Archive for October 2013

Further Reflections on Clement and Ignatius: Authority and Doctrine   Leave a comment

[This post is part of a personal reflective journey through Christian theology.  An introduction to this project was given in the first post of this series.]

Why this blog post

In the previous posts in this series on Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch I did not discuss much a key theme in both of their writings that was highlighted in Daryl Arron’s book.  That it is authority and doctrine in the church. Here I mean authority over the body of the church’s teaching not discipline of the behaviour of individuals.   In fact, this theme is inherent in the very title of Arron’s book “The 40 Most Influential Christians Who Shaped What We Believe Today“.

My thoughts were directed to think about this further by two events this week.

Firstly, a friend posted a link on Facebook to a London talk by Joseph Atwill, author of “Caesar’s Messiah”.

Then, wanting something to eat my dinner in front of one evening, I watched a repeat of an old TV documentary I saw years ago on the Gnostic and other non-biblical Gospels. [Discovery Channel, “Lost Gospels”]. (I have seen better documentaries covering the same ground e.g. the BBC documentary of the same title presented by Pete Owen Jones.)

Personal Reflections

I am not going to discuss Atwill’s writings in any detail here. (I am preparing a separate blog post on the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth). However, Atwill’s hypothesis (he would put it stronger than that) is that Christianity was a fabrication of the Flavian Imperial Roman dynasty (69 to 96 CE) to help suppress Jewish revolt.  There is plenty of discussion of this on the WWW with some scholarly debunking from biblical and historical scholars of both Christian and non-Christian standpoints.

What Atwill’s claims made me think, in light of my reading about Clement and Ignatius, was how difficult such a fabrication would be and how unlikely an explanation it is for what we know about the first century or two of Christian history.  Both Clement and Ignatius show the lineage of the Christian message from Jesus, to the apostles and then to them who are the next generation of Christian leaders.  It is important in their understanding of the handing down of authority.  Indeed there is a whole web of characters mentioned both in the canonical Bible and other early Christian writings.  Many of these like Ignatius were martyred because of what they believed and taught.  Not many people would be martyred for what they think to be a fabrication.

This blog series is not a set of apologetics, for what the church (or different parts of it) have taught and thought through history, but a recording of personal reflections on reading or re-reading through a selection of that.  Nor, should it be apologetics for what I believe at this point in time, but the record of a personal reflective journey.  I am going to have to keep reminding myself of this as I do here.  Hence I ended the theme of the previous paragraph where I was tempted to research into details of source documents and earliest extant manuscripts etc.

The existence, in addition to the canonical ones, of numerous other gospels, in fragment or complete versions,  is indicative to me of this period following Jesus’ life where numerous people, in different groups, were groping with the questions of who was Jesus and what meaning did he have for them.  A few of these gospels, are possibly contemporary with Clement and/or Ignatius but most are thought to be from later in the 2nd through to the 4th century CE. Of course much of the teaching, and discussion at this stage would have been oral and we have no record of it.  It is in this context we have Clement and Ignatius being concerned about unity and false doctrine and noticeably in Clement’s writing love (or arguments about doctrine not showing love).

My reflection at this point was how did they discern what they considered to be true or false doctrine, and more relevant to this exercise how do I?  For myself, firstly this is not a simple black and white issue.  Perhaps a better expression of such questions would be:

  • “What is the truth in that?”

Truth for me, – how shall I phrase it?, let’s say – about matters of the divine and his/her interaction with creation, is sublime and of necessity often only understandable allegorically.  I use the term , without defining it, “poetic truth”.

A key part of the process of “discernment” for me is working through tensions in my world view.  A process I recently captured in a phrase that jumped into my head (I think I have coined it):

Now, I have been subject to decades of Christian teaching from different traditions, from people who I think honestly with St. Paul would say “what I received I passed on to you” [1 Cor 15:3].  I imagine this being very much how Clement and  Ignatius thought of their roles as Bishops in their respective churches.  However, certainly since my early teen years, and probably before, this has been received by me with a questioning mind.  How does this bit fit with that other bit of Biblical or Church teaching?  How does this fit with my scientific or historical understanding of the world?  What about these insights from other religions of philosophies?

My wife would tease me that I think too much and more seriously ask about my relationship with God as opposed to my thinking about Him.  There is some wisdom in that.  However, for me a key factor in that relationship is this continual thinking though my understanding.  Sometimes this thinking is stormy, and the cognitive dissonance remains for a long time.  However, I usually find a place of rest with the thoughts that reminds me of an Old Testament account of the one of the prophet Elijah’s encounters with God:

And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.
[1Kings 19: 11-12, RSV]

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Ignatious of Antioch   1 comment

[This post is part of a personal reflective journey through Christian theology.  An introduction to this project was given in the first post of this series.]

Biographical details/context

As well as the book by Daryl Aaron this series is framed around, I have consulted two main sources for a summary of what is known about Ignatius: the Wikipedia entry and the 1913 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia (made available online by New Advent).

Ignatius was born in Syria (poignant given the current civil war there) , between 35 and 50 CE.  He is thought to have converted to Christianity at an early age and to have been martyred, between 98 and 117 CE, by being thrown to wild animals in the Coliseum in Rome.  He was a disciple of John the Apostle (the most theological of the gospel authors). He was appointed Bishop of Antioch (then a major trading city in Syria) possibly by St. Peter. It was at Antioch that the followers of Jesus first got the name Christians (Acts 11:26) which was probably initially a term of abuse.  Together with Clement of Rome, previously written about, he is considered one of the 5 Apostolic Fathers fo the Church.

