Outline

I. Two lines of development in Christianity are connected to the experiential character of this religion.

A. Institutional development is a natural consequence of communities' survival through time and expansion through space.

B. Creedal development is not a necessary feature of religions and is almost lacking in some; the complexity of Christian belief is a consequence of its distinctive character and its internal conflicts over identity.

C. Distinctive to Christianity is the way these lines of development intertwine as part of the same historical process.

II. In the earliest period, both creed and community structure were relatively simple, although both contained the germ of complexity.

A. The experientially based confession "Jesus is Lord" (1 Cor. 12:3) inevitably would lead to cognitive complications:

1. How does calling Jesus "Lord" affect Jewish monotheism ("God is one")? Does it lead to polytheism (having "two powers in heaven")?

2. How does the experience of the Holy Spirit as "personal transforming power" further complicate the sense of the unity of God?

3. What are the implications of confessing Jesus as risen Lord for the perception of his human life?

B. The interaction of transient and local authority structures in the first generation also created tension.

1. Paul lists apostles and prophets (wandering preachers) as "first and second in the church," with teachers in third position (1 Cor. 12:28). As one "called by God," Paul claims authority over all his communities; so also do James and Peter.

2. At the same time, local churches had an authority structure resembling those of the Greco-Roman club and Hellenistic synagogue: a board of elders (with a supervisor = bishop) that handled administration, as well as teaching (see 1 Tim. 3:1-14).

III. Early second-century writings provide glimpses of the tension embedded in the Christian confession and authority structure.

A. In the Shepherd of Hermas, we see the continuing activity of a prophetic character, whereas in the Didache, we see the attempt to curtail prophetic authority in favor of local administration.

B. In I Clement, the authority of bishops is stressed to quell challenges to authority and in the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch, authority and correct belief are connected.

1. Ignatius opposes what he regards as "false teaching" concerning Jesus, possibly on two fronts: On one side were those who wanted to return to Judaism and, on the other, those who argued that Jesus was divine but not fully human.

2. The insistence of Ignatius on unity under a single bishop is clearly connected to the desire to protect the authentic experience of the community.

IV. The crisis of the mid-second century revealed the deep ambiguity at Christianity's experiential core.

A. The entire New Testament is committed to the possibility of God acting in a fundamentally new way in human experience through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. But are there limits to that capacity? How much can be new without changing identity?

B. The struggles over the canon of Scripture were also ideological struggles, in which Montanism and Gnosticism represented a radical claim to the experiential.

1. Montanus was a prophet who claimed the authority of the Holy Spirit in support of his charismatic movement.

2. His was the first of a succession of religious movements in which prophets claimed new divine revelations based on the teachings of Moses and Jesus (Mani—Manicheism, Muhammed—Islam), appearing to make Christianity a stepping stone and Jesus only one in a succession of prophets.

C. Gnostics made a more complex claim, involving new writings, new teachers, and new revelations about God through the risen Christ. Although different varieties of Gnosticism existed, the movement as a whole shared a common definition of Christianity, in experiential terms, as the enlightenment (transformation) of the individual through knowledge and salvation from the body (regarded as evil), demanding a withdrawal from social involvement.

D. The orthodox response (represented by Irenaeus of Lyons's Against All Heresies) established the strategy of Christian self-definition: the rule of faith (creed), canon of Scripture, and apostolic succession (the teaching authority of bishops).

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