On Controversy

 

In the midst of much controversy within the church, with no foreseeable end in the future, I figured a great post on dealing with controversy biblically would be in order. Today, we would much rather be silent than to engage in controversy. As someone who generally engages controversy, I figure most people might see me as one who loves it. I would disagree and say I have much desire to stay out of it, and just be silent on the sidelines. However, there is biblical precedence, if not expectation, that we engage in this. In fact, It is Jesus who said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) Christ is divisive and even families will be divided on account of allegiance to Christ so we must understand controversy. Also, there is the very reality of disunity within the church. Because there will be error, in what way do we approach it? This has been a very real question for me to answer personally, and I have done a lot of study, and repenting, as I work through these issues. Here to help us is John Piper in his book “The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright.” This book is a response to the New Perspective on Paul, a theology which takes a different (and some say bad) look on justification. Before engaging with N. T. Wright he writes this chapter to explain why its necessary.

 

On Controversy

I am a pastor first. Polemics are secondary and serve that. Part of our pastoral responsibility is what Paul calls “the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (Phil. 1:7). Virtually all of Paul’s letters serve the church by clarifying and defending doctrinal truth and its practical implications.

The reason I take up controversy with N.T. Wright and not, say, J.D.G. Dunn or E.P. Sanders (all notable for their relationship to the so-called New Perspective on Paul) is that none of my parishioners has ever brought me a thick copy of a book by Dunn or Sanders, wondering what I thought about them. But Wright is a popular and compelling writer as well as a rigorous scholar. Therefore, he exerts significant influence both in the academic guild and among the wider public. If he is mistaken on the matter of justification, he may do more harm than others. In addition, Wright loves the apostle Paul and reverences the Christian Scriptures. That gives me hope that engaging with him will be fruitful. I know I have learned from him, and I hope that our common ground in Scripture will enable some progress in understanding and agreement.

How Then Shall We Conduct the Controversy?

In his essay called “Polemic Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us,” Roger Nicole begins,

 

We are called upon by the Lord to contend earnestly for the faith (Jude 3). That does not necessarily involve being contentious; but it involves avoiding compromise, standing forth for what we believe, sanding forth fro the truth of God—without welching at any particular moment.

 

When we are arguing about the meaning of the gospel, it is important to do it “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). If Bible-believers are going to disagree about the meaning of the Bible, we should try to do so biblically. To that end, I offer the following encouragements.

Wise Words from Old Times

In 1655 John Owen published The Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated and Socinianism Examined. It contains one of my favorite exhortations, namely, that “we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for.” In other words, arguing for the truth of God should never replace enjoyment of the God of truth.

 

[More important than all is] a diligent endeavor to have the power of the truths professed and contended for abiding upon our hearts, that we may not contend for notions, but that we have a practical acquaintance within our own souls. When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth—when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us—when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the thing abides in our hearts—when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for—then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men.

 

But is it really necessary? Must we contend? Cannot we not simply be positive, rather than trying to show that others are wrong? On June 17, 1932, J. Gresham Machen delivered an address before the Bible League of Great Britain in London titled “Christian Scholarship and the Defense of the Faith.” In it he said,

 

Men tell us that our preaching should be positive and not negative, that we can preach the truth without attacking error. But if we follow that advice we shall have to close our Bible and desert its teachings. The New Testament is a polemic book almost form beginning to end.

Some years ago I was in a company of teachers of the Bible in the colleges and other educational institutions of America. One of the most eminent theological professors in the country made an address. In it he admitted that there are unfortunate controversies about doctrine in the Epistles of Paul; but, said he in effect, the real essence of Paul’s teaching is found in the hymn to Christian love in the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians; and we can avoid controversy today, if we will only devote the chief attention to that inspiring hymn.

In reply, I am bound to say that the example was singularly ill-chosen. That hymn to Christian love is in the midst of a great polemic passage; it would never have been written if Paul had been opposed to controversy with error in the Church. It was because his soul was stirred within him by a wrong use of the spiritual gifts that he was able to write that glorious hymn. So it is always in the Church. Every really great Christian utterance, it may almost be said, is born in controversy. It is when men have felt compelled to take a stand against error that they have risen to the really great heights in the celebration of truth.

