If this classic work on the formulation of basic Christian doctrines teaches its reader anything, it is that Christian men and women once worried incessantly and carefully about matters that we moderns and post-moderns too quickly dismiss as quibbles. One can consider this obsessive and even perverse, yet it stands in stark contrast to an approach to Christian theology that is perhaps best described as careless.
A read through Kelly's more than five hundred pages of classic exposition of the processes that led to definitions of Christology, canonicity, Trinity, and the like is a warning shot across the bow of a generation that would be well served by worrying just a bit more about things that matter very deeply.
Kelly's survey comprises four 'parts'. Part I: Prolegomena surveys the trends and material witnesses that formed the basis of Christian deliberation in the first five centuries. Part II: The Pre-Nicene Theology names that Council (325 A.D.) as a watershed, probing deeply into the incipient doctrines that would be crystallized and canonized by subsquent colloquys. Part III: From Nicea To Chalcedon</em> follows the afterwinds of Nicea through to one of the essential Councils. Part IV: Epilogue projects into Chalcedon's future the lines of thought that were developing at the time and picks up a few miscellanies.
Because Kelly's work (see also his Early Christian Creeds stands as a reference point for historical theologians, a deeper survey of his eighteen chapters is in order. The author's first chapter sets forth an apology for his choice of doctrinal development from the close of the first century through to the middle of the first ('The Background', pp. 3-28). On the one hand, it makes sense to begin outside the parameters of the New Testament. On the other, the creative surge of the first five centuries gave way to 'formalism and scholasticism in the sixth.' Kelly's heuristic rubric utilizes a vertical and a horizontal dividing line. The vertical distinguishes the different temperaments of East and West. The horizontal recognizes a concrete passage with the reconciliation of Church and State under Constantine, a development of which Nicea is the emblem. When Kelly surveys the matrix of the post-apostolic era in terms of Judaism, religious trends in the Roman Empire, Graeco-Roman philosophy, Neo-Platonism, and gnosticism, one becomes aware how ahead of his time the author stood in 1960. His perception of a highly traditional Judaism clothed in the language of Hellenism but with a Palestinian soul and his delineation of gnosticism as a habit of thought rather than an organized religion would only later come to represent scholarly consensus.
Chapter II ('Tradition and Scripture', pp. 29-51) examines the interrelationship of scripture and tradition at a time when there was no fixed canonical 'New Testament'. Kelly judiciously treats the combination of oral and written apostolic material that must have oriented the nascent church and the problems forced upon the community by the gnostic utilization of scripture for ends that were not aligned with apostolic teaching. 'The Bible as interpreted by the Church' that became the Christian norm, an affirmation and confidence that would require considerable qualification in due course.
When these scriptures eventually crystallize into a 'New Testament', Kelly judges the composite to have included the deuterocanonical books on the theory of an 'elastic' Hellenistic attitude towards the sacred writings (Chapter III, 'The Holy Scriptures, pp. 52-79). Irenaeus is the first to have used the term 'New Testament' and to lay the uniquely Christian scriptures as equal in authority alongside the Hebrew canon, now by implication called the 'Old Testament'. Sectarian tendencies often led to and/or were generated by a disdainful attitude towards the latter, an historical datum that ought to weigh heavily on the conscience of Christians today. Kelly is particularly helpful when he addresses the Christian hermeneutic that found in the Christ event a fulfillment of scriptural anticipation and even promise. Here he brings to the discussion the differing Alexandrine (alt., Alexandrian) and Antiochene temperaments that were to exist in tension and even contradiction most notably, more than ever in the context of christological controversy.
Kelly initiates his survey of Pre-Nicene theology (Part II of the book) with a chapter on 'The Divine Triad' (pp. 83-108). The word 'triad' is presumably chosen in order not to prejudice the slow and tortuous process that ended in the choice of 'trinitarian' language. The author rightly recognizes that the early conversation's monotheistic assumption was a legacy of the Bible and Judaism rather than philosophy. The secondary nature of the philosophers is evidenced in, say, Justin's conviction that Plato and subsequent Greek thinkers had access to Moses. Yet this visceral monotheism was complicated by Christian conviction, for as Kelly writes: 'Before considering formal writers, the reader should notice how deeply the conception of a plurality of divine Persons was imprinted on the apostolic tradition and the popular faith.' How to reconcile both convictions? Kelly presents the apostolic fathers as witnesses to the tradition rather than interpreters of it. The beginnings of an 'angelic christology' are present in Hermas.
