On Diversity in Early Christianity

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.

Gregory of Nazianzus’s Christmas Sermon

I have posted an English translation of Gregory of Nazianzus’s Oration 38 – On the Theophany from the Nicene Post-Nicene Series. It works (and it’s public domain), but I would highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of either Brian Daley‘s or Nonna Verna Harrison‘s translation.

I would hazard a guess that for majority of English speakers who have heard of Gregory have heard of him only for his Theological Orations (Orations 27–31). While these are important, I have come to appreciate his so-called festal orations maybe even more, especially Oration 38. Indeed, as I worked through this Oration for my research, I began to see how in many ways Gregory recapitulates his arguments from the Theological Orations in the form of a panegyric (a speech given at a festival celebrating someone or something). It is truly remarkable how Gregory is able to articulate the same ideas in very(!) different styles.

I outline the oration in the following way:

  1. §1–6: Introduction (Προοίμιον)
    • Here Gregory introduces his oration. Two key features of this long introduction are 1) the paradoxical nature of the incarnation, i.e., the coming together of the heavenly and earthly realms, and that for our salvation and 2) the supriority of Christian festivals over Greek festivals.
  2. §7–16: Narration (Διήγησις)
    1. §7–8: Birth (Γένος)
      • A panegyric usually includes some account of lineage to demonstrate either that they came from good stock or that, despite humble beginnings, the individual accomplished much (rhetoricians can spin anything). Since Gregory thinks Jesus doesn’t have a lineage like the Greek gods he begins with a discussion on the infinite transcendent divine nature (again, remember the paradox set out in the introduction).
    2. §9–13: Acts (Πράξις)
      • A panegyric usually focuses on the acts of the individual which demonstrate their virtue. Here Gregory takes his time describing the goodness of God in not only creating a spiritual realm (which is similar to God), but also of creating a material realm (which is other than God). Above all, God crowned creation by mixing together these two realms in humanity. Even though humanity fell, God, like a good doctor, tried every remedy possible until at last the greatest wonder of all by which we are saved: God became incarnate. “O new mixture, O paradoxical fusion!”
    3. §14–16: Comparison (Σύγκρισις)
      • After a rousing virtuoso climax in §13, Gregory turns to answer objections—principally Eunomian objections I think—to the idea that God became incarnate. This might not properly be called a comparison, but I think he is in some ways comparing his view of God incarnate with that of those who deny it.
  3. §17–18: Conclusion (Ἐπίλογος)
    • Here Gregory finally gets to an actual description of the birth of Christ and calls us, as is common in a panegyric to virtuous imitation.

~(We Don’t Need No Institutions)

After Markshies lays out a less anachronistic understanding of theology he moves on to the second term relevant to his study: institution. He notes that earlier historians such as Harnack had too narrow a definition of institutions. Instead of institutions being primarily legal bodies, Markschies defines them more openly:

Thus, in the history of ancient Christianity, one speaks of the papacy, a monastery, or the imperial councils as ‘institutions’ and does not mean by this legal contexts so much as organized social structures that show the same enduring characteristics as governing bodies—namely, explicit norm structures, regular membership, transpersonal goals of action, and corporate power. Admittedly, the range of combinations of these formal criteria is not fixed and naturally also varies with regard to the Christian instutions. We understand ‘institution’ in this sense as an anthropological basic category and as an inevitable ordering and reference pattern of every social action. By contrast, we understand ‘instutionalization’ as the emergence of an organizational framework (and not merely the consolidation of formally regulated interactions into the form, for example, of a decision-making body that exists over time).

(Markschies, 23).

As an anthropologically basic category, institutions are natural phenomenon and not artificially imposed upon something preexisting.



