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How We See Historical Changes

June 5, 2017

Working now on a paper for a conference at summer’s end on the formation of early Christianity, I’ve noted to myself how careful we must be in the insufficiently examined use of metaphors to characterize the chronological changes in early Christianity.

With the (dubious?) advantage of hindsight, we know the sorts of changes in early Christianity that came somewhat later, such as the changes from first to second century and thereafter.  I think that we have to beware of thinking of changes in terms of a “maturation” or movement from “primitive” to more advanced stages.  In some things, such as technological developments, those involved at early points see their work as only an early stages of something that could likely undergo refinement, improvement, and sophistication later.  In these cases, it’s ok to refer to earlier points as “embryonic” of later developments.  But in at least some historical phenomena, this kind of characterization may be inappropriate.

It’s not clear, for example, that Jesus-believers of Paul’s time (ca. 30-60 CE) thought of themselves, their faith and practices as “primitive” or “embryonic” of some more mature and complete form of Jesus-devotion that might be worked out across time.  I get the impression, instead, that Paul (for example) thought of the convictions and teachings that he delivered as adequately formed and fully appropriate for his situation.  So, if we refer to those early years of the Jesus-movement as embryonic or the seeds of something that developed later, I think that we’re importing a value judgment that isn’t based on the evidence.

Sure, changes in early Christian beliefs and practices happened, such as those across the first two or three centuries.  But I suggest that it’s better to see these as changes that happened in response to changing circumstances, changing issues facing Jesus-believers, etc.  So, for example, the articulations of Christian faith in someone like Justin Martyr or Tertullian aren’t instances of maturation of something immature; instead, they are changed formulations prompted by the changed circumstances of their times.

In any change of circumstances, of course, it is entirely appropriate for members of a religious movement to assess changes to the formulation of their faith, and to weigh critically proposed changes.  A living tradition changes; but it changes with critical concern both to address changed circumstances and also to maintain an authentic connection with the predecessor tradition.  And individuals may well differ on the matter.

But my main point is a historical one, about examining how we see changes in a religious tradition, avoiding the use of metaphors that unconsciously import value judgments into historical work.  Of course, it is also possible to privilege earlier forms of a tradition over later ones, seeing subsequent forms as declensions or deviations from a “pure” and “original” form.  That too is more a value judgment, and likely a theological one, rather than a fair historical analysis.  There can be deviations or developments that take a tradition in a very different direction that might involve abandoning some key features of the tradition.  But not all change is deviation.  Changed historical issues and circumstances require changes in how religious groups articulate their faith.

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12 Comments
  1. [I followed a link from Triablogue to this.]

    I like to use the term ‘refinement’ with regard to the maturation of doctrines throughout church history. Even then it still bears some explanation. It’s like a digital image that goes from lower resolution to higher resolution. It’s the same image. Nothing is changed or added to the image save for some fine detail that makes the image clearer. The way this has been done throughout church history, of course, is from false teachers change the picture of doctrine by adding something substantial to it that wasn’t there or by modifying some important aspect of the image. The response is to clarify the picture we have been given in God’s special revelation to us so that the false teaching can be countered and the true image seen more clearly. That’s what I mean by refinement.

    • Jim: “Refinement” still seems to connote a certain crudity to the earlier stages/expressions. I’d reiterate my preference to refer to “changes” typically made to changing issues/circumstances. The changes, including efforts to articular an “orthodox” stance, all involve changes. The theological issue is what changes are considered valid and which invalid.

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Interesting ideas. When considering the history of Christianity we can view it from a religious perspective, perhaps as the outworking of God’s plan, or from a secular viewpoint, for example as a sociological phenomenon with analogies and material causes.

    If viewed from a religious perspective, there are various metaphors contained in the NT itself that hint at development and progress, such as the idea that the Paraclete would lead Jesus’ followers to a fuller understanding of the truth after his departure. On the other hand Acts talks about “savage wolves” entering the congregation after Paul and “drawing away disciples”.

