Monday, July 21, 2014

Ehrman Epilog: After Nicaea

And now it is with great pleasure that I finish the Epilog 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
8. After the New Testament (2nd and 3rd centuries)
9. Paradoxes on the Road to Nicaea

The Epilog both gives a little of what happened after Nicaea, while also giving Ehrman's personal conclusion.

1. For Ehrman, he notes that his own story is a mirror opposite of that in the early church. While views of Jesus in the early church got "higher and higher." His own understanding went "lower and lower." He still resonates with the ethical teaching of Jesus (e.g., love your neighbor), although even here he believes that Jesus' teaching had a rationale from Jewish apocalyptic that is quite unlike his own thinking. Ehrman doesn't believe that a heavenly figure called the "Son of Man" is soon going to rush in to set the world straight.

Here he says something that is true to at least some extent. We have a tendency to "recontextualize" Jesus. If you were to look at the many portraits of Jesus that have been written (even painted) over the last centuries, you would find that biographers of Jesus have a tendency to create him in their own image. I absolutely believe it is true that the Jesus you hear from the pulpits today is a Jesus that makes sense to each particular preacher.

We may quote the same words from the Bible about Jesus and tell the same biblical stories, but the meanings we give those words and stories tend to be a Jesus who reflects our values and ways of looking at things. Imagine my surprise, for example, to hear people today reading Jesus as a Tea Party type! No doubt whatever the next subcultural Christian fling of the next decade is, it will likely--surprise, surprise--see Jesus as its home boy too.

2. The development Ehrman has painted in his book goes as follows: "Jesus went from being a potential (human) messiah to being the Son of God exalted to a divine status at his resurrection; to being a preexistent angelic being who came to earth incarnate as a man; to being the incarnation of the Word of God who existed before all time and through whom the world was created; to being God himself, equal with God the Father and always existent with him" (353).

There are two points especially where Ehrman's reconstruction is idiosyncratic from a majority opinion of scholarship. One is his sense that Jesus looked to the coming of a different figure from him, a being called the Son of Man. The other is his sense that Jesus was understood to be an angel. Both are ideas that surfaced in the early 1900s. Neither have gained much of a following among scholars.

There has of course been the rise in the last twenty years of an "early high Christology" model in certain circles. Ehrman gives the famous Martin Hengel quote about more happening in the first twenty years of early Christianity than since (371). Larry Hurtado has also argued strongly for a striking worship of Jesus that rose in the earliest days after Jesus was on earth. Richard Bauckham has also argued as intelligently as anyone for an inclusion of Christ within God's divine identity from the earliest points.

Ehrman does not completely disagree. Indeed, although he argues for development here, he sees the worship of Christ as a divine being a very early development.

What is a believer to make of this discussion? For me, the key is to see this as a conversation from the outside of Jesus looking on. In other words, we are asking about the evolution of how Jesus was understood, not about who Jesus actually was. Jesus was of course the same person all along, regardless of how understandings about him developed.

Here's the point. By faith, Jesus was the second person of the Trinity from eternity past. When he came to earth and became a man, he arguably put the vast majority of his omniscience in some divine subconscious and learned things like a normal human. That is to say, he did not know everything about who he was all at once. He may not have "remembered" that he was the second person of the Trinity until his resurrection!

The understanding of Christ in the church may have taken some time to unfold as well, but this is not a matter of who Jesus actually was while he was on earth. It is a question of our unfolding understanding of Jesus. All that is to say that the development of understanding of Jesus in the early church--however it unfolded--does not contradict orthodox faith in who Jesus is.

3. Ehrman spends part of this chapter talking about the impact of Constantine making Christianity legal on its flavor. Since Constantine now believed exclusively in the Christian God, emperor worship immediately stopped. Predictably, conversion to Christianity went into hyperdrive. I can't confirm his numbers but he suggests Christianity went from being about 5% of the Roman Empire when Constantine legalized it to about 50% by the end of the 300s. Obviously we can question whether this was real conversion or rather convenience.

He argues that Jews were then increasingly persecuted. It's one thing when persecuted Christians say vitriolic things about Jews. It's another when Christians in power say those things. Ehrman argues that Jews were soon marginalized into a position far worse than they had been--and they were none popular before. I can't confirm the tone he gives about Ambrose in this section, but he suggests that Ambrose pressured the emperor at that time from punishing a mob that had destroyed a synagogue and from letting them rebuild it.