 

Machen also reminds us that not just the heights of celebration in the truth but also the salvation of souls may well come through controversy for the cause of the gospel:

 

During the academic year, 1924-25, there has been something like an awakening. Youth has begun to think for itself; the evil of compromising associations has been discovered; Christian heroism in the face of opposition has come again to its rights; a new interest has been aroused in the historical and philosophical questions that underlie the Christian religion; true and independent convictions have been formed. Controversy, in other words, has resulted in a striking intellectual and spiritual advance. Some of us discern in all this the work of the Spirit of God….Controversy of the right sort is good; for out of such controversy, as Church history and Scripture alike teach, there comes the salvation of souls.

 

Longing for the Day of Unity in the Truth

The heart-wrenching truth of our day, and every day, is that Christians often disagree with each other—sometimes about serious matters. Therefore, we rejoice that it is God himself who will fulfill his plan for the church: “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose” (Isa. 46:10). We take heart that, in spite of all our blind spots and bungling and disobedience, God will triumph in the earth: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations” (Ps. 22:27-28).

Yet one of the groanings of this fallen age is controversy, and most painful of all, controversy with brothers and sisters in Christ. We resonate with the apostle Paul—our joy would be full if we could all be “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil. 2:2). But for all his love of harmony and unity and peace, it is remarkable how many of Paul’s letters were written to correct fellow Christians. One thinks of 1 Corinthians. It begins with Paul’s thanks (1:4) and ends with his love (16:24). But between those verses he labors to set the Corinthians straight in their thinking and behavior.

The assumption of the entire New Testament is that we should strive for peace. Peace and unity in the body of Christ are exceedingly precious. “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Ps. 133:1). “Seek peace and pursue it” (1 Pet. 3:11). “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 14:19). But just as clear is that we are to pursue peace by striving to come to agreement in the truth. “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable” (James 3:17). It is first pure. Peace is not a first thing. It is derivative. It comes from hearty agreement in truth.

For example, Paul tells us to set our minds on what is true, and honorable, and just; and the God of peace will be with us (Phil. 4:8-9). Peace is a wonderful by-product of heartfelt commitments to what is true and right. Hebrews speaks of the “peaceful fruit of righteousness” (12:11). Paul tells Timothy to “pursue righteousness … and peace” (2 Tim. 2:22). The unity we strive for in the church is a unity in knowledge and truth and righteousness. We grow up into the one body “joined and held together” as we “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4:13, 16). “Grace and peace” are multiplied to us “in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord” (2 Pet. 1:2). And paradoxically, the weaponry with which we wage war for “the gospel of peace” begins with “the belt of truth” (Eph. 6:14-15) and ends with “the sword of the Spirit,” the Word of God (6:17).

Why True Unity Flows From Truth

The reason for this is that truth frees us from the control of Satan, the great deceiver and destroyer of unity: “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32; cf. 2 Tim. 2:24-26). Truth serves love, the bond of perfection. Paul prays for the Philippians that their “love [may] abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” (Phil. 1:9). Truth sanctifies, and so yields the righteousness whose fruit is peace: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17; cf. 2 Pet. 1:3, 5, 12).

For the sake of unity and peace, therefore, Paul labors to set the churches straight on numerous issues—including quite a few that do not in themselves involve heresy. He does not exclude controversy from his pastoral writing. And he does not limit his engagement in controversy to first-order doctrines, where heresy threatens. He is like a parent to his churches. Parents do not correct and discipline their children only for felonies. Good parents long for their children to grow up into all the kindness and courtesy of mature adulthood. And since the fabric of truth is seamless, Paul knows that letting minor strands continue to unravel can eventually rend the whole garment.

Thus Paul teaches that elders serve the church, on the one hand, by caring for the church without being pugnacious (1 Tim. 3:3, 5), and, on the other hand, by rebuking and correcting false teaching. “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9; cf. 1:13; 2:15; 1 Tim. 5:20). This is one of the main reasons we have the Scriptures: they are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

“By the Open Statement of the Truth We Commend Ourselves”

Faithful Christians do not love controversy; they love peace. They love their brothers and sisters who disagree with them. They long for a common mind for the cause of Christ. But for this very reason they are bound by their conscience and by the Word of God to try to persuade the church concerning the fullness of the truth and beauty of God’s word.

We live in a day of politicized discourse that puts no premium on clear assertions. Some use language to conceal where they stand rather than to make clear where they stand. One reason this happens is that clear and open statements usually result in more criticism than ambiguous statements do. Vagueness will win more approval in a hostile atmosphere than forthrightness will.

