Category Archives: Church History

“the earliest creed is…” moving on…

English: Icon of Jesus Christ
English: Icon of Jesus Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I keep hearing this tired refrain:

“‘Jesus is Lord’ is the earliest creed.”

They are pulling this phrase from 1 Corinthians 12.3 although they seem to miss the first part of said verse.

But, honestly, it isn’t.

There are more “creeds” than that in Scripture. The New Testament, a collection of early works assembled later, contains references to traditions pre-dating Scripture (the same canon later assembled by the same church that developed the creeds).

Let me name a few. There is the Christ hymn in Philippians 2.5–11. John 6.52–58 has some resemblance to an early eucharistic liturgical celebration. There is also 1 Timothy 3.16, which while not Pauline (shoot me, but it is Pseudo-Pauline) shows a creedal presence. Let us not forget Matthew 28.19–20 as well. Hebrews 1.1–3 seems creedal-ness, but I will admit that may be stretching it just a bit.

Revelation is liturgical. Hebrews is homiletic. Both do so to point to a belief that Jesus is Lord and what that means. It is not simply “say ‘Jesus is Lord’ and you are in like flinn.” In other words, even if “Jesus is Lord” is a creed, it is never without explanation and understanding.

So, how do the creeds and symbols develop? From the baptismal confessions. Indeed, baptism and creeds go together.

From St. Irenaeus:

1. Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the thing pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth. For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?

2. To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in

one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent.

Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom. If any one were to preach to these men the inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears, and flee as far off as possible, not enduring even to listen to the blasphemous address. Thus, by means of that ancient tradition of the apostles, they do not suffer their mind to conceive anything of the [doctrines suggested by the] portentous language of these teachers, among whom neither Church nor doctrine has ever been established. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 3, 4, 1-2)

From Tertullian,

“Now, with regard to this rule of faith-that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend-it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son,and, under the name of God, was seen “in diverse manners” by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics.” (Tertullian, the Prescription Against Heretics, Chapter XIII)

St. Hippolytus, in preserving to us the Apostolic Tradition (c. 215) preserves older traditions as well. This is the baptismal formula:

Then, after these things, let him give him over to the presbyter who baptizes, and let the candidates stand in the water, naked, a deacon going with them likewise. And when he who is being baptized goes down into the water, he who baptizes him, putting his hand on him, shall say thus:

Dost thou believe in God, the Father Almighty?

And he who is being baptized shall say:

I believe.

Then holding his hand placed on his head, he shall baptize him once. And then he shall say:

Dost thou believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was dead and buried, and rose again the third day, alive from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the quick and the dead?

Admittedly, the Apostolic Traditions’ worth will be dependent upon the side in the scholarly debate you fall. For me, I’ll go down the middle and say that while it may be assembled later (say, like several books throughout the canon, and the canon itself) it does contain earlier recollections.

To sum, the first creedal statements focus on two things simultaneously: Who Jesus is and what did he do?  We see this developed through the baptismal confessions exactly because we are being baptized into Christ. It is only right to ask the new believer “do you know what you are doing?” and require that they actually tell you.

We can argue all the day long about creeds and litmus tests and the such, but we really shouldn’t argue whether or not creeds were in the early church — they were, before Scripture, and it equalized everyone. We can’t even argue that the Trinity is somehow a 4th century creation. Well, you can, if you want to appear ignorant of history and all.

Check out these from Logos and Accordance.

Quote of the Day – Daniel Dennett on PostModernism

English: Dennets idea of mind and conscious ex...
English: Dennets idea of mind and conscious experience (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Postmodernism, the school of “thought” that proclaimed “There are no truths, only interpretations” has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for “conversations” in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster…The best way for the humanities to get back their mojo is to learn from the invaders and re-acquire the respect for truth that they used to share with the sciences. — Daniel Dennett

Science and Philosophy, while not suggesting a specific truth nevertheless seems to imply that there is a truth. Why, then, do humanities (supposedly built upon or making use of these other two disciplines) deny truths exist?

This is, I fear, the nature of modern religion, specifically modern Christianity. There is no truth. There are only matters of interpretations so that regardless of what one believes, it is a personal matter of no importance. Where is the power, where is the human flourishing, in this sentiment?

St. Thomas Aquinas on the Theologian and Orthopraxy

English: Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) stai...
English: Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) stained glass window. Cathedral of Saint-Rombouts, Mechelen (Belgium). In the book an extract of St. Thomas’s hymn Pange lingua (“Sing, My Tongue”): Verbum caro pane vero verbo carnem efecit fit(que …) Word-made-Flesh, the bread of nature by His word to Flesh He turns, and He makes … (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Orthopraxy, the theme for a while among us United Methodists, is not new. The discussion is ancient. It is old. It will happen tomorrow as well. But, what is it? Is it necessary? Do progressives have a monopoly on suggesting that we need orthopraxy? No.

The only thing they have a monopoly on seems to be arrogance.

Well, not really. Fundamentalists have the same thing.

This summation of St. Thomas on the sanctification of theologians is important.

