Authored by: James D. Ernest

The Routledge Companion to Early Christian Thought

Print publication date:  December  2009
Online publication date:  December  2009

Print ISBN: 9780415442251
eBook ISBN: 9780203864517
Adobe ISBN: 9781135193430


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The engine powering the spread of Christianity across ethnic and geographical boundaries in the early centuries was the proclamation of what the God of Israel had done in the death and exaltation of the Jewish teacher and healer Jesus – called by his followers “Christ” (Messiah) – to bring salvation to all peoples. Evidence – literary and otherwise – surviving from that period shows that this salvation was depicted as a redemption (buying back or ransoming) of people from a situation of bondage to sin and evil powers, to decay and death. His triumph could rescue them from their defeat. That, very broadly speaking, was the gospel Christians proclaimed. Precisely how they described the situation from which people needed redeeming, how they accounted for the ability of Jesus to redeem them, what response they believed was required from the redeemed, and what future they foresaw as the goal of redemption varied across times and places. All this depended on the religious, social, economic, political, and philosophical background and situation of the hearers and of the Christian teachers who addressed them. These teachers primarily derived an overarching narrative of redemption and a conceptual vocabulary for its further elaboration from evolving Christian interpretation of the scriptures of Israel, oral tradition deriving from Christ and his earlier followers, gospels and letters that had become or were in the process of becoming Christian scripture, and from evolving Christian practices pertaining to worship and ministry. Bringing these narrative, conceptual, and practical resources into conversation with the variegated traditions, concepts, and practices of the larger Greco-Roman world, they adapted the gospel of redemption to multiple new contexts. The result, from our vantage point, is a potentially bewildering complex of diverging and converging, contrasting yet intermingling, accounts of redemption. This complexity defeats any simplistic attempt to represent in a single pure generalization “what the early church taught” about redemption. But many of the competing accounts came to complementary expression through voices that participated together in a network of living communities which in fact were, and were becoming, one institutional church, while other voices and their accounts were coming to be seen as irreconcilable with the larger community and its discourse of salvation. Therefore it is possible to discern a coherent pattern of teaching.

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