But we want nothing to do with that attitude. Jesus refused to converse with religious leaders who crafted their answers so as to conceal what they thought (Mark 11:33). Our aim (if not our achievement) is always to be like Paul when he said, “But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).

(Pages 27-32)

Piper, John. The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright. Wheaton: Crossway. 2007. Print.

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Creeds Part II- Primitive creeds and the Bible

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Creeds, as seen in the last post, were extremely important to the formation of the early church. While it is easy to see their importance, we might ask the question, “Why did they start forming them?” It is helpful to look to the New Testament for this answer. The early creeds found in the second and third centuries were based around a baptismal formula given by Jesus. Before leaving His disciples, Jesus had some closing words to send the disciples out with:

And He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:46-49)

This power would come at Pentecost when they would receive the Holy Spirit, as elaborated in Luke’s continued narrative in he book of Acts:

And gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” And so when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” (Acts 1:4-8)

Matthew also gives us a record of this account from a different angle, filling in some of the gaps missing in Luke’s depiction.

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

It is clear that the apostles were given specific commands as the mission of the church. They were to: (1) preach repentance and forgiveness for sins; (2) to be witnesses to the life and resurrection of Christ; (3) to go forth from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth under the power of the Holy Spirit; (4) To baptize those who believed in the name of the trinity (Father, son, and Holy Spirit); (5) to teach these new believers in everything commanded by Christ. The early believers took this command seriously and the early Creeds were formed around this Trinitarian declaration.

As shown in the last post, the common use of a creed (or symbol) was in baptismal confession, where the believer proclaimed the basic truths of the Gospel that the early believers thought were necessary for salvation. Because they were very mission oriented, it is not hard to see how the early creeds were formed around this basic Trinitarian confession.

One of the main uses of this “symbol” was in baptism, where it was presented to the candidate in the form of a series of three questions:

Do you believe in God, the Father almighty?

Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Ghost and of Mary the Virgin, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose again at the third day, living from among the dead, and ascended unto heaven and sat at the right of the Father, and will come to judge the quick and the dead?

Do you believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Church, and the resurrection of the flesh?

This is the core of what historians call “the old Roman symbol,” or simply R. It is obvious that this creed—like most ancient creeds—has been built around the Trinitarian formula that was used in baptism. Since one was baptized “in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” these questions were posed as a test of true belief in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. (Gonzalez, 77-78)

This early creed, in different forms yet with the same basic elements, is found throughout the early church.

I select, as a specimen, the descriptive account of Tertullian, who maintained against the heretics very strongly the unity of the traditional faith, but, on the other hand, also against the Roman Church (as a Montanist), the liberty of discipline and progress in Christian life… …In his tract against Praxeas (cap. 2) he mentions also, as an object of the rule of faith, ‘Spiritum Sanctum, paracletum, sanctificatorem fidei eorum qui credunt in Patrem et Filium et Spiritum Sanctum.’ We may even go further back to the middle and the beginning of the second century. The earliest trace of some of the leading articles of the Creed may be found in Ignatius, Epistola ad Trallianos, c. 9 (ed. Hefele, p. 192), where he says of Christ that he was truly born ‘of the Virgin Mary’ … was crucified and died… and was raised from the dead’… (Schaff, 17, footnote 3)

Iranaeus, writing in the early 2nd century, used these creeds as the rallying point for Christian theology, and a way of refuting heresy. He shows how the common practice was to recite these during Baptism.

We have already seen how Irenaeus castigated the Gnostics for tearing apart the “mosaic” of scripture and reassembling it into something foreign. What then was the proper key for biblical interpretation? For the orthodox church, the core message of Christianity was conveniently summed up by the creed used to instruct new converses before baptism. This “Rule of Faith” provided believers with a synopsis of what the Bible was all about. It certainly did not contain a bunch of myths about primal Aeons. Rather, the Rule taught one creator God who was revealed by the Spirit through the Hebrew prophets. This Father God has been supremely revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, who was incarnate by a virgin for our salvation. The future holds a final resurrection for all, with rewards for the righteous and punishment for the wicked from the Lord Jesus Christ. So we can see that for Iranaeus, the story of salvation was a comprehensive narrative of God’s redeeming work in human history. Irenaeus was one of the earliest patristic writers to see this big picture. The Rule of Faith became the organizing principle of his theology, since it outlined the overarching story of Christian redemption. (Litfin, 90-91)

While we can see the importance for the early church after the apostolic era, it may surprise Christians to realize that there is biblical precedent for the usage of creeds. In fact, Paul often comments on the usage of certain creedal formula’s using them as a profession in his letters.