Such conceptual innocence ended with the apologists, who began to develop a language for 'describing eternal distinctions within the Deity'. Yet this new attention to the nuances of plurality do not compromise their fundamental conviction: '(the) Logos was one in essence with the Father, inseparable in HIs fundamental being from Him as much after His Generation as prior to it.' Monotheism was not in doubt, though it's expression in the light of the Christ event and New Testament reflection on it was to require considerable time to reach its mature form. Shades of what would become known as 'economic Trinitarianism' were visible in Irenaeus' writing, though not to the detriment of this pre-Nicene giant's ability to recognize 'the mysterious three-in-oneness of the inner life of the Godhead'.
By the time his gaze falls upon the third century, Kelly is prepared to employ the word 'Trinitarianism' (chapter V, 'Third-Century Trinitarianism', pp. 109-137). This is as it should be, for attention now fixes with regularity upon the distinctions within the Godhead that urge new vocabulary and sophistication if they are to be adequately described. From North Africa, Tertullian framed the question in terms of two diametrically opposed approaches, the first asking about the Three-in-One in his eternal existence, the second inquiring into his self-revelation in creation and redemption. A purely analytical approach would have severed the tendons of monotheistic conviction, but Tertullian of course was alive to that danger and too wedded to the biblical materials to fall victim to it. Tertullian was prepared to designate the Son a persona and to use the term trinitas to describe the Godhead. To speak of distinction between the personae was to discern a distinctio or dispositio but emphatically not a separatio.
Outside of what history would judge to be orthodox, dynamic and modalistic monarchianism was to seek to preserve the deity's unity by ascribing the appearance of plurality to presentation and appearance alone. He is distinct, according to this view, in his operations but not in his existence. Meanwhile, Clement and Origen in the East were temperamentally more inclined to focus on the distinctions than the unity of the triadic God. The three persons were each a 'distinct hypostasis from all eternity, not just ... in the economy'. Clearly this view militates against modalistic tendencies. Kelly lingers over the persistently subordinationist tendencies in Origen's synthesis, a legacy that was to prove both fruitful and complicated.
Chapter VI, 'The Beginnings of Christology', begins with the observation that the primitive confession 'Jesus is Lord' contained the recognition that Jesus Christ was divine as well as human, an affirmation that by its very nature would require the unpacking of its complex implications (pp. 138-162). Christology proceeds along the lines of the 'double premiss of apostolic Christianity, viz. that Christ as a Person was indivisibly one, and tht He was simultaneously fully divine and fully human ... (T)he task of theology (was) to show how its two aspects could be held together in synthesis.' Unilateral solutions to the christological conundrum were not lacking: Ebionism denied the divinity of Christ altogether. Adoptionism, too, considered Jesus to be merely a man. On the other extreme, Docetism (and its cousin, Gnosticism) denied the humanity of Jesus Christ, placing all its christological eggs in the basket of his divinity. The latter attempted to preserve the notion of divine impassibility by rendering the human aspect of the Christ a mere appearance.
One of the considerable achievements of this chapter is that Kelly reminds us how close Gnosticism came to winning the day. 'Orthodoxy' conquered in the end by holding fast to the reality of Jesus' two natures according to the primitive apostolic confession, even when the ambiguities inherent in this stance must have seemed inconvenient and troubling. Tertullian was the first theologian seriously to address the relationship that must exist between the two natures, divine and human. He laid down the important premise that both nature must have remained unchanged. As the chapter title suggests, these searchings represent but the beginnings of Christology. Yet they establish the logical parameters and habits of mind that were to endure into the mature phase of the discussion.
