Sunday, December 03, 2006

Is Orthodoxy Whatever Is Left Standing?

A cynical view of Church history would hold that orthodoxy is merely the set of doctrines that won the theological controversies, and that we could just as easily have ended up calling Arianism or Gnosticism orthodox.

Along this line, Gord wrote during one of our discussions of heresy:

In the end, especially in the early centuries post-Constantine, a heretical point of view was the one which lost the argument.

And:

If the Imperial power had favored a few different people 1600 years ago it is possible many things we see as heretical would be orthodox and vice versa. THe church is a political intstituion after all.

Tonight I completed Thomas Oden's Life in the Spirit, in which he responded to this argument:

It is particularly misleading to talk about early Christianity as an oppressive history of "winners." It is implausible to think of the martyrs of the Decian persecution as winners, or Athanasius, who was exiled a half dozen times and chased all over the Mediterranean world as a winner, or John Chrysostom, who was exiled and died in political oblivion as a winner, or Jerome, who lost his struggle with Rome and went to the far country of Palestine to live the monastic life -- were any of these on the winning side of the controversies of their day? No. Only the slow, populist, long-range general consent of the laos would recognize them as the great doctors of the church. Was Antony in the desert a winner? Or Amma Theodora? Were Polycarp or Felicitas or Perpetua or Cyprian or Ignatius -- all of whom were killed for their faith?

If we imagine that the articulators of consensus were all upper-class, comfortable elitists, we have failed to read carefully the biographies of Justin Martyr and Benedict, or Lawrence of Rome, or Gregory of Nazianzus, who served in such a tiny village that it can hardly be found on any map. Think of Dame Juliana of Norwich, who literally lived in a hole in the wall of a church, or Francis of Assisi, who lived in a mud hut or slept outdoors, or Paracelsus, who was a vagabond physician most of his life.

[snip]

The "winner-loser" distinction applies an oversimple modern competitive sports metaphor to complex historical processes. Fair-minded persons will look deeper before allowing such a generalization to beocme a general putdown of patristic wisdom. (490-491)

2 comments:

j2 said...

Spot on John.

Anonymous said...

When I was in seminary, my New Testament prof was lecturing about something and describing what was an orthodox position. A (white) female student raised her hand and said something to the effect of "Isn't what you are describing the sort of elitist theology that one comes to by excluded the voices of minorities [in reading the scripture]?"

He looked at her and said something to the effect of: "Who is a minority in the Roman Empire? St. Augustine was an African. St. Paul was an Asian. St. Clement was African. It isn't like we are talking about dead white European men here."

Presumptuously reading church history and theology through our own suspicious agenda-categories (or those that we are taught by the constant mantras of our liberation-theology professors) will always leave us impoverished.

And Tom Oden rocks!