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Definition and Explanation of Terms

Dualism

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The term dualism is perhaps best defined generally, as follows:

A system or tendency of thought which attempts to explain (and interpret) reality (or an existing situation) in terms of two principles, which are usually understood as being opposed to each other or in conflict.

Many different sorts of dualistic structures are attested in religion and philosophy; however, from the standpoint of an ancient worldview or way of thinking, as being most relevant to early Christianity and the New Testament Scriptures, there are four in particular which may be isolated:

1. CosmologicalThere are two opposing principles which control and govern the world. In terms of the phenomenology of religion, this is expressed as two beings (deities), or groups/classes of beings—that is, the divine powers, personified or understood as persons. Frequently in cosmological and theological myths, the basic world order and structure of the universe is given shape by way of conflict (and battle) between deities; often such conflict is thought to continue, in some form, throughout time and history—whether during the natural seasons and cycles, or in a progression of world history. For Western students of myth and religion, the Theogony by the Greek writer Hesiod contains what is probably the best known account of cosmological conflict. Typically the classical Persian (Zoroastrian) religious cosmology is cited as the most obvious system expressing a theological dualism—perennial opposition between Ahura Mazda (Spenta Mainyu, the good Spirit) and the Angra Mainyu (evil Spirit). Later Jewish tradition contains a somewhat similar kind of theological dualism (YHWH and the Angels vs. Satan, etc, and the ‘fallen’ Angels) which early Christianity inherited. The Community of the Qumran texts (cf. especially the “Community Rule” [1QS] and the War Scroll) expresses a strong dualistic worldview which is closely tied to their own group identity—as the “sons of light” vs the “sons of darkness”, etc.

2. MetaphysicalThere two contrasting (and opposing) principles which make up the structure of the universe. Usually this is understood as a (sharp) contrast between physical matter/material (evil) and immaterial soul/spirit/mind (good). Not surprisingly, such a worldview tends to be more common in philosophical and wisdom traditions with a strong ethical (and ascetic) emphasis (cf. below). When scholars and writers refer to “dualism” in the context of early Christianity and “Gnosticism”, typically a form of metaphysical dualism is meant. According to the basic gnostic approach, the immaterial (divine) soul is trapped within the evil/fallen world of matter, and must be “rescued” or freed, by a combination of knowledge and a strict moral/ethical mode of behavior. However, it should be noted, that much that is associated with “Gnostic” dualism is commonly found in ascetic philosophy and religious tradition worldwide, from the Greco-Roman milieu (i.e. Platonism and the ‘Mystery’ cults, etc) to Hinduism/Buddhism in the East, and beyond. Early Christianity generally was cautious in this regard, and the New Testament writers (as well as later Proto-Orthodox authors) took care to check and moderate metaphysical and ascetic tendencies; even so, they occasionally made use of the same sort of dualistic language.

3. AnthropologicalThe human being is made up of two contrasting principles. In many ways, this sort of dualism is closely aligned with the metaphysical (cf. above); however, it is often found even in philosophical and religious traditions which do not especially emphasize a contrast between the immaterial (mind/soul/spirit) and evil matter. Early Christians, of course, inherited the basic Old Testament (and Jewish) view that the world (i.e. Creation), as the work of God, was fundamentally good. It was not so much the world (i.e. physical matter) itself that was fallen and corrupt, but the created beings (whether human or Angel) which were under the control of sin and evil. This view tended to focus the contrast (and conflict) within the person—the body vs. the soul/mind/spirit, or occasionally, the corrupted mind/soul vs. the ‘higher’ divine element. This contrast is best known in the New Testament from Paul’s letters—the opposition between “Spirit” and “flesh”, but occasionally formulated in other ways as well.

4. EthicalThe human being chooses (and must choose) between two contrasting/opposing principles. Here the common pairs—good vs. evil, true vs. false, light vs. darkness, above vs. below, et al—in dualistic thinking and expression are applied specifically in terms of human behavior. There are “Two Ways” for the person to follow: one leads to life, the other to death. The religious/philosophical standard and ideal, of course, emphasizes the “good”. Nearly all religions and philosophical traditions contain some form of ethical dualism; early Christianity made frequent use of this manner of expression.

To these four types of dualism, I might suggest a fifth:

5. ReligiousWithin a particular religious tradition, there are understood to be two contrasting modes of existence. Sectarian religion and religious group-identity often emphasizes the characteristics of ‘true’ and ‘false’ adherents and forms of the religion, etc. A rather different, special form of religious dualism could be termed spiritual (or spiritualist[ic]), which finds unique expression in certain strands of Christian tradition, due to the emphasis on the presence and work of the (Holy) Spirit. In this mode of thinking, the (inward) role of the Spirit is set in contrast with the outward, external aspects of religion (organized group setting, ritual, priesthood and ministerial office, etc), with the Spirit taking priority and precedence, occasionally to the exclusion of outward forms.

There are two other kinds of dualism which are sometimes discussed in modern philosophy and treatments of the subject, and which are perhaps worth mentioning here:

  • Epistemological—A fundamental contrast between a situation or object as understood by the human mind as opposed to its “real” status and nature.
  • Existential/sociological—A basic contrast between order and chaos, the rational vs. irrational, etc, as an underlying (if often unconscious) principle and ideal in the structuring and management of human society.

These various definitions and explanations should be useful for readers today, since terms such as “dualism” and “dualistic” are often used carelessly, especially when applied (and assumed) in a pejorative or negative sense. Christian readers may end up taking offense when one suggests that there may be “dualism” found in the New Testament Scriptures, if it is not clear just what is meant by the term as it is used in context.

For more on the specific kind of dualism associated with Gnostic thought and practice, cf. my recent article on “Gnosticism“, as well as the current series on “Gnosis and the New Testament”.

Gnosticism

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As I will be referring to “Gnosticism” in a number of upcoming notes and articles, I thought it worthwhile to introduce the topic here, by way of definition. The word is derived from the Greek gnw=si$ (gnœ¡sis) and the root verb ginw/skw (ginœ¡skœ), meaning “knowledge, to know”, often with the specific sense of possessing or gaining knowledge. “Gnostics” (gnwstikoi/, gnœstikoí) are literally the “ones who know, knowing ones”, i.e. those possessing knowledge, or who have come to be so. Much of the confusion surrounding the terms “Gnostic, Gnosticism,” etc, stems from the fact that there are, properly, two fundamental ways they can be used or understood: (1) as a phenomenon of religion, or (2) as a specific historical religious development in the first centuries A.D. Some modern scholars, aware of this problem, have suggested using the term “Gnosis” for the former, and “Gnosticism” for the latter. It might be better (and simpler) to make a distinction using upper and lower case, as far as possible—gnosticism for the general religious phenomenon, Gnosticism as an umbrella term for specific religious groups in the early Christian period.

The religious phenomenon of gnosticism

In terms of the phenomenology of religion, I would define gnosticism as:

A set of beliefs or tendencies which emphasize salvation, as well as other fundamental aspects of religious identity or status, in terms of knowledge.

Often this will take the place of, or take priority over, ceremonial, ritual or cultic means. As such, it is similar in certain respects to the phenomena of mysticism and spiritualism. There are two main components, or aspects, to this knowledge:

  1. A person comes to know or realize his/her true nature (religious/spiritual identity), of which, in ignorance, he/she had previously been unaware or only glimpsed in part.
  2. This knowledge (salvation) comes only through special revelation not normally accessible to people at large.

With regard to this last point, special (divine) revelation is typically considered necessary due to the evil/fallen condition of the world around us, with the result that humanity has been ‘lost’ in ignorance. The presence of a “savior figure”—a divine being or representative—is required to bring knowledge.

Gnostic thought is often expressed in dualistic language and vocabulary, emphasizing conflict or contrast—light vs. darkness, true vs. false, knowledge vs. ignorance, mind/spirit vs. body/flesh, etc. Such pairings are, of course, basic to much religious thought, but in gnosticism they tend to be more pointed, prominent, and used with greater consistency, often reflecting a particular worldview or cosmology (cf. below). From the standpoint of organized religion, such dualism, coupled with the gnostic idea of salvation through special revelation, may easily serve to enhance a specific group identity (i.e., as the ones who know the truth, who truly know), resulting in sectarian religious groups with a strong gnostic character.

Gnostic tendencies in Christianity

As a religious phenomenon, gnostic tendencies may be seen in many different religions, ancient and modern. They are attested, or can be claimed, in certain Greco-Roman religious contexts (such as Orphism and the “mystery” cults), as well as in Greek philosophy. There are major gnostic aspects within Hindu thought, and certainly are central to Buddhism. It should be no cause for surprise that one can find them in early Christianity as well. The basic thumbnail provided above accords generally with the Christian construct—of the Gospel message (in the person of Christ) bringing the knowledge of salvation to humankind lost in the darkness and evil of the world. However, certain other Christian ideas or beliefs temper any tendency toward gnosticism:

  • The theological emphasis on the person of Jesus Christ as the way to God—with God understood primarily according to the outlook of the Old Testament and ancient Israelite religion.
  • The eschatological focus, i.e. on the resurrection and end-time Judgment by God—what believers understand or experience here and now will only be realized completely at the end.
  • In the New Testament, salvation and religious identity are described in terms of trust/faith (pi/sti$) in Christ rather more frequently than of knowledge (gnw=si$).
  • Religious identity ultimately is understood in terms of spiritual union with Christ—this is best known in the New Testament from Paul’s letters, and is expressed more in mystic terms, rather than gnostic.