One of the clearest usages of a creedal formula in Paul’s letters is found in 1 Corinthians, written while Paul was in Ephesus on his 3rd missionary journey around A.D. 55.

Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Corinthians 15:1-5)

Gary Habermas in the book Case for Christ, explains exactly what this section in 1 Corinthians is while being interviewed by Lee Strobel:

 My challenge to Habermas was simple and direct: “Convince me it’s a creed.”

“Well, I can give you several solid reasons. First, Paul introduces it with the words received and delivered [or passed on in the NIV], which are technical rabbinic terms indicating he’s passing along holy tradition.

“Second,” Habermas said, looking down at his hands as he grabbed a finger at a time to emphasize each point he was making, “the text’s parallelism and stylized content indicate it’s a creed. Third, the original text uses Cephas for Peter, which is his Aramaic name. In fact, the Aramaic itself could indicate a very early origin. Fourth, the creed uses several other primitive phrases that Paul would not customarily use, like ‘the Twelve,’ ‘the third day,’ ‘he was raised,’ and others. Fifth, the use of certain words is similar to Aramaic and Mishnaic Hebrew means of narration.” (Strobel, 229)

Continuing, Habermas elaborates on the dating of this important Gospel Creed.

            “We know that Pual wrote 1 Corinthians between A.D. 55 and 57. He indicated in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 that he has passed on this creed to the church at Corinth, which would mean it must predate his visit there in A.D. 51. Therefore the creed was being used within twenty years of the Resurrection, which is quite early.

“However, I’d agree with the various scholars who trace it back even further, to within two to eight years of the Resurrection, or from about A.D. 32 to 38, when Paul received it in either Damascus or Jerusalem. SO this is incredibly early material—primitive, unadorned testimony to the fact that Jesus appeared alive to skeptics like Paul and James, as well as to Peter and the rest of the disciples.” (Strobel, 230)

But it can be dated even earlier.

            “I would concur with the scholars who believer Paul received this material three years after his conversion, when he took a trip to Jerusalem and met with Peter and James. Paul describes that trip in Galatians 1:18-19, where he uses a very interesting Greek word—historeo.”

I wasn’t familiar with the meaning of the word. “Why is that significant?”

“Because this word indicates that he didn’t just casually shoot the breeze when he met with them. It shows this was an investigative inquiry. Paul was playing the role of an examiner, someone who was carefully checking this out. So the fact that Paul personally confirmed matters with two eyewitnesses who are specifically mentioned in the creed—Peter and James—gives this extra weight. One of the very few Jewish New Testament scholars, Pinchas Lapide, says the evidence in support of the creed is so strong that it ‘may be considered as a statement of eyewitnesses.’” (Strobel, 230-231)

Here we see one of the most ancient of creeds having an impact on the world today! Many scholars wish to discredit the historicity of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, yet here is evidence of it at the very early stages. Paul uses other common Christian expressions and creedal statements showing his approval of their veracity and effectiveness many times in his pastoral epistles.

It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. (1 Timothy 1:15)

It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. (1 Timothy 3:1)

In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following. But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. It is a trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance. (1 Timothy 4:6-9)

It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we shall also live with Him; if we endure, we shall also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us; If we are faithless, He remains faithful; for He cannot deny Himself. Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless, and leads to the ruin of the hearers. (2 Timothy 2:11-14)

He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God may be careful to engage in good deeds. These things are good and profitable for men. (Titus 3:5-8)

John MacArthur explains these statements:

This is a faithful saying (trustworthy). A phrase unique to the Pastoral Epistles (cf. 3:1; 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:11; Titus 3:8), which announces a statement summarizing key doctrines. The phrase “worthy of all acceptance” gives the statement added emphasis. Apparently, these sayings were well known in the churches, as concise expressions of cardinal gospel truth. (MacArthur, 1779)

Lastly are two early Christian Hymns:

And He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created by Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17)

James white explains the construction behind this:

Colossians 1:15-17 is considered by some to be an early Christian hymn. Its structure most definitely resembles the poetic style of a song, and one can find it easy to see how Paul would utilize song to teach doctrine in the churches. The principal verses relevant to our discussion of pre-existence form the first half of this passage – the second discusses the pre-eminence of Christ in redemption and in the Church. (White, web)

