Christianity before modern times.

Abrahamic religion, you know, the one with the cross...

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Christianity before modern times.

#1  Postby quas » Oct 09, 2010 3:58 pm

These days, there is quite a lot of Christians who are not quite Biblical literalists. I say "not quite" because even though they literally believe Jesus rose from the dead, they don't believe that certain events in the OT actually happened. So, instead of being a Young Earth Creationist, they might call themselves "theistic evolutionists". For them, the flood and Noah's Ark is just a myth who were probably copied from earlier flood myths. I got into a discussion with one of them a few days ago. I told him his beliefs probably differed from early Christians, particularly the Church fathers, whom I believe were quite the literalists. And this is because he lives in modern times and thus had, in light of new superseding evidence, changed his beliefs accordingly. Had he lived prior to Darwin and the discovery of the Gilgamesh tablets, he would have been the typical Christian fundie literalist believing that a serpent could really talk to humans. He disagreed, insisting that even early Christianity already had a "strong tradition" for not taking Genesis as a literal historical account of humanity. Is he right? If so, why? What reason would the typical pre-modernity Christian have to believe that the flood never really happened?
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Re: Christianity before modern times.

#2  Postby hotshoe » Oct 09, 2010 4:25 pm

There have been strains of christianity which were not literal dating back to the formation of the church. Whether or not he would have believed in a talking snake, who knows. Whether he would have believed in the "flood covering the whole world", who knows. It wasn't official church doctrine in 200AD that every single word in the bible was meant to be understood literally ( I don't know when a christian church first came up with that idea). It's possible that a christian in Roman times would disbelieve in a literal flood for a similar reason we do -- because the Egyptian culture had an unbroken history extending before the supposed flood times, or because Roman scholars were familiar with other flood stories and would just take the Noah one as an exaggeration.

But we do have to wonder, if so little of their bible is "true" or "factual" to them, then why do they get to the part about the resurrection and suddenly insist it was literally, factually true ? What do they think it even means, that Jesus was bodily taken into heaven ? Where's that ? How, physically, did his body get there ? Yeah, yeah, I know it's a miracle, and miracles don't have to have sensible explanations. But, how do they pick which miracles to believe in as actual physical happenings, and which ones to ignore or view just as metaphors for some spiritual message ?
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Re: Christianity before modern times.

#3  Postby Onyx8 » Oct 09, 2010 4:50 pm

I think literalism is a very recent phenomenon.
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Re: Christianity before modern times.

#4  Postby Hnau von Thulcandra » Oct 09, 2010 5:02 pm

hotshoe wrote:
But we do have to wonder, if so little of their bible is "true" or "factual" to them, then why do they get to the part about the resurrection and suddenly insist it was literally, factually true ? What do they think it even means, that Jesus was bodily taken into heaven ? Where's that ? How, physically, did his body get there ? Yeah, yeah, I know it's a miracle, and miracles don't have to have sensible explanations. But, how do they pick which miracles to believe in as actual physical happenings, and which ones to ignore or view just as metaphors for some spiritual message ?

Well, presumably because we are told in Holy Writ

"Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable."

Never does it say "if the Flood did not cover all seven continents, your faith is vain" or "if humans were not created 144 hours after the universe was, your faith is vain." But the Resurrection is the linchpin of our whole superstition, and it is nothing without it.
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Re: Christianity before modern times.

#5  Postby Animavore » Oct 09, 2010 5:11 pm

Oh... you're screwed so. Dead people don't come back Image
You might as well chuck it all.
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Re: Christianity before modern times.

#6  Postby TimONeill » Oct 09, 2010 8:14 pm

Onyx8 wrote:I think literalism is a very recent phenomenon.


It is.

quas wrote: I told him his beliefs probably differed from early Christians, particularly the Church fathers, whom I believe were quite the literalists.


No, they weren't. Patristic era Christianity developed no less that four levels of interpretation or "exegesis" for scripture: (i) literal, (ii) allegorical/symbolic, (iii) moral and (iv) eschatological. Any passage or verse of scripture could be interpreted as having inerrant meaning on one or more of those four levels of interpretation. So when the Bible says "Leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum" (Matt 4:13), this was interpreted purely on the literal level - he left Nazareth and went to Capernaum.

But when the Bible says "But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights." (Jonah 1:17), the literal level ( a man actually lived in a big fish for three days and nights) was the least important here and was possibly not to be taken literally at all. The important levels of exegesis here were thought to be the other three: the allegorical ("Jonah's three days represents Jesus' death and resurrection"), the moral ("there is no escaping the imperatives of God, he'll find a way to make you meet them") and the eschatological ("God will judge the wicked at the end of the world and they will be swallowed by Hell").

