Tuesday, April 07, 2009
Other Christianities
I still don't have a lot of time to blog, so instead I'm going to re-post (with some modifications & updating) a comment I made in response to a question about alternative Christianities in the early centuries of the church (e.g. Gnosticism, Docetism, Arianism, etc.) and why "orthodox" Nicene Christianity eventually won out. I've been studying this stuff even more thoroughly in recent seminary classes (especially my "Early Church and Roman Society" class where we're actually reading a lot of the primary texts from way back then), so I have even more insight to this than I did then, though for the most part what I said has simply been confirmed.

Anyway, based on these studies, my feeling is that the prominence or legitimacy of alternative early Christianities is sometimes over exaggerated. I've often heard it presented as if groups like the various types of Gnostics or their collections of books were merely alternate but equally legitimate interpretations of the Jesus tradition - as if the difference between them and what became orthodox Christianity was no more significant than the difference between say, Methodists and Baptists.

In reality however, many of these sects were not just alternate Christianities, but really radically different religious belief systems that merely borrowed certain Christian texts and terminology and combined them with other mystical philosophies or religions. For instance, when I read the Nag Hammadi texts I am struck by their utter dissimilarity from anything you find in the Hebrew scriptures or the canonical New Testament writings. The closest analogy I can find is the difference between Mormonism and mainstream Christianity these days (though even that's not perfect since even the Mormons are probably closer to mainstream Christianity than most of the Gnostics were). Maybe an even better analogy would be some of the New Age-y cults out there that try to paint Jesus as some type of Higher Consciousness guru or swami, but with almost zero connection to the Jesus of history.

The other point to remember is that many of these early sects are much later developments. While all of the canonical gospels and the letters of Paul, John, and Peter can easily be shown to have been written in the first century, and usually within a generation or two of Jesus' ministry; most of the Gnostic gospels and other non-canonical texts cannot be shown to be any earlier than the mid to late second century (i.e. over 150 after Jesus) and most from he third or fourth century. It is for this reason primarily - i.e. the historical proximity to Jesus and the first apostles - that the canonical writings were preferred by the early church and were listed as such by many early Christian writers.

Of course, groups like the Gnostics, whose theology was so far different from orthodox Christianity as to be a different religion entirely, are somewhat different than early Christian groups like the Arians, Nestorians, or Copts (to name just a few) who were not outside of the mainstream of the Christian church, but who had differing ways of understanding the divinity and humanity of Christ. While I wouldn't say that these differences are unimportant, I would say that the disagreements between these groups were more akin to the denominational differences we have today, than they were to the radical differences between gnostics and Christians.

So why did the Nicene view triumph? I'm not entirely sure. There is the traditional answer, which is that it is the correct view, so the Holy Spirit directed the church to accept it.

Then there is the cynical, DaVinci code type answer, which is that political pressures by Constantine and powerful bishops conspired to suppress alternative views. While there is some truth to the fact that political interests had some influence over the process (especially in regards to the Emperor's desire for uniformity among Christians), this answer also conveniently ignores the facts that 1) Constantine himself preferred Arianism, and 2) that there really weren't any such thing as "politically powerful" bishops at the time of Nicaea, as Christianity had only recently gone from being a persecuted minority religion to being at least permitted (though not yet officially endorsed) by the Edict of Milan.

Personally I take a different view than either of these, which is simply that this is how the church decided things back then, through these sorts of ecumenical councils, and this is what they decided. There was a lot of argument and disagreement but in the end they reached a statement that most, if not all, could agree to. In fact, much of what was agreed on at Nicea (and at later councils like Chalcedon) was a kind of both/and compromise position that did its best to reconcile varying opinions. Since almost all currently existing churches today are descended from those who accepted the creed formulated at Nicaea, that statement is still held in high regard today. Though I suppose if someone wanted to make an argument that the Arians or Nestorians or whomever actually had a better way of looking at the dual nature of Christ than Nicene Creed does, and suggest that we ought to adopt that instead, they could certainly attempt to do so.

Indeed, that's my approach for all of these early "Christianities". I don't just engage them just on the historical level, trying to figure out who believed what, when. I also consider them as "live options" for my own belief. In other words, the question for me is not just whether Gnosticism was or was not an authentic expression of Jesus' teachings, the question is also whether or not Gnosticism is a persuasive view of the world to me. Would I want to be a Gnostic? Do I agree with their beliefs? Likewise, with other Christological views, do I think any of them are more right than the one expressed by the Nicene Creed? Nicaea isn't unquestionably right just because it's what became dominant, but it's not necessarily wrong for that reason either. As much as possible I want to evaluate each of these theologies and worldviews on their own terms and see which make the most sense to me. Speaking personally, when I do that, more often than not I do find myself landing on the "orthodox" option in the end. But I'm also glad that I've arrived there by my own effort and not just because I felt compelled to blindly accept some creed (nor compelled to disbelieve it simply because I can see the historical/political factors that influenced it).