Kelly introduces soteriology as that topic about which 'no final and universally accepted definition of the manner of its achievement has been formulated to this day', a rather startling observation in a book that tends to treat creedal consences reached in the first five chapters with something akin to reverence (chapter vii, 'Man and his Redemption', pp. 163-188). By the time of the Apologists, the relationship of Adam and his sin (as the second Adam and his righteousness, Pauline language all of it) to the rest of the human race has become the soteriological locus of attention. Irenaeus--building upon and moving beyond the work of Justin--changed everything by offering a theory of 'recapitulation' that sought to bring the biblical materials into a coherent soteriological system that did more than simply choose a preferred biblical vocabulary of salvation and ignore the rest. Origin saw humanity being offered a 'new start' in the second exemplary Adam of the biblical drama. The theologians Kelly canvas largely emphasized the example of Jesus, mankind's mystical union with the Christ, or even a species of penal substitution without reaching the kind of detailed synthesis that was to become the gift of the Councils when other areas of theology came under their treatment.
When he comes to the topic of ecclesiology, Kelly notes the poles of particularity and universality that came early to the communal instincts of the Christian movement, together with the emergence in second century between a catholic church that maintained the apostolic faith over against multiple heterodoxies, which did not (chapter VIII, 'The Christian Community', pp. 189-220). Fairly early in its life the Church was forced to declare its mind with regard to the orthodox 'sacraments' and the effect of these (or not) that ensued upon their enactment by non-orthodox parties.
Eventually, Christian reflection upon Christ's deity passed the Nicean watershed and attention became focused on new concerns. The road from Nicea to Chalcedon entailed intricate consideration of the two natures of Christ. The 'Christological controversy', it turns out, was not to end in Nicean harmony. Part III of Kelly's work takes up this next stage of Christology in the making.
The Nicene Crisis was set off by Arius' reduction of Christ's status to that of a demigod, in keeping with his insistence that the Father alone is the eternal God in the fullest sense of the phrase (chapter IX, 'The Nicene Crisis', pp. 223-251). Arianism was condemned at Nicea in 325 in an enduring creed that establishes Christ's co-equality and co-eternity with the Father. Talk of Jesus as a creature would henceforth be considered heresy. Yet the creed's statement hardly specifies the manner in which its Christ can be fully human. In terms of Christology, Nicea represents a penultimate consensus. It is worthwhile to linger over Kelly's treatment of Athanasius, the young Egyptian who represents the 'moderate' position of the Nicene party. Athanasius was able to maintain in tension the deity and humanity of Christ in a way that foreshadows the Chalcedonian achievement. Kelly notes the 'battle royal' that the extant literature portrays with regard to the conflict of Sabellians and Arians. Orthodoxy, in the person of Athanasius and the company of the Nicene party, was to steer a course between such extremes and such articulate extremists. Passion, one might surmise, is not enough to generate orthodox belief.
Chapter XI ('Fourth-Century Christology', pp. 280-309) is the book's pivotal chapter. This is so in part because of the critical christological analysis that came to the fore in that century and in part because Kelly's survey of the 'Word-Flesh' (associated with Alexandria) and 'Word-Man' (associated with Antioch) christologies is masterful in its clarity. Nicea did not only <em>settle</em> problems. It created <em>new</em> ones by the brevity of its claims regarding the Son's deity. Critically, Appollinarianism forced the Church to reckon with the two natures of Christ--human and divine--and to struggle in the direction of articulating their relationship. Even so moderate and intuitively acute moderate Alexandrian as Athanasius was unable finally to provide a satisfying description of 'the structure of the Godhead'. Kelly is surely correct to observe that it would fall to the Antiochenes to bring dogma into vital contact with the historical Jesus. They found 'the Alexandrian truncation of Christ's humanity unacceptable and set about developing the vocabulary that would serve the Chalcedonian project of accounting for Christ's two natures. Though Nestorianism lingered over the horizon, Kelly achieves a sympathetic reading of some fathers who would eventually be derided as 'Nestorians before Nestorius' because of their concrete convictions regarding Christ's humanity. This is surely accurate historiography. This chapter augments the reader's comprehension of how orthodoxy was increasingly becoming the ability to hold in tension the christological paradox without caving in the urge to allow the Son's deity or, conversely, his humanity to practically erase the reality of the other.