Admittedly, Paul does occasionally strike a gnostic tone, as for example in 1 Corinthians 1:182:16; and cf. also the discussion running through Romans 5-8. Perhaps the strongest gnostic portions of the New Testament are the discourses of Jesus in John, along with similar passages in the Gospel (1:1-18; 20:31) and First Epistle. One may note the strong dualistic language, as well as the many references to knowledge, knowing, etc (more than 100 in the Gospel and another 30+ in the First Epistle). An even more distinctly gnostic early Christian writing, expressing similar thought and imagery to that of John, is the so-called Odes of Solomon—a collection of 42 truly beautiful and evocative poems, probably dating from the late 1st- or early 2nd-century A.D.

A special kind of (orthodox) Christian gnosticism developed in the 2nd century, influenced by Greek (and Jewish) philosophical thought and interpretive trends. It is best known from the major early center of Christianity in Alexandria, with theologians and scholars such as Clement and Origen. There were two primary aspects to this kind of gnosticism:

  • The tendency to downplay or disregard the literal-historical sense of Scripture (especially the Old Testament), in favor of an allegorical and/or spiritual interpretation that located a deeper (and specifically Christian) meaning to the text. It was, in part, the result of a long history of interpretive scholarship at Alexandria, as represented famously by the Jewish commentator Philo (c. 20 B.C.-50 A.D.).
  • This corresponded with the localization of levels of understanding (knowledge) among human beings (and believers)—some could only grasp the literal/conventional sense of things, while others (the spiritual/gnostics) were able to understand and realize the deeper meaning.

On close examination, one detects a very particular dynamic at work—an attempt to combine Christian belief and the truth of Scripture with the philosophical ideals and worldview of the time. This also applies to the heterodox (or aberrant, “heretical”) Gnostic groups of the period; Origen fiercely opposed and wrote against a number of these Gnostics, but, in certain respects, they had religious tendencies in common with him.

Heterodox/heretical Gnostics

When most scholars use the term “Gnosticism” they are usually referring to a variety of quasi-Christian groups or sects which are known (or thought to have existed) in the 2nd-4th centuries A.D. Most of the available (surviving) information comes from authors writing from the “orthodox” (or Proto-orthodox) point of view, against the beliefs and teachings of these groups. The principal authors are Irenaeus (his work Against Heresies, c. 180), Tertullian (c. 150-230), Hippolytus (c. 170-235), Origen (185-254), Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-340), and Epiphanius (c. 315-403). Though clearly a hostile witness, Irenaeus’ information on the Gnostics of the 2nd century seems to be reasonably reliable, certainly more so than that of Hippolytus or Epiphanius. As for the actual writings of the Gnostics themselves, very little survived prior to the discoveries (in Egypt, etc) of the late 19th and 20th centuries, especially the collection of works found at Nag Hammadi. While it is not always certain or clear that these texts are specifically Gnostic, many do show features and characteristic beliefs associated with the groups (the Valentinians, etc) mentioned by Irenaeus and others.

Even in this narrow sense, the term “Gnosticism” still covers a wide and disparate range of thought and belief; however, a set of more or less common characteristics may be identified. I would begin by offering a definition of this quasi-Christian Gnosticism in the early centuries A.D.:

Groups and individuals who formed or adopted a system of syncretic religious and philosophical beliefs, blending Christian with Jewish and/or Greco-Roman (or other non-Christian) thought, and which evinces, or is characterized by, strong gnostic tendencies (cf. above).

Central to nearly all such Gnostic thought is a pronounced dualism—that is, a dualistic worldview—that goes far beyond anything we find in the New Testament. While Judaism and early Christian held to the idea that the current world was in a “fallen”, sinful state (Gen 3; Rom 5:12ff), this was understood primarily in terms of the condition of humanity; only occasionally do we find it applied to the created order as a whole (cf. Rom 8:18-25). Most Gnostics of the period seem to have taken a wider cosmic view—i.e. that the created (material) world itself was fallen, corrupted and trapped by powers of sin and evil. So influential was this worldview that it forced people to try to explain just how this condition came to be. The creation account of the Old Testament was deemed insufficient, and various sorts of constructs using the language and imagery of cosmologic (cosmogonic) myth were adopted, involving the generation (birth), coupling, and fall of various divine (or semi-divine) powers. In some of these (pagan) mythic structures, Jewish (and/or Greek) Wisdom traditions were blended in—Wisdom (hm*k=j*, sofi/a) being the only female manifestation or personification of God and his attributes found in Scripture (cf. Prov 3:19-20; 8:22-31).

In addition, the dualistic worldview of most Gnostics resulted in the creation or adoption of an elaborate “salvation history” construct, which sought to explain and expound the nature and work of Christ. For Christians, of course, the savior figure (cf. above) who brings knowledge of salvation to humankind (or to the Elect) is Jesus Christ, though the revelation could also come by way of his followers and other messengers as well. A fundamental difficulty involved the fact that, according to the Gospels, Jesus had been born as a human being, i.e. into the fallen/evil (material) world. It proved hard to reconcile this with the over-arching worldview (how could God become enmeshed in evil this way?), and a variety of interpretations—i.e., heterodox Christologies—developed in response; the most commonly attested would seem to involve some variation on the following two themes:

  • That Christ, in manifesting himself to human beings, only seemed or appeared to be human—this is usually referred to as Docetism or a Docetic view of Christ (from the Greek doke/w, “think, suppose, seem, appear”, etc).
  • That the divine being Christ was joined temporarily to the human Jesus (e.g., at the Baptism), separating again at the time of his death—i.e. a Separationist view of Christ.

Proto-orthodox writers such as Irenaeus found all of this truly baffling—not to say repellent—contrary to what they saw as the clear sense of Scripture and the received Tradition. In his five books Against Heresies (really against Gnosticism), Irenaeus tries to give some semblance of coherence to all of the many different groups and beliefs, which he ultimately traces back to Simon Magus (I.23, cf. Acts 8:9-24). There is little historical basis for such a reconstruction, but it provides a convenient (Biblical) starting-point to trace the various Gnostics, through Simon’s supposed followers (Menander, Saturninus, Basilides, etc) on through the various sects—Cerinthians, Nicolaitans, Marcionites, Ophites, et al (I.23-31). His main interest is in the Valentinians (i.e. followers of Valentinus), from whom Ptolemy and Marcus (and their own sects) are said to have come. Most of what follows in books II-V relates to the Valentinians, and corresponds, to some extent, with the theology and thought in several of the texts from Nag Hammadi (such as the “Gospel of Truth” [NH I.3/XII.2]).

Perhaps the most famous “Gnostic” writing to come down to us today is the (Coptic) Gospel of Thomas [NH II.2], also preserved in Greek fragments. It lacks the elaborate mythological and theological/Christological elements of Gnostic systems, being simply a collection of short sayings by Jesus, some matching those in the canonical Gospels, and others with a more pronounced gnostic (if not Gnostic) flavor. Many of the surviving texts can be characterized as “Gospels”, reflecting teaching by Jesus, often in the context of special revelation vouchsafed only to his closest followers (cf. above). The clear implication is that these teachings have not been generally transmitted to the mass of “ordinary” Christians, but are intended to be communicated to the Elect (the gnostics). This is part of a wider pseudepigraphic tendency in early Christianity—writings attributed to, or presented as, the work of prominent early figures (apostles, etc).

We may conclude this discussion by outlining several other characteristics which may fairly be said to apply for many, if not most, Gnostic groups:

  • Asceticism—Most Gnostics appear to have followed and affirmed a strong ascetic ideal. This accords with general Greco-Roman (ascetic) philosophy of the period—the goal being to transcend the material condition through strict self-control (and self-denial), accompanied by knowledge, wisdom and the cultivation of virtue. A similar ascetic tendency can be found in early Christianity proper (even in the New Testament), though not nearly as prominent, it would seem, as among the Gnostics; it would increase notably within orthodox Christianity in the second and third centuries. Hostile witnesses (such as Irenaeus) have claimed that Gnostics were (sexually) licentious; but this is rather doubtful, and reflects a prejudice (and presumption), repeated often through history: that heretics must be immoral. Most of the available evidence points in the opposite direction—if they erred in their ethics, it was in overemphasizing an ascetic ideal.
  • Sexual/female imagery—Many Gnostic writings and beliefs are noteworthy in their use of female figure-types and sexual imagery, which appears more prominently than in the New Testament and early (proto-)Orthodoxy. Such imagery is intrinsic to the use of cosmological myth—the generation/propagation of the divine powers, with their fall (also described via sexual motifs), which led to the created material world. The personification of Wisdom (female/feminine) also plays a role in the ‘birth’ of Christ and the process of “salvation history”. Birth and bridal imagery also feature in a number of texts. Natural (physical/biological) childbirth was repellent to many Gnostics (or at least appears in a negative/ambivalent light), as was everything associated with sexual intercourse and propagation; there was a strong tendency to spiritualize (or intellectualize) childbirth, sexuality and sexual distinction. A number of sayings/teachings (by Jesus) in Gnostic works emphasize the elimination of childbirth and sexuality (“male and female”). We should also mention the prominence given to female apostles—presented as equal, or superior, to men—such as Mary Magdalene, in several surviving texts (the “Gospel of the Egyptians”, “Gospel of Mary”, etc).
  • Election—Gnostic groups tended to stress the idea of election, i.e. that they were the chosen ones, having received special knowledge and understanding. Such a belief is common among many sectarian religious groups—it reinforces the group identity, and all the more so for those sects which emphasize the transmission of special revelation. It also provides a convenient explanation as to why the majority of people do not accept the group’s teachings—they are incapable of doing so, since the revelation can be accepted only by the chosen few, i.e. the gnostics or “spiritual” ones. Perhaps even more significant in this regard is the basic gnostic idea that saving knowledge involves recognition of one’s true identity (cf. above). Almost by definition, a Gnostic (one who comes to know the truth) has to be such by nature, from the very beginning; awareness of this identity had simply been lost, through ignorance associated with birth and entanglement within the corrupt material world.

