Once upon a time, Christianity grew and endured and even flourished over the course of many generations in total and blissful ignorance of any officially defined dogma, any single universally recognized canon of scripture, anything remotely like the systematic or dogmatic theologies of the coming ages of Christendom and after. I would add that, for most of that time, there was no single church hierarchy, and that the apostolic lines of succession preserved in later official chronicles were products partly of what one might call retroactive genealogy and partly of what one has to call pious misrepresentations; but we may leave that argument for another time. The point to make here is that, for the first several generations of Christians, anything so precise as a doctrinal symbol authorized by an episcopal council would have been either a curious superfluity of or ponderous encumbrance upon the faith. There had been divisions among Christians even in the apostolic era; the New Testament bears plenteous witness to this reality – so much so that the reader can easily get the impression that division was far more common than unity among the early Christian communities. But the principal reason that so many confessional and theological differences of such enormous consequence, on matters so basic to the faith, came to light within the church of the empire only well into the fourth century is that Christian faith and Christian hope had long been sustained by something quite different from official confessional unanimity. The differences had always been there, and in many respects were more or less as old as the faith itself; but for most of the time they were scarcely noticed, since the guiding concern of most Christians was not some perennial wisdom or immemorial doctrine handed down from the past, but rather the rapid approach of the Kingdom of God, the Age to Come, and the final advent of Christ as Lord of all things. Apocalyptic expectation – an eager certainty of the imminence of the full and final revelation of God’s truth in a restored and glorified cosmos – and not dogmatic purity was the very essence of faithfulness to the Gospel.

Christianity entered human history not as a new creed or system of religious observances, but as apocalypse.

We should therefore never forget that official doctrine is, above all else, a language of disillusionment. The French philosopher Maurice Blondel argued that there must have been more to the eschatological beliefs of the early Christians than the literal anticipation of an imminent Parousia and judgment, as otherwise the faith could not have survived – and with such seeming insouciance – so enormous a failure of expectations. This is a false supposition; and it begs the question of whether indeed one and the same faith did in fact survive. But, putting that aside, surely there should be for Christian consciousness some element of indelible melancholy not only in the thought of doctrinal history’s disputes and divisions, but in the very fact of doctrinal definition as such. Doctrine is, in some sense – as much as it may be the poetic discovery of a shared language for speaking about God, and about God and humanity, and about the mystery of Christ – a language of disenchantment that tries at once both to recuperate the force of a cosmic disruption in the form of institutional formulae and to create a stable center within history from which it might be tolerable to await a Kingdom that has been indefinitely deferred. Perhaps this is not to be lamented; at least, a believer has to presume the workings of providence, to the degree that he or she thinks they can be discerned in the midst of fallen time. Even so, it should never be forgotten that Christianity entered human history not as a new creed or sapiential path or system of religious observances, but as apocalypse: the sudden unveiling of a mystery hidden in God before the foundation of the world in a historical event without any possible precedent or any conceivable sequel; an overturning of all the orders and hierarchies of the age, here on earth and in the archon-thronged heavens above; the overthrow of all the angelic and daemonic powers and principalities by a slave legally crucified at the behest of all the religious and political authorities of his time, but raised up by God as the one sole Lord over all the cosmos; the abolition of the partition of Law between peoples; the proclamation of an imminent arrival of the Kingdom and of a new age of creation; an urgent call to all persons to come out from the shelters of social, cultic, and political association into a condition of perilous and unprotected exposure, dwelling nowhere but in the singularity of this event – for the days are short.

Gothic chapel in the Piedmont region, Italy. All photographs by Roman Robroek. Used by permission.