    From a secular perspective early Christianity may be viewed as a religious movement that underwent various stages of development analogous to other such movements: the sect-church-denomination paradigm and so on. Or it can placed within the long history of secularisation as a stage on the journey from polytheism – monotheism – sectarianism – individualistic pluralism – secularism.

    The kinds of metaphors we use reveal the perspective from which we view the phenomenon. Which raises the question. Is it desirable or even possible to eliminate metaphor altogether? Are not all phenomena viewed from certain perspectives as revealed in metaphor? Maybe it is better to acknowledge the perspective and attendant metaphors rather than attempt to eliminate them.

    If we want a picture of a mountain, for example, we have various options available to us. We can take a picture from various points around its base, or from some distance away, or half way up, or from the summit, or from a helicopter. All provide different perspectives of the same mountain. What we cannot do is step outside of the concept of perspective altogether in order to provide one true picture of the mountain.

    The heroic attempt to provide objective history of early Christianity, devoid of metaphor, may be like attempting to isolate the one true picture of a mountain, devoid of subjective viewpoint and perspective: perhaps theoretically alluring, but practically, and epistemologically impossible.

    • No, Donald. The attempt to avoid injecting valuations of later stages of religion into earlier ones isn’t the hopeless task that you describe. I’m afraid that you’re too, far too, in thrall of the once-fashionable epistemic nerve-failure of some.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Gosh, epistemic nerve failure sounds serious. Is it curable? What does the doctor prescribe? 🙂

      • Courage, mon ami! It is not incurable. Hearty labor in the actual historical data with a sincere respect for the past and a desire to understand it, plus critical assessment of your efforts by competent others. You’ll be on the road to health in no time! 🙂

  3. Deane permalink

    Yes! This is something I find I have to remind myself of, as I think there is a temptation to relapse into either teleology or arche-ology.

    Have you found any use in Jameson’s injunction (“Always Historicize!”), with its admonition to always consider the text in the light of ongoing social, political, economic, etc circumstances? Or of Derrida’s tirade, in Of Grammatology, against the metaphysics of presence – which confounds empirical-historical inquiry with the (ontotheological) “question of essence” (as he puts it at p. 75)? I’m sure they would both be useful conversation partners, if you have the space.

    And while we’re on the topic, should we ban the use of “proto-“?

    • Oh, let’s not ban words, just critically examine them. So, “proto” may be valid, if it can be justified by showing something to be an early stage of something else later.

  4. Timothy Joseph permalink

    Dr. H.,
    As usual, this is an important observation. While development of Christian beliefs is historically proven, this does not necessitate that before this development the faith was immature. The reasoning you provide for these developments, changing circumstances, as well as, challenges from outside and within surely can account for the development.

    Tim

  5. I think this is an excellent way of framing the issue, Dr. Hurtado. (re: “if we refer to those early years of the Jesus-movement as embryonic or the seeds of something that developed later, I think that we’re importing a value judgment that isn’t based on the evidence.”)

    I’ve long been fascinated by this subject, particularly with respect to the evolution of the ekklesia from the assembly of believers (as seen in first century writings) to a bureaucracy represented by bishops (as seen in Ignatius on).

    You allude to this in Destroyer of the gods, but I’m eager to learn more about how historical forces transformed the Jesus-movement into “Christianity.”

    Do keep us posted on the paper you’re working on. Thanks!

  6. …I suggest that it’s better to see these as changes that happened in response to changing circumstances, changing issues facing Jesus-believers, etc. So, for example, the articulations of Christian faith in someone like Justin Martyr or Tertullian aren’t instances of maturation of something immature; instead, they are changed formulations prompted by the changed circumstances of their times.

    Would you find this analogous to the literature following Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus, e.g.?

    …But not all change is deviation. Changed historical issues and circumstances require changes in how religious groups articulate their faith.

    Amen to that!

  7. Good observation, well said!

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