There has been a deal of discussion this week here about a subject which occupies far too much space on the Internet – traditionalism. Those who want to believe in a hermeneutic of rupture will, in my long experience, do so whatever arguments are adduced for the hermeneutic of continuity. I recommended to Jessica this site which has some exellent pieces, not least on the issue of the older versus the newer Mass. It has a great deal of excellent material on it, and for anyone either flirting with Sedevacantism, or coming to the Catholic Church for the first time, I recommend it. I don’t, myself, find ‘discussions’ over the form of Liturgy useful, not least since, as an amateur liturgiologist, I am very aware of how liturgy has developed across the last nearly two thousand years. I have very little doubt that when the Church in Rome stopped using Greek, someone grumbled and thought it was a sign the Church was going to the dogs (Greek, is, after all, a much better language in which to discuss the Infinite mysteries of God than Latin, and it is no accident that only the genius of Augustine and St Leo put them in the same bracket as the many Greek Fathers).
One of the things I like about the post Easter Mass readings is we get selection from one of the most neglected books (from the point of view of Mass readings), the Acts of the Apostles. Today’s reading provides us with a glimpse of the first great clash between traditionalists and innovators.
It is very easy to forget (which is why it is done so often) that the very first Christians were mostly observant Jews, they went to the Synagogue, they observer the Law, and they did not see themselves as somehow separate from their fellow Jews. They knew the Messiah, and they wanted to share that Good News with their fellow Jews – but that this early stage they would probably have been horrified if someone had told them that their activities would lead their descendants out of Judaism. So, imagine if you will for a moment, the horror such men would have felt at hearing that Gentiles were coming into the Jesus movement who were not circumcised and who did not keep kosher. We know, for example, that wherever he went, Paul preached first to the Jews, and then, if they would not receive him to the Gentiles, and we can presume that many of the latter came from the ranks of the God-fearers – that is Gentiles who attended Synagogue but were not Jews. As more of these became believers, tensions grew within the movement. The question of what made a good Christian was posed – and for many of the original converts, the answer was that you could not be one of you were not a Jew first – so converts should go through the whole process of converting to Judaism. That Paul was letting men in without that provision, and that Peter was eating non-kosher food with them was, to the traditionalists, a scandal. Nowhere in Scripture (and here we are talking about what we call the Old Testament) or tradition (Jewish tradition of course) was there warrant for such things. The protests of such men prompted Peter to go back on his new practice – and Paul to angry responses.
The question posed here is one with which the Church has wrestled through its long journey through the ages. What does it take to be a good Christian? Is it enough to obey the ten commandments and to love God and your neighbour as yourself, and to confess Christ is Lord? Or, is it necessary, on top of these things, to abide by sets of rules and practices which we have inherited from our forefathers in faith? Do we prove our fidelity to Christ by the fervour with which we adopt practices about praying, fasting, dressing and the like?
Here it is clear where the traditionalists were coming from – in two ways: they were from Jerusalem, and they were what Paul called Judaisers. James, the ‘brother’ of the Lord (who has been variously seen as either a son of Joseph from a first marriage or the son – my own views are set out here) was head of the very conservative ‘home’ Church in Jerusalem, and clearly had to take into account the views of its members, although, from the account in Acts, he may, himself, not have been of their opinion; but like all church leaders, he found he had most trouble from those who shouted loudest.
It is interesting to see how the early Church resolved this dispute. All sides were allowed to speak. Peter spoke simply and passionately of his mission to the Gentiles, pointing out that the Holy Spirit of God who brought men to him made no distinction between Jews and gentiles, which was, he explained, why he did likewise – adding yokes to the necks of the people was, of course, precisely what the Lord had preached against. He, like Paul and Barnabas who followed him, were effectively saying their job was to make men more like Christ, not to make them like themselves; it was to Christ we are to be conformed, after all.
No doubt those Pharisees in the movement had expected such arguments from those who were living among Gentiles, but they could not make the same criticism of James, who was famously devout and orthodox – and his declaration was effectively for Paul, Peter and Barnabas. He pointed out, referring to Amos 9:11-12 that what was happening with the Gentiles was what the prophet had foretold, and so advised that greater yokes should not be put on them. It was enough, he said, that they should abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality and from meat from beasts which had been strangled.
The process here is interesting. The elders who had reached the decision put it to the Jerusalem community, who approved of it. We see here pastoral sensitivity by James. His decision amounted to less than a full ‘victory’ for either side. No doubt some from the Pharisees went away grumbling about James going soft, and perhaps Paul was less pleased than he might have been. But guided by the Spirit, James had managed to guide the Church to a decision which took into account the views of all parties, but managed to avoid schism. That suggests that the grumblers (and it is impossible to believe there were none) put their own views second to the interests of the Church. An example for all time – which had it been followed, might have avoided much distress.