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A History of Christian Thought
From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon
By Justo L. González
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1970 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Because of the nature of the material with which it deals, the history of Christian thought must of necessity be a theological undertaking. The task of the historian does not consist in mere repetition of what has happened—or, in this case, of what has been thought. On the contrary, the historian must begin by selecting the material to be used, and the rules guiding this selection depend upon a decision that is to a considerable degree subjective. Whoever would write a history of Christian thought cannot include the entire contents of the 382 thick volumes of original sources edited by Migne—and even these do not go beyond the twelfth century—but is obliged to make a selection, not only as to which works to include, but also as to the sources to be studied in preparation for the task. This selection depends in good part upon the author, which means that every history of Christian thought is of necessity also a reflection of the theological presuppositions of the writer, and the historian of Christian thought who suggests that such work is free of theological presuppositions is clearly deluded.
Harnack and Nygren, historians separated by decades in time as well as by diverse theological positions, are examples of the way theological presuppositions will influence the historian of Christian thought to write history in a distinctive way.
Adolph von Harnack, possibly the most famous of the historians of dogma, published his monumental work, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte, in the period running from 1886 to 1890. His theological position was derived from the thought of Ritschl, whom he calls "the last of the Fathers of the Church."Ritschl constantly endeavored to limit the involvement of philosophy in the field of religion by showing the distortions that result when metaphysics is related to religious concerns. For him religion is preeminently practical and not speculative. This is not to say that religion should be dissolved into mere subjectivism. On the contrary, religion establishes those moral values which are the only means by which one can free oneself from the conditions of bondage that characterize the natural life. Neither dogmas nor mystical sentiment constitute the Christian faith, but rather those moral values which lift one above life's present misery.
Beginning with such theological presuppositions, Harnack's conclusions were inevitable. For him the history of Christian dogma was in large part the story of the progressive negation of the true principles of Christianity. Such principles were to be found in the moral teachings of Jesus. The starting point for Harnack was not so much the person as the teachings of Jesus. Therefore, all the doctrinal development of the first centuries, which revolves around the person of Jesus rather than his teachings, could only be the progressive distortion of the original meaning of the gospel. The purpose, therefore, of Harnack's History of Dogma is to show that dogma—and especially christological dogma—which in the modern world is antiquated, never was an authentic result of the gospel.
Nygren begins with very different presuppositions. Being one of the main exponents of the "Lundensian Theology," he conceives the task of the historian of Christian thought as being an "investigation of motifs." This investigation has, itself, certain philosophical and theological foundations that determine its character. As an example of this we can mention the antithesis that Nygren establishes between what he considers the essential Christian motif, love of the agape type, and the Jewish motif, the Law or nomos. Because of this antithesis Nygren finds himself unable to relate adequately the Law with the gospel, which in turn produces not only theological difficulties, but also historical distortions—as when Nygren presents us with a picture of Luther in which the Law has lost the distinctive importance that it had for the Reformer.
For their part, traditional Roman Catholic historians tend to interpret the history of Christian thought in such a way as to emphasize its continuity, for as Vincent of Lerins said (fifth century), only that is to be believed "which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all." The presuppositions and value judgments of the historian determine the selection of the material, the bridging of gaps in the sources, and the very manner of presentation, which may appear so objective as to beguile the reader.
What are the presuppositions of the present author? The question must be asked and honestly answered, that the reader may the better exercise the right of dissent.
In dealing with the development of doctrine, this author is convinced that it is necessary to do so beginning with a theological concept, that is, a Christian view of the nature of truth, and that this understanding of truth—here we are not speaking of the truth itself, but only of its nature—is to be found in the doctrine of the Incarnation. According to this doctrine, Christian truth is such that it is not lost or distorted upon uniting itself with the concrete, the limited, and the transitory. On the contrary, the truth—or at least that truth which is given to us—is given precisely there where the eternal unites with the historical; where God becomes flesh; where a specific man, in a specific situation, is able to say: "I am the truth."
In order to clarify this concept of the truth let us compare it with two others with which it is incompatible and which, therefore, result in other interpretations of the person of Jesus Christ which deny the doctrine of the Incarnation.
