The apostolic witnesses

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It is interesting to note that the noun "witness" is singular in the term "apostolic witness". This lack of a plural assumes that there was just one witness, that the apostles presented a unified front, that they expressed a monolithic theology from the very onset of Christianity that served as the wellspring of modern Christianity. In fact, this is not the case. On the contrary, we know that there were at least two apostolic theologies in existence during the very first few decades after Jesus died. We know this because we have a polemic by one apostle against another one.

Consider what Paul writes against Peter in the aftermath of the Jerusalem Council, in Galatians 2. Paul accuses Peter of being "self-condemned", and of being guilty of "hypocrisy", because of Peter's views on a vitally important question of Christian belief and practice of the day, which differed sharply from Paul's own views.

Unfortunately, we only get one side of this dispute. Peter was presumably an illiterate Galilean peasant at a time in history when the overwhelming majority of people were illiterate. So Peter left no writings behind, thus leaving us without his own version of events. It would have been interesting to know what kinds of invective he might have delivered against Paul. Alas, Peter's side of the story is lost to us forever. Then again, perhaps he didn't have Paul's rhetorical skills anyway. What we are left with in a he-said, he-said dispute is only the word of someone who never knew Jesus when he was alive, while the apostle who did know him gets no chance to present his case. The author of Luke-Acts, meanwhile, which was written a few decades after Paul's account in Galatians, completely whitewashes this dispute after the Jerusalem Council altogether; in Acts 15, which discusses events from the same period of time, no mention is made of this quarrel in Antioch between Paul and Peter, which is probably because it would not have suited his purposes to mention such things. Luke was, of course, a secondary source for these events; the one primary source that we have comes from one of the parties in the dispute, namely Paul.

Peter's version of Christianity seems closer to that of the Ebionites, who were of course later declared to be heretics. (Bart Ehrman's book Lost Christianities discusses the Ebionites in some detail, for those who are interested.) In any case, the dispute between Antioch and Jerusalem was resolved in favor of Antioch when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. The winners get to write history, while the losers are consigned to heresy.

The idea of a single, monolithic "witness" from the apostles is a useful myth that serves the interests of orthodoxy. But it is a lie. The apostles who knew Jesus wrote nothing down. The only "witness" we have about Jesus is from people who never knew him--Paul, who got to put his own spin on things, and the gospel writers, who wrote anywhere from 40-70 years after Jesus died, and who increasingly had certain agendas at stake in what they wrote.

A religion's source tradition is a matrix from which multiple, often competing, movements and sub-traditions can and do emerge. The need for each of these sub-traditions to claim that it, and it alone, is the sole inheritor of the original tradition, is very strong. We see this not just in sub-traditions, but in sub-sub-traditions. Modern Quakers, for example, all descend from the original Christian movement founded by George Fox. They have argued with one another frequently through the years over who is the "real" Quaker. It would be hard to recognize that the conservative programmed Quaker church and the liberal unprogrammed Quaker meeting all come from the same religious tradition. And yet they do. And at the same time each accuses the other of violating the original principles of Quakerism. If you consider how it is possible that these diverse, contradictory theologies and worship styles can simultaneously claim to be the legitimate heirs of early Quakerism while at the same time they also can accuse the others of violating that very legacy, you will come a long way towards understanding how diversity and dogma come into play in religious movements.

After the founder of a major movement dies, his or her legacy is always fraught with ambiguity and unresolved issues that can serve as the germ of distinct, competing movements that all claim to be heirs of the same original source tradition, and yet which move in diverse and even contradictory ways. Competition among brother sects or movements within a faith tradition often produces an intense rivalry that is far stronger than what happens between traditions. The most heated arguments often happen with those with whom you share some kinship. In the wake of this competition, the need to claim legitimacy for one's own movement at the expense of others is most intense.

Those later Christians who enshrined the Trinity in the Nicene Creed claimed that they were the sole legitimate inheritors of the so-called "apostolic witness", while those "heretics" were not. Yet those selfsame Trinitarians could legitimately be accused by the "heretics" of redefining God into something completely unrecognizable by the faithful apostles or by Jesus himself. So who is the real inheritor of this supposed witness? Had events gone just slightly differently in the fourth century AD, it would now be the ones we call "orthodox" who would be painted as "heretics" by the non-Trinitarian Christians.