Between the years 428 and 451, there occurs what Kelly calls 'the decisive period for Christology, viz. the short span between the outbreak of the Nestorian controversy in 428 and the council of Chalcedon in 451' (chapter XII, 'The Christological Settlement', pp. 310-343). In preparing his reader to understand the collision between the 'Word-Flesh' and 'Word-Man' christologies that shaped the anteroom to Chalcedon, the author alerts him to the prevalence of personalities and politics in what would be mistakenly apprehended as a merely abstract and conceptual controversy. Indeed it turns out that Nestorius himself might not have been a 'Nestorian', though it was convenient for his adversaries to concur with the notion that he subscribed to a view of Christ's two natures as essentially distinct and ununited. If this quintessentially Antiochene figure was willfully misunderstood as dividing the two natures, so was Cyril--his erstwhile Alexandrian opponent--somewhat recklessly said to have united the two natures in a way that denied Christ's humanity.
Curiously, the controversy was in part fueled not by a discrete attempt to define the relationship of Christ's 'two natures', but rather by the question of how Christians should refer to Mary. Cyril, the Alexandrian, preferred theotokos ('God-bearing') while the Antiochenes preferred anthropotokos ('man-bearing') or at most christotokos ('Christ-bearing'). Nestorius suspected that theotokos denied Christ real humanity. Cyril saw in Nestorius' preference for anthropotokos a virtual adoptionism via the denial of Christ's real deity.
It is worthwhile to hear Kelly's own appraisal of Cyril's strength, one that emerges from his focus on the 'structure of the Godhead' not in terms of the need to explain the two natures but rather by an almost chronological scheme that attempted to explain the Son's status before and after the incarnation:
Cyril thus envisaged the Incarnate as the divine Word living one earth as very man. Here lay the strength of his position from the religious and soteriological standpoints; the Jesus of history was God Himself in human flesh, living and dying and rising again for men. Understood in this light, his horror of Nestorius's rejection of Theotokos is comprehensible.
Kelly tells us that it was when Cyril came to accept that it was possible to make a distinction between the two natures that did not imply a separation, the Alexandrian bishop found it possible to accomodate a settlement with the moderate Antiochenes, yet not before becoming rather lavish with the anathemas he pronounced upon his eventual partners-in-compromise.
Personalities and politics also shaped the lay of the land subsequent to the Chalcedonian Definition. Dyophysites (on the extreme 'Antiochene' side) and Monophysites (on the 'Alexandrian')--quotes now seem appropriate in the wake of the Definition--continued to denounce the work of Chalcedon. It would fall to future councils to reassert the substance of the Definition with allegedly increased clarity.
Christian faith necessarily stewards and negotiates reflexes with regard to human nature and the human condition that are profoundly optimistic, on the one hand, and deeply pessimistic on the other. It was the fourth and fifth centuries when this paradox came to the fore in Christian thinking (chapter XIII, 'Fallen Man and God's Grace', pp. 344-374). The dominance of the Bible's creation narratives and the Pauline wrestling with the relationship of Adam and his sin to humanity in general supplied the prevalent motifs.
In the West, Ambrose, Ambrosiaster, and Augustine worked towards a theory of original sin that presumed the race's moral solidarity. Mankind was at least contaminated and possibly even culpable in Adam's sin. Augustine's view of the human race as a 'lump of sin' incapable of helping itself without assertive divine interference ran counter to Pelagius' uber-optimistic conviction that human 'free will' could not be obstructed in any real way and was indeed the pivot upon which a person's destiny hinged. Augustine's logic leads inexorably in the direction of a doctrine of predestination, since human intervention is the sine qua non of any redemptive outcome. Augustine, notoriously for both supporters and detractors, followed that logic to its end, arguing that God elected certain individual from eternity past to know the benefits of faith and redemption, passing over other less fortunate souls who nonetheless have no claim upon their Creator for having overlooked them in his salvific movements.
Pelagianism was, in the end, condemned. The evidence suggests that Augustinianism enjoyed a fate somewhat less than universal approbation. On balance, its penetration of the divine and human wills worked more faithfully with the biblical materials than its rather humanistic alternative, though sectors of the church remained and remain reticent about pushing its logic further than the biblical materials themselves appear to warrant. All orthodox positions underscore that salvation is a 'gift', though different sectors parse the implications of this affirmation in diverse fashion.
