The title comes from the Vulgate version of Hebrews x.32:
Rememoramini autem pristinos dies in quibus inluminati magnum certamen sustinuistis passionum
But recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated, you endured a great struggle with sufferings
This text come into my mind as I celebrated the Mass of the Seven Brethren last Wednesday. The word pristine was used by both popes Pius V and Paul VI in the missals they published with the idea of rendering a “pruned-back” and more healthy liturgy. When we talk of something pristine, we generally mean in as-new condition, very clean, pure and something eminently desirable.
As human beings, we tend to idealise the past and imagine that life has gone downhill. A grumpy old English gentleman would be wont to say – Broumpf! Damned country’s gone to the dogs! Was life really so perfect then? Perhaps between then and now, things are no better or worse – just the same but different.
Similarly, we ask ourselves whether there was ever a time when Christianity was “normal” or “pristine” (pristine meaning first, not necessarily purer). Was there ever an ideal Christianity? The evidence seems against such an idea – which would either condemn Christianity out of hand or bring us to seek an ideal derived from the whole of church history. Attempts to “restore” an “ideal” from any one time seem to be condemned to failure.
The idea we get from reading the Acts of the Apostles is that after Pentecost, everything was perfect and united in the power of the Spirit. Jesus’ disciples started to convert masses of people around them, and the mission worked smoothly until it got clogged up with “accretions” in some way.
I haven’t time to do a complete historical study here, so I will have to give some notions from my general knowledge. It would seem that the Christian movement was very diverse from the very beginning, and that there is evidence of disunity in the New Testament. For example, there were those who believed that only Jewish people could become Christians and had to continue observing the old Law. I think of St Peter with his dream about the sheet full of food animals that Jews are not allowed to eat.
Other Christians were more open to admitting non-Jewish people into the community without imposing all the Laws of the Torah. There were many ambiguities about Baptism, the role of John the Baptist, and many more things.
As the second and third centuries came, Christianity still didn’t seem to be a unified movement. There were some organised congregations, which would become the first dioceses. There was also Gnosticism as evidenced by the Nag Hammadi scrolls found in the 1940’s, which give us greater knowledge of this phenomenon, together with Πίστις Σοφία, than the polemical writings of Irenaeus of Lyons.
There were many other “heretical” groups, which were contested by the early Ecumenical Councils. Who was (is) Christ? We are still attempting to answer that question today. The greatest threat to “orthodox” Christianity was Gnosticism.
How “mainstream” were the bishops who attended the Ecumenical Councils and defined the dogmas most of us take for granted? What did it take to eliminate the diversity and the “other” views?
Saint Paul’s missions were incredibly successful, and their growth was explosive. But the “style” was not uniform. They didn’t all have the same liturgies and hymn books! Paul was constantly appealing for an end to the squabbles that made believers unworthy to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.
We often have a problem with the experience of diversity. Why so many denominations instead of one Church, one liturgy, one set of beliefs and everyone doing the same thing like in the early Church? But it was not so – ever. They were fighting each other, killing each other, right from the beginning. If groups collaborated, it was for things like looking after the poor. Diversity is hated by many, because it relativises one own self-justification.
I was writing about mystery religions a few days ago. Many of them influenced various forms of Christianity other than the more purely Jewish models. We already see the divergence between strict monotheism and the influence of paganism. This fact also influences the way we think about other Christians, other religions and non-religious people. There were probably more versions of Christianity in ancient Rome and Corinth than in the present-day USA! The downfall of Saddam Hussein showed the explosive divisions of different kinds of Islam in Irak – they all hate each other over differences of interpreting the Koran and other doctrinal and moral matters similar to the Christian world. Islam began as a kind of Jewish-inspired pagan Christianity!
Diversity seems to be like having four Gospels, all with a different slant, but generally confirming each other as testimony of Christ. Christians were always calling for unity, yet constantly squabbling over the kind of unity there should be. Pristine Christianity? Was there ever such a thing? Too many are saying that the early Church was perfect, idyllic (except for the persecutions coming from outside) and pure, and only little by little did heresies and conflicts arise, and then the waters were muddied by the dreaded “accretions” – so that the golden era has to be restored. The problem is that had such a “golden age” existed, we would all be agreed on its being a standard to which we should all conform.
We often feel that there should be one institutional and visible Church (or that we should identify that true church and join it). The notion is inherited from Judaism (whilst Islam settles for its diversity – and they kill each other for it), a single people of God. From there comes the desire to find a place of truth. I have noticed that authors like Soloviev and Berdyaev had discovered that the very drive for unity causes division and schism. It is ironic that the various ecclesial bodies in schism from each other are witness to the unity they think they should have.
The original line of division was whether Christianity was something new, prepared for by Judaism and the pagan mystery religions, or a continuation and “fulfilment” of Judaism with the observances of the Torah (circumcision, no pork, etc.). This divergence continues to govern our basic religious instincts, so that the Catholic tradition has tended to pursue the mission of Christ to the Gentiles, and the Reformed tradition tends to pull Christians back to the Old Testament and pure monotheism.
Church history, as any history, is written by those who prevailed over the “others”. Thus the Gnostics were heretics and the Ecumenical Councils taught the truth as revealed by God through the Church. All too often, truth was enforced by persecution, violence and force. If we got anywhere near what really happened – which we probably won’t – we will find a story of political power and domination by the strongest.
Perhaps instead of hankering for unity, or compliance with a single standard of orthodoxy, we need first to learn tolerance and then to welcome diversity, and then engage in a dialogue of love (which may not be reciprocated). Many of us refer to past periods of church history, and some may find the fact that I use a liturgy as used in the tenth to the sixteenth centuries a sign of considering that era to be a golden era. No era is more or less golden than another. I use a liturgy that gained stability and was widely loved in the culture of those who used it. Our Anglican Missal is essentially the Use of the Roman Curia with a few Sarum variations via the Prayer Book. That too represents a rite that was not invented yesterday.
There is a world of difference between attachment to a tradition and the desire to restore a golden age that never existed. I have given thought to this problem for years. Newman came up with the idea of doctrinal development to solve this problem of a Church that is both traditional but in and of its time. Many books have outlined the difference in the view of tradition between Newman and Bossuet, for whom change and variation were a sign of heresy and heterodoxy. There are clearly problems with either view. It is the fatal flaw in “classical Anglicanism” that seeks to project itself on the Church of before about the fifth century. To me, this view holds no credibility.
I come increasingly to the view that Christianity is not something to be spread everywhere, even less being an instrument of political power and ambition. It is something – a spiritual and moral way of life – to live individually and in small communities, serving the world in an essentially Cynical and Anarchical philosophy of love and self-sacrifice. Justin the Martyr defended the Christians by exclaiming – See the love they have for each other – not See how they have organised their Church to offer a single truth to the world.
This is why I insist so much on the human side of Christian life and its appeal through beauty and love, more than through force and the enforcement of standards of orthodoxy. Maybe I sound like a liberal, but those we usually call “liberals” are intransigents on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum to the conservatives or traditionalists. We have to transcend these categories, all in leaving people where they are to make their own discoveries and experiences.
Let us love and serve, remaining loyal and faithful to our own Christian communities, and let the others too get on with what they believe to be right. Perhaps in this way, we may be closer in spiritual Communion than if we tried to get all the eggs into a single basket.