Change: Adaptive, Progressive, or Regressive?
Or, Was the 1st-Century Church a Helpless Embryo or an Ambulatory, Full-fledged Entity?
In terms of coming to understand and practice the authentic Christian faith, for me, it goes without saying that 1st-century documents carry more prescriptive authority than 2nd-, 3rd-, and 4th-century sources. Said another way: the later the writing, the more likely that undesirable/undesired ideas crept into it. The last blogpost probed along these lines, even to the point of distinguishing among decades and developments in the 1st century. Could some later New Testament documents have begun to veer from the originally laid out course?
This is not so much about a hermeneutic of authorization, i.e., that specific things were/were not authorized by God, and that such things were/were not codified in the writings. I do not take that approach. Nor can any careful NT reader ascertain that any particular 1st-century congregation—say, Antioch in the 40s or Philippi in the 60s—was iconic. I do, however, wonder whether the letters to Timothy and Titus, attributed to Paul, might betray a relatively early adaptation of original Christian practice viz. the roles of church leaders (bishops/elders/pastors) and servants (deacons). For sake of discussion, I am assuming that that “original,” however elusive it might be to us today, was a good thing, worthy of some later pursuit.
[Aside: calling attention to the relative timing (early vs. late) of Christian writings begs the question of how undesirable these blogposts of mine might be. They are, after all, about as “late” as I can get in terms of authorship! Here, I only intend to be comparing the canonical apostolic scriptures and the works of the so-called church fathers, not even distinguishing between the Antenicene fathers and the later ones. Moreover, there are always exceptions to a general rule; many helpful and/or worthy passages will be found in later writings.]
If something is just born, is it only to be pitied as a helpless creature, not fully formed? Some might think here of the long-observed “progression” from movement to sect, and from sect to denominational institution, but that is not really where I’m headed. Larry Hurtado has recently offered a corrective to the idea that a newly born anything is necessarily to be seen as a baby. I agree that a sense of early Christian faith and practice is crucial, and I do not relegate the nascent first-century movement to “helpless infant” or “cute toddler” status. There is no call to apologize for, say, documented aspects of Christianity in the year 48 or 57 or 62. Hurtado sees mid-1st-century Pauline literature as viable: Paul, in writing his letters, presupposed that Christianity was at that time “adequately formed and fully appropriate.” Hurtado has his “historian” hat on as he assesses this way, and the hat fits well. It is good for later observers not to superimpose value judgments (“well, Christianity was little more than embryonic then”) that cloud or falsely view the realities of historical scenarios and changes.
Hurtado goes further in suggesting that observed changes are not necessarily “deviations from a ‘pure’ and ‘original’ form.” Sometimes, changes may merely be adaptations of a neutral original. To question the existence of an original ideal is admittedly uncomfortable for me, restorationist and neo-protestant that I am. In the ecclesiological sphere, I am typically suspicious of changes that occurred well after the launching of the movement—so this bent would affect my reading of Origen, Eusebius, and Tertullian—although generally supportive of changes in organizational methodology in the 20th and 21st centuries. Without delving into specific reasons for this apparent inconsistency, I think there are some fairly good reasons for it, at least with the types of changes I have in mind.
I affirm that changes do not necessarily imply progress. Sometimes, change may be regressive; in other instances, merely adaptive. Take the Windows PC platform (now perhaps more a fortress than a portal from which to see out and do one’s work) as an example. Windows 3.1 was quite functional and seems to me to have been well tested, with little performance concern. From the end user’s perspective, Windows 95 “progressed” yet had serious issues, some of which were fixed in Windows 98. I found Windows XP to represent a more helpful progression, whereas Windows 7 and Windows 8 were beset by issues. The successively opaque versions of Windows might be alternately assessed as progressive or unwisely adaptive to demand. Somewhat similarly, while some ecclesiological adaptations of the first century were arguably progressive, the eventualities that led to the Roman Catholic institution are for me adaptive departures from the original ideal.¹ From the cultural and “market” perspectives, some changes that occurred in, e.g., the 4th century or the 6th were understandable adaptations, while others were misbegotten and fraught with apostasy.
As a historian, one should not, as Hurtado points up, arbitrarily overlay value judgments on changes. As an idealistic Christ-ian, though, I long for authentic, pure faith, untainted by decades of darkness and centuries of clouds. I see the composite picture of the early church as presenting a better, more viable ideal than any ecclesiological reality manifest in any later centuries, despite the sincere efforts of various reformers through the ages. And yes, these are value judgments. I admit it.
To read Dr. Hurtado’s blogpost, click the title below.
¹ For instance, I should think the Apostle Peter would be spiritually indignant if made aware of what transpired over a period of centuries with regard to his person and legacy. Those changes might be viewed as regressive or progressive, depending on one’s viewpoint, but they were in any event substantial departures from the original ideal.