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Intellectual and Religious Cultural Influences on Early Christianity

As Christianity continued to spread throughout the ancient world its adherents were both influenced and challenged by religious and philosophical ideas such as astrology, Stoicism, Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism. Sometimes Christian apologists tried to reconcile these various ideas into a unified whole, while at others they challenged their influence, refuting some ideas as heretical.

In The Book of Laws of Countries, Bardaisan of Edessa attempts to reconcile the "reign of nature," Fate and human free will. Echoes of Stoicism are heard as he discusses the "reign of nature" and its seemingly orderly and logical effects on the material world (Bardaisan 83). However, not all things follow the perceived order, so Bardaisan falls back on Chaldean concept of Fate (82), which he asserts is not an independent agent, as it is seen in his local cultural context, but rather the "fixed course determined by God for the Rulers and Guiding Signs" (83). Through his formulation he acknowledges local beliefs while maintaining the Christian God as ultimate authority. Bardaisan’s argument then introduces elements of Neo-Platonism as he asserts that spirits descend into souls and souls then descend into bodies, undergoing changes at each point as determined by Fate (83). Fate, Bardaisan asserts, exerts both positive and negative influences on the physical world (83). However, human freedom in some measure can counteract the effects of Fate (83). Thus nature, Fate and human liberty each inject their own patterns into the way of things (83). With this model Bardaisan creates a syncretistic system which acknowledges several disparate philosophical ideas while still maintaining the Christian God as the supreme planner and designer of all things.

The influence of Gnosticism can also be seen in two Christological crises addressed in our readings. Irenaeus speaks out against both the Docetists and the Ebionites who questioned the nature of Jesus while on the earth. For the Docetists, while Jesus looked like a man, this was only an appearance. Since in the Gnostic model human flesh is corrupt and inferior to the perfect spirit nature of God, a divine Jesus cannot actually be human. However, in his Against the Heresies, Irenaeus asserts that Jesus "did not seem one thing while He was another." He goes on to say "what He was, that He also appeared to be" ("Thirty Æons" paragraph 4). Irenaeus denounces Valentinus and his followers who "exclude the flesh from salvation, and cast aside what God has fashioned" ("Christ Alone" paragraph 2).

The Ebionites also deny the union of God through the Holy Spirit with Mary ("Christ Alone" paragraph 3); however, they arrive at a different conclusion. While the Docetists hold that Jesus was divinity in the outward guise of a man, the Ebionites insist that Jesus was only a man, "reject[ing] the commixture of the heavenly wine, and wish[ing] it to be water of the world only" ("Christ Alone" paragraph 3). Irenaeus insists that by denying the full divinity of Jesus, the Ebionites exclude the possibility of salvation for the flesh ("Christ Alone" paragraph 2).

When one takes into account these controversies, the lines of The Apostle’s Creed begin to take on new meaning. The single longest section of the creed, which deals with Jesus, becomes an elaborate response to those who inserted Gnostic ideas into their theology. By asserting Jesus was born, physically crucified, died, was buried and rose again (lines 3-5), the author(s) of the Creed reject Docetism and embrace the physical incarnation of Jesus. By asserting that Jesus was conceived or born of the Holy Spirit (line 3) and is son of God (line 2) the Creed rejects Ebion’s claim that Jesus was only human.

An interesting claim about which I’d like to know more is Irenaeus’ assertion that Jesus did not die in his thirties, but rather lived to old age ("Thirty Æons" paragraph 5). According to Irenaeus’ argument, it was necessary for Jesus to live through each of the stages of human life in order to identify with people of every age and redeem them ("Thirty Æons"paragraph 4). Though other points of Irenaeus’ claims have been accepted as orthodox Christian doctrine, this apparently was not. It would be interesting to research whether other apologists made similar claims about the lifespan of Jesus and at what point this particular assertion was discarded from orthodox understandings of Christianity.

Issues such as those raised by the apologists in our readings are still alive and well in the Church today. Though history records official statements regarding the two natures of Jesus, many churches are filled with neo-Ebionites who claim that Jesus was a wise man and teacher while denying that divinity is necessary for his ministry to have significance. The Enlightenment with its emphasis on Western Reason and rational explanations often leaves no room for the mysterious or metaphysical. On the other hand we have professing Christians within the Church who are suspicious of "the flesh" and embrace the Neo-Platonic concept of separation between the spiritual and the physical found in Gnosticism which characterizes all earthly pleasure as somehow evil and defiled. Though two millennia have passed, all the same we wrestle with God’s good creation and wonder if it is indeed beyond redemption by its very nature. Perhaps knowledge of our shared past could help us to come to informed decisions as we continue to wrestle with these issues.

Works Cited

The Apostle’s Creed. 2001. 07 October 2007. <http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/creeds/ apostles.htm>

Bardaisan of Edessa. The Book of the Laws of Countries. Readings in World Christian History. Eds. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk. Vol. 1. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2006.

Irenaeus of Lyons. "Christ Alone Is Able To Teach Divine…" Against the Heresies. 2005. 07 October 2007. < http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.vii.ii.html>.

Irenaeus of Lyons. "The Thirty Æons Are Not Typified By…" Against the Heresies. 2005. 07 October 2007. < http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iii.xxiii.html>.

Tertullian. Against Praxaes. 2005. 07 October 2007. <http://www.tertullian.net/articles/evans_ praxeas_eng.htm>.

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