I sometimes hear people say that they follow the early church fathers (ECF) because they were the closest to the apostles and had greater understanding of what the apostles taught. There seems to be some truth to this, but it is not as clear cut as it appears on the surface. It can be pointed out that the ECF did not have a complete canonized Bible. It can also be pointed out that because some had writings from Paul and others had writings from John or Peter that the ECF didn’t wrestle with all the nuances of God’s Word like those who did so after the canon was complete. While this is important to note, there is something else of a philosophical nature and the way humans process knowledge that I will focus on in the second post of our series on Christian paradigms.
Without a clear structure, the methods people use to learn about a subject is almost as varied as the number of people analyzing information. Information is processed by our brains through interacting with objects, texts, or ideas, and conclusions are drawn through this process of interacting and thinking. There are multiple theories on how humans receive and process knowledge, but since it is not within the focus of this post to explore these epistemological theories, I believe that this basic explanation is sufficient to analyze the wrestling of information in the pre-paradigmatic phase of Christianity because in this phase, like pre-paradigmatic scientists, theologians either build onto their knowledge from one or possibly a few predecessors or devise the work on their own. Either way, without a cohesive system, their beliefs are diverse and have little justification beyond their own engagement with an object or text. What is being studied could be real and true, but the conclusions might not be.
The pre-paradigmatic phase of Christianity is more commonly known as the era of the patristics or the early church fathers. It is in this period that I will explore the development of Christian doctrines following the close of the canon of Scripture and prior to the first structured paradigm within Christianity.
Christianity by the second century had spread to Asia Minor, Syria, Macedonia, Greece, Rome, and northern Africa. The beginnings of church structure are similar to what was described in Acts and, to a limited degree, Paul’s letters to the churches. In A History of the Christian Church, Williston Walker writes that each city had its own episkopos, which translates to bishop or overseer, who was assisted by presbuteroi (elders) and diakonoi (deacons). The duties of these three offices were important to the worship, teaching, and community of the local churches.
The early church, or patristic, period of church history featured debates over fundamental understandings of the faith that point to this era as a pre-paradigm period. These debates were both intensive – reaching to core understandings of who God is and how he relates to the world – and extensive – impacting Christians throughout the Roman Empire. Resolving those debates would be necessary for the Roman Catholic paradigm to emerge later.
Connecting With Kuhn’s Paradigms
Thomas Kuhn, when discussing paradigms in science, writes that “the pre-paradigm period … is regularly marked by frequent and deep debates over legitimate methods, problems, and standards of solution, though these serve rather to define schools than to produce agreement.” This is in view during the patristic period as well. In addition to the early established churches, three major heresies emerged in the first three centuries of Christianity. It is not important in this post to discuss these heresies in depth. The important thing to note is that each heresy prompted rigorous debate and defense of the truth of God’s Word. Such debates helped the Christian church to clarify and hone their doctrines just as an enemy perfects the skills of a noble swordsman.
This is a significant point which should be highlighted when looking back into history of how Christian doctrines developed. Frequently, certain precepts found in the Bible are assumed or ignored until challenged. The systematized doctrines that develop from such challenges do not negate the words found in the ancient texts Christians call the Bible, rather the challenges help the adherents to study and think more deeply about their assumed beliefs and give them more structure. This careful defining in response to the Gnostic challenge, for example, also brought a closer unity among the various bishops and city churches. To reiterate, the teachings that emerged were not new doctrines, as they were based in the teachings of Jesus Christ and the letters of the apostles found in the accepted New Testament writings; instead the doctrines became clearer and the arguments defending them sharper. As the unity strengthened and people looked to the authority of the church, an established paradigm began to emerge from its pre-paradigmatic stage, though it did not happen overnight. In addition to the increased authority, an important aspect of establishing the eventual Roman Catholic paradigm were creeds that were accepted by many of the churches. One early example is Justin Martyr’s summary of “Jesus Christ, being crucified and dead, rose again, and having ascended to heaven, reigned.”
Trinitarian Structure of Baptismal Confessions
It is important to note that these early creeds and formulaic prayers were not officially or even universally employed, as they were oral traditions and not established by councils. The individual churches still had their own baptismal confessions. Even though there was a certain unity, the paradigmatic structure of the Roman Catholic church had not yet been established. According to Walker, “What was uniform was the structure of the confession; what everyone was sure of was that each local confession embodied and expressed the one faith.” The form that emerged in the second century was the rule of faith and content of teaching, which included the Trinitarian structure of the baptismal confession as was laid out in the Gospel of Matthew. Even in the pre-paradigmatic stage in the second century, the emerging structure that eventually became solidified in the paradigm of the Roman Catholic faith begins to take shape as the debates took these early bishops and thinkers from a wide variety of scriptural interpretations to more uniformity.
In his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn wrote, “In the absence of a paradigm or some candidate for paradigm, all of the facts that could possibly pertain to the development of a given science are likely to seem equally relevant.” This is evident in both scientific and religious structures. In the pre-paradigmatic phase, there is a problem with a lack of a common body of belief. I already mentioned aberrant teachings that were outside of Christian orthodoxy, even during the early period, but there was also a lack of consensus with interpreting Scriptures among those now upheld as the early church fathers. For example, Tertullian taught an ascetic view of salvation and the Christian life. In the backdrop of persecution of the North African churches, Tertullian taught that purity from the world gained the promises of “the judgment to come” for the faithful Christians. In Tertullian’s view, service to the world in terms of military, government, or even teaching institutions and philosophies supported pagan religions and was sinful for Christians. Yet, Clement of Alexandria defended Hellenistic philosophy and other secular teachings. The reason for this is he believed that the divine Logos has always been a teacher for all men everywhere, not in the direct sense but as a guide for humanity. This idea, that God is the primary cause of intellectual guidance in all people is part of God’s providence and would later be picked up in the Reformed Protestant idea of common grace.
In my next post, I will skip over the paradigms of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, though I might revisit them in the future. Monday I will explain the development of the Protestantism and give it a paradigmatic shape so that it can be defined.