Gnostics in the New Testament

Previously, I mentioned certain elements of the Gospel and the New Testament writings which could be considered “gnostic”, in the general religious sense of the term (cf. above), especially in the letters of Paul and the Gospel and First Letter of John. However, a number of scholars have felt that early forms of some of the aberrant/heterodox Gnostic groups being discussed here may also be present in the later writings of the New Testament (cf. 60-90 A.D.). Already in 1 Corinthians (mid-50s), Paul seems concerned to check or moderate certain marked gnostic tendencies (cf. 1 Cor 1:17, 18-31; 2:1ff; 3:18-20ff; 7:1ff; 8:1ff), though there is little, if any, evidence of true Gnostic thought. More notably, there are three “heresies” in the later New Testament (after 60 A.D.) that are often identified with Gnosticism:

  • The so-called “Colossian heresy”
  • False teaching described in the Pastoral letters (esp. 1 Timothy), and
  • The separatist Christians mentioned in 1 John

1. Paul’s discussion in Colossians 2:8-23 has been thought to relate to a specific teaching (or group of teachings) sometimes referred to as the “Colossian heresy”. In verse 8, the author refers to filosofi/a (“fondness for wisdom”, i.e. “philosophy” [used only here in the NT]), but a wisdom so-called, according to deceitful human understanding (“empty deception/delusion according to thing[s] passed along by men”). From the Pauline standpoint, this could refer to virtually any sort of non-Christian religious or philosophical belief, whether Jewish or pagan—the contrast is between teaching/belief which is (a) according to the order/elements of the world, and (b) according to Christ (v. 8b). The similarity with the line of argument running through Galatians (see esp. Gal 4:1-11) strongly indicates a Jewish Christian context (cf. also the various references in 2 Cor 10-13). Apparently certain Jewish believers (or groups of believers) were influencing the Christians of the region (Colossae) in ways that were contrary to the truth of the Gospel, as understood by Paul. Several elements are specifically mentioned: (1) circumcision (vv. 11-13), (2) dietary regulations (v. 16a, 21), (3) observance of the Sabbath and other (Jewish) holy days (v. 16b). Also to be noted are the difficult phrases in verse 18, which seem to refer generally to religious identity/status based on certain visionary experiences (involving Angels, etc). The only detail which can be related, in any meaningful way, to gnostic/Gnostic belief is the ascetic emphasis in vv. 21-23, but this can be explained just as well in a Jewish or Greco-Roman philosophical context.

2. The various kinds of false teaching mentioned in Pastoral letters (1 Timothy especially), can be related more plausibly to early Gnosticism. 1 Tim 6:20 is specifically combating beliefs or claims which emphasize knowledge (gnw=si$) and presumably make use of the term. In addition, several descriptive phrases are worth noting:

  • “endless tales and accounts of coming-to-be [i.e. ‘genealogies’]” (1 Tim 1:4)—this could refer to the cosmological myths and mythic language adopted by many Gnostics (cf. above); however, the use of genealogi/a in Tit 3:9 rather suggests a more distinctly Jewish context (as does the immediate context of 1 Tim 1:3-11).
  • “hindering [i.e. forbidding] (people) to marry, (requiring them) to hold [i.e. keep] away from (certain) foods” (1 Tim 4:3)—this reflects an ascetic ideal common to most Gnostics, but is found in many other religious groups and traditions as well; the anti-sexual tendency was certainly a significant element in Gnostic thought, and may relate to the author’s emphasis on childbearing in 1 Tim 2:13-15 (and cf. 5:14-15).
  • “counting [i.e. saying] the standing-up [i.e. resurrection] already to have come to be [i.e. come to pass]” (2 Tim 2:18)—Paul (or the author) says this of Hymenaios and Philetos (v. 17), and it has been thought by some (critical) commentators to be related to Gnostic thought (cf. Justin Martyr 1 Apology 26.4 and Irenaeus Against Heresies I.23.5 regarding the early “Gnostic” Menander). Certainly Gnostics, more so than other early Christians, would have been inclined to adopt a “realized” eschatology and reinterpret the resurrection as a spiritual (rather than bodily) event. However, questions and various views regarding the resurrection seem to have been relatively common in the early Christian period (cf. 1 Thess 4:13-18ff; 2 Thess 2:1-2ff; 1 Cor 15:12-57), especially when the first generation of believers began to pass away without the return of Christ and the end having come.
  • 2 Tim 3:1-9ff—on the assumption that the Pastorals address some form of early Gnostic heresy, a number of commentators would read it in here as well; Justin and Irenaeus refer to Gnostics such as Marcus as gaining female followers and exerting influence over women (1 Apology 26.3; Against Heresies I.13.3, 23.2, etc), but this could simply be part of the author’s bias and polemic. For a bit more on the relation of the Gnostic groups to women, cf. Part 9 in the series Women in the Church.

3. The First Letter of John appears to refer to believers who have separated themselves from the wider Community (2:19, etc); it is sometimes claimed that these separatists either represent early Gnostic groups, or helped to form the basis for such groups in the 2nd century. 1 John 4:2 suggests a kind of docetic view of Christ (cf. above)—”every spirit which does not give account as one [i.e. confess] Yeshua (the) Anointed {Jesus Christ} to have come in the flesh [e)n sarki/] is not from God” (cf. also 2 John 7). The false doctrine referenced in 1 John 5:6ff is more complex and difficult to intepret. However, apart from 1 John 4:2, there really is little evidence of Gnostic thought among the separatists or the false teachings opposed by the author. The Johannine writings (especially the Gospel) do seem to have been popular among the Gnostics; cf. for example, Irenaeus Against Heresies III.9, 16. The earliest known commentary on John is by Heracleon [c. 170-180], whose work is referenced/refuted by Origen in his own massive (and unfinished) commentary on the Gospel. Whether or not the Johannine “separatists” joined/formed the later Gnostic groups cited by Irenaeus et al, it is likely that Ignatius of Antioch knew of them (or persons like them) in the early 2nd century (c. 110), as he makes virtually the same declaration in Philadelphians 7:1 as the author of 1 John does in 4:2; moreover, in Smyrneans 1-5ff, he is clearly combating a docetic view of Christ, which could conceivably provide a link between 1 John and the later Gnostics.

Justification

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The terms “justification” and “justification by faith” cover a wide area—from linguistics, biblical theology, systematic theology, and the history of doctrine. It will not be possible to offer anything like a thorough treatment in one brief article. My purpose here is to present a summary of the basic meaning of the Greek words involved (especially the dikaio- wordgroup), and to explore the ancient background of the concepts and terminology, as utilized by Paul.

The dikaio- wordgroup

We must begin with the wider d–e—ik- wordgroup and the basic noun di/kh (dík¢), which fundamentally refers to that which is established as right, proper or customary. It can be used in terms of a specific law or ruling, tradition, a principle, even a (divine) power; it covers some of the same ground as the word no/mo$ (usually translated “law”). We might render di/kh simply, and fairly accurately, as “what is right”. In English, the terms “right” and “just” overlap; we can also refer to di/kh as “what is just”. There is a longstanding question: whether it is better to translate the dikaio- wordgroup with “right, righteous, righteousness” or “just, justice”, etc. The primary corresponding word(group) in Hebrew is qdx (ƒdq), which also carries the sense of loyal(ty). Partially overlapping in meaning is fpv (šp‰), the primary wordgroup referring to judging, judgment, justice, etc.

di/kaio$ (díkaios)—The adjective is usually rendered “right” or “just”, both of which are preferable to “righteous”, which carries a distinctively religious connotation in English. The wider meaning in Greek refers to that which is “according to custom”, i.e. a person who fulfills his/her duties and obligations, follows the established customs or traditions, obeys the laws, and so forth. A person who may be so characterized is “just” and “right(eous)”. The corresponding adjective in Hebrew is qyD!x^ (ƒadîq). The adverb dikaiw/$ (dikaiœ¡s) carries a similar range of meaning as the adjective, “rightly, justly”, etc.

dikaiosu/nh (dikaiosy¡n¢)—This is a more abstract noun, signifying the proper observance of law and custom, the fulfillment of duty and obligation, etc. It ought to be rendered something like “right-ness” or “just-ness”, but as there are no such terms in English, it is usually translated “justice” or “righteousness”, neither of which fits precisely—one relates more to the law and society, the other more properly to religion and morality. However, “justice” probably better represents the basic range of meaning in Greek thought, covering both social/religious virtue and proper observance/administration of law and custom. The corresponding Hebrew words qd#x# (ƒedeq) and hq*d*x= (ƒ®d¹qâ) might fit “righteousness” more closely, especially with the connotation of “truthfulness, loyalty”, etc.

dikaio/w (dikaióœ)—This verb fundamentally means “make right”, or to “establish as right/just” (i.e. establish justice). The primary context is that of the realm of law and the courts (the administration of law), but it can also apply to personal life and conduct (i.e. generally, make a situation right, treat/regard something fairly, etc). In a legal/judicial sense, it can refer to judgment in terms of “passing sentence” (declaring innocence or guilt), “securing justice” for someone (i.e. respresenting them in court), “validating” or confirming the law, and so forth. In Hebrew, the corresponding verb is the denominative qd@x* (ƒ¹d¢q), in the Hiphil/causative stem; as indicated above, fp^v* (š¹pa‰) is the primary verb indicating judging and judgment.

