Defining Institutions with Christoph Markschies

I was extremely happy this week to submit my completed translation of Christoph Markschies’ book Kaiserzeitliche christliche Theologie und ihre Institutionen: Prolegomena zu einer Geschichte der antiken christlichen Theologie / Christian Theology and its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire: Prolegomena to a History of Early Christian TheologyThis translation has proven to be an especially challenging and rewarding project and I very much look forward to its publication in October 2015. Today’s key quotation from this book is related to one of its most important features, namely its sustained focus on institutions (see here for my other posts on this book, and here for audio recordings and videos of Christoph Markschies)

As usual I will begin with the English translation so that the selective grammatical commentary directly follows the German text.

Christian Theology and its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire (wmc): While they [Harnack and Mommsen] tied the concept of institutions to the legal norming of societal forms of order, I wish to take the definition—which stands in the tradition of Arnold Gehlen—of the Dresden special research area “Institutionalität und Geschichtlichkeit” (institutionality and historicality) as a basis for the following chapters of this monograph: institutions are defined there as “social arrangements that outwardly and inwardly effectively suggest and bring into force stability and duration” and in which especially “the action-guiding and communication-directing foundations of an order are always also symbolically brought to expression”. In my view, such a concept of institutions is shown, despite all its problems, to be considerably more practicable for the portrayal of an emerging religion than the legally colored definition from the beginning of the twentieth century.

Kaiserzeitliche christliche Theologie und ihre Institutionen (pp. 33-34): Während diese [Harnack und Mommsen] den Institutionenbegriff an die rechtliche Normierung von gesellschaftlichen Ordnungsgestalten banden, möchte ich für die folgenden Kapitel dieser Monographie die in der Tradition von Arnold Gehlen stehende Definition des Dresdner Sonderforschungsbereichs “Institutionalität und Geschichtlichkeit” zugrundelegen: Dort definiert man Institutionen als “soziale Arrangements, die nach außen und innen Stabilität und Dauer erfolgreich suggerieren und zur Geltung bringen” und in denen insbesondere “die handlungsleitenden und kommunikationssteuernden Grundlagen einer Ordnung immer auch symbolisch zum Ausdrck gebracht werden”. Ein solcher offener Institutionenbegriff erweist sich ungeachtet aller seiner Probleme meines Erachtens für die Darstellung einer im Entstehen befindlichen Religion als wesentlich praktikabler als der juristisch gefärbte vom Anfang des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts.

* The quoted material comes from G. Mellville and P. von Moss, “Gleitwort.” Page V in Das Öffentliche und Private in der Vormoderne (1998)

Selective grammatical analysis: Let me limit my comments today to a single point, namely the challenge of translating the word Normierung, which Markschies frequently employs in this volume and elsewhere. Given the difficulty and importance of this term, I explain my translation of this word in the preface as follows: “One particularly difficult point of translation may be mentioned here, namely the translation of the terms Normierung(en), Normierungsprozesse, normieren, and normiert. With a view to English speech conventions, I considered using the language of ‘standardization(s), standardization processes, standardize, and standardized’ for this set of terms. Since, however, Markschies’s word choice places the emphasis on the setting of a norm in general, with the result that the language of ‘standardization’ is likely to convey an overly limited impression of what is in view, I decided instead to render these terms in a more wooden fashion as ‘norming(s) or norm-setting(s), norming processes, norm, and normed.’ I realize, of course, that not all will agree with this translation decision, but I hope that this note helps to clarify my reasons for proceeding in this manner.

Substantive analysis: in a similar manner as Jens Schröter’s volume From Jesus to the New Testament, Christoph Markschies’ work effectively combines methodological sophistication and penetrating interaction with primary sources and this combination is one of the features of their respective works that I find especially attractive. Accordingly, I hope that I will be able to show in future posts how Markschies’ open definition of institutions can illuminate our reading of early Christian texts and our conceptualizations of early Christianity. For now, I will simply note that his adoption of an open definition of institutions allows him to apply this term to more phenomena than is the case for definitions that focus on the legal norming of societal forms of order.

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German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! Unfortunately, I have found it increasingly difficult to write a new post each Monday, but I hope to be able to write at least two or three Monday blog posts each month. We’ll see. Best, Wayne.

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