The literal level was usually the least significant form of interpretation and could at times be disregarded altogether. Far from being "quite the literalists" to the extent that they allowed the literal interpretation of the Bible to contradict science and overwhelm common sense, Church Fathers like Augustine ridiculed ignorant Christians who did this:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.
(Augustine, On Genesis, XXXIX.19.1)

Augustine goes on to chastise these "incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture (who) bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren". He wasn't alone, 250 years before him Origen ridiculed those who simply took the Bible literally:

What person of intelligence, I ask, will consider as a reasonable statement that the first and the second and the third day, in which there are said to be both morning and evening, existed without sun and moon and stars, while the first day was even without a heaven? .... I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history.

(Origen, First Principles, IV.3)

Origen was writing in the Second Century - I wonder what he'd make of millions of fundamentalist Christian literalists who do precisely what he noted no "person of intelligence" could do. And this principle allowed later thinkers a lot of leeway when it came to considering the natural world. We might consider the idea that life arose naturally out of mud by the action of heat and the elements and that this means such naturalistic processes are still in play and new species are probably still arising a very modern idea - in fact a very Darwinian idea. But that was the theory put forward by the Medieval scientist William of Conches in his Dragmaticon in the Twelfth Century. William still believed that Genesis was true, just that it wasn't a literal description of what happened scientifically. And no, contrary to the myths about that period, he wasn't burnt at the stake for saying this.

So why did (some of) Christianity become purely literalist? As Onyx8 says above, that happened quite recently. When Martin Luther rejected the authority of Catholic "tradition", he replaced it with the idea that Scripture alone (sola scriptura) was the source of truth. This lead to Protestantism becoming a welter of conflicting and competing interpretations of scripture, with denominations and congregations dividing and splitting over the interpretations of single words. The result of this was a series of renewal movements that wanted to heal these rifts and get everyone back to basics that they could all agree on. Increasingly, this meant dragging interpretation back to the literal - since that was the easiest to agree on.

But the slide toward fundamentalist literalism didn't really take place until the early 1900s, when in a reaction to "Modernism" and the use of source criticism and higher criticism to unpick the historical origins of the Bible and of Christianity itself. Militant Protestantism reacted by retreating into an aggressive fundamentalism - which is why we don't see organised attacks on the teaching of evolution until the 1920s. The modern interrelated fundamentalist, Moral Majority, Dominionist and Creationist/ID movements grew out of this early Twentieth Century reaction - one that enshrined literalism in a way never seen before.

So no, the Church Fathers were not "quite the literalists" at all. They would have had no problem with evolution just as William of Conches' contemporaries had no problem with his proto-evolutionary ideas. Literalism is a much more recent phenomenon that Origen and Augustine would have scoffed at.
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Re: Christianity before modern times.

#7  Postby hotshoe » Oct 09, 2010 8:24 pm

Tim, thanks for mentioning Luther. I would have guessed that a literalist strain was popular in the (Catholic) church before that -- but now that you point out Luther and "sola scriptura" it makes sense to see that as a root of today's back-to-the-bible lowest common denominator.
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Re: Christianity before modern times.

#8  Postby quas » Oct 10, 2010 12:38 am

Okay, Tim, that's a very good explanation, but I still want to know what people like hotshoe want to know.

hotshoe wrote:But we do have to wonder, if so little of their bible is "true" or "factual" to them, then why do they get to the part about the resurrection and suddenly insist it was literally, factually true ? What do they think it even means, that Jesus was bodily taken into heaven ? Where's that ? How, physically, did his body get there ? Yeah, yeah, I know it's a miracle, and miracles don't have to have sensible explanations. But, how do they pick which miracles to believe in as actual physical happenings, and which ones to ignore or view just as metaphors for some spiritual message ?


What person of intelligence, I ask, will consider as a reasonable statement that the first and the second and the third day, in which there are said to be both morning and evening, existed without sun and moon and stars, while the first day was even without a heaven? .... I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history.
(Origen, First Principles, IV.3)

I guess I need to ask Origen the same question. What person of intelligence will consider as a reasonable statement that Jesus was born of a virgin, turned water into wine without fermentation, walked on water, "spawned" food to feed a crowd, raised the dead and rose from death?
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Re: Christianity before modern times.

#9  Postby TimONeill » Oct 10, 2010 1:26 am

quas wrote:Okay, Tim, that's a very good explanation, but I still want to know what people like hotshoe want to know.

hotshoe wrote:But we do have to wonder, if so little of their bible is "true" or "factual" to them, then why do they get to the part about the resurrection and suddenly insist it was literally, factually true ? What do they think it even means, that Jesus was bodily taken into heaven ? Where's that ? How, physically, did his body get there ? Yeah, yeah, I know it's a miracle, and miracles don't have to have sensible explanations. But, how do they pick which miracles to believe in as actual physical happenings, and which ones to ignore or view just as metaphors for some spiritual message ?


