Friday, February 25, 2011

A Scholarly Assessment of Early Christianity, Part Two

"differences become a problem only when
there is an insistence on uniformity"

[Here is another excerpt from J.B. Rives' essay Christian Expansion and Christian Ideology. For the full citation see Part One of this series.]

B. Homogeneity
In the latter part of the second century CE, Irenaeus, the Greek-speaking bishop of Lugdunum, composed a lenghty treatise concerning various Christian leaders whom he regarded as falsifying and distorting genuine Christians teaching: 'by specious argumentation, craftily patched together, they mislead the minds of the more ignorant and ensnare them by falsifying the Lord's words; thus they become wicked interpreters of genuine words.' Irenaeus himself asserts that all true adherents of the Christian god maintain without alteration the teachings that were passed from Jesus to the apostles and hence to latter followers; among true Christians, these teachings remain always and everywhere the same: 'just as the sun, God's creation, is one and the same throughout the world, so too the light, the preaching of the Truth, shines everywhere and enlightenes all men who wish to come to the knowledge of the Truth' (1.10.2). For Irenaeus, adherence to the Christian god could take one form and one form only. Consequently, Christian leaders who offered alternative interpretations were by definition deviating from the truth, and Irenaeus set out to refute their errors and at the same time classify their different forms. In so doing, he in effect not only created the distinctively Christian literary genre that we now call heresiology, but also helped crystallize the distinctively Christian notion of heresy as a wicked deviation from correct belief and practice.

Many Christian leaders besides Irenaeus placed great emphasis on homogeneity of belief and practice, and as a result had to contend with the variety that actually existed. Like Irenaeus they analyzed this variety as a dichotomy between the orthodoxy of the Church, the one true teaching of the unified and genuine Christian community, and the innumerable heresies that deviated from it. This analysis became an increasingly important element in the narratives about the growth of the Church; by the early fourth century it served as one of the main themes in Eusebius' comprehensive history of the Church, in which he proposed to record both the bearers of orthodoxy, 'the successions of sacred apostles' stretching from Jesus to his own day, and equally the heretics, those 'driven by a desire for innovation to an extremity of error' who ravanged the flock of Christ like wolves ....

[T]he Christian concept of orthodoxy was grounded in a dualistic understanding of the cosmos that was largely absent from the Graeco-Roman tradition and that consequently served to justify a much more absolutist approach on the part of Christian leaders. Like 'pagans', 'heretics' were not merely misguided people who foolishly chose to deviate from the truth, but agents, whether witting or unwitting, of cosmic evil. It was thus imperative that Christian leaders either win them back to the truth or condemn them absolutely ....

It is important to note that this general principle was by no means restricted to those leaders eventually regarded as 'orthodox'. Marcion, for example, with his categorical rejection of many traditional Christian writings and beliefs as Judaizing errors, was clearly operating within the same sort of absolutist framework as his 'orthodox' opponents. So too did followers of the New Prophecy, if we can judge from Tertullian's polemics against the psychici. The Nag Hammadi codices have revealed that some Gnostic grops could boast polemicists to equal Irenaeus and Tertullian .... The most elaborate of these polemics, the Testimony of Truth (NHC IX, 3), contains attacks not only on 'orthodox' Christians but also other Gnostic groups, including those of Valentinius, Basilides, and the Simonians. All sides tended to agree that one position was right and the others wrong, even if they disagreed on which was which.

The push for homogeneity came at a very high price: all the numerous divisions among early Christians resulted from it, since the differences become a problem only when there is an insistence on uniformity. Yet if homogeneity was a costly goal, it was nonetheless an essential component of early Christian ideology. For one thing, Christian homogeneity was a precondition for Christian exclusivity. In practical terms, unless Christian leaders were in agreement about what constituted 'correct' Christianity, the boundaries between Christian and non-Christian would necessarily remain imprecise ....

[W]ithout homogeneity, there would be no distinctive 'Christian ideology' at all, but merely a range of ways to incorporate devotion to the Christian god into one's religious practice and/or understanding of the cosmos. Without the insistence of Christian leaders like Irenaeus or, for that matter, Marcion that adherence to the Christian god would mean one thing and one thing only, 'Christianity' would never have been more than a catch-all term to cover a variety of practices and beliefs. It was the intolerant push for homogeneity that made 'Christianity' a social reality and ultimatel a powerful and cohesive institution. Yet for all its importance, I would argue that homogeneity was neither the most fundamental nor the most crucial component of Christian ideology. One further element must be considered.

[Continue to Part Three of this series.]