Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Creed, Canon and Clergy

History of Christianity #2

The second century saw huge development in Christianity. As well as expanding geographically, the 2nd c. would create elements that formed the nuclei of later institutions of the church. Creed, Canon and Clergy are the big developments of the 2nd c. They arose in large part because Christianity was dealing with tensions not only from the outside (persecution by the Roman state), but from within – there were diverse Christianities developing (or coming to light?), and these extent of the diversity compelled some Christians to articulate “orthodoxies” – right beliefs.

This is in contrast to my present religious community, the Community of Christ, which is a non-creedal church that is widely tolerant of a great deal of diversity among both membership and leadership. I wonder what the history of Christianity would have looked like if those early Christians, so ardent in their faith, were more tolerant of diverse perspectives on the meaning of Jesus for the salvation of humankind. Would these “heresies” have grown, or simply died away, or eventually broken off into a separate communion? Would it have been so bad, though, for Christianity?

Of course, more orthodox Christians would probably argue that many of these controversies were over essentials of the Faith; and they’d probably rest easy knowing that the “correct” belief triumphed… because that’s what we have today.

But what if Christianity didn’t have the Trinity, or was open to multiple interpretations of the incarnation of God in Jesus, or the possibilities that Jesus might have been “adopted” by God rather than born God? Would that have been so bad?

Various denominations exist today that claim doctrines like hell, election, and predestination are all essential for salvation, but the rest of us get along fine without (one or all of) them. I am, however, projecting a 20th century mentality and cultural situation onto the 2nd century church, and that is unfair. The “church” at that point may not have had the strength or flexibility or wherewithal to deal so flippantly with questions of faith.

The community of Christians was by the second century almost entirely Gentile, and was at the trailing end of a good many decades-long struggle distinguishing itself from Judaism. By this time there had developed some sense of shared communal identity – called “the church” – throughout the Roman Empire, but it was still new. The campaign against many of the controversies (later “heresies”) were waged by sincere, intelligent and faithful Christians examining the beliefs of other sincere, intelligent and faithful Christians with whom they disagreed, and slowly something of a consensus developed. Some heresies were more vital questions, like Gnosticism with its “secret knowledge” and anti-this-world perspective, and probably Marcionism with its dual-godhead. But some don’t seem all that bad, like Arianism and Adoptionism. But they were important to them, it seems, and I can’t write Christianity backwards into the 2nd century.

Something I’d like to have seen debated as an actual controversy, to have considered heretical, was collusion with the state. Such an idea – that Christianity could ever be accepted by the state let alone become the state religion – was beyond imagination in the second century. But there were figures, like Irenaeus and Tertullian that called the early Christians on accommodating to Greek culture and philosophy. And there were later faithful Christians who challenged the Imperial Church.

And, perhaps this love of controversy is the product of a relatively secure person in a well-established religio-cultural context. I have to keep that in mind.

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