What person of intelligence, I ask, will consider as a reasonable statement that the first and the second and the third day, in which there are said to be both morning and evening, existed without sun and moon and stars, while the first day was even without a heaven? .... I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history.
(Origen, First Principles, IV.3)

I guess I need to ask Origen the same question. What person of intelligence will consider as a reasonable statement that Jesus was born of a virgin, turned water into wine without fermentation, walked on water, "spawned" food to feed a crowd, raised the dead and rose from death?


Origen isn't saying that nothing supernatural can occur or that no supernatural things in the Bible can be taken literally. He's saying that not everything should be interpreted that way or solely that way. Obviously he believed some things should be (eg the miracles you mention) and some shouldn't (eg the Genesis creation story).

And that's pretty much the position of non-literalist Christians today. Ones like your friend.

Of course, how non-literalist Christians like Origen, Augustine and your friend sort out which bits to take literally and which bits not to is another question. Perhaps you should ask your friend. I'm simply noting a fact of history - few Christians were plain literalists until quite recently and your idea that the Church Fathers were is incorrect.
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Re: Christianity before modern times.

#10  Postby quas » Oct 10, 2010 1:51 am

TimONeill wrote:Of course, how non-literalist Christians like Origen, Augustine and your friend sort out which bits to take literally and which bits not to is another question. Perhaps you should ask your friend. I'm simply noting a fact of history - few Christians were plain literalists until quite recently and your idea that the Church Fathers were is incorrect.

I was hoping that you have enough knowledge of Christian history to answer that. Do you have the answer? Did Origen's or Augustine's writings reveal why they interpreted some Biblical accounts literally?
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Re: Christianity before modern times.

#11  Postby TimONeill » Oct 10, 2010 1:58 am

quas wrote:
TimONeill wrote:Of course, how non-literalist Christians like Origen, Augustine and your friend sort out which bits to take literally and which bits not to is another question. Perhaps you should ask your friend. I'm simply noting a fact of history - few Christians were plain literalists until quite recently and your idea that the Church Fathers were is incorrect.

I was hoping that you have enough knowledge of Christian history to answer that. Do you have the answer?


A snort answer? It varied. For centuries Christians took the bit about "this is my body .... this is my blood" literally. Then Luther came along and it was taken figuratively. A Catholic like William of Conches could take the bit about God creating Adam out of dust figuratively and no-one batted an eyelid. Now Creationists take it literally.

There was no set formula by which you could work out what was literal and what wasn't. Catholics had, and still have, the idea of "tradition" - ie what has been taken purely literally for a long time is to be taken literally. Protestants can interpret things however they feel moved to do so and tend to do just that, though they err on the side of literalism precisely because there is no set guide to this stuff.
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Re: Christianity before modern times.

#12  Postby quas » Oct 10, 2010 2:09 am

Wait, I need a little clarification here.

Earlier on you said: "William still believed that Genesis was true, just that it wasn't a literal description of what happened scientifically."

Now you said: "A Catholic like William of Conches could take the bit about God creating Adam out of dust figuratively and no-one batted an eyelid."

So which is it? Did William believe Genesis to be a true historical account? Or did he not?
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Re: Christianity before modern times.

#13  Postby TimONeill » Oct 10, 2010 3:14 am

quas wrote:Wait, I need a little clarification here.

Earlier on you said: "William still believed that Genesis was true, just that it wasn't a literal description of what happened scientifically."

Now you said: "A Catholic like William of Conches could take the bit about God creating Adam out of dust figuratively and no-one batted an eyelid."

So which is it? Did William believe Genesis to be a true historical account? Or did he not?


"Which is it?" Both sentences are saying exactly the same thing - he took it figuratively, not literally. He believed it was true, but not scientific. Just as a modern non-literalist Christian believes that what Genesis says is true, but that we shouldn't understand it as a literal description of exactly what happened and how.
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Re: Christianity before modern times.

#14  Postby quas » Oct 10, 2010 3:41 am

Alright, I still need some more clarification.

TimONeill wrote:There was no set formula by which you could work out what was literal and what wasn't. Catholics had, and still have, the idea of "tradition" - ie what has been taken purely literally for a long time is to be taken literally.


What are you referring to here? Are you saying that Catholics have a tradition for taking the Genesis as a literal historical account? Are you saying that the current Pope believe that a snake once talked to humans?
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Re: Christianity before modern times.

#15  Postby virphen » Oct 10, 2010 3:52 am

quas wrote:Alright, I still need some more clarification.

