Saturday, June 28, 2008

On "the Faith Once Delivered to the Saints"

[Note: This post is dedicated to all those who took part in the Global Anglican Future Conference in Jerusalem, in honor of the Statement and Jerusalem Declaration which that Conference has this day produced. I commend that Statement and Declaration to all serious Christians, and offer these thoughts on the task that faces each one of us as we strive to keep on God's path, as well as on the responsibility we each share in faithfully joining together to receive, to live and to hand on to others "the faith once for all entrusted to the saints."]


It has become fashionable among post-modern circles recently to criticize the supposed naïveté of those who cite Jude 1:3, "the faith once for all entrusted to the saints" (in the NET translation, which is closer to the Greek than the KJV quoted in the title), as though the words actually referred to some unchangeable body of historical Church beliefs. Thus, in response to the use of the phrase in a report from the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Ft. Worth, Katie Sherrod posted last week an essay by the Rev. Bruce Coggin which asks:
. . . the statement posits a historical phenomenon—a finite and identifiable configuration of Christian faith and practice—something solid, definable, and presumably superior to other options. Does such a thing in fact exist? Has it ever?
The Rev. Coggin proceeds to demonstrate, along the lines of Professor Bart D. Ehrman's Lost Christianities, that there was not a single monolithic early Christianity, but at least six---count them, six---competing versions in play before Constantine forced the Church fathers at Nicea in 325 A.D. to settle on the Official Version. (Actually, the Arian controversy---and the form of the Nicene Creed---was not settled until the Council of Constantinople in 381, which Father Coggin does not mention. There are other inaccuracies in his account which are noted in this comment on the Sherrod post.) This latter "Christianity" was itself a reaction by Athanasius and his followers against the followers of Arius, and was then later developed more fully by the Cappadocian Fathers, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Gregory of Nyssa, as told in somewhat more detail in Richard E. Rubenstein's When Jesus Became God.

A similar reaction followed Bishop Duncan's use of the phrase in his three-sentence response to a letter sent to him by Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori, warning him that she would institute "appropriate canonical steps" if he continued on his course to have the Diocese of Pittsburgh withdraw from TEC. The protest that the phrase referred to nothing actually extant was led by Bishop Duncan's Pittsburgh opponents, including Lionel Deimel, who wrote:
Bishop Duncan’s implication—the usual implication when “the faith once delivered” is invoked—is that the writer believes what Christians have always believed. Since the writer of Jude does not explicate “the faith,” however, we can only speculate about what he understood by the term. What is clear, however, is that much of the theology that became orthodox Christianity, that is, the consensus that emerged from the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century, was developed only after the Letter of Jude was written. Moreover, to the degree that conservatives insist on an earlier date for the writing of Jude, we know even less of what “the faith” refers to, even if it might be closer to the actual teachings of Jesus or the Apostles.

Of course, Duncan and his followers really don’t care what Jude’s writer meant; they are just latching onto a good sound bite. To them, “the faith [or Faith] once delivered to the saints” simply means what they believe and what they think everybody else should believe. That it includes, among other things, a good deal of medieval accretions and modern anti-Enlightment nonsense is rather beside the point.
The conclusion these writers intend one to reach is that the "faith" we have today is a much-compromised, man-made composite of competing and contradictory versions that flourished in different places at different times, and that it consequently can bear little, if any, relation to the so-called "original," which no longer exists in any form and which no one can describe today with any accuracy. Once granted that conclusion, the post-modernist delivers the coup de grace: "So what's wrong with re-interpreting the Bible as needed today to meet our present-day needs and knowledge? It's just as the Church fathers did in the past."

As with persons, so with doctrines: one knows them by the company they keep. It is not a coincidence that the Rev. Coggin's post on Katie Sherrod's blog has received favorable notice and comment from the following Websites and bloggers, among others: D.C. Toedt's The Questioning Christian, the Rev. Mark Harris' Preludium, Episcopal Cafe's The Lead, and the Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton, to name just four of the more well-known posters (not to slight the others here, here, here, here, here and here). It was also circulated on the House of Bishops/House of Deputies mailing list. But there was zero mention or comment (that I could find, at any rate) on any of the standard orthodox Websites.

This is not just coincidence: it is evidence, if any were needed by now, that the two sides of the debate excel in talking past each other, in not listening carefully to what the other is saying, and in being too quick with the put-downs, jibes and one-liners. But it is also evidence of a deeper rift. For the pieces by Father Coggin and Mr. Deimel are based on a thoroughly post-modern fallacy that anachronistically projects our 21st-century mindset back into the first or second century. One sees this clearly in the quote from Mr. Deimel above: he holds the writer of Jude to current-day literary standards, saying that since the writer does not explain or define his terms, we today are left to speculate as to what was meant.

