Sometime ago, Fr. Robert asked me to pick up J.N.D. Kelly’s book, Early Christian Doctrines. Unfortunately, I have not had the time to devote to it that I would like (of that many could say that about many things), but at the close of the first chapter, I have decided to strike up a conversation with a few of the more interesting points that stuck out at me. I like Dr. Kelly’s writing style, although he seems to make a few statements but then leaves enough wiggle room for others to draw different conclusions.
Kelly (pg5) draws a distinction between Irenaeus and Tertullian’s view of Scripture, which might be considered High with Clement of Alexandria and his pupil Origen who distinguished Christianity into two types. One, the simple – which was applauded by Tertullian, although he lamented that the simple refused to believe in the Trinity – was a lower class of believers based on faith, or the literal acceptance of the truths declared in Scripture and the Church’s teaching. The second type of Christian was the gnostic, a higher form of knowledge or revelation. Their belief was founded on the Bible, but tried to constantly dig deeper, searching for an esoteric meaning. (This would lead Origen to be excommunicated from the Catholic Church in later centuries.) Origen and his master in studies, Kelly says, would disparage the simple believers, founded only on faith (literal understanding) regard the ‘enlightened’ ones as perfect and specially privileged by God. Later, Kelly mentions that Clement of Alexandria ‘freely applied the title ‘gnostics’ to Christians who seemed to have a philosophic grasp of their faith’.
The idea of a secret form, or deeper form, of knowledge than that of Scriptures was used by Clement of Alexandria and his protégé. Clement, Kelly says, regarded tradition as ‘stemming from the apostles and including quasi-Gnostic speculations’ while for Origen the secret gnosis ‘seems to have consisted of an esoteric theology based on the Bible’ but in both cases we see that this secret knowledge was ‘reserved for the intellectual elite of the Church.’ It is clear that Clement and the Alexandrian School confused the secret Gnostic Tradition with the true foundation of the Apostles. What’s more, is that Origen considered the canon of doctrine as those things in current acceptance by ‘ordinary Christians’. Dr. Kelly states, ‘Though it’s (the body of beliefs) contents coincided with those of the Bible, it was formally independent of the Bible.’
In discussing the actual development of the thought of Tradition as a force, Kelly notes that in the early Church, the fathers (Ignatius, Polycarp, others) treated the Old Testament (the Septuagint, including the Deuterocanon, or Apocrypha) and the Apostolic Tradition as ‘virtually coincident.’ This relation is not that difficult to assume. The Apostles were Jews, men whose religion had been focused around the written law, so for them to completely forsake their upbringing (Christianity was the fulfillment of Judaism, not a completely separate religion) and focus instead on oral tradition would be unthinkable. We can see from the Epistle to the Hebrews what extent the Old Testament played in developing the theology of the Church. The author of Hebrews did not refer to verbal traditions, but concrete words.
Kelly then goes on to state that before Clement of Alexandria, the ‘apostolic testimony had not yet come to be known as ‘tradition’. Justin Martyr used the word only five times and then only in reference to the Jewish teachers. Polycarp, in his surviving letter, spoke of the ‘word transmitted from the beginning’ (Even John spoke of the transmission of testimony from the beginning in his first epistle, while still not yet meaning Tradition) while Justin spoke of the handing down of the Eucharist. We can concede that to Dr. Kelly that the ideas were sustained in embryo, but if we can embryonic development as something inspired, we can create a great deal of doctrines, fully matured, cloned from mere phrases and thoughts of long dead people. Doctrine cannot be held in embryonic form, using thoughts and ideas to birth it.
As a third point, the author uses Ignatius and 2nd Clement’s directives to followed the bishops and elders as grounds that the early Church felt that the ‘hierarchy which succeeded the apostles inherited the gospel message’ meaning that the bishops and elders, endowed with the Spirit were ‘divinely authorized custodians of the apostolic preaching.’ In truth, Ignatius did more than invited people to listen to those that bore the rule of the Church, but could this rightly be judge to mean that they were the mouth pieces of Tradition? Ignatius, following Paul, rightly saw that the inspired hierarchy of the Church was a safe guard against doctrines and traditions of man, not the inventor of them, nor the keepers.
