I’m teaching Church History again this year, and alongside my work in the course I’ve decided to read through Jaroslav Pelikan‘s five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. As I write this morning, I’ve only just begun.
In the initial book of the series, Pelikan discusses early Christianity through the first six centuries AD. While he does so, he addresses the culture within which much of the young religion arose: the late classical world. To this end he writes the following:
The victory of orthodox Christian doctrine over classical thought was to some extent a Pyrrhic victory, for the theology that triumphed over Greek philosophy has continued to be shaped ever since by the language and the thought of classical metaphysics (44).
Christian theology as we know it, in other words, was profoundly touched and affected by outside forces fairly early on. Such a statement might elicit a number of responses. Some might deny that it is true, assuming that every bit of the Church’s teaching is exactly how the Apostles framed it. Others, taking a typically modern perspective, might decry such additions and seek to purify the faith by removing them. Postmoderns by contrast may simply yawn, asserting that since there is no such thing as “true” Christianity and that the faith has always been first defined through the lens of cultural metanarratives, there is no point in trying to discover what the earliest Christians believed.
As a Christian historian, I find myself in the midst of these questions when I consider the early Church. It would be nice to assert, as per the first position, that Christian theology has always been understood by the Church in the same way. While I would assert that one can trace a stream of orthodoxy through the centuries, even the most basic read of history reveals that the way the Church has reflected upon the “deposit of faith” has changed over time.
What of the second position? Well, I am an historian. I am interested in digging into the past. The lure of understanding what the earliest believers understood about their faith is there. I am reading the first volume of Pelikan’s work, after all. But even so, I’m not ready to jettison all the nuance time and space have given to Christian doctrine and the language we have used to describe it in favor of some nascent and (likely) historically irretrievable genesis. If it is possible to understand Christian theology completely untouched by the Roman world, we will still be understanding it from only one point of view and–unless new sources are available–likely incomplete and in need of further explication. Besides, in the process of understanding it from our perspective, we might very well be doing the same kind of culturally-conditioned doctrinal alterations that proponents of this position would decry in the first place.
All of this points towards those holding the third, more relativist position. Clearly this has its appeal. Christianity is and has always been shaped by its historical and cultural location: first in the Jewish world, then in the Greco-Roman world, and on and on. This to me is a largely agreeable line of thought. But then there’s more. With so many kinds of Christianities–both in Antiquity and today–it is easy to give in to the belief that it is all subjective. There is an almost nihilism in the furthest extremes of this position. If none of it matters ultimately, why does any of it matter? Is heresy really heresy or just another “version?” As an orthodox Christian historian, I have a difficult time with some of this thinking.
History as a discipline, aware as it is of the many narratives in which we are involved, still carries with it a certain connection to objectivity. I often feel this pull as I engage in my work. There is an actual historical record with which we have to deal, and the investigation of said record reveals both details and insight even as it bounds us. It tells us, I believe, that there are some basic things about Christianity that have persisted from the earliest days. It also reveals how doctrine has developed and changed over time. To admit what Pelikan does in the quotation above is simply to state a fact. How we interact with such facts vis-a-vis the three positions I’ve laid out is up to us.
Christianity has been influenced by the world(s) in which it has lived. That’s a fact. But it is Christianity that has been influenced. The Church’s lively debates, factions, reforms, and reframing over time have always been with reference to the core ideas–and Person–around which it is based. Though articulated very differently, I believe these can still be discernibly Christian.
To Be Continued.