Writings

Following his arrest and during the long overland journey to Rome he wrote seven letters; six to established churches and one to his friend Polycarp who was Bishop of Smyrna.  (Other letters in later collections are thought to be spurious.)  These writings are principally pastoral letters.  However, Arron quotes Roger Olsen:

“It may be fair to say that these letters contain the first real theology in Christianity [beyond the apostles own writings]”

English translations of Ignatius’ writings are available online via Early Christian Writings.

I read first his letter to Polycarp which is mostly encouraging his friend and fellow Bishop and arranging for a replacement for himself as Bishop in Antioch to be selected and sent.  He uses analogies familiar form Paul’s letter’s: the Christian as athlete and the Christian virtues as the armour of God.  His letter to the Romans is difficult for me to empathise with. It is mostly about his welcoming his anticipated martyrdom and asking the Christians there to do nothing to prevent it. (I cannot imagine what they could do.)

In Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians the themes that Arron highlights are more evident.  This includes the role of the Bishops (and other church leaders) in preserving unity and warnings against false teachers and false doctrines.  He addresses the big theological theme of the early centuries of the Church: the nature of Jesus Christ.  To quote from Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians, Chapter VII:

There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first possible and then impossible, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Arron asserts that while stating that Christ was God, Ignatius’ greater concern was that Jesus was genuinely human.  This was to counter a prevalent “Christological heresy” of the time Docetism.  Docetism claimed that Jesus only appeared to be human.  Quoting from Ignatius’ letter to the Trallians (Church at Tralles, now Ayden in modern Turkey):

CHAPTER IX,–REFERENCE TO THE HISTORY OF CHRIST.

Stop your ears, therefore, when any one speaks to you at variance with Jesus Christ, who was descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly born, and did eat and drink. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate; He was truly crucified, and [truly] died, in the sight of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. He was also truly raised from the dead, His Father quickening Him, even as after the same manner His Father will so raise up us who believe in Him by Christ Jesus, apart from whom we do not possess the true life.

CHAPTER X.–THE REALITY OF CHRIST’S PASSION.

But if, as some that are without God, that is, the unbelieving, say, that He only seemed to suffer (they themselves only seeming to exist), then why am I in bonds? …

CHAPTER XI.–AVOID THE DEADLY ERRORS OF THE DOCETAE.

Flee, therefore, those evil offshoots [of Satan], which produce death-bearing fruit, whereof if any one tastes, he instantly dies. For these men are not the planting of the Father. …

Personal Reflections

A caveat

I am going to confine my writings about the reflections I had while researching Ignatius of Antioch to thoughts about the nature of Jesus Christ.  Firstly, a caveat:  I am not trying to persuade anyone to my point of view, nor do I need to.  However, I want to be honest about the understanding I have come to (been led to?) over nearly 50 years of thinking about these things.  I certainly do not want to put a stumbling block in anyone else’s way.  I have come to love the phrase “journey to and with God“, and it would be grossly arrogant of me to think that someone elses journey should go through the same waypoints as mine. Further, my world view is complex.  In trying to sum up my thoughts in a few paragraphs I could easily, though simplification, lead others to misunderstand me.  If what I say is a stimulus or a help to you take it; if not set it aside.  [I think I should copy this caveat to the introductory page to this series.]

The nature of Jesus

Firstly, I have no problem accepting that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person.  I think anyone, theist, atheist or agnostic who spends a little time looking into this would come to that conclusion.  There are fragments in existence of the Biblical gospels dating from the 2nd century CE (100-150 years after Jesus’ death) [see Wikipedia].  Compare this with the works of Julius Caesar (approx. 100 years before Jesus) where the earliest manuscripts in existence date from the 9th century CE [see summary in blog post by Roger Pearce].  Then there is the non-christian references to him and key facts of his life and death in the writings of the Jewish / Roman historian Josephus (b. 37 CE d. after 100 CE).  Then there is the rapid growth and spread of the “sect” that became Christianity led by those who claimed to have been his disciples while he was alive; many of whom subsequently died for their beliefs about him.  So the historical existence of Jesus and  Ignatius’ assertion that Jesus was fully human presents me with no challenge.  Of all the heresies I may be guilty of Docetism is not one of them.

I have long seen a loose analogy between the theological deliberations throughout church history and my own faith journey (although the order is different).  I characterise the first 300 years or so of church history as one when it wrestled with the nature of Jesus.  (More of this to come in this series of reflections).  For the church this culminated in the setting forward of the Nicene Creed at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.

I know I had questioned things through my teenage years.  I had certainly noticed that the prefered title for Jesus in the Gospels was “Son of Man”.  However, it was from my mid-twenties that this issue really came to dominate my thinking and more generally where I was spiritually.  By this time I was a least some of the time attending an Anglican church where the Nicene Creed was part of the liturgy.  So, I would say these words asking myself “what do I mean by this?“; and sometimes I could not say them at all:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father;

through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven,

was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary

and was made man.

This state of sometimes wrestling with, sometimes sitting with, this questioning lasted at least 10 years.  Then it came to be less important.  There was a more sublime truth underlying this thinking and form of words which I might simply express as follows:

  • God is love
  • God seeks relationship
  • God forgives
  • God is completing His creation

The mechanism of this, the human groping in the dark with theological/philosophical explanations, often led to complexities that were obstacles, rather than, pointers to God.

I will not be shying away from some of these complexities as this series progresses, but that seems a fitting place to end this post.