It is time, once and for all, to put to rest this idea of an "apostolic witness" from which orthodoxy springs. Christian orthodoxy has no more claim to legitimacy than any of the "heresies" that it violently suppressed. Just because you have the power to suppress dissenting opinions, that does not make you right. Christianity is a source tradition from which movements have always sprung, over the last 2000 years, despite continued efforts by orthodoxy to crush them. Such is the power of this source tradition that it cannot be bottled up so easily.

8 comments:

Chris said...

Thanks, Mystic. The idea of a monolithic apostolic witness irritates me, too. :-)

Frank said...

Eh... yes and no. I do hold that a plurality of voices is the essence of a faith tradition, Galations being a perfect example of what humans being are like in community (debate and dialogue is not an inconvenience, it is a big part of what its all about).

However, if I'm correct, the term "apostolic witness" was actually used a lot in the Reformation to counter a church that had evolved beyond the apostolic witness(es). There was mistrust of institutional authority, and Luther and others advanced the idea that if we could only just get back to the Christianity of the 1st generation of Apostles, then we would have the "real" Christianity.

As a way to check & balance a church with runaway authority, yes, this is a good exercise. But it can be an exercise in idolatry, as well. Churches can lose their living relationship with a living God by putting too much stock in trying to reconstruct an historical scenario they will never be able to fully reconstruct.

But anyway, in light of that, I'm not convinced that the term "apostolic witness" was used to advance a case in favor of the tenets of the Nicene Creed.

I would also argue that "apostolic witness" does not have to imply a unity of opinion. Top me, it more refers to a collective body of experience. You may be taking a leap by assuming that automatically means a unity of opinion.

Harry said...

I think you ought to study the ante-Nicean fathers. You can see the continuity of the Apostolic witness through the intervening centuries.

As an Orthodox Christian, I can read these fathers and find them utterly Orthodox.

Here is a link to these essential writings:

http://www.ccel.org/fathers.html

Mystical Seeker said...

The idea of a monolithic apostolic witness irritates me, too.

Chris,

I'm glad I don't feel so alone on this subject. :)

I would also argue that "apostolic witness" does not have to imply a unity of opinion. Top me, it more refers to a collective body of experience. You may be taking a leap by assuming that automatically means a unity of opinion.

Frank, you may have a point. If we interpret the term as representing a collective body of experience, with all the attendant diversity that this implies, then that certainly takes us in a different direction.

Frank said...

If we interpret the term as representing a collective body of experience, with all the attendant diversity that this implies, then that certainly takes us in a different direction.

I think it does. For a church not to admit that this diversity exists is to be in denial. We wouldn't have debates, councils, proclamations, etc., if everything were a static known quantity.

And besides, a theology cannot evolve unless some people step outside of currently-held beliefs to suggest something different. They may be burned at the stake, but the next generation may call them "saint."

Bro. Greg said...
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Bro. Greg said...
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Bro. Greg said...

First off, the argument between Peter and Paul was that of Peter going back to the law, in which Paul was justified in his correction of Peter. If Peter would have had a problem with it, he would have said something, in his epistles, or did you miss that he did write two of them, as you say Peter didn't write anything. If you understood Scripture you would know Jesus fulfilled all the law, not just some, and for Peter to do what he was doing was wrong. As well, Orthodoxy refers to "right opinion", clamied byt the Eastern Orthodox Greek Chruch and the RCC, neither of which have any right to say they are the only ones who have the authority to interpret scripture and tell us things of God. Not one Trinitarian chruch even come close to resembling that of the fist chruch. Jesus was a carpenter, but he built up men, not church buildings. People don't look past Nicaea in 325 AD, they get stuck there with Platonic Fathers like Arius and Athanasius who talked to Constantine and suddnely all of Christianty is thrown out the window and you have the Gnostic, mystic, philisophical religion which had never before existed. The Apostolic Witness ... Those who know truth know that we hold to unity in faith and doctrine, that doctrine only taught by Jesus Messiah and the Apostles, that is true orthodoxy.