Early Christian Doctrines by J. N. D. Kelly

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Early Christian Doctrines Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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...

(The entire section is 1,327 words.)