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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1714

First published: 1958

Edition(s) used: Early Christian Doctrines. 5th rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1978

Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Creeds; theology

Core issue(s): Jesus Christ; the Sacraments; salvation; scriptures; the Trinity

Overview

J. N. D. Kelly was principal of St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, from 1951 to 1979. One...

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First published: 1958

Edition(s) used: Early Christian Doctrines. 5th rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1978

Genre(s): Nonfiction

Subgenre(s): Creeds; theology

Core issue(s): Jesus Christ; the Sacraments; salvation; scriptures; the Trinity

Overview

J. N. D. Kelly was principal of St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, from 1951 to 1979. One of the foremost patristic scholars after World War II, he wrote and edited a number of works now considered classics: Early Christian Creeds (1950), Jerome (1975), Oxford Dictionary of the Popes (1986), and Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom (1995). Kelly was known for his capacity to synthesize huge qualities of primary material. He was remarkably objective in his writing, and his ways of categorizing early Christian thought have become standard.

In Early Christian Doctrines, Kelly arranges the first five centuries of Christian doctrines in loose chronological patterns. The chapters (in sequence) cover the following topics: four chapters on background (Judaism, Roman religion, philosophy, Gnosticism), followed by chapters on tradition, scripture (methods of exegesis), Trinity, Christology, human redemption, ideas of the Church, the Council of Nicaea, Homoousion (the word used by the Council of Nicaea to describe Christ’s divinity), the Fall and divine grace, soteriology, ecclesiology, Sacraments, and an epilogue (in which he addresses the virtue of hope, Mary, and the saints). Each chapter is footnoted, with a bibliography of primary and modern works at the end of every chapter. A bibliography was added to the 1975 edition.

Kelly describes the main lines of development of Christian doctrine, stressing that Christian theology contained an inherent logic that followed from its starting point: Jesus as both God and man. Once it is asserted—in scripture and by the earliest Christians—that Christ is God and that God is one, believers cried out for an explanation. Thus the first thinkers were not idle philosophers who enjoyed spinning out theories for their own sake; they were logic-bound to clarify exactly what was meant by Christ the God-man and the unity of God (from the Jewish tradition). These writers, often bishops, were thus not free to speculate on all manner of questions; they were restricted by the twin source of revelation: scripture and tradition.

Structurally the book turns on an East-West axis. Within every chapter the discussion shifts back and forth between the Greek East and the Latin West; this oscillation illustrates both their similarities and, above all, their differences. The methodology works well, because it clarifies the major trends in the Roman Empire. Kelly emphasizes the diverse directions in East and West at any given time. Before the Council of Nicaea, for example, the Latin fathers stressed God’s unity, while their Eastern counterparts preferred a more Origenist and pluralist approach to the hypostases of the Trinity. The author emphasizes how every doctrine acquired a certain “logic” from the interpretation that preceded it. If it is assumed, for example, that the Son is of the substance of the Father, is he then distinct from the Father? From here Kelly proceeds to explain how Neoplatonism influenced the Trinitarian theories in both East and West (Kelly avoids the term “theology,” preferring instead to refer to doctrine, theory, teaching, thought, or issues).

Writing in the 1950’s, Kelly could not have known how much of popular writing in America about the early church after 1970 would dwell on the wide diversity of theological opinion in the centuries prior to Constantine. The implication of this pop history is that “orthodoxy” was simply the victory of one faction, which managed to suppress its rivals, usually for political reasons. Kelly’s rather modest approach is more traditional—and more convincing. Theological orthodoxy was not, for Kelly, a series of arbitrary choices by ambitious churchmen but rather a tendency (with diversity, to be sure) that gravitated toward an agreed-upon set of assumptions.

One might call this working principle “Catholic” (Kelly was himself Anglican), but there is in fact not a trace of polemic in this book. Nowadays old-fashioned polemics finds no place in serious scholarship. There is of course no such thing as a “Catholic” view of the early church. Kelly attempts to identify the generally accepted beliefs of the early Christian writings, with particular attention to how they evolved over some five centuries, allowing for differences between West and East. He frequently reminds the reader that doctrinal development must be placed in the wider context of the Church’s daily administration, sacramental practice, preaching, catechetical teaching, and above all liturgy—not to mention ongoing debates within the Church and with pagan critics.

