Sunday, 8 October 2017

From Gospel to Dogma

Last week, I had the honour of delivering a talk at Regis College in the University of Toronto, hosted by the Lonergan Research Institute. This talk focused upon how the gospels were seminal in the development of Christian dogma: not in terms of their content, but rather in terms of the processes that led from Jesus' life to the development of the very form of dogma itself that we find emerging at Nicaea, Chalcedon, etc. Here I drew upon a quote from Lonergan's Triune God: Doctrines (p. 49, with the Latin original on p. 48 opposite; yes, although a twentieth-century thinker, Lonergan often wrote in Latin, specifically those writings that started as lectures delivered at the Gregorian in Rome):
[I]n the ante-Nicene doctrinal movement there were not one but two developments that were going forward. During those early Christian centuries both the trinitarian and Christological doctrines were being developed; but this doctrinal development itself enfolded a second and more profound development in which the idea of dogma itself was developing.
What we find here are what we might term a substantial and a formal development, which operated in parallel. The substantial development was the specific content of the doctrines being developed, while the formal development was the mode of expression by which they were articulated. In effect, we are dealing with the difference between what Christians believed and how they communicated that belief. My primary interest in this talk was upon the latter.

Substantially, there are Christian insights in narrative texts such as the gospels and also in dogmatic texts such as the Nicene Creed. But formally they are very different. The movement from narrative to dogma is a profound one, in which sharpened intellectual clarity is achieved by virtue of intellect's increasing regulation of other aspects of the person when thinking about doctrine, which results in a concomitant decrease in the capacity to communicate to the whole person is decreased. What actually happens in the big picture is that narrative--and also song, and other forms that aim more fully at the whole person--becomes less concerned with communicating intellectual truths as forms more appropriate to the communication of intellectual truths come into their own (and thus we see a keen impropriety in comparing ancient narrative to modern narrative; they actually are not the same animal, as modern narrative is much more specialized than ancient). This much is really derived from Lonergan. My particular interest was in how the production of the gospels themselves contributed to this process.

My argument was quite straightforward. The gospels were developed and written in highly diverse milieus; that such communication in such milieus by necessity requires work to clarify concepts; and that this early work at clarification constituted perhaps the first major Christian movement towards dogma. There is strong reason to think that right from the off the church was at least culturally and linguistically diverse: consider the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, for instance, or that of the Hebraists and the Hellenists in Acts 6. This diversity would have only increased as the church spread into the Diaspora (which actually seems to have occurred quite early, perhaps as a direct result of Pentecost. If not then, certainly by the time Paul was converted, perhaps as little as eighteen months after Jesus died and certainly no more than three or four years). All such cultural and linguistic diversity made posed a sharp challenge to communication (indeed, the account of miraculous inter-linguistic communication at Pentecost makes clear that the early Christians were profoundly aware of this challenge). My argument is simply that this challenge to communication necessitated acts of clarification that would characterize the movement of Christian communication throughout the ante-Nicene period, and after.

No comments:

Post a Comment