Addendum to Scripture as the Criterion of Truth

In a previous post I was reflecting on what it means to early Christian writers to say that Scripture is a criterion of truth. In that post I quoted George Karamanolis, but it wasn’t really the quote I was looking for since I didn’t have the book on hand and had to rely on Amazon’s free preview which stopped a page short of the quote I had in mind. Here is the quote:

I would argue that the case of the Christians is not much different from that of Hellenic philosophers. Adherents of these schools tried to show how exactly their school authorities should be understood so that they can be philosophically most plausible. This is also the case with Christians. Their statement that Scripture is the measure and the authority did not amount to much in substance ultimately, because the Scriptures alone did not help them settle the crucial philosophical issues they were concerned with; nor did it help them in addressing the objections from non-Christians or fellow Christians, such as the Gnostics. The former would not be convinved by the mere reference to Scripture, while the latter would continue makign different sense of the text. No matter, then, what they say about the Scriptures as a source of truth, early Christian thinkers hardly ever rely on it alone, since they know that this practice cannot establish any case; only some kind of argument would do.

(Karamanolis, 53)

This analysis seems thin. First, it doesn’t seem to take into account the role of their belief that Christ is the true Logos and so the fount of all truth, whether of rational arguments or of the words of Scripture, which is odd since he discusses this very thing just prior to the quote above (pp. 38–48). Secondly, Karamanolis shifts from saying that Scripture is the “measure and authority” to saying that Christians hardly every rely on it alone. These seem to me to be two different things. The point of my previous post was that Porphyry used knowledge of the Forms inherent in the Soul at the end of a process of drawing out concepts from sense perception. This would be analgous to the first statement of Karamanolis (that Scripture is the measure or authority). I take the latter statement to mean that for Karamanolis, to say Scripture is the measure and authority is to begin from and use Scripture alone for theological/philsophical reasoning (which isn’t necessarily the only way to understand “Scripture alone”).

All of this isn’t to say that early Christian writers held to a kind of sola Scriptura, but only that I don’t think their comments about scriptural authority are as meaningless as Karamanolis’s statements seem to imply.

Scripture as Criterion of Truth in the Early Church

In his Commentary on the Harmonics of Ptolemy, Porphyry has an interesting section (13.19-14.6) detailing how one gets from sensation to universals.

Once the way [20] judgments are carried out has been clarified, they will provide sufficient testimony to what has been said. For once matter has been informed by the aforementioned reason, judgment comes about when the soul happens to pay attention to beings and as it were detaches the forms from matter once again and receives them within itself and, in a way, restores them, so that the judgment may become immaterial. For first to come from sensation is [25] apprehension (ἀντίληψις); by touching being, as it were, it tries to take up <the forms> and, as it were, announce and introduce them into the soul like a guide or an introducer (εἰσαγωγεύς). After that, opinative assumption receives what has been introduced, addressing it by name and writing it down in the soul by means of reason, as if on some tablet existing within it [sc. the soul].

Third after these comes the faculty that [30] makes images of characteristic features (ἰδιώματα) and is truly a painter or a sculptor, viz., the imagination (φαντασία). It is not satisfied with the form of addressing and of writing down, but like those who draw up official descriptions of people arriving at port, or in the manner of those who estimate the exactitude of resemblance by scrutinizing [14, 1] passports: this is how this <faculty> takes the entire shape of the thing into consideration. Once it has achieved accuracy in this way, then it stores away the form in the soul, and this is the concept, which, when once it has entered and has been confirmed, the disposition of knowledge supervenes, from which, like a light [5] ignited from a leaping flame, intellect makes its appearance, like an accurate vision with a view towards the application to true Being.


(Michael Chase, “Porphyry on the Cognitive Process,” Ancient Philosophy 30 [2010], 383–5.)

For Porphyry, the the form of the sense object is removed from the matter and brought to the soul where it is named and it’s qualities are listed. From these qualities a mental image (φαντασία) is formed. This mental image is stored in the soul and becomes a concept.

