I’ve been asked to comment on Jason Stellman’s series on “paradigms”. From a blog post dated November 11, 2012, he introduces the topic:
Anyone who has followed Catholic/Protestant discussions recently has undoubtedly heard more about “interpretive paradigms” than they care to recall. By the time one is five or six lines into an online debate, the charge of “Well, you’re just answering the question from within your own paradigm” will probably be leveled, and it can cause much confusion and frustration. What I’d like to do here, and perhaps in subsequent posts as well, is to describe how the whole paradigm issue functioned in my own thinking about the claims of the Catholic Church.
We know this phenomenon. One writer at Green Baggins described it this way: “for the CTC folk, any criticism that does not assume the truth of the Roman position is question-begging”.
Stellman goes on to say:
The thing we have to remember is that the earliest Christians didn’t figure out what baptism accomplishes by consulting verses like “As many as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” or “Repent and be baptized for the remission of sins,” since the Church existed long before those words were penned and then recognized as canonical. No, the early Church had an apostolic doctrine of baptism that gave rise to, rather than being the result of, the relevant NT texts.
This is just a f’rinstance. And to respond to him on this one issue, it’s important to note that the baptisms practiced by earliest Christians had their roots in cultural washings that were clearly identifiable in the literature of the period. Everett Ferguson traces these through Greek and Hebrew ceremonial washing practices, for example, which are evident in dozens if not hundreds of extra-biblical sources (Everett Ferguson, “Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries”, Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, ©2009).
But to address his larger claim here that “there was a practicing New Testament church before there were New Testament writings” is true. But the key questions, in my estimation, is, “what was that pre-New Testament Church doing? What were they believing?”
I’ve already responded to these questions at some length in several blog posts drawing upon Larry Hurtado’s work Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, ©2003):
The “Early and Explosively Quick” emergence of “Early High Christology”: Paul doesn’t spend any time explaining or advocating Jesus-devotion; he presumes that his readers already practice it. … this level of Jesus-devotion must have characterized the form of early Christian circles into which Paul was introduced after what he described as a divine revelation that re-oriented him dramatically from opponent to adherent and proponent of Jesus and early Christian faith. In chronological terms, this means that this “Kyrios-cult” must have “erupted” … within the very first months or few years at most, for Paul’s “conversion” is by wide agreement dated within 1-3 years after Jesus’ execution…
About the Last 100 Years: “100 years is a long time. Some things change, and some things remain the same. … This is an interesting concept to remember when thinking about how much the early church changed (and which things changed) in its first 100 years.”
“Christ Alone” in Earliest Christianity: No Development Required: “Was there ever a time in Christianity when something was believed, as Vincent of Lerins might have stated it, ‘always, everywhere, and by all’?”
The Redemptive Meaning of Christ’s Death and Resurrection in Earliest Christianity: “Paul [through his letters] provides the best source we have for looking at Palestinian Jewish Christianity of the 30s and 40s, prior to Paul’s missionary journeys, and prior to the writing of his letters. … the religious themes in Paul’s letters are the best, earliest sources that we have that show what earliest Christianity was like – especially the first 20 years after the Resurrection, and before Paul began his missionary journeys.”
Paul on authority: “They added nothing to my message” (Gal 2:6): “The whole concept of “authority” as passed along either in a “monarchical bishop”, and much less a “succession” of bishops, is far, far removed from the kind of authority with which the New Testament authorizes the elders of the church.”
So yes, Stellman is correct that there was actual church practice (the establishment of churches throughout the Mediterranean world, the worship of Jesus Christ as God, baptism, etc.) prior to the writing of the New Testament.
But his “paradigm” does not permit him view these things the way that most normal people would understand the history of this period.
The thing he won’t admit to, is that the only way we know of these events, beliefs, and practices is through the writings of the period.
His “paradigm” involves both the Newmanesque assumption that “the authority structure we see in the Roman Catholic Church today is the one that extends back to the earliest church – which, if you look at the writings form the period, is demonstrably false, and the unwillingness to accept the natural explanations for these historical events and writings, in favor of the “story” put forward by his own small circle of converts.
Newman, “The Roman Catholic Hermeneutic”, and Rome’s Foundational Assumption: “there are historical gaps precisely in the places where Vatican I proclaimed ‘immediate jurisdiction’, and where Vatican II proclaimed ‘this hierarchically constituted society””.
“What they knew and when they knew it”: There is nothing in Scripture that says that anything else is up to the task of “interpreting Scripture”. Scripture, in fact, portrays itself as “the interpretation” of the “acts”, so to speak, of God in history. The character of God in the Old Testament (or in the New) gives no hint that He is insufficient in this way. Nor does the Scripture relate anywhere that God’s word is lacking in any property (including the ability to be sufficient in itself).
Here’s why this matters: If the NT was birthed by an already-existing apostolic tradition, then the question, “Can I make this passage fit my theology?” is the wrong question (especially since, as noted above, its answer is almost always “Yes”). A better question, I came to realize, would be, “Would someone who holds my theological paradigm actually say something like this?” And if the answer is “No,” then the follow-up question must be, “What prior-held theological paradigm would most likely give rise to a statement like this?”
I will provide concrete examples in future posts, but suffice it to say that I began to run into passage after passage in Scripture that, on the one hand, could be forced to fit my Reformed paradigm, but on the other, were passages saying things I would never in a million years think to say.
Here’s a key to his “paradigm”: the “already-existing apostolic tradition”.
But what was it? Where did it come from? What was the “content” of this “already-existing apostolic tradition”? How does he know?