What is "Classical Christianity"?

Adopted from an article by Virginia Burrus, Professor of Early Church History, Drew Theological School.

[Although written for a Methodist audience and the original article mentioning John Wesley, many of the points made in the article are good. Including this article is not to be understood that I endorse Methodism. The Professor just happens to be a Methodist – RAS]

One“The term "classical Christianity" is of relatively recent coinage . . . .  to refer to the views of a select group of theologians who wrote during the late Roman Empire (that is, during the fourth and fifth centuries) and laid the groundwork for such enduring doctrinal formulations as the divine Trinity and the two-natured Christ. These theologians, along with their second- and third-century precursors, are more traditionally known as the "Church Fathers," and the study of their writings is the domain of the academic discipline of "Patristics."

The "Fathers" themselves did not agree with one another on every point. They wrote during periods of great creativity as well as controversy, drawing not only upon prior traditions of exegesis and theological interpretation but also upon the resources of the philosophies of their day. The use of non-biblical language and concepts (for example, the terminology of "same essence" to describe the Trinity) was especially controversial in the late Roman period. Nonetheless, it was deemed necessary by some of the Christian leaders who sought to clarify and stabilize doctrinal positions, given the ambiguity of the biblical texts that had led to the continued proliferation of multiple theological interpretations. The plurality of theological views in part reflected the diversity of local traditions arising out of the rich multi-culturalism of the ancient Mediterranean world.

Athanasius, who was a fourth-century bishop of the hellenized city of Egyptian Alexandria, seems to have been one of the first Christians to use the title of "Fathers" to describe the authors of authoritative (in other words, "classical") theological writings. For him, the "Fathers" were first and foremost those who attended the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 and produced the first "ecumenical creed." The Council of Nicaea was convened by the emperor Constantine, a recent convert to Christianity who put an end to persecution and in exchange desired a single, unified faith to support his rule of the newly-reunified empire. Ironically, the council gave rise not to unity but to bitter divisiveness within the Christian community for more than fifty years. It was not until much later in the fourth century that the Cappadocian theologians (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa) were able to revise and develop the Nicene position in such a way as to gain more widespread acceptance of Trinitarian doctrine. This was made "official" at the Council of Constantinople in the year 380. The so-called "Nicene Creed" still used today actually derives from the Council of Constantinople and apparently reflects a revision of some of the language originally put forth at Nicaea. We see that the road to "classical Christianity" was not an easy one, and one of its costs was the use of imperial power to enforce the exclusion of many Christians as "heretics," in cases where excommunication was frequently backed by sentences of political exile. (Indeed, Athanasius himself was exiled more than once.) In the year 386, the combined powers of state and church came together ominously in the state execution of the Spanish bishop Priscillian, together with several of his associates, on charges of heresy.

If anything, the theological debates of the early fifth century–which centered not on the nature of the triune Godhead but on the nature of the incarnate Christ–were even more bitter and divisive than those of the fourth century. The Council of Ephesus (431), for example, was attended by outbreaks of mob violence that even the imperial army could not control. The Council of Chalcedon (451)–which was, like all of the seven "ecumenical" councils, convened by order of an emperor–sought for compromise among the warring theological factions and produced a Christology that remains authoritative for most Western and many Eastern Christians down to this day. (It did not, however, produce a "creed" but claimed only to be offering a "definition" that clarified the implications of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.) Unfortunately, this council also resulted in the splitting of Christianity into Chalcedonian, [Miaphysite – RAS], Monophysite, and Nestorian faith traditions, divisions that partly reflected ethnic and linguistic differences among ancient Christians–divisions that have, moreover, endured to the present.

The period of "classical Christianity" and the "ecumenical creeds" was, then, a period of immense theological creativity as well as uncertainty and controversy. Acclamations of doctrinal positions went hand in hand with anathematizations of positions pronounced heretical. It was also a period of state intervention in Christian theological debate that sought unity but more often produced divisions within the body of Christ. Nonetheless, the doctrines produced in this tumultuous period through the collective labor of thoughtful theologians have remained influential. Indeed, most current Christian theologies–theologies that encompass an immense diversity of perspectives and interpretations, including feminist and other liberationist theologies–work out of the assumptions of "classical Christianity," if by that we mean the doctrinal traditions of Trinitarian theology and two-natured Christology crystallized in the creeds produced by the "ecumenical councils."

The fact that a diversity of perspectives and interpretations can exist among those who adhere to "classical Christianity" should not surprise us. Nor, perhaps, should it either surprise or alarm us if, on occasion, the assumptions of "classical Christianity" are questioned, given both the controversies attending the articulation of "classical" doctrine and the culturally-specific forms that such formulations necessarily assumed. History teaches us that Christianity was a diverse movement from its very beginnings and has never ceased to be so. The interpretation of God’s word is an ongoing task for a community that strives to remain faithful to its richly layered past, while also making itself relevant to its present contexts. This does not mean that "anything goes." Not every interpretation is both faithful and relevant. Discernment–the work of the Holy Spirit within God’s church–is always necessary. The process of discernment itself produces disagreement and debate, as well as insight and inspiration.  . . . [and we must] continue to affirm the importance of the traditions handed down from the ancient church, a question remains regarding the extent to which "classical Christianity" (as some understand it) implies "imperial Christianity." While honoring the teachings of the ancient Fathers, we must still be willing to join theologians  . . . . in reflecting critically on the ominous effects of Constantinianism. The money and power of the emperor Constantine and his successors backed the attempts of the late Roman church to force adherence to a single doctrinal standard: those decreed "heretics" not only lost the financial support of the emperor but also were threatened with deposition (if they were clergy), excommunication, political exile, and sometimes even political execution. Where theological pluralism was not simply eliminated by such repressive measures, it was translated into a fractured church. An imperial Christianity is thus implicated not only in the coercion but also in the division of the body of Christ.

Christians today have much to learn from the theologians of antiquity: the doctrinal legacy of "classical Christianity" is, without question, indispensable. But to seek to spread true faith through persuasion rather than coercion, in a "catholic spirit" of love rather than hate, striving to include rather than exclude a diversity of perspectives, is arguably a sign not of doctrinal indifference or indecisiveness but rather of the confidence and generosity that befit the children of God.”

[the original article in its Methodist context can be found here]

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