Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Excerpts from Jaroslav Pelikan

Yesterday, I got my hands on a library copy of Jaroslav Pelikan's The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). Though I'm only up to page 116 of the book at the time this blog post has been written, I already found some really interesting insights on ante-Nicene history from this book, which I would like to share in this blog post.

On the Eucharist: of the most widespread calumnies against the Christians was the charge, “most impious and barbarous of all, that we eat human flesh” or “loaves steeped with blood.” The basis of this accusation was the language used by Christians about the Eucharist, for they seem to have spoken about the presence of the body and blood of Christ so realistically as to suggest a literal cannibalism. In the midst of rather meager and ambiguous evidence about the doctrine of the real presence in the second and third centuries and well beyond that period, these slanders would seem to be an important source of information in support of the existence of such a doctrine; but it is also important to note that the fathers, in defending themselves, did not elaborate a doctrine of the real presence. [p. 28]

On the antiquity of orthodoxy and heresy:

Some heresies seem to have retained the conceptual framework and the language of an earlier period, after the development of doctrine had rendered these obsolete; the term “fullness [πλήρωμα],” which came as close as any word to being a technical Christological term in the epistles of the New Testament bearing the name of Paul, was vitiated by its association with the Gnosticism of Valentinus, whose use of it, Irenaeus charged, “strives…to adapt the good terms of revelation to [its] own wicked inventions” and managed to discredit the term despite its prominence in the New Testament. Yet the same Irenaeus, unswervingly orthodox though he was, had, at another point, failed to anticipate the direction that the development of doctrine would take. For him, a millennial understanding of the kingdom of god was a hallmark of orthodoxy, but such an understanding soon became an aberration from the soundness of “apostolic tradition”.

Nevertheless, this discovery that heresy may be a result of poor timing has come only as a consequence of modern historical research: the primitive church was not characterized by an explicit unity of doctrine; therefore heresy could sometimes claim greater antiquity than orthodoxy. [p. 70]

On Charismatic gifts:

It would be useful to investigate how long visions, dreams, and apocalypses continued in the church, along with the claim to speak on behalf of the Holy Spirit, and how all of this died out among the laity but continued among the clergy, and especially among the monks. Celsus attested to the presence of “prophets” in Palestine and Phoenicia. Justin Martyr based his case against Judaism partly on the claim that “among us until now there are prophetic charismata,” while they had died out among the Jews; and Irenaeus described the many brethren in the church of his day who had these charismata, speaking in tongues by the Spirit, bringing out the secretes of men’s hearts and the mysteries of God. [p. 99]

More critical than Montanism’s theory of the role of the Spirit in the Trinity was its conception of the role of the Spirit in the church, and it was at this point that the principal doctrinal battle was joined. Montanism laid claim to supernatural inspiration by the Holy Spirit as the source of its prophecy, and it pointed to the moral decline of the church as the main reason for its having lost this power of the Spirit. Most orthodox writers in the second and even in the third century maintained that such inspiration by the Holy Spirit was not only possible, but present and active in the church. In meeting the challenge of Montanism, they could not, for the most part, take the approach that the age of supernatural inspiration had passed. Among the earliest critics of Montanism, there was no effort to discredit the supernatural character of the new prophecy. Instead, these critics affirmed that the ecstatic seizures of the Montanists were indeed supernatural in origin, but claimed that the supernatural involved was not the Holy Spirit of God but demonic spirits. Yet the decline of genuine prophecy and of the extraordinary functioning of the Spirit among the ranks of the catholic church tended to reduce the effectiveness of this charge that the prophecy of the Montanists was a pseudoprophecy because its supernatural source was demonic.

There was another way to meet the doctrinal implications of the Montanist challenge, and in the long run that was the way orthodoxy took. The first articulate spokesman of this viewpoint of whom there is record was Hippolytus of Rome, a contemporary of Tertullian. Apparently he recognized that the weakness which Montanism had discovered in the church lay in the church’s concept of a continuing prophecy. This concept was of a piece with a vivid eschatology; for apocalyptic has always, as suggested by its very name, which means “revelatory,” brought with it the notion of supplementary revelation, by which, among other things, the apocalypticist is convinced that the end has truly come. More consistently than most of the anti-Montanist writers were willing to do, Hippolytus subjected to question the very foundations of the Montanist movement. He was franker than most of his contemporaries in admitting that the church was not necessarily living in the last times, and in opposition to Montanism he defended the process by which the church was beginning to reconcile itself to the delay of the Lord’s second coming. As he pushed the time of the second coming into the future, so he pushed the time of the prophecy into the past. It had ended with the apostle John, whose Apocalypse Hippolytus maintained was the last valid prophecy to have come from the Holy Spirit. And though John was entitled to claim the inspiration of the Spirit for his prophetic work, later so-called prophets had no such right. [p. 105-106]

On Apostolic tradition:

Clearly it is an anachronism to superimpose upon the discussion of the second and third centuries categories derived from the controversies over the relation of Scripture and tradition in the sixteenth century, for “in the ante-Nicene Church…there was no notion of sola Scriptura, but neither was there a doctrine of traditio sola.” At the same time, it is essential to note that doctrinal, liturgical, and exegetical material of quite different sorts was all lumped under the term “tradition,” from the Christological interpretation of specific passages in the Old Testament to a chiliastic interpretation of the apocalyptic vision; and the process of accretion continued far beyond the ante-Nicene era. Some of the most important issues in the theological interpretation of doctrinal development have been raised by disputes over the content and the authority of apostolic tradition as a source of Christian doctrine and over the relation of this tradition to other norms of apostolicity. [p. 115]

(Note: Citations from patristic sources have been omitted.)

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