The Dynamic of Right Action and Right Doctrine in the Shaping of Belief

Written by Revd Peter Philips, priest of Our Lady of Pity, Shrewsbury.

For John Henry Newman the special privilege of the first generation of Christians was an encounter with Christ free of creeds and articles of faith. The disciples simply embodied their experience of Christ their Lord in the practice of discipleship. But Newman recognised a falling away from the immediacy of the apostolic age: right practice needs to be held in check by right belief. Catching up a phrase from the eschatological discourse of Matthew, Newman sets this understanding within the inevitability of the historical process by acknowledging ‘a time when love grows cold’ (Matt 24.12) during which the immediacy of first love needs to be structured and channelled. With the advent of heresy, the Church is challenged to put its belief into words. Nevertheless the movement is not all one-way: right practice (orthopraxis) continues to rein in and modify right opinion (orthodoxy) just as much as expressions of faith determine how a Christian is to act. The two aspects of believing must be held together in a creative dynamic.

We cannot hope to come to any insight about the activity and person of Jesus unless we set him firmly against the horizon of the Hebrew Scriptures. The disciples’ reflection on the Scriptures did not create their experience but it certainly allowed them to make sense of something which was not of their making. The Hebrew Scriptures provide the language and categories for giving words, even shape, to such experience. It makes good sense to suggest that the earliest communities bear witness to a rich and varied pattern of Christological experimentation. The speed of Christological development in these early years is astounding. The New Testament has already developed beyond these positions and preserves only fragmentary allusions to what has gone before. We lack sufficient evidence to construct a complete picture of the beliefs of individual communities. Sometimes such fragments allow further development, sometimes not, representing merely a false start and coming to a dead end.

Some insight into what seems to have been going on here is afforded by a fascinating study of the first hundred years of Christianity by James M. Robinson. Robinson argues that the shaping of the New Testament belongs to a period ‘strung on trajectories that lead not only from the pre-Pauline confession of 1 Cor. 15.3-5 to the Apostles’ Creed of the second century, but also from Easter "enthusiasm" to second-century Gnosticism’ (Robinson, p. 6); Raymond Brown has argued similarly, it may be remembered, in his excellent study of the formation of the Johannine corpus. Neither the position later understood to be heretical, nor that later accepted as orthodox, simply preserves the tradition without alteration. The New Testament, taking shape in response to Gnostic views, must be regarded as representing a considerable development from the original experience. To take but one example: the interpretation of the resurrection. Robinson, drawing on a wide range of New Testament texts, makes a good case for arguing that the New Testament contains considerable evidence to suggest that the earliest tradition understands the resurrected Christ as a luminous, heavenly body (see Robinson, pp. 7-16). Such accounts were naturally a boon to those intent in arguing for a gnostic interpretation and orthodoxy, in turn, reacted by increasingly emphasising the fleshly reality of the Risen Lord. Robinson concludes:

Thus although orthodoxy and heresy could on occasion accommodate themselves to language actually developed to implement the emphasis of the other alternative, by and large they divided the Pauline doctrine of luminous bodiliness between them; Orthodoxy defended the bodiliness by replacing luminousness with fleshiness, heresy exploited the luminousness by replacing bodiliness with spiritualness. (Robinson, p. 17)

This body of evidence suggests that the earliest interpretation of the resurrection could well have been expressed in the language of exaltation and ascent, rather than of physical resuscitation. This pattern of death and exaltation is seen in the hymn preserved in Philippians (2.8) as well as Mark 14.62. Luke 24.26 and 46 seem to suggest that exaltation and resurrection may be used interchangeably to describe what happens after Jesus’ death, so, too, does Matt. 28.16ff. Peter Carnley in his important study of the resurrection seems to be incorrect in his insistence that a post-resurrection sighting of Jesus lies necessarily at the foundation of the disciples’ belief. As we have seen, other interpretations of the New Testament evidence are to hand. Indeed the material which we have discussed suggests that at the roots of the tradition lies an objective encounter with the risen Lord which only later, as a result of pressure from the debate with gnosticism, came to be defined in increasingly materialistic terms.