First, we might affirm that truth exists only within the realm of the eternal, the permanent, and the universal, and therefore cannot be given in the historical, the transitory, and the individual. This concept of truth has exerted a strong attraction on the Greek mind, and through it, upon all of Western civilization. But such a concept, attractive though it might seem, has only led to the denial of the Incarnation, and to the affirming of that doctrine known as "Docetism" (see Chapter VI), which, while making of Jesus Christ an eternal, permanent, and even universal being, also sees him as quite distinct from that historic and individual man of which the Gospels speak to us.
Second, we could say that all truth is relative, that there is no such thing as absolute truth among humans. This concept of truth has been in fashion for the last two or three centuries, a result of the enormous development in scientific and historical studies that have made us aware of the relativity of all human knowledge. But this viewpoint, attractive though it may be, is incompatible with the most fundamental doctrine of Christianity, namely the affirmation that in the historical event of Jesus Christ the very meaning of all life and history is encountered, and that this is as true today as in the first century of the Christian era. Such a concept of truth could be related to that christological doctrine called "Ebionism" (see Chapter V), which, while seeing in Jesus Christ a definite man, real and historical, also sees him as quite other than he whom the Gospels present to us as the Lord of all life and history—not that the Ebionites themselves were relativists, but that in modern times this understanding of truth often coincides with an Ebionite Christology.
Faced by these two positions Christianity affirms that the truth is given in the concrete, the historical, and the particular, contained and hidden within it, but in such a way as never to lose its veracity for all historical moments. In the historical humanity of Jesus Christ the Eternal Word of God comes to us who have not seen him "according to the flesh" nor experienced the immediacy with which he confronted the first disciples. Only in his historical incarnation do we know this Word, yet we know it is the eternal Word, which has been and will be to us "a refuge in generation unto generation," and which comes to us at every moment in which we proclaim the incarnate Lord.
It is this understanding of the relation between truth and history which serves as one starting point in our interpretation and evaluation of doctrinal development. The truth of doctrine will never be such that we can say: here is the eternal and incommutable truth, free of any shadow or conjecture of historical relativism. The truth of doctrine is only present to that degree in which, through the various doctrines, the Word of God (which is the Truth) is able to confront the church with a demand for absolute obedience. When this happens that doctrine indeed becomes the standard of judgment of the church's life and proclamation. If this does not occur then doctrines are no more than documents that witness to the church's past. And whether this happens or not does not depend upon us, nor is it intrinsic in the character of the doctrine itself, but depends rather upon a decision from Above.
Are all doctrines then equally valid? Certainly not. Moreover, no doctrine is valid in the sense of being able to identify itself with the Word of God. Doctrines are human words with which the church seeks to witness to the Word of God—and in this sense doctrines are a part of the church's proclamation. Just as in the sermon, doctrines become the Word of God only when God uses them as instruments of his Word, and nothing we can do will force God to speak through them.
But, because God in Jesus Christ comes to us and even becomes an object of human action, and because the same thing occurs—although in a derived way—in the Scriptures and the sacraments, it is possible to pronounce judgment on the validity of one or another doctrine—always remembering that such judgment is ours and not God's. It is in the Scriptures—the "foundation of apostles and prophets"—that we have the measuring stick by which to judge doctrine.
On the other hand, doctrines do not come forth through spontaneous generation, nor are they directly sent from heaven, unrelated to particular human circumstances. Dogmas form a part of Christian thought, from which they come forth and to which they later serve as a starting point. Doctrines are forged through long years of theological reflection from established practices of worship, within the context of a spirituality that opposes those doctrines which might seem to attack the very center of the faith of an epoch, and even as the result of political intrigues. Moreover, there has never been unanimous agreement among Christians about how and when a doctrine becomes dogma. This is why my decision has been to write a "history of Christian thought" rather than a "history of dogma," which would tend to give more attention to the formal statement of doctrines than to the material process by which their content originates and eventually becomes widely accepted.