But how can one judge whether or not this concept is a true? Here Porphyry’s platonism comes out (for most of this description sounds very Aristotelian). In another part of his commentary, Porphyry likens λόγος to a king who judges the accuracy of a messangers description of a visitor which the king already knows beforehand (Chase, “Porphyry,” 399–400). Thus, since the λόγοι in our intellect derive from the Intellect (which contemplates the forms directly since they are internal to itself), we have access to a criterion which can judge the accuracy of our concepts derived from sense impression.

There are many interesting things about Porphyrys congitive process here, but this last section reminded me, again, of George Karamanolis’s book, The Philosophy of Early ChristianityIn the first chapter, after coherently describing how early Christians can at once deride Greek philosophy while yet drawing on those very resources for their own dogmatic developments, Karamanolis gives a description of the methodology of early Christian thinkers. Near the end he says,

This idea that the Scriptures are the measure of truth is characteristic of Christianity and seems to be a notable difference from Hellenic philosophy to the extent that Christian thinkers appear to have commitments to doctrines prior to enquiry, and they resort to it only to confirm the doctrine of the Scriptures.

(George Karamanolis, The Philosophy of Early Christianity [New York: Routledge, 2014] 51–2.)

Karamanolis goes on to qualify this statement, but I bring it up to draw a parallel bretween Porphyry’s cognitive process and early Christian theological/philosophical methodology. Perhaps, like the all-knowing King-λόγος of Porhyry, Scripture tests the concepts brought to it to confirm or deny their truth. If Jesus is the Λόγος that inspired the λόγοι of Scripture, the parallel might work (though, of course, this does not address the problem of interpretive pluralism). This at least helps me see appeals to Scripture to be a little more philosophically robust for early Christian authors then it may seem at first glance by contemporary readers.

Criterion? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Criterion!

Plotinus on IntellectIn his book Plotinus on Intellect, Eyjófur Emilsson goes a long way to give an coherent account of the Intellect’s self-knowledge. Near the end he notes the probable impetus for Plotinus’s account being the skeptical dilemma that a person’s self-knowledge is impossible:

The argument in V.5.1 we just considered and the notion of truth in Intellect which ‘says what it is and is what it says’ is probably also prompted by sceptical considerations: it may be an attempt to block the kind of sceptical move which consists in insisting on a criterion for the validity of any proposed criterion (cf. Sextus Empiricus, PH 1, 166). Plotinus’ theory of divine thoughts is clearly meant to make such thoughts self-validating. In general it seems to be instructive to see Plotinus’ epistemological concerns—his contrast between cognition of images or impressions and knowledge of the things themselves as well as his insistence that genuine knowledge is identical with its object and true just in virtue of itself—in the light of sceptical considerations. His theory is so construed that it is supposedly impossible to put any wedge between Intellect and the object of its cognition.

(Eyjólfur Kjalar Emilsson, Plotinus on Intellect [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007], 170)

What we have here is a typical top-down move by Plotinus as opposed to appealing to some account of vividness (enargeia) of an impression (phantasia) the way the Stoics did. I find both approaches fascinating, especially—again—in light of Karamanolis’s book. I’d be interested to see if one can find a parallel development in Christian thought. I’m under the impression (but not the vivid kind) that one sees the likes of Clement of Alexandria making a Stoic-type move in his response to skeptical challenges, but I can’t say off the top of my head whether Origen or the Cappadocians prefer the bottom-up or top-down solution.

Thank Plato for Theologians

Christian Theology and Its InstiutionsChristoph Markschies begins his book Christian Theology and Its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire: Prolegomena to a History of Early Christian Theology by defining the terms ‘theology’ and ‘institution’, which is a very good place to start. He notes that in the second and third centuries, “theologians” were the likes of Opheus, Homer, Hesiod or “certain cultic functionaries” (6); that is, poets and priests. It wasn’t until later that theology or theologian became a term for some sort of rational explication of a beliefs, and Markshies highlights the importance of  Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and especially Eusebius of Caesarea in this regard. But behind them, of course, stands Plato.

