Re: On contrasting betas with alphas
- Looking at this debate, I'm wondering whether there was really much tension
between alpha and beta. The hymn in Philippians 2 (whether Paul wrote it
or not isn't particularly relevant; if he's quoting, he's doing so with
approval) speaks of Jesus' exaltation; surely this implies a resurrection,
however understood. If he's still dead, there's no exaltation, and no salvation
either, since it's the exalted Jesus to whom every knee is going to bend.
I can easily see one as an evolutionary development from the other.
Another aspect of this is Christological; how would the alphas have
understood Jesus? Going back to Philippians, Jesus was originally 'in the form of
God'. It's not the doctrine of the Trinity, since that hadn't been
invented, so is it possible that we have an angel christology here?
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
- To: Crosstalk
In Response To: Robert Brenchley
On: Alpha vs Beta
Robert:: Looking at this debate, I'm wondering whether there was really much
between alpha and beta.
Bruce: Not always, and when present not always acrimonious. But sometimes
acrimonious, and for an acrimonious example, see again the Epistle of James
vs Paul in Romans. They are directly contradicting each other, and calling
each other fools in the process. Not spiritually edifying for us as modern
readers, perhaps, but historically valuable.
Robert: The hymn in Philippians 2 (whether Paul wrote it or not isn't
particularly relevant; if he's quoting, he's doing so with approval) . . .
Bruce: On the contrary, it is relevant. The form of it (with Lohmeyer and
others) suggests a pre-existing piece of liturgical text; the label "hymn"
will do well enough. And Paul is not necessarily quoting it to affirm it;
more likely (as with his otherwise strange reference to the Davidic descent
of Jesus at the beginning of Romans), he is establishing a basis for
conversation with people he recognizes as fellow Christians (the notion that
they are unconverted Jews will not wash), but wants to educate
theologically. Paul speaks elsewhere of the Gospel that all parties accept;
again, I suggest, to establish (or create?) a common ground of discourse.
But what Paul does within that discourse is to move to his own more
specifically Beta conceptions, and advocate them for those who do not begin
by sharing them. It is this use of common material at the outset of a
persuasion, in my opinion, that has caused much trouble to the commentators.
These "common ground" sayings cannot, in several cases, be integrated into
the generally accepted idea of Paul's beliefs; they are rather tactical
moves in a conversation with those who at one point or another do not share
Paul's beliefs. Paul himself explicitly affirms this rhetorical strategy: he
becomes all things to all people, not in order to reduce tensions with them,
or to remain with them, but to convert them to his own view. I think this
exactly describes it.
Robert: . . . speaks of Jesus' exaltation; surely this implies a
resurrection, however understood. If he's still dead, there's no
exaltation, and no salvation either, since it's the exalted Jesus to whom
every knee is going to bend.
Bruce: I think not. This is what I meant earlier by noting that Alpha, like
Beta, evolves; it does not remain at its original primitive position. The
deification of Jesus, and the replacement of God by Jesus at many points of
the salvation scenario, is common to all Christians. It is also the most
natural development in the world, one which is seen in the history of many
persuasions, both sacred and secular. Suppose our congregation believes
(having heard it from Jesus) that we will be judged on our merits (or sins,
if not repented of and forgiven). At first we envision God as the Final
Judge. Then we remember that Jesus (already in the vision of Peter in Mark)
has gone straight to Heaven, and is there now. (This is the earliest idea;
it is visible in the original Passion narrative in Mark and also in the
remark of Jesus to the Good Thief in Luke, was that he ascended to Heaven
directly on his death; if we accept the idea that his body rose from the
dead, when we will envision a later Ascension; anyway, Jesus gets to Heaven
and is there now). The next step is to envision Jesus, not God, as judge of
the Last Days. But this does not change the basis ON WHICH we will be
judged; it just amplifies and magnifies and glorifies the role of Jesus. So
divinization (and the replacement of God), even to the point of the
pre-existent Jesus, occurs in both Alpha and Beta strands of Christianity,
and as we see in the Philippians hymn, it served as a point of union between
the strands. Alpha Christians and Beta Christians in the same little
community could have sung that hymn with conviction and in fellowship; it's
just that some would have read into it (as Robert does, and as Fitzmyer did
before him) the Atonement scenario, and others would not. No problem, or not
necessarily any problem. You can get through the service without fistfights
breaking out among the brethren. Surely a desirable state of affairs.
Robert: I can easily see one as an evolutionary development from the other.
Bruce: I can't. I think that Alpha and Beta must have different origins, and
the idea that they reflect respectively the lifetime teaching of Jesus
himself and the second thoughts of leading believers on the meaning of his
death, somewhat later, seems to me not only the easiest scenario, but really
the only scenario. I think it is obvious on the record that the two
coexisted in some communities, and shared common further developments (such
as divinization). But now and then, and widely at the end of the 1c, the two
beliefs, in the atonement theory (and faith in it) as that which saves, or
in the power of repentance (and faith in God's forgiveness of the repentant
person, and his power to raise them to Heaven later on), came into violent
conflict, as part of the process of hardening up of "the tradition" at that
time. The Johannine Epistles, and for that matter 1 Peter and some
contemporary texts, all witness to these increasing tensions; Jude and 2
Peter take them a step further. This late stuff is also an important
witness; something we have to figure into our large picture.
Robert: Another aspect of this is Christological; how would the alphas have
understood Jesus? Going back to Philippians, Jesus was originally 'in the
form of God'. It's not the doctrine of the Trinity, since that hadn't been
invented, so is it possible that we have an angel christology here?