Paul uses this verb (indeed the dikaio- wordgroup as a whole) in a very distinct, specialized sense, an understanding of which requires some familiarity with the ancient religious and cultural background related to these words.

The ancient background of “Justification”

Paul’s use of the dikaio- wordgroup (and, in particular, the verb dikaio/w) draws upon the ancient concept of judgment after death. Upon death, human beings were seen as having to stand before a divine tribunal to be judged—according to what they had done in their lifetime (including their intention/motivation)—before being allowed to enter into the divine/heavenly blessedness. This explains the traditional connection between justice/righteousness and the Beatitude saying-form (cf. Matt 5:3-12, 20 and my notes on the Beatitudes). Only the person whose life reflects the purity and “righteousness” of the gods (or God, cf. Matt 5:48) may enter into the divine realm, becoming like the gods (or God). Jewish thought preserved much of this idea, but with several important differences:

  1. Monotheistic belief changed the religious dynamic of the judgment scene—rather than being localized in the “underworld”, or presided over by specific deities (associated with death, law and order, etc), it takes place in the court of YHWH (on this, see my earlier note on Psalm 1, associated with the Beatitudes).
  2. The idea of the covenant established between YHWH and Israel meant that Israelites (and Jews) were, as a result of God’s gracious choosing, assumed to be righteous from the beginning. This status was preserved and confirmed by observing the commands and regulations of the Torah, which effectively provided the terms of the covenant (cf. Deut 27-28). Transgression of the Torah meant violation of the covenant, and only the wicked would do so willfully and unrepentantly. The person who has lived according to God’s Law (as expressed in the Torah) will stand and pass the judgment.
  3. Jewish eschatology ultimately shifted the judgment scene from taking place after death (for each person) to a final (end-time) judgment, in which all people would be judged. This was either connected with (1) the concept of the resurrection from the dead (en masse), or with (2) the “day of YHWH”, during which God would appear in glory and judge the nations upon earth. Both motifs are found in Jewish writings, all the way back to the Old Testament Prophets in the mid-1st millennium B.C.

Early Christians inherited the Jewish worldview, though, with further development:

  • The end-time judgment by God was seen as imminent, likely to occur at any moment, and, as such, is more precisely understood as the culmination of history, the end of the present age. Christians connected this end of the old with the beginning of a “new age” in Christ.
  • Judgment would take place through the person of Jesus Christ, as God’s representative; the impending end-time judgment thus was thus thought to coincide with a return of Christ to earth.
  • The strong sense of an imminent, impending judgment defined the early Christian idea of salvation—believers in Christ would be saved from the judgment, the anger/wrath of God, which was about to come.

This provides the essential background for Paul’s use of the dikaio- wordgroup; in particular, the verb dikaio/w, of which more than half (23) of the New Testament instances occur in Romans and Galatians, is an important word for Paul. It is used almost always in the passive, that is, a “divine passive” (passivum divinum) with God as the implied agent. There are, I believe, three aspects to Paul’s usage, which correspond to three basic levels of meaning (and ways of translating the verb, cf. above):

  1. “Make right”—the situation for believers is “made right” by God; this would best be understood in terms of human beings’ bondage under the power of sin, from which we have been freed.
  2. “Declare just”—this corresponds to the primary meaning based on the judicial context and background, i.e. of the end-time judgment before God (cf. above). In a modern legal context, we might say “declare innocent”, but this is not quite the idea in Paul’s writings—in fact, he rarely uses words corresponding to “guilt” or “innocence” in English. It is rather the ancient, Jewish background that informs his language and symbolism. Normally, a person is declared “just” or “right” according to his/her deeds—from the Israelite/Jewish standpoint, this means having properly fulfilled the terms of the covenant by faithfully observing the Law (Torah). Paul’s belief in this regard seems to have been that Christ’s work (his sacrificial death) has effectively fulfilled the Law for believers, and so all who trust in him are automatically “declared (or considered) just/right” in God’s eyes. This should be understood further at two levels:
    (a) believers will pass through the judgment and be “saved” from the wrath (punishment) to come
    (b) believers also realize, and experience the reality of, this status in the present
  3. “Make righteous”—this relates primarily to believers’ experience of salvation/justification in the present, though, more properly, it involves a (transformative) participation in the justice/righteousness of God. This occurs in two respects:
    (a) a spiritual identification with, and participation in, the death and resurrection of Christ, represented symbolically through the ritual of Baptism (and the Lord’s Supper), and effectively by the expression “in Christ”—that is, in the body of Christ
    (b) by the power and presence of the Spirit (of God and Christ) living and working within—through the Spirit, believers also fulfill the Law (of God and Christ)

“Justification by Faith”

While Paul never actually uses anything corresponding to this expression (the noun corr. to “justification” is found only in Rom 4:25; 5:18), it generally summarizes a number of statements he makes in Galatians and Romans (and elsewhere). Due to the polemic of Galatians, he has a more specific and narrow focus in that letter—constrasting faith (trust) in Christ with observance of the Torah commands (“works of the Law”). The main verse is Gal 2:16: “a man is not made/declared just out of works of Law [e)c e&rgwn no/mou], but through trust [dia\ pi/stew$] of Jesus Christ”; later in the verse he states even more decisively, “all flesh will not be made/declared just out of works of Law”. Elsewhere, Paul contrasts “out of works” with the parallel formulation “out of trust/faith” (e)k pi/stew$).

The relevant verses in Galatians are Gal 2:16-17, 21; 3:2, 8, 11, 24; 5:4. In both Galatians and Romans, Paul cites the keynote verse Hab 2:4 [LXX], “the just [di/kaio$] (person) will live out of trust [e)k pi/stew$]” (Gal 3:11; Rom 1:17), and uses/interprets the example of Abraham in Gen 15:6 (Gal 3:6ff; Rom 4:3ff). The main verses of Romans are: Rom 3:13, 19-20, 21-30; 4:2, 5ff; 5:1ff; 8:30, 33; 9:30-32; 10:5-6ff. It is a bit surprising that this theme does not appear more frequently in the other Pauline letters—it is stated rather clearly, but in passing, in Phil 3:9; otherwise, it has to be inferred in passages such as 1 Cor 6:11; Col 2:11-15. If Ephesians is authentically Pauline, then there is also a relatively clear statement in Eph 2:8-9, though the verb dikaio/w does not occur. This latter reference is significant in its use of the word xa/ri$ (“favor, grace”); Paul begins to apply this term and concept (“the favor [of God]”) in the context of “justification” in Romans 3:24, then on throughout chapters 4-7, and again in 11:5-6. These two words—xa/ri$ and pi/sti$—represent the twin aspects of “justification”, that it is: (1) by the favor/grace of God, and (2) through trust/faith in Christ.

Antinomianism

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The term antinomian is derived from the Greek a)ntinomi/a (antinomía), literally “against the law”, though the Greek word itself can actually have the technical sense of facing a difficulty or ambiguity in the law. While rarely, if ever, used in ordinary English today, “antinomianism” continues to serve as a technical (and polemic) term in religious and ethical studies. Christians have been especially sensitive to the term in relation to Paul’s teaching regarding the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah) in Galatians and Romans. Many simply take for granted that Paul’s teaching is not, and could not be, “antinomian”. However, this attitude, I believe, very much reflects a confusion of terminology and definition. It is helpful to distinguish the primary ways the term may be understood, in relation to the Old Testament Law (Torah)—i.e., “against the Law”, in the sense of:

  1. Teaching that Christians are no longer obligated or required to observe the commands and regulations of the Torah
  2. Attitude and/or behavior which is hostile and/or opposed to the precepts of the Law (Torah)
  3. Immorality and licentiousness, i.e. behavior which contradicts the ethical demands and precepts of the Torah, esp. as represented in the second table of the Ten Commandments—i.e. the “moral law”
  4. A partisan term (“Antinomians”) for historical persons or groups who espoused or exemplified views similar to any or all of the previous three, whether “Gnostics” from the early centuries or the related to the so-called “Antinomian Controversies” among Protestants (Lutherans) in the mid-late 16th century

The last of these is especially unhelpful; it would be better if “Antinomian(s)” were eliminated as a historical label. Most Christians today probably would understand the term in sense #3 above, as more or less synonymous with licentiousness and immorality. This often is related to the general belief (or assumption) that, while the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Torah (sacrifical ritual, the holy/feast days, dietary regulations, et al) no longer apply to believers, most of the ethical-moral precepts and injunctions remain in force (on this, see below). Sense #2 generally corresponds with the term a)nomi/a (“lawlessness”) in the New Testament, and is largely synonymous with the concepts of sin, wickedness and rebellion against the will of God. Sense #1 is a rather blunt way of characterizing Paul’s teaching regarding the Law in Galatians and Romans; some scholars and commentators are indeed willing to describe it as “antinomian”, though many others are unwilling or reluctant to do so. Some would dispute that #1 accurately characterizes Paul’s teaching, but it would be difficult to read his arguments in Galatians and Romans fairly and come up with a different conclusion. I am in the process of discussing Paul’s View of the Law (in Galatians, Romans, etc) as part of a series on “The Law and the New Testament”.

