The Moral World of the First Christians

I just got finished reading Wayne Meeks’ The Moral World of the First Christians. The “moral world” which Meeks analyzes here is more of the “social world” of the early Christians, that is, the cultural context which helped shape their worldview and moral judgments. This social world was a complex one, rooted partially in Hebrew culture and religion, and partially in Hellenistic culture and religion.

Meeks is not concerned here with a careful delineation of the specific moral judgments of the early Christians. There is no mention of what members of the infant church thought of homosexuality, of abortion, of divorce. Rather, Meeks has something much more comprehensive in mind than figuring out what Christians thought of particular issues—he wants to figure out the worldview which framed any particular moral decision. In other words, he wants to know how the first Christians engaged in moral reasoning, not what their specific conclusions were. This is what he calls “looking at ethics from the bottom up,”

[According to ethic from the bottom up] it is a perfectly proper form of ethical directive to say, for example to a child, “We do not do that.” Probably the response from the child, and perhaps also from the professional ethicist, will be, “Why not?” Very often that is an important question to ask, but there are other occasions when it may be more productive to ask a different question: Who are “we”? The question “Why?” calls for an explanation; “Who?” invites understanding. . . . Most, perhaps all, of the writings that now make up the New Testament, and a great many of the other earliest Christian writings as well, had as their primary aim the shaping of the life of Christian communities. Arguments and rules, of course, had their place in those writings, but we fail to understand the force of the arguments and rules if we take them out of the contexts in which they stand. A much more comprehensive process was going on, by which participants in the new movement we call Christianity were discovering a new identity–learning to think of themselves as”the churches of God,” “the holy ones,””children of God,” “slaves of Christ,””brothers and sisters,” “those for whom Christ died,” and so on. “Practice” or custom” was not something added to that process of developing identity, but an integral part of it. The writers repeatedly urge all the Christians to “exhort,” “admonish,” and”encourage” on another. The aim of such moral conversation is, as Paul puts it in another place, “that you should behave in a manner worthy of the God who calls you”(1 Thess. 2:12) (11)

Hauerwas fans will find much to be lauded in this description of ethics, and Meeks explicitly mentions Hauerwas’ term “communities of character” as particularly apt for describing what he is trying to describe as “‘character’ suggest the essential dialectic between community and self. Groups as well as individuals have character. Character signifies identity, and it implies specifically moral identity. Character takes shape, moreover, within a social process.” (11)

So who was this early Christian community? Meeks places heavy emphasis on the prominence of the Hebrew influence. In his chapter on Israel, Meeks surveys later wisdom literature (Sirach), Qumran, Philo, and the Rabbinic tradition as providing much of the basis of the symbolic world that the first Christians occupied, with a special emphasis on the themes of purity, Torah, and a moral interpretation of history (i.e. God’s intimate involvement in the trajectory of history). The early Christians drew explicitly from the Hebrew Scriptures in a way that they did not with other literature of their social world (e.g. Homer or Plato).

However, Greece and Rome also provided much of the substance of the early Christians’ moral world, particularly the philosophical traditions of Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and Platonism. It is from the Romans and Greeks that the first Christians learned to think of the polis, of the virtues, of ways of conceptualizing pleasure, of the legal process. Even for Christians who did not study the legal, literary, and philosophical traditions of Greece and Rome, their was a top-down transmission of the ideas of the academic elite to the masses.

In chapter 4, after surveying the great traditions of Greece, Rome, and Israel, Meeks compares the social forms of the early Christian communities with those of the surrounding cultures, first by comparing the early Christian communities to messianic Jewish sects, and second with household associations in the polis. In chapter 5, he turns to the “grammar of early Christian morals,” examining both canonical (1 Thess. and 1 Corinithians) and non-canonical sources (The Didache, Iraneus) in order to discern the “grammar of their sensibilities and their behavior, which of course includes the force of ideas” (125). The goal of this chapter is to show how the first Christians were “re-socialized” into a new distinctively Christian symbolic world.

What does this volume teach us? It teaches us that the ethics of the first Christians was not a deductive process of applying certain principles, rules, and norms to concrete issues. Rather, the ethics of the first Christians was an inductive process of first figuring out who they were, and then discerning what behavior was appropriate to that sort of identity. The parallels with contemporary virtue ethics should not go unnoticed, and MacIntyre’s useful summary of virtue ethics as asking three questions (Who am I? Who do I want to become? How do I get there?) definitely seems operative in Meeks’ understanding of ethics.

What is useful about such an approach for our contemporary world is that it allows us to see Christian ethics not as something fixed and unchanging, but rather a dynamic process of identity influencing behavior. Thus, to figure out what the “Christian” way to behave in our world today, Meeks would not advocate turning to the Scriptures for specific rules of conduct to apply:

We cannot every fully know the world of the early Christians; still less can we re-create it. to be sure, those movements in the history of Christendom which have sought to restore the church to its “primitive” purity, from the Montanists to the Campbellites, have released powerful currents of change. Yet what they in fact brought about was inevitably something unlike the past. there is no time machine. We must live in our own world, which is irreversibly different from the of the first Christians (162).

Moral concepts like “duty,” “virtue,” “sin,” and “purity,” had very different meanings for the first Christians than for Christians today because they occupied very different symbolic worlds than we do. We Christians today have formed our own synthesis from the influence of the various symbolic worlds we occupy (post-Enlightenment rationalism, humanism, scientific empericism). Thus, we must live with the messy understanding that what we deem sound Christian moral judgments regarding sexuality, political involvement, the economy, and the environment are largely syntheses of the moral worlds around us, influenced of course by the literary and living tradition of the Christian church. We must be willing to accept change, not because there is something inadequate about an earlier form of Christian ethics, but because that earlier form is not our own and can never be recovered. As Meeks concludes,

In the first generations of Christians, we see many people who have a kind of double vision. Two different kinds of symbolized universe overlap in their minds and in their social experience. . . . Somehow, they had to live in both, and it was not easy to find a way to do that. There were many disagreements, many alternative ways, some of which failed. From them everyone who craves a vision of a juster, kinder world, everyone caugt not merely between what is and what ought to be, but between conflicting certainties, disparate but impinging maps of what is, all may have something to learn” (162).


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