Bruce: Angelology enters Christian theory more or less in the
Deuteropaulines, though it certainly does come in then; that climate of mind
looks to me also very much like the one in which Gamma Christianity (the
sort of gnosticism seen in the Gospel of Thomas) could easily have arisen,
and the evidence of canonical Gospel indebtedness in Thomas (Mark, Matthew,
Luke, but not John) actually tends to date it to that period. I don't see it
anywhere in the Philippians hymn.
In Philippians 2, we have a "high" Christology, but as I noted above, not
necessarily an Atonement soteriology; the two are separable. And once we see
that they are separable, I think a great many of the bitterly polemical
passages in the NT texts become clearer to us.
The first question is the hardest. I think I have answered it before, but
perhaps in the middle of something else. The question has been asked, on
this or that E-list, in the years since I first put forward the Alpha/Beta
distinction; How can you call these Alpha people Christians, if they don't
focus on the death of Jesus as the basis of their hope of eternity? I think
the answer is very clearly given in the Alpha literature, which for me
includes not only the early layers of Mark, and the whole of James, but also
the Two Ways document and the Didache which incorporated it into an advanced
Alpha liturgical treatise; the working pastor's handbook of procedures. Here
then is the question in a textually answerable form. Are the Didache people
Christians or Jews? And if Christians, are they Alpha of Beta? And if Alpha,
what is the basis by which they identify themselves with Jesus?
The Didache formulas for the Eucharist I think give the answer. Given the
Eucharist, they are Christians. Given the lack of reference to anything
resembling the Atonement, they are Alphas. And how do they regard Jesus?
Answer: As the one who distinctively taught them the Way to Heaven (notice
the term Way for the teaching of Jesus, as early as Mark but also in later
texts, and don't forget the Two Ways tract, which was incorporated whole
into the later Didache). Here is how the Didache formulas read (and it is
God, not Jesus, who is being addressed):
9:2. We give you thanks, our Father,
For the holy vine of your servant David
Which you revealed to us through your servant Jesus
To you is the glory forever
9:3. We give you thanks, our Father
For the life and the KNOWLEDGE
Which you revealed to us through your servant Jesus
To you is the glory forever (tr Varney)
What life? Eternal life. What knowledge? The knowledge of how to be saved.
What had the hypocrites (see Did 8:1) done? They had cluttered the Way of
Lawfulness with a lot of quiddling clauses and persnicketing subtexts; they
had barred the way to salvation; according to their expanded rulebook (and
remember that the Law is One), you can go to hell for eating shrimp cocktail
with some business associate at a downtown lunch. Jesus had scraped all that
away; he had limited the Heaven/Hell operative rules to roughly the second
table of the Decalogue, and then had summed even that up in just two
statements: Love God, Love Your Neighbor (to which, as Hillel is said to
have said, the rest of it, meaning for Jesus the second table of the
Decalogue, is commentary).
This was revolutionary. It opened the door to Heaven. That redefinition of
the Law, plus the assurance that God would forgive the penitent (this was
John the Baptist's contribution), meant that you could make it to Heaven
after all. Is that not a sufficient basis for gratitude, for honor, even for
the exaggerated theological honors that eventually were paid to Jesus, all
without departing (other than cosmologically) from the original teachings of
I think it was, and I think that people who held these beliefs, who sang
these hymns, who gave thanks to God in these terms, were unmistakably
Christians. They were also massively rooted in everything the Gospel of Mark
tells us about Jesus's actual preachings, little and cryptic though that be.
The Epistle of Jacob (along with some of the later interpolations in Mark)
is there to spell out some of the consequences of that teaching for daily
life; the Hymn in Philippians is there to attest how liturgically developed
that line of tradition became. So does the much more detailed record in the
Didache, of roughly the same date, and notice that the Didache prescriptions
for baptism are for water baptism of the penitent, not the blood baptism of
the Atonement as understood by Paul).
If we want to understand the Alphas, the only way to do it is to read their
texts. This I venture to suggest, along with the recommendation that we
approach them, including the early layers of Mark, as though they were new.
Which at one point, for their original audience, they undoubtedly were.
E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
- The end of semester affords no time to engage the interesting debate
excerpted below properly, but I think Bruce finds more tension between Paul
and James than the texts warrant. The treatments of James 2:14 ff. in Luke
Johnson's commentary and Richard Bauckham's book are especially helpful
here, though I think they push too hard against the consensus in denying any
substantive connection at all between James and Paul on this question; the
best interpretation of James is as pushing back against the libertine
interpretation of Paul's gospel represented in Rom 3:8 � but Paul agrees
with James in opposing that!
On the larger question of alpha vs. beta Christianity, James and Paul on
faith and works falls far short of the evidence needed to establish the
thesis; even if one goes all the way with Luther on the depth of the J/P
cleft, that still represents a difference over the details of soteriology
within a common faith. The glorified Lord Jesus Christ (Jas. 2:1) whose
advent is awaited (Jas. 5:7) is the same agent of salvation we know from the
Austin Graduate School of Theology
On Thu, Dec 16, 2010 at 11:47 AM, E Bruce Brooks
>[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
> In Response To: Robert Brenchley
> Robert:: Looking at this debate, I'm wondering whether there was really
> much tension between alpha and beta.
> Bruce: Not always, and when present not always acrimonious. But sometimes
> acrimonious, and for an acrimonious example, see again the Epistle of James
> vs Paul in Romans. They are directly contradicting each other, and calling
> each other fools in the process. Not spiritually edifying for us as modern
> readers, perhaps, but historically valuable.