Thursday, July 10, 2014

Ehrman Chapter 8: Post-NT (2nd and 3rd Centuries)

Now chapter 8 of Bart Ehrman's, How Jesus Became God. So far:

1. Divine Humans in Ancient Greece and Rome
2. Divine Humans in Ancient Judaism
3. Did Jesus Think He Was God?
4. The Resurrection of Jesus: What We Cannot Know
5. The Resurrection - What We Can Know
6. The Beginning of Christology
7. Jesus as God on Earth: Early Incarnation Christologies

In this chapter, Ehrman examines those views that did not end up prevailing in Christian history, the views that were eventually declared heresies (288). The basic claim of this chapter is that, as time went by, thinking about Christ continued to develop in the early church. "Views that were originally considered 'right' eventually came to be thought of as 'wrong'; that is, views originally deemed orthodox came to be declared heretical" (289). At the same time, "heresy hunters" then rewrote history as if their (new) views were the ones the apostles had originally held and that the old majorities had been deviations.

There are two basic questions in the evaluation of this chapter. First, how accurate are the descriptions of the various Christologies? Second, how accurate is his overall thesis in this chapter?

1. Ehrman's Descriptions 
I am not an expert either on the early church fathers or the various groups he discusses, so it is quite possible that I have read right past slightly incorrect descriptions. In general, his descriptions of the various groups seemed on target to me. For a more expert response, see Charles Hill's evaluation of this chapter in chapter 8 of the response book.

Let me quickly summarize the groups mentioned in this chapter:

Groups That Denied Jesus' Divinity
a. Ebionites - In Ehrman's descriptions, the Ebionites saw Jesus as a man just like everyone else. Ehrman argues that they were Jewish Christians with views just like the earliest disciples. A problem Hill points out is that Ehrman has already claimed that the earliest Christians worshiped Jesus as divine, so there seems to be some disconnect here in his own thesis.

b. Theodotians - These were adoptionists, a group that believed Jesus had become Son of God either at his baptism or resurrection. Again, Ehrman connects their view to a view in the earliest church.

Groups That Denied Jesus' Humanity
a. Docetists - This is the group with which John had to contend at Ephesus, a group that believed Jesus had only seemed to have flesh. By the way, the author of 1 John seems to claim to have "touched" Jesus (1:1), something with which any reconstruction of earliest Christianity has to deal with, IMO.

b. Marcionites - Marcion (ca. 150) believed that the creator god of the OT was not the same God as the Father of Jesus. The material realm is evil, so Jesus descended in the appearance of a full-grown adult.

Groups That Split Jesus into Parts
Gnostics - In a more technical definition, the Gnostics saw Jesus as two beings, a spirit being and a human one. The spirit Christ came on Jesus at his baptism and left him before his crucifixion.

It is interesting that Ehrman distinguishes between the groups above and the groups below. The groups that follow: 1) saw Jesus as both human and God yet 2) saw him as one person. This is thus the thread that would lead to what would become the standard view of Christ in the 300s. Ehrman's thesis, again, is that "views that at one time were the majority opinion, or at least that were widely seen as completely acceptable, eventually came to be left behind; and as theology moved forward to become increasingly nuanced and sophisticated, these earlier majority opinions came to be condemned as heresies" (308).

a. Modalism - Modalism is where God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are seen as one person who is changing roles. God the Father comes down to earth as Jesus the Son, then returns as God the Holy Spirit. Groups today like oneness Pentecostals would still fall into this category.

One claim that Hill disputes about Ehrman's description of the 200s modalists is the claim that this was the majority position at Rome. Hill calls this a "generous intepretation of a slim amount of evidence" (164). Nevertheless, in looking at the quote Hill gives of Tertullian, it does look like Tertullian is saying that modalism was the most popular belief going around at the time (Against Praxeis 3). That of course doesn't mean that most church leaders held that position. Hippolytus mentions two bishops at Rome who were modalists.

b. Subordinationism - Ehrman wants to portray the views of Tertullian and Hippolytus as substandard over and against what would become the consensus a couple centuries later. In particular, Tertullian uses language that portrays the Father as greater than the Son, a view that would later be rejected (Against Praxeis 9).

Hill rejects this interpretation of Tertullian, and quotes Athanasius (the architect of the Trinity as we now know it) in relation to the language of John 14:28. I do not know enough at this point to decide between Ehrman and Hill here. I would not be surprised if Ehrman is correct.

c. Origen - I like to joke about Origen (ca. 200) being forced to pack his bags and leave heaven when he was excommunicated several hundred years after his death. Ehrman is quite correct that Origen went from being one of the greatest scholars of the early church to being a heretic in the eyes of the later church.