The problem with understanding “antinomianism” in senses #2 and 3 above is that it confuses religious and ethical attitudes and behavior with the specific commands of the Torah. While it is true that the second (ethical) side of the Decalogue continues to be emphasized by Jesus (Mark 10:18-29 par) and in early Christian instruction (James 2:11; Rom 13:9; Didache 2:1-3, etc), it was very quickly disassociated from the Torah, and connected almost entirely with the teaching of Jesus (e.g. in the Sermon on the Mount). In the New Testament itself, this can be divided into two stages of tradition:

  • Jesus’ preserved teaching regarding the “Great Commandment” (esp. Lev 19:18) and the “Golden Rule”—Mark 12:28-34 par; Matt 7:12 par
  • The resultant tendency to subsume the entire Law under a single command (or principle), related to Lev 19:18: the so-called “love command”—cf. James 2:8; Gal 5:14; Rom 13:8-10; Didache 1:2, and also Jn 13:34-35; 14:15-24; 15:10-17; 1 Jn 2:7-11; 3:23; 4:21; 5:1-3

As a practical result, virtually of the specific Torah commands are effectively eliminated. Indeed, apart from the two-fold “Great commandment” (Deut 6:4-5 / Lev 19:18) and the five (ethical) commands of the Decalogue, it is difficult to find much, if any, evidence that any other Torah command or regulation was considered still to be in force in the early Church. There were, of course, Jewish Christians who advocated (and/or demanded) observance of circumcision, the dietary laws, et al, even for Gentile believers, as indicated in Acts 15 and throughout Galatians; however, by the end of the New Testament period (c. 90-100 A.D.) this was an extreme minority view overall.

Clearly, Paul and all other (legitimate) early Christian teachers argued strenuously against immorality and wickedness (sense #2 and 3), but was the basis for this the continued need for believers (whether Jew or Gentile) to follow the Torah? In Galatians, Paul says exactly the opposite of this, arguing that believers are free from the Law and are no longer under obligation to observe it (i.e. no longer “under Law”). The only Law which continues to remain in force, as is clear from Gal 5:14 and 6:2, is the so-called “love-command (or principle)”. What then, is the basis of morality and proper religious behavior?—clearly, it is the work, guidance, and fruit of the Spirit (Gal 4:6; 5:5-6, 16-18, 22-23, 25). This, however, does require a willingness of the believer to be so guided by the Spirit, i.e. to “walk” according to the Spirit (5:16, 25; cf. also 6:8). This is the reason for Paul’s forceful exhortation (and warning) in 5:16-25 (also 6:7-9)—freedom in Christ certainly does not mean freedom to act wickedly, but Christian behavior is regulated by the Spirit, and not by the Law of the Old Testament. Paul’s line of argument in Romans is a bit more complex and nuanced than that in Galatians, but, I would not hesitate to say that his view of the Law in both letters can be fully described as “antinomian” in the best sense of definition #1 above.

Adoptionism

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I am currently in the midst of a series on the Speeches in the Book of Acts; and, as several of these sermon-speeches contain language regarding the person of Christ which does not entirely fit the standard orthodox terminology, it may be helpful to define and explain the specific label Adoptionism. This label denotes the view that Jesus was only God’s Son “by adoption” and not “by nature“—in this respect it is somewhat inaccurate, since it is not at all clear that those who held “adoptionistic” views specifically thought of Jesus as being adopted. The term is also anachronistic, in a sense, as being understood from the standpoint of Nicene Orthodoxy—with the clear idea that Jesus Christ is by nature (and in substance) identical with God, being eternally generated (or “begotten” [gennhqe/nta]) by God the Father, as enshrined in the Nicene Creed. The Nicene formulation was the product of nearly three centuries of Christological reflection, interpretation, and debate; there are serious difficulties when one tries to read this orthodoxy back into the sub-apostolic and New Testament periods. Be that as it may, when one speaks of “adoptionism” in the early Church, there are two main viewpoints which ought to be distinguished:

  1. That Jesus (a human being) was in some way chosen or designated by God as the Messiah (and/or Son of God), most commonly at the Baptism. This ‘appointment’ was accompanied by miracles and powerful (salvific) actions performed by God (through Jesus), culminating in the death and resurrection.
  2. That Jesus (a human being) was exalted by God following the resurrection, being given a divine status and position in Heaven (at the right hand of God the Father)

The first view better fits the label “adoption[ism]”; the second is closer to actual language used in the New Testament (on this, see below). Some scholars would apply the label “Adoptionism” more narrowly, to specific ‘heretics’ from the second- and third-centuries (such as Theodotus, Artemon, and so forth; cf. below). On the other hand, for many (proto-)orthodox Church leaders and writers of the time, the issue was drawn in simpler, general terms—of Jesus as God incarnate vs. being a “mere man” (yilo\$ a&nqrwpo$). Interestingly, while I do not know that this stark juxtaposition actually fits the reality of early Christological disputes, it does fit the situation today! In the twentieth (and early twenty-first) century, there appears to be little interest or inclination toward Christological thought and expression beyond the simple question of whether Jesus was “divine” or “just a human being”.

Unfortunately, we have little reliable information as to what supposed “Adoptionists” in the early Church genuinely believed or taught; there is little, if any, first-hand information, and what is recorded by ‘orthodox’ authors such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Eusebius and Epiphanius, is of varying degrees of reliability. Certain Jewish Christians (such as the so-called Ebionites, or “Poor Ones”) are indicated as holding viewpoint #1 above. In the late-2nd and early 3d centuries, there were “Adoptionists” in Rome (associated with Theodotus [the cobbler]); apparently several bishops of Rome at this time were influenced by these views. In the mid/late-third century, Paul of Samosata (condemned at a Church council in Antioch in 268) gained a notorious reputation as a prime “Adoptionist”, but this association is highly questionable. Not surprisingly, heretical Adoptionists were accused of manipulating (altering) Scripture to accomodate their views (cf. Eusebius’ Church History V.28.13ff); while little evidence of this survives, there is actually indication of the opposite—that ‘orthodox’ scribes may have introduced changes to combat such heretical views. For a detailed discussion of the issue (specifically related to Adoptionism), see B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford: 1993), pp. 47-118; some of the examples he gives are more convincing than others as instances of possible intentional changes. Such modifications were not so much for the purpose of altering the text of Scripture, as to clarify the text and avoid misunderstanding/misinterpretation of key passages (such as we might find done in translations today). An obvious example would be changes meant to safeguard the idea of the Virgin Birth in verses where Joseph is referred to as Jesus’ “father” (or Joseph and Mary together as his “parents”).

The text of Scripture certainly was central to early Christological disputes, and it raises the highly controversial question as to whether there is any manner of “adoptionistic” Christology present in the New Testament itself. Upon any careful and objective study, it must be admitted that there are certainly passages, and language, which could be interpreted that way (and Adoptionists in the early Church presumably would have done so). If we consider the main question—”in what sense can Jesus be understood as God’s Son?”—and recall the two main strands of “adoptionistic” thought isolated above (#1 and 2), it becomes clear that the principal point of controversy centers on the eternal pre-existence of Jesus. Adoptionists presumably denied this point; for the (proto-)Orthdox, it was vital to the reality of both the Incarnation and the salvation brought about by God in Christ (cf. for example, Irenaeus Against Heresies IV.33.[4ff]). And, while the pre-existent divine status of Jesus is assumed in orthodox Christology, it is important to note that relatively few passages in the New Testament state or affirm this with clarity. It is attested primarily in the Gospel of John (and other Johannine writings), several places in the Pauline and Petrine Epistles, and in Hebrews; but it is hard to find, for example, in the Synoptic Gospels or Acts. In fact, one could read the Synoptic Gospels from an “adoptionist” viewpoint without much difficulty; even the Matthean/Lukan Infancy narratives, which affirm the Virgin Birth, do not necessarily indicate a belief in pre-existence.

