimited expanse of writings; the authoritative collection existed, for the most part, and thus imposed certain limitations on the discussion. But how can one logically synthesize such statements as "the Logos (or Word) was in the beginning with God and was divine" (John 1.1) with titles like "first-born of all creation" (Col l.15) or "only begotten of God" (John l.l5), or indeed, with such sayings as "the Father is greater than I" (John 14.25; see 10.29) and its near neighbor in the Fourth Gospel, "I and the Father are one" (John 10.36)? The scriptural passages had to be retained because the scriptures were considered authoritative. Their words constituted fixed elements of the definition that was being sought. But what could be adjusted were such things as definitions of the wording, conceptual framework of understanding, and the like. Whereas the very Johannine passage in which Jesus says that "the Father is greater than I" must have been very useful in arguing against those hypermonotheists who refused to make any real distinction between Jesus and the Father -- indeed, some went so far as to claim that the Father died on the cross\17/ -- it nevertheless presented a problem for those who rejected the idea that the Son was really subordinate to the Father! A wide variety of ideas and nuances flourished within the general stream of "orthodoxy," and characteristic attitudes gradually developed in particular churches and areas, while all the time the political situation in which the churches existed made it extremely difficult if not impossible for such issues as these to be discussed at a sufficiently wide level to be resolved satisfactorily for "Christendom" at large.
Then the roof fell in and the castle was built, so to speak, almost at the same time, viewing things from our comfortable perspective of more than 1600 years later. Shortly after the year 300, the Roman emperor decided to try to stamp out Christianity throughout his domains.\18/ Official persecutions were sanctioned and organized; Christians were faced with the alternative of reverence to the traditional Roman emperor-cult, which was considered by many Christians as pagan idolatry, or severe punishment or even death. Churches were closed or destroyed, property was confiscated, books were burned. But the result was not what the emperor expected. The program failed to break the hold Christianity was gaining on the people. Then a new Roman emperor gained control -- an emperor whose sympathies were with the Christians, the emperor Constantine "the Great." Not only did he grant official amnesty to Christians, restoring their property and rights, but he sponsored a council that would draw together leaders of churches throughout the empire, at government expense, so that the knotty problem of the relation between Father and Son, as well as other problems, could be solved once and for all, to bring unity to the churches. Constantine let it be known that he wanted unity. He sat at the council in the year 325 at Nicea. He made suggestions, although he was neither a trained theologian nor an ordained cleric. He enforced the decisions of the council. [] In all this he set a precedent for what would happen in the next century or two of Christian councils -- the so-called "ecumenical" councils of classical orthodoxy. The ultimate result was a clear and official creedal "orthodoxy," with political power to back up its ideas and decisions. For reasons that are not always easy to grasp, much less to explain or defend, it now became the creedal cornerstone of classical Christianity to believe that the Jewish carpenter-preacher of Nazareth, who had been executed for treason but came to be considered Messiah by his resurrection-believing earliest followers -- this Messiah who in the understanding of Paul had ushered in the new age of (1) free access to God and (2) spiritual life in what Paul believed were the last times -- was indeed, as the creed says,
And if anyone dares claim that the Son of God did not exist before he was begotten, or that he came into existence out of non-existence, or that he was from something other than the divine essence or being, or that he is a creature or subject to change, the classical orthodox catholic and apostolic Christian church after the Council of Nicea (and subsequent "ecumenical" councils) declares that person to be anathema.
\18/On the persecution by Diocletian (as well as earlier persecutions), see W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Garden City, New York, 1967).
Perhaps we are so
hearing this classical orthodox formulation that we fail to realize how
long a route it has been from Paul and his predecessors to
Constantine's Nicene Council and its successors. It is a long route
indeed from Paul's problem with "another gospel" to the Nicene
definition of the Son. We have come quite a way from Paul's struggles
to plant his message among the non-Jewish populace of his world, to the
emerging Christian state-church of the later
But whether we like it or not, and whether we claim to understand it or
not, if we stand in the stream of historical Christianity, this
fourth-century crystallization of orthodoxy also has remained part of
our heritage and has left a deep impact on our various outlooks and
presuppositions. For most of Christendom, neither Luther nor the
Protestant Reformation he sparked renounced this part of early
Christian history, whatever else may have happened to other aspects.
What constitutes a satisfactory contemporary attitude to these
developments doubtless requires further exploration and discussion, but
that is ultimately a personal decision.
I have attempted to outline here the development of classical "orthodoxy" in the early Christian period. We are all heirs of these developments, although in Protestant Christianity there has been a strong tendency to pick and choose among the different aspects of the heritage. We sometimes seem to build our theological structures on the scriptural canon developed by emerging orthodoxy, and on its creedally defined Jesus and Trinity, but we neglect, or even willfully ignore, other matters like the developing hierarchical-institutionaI structures or various other liturgical and theological [] developments. I would suggest that our reasons for such an "eclectic" approach are not always clear or consistent, at least not from a historical perspective. By what principles do we accept, or perhaps reject, this or that aspect of the heritage? Closer attention to the matters so briefly presented above might prove fruitful for anyone who attempts to maintain a self-consciously consistent "Christian" position in our contemporary world.
Appendix: Impressions from Eusebius on Orthodoxy and Heresy
1. The concept and vocabulary of "heresy" as untrue and objectionable developed earlier in early Christianity than the concept and language of "orthodoxy."
2. Nevertheless, "hereseis" also retained it's more neutral meaning as "sect" in some contexts. HE 4.22.7 [Hegesippus on Jewish options], 6.18.3 [philosophical options], 10.2-3 [letter of Constantine on religious options]; PrepEv 4.2.13, 13.21.14, 14.1.1, etc. [philosophical options] -- not unlike the American English use of "sect" ("sectarian") in the early 21st century (neutral or negative).
3. Eusebius is especially concerned to affirm the "orthodoxy" of Origen (who clearly has been under attack), and of the position that former "heretics" who return to "orthodox" Christian communities and prove themselves can be accepted and do not need to be rebaptized.