Christian Theology and Its InstiutionsI’m slowly working my way through Christoph Markschies magnificent book Christian Theology and Its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire: Prolegomena to a History of Early Christian Theology (see other posts here and here). I wanted to summarize what I take to be an important part of his argument for explaining diversity (and unity) in early Christianity. I’ve only finished chapter two, so I will have to see if my summary matches up with what comes later in the book.

As I said before, Markschies makes two important points about institutions:

  1.  The definition of what counts as an institution needs to be broader than it was in the days of Harnack, et al. to incorporate a wider array of relevant phenomenon.
  2. Institutions are where new ideas are embodied. I take this to mean that when new ideas arise, they will naturally become institutionalized in some way. Without institutions, new ideas cannot survive.

With these two points in mind, Markshies examines three different institutions found in early Christianity (this is by no means meant to be exhaustive):

  1. Free teachers and Christian schools (31–91)
  2. The Monanist prophets and their circle (91–116)
  3. The Christian worship service and its prayers (116–187)

I’m not going to summarize each of these sections, which are each well-researched case studies which seek to attend to the culural and ideological surroundings within which these particular insitutions flourished. It is worth the time working through, and I will say that he shows considerable restraint when he refuses to speculate where there is no evidence, which is quite refreshing. What Markschies shows is that in each of these institutions, the “new idea” of Christianity embodied itself in particular ways appropriate to its context and audience. The audience of the popular philosopher Justin Martyr differs from the classroom of Origin. These differ from the Monanists, who show both similarities and dissimilarities to pagan oracles and prophets, and their audience. And finally the more widespread Christian worship service whose theology (remember his definition of theology!) was articulated for an audience that differed (generally speaking) from the schools and the prophets.

If the question of diversity in early Christianity is framed this way, it then becomes clear why we see diversity in early Christianity. Different contexts and different audiences’s call for different types of discourse. As much as some might like Origen’s school to be representative of early Christian theology [author’s note: guilty!], it would be misleading to try and analyze the other institutions in the terms and discourse of it because such an analysis cannot attend to the ways in which each institution seeks to institutionalize the new idea of Christianity in its particular context with a particular audience in mind. Or at least the picture that such an analysis creates will lack sufficient explanatory power.


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