It might be observed parenthetically that Kelly rarely cites modern scholars in his footnotes, which are devoted almost exclusively to the original sources (more than one hundred). As a result, the reader might not be aware that historians do not always agree on the meaning of a particular passage in a source or a group of texts. The reader is left to pursue these issues elsewhere. On occasion Kelly comments that his interpretation is not the only one. In referring to the so-called Petrine passage in a work of Irenaeus, for example, Kelly remarks that, unlike some scholars, he does not find in the text a claim to Petrine primacy of the Roman see. In many other discussions, however, the reader might not realize that Kelly does not always share the views of others, as in his explanations of Arianism and the Trinitarian intentions of those who composed the Nicene Creed. The mature reader, however, should not be surprised that the author assumes that there is a variety of scholarly opinion.

Unfortunately, some discussions often stop abruptly, without summaries and with little transition to the next topic. There is little sense of historical context of doctrinal development within the wider setting of the Roman Empire. Granted, this is a book about doctrine, and perhaps it is unfair to expect more non-Christian context. In addition, this kind of “in-house” Christian analysis was more in vogue in the 1950’s. Kelly’s footnotes are not always easy to follow, reduced to extreme brevity (not always a virtue). He warns his readers that all citations are from Jacques-Paul Migne, the Berlin Corpus of Greek fathers, and the Vienna Corpus of Latin fathers. There is no list of abbreviations for the sources. In some cases the exact references are difficult to locate, because Kelly often omits page numbers and does not mention which edition is used. A bigger problem—and this is not Kelly’s fault—is that critical editions of some of the Greek and Latin works he quotes have since been published. As is to be expected, parts of Kelly’s study (again, the author is not to blame) are dated, such as Origen’s Trinitarianism, Gnosticism, and post-Nicene ecclesiology. The appended chapter on Mary and the saints is superficial and adds little. These reservations notwithstanding, Kelly’s book is indispensable as a survey of early Christian doctrine.

Christian Themes

Early Christian Doctrines focuses on three major arenas of Christian concern. First is the development of doctrine followed from the principle that the scriptures were divinely inspired and therefore must be preserved. The means of this preservation is “tradition”—that is, the living church—which interprets and applies the teachings of the Bible. Thus, tradition includes these writings, as well as the clergy’s teaching, preaching, and liturgical practice; it also includes creeds and episcopal councils (to clarify points of doctrine). The second is the Trinity. Once it is asserted that the Father and the Son are divine, it remains to define precisely the nature of each person (a later term) and how the Father and the Son relate to each other. The question of the role of the Holy Spirit emerged some time later. The overriding issue was to demonstrate the oneness of God (as the godhead). The third area of concern, a corollary of the above, is Christology, the nature of Christ. The central problem was the relationship between the human and divine natures of the Son.

In the course of examining how these three themes evolved historically, Kelly discusses some of the major dissenting movements (Arianism, Donatism, Manichaeanism, Gnosticism, Nestorianism, Pelagianism, and Sabellianism) as having deviated from the orthodox (or “universal” or “catholic”) traditions. These heterodox challenges to the received tradition compelled greater precision in clarifying the main doctrines (later called “theology”).

There are also three minor themes: soteriology (how Christ saves humans, not a main issue until after the Council of Nicaea), the nature of the Sacraments and their relationship to divine grace and free will (and later, predestination), and ecclesiology (the idea of the Church, particularly the “mystical body,” as the Church in its nonorganizational sense came to be known). The development of the biblical canon is treated only in passing.

Kelly analyzes the growth of Christian doctrine not in terms of a static, normative prototype (later called the primitive or apostolic church) but from the perspective of historical development. He emphasizes the restrictions that the scriptures and tradition placed on the understanding of doctrine.

Sources for Further Study

  • Bettenson, Henry, ed. Documents of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. A wide assortment of primary documents from both East and West, including replies to heresies.
  • Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin, 1993. Excellent survey of the organization and doctrine of the church. Emphasizes the historical context of the church within the Roman Empire.
  • Grillmeier, Aloys. Christ in the Christian Tradition: From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon (451). 2d rev. ed. Vol. 1. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975. A masterful survey by topic of Christology, with detailed discussions of the early writers, from the first century to the Council of Chalcedon.
  • Kelly, J. N. D. Early Christian Creeds. 3d ed. New York: Continuum, 2006. The development of the theology prior to the major creeds, with emphasis on the Nicene Creed and its aftermath.
  • Maier, Paul L. Eusebius: The Church History. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 1999. A translation accompanied by commentary and an explanation of the historical setting. Eusebius is the main source for the early heresies.
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, 100-600. Rev. ed. Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975. The best single-volume treatment, arranged by subject with extensive citations from the sources. Sometimes difficult but always readable. The first of a five-volume study of church doctrine.
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