When we examine examples of (what appears to be) some of the earliest kerygma (Gospel proclamation) in the New Testament, one is struck by a certain ambiguity of expression (judged by later ‘orthodox’ standards)—it is vivid and concise (often hymnic/poetic), full of dynamic immediacy, but lacking the kind of systematic clarity so eagerly sought after in later formulae. Note the following examples, which I believe, preserve early kerygmatic formula:

  • References where it is indicated that Jesus was “presented/designated/appointed” to special/divine status—cf. the use of the verbs o(ri/zw (“mark [out], limit, determine”, sometimes in the sense of “declare, decree, appoint”, etc) in Acts 10:42; 17:31; Romans 1:4, and a)podei/knumi (“show forth, present”, often in the sense of “demonstrate” or “designate, appoint”) in  Acts 2:22. The latter reference especially could be taken in the sense of Adoptionist view #1 above.
  • In Romans 1:3-4; Acts 2:33ff; 13:32-33, and other key passages, Jesus’ designation to divine status is connected with and follows (or is a result of) the resurrection. This could be seen as corresponding to Adoptionist view #2 above. In even more striking language, note Acts 2:36, where it is stated that God “made [e)poi/hsen] him Lord and Anointed [i.e. Messiah]”, as the climactic statement in Peter’s Pentecost speech. Later Christology would be most reluctant to suggest that in any way Jesus had been made Lord [ku/rio$].

Similarly, consider the manner in which Psalm 2 [verse 7b] was used in the early Church. In Greek the key portion reads:

ui(o/$ mou ei@ su/ e)gw\ sh/meron gege/nnhka/ se
“You are my Son, today I have begotten you”

Orthodox Christology would apply this to Jesus in terms of his pre-existent Deity, of being eternally born/begotten by the Father (as the use of genna/w in the Nicene Creed); and it is presumably meant in more or less the same way in Hebrews 1:5 (and 5:5?). However, note that:

  • In Acts 13:32-33, Paul applies it to Jesus explicitly in the context of the resurrection. In a similar way, Hebrews 1:13 cites Psalm 110:1 (apparently) in the “orthodox” sense of Jesus’ pre-existent divine status (cf. Heb 1:2-3), but in Acts 2:33ff, it is cited in the context of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God. This could be taken to imply that Jesus was ‘born/begotten’ as God’s Son only after the resurrection [Adoptionist view #2 above].
  • In several Western MSS, in Luke 3:22, the heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism cites Ps 2:7b; a few scholars have argued that this is the original reading, and may have been altered (to the Synoptic parallel in Mark/Matthew) because of the possibility of misunderstanding. After all, the Western variant could be taken to mean that Jesus was (only) appointed as God’s ‘Son’ at the Baptism [Adoptionist view #1 above].

That passages such as these had an Adoptionistic ‘ring’ to them is demonstrated by the fact that a number of important variant readings can be found in the surviving manuscripts (see examples in Ehrman, pp. 54ff). How are they to be reconciled with orthodox belief affirming the (pre-existent) Deity of Christ? The best (and soundest) solution lies in the concept of progressive revelation—the idea that God only reveals truth to believers by a gradual process. This means that even the early Apostles did not necessarily have a full and complete understanding of the nature and person of Jesus Christ. The immediate emphasis in early Gospel preaching and proclamation was not a clear and consistent picture of Jesus’ mysterious nature, but rather the salvific impact of his sacrificial death, the reality of the resurrection, and his exaltation to heaven at the right hand of God (from whence he will come again to judge the World). By the time we come to the Epistles of John (c. 80-90?), for example, there is a much stronger emphasis on the need for a correct confessional formula regarding the person of Christ.

There are two other, somewhat related, terms which are perhaps worth mentioning here (I may address them in more detail in upcoming articles):

  • Subordinationism—by this is meant that Jesus Christ, in his divine person (as Son of God), is in some way—whether in terms of divine nature, power, or position—subordinate (and/or “lesser”) than God the Father. The term could also be applied to the person of the Holy Spirit, and is sometimes addressed as a proper theological, rather than Christological, question—related to the Christian view of the Godhead and the doctrine of the Trinity.
  • Kenosis/Kenotic Theory—this view is derived primarily from the “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11, and would hold (with some variation) that: (a) Jesus Christ was eternally pre-existent with God the Father, but that (b) in some mysterious way, he emptied himself of deity in his Incarnation as a human being, becoming totally dependent on the Father and the power of the Spirit, only to (c) receive the divine nature/status again (with greater glory) following the resurrection and exaltation.

Ipsissima Verba and Ipsissima Vox

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Ipsissima verba is a Latin expression translated as “the actual words”, i.e. of a particular author or speaker. It has been used primarily in Gospel studies, applied to the sayings of Jesus (see below). It can also be applied to any of the narrative portions of Scripture (including most of Genesis through Esther, the four Gospels and Acts), as well as to the oracles and sayings of the Prophetic and Wisdom books, and even to the (superscriptions of the) Psalms. The expression can be understood or qualified two ways:

  1. In a strict sense—the exact words in the exact language
  2. In a looser sense—the actual words, but in translation, or modified/edited slightly in context

The first is a matter of linguistics and source-criticism. In fact, the words of the speakers in many of the Biblical narratives would not be considered their “actual words” (ipsissima verba) in the strict sense. For example, nearly all of the speakers in Genesis through Samuel would have spoken a language (or dialect) often very different from the Hebrew in which their words have come down to us—this is certainly true, say, for Abraham and Moses (the traditional author of the Pentateuch). In the New Testament, it is generally assumed that Jesus would have done most of his normal speaking and teaching in Aramaic; if so, then the Greek of the Gospels does not preserve Jesus’ “actual words” in the strict sense (except in the rare instances of transliterated Aramaic, Mark 5:41, etc). The same could be said for the words of Peter, James, etc (and even Paul, to some extent) in the book of Acts. Anyone who has attempted to translate Hebrew (or Greek) into a very different language (such as English) knows how difficult it can be to capture and transmit accurately the detail (and even the basic sense) of the original—a strict word-for-word, or otherwise ‘literal’, rendering can, at times, be almost impossible. The idea of ipsissima verba (in this strict sense) is, to a great extent, the result of an interest in trying to “recover” the original Aramaic of Jesus’ sayings; however, as I point out below, this has been rendered largely obsolete by modern trends in New Testament scholarship.

The second, looser, sense of the expression ipsissima verba is of far greater interest, from the standpoint of historical criticism. It has to do with the question of whether, or to what extent, the words of the speakers in the Scriptures are: (a) authentic and (b) (historically) accurate. Here it is worth mentioning the corollary expression ipsissima vox (“the actual voice“)—by this is meant that, though they may not represent the speakers “actual words” (in either a strict or loose sense), the words preserved in the Scripture do reflect the substance of what was actually said. In this regard, let us consider the two characteristics mentioned above:

  • Authenticity—i.e., the speaker really did say, in whole or in part, something similar to what is recorded. Again, this concept is most prevalent in Gospel studies, where scholars have sought to defend, disprove, or otherwise determine, whether sayings of Jesus are authentic. Critical scholars have developed a number of so-called “criteria of authenticity”, some of which are more useful (and convincing) than others.
  • Accuracy—i.e., on the whole, to a varying degree, the recorded words are reasonably close to what the speaker actually said (even if given in translation); to this may be added the qualification that the words may (or may not) have been spoken in the exact historical context (the place and position) indicated within the Scripture narrative.

A special difficulty arises with regard to the extended speeches in Biblical narrative—in the New Testament, most notably, the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John and the speeches in the book of Acts. As I am discussing the latter in a current study series, I will use the speeches of Acts as an example. Traditional-conservative scholars would tend to accept the speeches as representing the “actual” words of Peter, Stephen, Paul, etc, whereas many critical scholars believe the speeches are largely the product of the author (trad. Luke). A moderate critical position would see the end product as essentially Lukan, but built, to some extent, upon authentic tradition. Consider for the moment, the idea that the speeches do represent the ipsissima verba (as at least some tradition-conservative commentators would hold)—how exactly could this be? There are two possibilities: one natural, the other supernatural.

  • Natural—Luke (or the author of Acts) has access to a source (written or oral) of the speech, a stenographic record preserved by eye/ear-witnesses.
  • Supernatural—God (by the Holy Spirit) has somehow vouchsafed to the author a (perfect) stenographic record of the speech.

A “natural” word-for-word (or otherwise accurate) source for speeches (especially lengthy ones) given years prior can be extremely hard to obtain, as Thucydides clearly admits (cf. The Peloponnesian War I.22.1); to expect a record of the ipsissima verba of such speeches by entirely natural means would seem to be quite unrealistic. A “supernatural” source is often assumed simply on the basis of a belief of the divine inspiration of Scripture (for many believers, this includes the idea of verbal/plenary inerrancy). However, it is often unclear just how this works, especially in the case of historical speeches (as in Acts). Most of the clear examples of divine inspiration (or, more accurately, revelation) described in the Scriptures themselves refer either to: (a) God’s own original words (of instruction, prophecy, etc), or (b) foreknowledge of future events (including things people will say). It is hard to find many definite instances where inspiration functions by preserving a perfect record of what was done/said in the past. A “synergistic” theory, whereby the Spirit of God guides and superintends—enhancing, if you will—the natural process and development of historical tradition appears far more realistic. Along these lines, I might recommend a variation of the moderate critical view of the speeches in Acts: they accurately record a substantive tradition regarding what was said at the time (i.e. ipsissima vox), but are, to a significant degree, expressed by the author’s own (Spirit-guided) artistic style and wording. Clearly, the end result is not a mere stenographic record, but a powerful, dynamic work of literary art.

