Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Orthodoxy before the gospels

It is sometimes argued that since the gospels were written some time after the death of Our Lord they cannot be a reliable guide to His theology - particularly about Himself. Darrell Bock maintains that we have a good guide to the theology of the very early church from earlier sources reflecting a "core orthodoxy" well before the canon of the New Testament was established. An extended excerpt:

.... The question is how theology was passed on before there was a working New Testament to detail the theology and account of Jesus. This period without a New Testament represents a period of several decades, because the first books of the New Testament were written in the fifties of the first century and in all likelihood were completed in the nineties. It took another several decades for these books to function in any kind of concerted or organized-recognized manner as we use them today. .... How was theology passed on in this period without getting a significant variation in what was taught and believed? The claim...is that variation did exist because there was not yet a functioning canon. Theology in the earliest period was characterized by its variety, not its unity. This claim then is used to suggest that the idea of any kind of real orthodoxy (or better “proto-orthodoxy”) in the earliest period is exaggerated. ....

This claim is important because it argues that no one approach to Christianity can claim to be the one going back to Jesus at the exclusion of other options. However, there is a response to this claim. It rotates around four areas of activity in the earliest churches and their worship services. Those four areas are Scripture (i.e., the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament), Schooling (Doctrinal summaries), Singing (early Christian hymns), and Sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Table). Through each of these means teachers passed on core Christian theology and taught in a culture that presented material by means of orally sharing it. ....

(1) Scripture. When the early church preached, it accepted as Scripture what most Jews recognized, the Hebrew Bible. This means that the early church presented the story of Jesus in the context of messianic and other texts that spoke of the decisive era of salvation. It means they accepted the creation accounts as meaning that God was the Creator of the world and of man, a point that would become crucial later when many Gnostic Christians would argue differently. ....

(2) Schooling. Here we have in mind short doctrinal summaries that were laid out in balanced lines and reflected the teaching and passing on of core church teaching. A survey of such texts shows key doctrines were included: Creation by God and Christ confessed as the activity of God (1 Cor 8:4–6), the belief in a material resurrection (1 Cor 15:3–5), the idea that Jesus is both Son of David and Son of God (Romans 1:2–4), Jesus, the one mediator between God and man through His death (1 Tim 2:5–6), or teaching on the grace of God motivating us to a life of honoring God until Jesus returns (Titus 2:11–14). In these verses alone, much of the core theology of the church is present. Such core teaching would stand against other ideas that would claim to be Christian in the first and second centuries.

(3) Singing. Here the hymns of the church are in view. Two hymns stand out. Again it is the metric balance of the lines that points to hymns as present. One hymn focuses on the exemplary career of Jesus, who emptied himself to take on the form of humanity and who is exalted now to God’s side, sharing in the honor given to God (Phil 2:6–11). At the end of this hymn is the idea that every knee will bow and tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God. This picture of worship given to Jesus draws on language from Isaiah 45:23, where worship of the one God of Israel is in view. Here this honor goes to Jesus, showing just how exalted early Christians viewed him. The second hymn is from Colossians 1:15–20. Here Jesus is the “first born,” that is a figure of speech for the “highest positioned” in the creation (Ps 89:27), who created with God, and was not a creature. Jesus also was the first born from the dead, that is, the first one to experience and pioneer resurrection. In these hymns, sung regularly and memorized as a result, core theology was celebrated. In Pliny’s Letter to Trajan in the second decade of the century, the Roman governor of Bythnia, in what is now Central Turkey, wrote of Christians singing hymns to Christ as God (Letter 96). Here is testimony of the practice from a non-Christian.

(4) Sacraments. Here we refer to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which reviewed and portrayed in sacred rituals core theology. Baptism pictures the washing away of sin, the death of the old life, the cleansing that leads to new life, picturing being born again (Romans 6:4-6). Every time someone was baptized the entire gathering of believers received a reminder of what Jesus’ death and resurrection means. The Lord’s table does the same with Jesus’ offer of his body and blood to open up the way to forgiveness and the new covenant. Even an early second century work, the Didache, one of our earliest catechisms, makes this point about the Supper in chapter 9:2–4. These events were observed regularly in the gatherings of those loyal to Jesus. They taught the core theology.

In fact, each of these four categories represents theological activity taking place, not in a corner of the new Jesus community with a few, but in the core and repeated activity of the entire community. Everyone was exposed to this teaching in this way. Thus, such activity taught the core theology of the faith before there was a functioning New Testament. .... [more]
Thanks to Justin Taylor for the reference.

Orthodoxy (or Proto-Orthodoxy) Before There Was a Functioning New Testament April 8.08 | Primetime Jesus

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