Such an approach is akin to breaking into a tomb with a stick of dynamite: you may remove the gravestone, but what remains behind to examine will not be recognizable. Most readers of the Bible today are not aware of the differences that hinder our understanding of what lies behind a first- or second-century text. Let two experienced sociologists, Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, explain what is involved (their remarks are with respect to the Gospel of John, but the context can be applied to Jude as well, and I have added the bold italics for emphasis):
Ethnocentric and anachronistic readings of the New Testament are quite common in our society. Such readings result from the fact that readers most often use scenarios rooted in their contemporary social experience to envision what they read in the New Testament. That the ensuing misreadings of ancient documents raise few mental eyebrows simply underscores our recognition that reading is a social act. Yet how can contemporary American Bible readers participate in a historically sensitive reading if we have been socialized and shaped by the experience of living in twentieth-century America rather than an alternate society of first-century Palestine? Will we not continue to conjure up reading scenarios that the first readers of John could never have imagined? If we do, of course, the inevitable result is misunderstanding. Too often we simply do not bother to acquire some of the reservoir of experience on which the author of John naturally expected his reader to draw. For better or worse, we read ourselves and our world back into the document in ways we do not suspect.

The important point we are making here . . . can be made in another way. The New Testament was written in what anthropologists call a "high-context" society. People in high-context societies presume a broadly shared, well-understood, or "high", knowledge of the context of anything referred to in conversation or in writing. For example, everyone in ancient Mediterranean villages would have had concrete knowledge of what sowing entailed, largely because the skills involved were shared by most male members of that society. No writer would need to explain it. Thus, writers in high-context societies usually produce sketchy and impressionistic documents, leaving much to the reader's or hearer's imagination. Often they encode information in widely known symbolic or stereotypical statements. In this way they require the reader to fill in large gaps in the "unwritten" portion of the document--- what is between the lines. They expect all readers to know the social context and therefore to understand the references in question.
(Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, p. 16; you may read the original here.) Malina and Rohrbaugh stress the obvious point that in addition to writing in a high-context society, the author of John was a member of a church, a select private (and equally high-context) society within the larger Palestinian society. Members of the church would have received instruction in the context of the "symbolic or stereotypical statements" that encoded religious doctrine and knowledge. The particular phrase used by Jude, "the faith once for all entrusted to the saints," indeed reflects this assumed special knowledge received through one-on-one instruction.

What we of the twenty-first century have to be on guard against, in reading and interpreting the language of the New Testament, is that we live in an entirely different type of society, a "low-context" society:
By contrast, "low-context" societies are those that assume "low" knowledge of the context of any communication. They produce highly specific and detailed documents that leave little for the reader to fill in or supply. Since the United States and northern Europe are typical low-context societies, readers from these societies expect writers to give the necessary background when referring to something not shared by all in the society. . . .

A moment's reflection will make clear why modern societies are low context whereas ancient agrarian ones were high context. . . . Life today has complexified into a thousand spheres of experience the general public does not share in common. There are small worlds of experience in every corner of our society that the rest of us know nothing about. . . . This is sharply different from antiquity, where change was slow and where the vast majority of the population had the common experience of farming the land and dealing with family, landlords, traders, merchants and tax collectors. People had more in common, and experience was far less discrepant . . . .

The obvious problem this creates for reading the biblical writings today is that low-context readers in the United States frequently mistake the biblical writings for low-context documents. They erroneously assume that the author has provided all the contextual information needed to understand it. Consider, for example, how many U.S. and northern European people believe the Bible is a perfectly adequate and thorough statement of Christian life and behavior! Such people assume they are free to fill in between the lines of the New Testament from their own experience, because if that were not the case, the writers, like any considerate low-context authors, would have provided the unfamiliar background a reader requires. . . .
(Id. at pp. 17-18; emphasis added.) I hope that the problems with Father Coggin's and Lionel Deimel's approach to reading Jude 1:3 are by now clear. The key to approaching the text is to assume that the writer had in mind a highly specific context for what he meant by "the faith once for all entrusted to the saints." Let us try to unpack just what that context was.

The first key to the context was mentioned (to his credit) by Father Coggin: it is the use of the Greek word hapax, an adverb meaning "once only," "once for all". This signifies an action that is fully in the past, over and done with, and is not an ongoing process as the writer speaks. Thus, resisting firmly the temptation to cite the (then) ongoing formation of the New Testament, as Father Coggin and Lionel Deimel do, we must ask: what aspect of "the faith" had been fully delivered, or entrusted, to the disciples by that point?

Since the entrusting was over and done with, it must have been the act of a person who was no longer living to be able to do so, and that tells us Jude must have been referring to the teachings of none other than Jesus, as transmitted to Jude and his contemporaries through Paul and perhaps some of the early Gospels. Jude is telling us that by the time he wrote, the teachings of Jesus had been handed over, and were well enough known and understood that the warning could be issued to the faithful to guard against false teachers.

Note that we have not yet solved the problem: exactly what did Jesus teach and entrust to his disciples? But we have taken a significant step toward its proper solution: we know from the context that Jude was not referring to, say, "gnostic Christianity" as we now use that term, or to "Pauline Christianity," or "Johannine Christianity," or any of the other myriad categories into which modern scholars like to atomize early Christianity for purposes of debate and discussion. The introduction of those categories imposes an anachronistic 21st-century reading onto the text: the very kind of thing Professors Malina and Rohrbaugh warned us against.