On the ipsissima verba of Jesus and Gospel Studies

As mentioned above, the expression ipsissima verba has been used primarily in terms of criticism and study related to the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels (primarily the Synoptic Gospels). In the late 19th-century through to the middle of the twentieth, there was a particular interest among many New Testament scholars in the relationship between the current Greek of the Gospels (and Acts) and the Aramaic with which many of the original sayings and traditions are assumed to have been expressed. This interest and emphasis can be seen in the work of scholars such as Gustav Dalman, Adolf Harnack, C. C. Torrey, Matthew Black, and many others. To a large extent, this involved an effort to ‘recover’ or re-establish the “original” Aramaic, by way of, e.g.—

(1) textual criticism, working back from textual variants and other details in the text to find examples where the Greek may translating (or mis-translating) an Aramaic original
(2) comparative analysis, working with the Syriac versions, the Targums, etc., sometimes involving attempts to convert (retrovert) the Greek into a possible Aramaic original
(3) historical and critical study regarding possible (original) Aramaic versions and/or sources of the Gospels and Acts

In more recent decades, New Testament scholars have largely abandoned such efforts, along with a growing recognition that theories involving Aramaic sources for the Gospels and Acts are highly speculative and questionable. Scholars with an Aramaic speciality (such as J. A. Fitzmyer) have offered incisive criticism of earlier methodology, such as the use of later Jewish Aramaic sources to establish the Aramaic of the first-century. A greater emphasis on form-, genre- and literary-critical approaches has also tended to focus scholars back to the Greek text (of the Gospels and Acts) as it has come down to us, and away from pursuing source-critical Aramaic theories.

Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy

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The term “Orthodoxy” can be defined, more or less accurately, as “right/correct opinion”. The verb o)rqodoce/w (orthodoxéœ) is relatively rare (but can be found in Aristotle, Nic. Ethics 1151a.19), from o)rqodo/co$ (orthodóxos, also rare). Neither word occurs in the earliest Christian writings (New Testament and Apostolic Fathers, etc); in fact, even the underlying component words are relatively rare in the New Testament:

  • The adjective o)rqo/$ (orthós, “straight, [up]right”) and the related adverb o)rqw=$ (orthw¡s, “straightforward, rightly, plainly”) are used only 6 times combined, and in the sense of a “right/correct” saying/opinion only in Lk 7:43; 10:28; 20:21. Heb 12:13 uses the adjective according to the Hebrew idiom of making one’s paths “straight” (in the religious/ethical sense of “walking straight”), and note the similar compound verb o)rqopode/w (orthopodéœ, “set foot [i.e. walk] straight/right”) in Gal 2:14, as well as o)rqotome/w (orthotoméœ, “cut right/straight”) in 2 Tim 2:15 as a reference to correct teaching. Both noun and adjective are used more commonly for “right/straight” teaching and Christian ministry in the Apostolic Fathers (Ignatius Eph 1:1; Herm Sim 2:7; Diognetus 11:2, etc) and e.g. Justin Martyr (1 Apol 4:8; 2 Apol 2:2; Dialogue with Trypho 3:3; 5:2; 67:4, etc).
  • The noun do/ca (dóxa) is derived from the verb doke/w (dokéœ), which itself has a fairly wide range of meaning, “think, suppose, imagine, consider, recognize” and, more abstractly, “seem (to be)”. So, the noun do/ca primarily means “thought, opinion”, but in the more specialized sense of “consideration, recognition”, etc., it came to be used regularly for the “esteem, reputation,” etc. with with one considers someone/something, and so more specifically for “honor, glory”, etc. It is almost always in this latter sense that the noun (and related verb doca/zw (doxázœ, “esteem, honor, give glory/glorify”) are used in the New Testament. However, the verb doke/w occurs more frequently in the ordinary sense of “think, suppose, consider”.

By the end of the first century, and in what are usually considered the latest (anywhere between c. 65-100 A.D.) New Testament writings, there came to be a greater emphasis upon safeguarding “correct” teaching and tradition against ‘false teachers’ and opponents, as can be seen vividly in the Pastoral epistles (esp. 1 Timothy), 2 Peter, Jude, and the epistles of John (note esp. the strident partisan identifications and credal tests in 1 John). As Christianity continued to develop over the next two centuries, a greater number of divergent beliefs and sects arose often with contrasting (or contradictory) and competing viewpoints, ranging from fundamental issues of cosmology and theology (such as the nature of God and the person of Christ) to specific details of Church practice (such as the dating/celebration of Easter). Church leaders and theologians of various stripes sought to defend the “correct” position, usually on the basis of: (1) interpretation of Scripture, and (2) the reliability of inherited tradition. This multifaceted (historical) Christianity is normally described, in relation to orthodoxy (“correct belief/thought/opinion”), by one of two terms—”heterodoxy” or “heresy”.

Heterodoxy simply means “other thought/belief/opinion”, and today is typically used to reflect the (apparent) diversity of belief and practice, especially in the first three centuries of the Church, in contrast to Christianity as the established religion of the Roman Empire (both in the West and Byzantine East), from the early-mid 4th century through the end of the Middle Ages. In the 16th and 17th centuries, a different, but related sort of Protestant “Orthodoxy” developed (mainly that of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches), which extends, at least formally and in theory, among (most) Protestants to the present day. The term heresy has a far more negative (and odious) connotation, and, for that reason (as well as its history of spiteful application), is avoided (and/or used with great caution) by thoughtful Christians today. It is a transliteration in English of the Greek ai%resi$ (haíresis), derived from the verb ai(re/w/ai(re/omai, “take, choose, select (for oneself)”, and fundamentally means “something chosen/taken”, as, for example, a (religious) way of life, a partisan or communal affiliation, a belief, and so forth. The word is used in the New Testament in Acts 5:17; 15:5; 24:5,14; 26:5; 28:22; 1 Cor 11:19; Gal 5:20; 2 Peter 2:1. The related noun ai(retiko/$ (hairetikós) generally means “one who takes/choose, is capable of choosing,” etc.; it is used in a negative (partisan) religious sense in Titus 3:10, a meaning preserved in English by the word “heretic”, i.e. one who has chosen the wrong religious belief, affliation, etc.

What is the basis for establishing “orthodoxy” over and against either “heterodoxy” (diversity of beliefs/practices) or “heresy” (choice of the wrong belief, etc)? Historically this has been both defined and recognized according to a number of standards or factors, such as:

  • Teaching and/or edicts by influential or authoritative persons
  • Consensus forged through argument and debate over time (as in various Church councils, etc)
  • Interpretation of the (formative) authoritative religious texts (Scriptures)
  • Acceptance/adoption of (written) formulas of belief (i.e. Creeds and Confessions of Faith)
  • Isolation/emphasis on what the majority of believers hold in common (fundamental and/or ecumenical principle[s])
  • A defining (hierarchic) organizational structure

For many Christians, including the majority of Protestants, the belief, variously expressed, is that the canonical Scriptures should be the ideal for establishing “orthodoxy”, as in the Reformation slogan sola Scriptura—Scripture alone as the authority of religious faith and practice. Unfortunately, this ideal is greatly complicated by the differences of interpretation which attend many key passages; there are many other profound difficulties as well, such as the weight and force given to one passage over another, the relation of the Old and New Testaments, whether a teaching is culturally conditioned or meant to be applied to all believers through history, and so forth. A much simpler (and popular) approach toward establishing “orthodoxy” is the adoption of written creeds—statements of belief (credo, “I believe…”), whether in the form of a Confession of Faith or a Catechism for instruction of new believers. And yet, here again there is great difficulty, for history has proven (rather decisively) that the establishment of each new creed, however well intentioned, is likely to result in at least as much (or more) division than unity among believers. This is especially true the more detailed and extensive the creed is; the best creeds tend to be those which are the simplest, such as the so-called Apostles’ Creed, and which clearly evince an irenic and peace-loving spirit. Among the many Protestant creeds, the most beloved and widely accepted are the Augsburg Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, both largely free of the worst and most destructive polemical characteristics of the period. A faithful and effective creed (in the best Christian sense) ought to be limited to as few “essential” points of doctrine as possible, allowing freedom for discussion and debate on more difficult or controversial matters. As Church historian Philip Schaff has put it well: “a surplus of orthodoxy provokes skepticism”; to which I would add that it (unnecessarily) promotes and instigates division as well.

From the standpoint of the New Testament, of course, the ideal of Church unity is found in the presence of the Spirit at work in the hearts, minds, and lives of believers—uniting us to God (and Christ) as well as to one another. And, while this is true enough—and ought to be the goal and focus of faithful believers around the world—it is, admittedly, more readily expressed at the level of the intimate relationship between individual believers (“where two or three are gathered”); within a larger corporate or institutional setting it is much more difficult to realize.

“On objective grounds….”

