Farrell describes an orality-literacy hypothesis developed by Milman Parry and largely corroborated by A.R. Luria as showing non-literate people thinking in concrete terms, while literate people show more abstract thinking (Farrell 1987, 132). Walter Ong further notes that non-literate and partly literate people are characterized by formulaic expressions. Farrell applies this concept to the disputes of the fourth century, specifically evaluating the term homoousios in the creeds of 325 and 381. He hopes to show that the oral mentality was essential to the conflict over the words (Farrell 1987, 133).
Walter Ong’s contention was that the language used in early creeds and confessions must be formularly because it was intended to be remembered by people from a highly oral culture (Farrell 1987, 134). Farrell also cites Havelock’s point of view that persons in an oral culture would need concrete images rather than abstract logical arguments. This point is also made in Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline (1959) when Barth considers the Bible as a retelling of God’s acts, rather than a book of philosophy about God.
Farrell sees the use of abstract philosophical language to develp gradually along with literacy. His thinking in this area is reinforced by the fact that word usage tends to change from concrete to abstract as literacy increases. Also, studies of children’s use of language have shown the same shift as the children become comfortable reading (Farrell 1987, 135). Farrell further notes that the biblical sayings and actions of Jesus are couched in terms of primary orality with relatively little abstraction (Farrell 1987, 136).
Farrell next speaks of the work of J.N.D. Kelly, whose analysis of Christian creeds is considered invaluable. Kelly reminds us that the Nicene Creed as formulated in 325 was amended at Constantinople in 381 and received by church council at Chalcedon in 451 (Farrell 1987, 137). This creed is declaratory in nature, as contrasted with interrogative formulations of creeds, which would typically be used for a baptismal confession.
The confessions and creeds used were uniformly composed of concrete oral formulas. Farrell gives a reason. “If the expressions of the faith were not formulary, they simply would not have been remembered by the catechumens, who, for the most part, were from a residual form of primarily oral culture” (Farrell 1987, 138)
The Council of Nicea, of course, was directly tied to a doctrinal issue. However, Farrell also sees in it the signs of the mentality of an oral culture, which “is essentially tribal in orientation, and tribalism is predicated on outward manifestations of unity and loyalty” (Farrell 1987, 139). Farrell considers this to have warned Constantine that he needed to gain theological consensus so as to maintain a unified empire. The Arian objection was based on a concrete reading of the language used for the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son. To show the paratactic construction of the creed, typical of an oral culture, Farrell presents the Greek text in its sensible periods (Farrell 1987, 139-140). The formulary elements are clear, as is the additive structure.
Farrell questions whether the essentially oral culture caused difficulties in grasping the persons of the Godhead being distinct and equal, without subordination (Farrell 1987, 141). This could well explain the wording of most of the Creed. However, on lines 8 and 13, the term “substance” is used, an abstraction, with philosophical sense. Farrell observes that, according to Keyy (1972, 213), Athanasius thought the term was very clear, yet the Arians managed to reinterpret it by maing it a concrete term (Farrell 1987, 142). Farrell thinks this may show that Arianism was rooted in an oral mentality, and further that the Pneumatomachian controversy discussed at Constantinople in 381 may have had the same roots. The language added to the Creed at that time was also very concrete in nature (Farrell 1987, 143).
Farrell concludes that literacy is necessary to grasp abstractions and analyze philosophies, including analytical Christian theology. However, as affirmed by baptism bringing people into the Church, it is clearly not necessary to be literate in order to be a Christian.