Healthy Theology 4: Appreciating Orthodoxy
The Value of Creeds and Church Tradition
There is no doubt in my mind that God has provided all that we need to know in matters pertaining to “life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). In our search for such things, it is right to appeal “to the teaching and to the testimony” found in Scripture (Isaiah 8:20). The very words that Christ spoke (and are given to us in the Bible) will serve to judge us on the Last Day (John 12:48); and the teachings of the Apostles–recorded in Scripture–are not simply wise thoughts from smart men; they are “in truth, the words of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). It is for this reason that some Christians might use the phrases Prima Scriptura (Scripture first) or Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone); in doing so, they are affirming that the Scriptures point us to God, and serve as our final authority on earth for theological matters.
But it didn’t take long for the early Christians to realize that there was no internal mechanism within humanity that would guarantee a perfect understanding of Scripture, or uniform agreement on all matters. Claiming that Christian Scripture speaks authoritatively is one thing; universal agreement on what it means, knowing which teachings are “essential” to Christian fellowship, and knowing how to apply its teaching in new contexts and settings is quite another.
Thus, Christians engaged in theological reflection, that is, thinking about God in ways consistent with what has been revealed. When the early Christians were asked “what do Christians believe?” they wanted to give an answer more specific than “we believe the Bible” (since many Christians didn’t even have access to the whole Bible), and one more concrete, practical, and universal than to say, “well, we all have our own opinions!” So they looked to the teaching of the Apostles as expressed in shared faith statements, handed down throughout the churches. This led to the development of Christian creeds and Church tradition.
“Tradition” is not a bad word. The New Testament makes it very clear that true teaching–given by the prophets, the Lord himself, and his Apostles–was meant to be “handed down,” thus creating traditional doctrines. Just consider a few passages:
- “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you…For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you” (1 Corinthians 11:1-2, 23).
- “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
- “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2)
- “I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3)
Likewise, “creed” is not a dirty word. The Latin word credo simply means “I believe.” Anyone who begins a sentence with “I believe” is, in fact, offering a creed. It is not wrong for Christians to believe things, or to assert what those things are, or to defend them. The New Testament actually offers a number of creedal affirmations. Just consider some of the following creedal claims about Jesus:
- “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16)
- “We have come to believe and know you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69)
- “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3)
In addition, there are places in Scripture where it appears that several creedal beliefs are combined, forming, as it were, partial lists affirming what Christians believe. Consider, for example, the following:
- “For us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:6).
- For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared” (1 Corinthians 15:3-7)
- “Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11)
- “He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16)
- “Therefore, let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:1-2)
- “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6)
By the early second century, a church leader named Irenaeus could speak of “the rule of faith” which all Christians, everywhere, believed. He describes “this faith” as belief in the following things:
“in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all the things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who made known through the prophets the plan of salvation, and the coming, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future appearing from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise anew all flesh of the whole human race.”
When Hippolytus offers guidance on how to perform a baptism (in the third century), he shares this central body of core doctrines:
“When the person being baptized goes down into the water, he who baptizes him, putting his hand on him, shall say, ‘Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty?’ And the person being baptized shall say: ‘I believe’… And then he shall say: ‘Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born 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 living and the dead?’… And again he shall say, ‘Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the holy church, and the resurrection of the body?’ The person being baptized shall say, ‘I believe.'”
Even today, in churches all over the world (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant), you might hear the congregation recite the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed, which contain core doctrines or statements of belief which Christians have affirmed throughout the centuries.
As early Christian leaders testify, these collected statements of belief, or “creeds” were extremely useful for Christian instruction. Cyril of Jerusalem gave the following piece of wisdom:
“But in learning the Faith and professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now delivered to you by the Church, and which has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures. For since all cannot read the Scriptures, some being hindered as to the knowledge of them by want of learning, and others by a want of leisure, in order that the soul may not perish from ignorance, we comprise the whole doctrine of the Faith in a few lines. This summary I wish you both to commit to memory when I recite it, and to rehearse it with all diligence among yourselves, not writing it out on paper, but engraving it by the memory upon your heart… I wish you also to keep this as a provision through the whole course of your life, and beside this to receive no other, neither if we ourselves should change and contradict our present teaching… So for the present listen while I simply say the Creed, and commit it to memory; but at the proper season expect the confirmation out of Holy Scripture of each part of the contents. For the articles of Faith were not composed as seemed good to men; but the most important points collected out of all the Scripture make up one complete teaching of the Faith. And just as the mustard seed in one small grain contains many branches, so also this Faith has embraced in few words all the knowledge of godliness in the Old and New Testaments. Take heed, then, brethren, and hold fast the traditions which you now receive, and write them on the table of your heart.”
As time passed, there was a progressive movement toward a greater dependence on the “authority of the Church’s interpretation” (to borrow words from Vincent of Larins), and the more elaborate the teachings became, the more people questioned the value and relevance of raising this shared tradition of interpretation to the same level as simple reading of Scripture itself. Perhaps you have heard of the Protestant reformation, which, in large part, was a reaction to those who put the teachings and general interpretations of church leaders on the same level as Scripture itself. I share this Protestant concern and see the danger. It is very easy (and tempting) to blindly accept the “majority view” on something and not search for ourselves. And this can have the unintended consequence of letting people’s thoughts (no matter how many, or how well-meaning) to be our final authority, rather than Scripture itself. In a later lesson, we will consider some ways to guard against that. However, Vincent of Larins offered this advice that is at least worth considering:
“But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason,–because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters… Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation. Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense…Catholic…which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.”
This early teaching–that the church is “catholic” (a word which originally meant “universal”) in the sense that Christians affirm central teachings universally held by all Christians everywhere–led to the standard definitions of “orthodoxy” and “heresy.” The word orthodoxy literally means “right teaching,” but refers in practice to faithful allegiance to the classic articulation of the Christian faith as offered in the historic Christian creeds; heresy refers to those who offer teaching that differs from those historical Christian creeds. Irenaeus condemned a heretical movement in the second century because their teaching did not align with what “the prophets preached, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles handed down” (Against Heresies 1.8.1). The same is true today.
Article: Joel Miller, “Why Apostolic Tradition Matters”, written by a contemporary evangelical
Article: “What is Sola Scriptura?”: Does not nullify church traditions, but evaluates them.
Article: Keith Stanglin, “The Restoration Movement and A Proposal for Unity”: Promotes rule of faith.
(photo: Thomas Aquinas; detail from an embroidered banner in St. Dominic’s, Newcastle. Credit: Lawrence OP)