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This is a phrase (“on [purely] objective grounds”) I have used rather frequently in the notes and articles posted here. The purpose of the phrase is to indicate when a saying, narrative, or other tradition recorded in Scripture may be considered as authentic on the grounds of critical scholarship, without resort to any doctrine regarding the inspiration or historical reliability of Scripture. Similarly, it is used to judge the greater likelihood of various (critical) theories related to the development of tradition and how the Scriptures (the Gospel narratives, especially) came to be composed. For more traditional-conservative commentators, and for many devout believers in general, the accuracy and authenticity of the Scriptures is self-evident—is assumed or taken for granted—and requires no (objective) critical analysis to confirm the matter. However, even for those who hold, or tend toward, the traditional-conservative position, the observations and insights of critical scholarship can be most beneficial: it is foolhardy (in the worst sense) to ignore or disparage them, and, I should say, unworthy of the believer who wishes to be a serious student of the Scriptures.

The qualifying term “objective” implies verifiable evidence, both internal and external to Scripture, which can be analyzed, agreed upon, and accepted, by all commentators—believer and non-believer alike—apart from what one personally believes or thinks about the Scripture. This is contrasted with (or, one may say, complemented by) interpretation on “subjective” grounds—that is, the personal (whether unique or shared by a wider community) opinion or belief of the commentator. Examples of “objective” evidence include: word usage, the development and particular meaning of a word or phrase, historical parallels to a word or passage, similarities of usage in other writings, signs of historical/literary development in a narrative, and so forth. Complete objectivity may or may not be possible for a scholar or commentator, but it remains a noble goal, and one which ought to be pursued in faith and humility.

“Tradition” and “Authentic Tradition”

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The word “tradition” (from Latin traditio, tradere) means that which is “given over, delivered, transmitted, passed on”. In Greek, the corresponding term is para/dosi$ (parádosis), from paradi/domi (paradídœmi), lit. “give along”. A tradition is something which is passed along, i.e. from one generation to the next, within a specific cultural matrix or community. In particular, one may speak of religious traditions passed down within a community. So it is with much of the material which we find preserved in the Scriptures—lists, genealogies, narratives, words and speeches, and any number of related historical and/or tribal/community details. In many instances these traditions were passed down orally, perhaps for generations, taking on fixed or well-established forms, before ever being written; then, several written stages may have occurred before being given definitive shape in the Writings which have come down to us. Often the Scriptures themselves bear witness to a wider tradition (regarding, e.g., the Patriarchs, the Prophets, Jesus and the Apostles, etc), of which only a small portion has been preserved.

Gospel Tradition(s)” is a term regularly used by critical scholars, especially, to refer to the various sayings and narratives (and occasional lists, etc) which have been preserved and recorded in the Gospels. “Jesus Tradition(s)” is a parallel term referring specifically to sayings of Jesus, narratives and historical details involving Jesus, which have been preserved—primarily in the four canonical Gospels, but also in other New Testament and extra-canonical writings.

“Authentic Tradition”

For those familiar with the notes and articles posted here, this is a qualified term I use quite frequently. By it I mean a tradition which has been transmitted from the time, and from within the cultural milieu, indicated. For example, an authentic Gospel (Jesus) tradition will have been passed down from Jesus’ own time, originally by his followers (and/or their close associates). An authentic tradition is not necessarily (strictly speaking) historical or factual in every detail—even though such traditions would (originally) stem from persons who may have been ear/eye-witnesses (or nearly so), the possibility of distortion and/or adaptation during the process of transmission must be taken into account. For many Christians, a doctrine of inspiration of Scripture presumes that the process of transmission would (or must) be completely accurate and reliable in (every) detail. However, this rather depends on how one understands the nature and extent of inspiration (a vital question, sadly neglected today), and the force of the claim could certainly be debated.

For the purposes of these notes and articles, I use the term “authentic tradition” in the sense indicated above. It should be pointed out, however, that many (critical) scholars also use the term “authentic saying” (that is, of Jesus) in a specific technical sense. This has been a significant area of Gospel Criticism in the past two centuries, tied to the idea of the “historical Jesus”—authentic (i.e., actual, genuine) sayings and actions of Jesus are often contrasted with sayings and narrative events viewed as (in whole or in part) the product of the early Church. To this end, critical scholars have developed a number of “criteria for authenticity”, several of the most important are:

  • Multiple Attestation: Sayings or episodes which are attested in multiple, unrelated sources (i.e., Synoptics, Gospel of John, Pauline epistles, extra-canonical sources) are more likely to be authentic.
  • Dissimilarity: Sayings/episodes which are significantly different from the language, style, theology, etc. found elsewhere in the early Church (or Judaism of the period) are more likely to be authentic. A subcategory of this criterion is that of embarrassment—i.e., sayings which proved difficult or ’embarrassing’ to the early Church are more likely to be authentic.
  • Coherence: Sayings/episodes which cohere or conform to other material judged to be authentic (on other grounds).

While such analysis has led to many useful insights, I find the search for “genuine” vs. “inauthentic” sayings and actions of Jesus to be, on the whole, exaggerated and overextended, with critical scholars often engaged in considerable speculation. However, in presenting something of the critical approach and viewpoint in these articles, I feel it both it both necessary and helpful to point out when a narrative or tradition can, on objective, critical grounds, be judged as authentic, and where, by contrast (or complement), an early interpretation may be attached to a tradition within the text of Scripture.

 

“Critical” and “Traditional-Conservative”

By | Biblical Criticism, Definition and Explanation of Terms | No Comments

I have regularly used the labels “Critical” and “Traditional-Conservative” as a short-hand description for two general approaches to handling and interpreting Scripture. The reality is more complex than the labels would suggest, and, of course, there is a wide middle ground of opinion and analysis; however, fundamental differences exist which are distinct enough to warrant some basic form of demarcation.

“Critical”

For the term “criticism” in general, I would recommend the three-part article I posted more than a year ago, introducing the subjects of Biblical Criticism and, in particular, Textual Criticism. “Criticism” of Scripture simply means informed judgment and analysis of the sacred Writings, in terms of: Text, History (and Historicity), Literary Form and Genre, Composition (and Redaction), Authorial Purpose/Intent, Development and Transmission, etc.—that is, everything meaningful which one could study and analyze about a particular literary document. All commentators engage in “criticism” at some level. What distinguishes a specific “Critical” approach, as such, to Scripture, is the willingness to apply to sacred Writings the same methods and techniques one might apply to any other writing from the ancient world. In so doing, there is no doctrinal presumption, no resort to supernatural agency in explaining how the text came to be—for the most part, entirely ordinary, natural means of production and development are assumed. On the one hand, this allows the commentator freedom in analyzing the text—every aspect (authorship, historical accuracy, theology, etc) can be examined apart from any religious doctrine regarding the text. On the other hand, this detachment can blind the commentator to the very religious and spiritual dimension which caused the text to be preserved and treated as sacred in the first place. Indeed, it is unfortunate that one can read page after page of critical commentary without any suggestion of unique, Divine inspiration (however one understands this precisely) at work in the text of Scripture.

“Traditional-Conservative”

As the label indicates, there are two aspects which I emphasize:

“Traditional”—This implies that the Christian tradition regarding the Scriptures is generally accepted, unless there is strong reason to reject it. This is opposed to the “Critical” approach, which tends to be skeptical, willing to question and examine every tradition (before accepting it outright). In particular, traditions regarding authorship (Moses for the Pentateuch, Matthew/Mark/Luke/John for the Gospels, etc), are assumed. See also the separate article on “Tradition”.

“Conservative”—Because of the highly polemical, partisan nature of this term in many circles, I use it somewhat reluctantly. I mean by it the tendency to accept—to take at face value—everything one finds in the Scriptures. This may be driven by a theological/doctrinal viewpoint, a religious/credal viewpoint, or both. Especially, when authorship is indicated in the Scriptures (e.g., Isaiah, Daniel; Paul in the “disputed” epistles [Pastorals, Ephesians]; 2 Peter), it is accepted more or less without reservation. Most controversial are questions regarding the historicity/factuality of the Old Testament and Gospel narratives; much of modern-day “apologetics” is devoted to defending the details of the Scriptural narratives against critical-skeptical ‘attacks’.

The Traditional-Critical view, at its best, demonstrates a sensitivity to the value of tradition, and to the religious/spiritual environment which produced the Scriptures (with recognition of the reality of inspiration); at its worst, however, it tends to close off important paths of inquiry, and risks distorting and misrepresenting the very sacred text it seeks to defend.

To demonstrate a basic difference between the two approaches, consider the concept of Gospel tradition in relation to the canonical Gospels which have come down to us. The Critical approach generally assumes multiple layers of development in the Gospel tradition, during which many modifications, accretions, interpretive expansions, etc. have occurred:

  • Stage 1: The words and actions of the historical Jesus and his contemporaries
  • Stage 2: These words and actions as described and transmitted orally among the earliest believers
  • Stage 3: Early collections of sayings and narratives (oral or written, perhaps translated into Greek)
  • Stage 4: Early Gospels (or Gospel fragments)—sayings and narratives connected within a larger framework
  • Stage 5: The sayings and narratives as recorded in the four canonical Gospels

The Traditional-Critical view, by comparison, would tend to compress these layers so that Stage 5 is more or less equivalent to Stage 1—i.e., the Gospels as we have them preserve (with minimal modification) the words and actions of Jesus just as they originally took place.

The thoughtful and sensitive student of Scripture will recognize the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches—by holding them in balance, in true humility, and under the guidance of the Spirit, we may faithfully explore and expound God’s Word in the Scriptures (and the Scriptures as God’s Word).