As an amateur student of history, the thought has occurred to me that all great secular and religious movements transition from a founding to a kind shoring up mode – an essential mid-course correction, an attempt, often a desperate one, to deal with new contingencies.
Call it a reality check – the point in the journey when the revolution ends or the visionary leader departs the scene and the inheritors of this great transformation are left with the task, the often thankless task, of marshaling and sustaining the movement into the future. This often involves reinterpreting, altering and even compromising the founding principles of the movement.
Faced with mounting debt and external threats from Europe, our American Revolutionary ancestors were eventually challenged to scrap the Articles of Confederation and to conceive a more centralized federal system better equipped to secure these ends. The colonists had originally declared their independence as separate separate and fully sovereign independent states in 1776. In the view of many, the Constitution of 1787 that finally was ratified by all 13 states by 1789 represented a conceptual leap and, in the view of some, a betrayal of revolutionary principles.
The French undertook several futile attempts to shore up their revolution, some appallingly bloody, finally culminating in the ascent of Napoleon in 1799. Whether Napoleon’s stewardship was regarded as advancement or a betrayal of these revolutionary principals, he managed to export these ideals throughout Europe. (The late Chinese Premier Chou en-lai once affirmed to Henry Kissinger that the French Revolution has yet to be resolved, but that’s another story.)
Beset with severe economic upheaval and ruin following the Bolshevik Revolution, Vladimir Lenin instituted his New Economic Policy, a reintroduction of market economics in the form of state capitalism, which, in the view of many Bolsheviks, represented a stark betrayal of Bolshevism’s founding principles. Yet, Lenin was convinced that without this restoration, the Bolshevik experiment ultimately faced collapse.
Religious movements have proven no exception.
Islam dealt with its own challenges following Muhammad’s death, as his successors undertook the daunting task of determining which of the sayings ascribed to the Prophet actually were his. They also assembled the Hadith, a collection of the words, actions and tacit approvals of the Prophet, one that ranks within the Islamic faith second only to the Qur’an.
At approximately the same time, Christianity was beset with somewhat similar challenges. Early Christians had assumed that the coming of Christ and the establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth was imminent. Over time, though, following the passing of the Apostle Paul, a growing number of Christians concluded that Christ’s return would be delayed and began improvising new theologies and systems of church governance to sustain and safeguard the faith.
We owe the canonization of the scriptures to this process. Moreover, as Roman attitudes to the church hardened, church leaders deemed it important to establish a network of bishops throughout Mediterranean Basin to safeguard the faith. And as a further safeguard, church leaders developed a tradition that came to be known as Apostolic Succession, requiring every bishop to be installed by a previous bishop representing an unbroken episcopal chain, purportedly leading all the way to St. Peter.
Elaborate liturgies were also developed across time to ensure that the faith was accurately propagated from generation to generation among the largely illiterate laity.
Yes, all of these innovations were entirely that – innovations – that departed significantly in many respects from the early Christian understanding of faith. But they amounted to essential, in if not unavoidable, responses to the contingencies Christians faced in the decades following the passing of Paul.
Having grown up in the Southern Baptist tradition, a frontier faith that emphasized the primary of scripture over all things, I initially regarded most of the trappings of historic Christianity – the episcopacy, liturgy and creeds – as the those of an apostate church. But that was long ago. I’m much better informed and wiser now.
From from amounting to apostasy, these innovations amounted to essential scaffolding. Without these innovations, Christianity very likely would have ended up an obscure folk religion, bearing little resemblance to the global, theologically refined faith that we know today.
Indeed, all transformative movements are constructed on earlier platforms and are challenged by contingencies to improvise and, to one degree or another, evolve beyond the vision and expectations of their founders.
Christianity proved no exception.