At Latin mass this morning, the priest was talking about the part of the Nicene Creed that calls the church “apostolic.” He said that means (in part) that the doctrine of the church goes back to the apostles. While he acknowledges that the doctrine may have developed over time and has been communicated differently to various contexts of time and place, he said that the doctrine has remained unchanged. He also dismissed “dialectic” ways of viewing church doctrine, the sorts that say Peter disagreed with Paul and the church hashed out their differences.
As I’ve read Quasten’s Patrology and Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, my impression has been that unity in the church came out of diversity. As early as the second century C.E., there were differences of opinion about the nature of Jesus and universalism. I think the church pretty much agreed that Jesus was divine, but it differed as to whether he had an origin, and on the exact manner in which his human nature related to his divine nature. Moreover, regarding universalism, some influential Christian thinkers, such as Origen, believed that God would save everybody in the end, including Satan, whereas others held fast to the doctrine of eternal torment in hell. As time went on, orthodoxy was defined, and heretics got excommunicated.
But what about the first century church? Was it united? Many Christians think so. When I was a kid and my mom was going back to school, she was surprised to read in her textbook that Paul disagreed with James on whether or not Gentile Christians should be circumcised and keep the law of Moses (or so I remember, with my flawed memory). She grew up in Armstrongism, which held that all of the apostles believed the same thing, including the notion that Christians should observe the Old Testament law. I often wondered where textbooks got the idea that Paul and James had different ideas on the Gentiles, since James essentially agrees with Paul in Acts 15.
Right now, I can somewhat understand where that perspective is coming from. In Galatians 1, we read that Peter was eating with the Gentiles, until people from James came. Then, Peter ditched the Gentiles out of fear of the “circumcised.” Paul then accused Peter of trying to force the Gentile Christians to behave as Jews. Does this whole incident imply that James wanted the Gentiles to live as Jews, since Peter ditched the Gentiles to appease the party of James? Perhaps.
Some scholars may dismiss Acts 15 as propaganda, an attempt to present the apostles as more united than they really were. But I wonder if I can accept the portrayal of James in both Acts 15 and Galatians 1. Maybe at one point, the apostles were divided about whether or not Gentile Christians should keep the law, and Galatians 1 describes an incident that occurred when James was still a Judaizer. But, after reflection on Scripture and what they perceived as God’s activity in their midst, the apostles arrived at a consensus: that the Gentile Christians didn’t have to be circumcised or keep the Torah. Acts presents Peter as a person who changed his mind: God had to teach him to regard no man as common or unclean. Rather than presenting a scenario in which all of the apostles agreed on doctrine and heretics deviated from their consensus, perhaps the Bible and church history display the sort of “dialectic” that my priest criticized this morning, in which unity emerges out of debate, disagreement, growth, and hashing things out.
That’s not to imply that there was no consensus in early Christianity, for one can find common ideas in most New Testament and ancient Christian writings, including those of the “heretics”: that Jesus brings forgiveness of sins, that Christians should do good works, and that Jesus was no ordinary man. So I disagree with those who act like early Christianity was totally diverse, as well as those who say it was united in every detail of doctrine.