No, Jude was referring to what he and his recipients understood perfectly well they had been taught and had received from Jesus through the apostles---perhaps through writings that are no longer even extant, or through oral traditions that have not survived. Our task is to recreate that body of teaching as best we can through the documents and traditions that have survived, and filtering out (to the extent we are able) the specific wrinkles, viewpoints and biases that are peculiar to each subsequent author, to get at the core message beneath. Is it so hard for a post-modern mind to accept, for instance, that Jesus taught the two Great Commandments, that He was the fulfillment of the prophecies in the Old Testament, or that He was indeed the Son of God? Such messages come through all the centuries loud and clear, attested in numerous ways by numerous authors. (For details in any one instance of the best current scholarship, consult the series of books by (now) Bishop N. T. Wright or by John P. Meier. Even the Jesus Seminar is in agreement that there are some authentic sayings of Jesus.)

Thus the point is not that we can read Jude to derive exactly what was "the faith once for all entrusted to the saints": it is that we can read Jude today to know definitely that there was such a faith entrusted! We are in the situation of people who must try to put together again the myriad pieces of a treasured vase that has shattered on the floor. Now assume that years have passed, and that the pieces are further scattered among many different tribes and families. Each piece has a place in making the whole, if it can be recovered, recognized and put in the proper position. Except for the fact that the degree of dispersal of the original message is greater than ever today (which may be offset by the fact that the tools we bring to the task are more capable), we face the same task as Christians have throughout the centuries, namely, to find out as best we can from what is available what the faith so entrusted was---but knowing to a degree of certainty that it was at one time handed down from no less a person than Jesus Himself. The error in what Lionel Deimel or Father Coggin each tells us is that the job is too difficult, or even impossible, because there are too many variables. Those very variables, however, are modern-day academic constructs, designed only to reduce and classify, to distinguish and differentiate: they are not the message itself, either collectively or separately.

Where my analogy to the vase breaks down is that each individual Christian, for the sake of one's own salvation, has in the end to come to a conclusion about what the faith so entrusted was, in all its discoverable ramifications. One can seek and accept guidance from authorities one trusts and respects, but the final decision is the individual's responsibility. Paradoxically, however, this very reality imposes, I would submit, a greater responsibility on each of us as Christians to come together in a common effort to restore that faith, so that it can have the unity it had when Jesus entrusted it. And it places an enormous responsibility on those who, such as our bishops and priests, have been specially trained for and entrusted with the task of guarding the faith for its transmittal to subsequent generations.

But note well: the task is different in the case of interpreting for today something Jesus is reported to have said, as opposed to deriving a rule of conduct based on the absence of any evidence of what He said. And it is precisely in dealing with the absence of evidence of a given teaching that we moderns are most tempted to commit the fallacy of "reading between the lines," as Professors Malina and Rohrbaugh warn in the passage quoted earlier. Those who are comfortable, for example, in asserting that committed, long-term and loving same-sex relationships are not contrary to "the faith once delivered" are doing so on the basis of no evidence of a saying of Jesus to the contrary, while they have to reinterpret several sayings of Paul that many others have concluded are contrary to that practice (and they have to assume as well that Jesus in Mark 10:6-8 and Matthew 19:4-6 did not preempt the field with His theology derived from Genesis, as Professor Robert Gagnon forcefully argues). I stress again: one seeks the best guidance that one can, but the final call is one's own to make, and that is why one should first be certain not to read the Bible anachronistically.

The tools that Professors Malina and Rohrbaugh bring to the reading of first-century biblical texts should receive much wider attention than they have to date. Internet Websites are full of anachronistic readings of 21st-century thoughts and projections back onto the New Testament passages. We can evaluate the merits of these readings by remembering that the New Testament authors always had a highly specific context in mind for the words they used---a context which, unlike those of today, was almost always based in a widely shared and common experience, and which in the case of religious teaching, was based on individual instruction and shared readings. We lack much of that commonly shared context now, but that does not stop many of us from reading between the lines and supplying a context that fits in with our own individual experiences. When doing so, one has to realize that multiple interpretations will inevitably result from multiple readers, and the end-product of so many diverse readings can never---by definition---correspond to the faith that once and for all, long ago, was entrusted to the saints. It is thus our duty, as Christians, to seek all the ways possible to bring together again the scattered pieces of that faith, and to restore the force of what Jude and his readers experienced so strongly in its original context.









2 comments:

  1. I appreciate the discussion of our "low-context" society of today contrasted with the "high-context" society of the N.T. writers. The present lack of context is what some (dare I say "low-contexturals?) rejoice in. This of course leads to all manner of false teachings which the early Church writers seem to predict. Some of us still would appreciate a little dogma (Merria-Webster On-Line definition 2:
    "a doctrine or body of doctrines concerning faith or morals formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church").
    Unfortunately even expressing such a desire leads the low-contexturals to decry us as "dogmatic." Perhaps this helps explain the gulf between us.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Indeed, UP, and thank you for helping to make the point. There is no doubt that there is a gulf, and much of the failure to engage comes from a lack of awareness of its nature.

    ReplyDelete