It is impossible to know God if one is not first known by him. This fundamental tenet of Christian thought summarizes the first half of our remarks. Now we can add: one must do God’s will in order to know if this knowledge comes from him. The practice of theology must cause the theologian to grow in holiness. Not only are theologians called to this as disciples of the unique Holy One, but their profession adds to this call a singular exigency: they should be holy because they are theologians. Their orthodoxy must redound to orthopraxis. Here I have stated four principal points that ought to verify this relationship. Obviously, none of these pertains exclusively to theologians, but their discipline gives them a particular reason to apply these points.1

The author, Torrell, cites St. Thomas several times but this one stands out:

“For just as it is better to illumine than just to shine, it is better to pass on to others the things contemplated than just to contemplate.” (ST Ia-IIae, q. 188, a. 6)

And

And similarly the doctors of theology are like principal architects, who research and teach how others ought to work out the salvation of their souls. Simply put, therefore, it is better to teach Sacred Doctrine, and more so meritorious, if done in good intention, which hangs the particular care of salvation of this one and that; thus the Apostle speaks about himself, “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel” [I Cor 1.17]; although to baptize is work most suited for bringing about the salvation of souls; the Apostle again, “Commend to the faithful who will be suitable to teach others” [II Tim 2.2]. Quaestiones de quolibet I, q. 7, a. 2

  1.  Jean-Pierre Torrell, Christ and Spirituality in St. Thomas Aquinas (ed. Matthew Levering and Thomas Joseph White; trans. Bernhard Blankenhorn; vol. 2; Thomistic Ressourcement Series; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011), 32.

St. John Paul II on Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy

English: Pope John Paul II at a Papal Audience...
English: Pope John Paul II at a Papal Audience on 17 July, 1985—St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City. Behind him, Camillo Cibin, former Inspector General of the Vatican Gendarmerie. Français : Jean-Paul II, Pape de l’Église catholique romaine, à la place Saint-Pierre en 1985) Italiano: Giovanni Paolo II in Piazza San Pietro per l’audizione del 17 luglio 1985. Dietro di lui Camillo Cibin, Ispettore Generale della Gendarmeria Vaticana. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thought I might share a few of these quotes about orthopraxy before I say something.

Catechesis and Life Experience

22. It is useless to play off orthopraxis against orthodoxy: Christianity is inseparably both. Firm and well-thought—out convictions lead to courageous and upright action, the endeavor to educate the faithful to live as disciples of Christ today calls for and facilitates a discovery in depth of the mystery of Christ in the history of salvation.

It is also quite useless to campaign for the abandonment of serious and orderly study of the message of Christ in the name of a method concentrating on life experience. “No one can arrive at the whole truth on the basis solely of some simple private experience, that is to say, without an adequate explanation of the message of Christ, who is `the way, and the truth, and the life’ (Jn. 14:6).”

Nor is any opposition to be set up between a catechesis taking life as its point of departure and a traditional doctrinal and systematic catechesis. Authentic catechesis is always an orderly and systematic initiation into the revelation that God has given of Himself to humanity in Christ Jesus, a revelation stored in the depths of the Church’s memory and in Sacred Scripture, and constantly communicated from one generation to the next by a living, active traditio. This revelation is not however isolated from life or artificially juxtaposed to it. It is concerned with the ultimate meaning of life and it illumines the whole of life with the light of the Gospel, to inspire it or to question it.

John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae (Apostolic Exhortations; Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1979).

Orthodoxy FROM Orthopraxy

English: A cross close to the church in Grense...
English: A cross close to the church in Grense Jakobselv, Norway. Suomi: Risti kirkon lähellä Vuoremijoella, Norjassa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My last post stirred a discussion that made me think. These thoughts are the result.

It is fair to say that Christian tradition has vastly dictated right practice of our faith can only stem from right beliefs within the faith. When I questioned that understanding by suggesting that there must exist a balance between the two – that one doesn’t necessarily spring from the other – the reaction was to recoil to the previous and most widely accepted understanding of orthopraxy coming only from orthodoxy.

Since, I have not been able to shake the idea that our traditional understanding could use a tweak – and necessarily so.

To demonstrate my thinking, I will use three real-life examples where I think things cannot be seen as black and white.

The first example is that of an atheist who has been attending my church. He does this for his family. I couldn’t tell you what he thinks while he is there, but he comes. He participates in the life of the church and does anything else anyone else in the church does. Now, if he were to develop in the faith over time, so that he lives faithfully both in orthodoxy as well as orthopraxy, wouldn’t his right belief have flowed from his right practice?

Second, I am currently walking alongside a family who lost their father last fall. There is doubt, fear, and anger. Their faith – what we would otherwise call orthodoxy – is shaky at times, and that’s just what they’ll admit to me. However, they remain connected to each other, the church, and to the support system offered to them through the church universal. I see very little evidence that they won’t ultimately remain faithful once the storm subsides. Is this not orthopraxy giving birth to orthodoxy?

Thirdly, many who will read this know that I lost a son a little less than three years ago. It wasn’t a complete surprise, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less – and we hurt plenty. In the immediate wake of his death, I would say, “Our grief is strong, but our faith is sure.” In hindsight, I knew I was saying that in hopes it would become true, not because it was true at the time. You see, I was a functional atheist for a few months in 2012. Three weeks on from Carter’s death, I had to get back in the pulpit. That was the hardest sermon I’ve ever had to write. Mainly because I was still hurting from the death of my son, but also because I was unsure I could believe some or all of the things I was saying. Eventually, I reconciled myself back into the reality of my faith. However, I was literally faking it until I made it. My practice was the thing that eventually brought me back to my belief.

These examples are anecdotal, of course, but don’t they speak to the issue all the same?

At the very least, I believe we must understand the relationship between these “orthos” as existing along a spectrum, mainly because the linear equation we have traditionally used doesn’t account for reality. Most of the time, ones current state will hover around the center of the spectrum. When things go wrong, we may find ourselves at either end of the spectrum. However, we should eventually work our way back the the center, where there is a healthy balance between our faithful belief and our faithful practice.

I know we like cut-and-dry, but the world in rarely that. In order to survive this world, we should learn how to exist in that tension.

I, again, look forward to your thoughts.