Monday, September 21, 2020

Evening Note for Monday, September 21

Thought for the Evening: The Correspondence-Network Structure of the Church

One of the things about the early Church that I think is not considered often enough in ecclesiology is that the major texts clearly indicate that the Church has the structure of a correspondence network. Without any doubt, this is not the whole account of the Church's structure, but it is undeniably a part.

I. The Church in the New Testament is expressed in epistolary form. The New Testament has 27 books; 20 of them are without any question epistolary in genre: Romans, I Corinthians, II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, I Thessalonians, II Thessalonians, I Timothy, II Timothy, Titus, Philemon, James, I Peter, II Peter, I John, II John, III John, Jude. Another three, Luke, Acts, and Hebrews, are not letters but have at least some letter-like features (e.g., letter-like opening for Luke and Acts, letter-like ending for Hebrews), and another, Revelation, has letters in it. (Acts also has a letter in it.) Only Matthew, Mark, and John have no obvious connection with epistolary form.

In addition, I Corinthians 5:9 could very well be referring to a previous, nonextant letter to the Corinthians, and Colossians 4:16 refers to a Laodicean letter, which, if it's not the same as Ephesians (an unlikely possibility, although one that cannot be ruled out), is also nonextant.

II. The early Church outside the New Testament is expressed in epistolary form. The surviving works of the Apostolic Fathers are (in no particular order): I Clement, II Clement, Ignatius to the Ephesians, Ignatius to the Magnesians, Ignatius to the Trallians, Ignatius to the Philadelphians, Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, Ignatius to Polycarp, Polycarp to the Philippians, Barnabas, Martyrdom of Polycarp, Diognetus, Shepherd of Hermas. Of these, only Shepherd of Hermas lacks epistolary form.

Thus of the major works of the early Church, from the earliest Pauline letter to well into the second century, most are either epistolary themselves, or assume an epistolary background. We could actually continue this much further along; while literary genres diversify as we go along, and we get apologetic treatises, polemical works, poetic works like Proba's Virgilian Cento, it still continues to be the case that much of what we have is epistolary in character. The surviving letters of St. Basil, St. Peter Chrysologus, St. Gregory the Great, St. Peter Damian, etc., etc., are all quite important parts of the theological history of the Church. But it is useful for first steps to stick with the smaller sample.

III. The Church is clearly depicted in detail and in mass as having the structure of a correspondence network. The fact that the works we have are epistolary in character does not appear to be an accident. First, there are a few explicit statements that indicate that the early Church saw itself as having a unity precisely as a correspondence network, even if not exclusively as one. One is the aforementioned Colossians 4:16:

After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.

So Paul takes it to be assumed that the Colossians will read aloud the letter he has sent their church, and then instructs them to make sure that they get the same letter to the Laodiceans to read and themselves read the letter they get from Laodicea. Not only is Colossians a letter to a church, it seems to presuppose that giving and receiving letters was taken to be at least a semi-formal process that involved and was understood by the whole local church, and it definitely indicates that churches circulated letters they received.

Something like this is found also in Shepherd of Hermas, Vision 2:4:2:

Thou shalt therefore write two little books, and shalt send one to Clement, and one to Grapte. So Clement shall send to the foreign cities, for this is his duty; while Grapte shall instruct the widows and the orphans. But thou shalt read (the book) to this city along with the elders that preside over the Church.

This seems to suggest that major churches, at least, had a formal position which consisted of giving and receiving correspondence to and from other churches.

Second, the book of Revelation seems to depict the Church in terms of epistolary correspondence, by framing the first part of the revelation in terms of letters to the seven churches of Asia. It's pretty clear that the seven churches of Asia represent the Church as a whole, and it's at least strongly suggestive that here, at least, even their relation to Christ is depicted in epistolary terms.