Irenaeus believe that Tradition was independent of written documents. Once you begin to separate the two, you then begin to create you own doctrine, independent of the Church. Irenaeus pointed out that the barbarian tribes of Europe (he was in Lyons in modern day France) received the faith without the written documents. That question is easily answered in that the Gospel message is not doctrine, although doctrine later informs the person as to the meaning of the Gospel message. Paul didn’t demand a book for the lost, but a preacher sent from God. He does his bit to counter the Gnostics however, in focusing on the fact that revelation is open and very public (contrary to Clement’s secret gnosis).
Kelly states that Irenaeus makes two points about doctrine. Irenaeus points to the unbroken like of apostolic succession of bishops in the great sees, such as Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Rome. The issue with this is that at one time or another, every see what vacated, forcibly or otherwise, by the rightful bishop or lines of bishops. Avilius of Alexandria (Abilius in the West), also known as Sabellius, Milius or Melyos served as the third bishop of Alexandria between 83 and 95. In the Church History of Eusebius of Caesarea, it is recorded that, upon the death of Anianus of Alexandria, all the suffragan bishops of his area converged in Alexandria where they conferred with the laity about the next appointment to the position. Having cast lots, they unanimously voted for Avilius to succeed him, based on Avilius’ reputation for chastity and his knowledge of Christ. If Irenaeus is correct on his theory of an unbroken chain of apostolic bishops as the preserver of the Faith, then we see that the corruption of the Church started in Alexandria, which beget the world Clement, Origen, and the Stoic philosopher that started the school, Pantaenus.
Turning to Tertullian, we find that Kelly argues that the father of Latin Theology did not ‘confine the apostolic tradition to the New Testament. Like Irenaeus, Tertullian relied on the unbroken chain apostolic bishops. (As we have seen, this was broken in Alexandria by the close of the 1st century of Christianity. The see of Jerusalem would only last another 40 years before it succumbed to revolt). If this was a guarantee, then the promise was void. Tertullian, however, was, according to Kelly, emphatic that a secret revelation did not exist. It is noted that both Tertullian and Irenaeus ministered a generation before Clement and Origen.
Dr. Kelly goes on to state that the ‘unwritten tradition (Tertullian) considered to be virtually identical with the ‘rule of faith,’ which he preferred to Scripture. (pg 40) This ‘rule of faith’ (regula fidei) was not a concrete creed, but instead a pattern that Tertullian felt could test the Christianity of a person. This ‘rule’ was not centrally known in the East and cannot be found in the Scriptures, but according to some, is encompassed by Scripture. When arguing with those that he considered heretics (he was a schismatic himself), he was ‘profoundly convinced of the futility of arguing with heretics merely on the basis of Scripture.’
Moving into the third and fourth centuries, Kelly argues that the ‘basis of tradition became broader and more explicit’. The Church began to draw more on the Fathers (Ignatius, Polycarp) that descended directly from the Apostles. The liturgies developed in certain parts of the Church were themselves taken as a basis for doctrine. Kelly notes that Basil relied upon ‘tradition embedded in the liturgy, rather than upon Scripture, to demonstrate the full deity of the Holy Spirit’.
¶Pondering Tertullian and Irenaeus’ war, and indeed the early Church, with Gnosticism, I can understand the idea that Scriptures might be regulated as a secondary defense measure, especially when your opponents so quickly quote Scripture back at you; however, I believe that Scripture must first be the rule of Faith, no matter the opponent.
What drew me in was the difference between Tertullian/Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria/Origen in their view of Christians. It seemed Tertullian had more faith in the simple doctrines and the majority of the people than Clement did. Tertullian sought to defend the Faith while Clement sought to bring it into a philosophical realm. Yet the entire cast of characters are united by the Catholic Church as Fathers in the creation of the Trinity when it seems to me that they could not have been more different.
I look forward to our discussion.