This is, by the way, why I favor a form of separation of church and state that is friendly toward all religions, including Christianity (thus, I mean a form that is different from the model that seeks to drive all religion out of the public sphere). When a religion is in power, no matter what religion it is, it almost always has a tendency to oppress those who are not part of it. I love a quote allegedly by Charles Spurgeon about why the Baptists never burned anyone at the stake. His answer, "Because we were never in power."

4. Finally he deals with some post-Nicaea "heresies." He makes a point with which I agree. The vigor with which these "heretics" were opposed was ignorant of the developments that had already taken place. Apollinaris believed that Jesus' soul was the Logos. So it was as if he had a divine mind and a human body. This attempt to work things out was seen to negate Jesus' full humanity and was condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 381. Ehrman says, "he was not allowed any longer to worship in a Christian church in public" (368).

Obviously I don't agree with Apollinaris and maybe he was a contentious guy. If it was his divisiveness that kept him out of churches, I can understand that. If it was some self-ignorant self-righteousness on the part of those who hereticized him, I have problems with that. It reminds me of John Piper's sense that Wesleyan-Arminians should not be teaching at truly evangelical institutions.

Nestorius similarly was trying to work out the mystery of Christs being both fully human and fully divine after Nicaea. Apparently, his views came close to sounding like Christ was two persons, a divine one and a human one. Again, he was condemned.

A final "wrong turn" was that of Marcellus of Ancyra, who saw Christ as emerging from within God the Father for the space of creation, destined to return within the Father after the universe was set right. A fascinating proposal, in the end rejected in 381 at Constantinople.

5. So ends the book. In dealing with these issues in the 90s, I ended up putting a stake in Chalcedon, the Council of 451. By faith, I affirm that God is three persons but one substance, that the substance should not be divided and the persons should not be conflated (Nicaea). By faith I affirm that Jesus was both fully God and fully human, two natures but one person (Chalcedon).

As one person put it: "One canon, two testaments, three creeds, four councils, five centuries."

This benchmark has allowed me personally to let the interpretation of New Testament texts go where I think they want to go. I have grown to hate what I see as revisionary interpretation meant to make sure that interpretations of the New Testament match orthodox faith. The drive to do so is understandable. Having made all that fuss in the Reformation of getting back to the Bible alone, imagine how embarrassing it would be if the Bible itself undermined orthodoxy. So there is a lot of interpretive pressure evangelical Bible scholars feel to make the books come out "right."

That does raise a question. As Ehrman's last few chapters have argued, the debates of the 300s and 400s became increasingly minute. These debates arguably entered into territory where the Bible just didn't go, trying to answer questions the Bible just didn't ask. The debates increasingly became philosophical.

To what extent does the Protestant principle of "back to the Bible" apply to these debates? For example, I'm not sure how anyone would use the Bible to hereticize Marcellus above. Is it acceptable to be a "Marcellian" today? Of the three creeds mentioned above, I'm quite happy that John Wesley only accepted the teaching of the Athanasian Creed, not its condemnations of those who disagree.

We also have the occasional oneness Pentecostal come through our programs. I don't agree with their theology, but I don't personally doubt their rightness with God. If these discussions tell me anything, it's that Pietism is a very coherent position. God is more interested in what is going on in people's hearts than their heads.


Nathaniel said...

"If it was some self-ignorant self-righteousness on the part of those who hereticized him, I have problems with that. It reminds me of John Piper's sense that Wesleyan-Arminians should not be teaching at truly evangelical institutions."

The problem is that the scriptures basically say as much. The punishment following these early declarations of heresies are largely the result of interpretations of verses like Gal 1:8-9. The strictness with which these earliest leaders dealt with heresy is a direct reflection of the harshness of language of the apostolic injunctions against false prophets and teachers.

"One canon, two testaments, three creeds, four councils, five centuries."

As I've said before on this blog when you last used this phrase, the problem is that this doesn't correspond to any historical church. It is an entirely arbitrary stopping point in the development of Christian doctrine. It is further generally coupled with a fairly Nestorian reading of Chalcedon (cf McGuckin, McCormack, et al).

vanilla said...

Your final paragraph, and specifically the last sentence, expresses exactly what I believe. A little unity among Christian believers could scarcely hurt the cause.