And the second:

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:5-7)

James White again explains:

It, too, is hymnic in structure, and is set off as such by the New International Version. The major section comprises what is actually a sermon illustration of Paul’s in reference to his admonition to the Philippians to act in humility of mind toward one another. To support this point, Paul points to the person of Jesus Christ as the ultimate example of this attitude. Indeed, it is vital to understand the immediately preceding context when some phrases within the passage are encountered, as we shall see. (White, web)

As can be clearly seen, creeds were of great importance in the early church and would only grow in importance once great heresies began to spread. Even now, we cannot escape their importance, and why would we want to? I hope you will find these creeds, and those that follow, of great value and worth because it helps to remind us of the great tradition we stand in as Christians. I will close with the words of Paul who commands us to:

 Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16)

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; (Ephesians 5:18-19)

And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to guard them securely; and he, having received such a command, threw them into the inner prison, and fastened their feet in the stocks. But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them; (Acts 16:23-25)

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: Volume I The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. New York: HarperCollins. 2010. Print.

Litfin, Bryan M. Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. Grand Rapids: Brazos. 2007. Print.

MacArthur, John. The MacArthur Bible Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson. 2005. Print.

Schaff, Philip. The Creeds of Christendom: Volume I The History of Creeds. Grand Rapids: Baker. 1993. Print.

White, James. “Alpha and Omega Ministries.” Alpha and Omega Ministries. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

Creeds: Part I – Their importance

 

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I am starting a new blog series today on Christian Creeds. Through my own study, and my Christian History class at Moody, I have become very convicted about the importance and necessity of Creeds in the life of a Christian. Sadly, their importance has been diminished as the church moves away from a denominational structure and into a more non-denominational one. Creeds tend to be associated with high church models and dead religion, endlessly repeating the same lines without meaning them at all. However, historically this is not how we should view the creeds. It is ironic that they have taken on this “dead church/ dead religion” visage, because they have in times past been a sign of a vibrant faith. I hope to show that to you through this brief education on the creeds. If you wish to know more about the creeds and the early church just get some of the books I am referencing because they are great sources.

First, it is necessary to have a proper definition of the words used through history for statements we now know as “creeds.”

A Creed, or Rule of Faith, or Symbol, is a confession of faith for public use, or a form of words setting forth with authority certain articles of belief, which are regarded by the framers as necessary for salvation, or at least for the well-being of the Christian Church. (Schaff, 3-4)

In a day of the church when Creeds are generally looked down upon, if not out right rejected, the question might be asked, “why are these necessary?” That is a great question to ask, and one that is very important to understanding the formation of the church and scripture.

Recall that in the introduction we talked about the word “catholic” as meaning “universal.” It is a word that defines something desirable: unified, worldwide belief in the truth, instead of sectarian aberration and heretical lies. But this universal orthodoxy within the church was not achieved right out of the gate. Instead, the historical evidence shows that Jesus was almost immediately subjected to competing attempts to interpret him in various ways. Among the many attempts, the Gnostic sects were the most vocal. They advanced their own Jesuses, and thus their own Christianities. Irenaeus was locked in a battle with them for the definition of authentic Christianity. But how could such a thing be determined definitively?

From our vantage point today, we might be tempted to define the “orthodox” as the group that was “biblical.” But such an approach wouldn’t have worked in the second century, since there was not yet an agree-upon Bible containing two testaments, much less to offer a precise definition of which books should be included in it. Although most of the biblical writings were already circulating among the churches, the process of delineating a proper canon still awaited finalization. As we will see, Irenaeus was one of the leading figures in establishing the canon of scripture. Until this standard was put solidly in place, the heretical actions tried vigorously to make the scriptures heir own. It was not that some groups used sacred writings and others avoided them. Rather, the questions were: Which texts are authoritative? How should they be interpreted? By what authority do they speak? Whose interpretations of them are correct? These are the questions Irenaeus was attempting to answer once and for all.

The way to determine orthodoxy, according to Irenaeus, was to go back to what the apostles had proclaimed as Christ’s own word. To achieve this, Irenaeus argued for three main things: (1) a catholic church whose leaders drew their authority from teaching the same doctrines as the apostles; (2) a catholic church whose Bible is comprised of two testaments, written by prophets and apostles; and (3) a catholic church whose Bible is interpreted in light of the apostolic preaching summarized in the early creeds, instead of by fanciful narratives and cosmic mythology. (Litfin, 78-79)

How important were the early Creeds? So important they helped to ground the church in apostolic doctrine before all the scriptures that would form the New Testament had been completely collected.

