In a previous post, I promoted some comments in which Barry Jones of The Village Atheist web site questioned whether my version of Christianity was authentic. In particular, he believes that Christianity should be based on the Bible and should be singular.
This post is not in direct response, but I will say a number of things here that are fundamental to my view on this issue. There is no way that I can deal with all elements of this debate in a single post, and the main reason I have decided to carry on the discussion is that it will be such a fruitful place for me to post on my own view of Christianity. Some terms simply beg for further definition, such as just what “Bible based” actually means. Since the Bible contains no constitution for a church congregation, but rather stories about and letters to various churches, just what singular church administrative structure should be used? This, along with many other things, has come about by tradition–often by a scripturally informed tradition, but tradition nonetheless.
But the issue I want to begin to address today is this. What validity would there be to a Christianity which is singular both now and through time? Would such a Christianity be possible, and would it be authentic?
What I have a hard time seeing as authentic is a static Christianity. The fact is that Jesus came in and spent his time doing anything but trying to conform to a common definition of Judaism. In fact, he proposed some rather challenging ideas. Now one might claim that he was going back to an earlier time historically, but I think one would be hard pressed to find the time that Jesus was pointing back to.
This type of approach to religious ideas is actually very common. People frequently assume that the oldest source is the most reliable in terms of theology. If we can get back to the authentic words of _____, we will just have the truth once and for all. In most discussions of authentic Christianity, there will be a common acceptance of the view that we should get as close to the apostolic church as we can. The debate is simply about just what it was, and how close we can get to it under our circumstances. The person who challenges this assumption is often the odd man out.
But the challenger will have the historical advantage. There was no singular, unquestioned apostolic church that passed on a singular tradition. That was why debates had to take place in the early church. If one could pick up a unified theology simply by reading the Bible, we would not have needed church councils to define doctrinal positions. But the fact is that without such church councils there wouldn’t even be a “Bible” from which to derive those doctrines. Those councils had to define what would be regarded as authoritative and what would not.
The interesting thing about this apostolic church is that it grew out of the ministry of a man who challenged much of his surrounding culture (though he remained Jewish throughout), who was definitely pushing for something new and different. The Sermon on the Mount with it’s “you have heard that it has been said . . . but I say unto you” statements is not one that would be preached by someone intent on maintaining tradition and the status quo.
But once that ministry was complete this apostolic church moved forward with wrinkles and debates, with agreements and disagreements, in other words, it wasn’t static either. So why is it that we can see a modern church as credibly apostolic if it does not itself have a lively theological dialog going on?
Now my area of expertise is not church history, though obviously I have to spend some time there. I studied the ancient near east. My approach to Biblical studies was from ancient near eastern languages and literature. From that approach I would maintain that Judaism was no more static than Christianity was, and indeed changed greatly over time. We tend to miss this because we have in scripture a collection made over a fairly short period of time. We don’t have much documentation on the losers. What we have is documentation of the stream of tradition that became dominant.
Now there was no absolute suppression involved. There are plenty of tracks left in Hebrew scripture by which we can tell that there was development in the thought of Israel. If we add the deutero-canonicals into the mix, we see an even more diverse mix of thinking. (Which relates to another question I ask about “Bible-based Christianity.” Which Bible?) Thus we have a new movement (Christianity) growing out of an existing diverse movement, and developing immediate diversity of its own.
The question is this: Where is the static point in the past that should be preserved by all modern, authentic Christians? I don’t see it. I can see the drive to get at the pure words of Jesus, but even though I believe fully in the incarnation, I cannot see how Jesus would or could define a static point for all history. Whatever divinity was there still had to communicate with finite humanity, and thus those statements also are conditioned by time, place, and culture. They are extremely important, indeed foundational, to my own thinking about Christianity, but there are far from complete in answering questions.
So what is that point? Let’s have a time slice in history that should define what a singular Christianity should be, and then consider why that point/period should be accepted as definitive.