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posted by Mike Clawson at 2:47 PM | Permalink |


At 4/08/2009 09:11:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

Really interesting post. What are your criteria to determine:

(1) Would I want to be a Gnostic?

(2) Do I agree with their beliefs?

(3) Do I think any of them are more right than the one expressed by the Nicene Creed?

Number 1 is pretty easy, I guess. But on 2 and 3, what is your plumb line for use in determining whether you agree with their beliefs - find them "more right" as opposed to the beliefs stated in the Nicene Creed? What do you compare all of them against, and why?


At 4/08/2009 12:31:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

The same criteria I use for assessing any new ideas - a critical weighing of all the evidence I have among the various sources of knowledge available to to me, together with the whole web of prior beliefs that I already hold with varying degrees of probability. I think Wesley's quadrilateral - Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience - is a good summary of these sources, if a little reductionistic (at the very least each of these would need to be pretty expansively defined).

I also happen to think that this "coherentist" view is primarily descriptive - it's how almost all of us tend to obtain and evaluate our beliefs, whether we realize it or not, and whether we like it or not. It's just how human cognition tends to function. So while I might think that I "ought" to answer your question with "sola scriptura", the simple reality is that no one actually does this. We're fooling ourselves if we think that all of our religious beliefs are based on the Bible alone.


At 4/08/2009 02:05:00 PM, Anonymous Karl

I knew you wouldn't answer "sola scriptura" and didn't expect you would feel like you ought to, either.

I like the Wesleyan quadrilateral myself. While I would put scripture as a higher or more decisive source of belief than the other 3, that of course begs the issue that my understanding of scripture is informed by (can only be arrived at through the use of) some combination of the other 3.

So applying this to the question at hand, you line the Nicene Creed and the Gnostics up against scripture, your reason, [what tradition since you subject all traditions to this critique and don't seem to want to identify with any particular one?], and your experience. And you find the Gnostics are lacking because they just aren't very Christian in any meaningful sense of the word. I agree with you, but am interested in how you got there.


At 4/08/2009 02:35:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

By "tradition", I generally mean simply listening to the collective wisdom of the church, both dead and alive. Or as Lewis said (or was it Chesterton? I remember Jerry Root quoting this but I can't recall the attribution now) "Tradition is simply democracy extended through time. It gives votes to the dead. Democracy says I shouldn't discount someone's opinion just because they're my butcher. Tradition says I should discount them just because they're my grandfather."

In other words, I include tradition because I know that my own rational capacities do not reign supreme and I need to listen to other perspectives and voices from all eras. Where I perhaps differ with some others who give a more prominent role to Tradition is that I don't take Tradition to be normative in any case. I will respect and consider other opinions, but I don't take them to be absolutely binding on me just because they were held by my grandfather (or my butcher). Tradition is a check but not a master.

As for the Gnostics, it would take too much time to rehearse what I find lacking about them, but the short version is that 1) their dualism (I just can't buy that this physical world is evil, or that this is a legitimate biblical interpretation); and, related to this, 2) their ahistoricism. Their eschatological vision was to be rescued out of this world, not that the kingdom of God would come and redeem this world. In large part Gnosticism emerged out of a perceived failure of the Jewish/Christian hope for a historical/political renewal of God's kingdom on earth. This is why we find an explosion of Gnostic groups and writings following the final dashing of Jewish nationalist hopes after the defeat of Simon Bar Kochba's rebellion in 135. Again, I think this reactionary, a-historical turn towards inward, escapist religion is based on a misunderstanding of the Biblical hope.

Anyway, it's more complicated than that, but that's all I have time for right now.


At 4/09/2009 12:30:00 AM, Anonymous Autumnal Harvest

Mike, I wonder if you might be conflating two different issues. Most things I've read on the gnostics (which I realize is not the same as what you've read) don't argue that they're "legitimate" in the sense of being substanitally similar to what later became (lowercase) orthodox Christianity. Rather, they say that they were substanially different, but equally "legitimate" in that they were equally viable contenders to become orthodox Christianity, and that it's only with our anachronistic perspective, where we know which group became the orthodox form, that the other groups appear illegitimate.

In reality however, many of these sects were not just alternate Christianities, but really radically different religious belief systems that merely borrowed certain Christian texts and terminology and combined them with other mystical philosophies or religions. For instance, when I read the Nag Hammadi texts I am struck by their utter dissimilarity from anything you find in the Hebrew scriptures or the canonical New Testament writings.

It seems like much of what you say applies equally well to orthodox Christianity, which was radically different from the forms of Judaism that preceded it, which differed substantially from the other types of Christianity it was competing with, and which borrowed heavily from other philosophies and religions. If the Gospel of John hadn't made it into the canon, and you read it now, do you think it would strike you as something that belonged in the canon? It seems to me you would be struck by its utter dissimilarity from anything in the Hebrew scriptures or the canonical New Testament, and you would point out that it was most likely written later than the Synoptic Gospels. And conversely, if the Gospel of Thomas had made it in the canon, do you think it would strike you as such a strange outlier that you'd think it didn't below?