One of the great services Jean Daniélou has done for us in his Theology of Jewish Christianity, is to introduce us into this alien world of thought. Margaret Barker, similarly, in a series of recent and challenging studies has brought this world to the foreground of interpretation. Daniélou acknowledges that the theology of this period (we are dealing with a period after the gospels have crystallised in a form with which we would be familiar) accepts ‘the idea that the risen Christ remained for a while on earth and then departed at the end of that period’. This being said, however, Daniélou points out that in works such as the Testament of Benjamin and the Gospel of Peter the Resurrection is not mentioned as such but Jesus’ vindication is read primarily in terms of heavenly exaltation:

Contrary to the practice of later theology Jewish Christianity expresses the glorification of Christ from the point of view of the Ascension rather than that of the Resurrection, an approach which fits better into the structure of Jewish Christian theology with its more cosmological than anthropomorphic world-view... The important point, therefore, in the accounts of Christ’s Ascension is the essential meaning, not the cosmological expression. Nevertheless, since the cosmological symbolism serves as a means of presenting doctrine it calls for careful examination...

Barker offers a rather more radical picture. She, too, points out that texts referring to an ascent rather than resurrection are used of Jesus in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 3.26; 5.30; Heb. 7.11,15) and she makes an important point in identifying a shift of interpretation evident in period of the early Church. This can be illustrated in the fact that Irenaeus, for example, seems more interested in proof texts of physical resurrection as opposed to ascent. She notes that Adversus Haereses 5, 15.1-2 looks to Is 26.19, 65.22, 66.13 and Ez. 37, texts which are concerned with primarily physical resurrection.

The earliest tradition understands resurrection and exaltation as two aspects of the one eschatological event. This is a distinction least clearly articulated in the early hymns of Phil. 2.6-11 and 1 Tim. 3.16, most clearly in Luke-Acts. Ps 110.1 played an important part expressing the New Testament understanding of the exaltation of Christ; Luke draws out the difference between resurrection and exaltation by introducing, apparently for the first time, Ps 16.10 (arising from the world of the dead) as a text specifically marking out the resurrection. Luke marks just the beginnings of a process which, in rightly insisting on the reality of the Risen Lord, seems to be drifting into a literalness which is increasingly less than helpful: Jesus’ risen life is spelt out in terms more physical than metaphysical, more akin to resuscitation than resurrection. In Irenaeus, as Margaret Barker has shown, we see but a further development of this line of argument.

We must talk of Christ’s resurrection in bodily terms in so far as it says something about the transformation of earthly existence. As humans we are embodied, part of the stuff of the universe. In the resurrection of Jesus, there is not only a promise, but the foretaste of the life to come. The disciples’ encounter with their risen Lord makes this clear: there is both continuity with what has gone before but also a startling discontinuity. An encounter with the risen Lord is an experience of the very threshold of the new creation. His is a transforming presence. The Easter experience demands an engagement with the world not a flight from it. Different ages seek different ways of avoiding this truth. The besetting error of gnosticism lies in demanding that we look to escape from the messy continuum of human living. As Luke’s second Ascension narrative warns the disciples, they are not to stand gazing up into heaven but to stay in the city (Acts 1.1-14). Paul’s insistence that the disciple must not avoid the rigours of work has the same import (1Thess. 3.6-13). A materialistic reading of the resurrection suggests a different escape-route: the risen Lord becomes increasingly regarded as part of the continuum of human history, the object of human enquiry. But Christ, in his resurrection, remains Subject, Lord of history, present not past. The new life which the resurrection promises is not appropriated merely by looking back and weighing the evidence, but by an encounter with the risen One, who comes to meet us on the road of our own engagement with human suffering and injustice. The disciple is called daily to conversion.