Magazine article The Christian Century

Chaos and Continuity

Magazine article The Christian Century

Chaos and Continuity

Article excerpt

Sin: The Early History of an Idea

By Paula Fredriksen

Princeton University Press, 208 pp., $24.95


I confess that I am disappointed in Paula Fredriksen's book on sin, though luminaries have praised it using words like gripping and magnificent. Fredriksen's book Augustine and the Jews was both of those. This one isn't.

The book is about "disjunctures," Fredriksen announces at the outset, as she offers portraits of the doctrine of sin in the thought of seven figures, from Jesus to Augustine with a few Gnostic stops in between. She aims to show that sin has startlingly different meanings in different historical contexts. She does that beautifully. Jesus preaches to Jews that they should repent and await the kingdom, which will arrive any minute. Paul preaches to pagans, and for him it is an eschatological miracle that they listen. Justin cuts another direction, accusing the Jews of continual idolatry. Valentinus goes his own way also, imagining a redemption out of history instead of a redemption of history.

Each individual portrait exhibits up-to-the-minute scholarship and is elegantly written. Some of the portraits will influence my preaching: Jesus is not a non-Jewish nice guy. He's a Jewish prophet, with a ministry oriented around the temple and founded on the practice of exorcism. Paul reorients Jewish language of sacrifice around gentiles presenting themselves to God. Origen follows Paul on the scope of salvation. All good.

But then Fredriksen leaves the pieces of the mosaic spread on the floor, unreconciled and unreconcilable. Maybe that's fine--she's written her book her way and has not advertised it falsely. But what troubles me is the way she deploys what is now common rhetoric in patristic scholarship. For example, she writes that "there was no 'orthodoxy' in Rome or anywhere else" in the second century. Terms like Gnostic and heretical "rely upon ideas of true religion as pure, unmixed, chronologically prior." Augustine's and Origen's "orthodoxy" (Fredriksen's scare quotes are omnipresent) in their respective centuries was "self-designated." A caption on a Roman image of Christ was meant to "disallow contemporary religious diversity, to disenfranchise pagans ... and to 'rewrite' the history of Christian origins."

Since at least the work of Walter Bauer, patristic scholars have often taught that what came to be viewed as orthodoxy was simply one option among others, the one that happened to win imperial favor and then used Rome's scepter to beat its rivals to death.

It's a common way of telling the history, but it has not gone unchallenged. Rowan Williams has written compellingly in defense of a pre-Nicene orthodoxy by virtue of Christian faith being a thing that constantly urges people toward repentance. To what does one turn in repentance if not to something outside one's community that is specific at least in its outlines? Others have written accounts of doctrinal history that are fully cognizant of modern criticism yet depict orthodoxy as something more than arbitrary. Fredriksen nowhere suggests that revisionist accounts of early church history have also seen revision.

Fredriksen's metanarrative of chaos and her on-the-ground descriptions of particulars don't mesh. She writes, "For Valentinus it is Christ's message and the knowledge of the divine Father that he brings, not his bodily medium as such, that matters for Christian redemption."

And that is precisely why the church decided that Valentinus was wrong and couldn't be invoked on Sundays. …

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