The church was given birth in something like a state of crisis, of mingled joy and terror, in a moment out of time, as one age was passing and another coming into existence. The Kingdom was drawing near; the Kingdom had already partly arrived; indeed, the Kingdom was already within, waiting to be revealed to the cosmos in the glory of the children of God. Living thus in history’s aftermath, and just on the threshold of eternity, the church could not at first have any expectation that it would soon be required to enter into history again. But it would have to do so eventually, and this meant that it would also have to become everything it thought it had left behind: an institution, a law, a religion. What had begun as an eschatological irruption of eternity into temporal history would in the end – at the far side of a disenchantment so gradual that the initial hope for the imminent Kingdom simply melted, almost unnoticed, into thin air, leaving not a rack behind – have to become just another history: that of a particular creed and devotion and institutional heritage, oriented toward an eternity once again rendered abstract, unimaginable, and inconceivably remote. Soon enough, the church would assume the religious configurations provided by its age, adjusted to accommodate a new set of spiritual aspirations. Jewish scripture provided a grammar for worship, while the common cultic forms of ancient society were easily adaptable to Christian use. After all, a purely apocalyptic consciousness, subsisting entirely in a moment of absolute interruption, could persist for only so long. Still, it was an imperfect synthesis; the alloy of apocalyptic longing and historical continuity was never entirely stable. The Christian event proved to be far too refractory to be contained within institutions, even institutions of its own devising. At the very heart of its spiritual rationale there always remained an impulse to rebellion.

Chapel in a small abandoned graveyard in the Le Marche region, Italy

Hence, down the centuries, Christianity has proved not only irrepressibly fissile (as all large religious traditions, to some degree, are), but ultimately self-destructive. Of all the religious cultures the world has ever known, only the Christian has naturally incubated within itself an impulse toward total and defiant faithlessness, militant unbelief, ultimate nihilism, not merely as occasional individual states of soul, but as large cultural movements. Even in its most redoubtable and enduring historical forms, Christianity is filled with an indomitable and subversive ferment, an inner force of dissolution that refuses to crystallize into something inert or stable, but that instead insists upon dispersing itself into the future ever again, to destroy what confines it and to start anew, to begin again in the formless realm of spirit rather than of flesh, of spirit rather than of the letter. There is, simply said, a distinct element of the ungovernable and seditious within the Gospel’s power to persuade, one that we ignore only at the cost of fundamentally misunderstanding its most essential character. And this element, with its power to generate intrinsic stresses within even the humblest of Christian communities, could not help but produce a far greater and more chronic stress within the church as an enfranchised institution, supporting and supported by the instruments and establishments of a human political authority – an authority now paradoxically allied to a Gospel that consisted to a large degree in the rejection and even damnation of all such instruments and establishments. (“Paradox” is serving here as a euphemism for “contradiction,” in case that is not immediately obvious.)

So, as I say, it does not seem foolish to suspect that Christian dogma has always had some quality of disappointment about it, some impulse to anger, some sense that a creed is a strange substitute for the presence of the Kingdom. Dogmatic theology has always had something of the character of a pitched battle among the devout. Perhaps, though, the volatility of theological culture has always been, at some level at least, a reflex of fear: the dread that the truth of the Gospel, exposed to the corrosive force of ordinary time, will dissolve into the currents of an inconclusive history – history without a final cause, and so history without redemption.

Christian dogma has always had some quality of disappointment about it, some impulse to anger.

The only escape from the desperation this prospect induces is the refuge of tradition understood not as the melancholy memory of a promise that was not fulfilled, but rather as the constant creative recollection of a promise whose fulfillment and ultimate meaning are yet to be unveiled. Tradition thus must be seen as history’s secret, redemptive rationale. But tradition of this kind is possible only so long as faith is able to descry a future apocalyptic horizon where the tradition’s ultimate meaning is to be found, and is able also to refuse any reduction of that final revelation to whatever formulations of belief happen to be available at any given stage of doctrinal development. If Christian tradition is truly the living thing it must be – at least, if it really is anything more than a collection of accidental associations generated by random historical forces – it must be devoted to that hidden end and not rest content with such dim prefigurations of that end as are already present (and which, as ever, can be glimpsed only in a glass, darkly).

