Patristics and Christian Origins

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[Sara Parvis writes]  A few thoughts on the interface between New Testament studies and Patristics. 

All of us in CSCO are (perhaps more by accident than by design, perhaps not) historians. We love poking around in the details of early Christianity. Where, when and by whom (and on what) were texts written and read, copied and circulated, stored or thrown away? Who met whom, what fights did they have, and what did their Christianity mean to them? How fast did Christianity grow, whom did it attract, how was it organised? How seriously was it taken in wider Late Antique society? And what did its early leaders think they were doing?

For Patrists, at least, such historical questions quickly begin to include also theological ones. You can’t really study Christian origins without having at least a view on where you expect to end up, even if you are prepared to be proved wrong by the evidence. That key question, for example: was there an ‘orthodox’ Christianity before Constantine?

There are at least two ways of answering ‘yes’ to that question (I’ll leave it to others to consider how many ways there are of answering ‘no’). One is to say that it was always clear what Christians should rightly teach about Christ. The task is then to scrutinise all the evidence (writings, frescoes, tombstones etc.), congratulate all those who have come up with the right answers, patronise those who were nearly right but were over-optimistic about the Second Coming or something, and excoriate everyone else.

The other way of saying yes is to say that it was not always entirely clear at the time what should rightly be taught- that the broad outlines became clear fairly quickly in the light of the Resurrection, but that the implications continued to be fought out over a long period of time, with certain positions now and then being ruled out of order by the worldwide community as partial or not compatible with what earlier generations of Christians had collectively taught and believed.

Of course, historians will want to answer that history is messier than that- that chaos and diversity were the order of the day in the period before Constantine. Others will point out that history is written by the winners, and whether we think they stamped out all traces of alternative views or that the latter simply withered for lack of elite, literate sponsorship, the ‘orthodoxy’ peddled by the likes of Irenaeus was a minority view that it suited the state-sponsored bishops of the fourth century to endorse.

If we might define Patrists, very broadly, as those who believe that the post-New Testament church did come to some important conclusions about the nature of orthodoxy, and that we are here to teach and argue over what those conclusions actually were, it has often been the New Testament scholars who remind us just how perilous this enterprise usually is.

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2 responses »

  1. As a historian, I have to state that Christian historians, or historians that study Christianity, often see things differently from Christians who look at one view.

    History, nevertheless, is messy. Since finding the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi, we find that Christians had competitors and that there was lots of competition for hearts and minds within Christianity. One person’s orthodoxy was another’s heresy.

    While you mention that there are always those who discussed whether a current teaching agreed with past teachings, we also have the problem of current teachings condemning what was once orthodox. For example, St Augustine condemned many points of doctrine established by Origen, turning the once defender of orthodoxy into a heretic.

    It is sad to see some consider many scholars today as heretic, because they try to determine what was actually believed by the early Christians or Jews. History is messy, but the truth shall make you free.

  2. Thanks for this. Origen is an interesting case of a supposed heretic whom many Patrists today (even quite conservative ones) would want to defend.

    On your Augustine point, do you want to give some examples? Augustine isn’t normally thought to have been particularly instrumental in Origen’s condemnation.

    I’m not sure, though, that even the most diehard Patrist would argue that any one Father on his own ever had the power to condemn someone (except in his own diocese, if he was a bishop); it’s normally thought this needs a council. Of course, one can then argue about the legitimacy of the council itself (which happened frequently in the early church).

    Many modern theologians use the term ‘heresy’ fairly loosely: it’s one thing to say a certain theological position has been officially condemned by a/the church at some point in the past (which may be a matter of historical fact), another to call someone a heretic (which, strictly speaking, individuals don’t have the right to do).

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