Next to the Gospels, the book of Acts and the Pauline Epistles enjoyed early recognition. Thus, by the end of the second century the core of the canon was established: the four Gospels, Acts, and the Pauline Epistles. On the shorter books that appear toward the end of the present canon, there was no consensus until a much later date; but there also was little debate. The book of Revelation, widely accepted by the third century, was questioned after the conversion of Constantine, for its words about the prevailing culture and the empire seemed too harsh. It was in the second half of the fourth century that a complete consensus was achieved regarding exactly which books ought to be included in the New Testament, and which ought not to be included. Even then, this was not decided by an official council nor by any other decision-making body, but was rather a matter of consensus—which in itself shows that very few considered this a burning issue. Furthermore, in this entire process the guiding concern was not theology in the abstract sense, but the life of worship, for the main question was, is this book to be read when the church gathers for worship?

Another element in the church’s response to heresies was the use of various creeds, particularly in baptism. Quite often the church in a particular city had its own creedal formula, although similar to others in neighboring cities. Apparently what happened was that a “daughter” church used the formula it had learned from the “mother church,” although with some variations. On this basis, scholars have classified ancient creeds into “families,” and such families can then be used to trace the relationship among various churches.

One of these creeds was an earlier and shorter formulation of what we now call the Apostles’ Creed. The notion that the apostles gathered before beginning their mission and composed this creed, each suggesting a clause, is pure fiction. The truth is that its basic text was put together, probably in Rome, around the year 150. Due to its use in Rome, the ancient form of the Apostles’ Creed is called “R” by scholars. At the time, however, it was called “the symbol of the faith.” The word symbol in this context did not mean what it does to us today; rather, it meant “a means of recognition,” such as a token that a general gave to a messenger, so that the recipient could recognize a true messenger. Likewise, the “symbol” put together in Rome was a means whereby Christians could distinguish true believers from those who followed the various heresies circulating at the time, particularly Gnosticism and Marcionism. Any who could affirm this creed were neither Gnostics nor Marcionites. (Gonzalez, 76-77)

This word “symbol” used had some interesting usage that will help us to understand exactly how the early Christians were using it; and, even more fundamentally, how Christians viewed themselves.

It (symbol) was first used in a theological sense by Cyprian, A.D. 250 (Ep. 76, al. 69, ad Magnum, where it is said of the schismatic Novatianus, ‘eodem SYMBOLO, quo et nos, baptizare’), and then very generally since the fourth century. It was chiefly applied to the Apostles’ Creed as the baptismal confession by which Christians could be known and distinguished from Jews, heathen, and heretics, in the sense of a military signal or watchword (tessera militaris); the Christians being regarded as soldiers of Christ fighting under the banner of the cross. Ambrose (d. 397) calls it ‘cordis signaculum et nostrae militiae sacramentum.’ Rufinus, in his Expositio in Symb. Apost., uses the word likewise in the military sense, but gives it also the meaning collatio, contributio (confounding symbolon with symbolee), with reference to the legend of the origin of the creed from contributions of the twelve apostles (‘quod plures in unum conferunt; id enim fecerunt apostolic,’ etc.). (Schaff, 3)

Without a doubt Creeds were very instrumental in forming the early church and the Christians that recited them. They represented the standard theological understanding of the day, the common faith all Christians possess. Though we may react against any kind of creed in this post-modern era, it is impossible to overemphasize their importance in the historic Christian faith. I will close with this great summary of their importance.

There is a development in the history of symbols. They assume a more definite shape with the progress of biblical and theological knowledge. They are mile-stones and finger-boards in the history of Christian doctrine. They embody the faith of generations, and the most valuable results of religious controversies. They still shape and regulate the theological thinking and public teaching of the churches of Christendom. They keep alive sectarian strifes and antagonisms, but they reveal also the underlying agreement, and foreshadow the possibility of future harmony. (Schaff, 4)

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: Volume I The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. New York: HarperCollins. 2010. Print.

Litfin, Bryan M. Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. Grand Rapids: Brazos. 2007. Print.

Schaff, Philip. The Creeds of Christendom: Volume I The History of Creeds. Grand Rapids: Baker. 1993. Print.