In the organization and presentation of subject matter I have been guided by the necessities of a textbook for theological studies. Here for every historian there are two possibilities: a chronological, or a topical and thematic order. In a book in which the primary purpose is to serve as an introduction to the history of Christian thought a discussion of themes does not appear advisable, for the reader who is not versed in the history of Christianity will be easily confused when presented with a unit of material which, while very much a part of Christian thought, comes from distinctive periods of history. The chronological presentation has the indisputable value of avoiding this type of confusion, but suffers the defect of insufficiently emphasizing the continuity of the diverse theological currents. It is for this reason that I follow an outline that, although essentially chronological, seeks to keep in mind the continuity of certain theological themes of primary importance.CHAPTER 2
The Cradle of Christianity
According to a tradition reflected in the Gospel of Luke, Christianity was born in a manger, a scene we often like to paint in quiet hues. Yet that manger scene was actually not an example of tranquil aloofness from the menacing world, but, quite the contrary, was the result of active involvement. Joseph and Mary were led to the city of David because of economic conditions at home and a decree from afar when Caesar Augustus ordered "that all the world should be enrolled" (Luke 2:1 RSV). The purpose of the census was taxation, and the world about the manger was rife with bitter complaint.
In short, from its very beginning Christianity has existed as the message of the God who "so loved the world" as to become part of it. Christianity is not an ethereal, eternal doctrine about God's nature, but rather it is the presence of God in the world in the person of Jesus Christ. Christianity is incarnation, and, therefore, it exists in the concrete and the historical.
Without the world, Christianity is inconceivable. Therefore, in a study such as this we should begin by describing, however briefly, the world where the Christian faith was born and took its first steps.
The Jewish World
It was in Palestine, among Jews, that Christianity arose. Among Jews and as a Jew, Jesus lived and died. His teachings were framed within the Jewish world view, and his disciples received them as Jews. Later, when Paul traveled about, preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, he usually began his task among the Jews of the synagogue. Thus, we must begin our history of Christian thought with a survey of the situation and thought of the Jews among whom Christianity was born.
The enviable geographical location of Palestine caused many misfortunes to the people who considered it their Promised Land. Palestine, through which crossed the trade routes from Egypt to Assyria and from Arabia to Asia Minor, was always an object of the imperialistic greed of the great states that arose in the Near East. For centuries, Egypt and Assyria fought over that narrow strip of land. When Babylon supplanted Assyria, it also inherited Palestine, eventually destroying Jerusalem and taking into exile a part of the people. After the Persian conquest of Babylon, Cyrus permitted the exiles' return and made Palestine a part of his empire. By defeating the Persians at Issus, Alexander annexed their empire, including Palestine, which came under the rule of Macedonian governors. When Alexander died in 323 B.C, a period of unrest followed for more than twenty years. By the end of that time, Alexander's successors had consolidated their power, but for more than a century the two main houses springing from Alexander's generals, the Ptolemies and Seleucids, fought for the possession of Palestine and the surrounding region. In the end, the Seleucids gained the upper hand, but when Antiochus Epiphanes tried to force them to worship the Syrian god Baal-Shamin by identifying him with Yahweh, the Jews rebelled under the lead of the Maccabees or Hasmoneans, and as a result they gained religious liberty and, later, political independence. Such independence, however, was possible only because of the internal division of Syria, and it vanished as soon as the next great power appeared: Rome. In the year 63 B.C, Pompey took Jerusalem and defiled the Temple, penetrating even to the Holy of Holies. From then on, Palestine was subject to Roman power, and in this condition we find it at the advent of our Lord.
Under the Romans, the Jews were notably intractable and difficult to govern. This was because of the exclusiveness of their religion, which admitted no "strange gods" before the Lord of Hosts. Pursuing its policy of respecting the national characteristics of each conquered people, Rome respected the Jewish religion. As a result, many parties in Palestine—notably the Pharisees—took a pacifistic stance and did not rebel against Rome. On a very few occasions, Roman governors interfered with Jewish religious practices, but the resulting disorder and violence obliged them to return at once to the former policy. Not one Roman governor succeeded in becoming popular among the Jews, although those who understood and accepted the religious character of their subjects did not encounter strong opposition. Thus, the more astute procurators took care not to mint small coins—the only ones used by the common people— with the emperor's likeness, or to display the showy, idolatrous Roman insignia in the Holy City.
Excerpted from A History of Christian Thought by Justo L. González. Copyright © 1970 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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