If Christian tradition is a living thing, it is only as tradition – as a “handing over,” a passage through time, a transmission, the impartation of a gift that remains sealed, a giving always deferred toward a future not yet known – that the secret inner presence in tradition can be made manifest at all. And that gift must remain sealed until the very end, so that the glory will not dissipate into ordinary time, whose atmosphere is incapable of sustaining and nourishing it. The gift is known for now only in and as the dynamic history of the tradition that protects it and bears it onward. Only in the ceaseless flow of the tradition’s intertwining variations can the theme subtending the whole music be heard. And in part this is because whatever is imparted must be received in the mode of the recipient, with all his or her limitations and possibilities. In the end, after all, the historical and cultural contingencies of a tradition also constitute the vehicle of its passage through the ages. They are its flesh and blood in any given epoch, its necessary embodiment within the intelligible structures of concrete existence. Without those contingencies, the animating impulse of the tradition would be something less than a ghost. But, by the same token, once that vital force has moved on to assume new living configurations, the attempt unnaturally to preserve earlier forms can achieve nothing but, at the very best, the perfumed repose of a cadaver bedizened by mortuary cosmetics. True fidelity to whatever is most original and most final in a tradition requires a positive desire for moments of dissolution just as much as for passages of recapitulation and refrain. Only in that ceaseless flow of construction, dissolution, and reconstruction is what is truly imperishable in the tradition intuitable.

Alas, there is no single formula for doing any of this well, or any simple method for avoiding misunderstanding. Such rules of interpretation as there are can never be more than general and rather fluid guidelines. They cannot even provide us, when we consult the witness of history, with a dependable scale of proportionality for our judgments upon the past. It is quite possible (and on occasion it has happened) that even the most devout interpreter or community of interpreters, in looking back to the initial moments of the tradition and their immediate sequels and consequences, might reasonably conclude that the overwhelming preponderance of Christian history – its practices, presuppositions, civic orders, governing values, reigning pieties – has amounted to little more than a sustained apostasy from the apostolic exemplars of the church. That hidden source of the tradition’s life remains a real and unyielding standard, and before its judgment even the most venerable of institutional inheritances may have to fall away. And yet, by the very same token, that source remains hidden even within that very act of judgment, and thus can be the exclusive property of no individual or age. Anyone who arrogates to himself the power to say with absolute finality what the one true tradition is will invariably prove something of a fool, and usually something of a thug, and on no account must ever be credited or even countenanced. The claim is in itself indubitable evidence of a more or less total ignorance of the tradition, either as a historical phenomenon or as a dogmatic deposit. And, really, if one is to find the safe middle passage between the Scylla and Charybdis of a destructively pure originalism and a degenerate traditionalism, no particular method can be trusted absolutely; one must instead simply attempt to exercise a certain kind of piety. This requires a certain trusting surrender to a future that cannot alter what has been but that always might nevertheless alter one’s understanding of the past both radically and irrevocably. It is the conviction that one has truly heard a call from the realm of the transcendent, but a call that must be heard again before its meaning can be grasped or its summons obeyed; and the labor of interpretation is the diligent practice of waiting attentively in the interval, for fear otherwise of forgetting the tone and content of that first vocation.

Abandoned church in the Veneto region, Italy

In this sense, the living tradition, if indeed it is living, is essentially apocalyptic: an originating disruption of the historical past remembered in light of God’s final disruption of the historical (and cosmic) future. One might even conclude that the tradition reveals its secrets only through moments of disruption precisely because it is itself, in its very essence, a disruption: it began entirely as a novum, an unanticipated awakening to something hitherto unknown that then requires the entirety of history to interpret. Its abiding truth never suffers itself to be reduced to mere propositional certitudes, but rather testifies to itself in large part by its power to disorder even the temporal forms it has assumed in the course of its pilgrimage through time.

This is the only true faithfulness to the memory of an absolute beginning, a sudden unveiling without precise precedent: an empty tomb, say, or the voice of God heard in rolling thunder, or the descent of the Spirit like a storm of wind or tongues of fire. In a very real sense, the tradition exists only as a sustained apocalypse, a moment of pure awakening preserved as at once an ever-dissolving recollection and an ever-renewed surprise. Any truly faithful return to the origin of the tradition is the renewal of a moment of revolution, and the very act of return is itself a kind of revolutionary venture that, ever and again, is willing to break with the conventional forms of the present in order to serve that deeper truth. What makes the tradition live is that holy thing within that can be neither seen nor touched, which dwells within a sanctuary into which the faithful cannot peer, but which demands their devotion nevertheless. To return to the source is to approach the veil of the Holy of Holies, to draw near once again to the presence on the other side, even sometimes to enter in – though then only to find that the presence remains invisible, hidden in a blaze of glory or an impenetrable cloud. In this way, tradition sets the faithful free.

This essay is adapted from David Bentley Hart’s book Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief (Baker, 2022). Used by permission.