C.S. Lewis and the Poison of Subjectivism

 

There are many claims out there like “you can’t bring the bible into the courthouse” or “don’t push your religious morality on me” that I hear often. As a Christian I am not allowed to bring the bible to bear on the morality of our country. However, most interestingly, I, and other religions, are the only people who have the right to do so. If you are an atheist, or if you do not claim some religion as your own, then it is actually you who have no right to bring your morality to bear on the country. Why do I say this? For the simple reason that your morality is groundless. C.S. Lewis is a great thinker and provides a great logical understanding of why those who reject objective morality (a transcendent morality founded in an ultimate being) and believe in subjective morality (morality that is formed by culture or your own opinions and feelings) are being illogical and don’t even understand their own position. I think this has great relevance for us today as we attempt to deal with the great moral revolution that is taking place.

I have to say I agree with him, but mostly in saying that these people don’t even understand that in rejecting morality founded in God, they have just destroyed morality! At least, morality as they claim it to be. They don’t want the morality of the bible, but they also realize that there are certain things that are inherently right or wrong; they are left in some weird middle position where they are neither atheist nor theist, they are just irrational.

If you think I am wrong then please show me how, but you must ask this one question as you read. “If morality depends upon me for its source, then if I say that my morality is better than others, aren’t I saying I am better than them? If that is the case, then unless I have a standard that transcends me, I don’t have much to offer in talk about morality”

C.S. Lewis

The Poison of Subjectivism

“To say that a thing is good is merely to express our feeling about it; and our feeling about it is the feeling we have been socially conditioned to have.

But if this is so, then we might have been conditioned to feel otherwise. ‘Perhaps’, thinks the reformer or the educational expert, ‘it would be better if we were. Let us improve our morality.’ Out of this apparently innocent idea comes the disease that will certainly end our species (and, in my view, damn our souls) if it is not crushed; the fatal superstition that men can create values, that a community can choose its ‘ideology’ as men choose their clothes. Everyone is indignant when he hears the Germans define justice as that which is to the interest of the Third Reich. But it is not always remembered that this indignation is perfectly groundless if we ourselves regard morality as a subjective sentiment to be altered at will. Unless there is some objective standard of good, over-arching Germans, Japanese and ourselves alike whether any of us obey it or no, then of course the Germans are as competent to create their ideology as we are to create ours. If ‘good’ and ‘better’ are terms deriving their sole meaning from the ideology of each people, then of course ideologies themselves cannot be better or worse than one another. Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring. For the same reason it is useless to compare the moral ideas of one age with those of another: progress and decadence are alike meaningless words.

All this is so obvious that it amounts to an identical proposition. But how little it is now understood can be gauged from the procedure of the moral reformer who, after saying that ‘good’ means ‘what we are conditioned to like’ goes on cheerfully to consider whether it might be ‘better’ that we should be conditioned to like something else. What in Heaven’s names does he mean by ‘better’?

He usually has at the back of his mind the notion that if he throws over traditional judgement of value, he will find something else, something more ‘real’ or ‘solid’ on which to base a new scheme of values. He will say, for example, ‘We must abandon irrational taboos and base our values on the good of the community’—as if the maxim ‘Thou shalt promote the good for the community’ were anything more than a polysyllabic variant of ‘Do as you would be done by’ which has itself no other basis than the old universal value judgement he claims to be rejecting. Or he will endeavour to base his values on biology and tell us that we must act thus and thus for the preservation of our species. Apparently he does not anticipate the question, ‘Why should the species be preserved?’ He takes it for granted that it should, because he is really relying on traditional judgements of value. If he were starting, as he pretends, with a clean slate, he could never reach this principle. Sometimes he tries to do so by falling back on ‘instinct’. ‘We have an instinct to preserve our species’, he may say. But have we? And if we have, who told us that we must obey our instincts? And why should we obey this instinct in the teeth of many others which conflict with the preservation of the species? The reformer knows that some instincts are to be obeyed more than others only because he is judging instincts by a standard, and the standard is, once more, the traditional morality which he claims to be superseding. The instincts themselves obviously cannot furnish us with grounds for grading the instincts in a hierarchy. If you do not bring a knowledge of their comparative respectability to your study of them, you can never derive it from them.

This whole attempt to jettison traditional values as something subjective and to substitute a new scheme of values for them is wrong. It is like trying to lift yourself by your own coat collar.”

Lewis, C.S. The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis. New York: Inspirational. 1993. Print.