TimONeill wrote:There was no set formula by which you could work out what was literal and what wasn't. Catholics had, and still have, the idea of "tradition" - ie what has been taken purely literally for a long time is to be taken literally.


What are you referring to here? Are you saying that Catholics have a tradition for taking the Genesis as a literal historical account? Are you saying that the current Pope believe that a snake once talked to humans?


The catholic church doesn't take Genesis literally, but it obviously does, say, the lines that say Jesus was born of a virgin.

Try: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Catholic_dogma
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Re: Christianity before modern times.

#16  Postby TimONeill » Oct 10, 2010 3:54 am

quas wrote:Alright, I still need some more clarification.

TimONeill wrote:There was no set formula by which you could work out what was literal and what wasn't. Catholics had, and still have, the idea of "tradition" - ie what has been taken purely literally for a long time is to be taken literally.


What are you referring to here? Are you saying that Catholics have a tradition for taking the Genesis as a literal historical account?


I would have thought it was perfectly clear that I've said precisely the opposite. Some other things, however, (the ressurection, the miracles of Jesus) have traditionally been taken literally. If you ask a Catholic theologian how they know which things are meant to be taken literally and which are to be interpreted in other ways they will explain that they are guided by "tradition".

Are you saying that the current Pope believe that a snake once talked to humans?


No, he doesn't.
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Re: Christianity before modern times.

#17  Postby ElDiablo » Oct 10, 2010 4:03 am

:popcorn:
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Re: Christianity before modern times.

#18  Postby quas » Oct 10, 2010 4:03 am

TimONeill wrote:I would have thought it was perfectly clear that I've said precisely the opposite. Some other things, however, (the ressurection, the miracles of Jesus) have traditionally been taken literally. If you ask a Catholic theologian how they know which things are meant to be taken literally and which are to be interpreted in other ways they will explain that they are guided by "tradition".

You don't suppose you know why the tradition is so? Why is certain events interpreted literally, while others not?
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Re: Christianity before modern times.

#19  Postby TimONeill » Oct 10, 2010 4:11 am

quas wrote:
TimONeill wrote:I would have thought it was perfectly clear that I've said precisely the opposite. Some other things, however, (the ressurection, the miracles of Jesus) have traditionally been taken literally. If you ask a Catholic theologian how they know which things are meant to be taken literally and which are to be interpreted in other ways they will explain that they are guided by "tradition".

You don't suppose you know why the tradition is so? Why is certain events interpreted literally, while others not?


Because to interpret everything in the Bible literally leads to having to believe things that are demonstrably not the case. If we know for a fact that the Earth is not flat, then interpreting passages that seem to say it is literally leads the interpreter to have to deny reality. Which is what Augustine was warning against. Even modern literalists can't be consistent in their literalism - confront them with the bits in the Bible that say or imply the sun goes around the earth and they'll tell you that these bits are poetic or symbolic or figurative. The early Church Fathers simply recognised this and applied it more widely than modern literalists.

As for why some things which are clearly absurd - like people walking on water or raising people from the dead - are interpreted figuratively when geocentric passages aren't, that seems to be because those things can be seen as single instance suspensions of normality - ie miracles.

And yes, I know that doesn't make much sense but it does make marginally more sense than outright literalism.
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Re: Christianity before modern times.

#20  Postby quas » Oct 10, 2010 5:38 am

TimONeill wrote:Because to interpret everything in the Bible literally leads to having to believe things that are demonstrably not the case. If we know for a fact that the Earth is not flat, then interpreting passages that seem to say it is literally leads the interpreter to have to deny reality.

Of course we know now that the Earth isn't flat. Why would the Church Fathers have any reason to suspect that the Earth isn't flat?

As for why some things which are clearly absurd - like people walking on water or raising people from the dead - are interpreted figuratively when geocentric passages aren't, that seems to be because those things can be seen as single instance suspensions of normality - ie miracles.

And yes, I know that doesn't make much sense but it does make marginally more sense than outright literalism.

It still doesn't make any more sense, not even a teensy-weensy bit more.

If we use the "single instance" cop-out, then we could say," One time, at Garden of Eden, the devil disguised himself as a serpent..." That perfectly explains why all the other snakes couldn't talk to human, because the devil didn't disguise himself as a snake anymore. Because it was one time event too, we could also say that the Jonah incident really happened, after all the Bible didn't record anyone else besides Jonah surviving for 3 days inside a whale's stomach. And the flood, that was a one time event too. What?! It's not like there is a second flood after that? Don't get me started on the parting of the Red/Reed Sea...

There must be another reason that would enable Christians to differentiate between what's really literal and what's not.
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