Plato not only discovered the word that came to designate Christin ‘theology’ from the high middles ages; his philosophy also in a sense first made possible the elaborate Christian “theology” of the imperial period and thereby basically paved the way for the close association between Platonic philosophy and Christian “theology” that characterized Christian antiquity (admittedly with varying degrees of intensity). Even if the word θεολογία was initially not used in this way in antiquity itself, the relatively quick development of ‘theology’ in ancient Christianity presupposes a good bit of that bold metaphysical certainty with which Plato, in precisely that passage in which the word θεολογία first appears, also asserted the possibility of ‘theology’ as an ‘appropriate representation’ of God. No Christian ‘theology’ could have been developed in antiquity on the basis of a skeptical approach, like the viewpoint favored by the Platonic Academy for many years after the metaphysical certainty of Plato was broken in skepticism beginning in the second century BCE. Rather, the simplifying standardization as well as the popularizing ‘theologization’ of the various antiskeptical philosophical directions int he early Roman Empire, which followed as a reaction to skepticism, were an important presupposition for the emergence of Christian ‘theology.’

(Christoph Markschies, Christian Theology and Its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire: Prolegomena to a History of Early Christian Theology, trans by Wayne Coppins [Waco, TX: Baylor University Press/Mohr Siebeck, 2015] 12–13).

This analysis by Markschies coheres well with George Karamanolis argument in The Philosophy of Early Christianity, where he argues for the importance of responding to skeptical arguments as the impetus to Christian theological development (or, put another way, the rise of Christianity as a philosophical school in its own right). If answering skepticism is important early on, it would be interesting to compare later Christian responses to skepticism.

Gregory of Nazianzus on the Demands for Correct Conduct

For if it were possible for everyone to be the noblest and attain the summit of virtue, this would certainly be most excellent and most perfect. But, since the divine nature is distinct from human nature and since the former has a share in nothing which is not good while the latter would consider it a great achievement to be mediocre, why do you prescribe rules which are impossible for everyone to obey unless you desire to condemn those who do not keep them? For just as someone who does not deserve chastisement does not automatically deserve commendation, in the same way someone who does not deserve commendation does not automatically deserve punishment: we must remain within the limits of our philosophy and of human capability in order for us to define our demands for correct conduct.

Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 4.99 (trans. by Bradford Lee Fipps)

A Prayer of Thanksgiving from Gregory of Nazianzus

Thanks be to you, O king of all and maker of all.
The heavens are filled with your glory and all the earth
with your wisdom. God the Word, your Son, created all things.
Your Holy Spirit bestows life on all.
Divine Trinity, may you be gracious to the world. Hearken to us,
Son of God according to the spirit and Son of man according to the flesh,
who undertook to suffer death on the Cross,
as a mortal; but on the third day you quit the gates of Hades
as God. For having risen you loosed the bond of death,
and you conferred to the mortal race a nature by which we might
live all days, and sing to you, Immortal One, always.

Gregory of Nazianzus, “Thanksgiving” (Carmina I.1.33 [PG 37.514], translated by Brian Dunkle, S. J., St. Gregory of Nazianzus: Poems on Scripture [SVS Press, 2012], pp. 120–123).

Ben Myers Tweet review of Christoph Markschies, Christian Theology and Its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire

If you don’t follow Ben Myers on Twitter then you recently missed a fantastic tweet review of Christoph Markschies new book, Christian Theology and Its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire: Prolegomena to a History of Early Christian TheologyThankfully, Myers collected his tweets and posted them on his blog which you can read here: http://www.faith-theology.com/2015/11/tweet-review-of-christoph-markschies.html.

Based on Myers review, this looks like a book I need to read. In fact, everyone who does biblical or theological studies should read this book. As such, I propose to re-subtitle it “Prolegomena to Any Future History of Early Christian Theology.”