At the beginning of his chapter on soteriology, Kelly warns his reader that it was not until the twelfth century that the effective of Christ's redemption would receive anything near the definition that the christological controversies demanded of the church's first five centuries (chapter XIV, 'Christ's Saving Work', pp. 375-400). Instead one finds apparently unrelated theories that Kelly argues can and should be viewed as complementary. The notion of recapitulation--presented by the apostle Paul and developed by Irenaeus--is in Kelly's approach the thread that unites the evident disparity. In discussing physical, mystical, and realistic theories of redemption, the author is particularly attentive to how 'ransom' notions work themselves out in terms of who pays the price, who receives the price, and how exactly the liberation of the ransomed is made effective. Augustine steps for the bearer of a mind capable of uniting the diverse forms of conversation about redemption into the closest thing to a unified theory of redemption that the church of the first millennium would produce.
In all of this struggling to know its mind, the Church had necessarily to establish its own identity. Who merited full inclusion in the great conversation, and on what basis? To whom was full fellowship to be extended and from whom withheld? Though the answers to these questions were for some time held to be implicit, they would be articulated with relationship with the Constantinopolitan Creed in terms of four adjectives: 'one', 'holy', 'Catholic', and 'apostolic' (chapter XV, 'Christ's Mystical Body', pp. 401-421). Because these terms are as much theological as sociological, the proper relationship of the human assembly known as the church--in all its far-flung corners--to Christ himself would come in for intense discussion. This reviewer finds Kelly to be a particularly useful guide with regard to Rome's emergence to preeminence, a prerogative whose merits were not always and entirely clear to all parties.
In chapter XVI ('The Later Doctrine of the Sacraments', pp. 422-455), Kelly portrays the church wrestling with the role of the priest, of the medium, and of the believing recipient in the gradually emerging collection of sacraments. True to form, Kelly wisely indicates the role of the restoration (or not) of Christians who had lapsed under persecution in driving forward the definition of the sacraments, by what criteria they can be assumed to function, and upon whom they should be conferred.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the author's 'Part Four'--entitled 'Epilogue'--contains just two chapters, one on 'The Christian Hope' (chapter XVII, pp. 439-489) and the other on 'Mary and the Saints' (chapter XVIII, pp. 490-499). Several turns of phrase in these two chapters encourage the view that these subjects fall into an 'epilogue' as much because the author was able to come to them only lately as because they are afterthoughts in the development of early Christian dogma.
In his consideration of eschatology, Kelly surveys the twin elements of the apostolic teaching that forever consign Christian thought to managing the tension between the once-and-for-all 'nowness' of a new kingdom, on the one hand, and the expectation of a spectacular consummation at the end of ordinary time, as another. Along other lines, the early church struggled with the nature of resurrection. Was it chiefly a corporate experience or, rather, did it represent the endpoint of individual human existence and its entrance or even release into the world to come? Is the nature of the resurrected body identical with that of what we know in this world's experience or, alternatively, is resurrection metaphorical of the eternality of the soul or is the human body as we know it susceptible to a transformation that requires continuity with present experience in the light of an intensified or glorified extension of it?
Does prophetic and apostolic expectation merge with the famous twentieth chapter of John's revelation in a way that constructs a chiliastic or millenarian hope, or is this vision rather to be construed as a picturesque representation of the church's experience in this age.
Finally, is the blessing of the life to come representative of a perfect contemplation of God or will we yet see through a glass darkly, even if (much) less darkly?
From the perspective of this reviewer, none of these considerations ought from either a historical or a theological viewpoint be consigned to marginal status, and so it is advisable to read this chapter of Kelley's work without undue attention to its label.
Finally, the author takes account of the natural preoccupation of the early church with honoring the mother of its Lord. Defining the nature and duration of her virginity may seem a colossally unfathomable preoccupation to moderns but was arguably a natural sidebar to the reverential instinct. Signs of a cult of Mary are evident, if just, by the third century. Yet the orthodox Church's respect for the person some would both describe and address as theotokos was restrained by the gospel's own witness to her need for correction by her beloved son.
It is difficult to assess a work like this in a few words. One attempt to do so finds recourse to the word 'classic' to characterize the enduring power of Kelly's synopsis of a body of material that easily overwhelms a lesser student. This reviewer has no hesitation in doing so.
<em>Early Christian Doctrines</em> is perhaps the finest such synopsis to see the light in the last century. That it is read still by historians and theology students is testament not to some preternatural ability to anticipate academic development since its first publication, but rather to a uniquely masterful statement of what we knew not so long ago that somehow still stands as an adequate point of departure a half century hence.