At 4/09/2009 02:39:00 PM, Anonymous Karl

Thanks Mike, good comments. Yes, that was Chesterton. I like that quote. Your approach to tradition is similar to mine, although I probably give more deference than you do to tradition writ-large while still not making it an absolute "master."


At 4/10/2009 11:18:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

AH - I think I mean the Gnostics were "illegitimate" in both senses:

1) I don't think they are legitimate interpretations of the Jesus tradition. That is, I don't think there is much link at all between the message and ministry of the actual Jesus of Nazareth, as that was understood by his first followers, and what the majority of the various Gnostic sects believed and taught. I think that can be demonstrated fairly easily historically/textually.

2) I don't think they were "equally viable contenders to become orthodox Christianity". That's a little hard to determine historically since we really don't have any kind of absolute numbers for any of these groups. But the general sense that I get from reading the primary sources (both the Nag Hammadi texts and the "orthodox" refutations) and looking at the rest of the very limited data, is that Gnosticism was not as prevalent as more recent commentators (especially folks like Elaine Pagels or Bart Ehrman) make them out to be (though to be fair, Ehrman is far less on this bandwagon than some others). Gnosticism can usually be traced back to a few specific teachers and communities, whereas the proto-orthodox groups are far more wide spread.

And, regardless of how large they were numerically, there is also the question of whether they were generally perceived in their own day as a parallel stream of Christian interpretation with a continuous history back to Jesus and the Apostles, or as a newer innovation. My sense from the texts is that even the Gnostics themselves recognized that their ideas were "new", which is why they usually presented them as "hidden teachings" and "mysteries" of Jesus that were just now being revealed. Certainly one of key charges leveled at them by their critics was that they were introducing new gods and new texts.

As for your other comment about the similarity of certain texts like the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas, I should clarify that there is a lot of diversity among the Gnostic texts, and they shouldn't be all lumped together into one movement. Certainly there are texts like Thomas and a few others that appear far more similar to the canonical writings. However, read something like the Apocryphon of John or the Gospel of Truth, and you'll see what I mean by utter dissimilarity. There is simply no comparison between them and even what we have in the Gospel of John or even Thomas.

As for the Gospel of John, there was debate even back then about whether it should be included in the canon, precisely for the reason you mention, that it appears to have certain Gnostic elements. Irenaeus put up a pretty good defense of it though in the late 2nd century; and frankly, their are too many other factors in John that mitigate its apparent Gnosticism (for instance, it's hard to imagine the Gnostics saying something like "the Word became flesh", and thinking that was a good thing). Not to mention the thoroughly Jewish themes, and other ,"earthy" sorts of references throughout John as well. It also predates most other Gnostic writings by several decades. Given all that, John seems to be more the kind of thing that was later appropriated and reinterpreted by the Gnostics than a direct product of them.


At 4/11/2009 08:40:00 AM, Anonymous Autumnal Harvest

Those are certainly fair points. I have a lot of skepticism about what we can know with confidence about the teachings of the historical Jesus, but I'm not sure how much of that is due to my inexperience at evaluating old historical data. Your point that the gnostic writings have internal evidence that they knew they were doing something sketchy (i.e. "secret teachings") is certainly reasonable.

With the Gospel of John, my point wasn't that it appears to be gnostic, but that it's very different from the other gospels, and that if it (or, say, Revelation) hadn't made the canon, I think it would appear weird to us today, kind of sketchy, and not really appropriate for the canon. I think it's hard to get away from the bias that things in the canon are normal (kind of by definition), and things not in the canon are bizarre. For example, I know someone who, upon reading the Gospel of Thomas, said that he could see why it didn't make the canon, because it had Jesus saying impossibly non-Jesusy things, like "Whoever does not hate his father and mother cannot follow me." That's an extreme case, but it's illustrative of a general issue.


At 4/13/2009 03:13:00 PM, Blogger Travis Greene

The Gospel of Thomas is different because it's not a gospel. It tells no story. It's just a collection of sayings. With misogynistic gems like this one:

(1) Simon Peter said to them: "Let Mary go away from us, for women are not worthy of life."
(2) Jesus said: "Look, I will draw her in so as to make her male,
so that she too may become a living male spirit, similar to you."
(3) (But I say to you): "Every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven."


At 7/20/2009 08:51:00 AM, Blogger cipher

Mike, in the past, I've told you that in my view, fundamentalism is "authentic" Christianity, in that the things most fundamentalists believe - substitutionary atonement, salvific exclusivism with eternal damnation for everyone outside of the fold - reflect the core of what most Christians have believed for most of the past 2,000 years. You've told me there have been alternative theologies, and I've replied that these voices have always been suppressed, generally harshly. This is as far as we've gotten.

In dismissing these original alternatives as being less than fully legitimate, you seem to be taking a step closer to my argument.

- Jeff Eyges


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