If Ehrman has described Origen's views correctly (and some of his description was new to me), Origen saw Jesus as the incarnation of the purest soul, which had so associated with God's Wisdom and Logos that, like a poker in a fire, had taken on all the characteristic "heat" of the fire.

2. Ehrman's Interpretation Overall
a. I do not think that Ehrman's individual interpretations of various groups are too far off the mark. I've noted some of Hill's critique and perhaps some of my patristic friends will weigh in. What is more significant as it relates to faith is Ehrman's overall argument.

Here, let me first say that some of the shock of a chapter like this one has to do with a certain Protestant assumption that we can jump straight from Revelation to Martin Luther. This is the "sola scriptura" hang-over. One of the reasons why there has been such a "Canterbury Trail" in recent decades--Protestants who are attracted to the Anglican, Catholic, or Orthodox churches--is the realization that the Bible alone does not as confidently yield orthodox faith as the pre-modern assumes it does.

The most sophisticated evangelical perspective I have heard on this subject is the idea that orthodoxy was there in nuce, in a nutshell, in the New Testament writings, but that it took several hundred years to unpack it. One way I have put it is that orthodoxy was in a zipped file on the cross, but it took several hundred years to unzip the file.

But what I want to say to my target audience, the person who is reading Ehrman with an open mind, is that orthodox Christian faith does not stand or fall on whether or not the New Testament church had it all figured out. There is a catholic version of faith that sees God slowly but surely, in his own "day is like a 1000 years" time, unfolding what would become the consensus opinion by around the year 400.

Protestants tend to have trouble with this approach. Our impulse is to "get back," as if the earliest is always the better and more accurate. This is an unexamined assumption. Luther and Wycliffe used the "back to the Bible" approach to try to peal back 1000 years of church history. But it is no surprise that they soon found Socinians around in the Reformation who did not believe in the Trinity. And it is no surprise that Zwingli soon found himself fighting individuals who questioned infant baptism.

Indeed, liberal Protestantism, in my opinion, is one direct consequence of this impulse, as scholars peeled back and peeled back until all they were left with was the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Ehrman himself is a shadow of his former fundamentalist self. Indeed, this chapter reflects his shadow Protestantism, where development of doctrine is implicitly seen as an argument against the orthodox result.

b. I suppose the crucial question, however, is the extent to which the groups to which Ehrman points were mainstream and to what extent they were deviations. That is to say, is later orthodoxy in continuity with the apostles or discontinuity? He portrays orthodoxy as being in discontinuity.

It has been the standard view since Walter Bauer's, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity that it is anachronistic to speak of orthodoxy or heresy in the 100s. There was no church structure to make such a judgment. There were no popes yet. There were only individuals with authority and influence.

So there were bishops and there were writers. We know what Ignatius or Justin Martyr or Irenaeus wrote, but we should not consider them to be the position of Christianity at the time. They are just the ones whose writings reflect the historical "winners." It is a matter of faith to say that God played a role in who the winners were.

This position of faith is central to orthodox Christianity. For orthodox faith, it is not that orthodoxy "established itself" or "declared it was right" (288). It is that God was working behind the scenes, slowly but surely, to make sure that the "winner" would eventually be the right view.

I might add that Bauer's position is a little different from the feel of Ehrman. Bauer's contention was that there simply wasn't such a thing as orthodoxy in the 100s. It didn't exist yet. The impression Ehrman gives is that orthodoxy was constantly changing. This is a significant distinction, it seems to me.

And here let me reiterate again my not so latent Pietism. God is not nearly so concerned, in my opinion, with what is going on in our heads as what is going on in our hearts. It is the person who thinks beliefs are the first order of business who will be most troubled by these sorts of things. I fully believe that Origen and Athanasius had an ambrosia and a laugh together in heaven after he was declared a heretic.

I think we can quickly establish that Docetism, Gnosticism, modalism, and Origen were deviations. The earliest Christians did not question that Jesus was a real human who stood in front of them or that he was a distinct person from God the Father. The Ebionites are sometimes compared to one thread within Jerusalem Christianity, but those who do so usually consider even Paul's theology to have differed significantly from theirs.

In the end, I believe, it comes down to faith. Was God behind the scenes directing the path that Christian belief would take or was it just a mindless conflict with the final answer being a matter of chance and the winners? The same data can probably fit into either interpretation.

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