Third, letters are clearly seen as authoritative channels throughout. This is obviously true of Revelation. It's also true of most of the epistles of the New Testament, which give authoritative instructions to churches (most of them) or to individuals in supervisory/episcopal positions over the churches (the Pastorals) or even to a household or 'domestic church' (Philemon). In addition, when the apostles met at the Council of Jerusalem, they did not simply make a decision and disperse; they sent out an authoritative letter with instructions to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia (Acts 15:23-29). This letter does indicate that in-person confirmation is still quite important, but it's also notable that they didn't just sent Judas and Silas; they gave their instructions in a letter.


What broader ecclesiological implications does this have? First, an epistolary correspondence indicates a certain measure of independence in givers and receivers, although of course that doesn't mean a complete independence, and we saw above that correspondence is often a channel of authoritative direction. But it does indicate that local churches each have a certain measure of independence; they are addressed, and while they may be authoritatively directed to do things, they are still specifically addressed so that they may do things. An epistle is a semi-dialogue; while not itself dialogue, the bare fact that it is an epistle implies that it is put forward in the context of a larger dialogue. Second, we see that local churches are addressed together; they receive as a church, and apparently, at least through some official like Clement, give as a church, as well. Third, it seems like a great deal of the 'stitching' of the Church is achieved by the Apostles and by the Apostolic Fathers through the communication-at-remote that epistles allow.

In modern times, the only church letters that get all that much attention are papal encyclicals. But ecclesial correspondence is still fairly common, even if it is not emphasized and is treated often as a perfunctory formality. It suggests, in any case, that, in the interests of knitting the Church together we should consider again the ways in which the Church functions as a correspondence network.

Various Links of Interest

* Rabbi Gil Student, Is the Akedah Ethical? There's been an interesting dispute happening online in Jewish circles about the Akedah (the Sacrifice of Isaac) and its proper interpretation, and in particular how much or how little Kierkegaard's interpretation can be accepted on rabbinical principles. Rabbi Student's contribution is, I think, one of the more interesting ones.

* Michael M. Uhlmann, As the Electoral College Goes, So Goes the Constitution. Every presidential election year I have to gear up to fight the entire army of the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass over the Electoral College, and endlessly explain to people that there is literally no popular vote in the United States; that we don't even have the mechanism required to ascertain the popular vote; that the number that the journalists report is not a popular vote number but consists of adding votes obtained in different elections structured by different laws and thus not actually capable of being added together; that in fact the United States holds not one but fifty-one elections for President, each a simulation of who would be President if the whole of the country were like a given state (or DC), and then partly weights these elections by population; that the President of the United States is literally the one who presides over the union of states; that it is more important in a country as large and diverse as the United States for the chief executive to have to appeal to people throughout the country than to appeal to sheer numbers of people, especially if the latter are heavily concentrated in only a few areas; that for level of interest and general understanding, the Electoral College is the only non-parliamentary system of election that simplifies the election in a way that makes it easy for everyone to follow; that anyone who uses the word 'gerrymandering' in connection with the Electoral College doesn't know what 'gerrymandering' is; that whether the Electoral College favors rural voters or urban voters depends entirely on how you define 'rural' and 'urban' (even Wyoming and Alaska have urban areas, and even California and New York have rural areas, by entirely reasonable definitions of both); that the Electoral College does not in fact structurally favor either Democrats or Republicans; etc., etc., etc. I am very much not looking forward to the iteration of this argument that this year is currently promising.

* E. John Winner, Heidegger's Illusions

* Danièle Cybulskie, Medieval Rabbit Farming. The linking of actual medieval rabbit farming practices with the common depiction of rabbits in illuminated manuscripts as armored and having castles is particularly nice (and illuminating!).

* Eleanor Parker, The Lives of Others

* Against Cultural Marcionism at "Dappled Things"

* Therese Scarpelli, Embodied vs. Non-Embodied Modes of Knowing in Aquinas

* Urban Hannon, How to Be a Radical

* Abraham Lincoln, The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions

* Colin Chamberlain considers Malebranche's miniature earth and sky argument.

Currently Reading

Patrick Rambaud, The Battle
Henri Grenier, Thomistic Philosophy, Volume III: Moral Philosophy
Yuri Slezkine, The House of Government

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