basics :: some history.

mjkimpan  —  September 10, 2012 — 24 Comments

this post is a continuation of our basics series in which i seek to articulate for my readers where i stand on some of the more basic theological tenants. as stated in the introduction, my intent is to develop a sort of ‘water-line’ for future conversations here the WayWard follower, particularly as it relates to my current understanding of the orthodox tenants of my christian faith. after laying out some core commitments and convictions in this conversation, it’s nearly time to explore some theological non-negotiables.

but how i got here is important. history is important.

every theological statement is a response
to a perceived theological threat.

it has been appropriately pointed out that jesus did not have a ‘statement of faith.’ he called others into faithful relation to God through life in the spirit. as with the prophets of the hebrew bible, he was not primarily concerned whether individuals gave cognitive assent to abstract propositions but rather with calling persons into a trustworthy community through embodied and concrete acts of faithfulness.

interestingly, neither were the writers of the new testament obsessed with finding a final set of propositions to ‘mark off‘ true believers. still, various communities throughout church history have often developed creeds and confessions in order to express the gospel in their cultural context, even while acknowledging the truly infinite God of the christian faith is beyond all our linguistic grasping.

in the first years following the ascension of christ, the many coverts who joined the early church came from a wide variety of backgrounds. this diversity enriched the church and gave witness to the universality of the gospel of jesus.

but this same blessed diversity also resulted in widely differing interpretations of that message, some of which threatened its very integrity. while many claimed the name of christ, some interpreted that name in such a manner that the very core of his message seemed to be obscured or even denied.

of all these differing interpretations of the christian faith, none was as dangerous, nor as close to victory, as gnosticism. the name ‘gnostic’ derives from the greek word gnosis which means ‘knowledge.’ according to the followers of gnosticism, they possessed a special, even mystical, knowledge reserved for those with true understanding. that knowledge was the secret key to salvation.

gnosticism was a serious threat to christianity throughout the second century. the main leaders of the catholic (sic, universal) church opposed it tenaciously, for they saw in gnosticism a denial of several crucial christian doctrines :: creation, the incarnation
and resurrection.

a similar threat to the early church was found in an anti-semite named marcion – the son of a bishop whom held a profound dislike for judaism and the material world. he went to rome circa. AD 144 and gathered a large following.

since marcion was convinced the world is evil, he came to the conclusion that its creator must be either evil or ignorant. according to marcionism, the God and father of jesus is not the same as Jehovah, the God of the old testament.

this led marcion to set the hebrew scriptures aside.

in so doing, he organized a new church with its own bishops and its own scripture. for a number of years, this rival church achieved a measure of success, and its conclusions lingered on for centuries after.

enter the creeds.

every theological statement is a response
to a perceived theological threat.

the purpose of a creed is to act as a yardstick of correct belief, or orthodoxy – a sort of ‘water-line’ for the faith. most often, those defending the faith consider the views of the opposing side as heresy.

in the middle of the second century, one response the followers of jesus organized in response to these two heresies was what we now call ‘the apostle’s creed.’

written around AD 150, it was then called ‘symbol of the faith.’ the word ‘symbol‘ in this context meant a means of recognition, such as a token that a general gave to a messenger, so the the recipient could recognize a true messenger over a false one.

likewise, this ‘symbol‘ put together in rome was a means whereby the christians could distinguish true believers from those who followed the various heresies at the time – in other words, any whom would affirm this (apostle’s) creed were neither gnostics
nor marcionites.

in the fourth century, the threat of arianism appeared on the scene.

arius, a church leader in alexandria, had declared that although jesus the son was divine, he was a created being and therefore not co-essential with the father. he coined the term, ‘there was when he was not,’ which made jesus less than the father. this obviously posed serious soteriological challenges and eroded the developing doctrine of the trinity.

arius’s teaching provoked a church-wide crisis.

enter more creeds.

every theological statement is a response
to a perceived theological threat.

the nicene creed of AD 325 explicitly affirms what many view implicit in the apostle’s creed – that the triune God is unified and ‘consubstantial’ – meaning they are co-essentially divine. this creed was expanded upon in AD 381 at the first council of constantinople and became ratified as the universal creed of christendom by the first council of ephesus in AD 431.

additional creeds came from additional church councils, each specifically addressing the perceived theological threat at the time – and each becoming increasingly politically charged as lines blurred between the roman empire and kingdom of God.

the 4th century saw the conversion of emperors, the tolerance of all religions (which allowed a respite from the intense persecution of christians) and eventually the adoption of nicene christianity as the official religion of the roman empire.

as a result, religious responsibility became synonymous with political power, and worship in the church began to be increasingly influenced by imperial protocol || a subject which we will further explore tomorrow.

  • michaeldanner

    I wonder about your oft-repeated assertion that “every theological statement is a response to a perceived theological threat.” I have no doubt that some theological statements are responses to perceived theological threats, but every theological statement?

    I also think it’s misleading to say that Jesus didn’t have a “statement of faith”. He did. It was called the Torah. He explains his relationship to the Torah at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.

    • i do say that often, don’t i? i actually had a similar wrestling with the word ‘every.’ the more i thought about it, the more confident i became in saying it – even the ‘true’ theological statements we make are, in my opinion, (at least most often) a result of some perceived theological threat (from the past, present or future).

      fascinating thing about jesus having his statement of faith based on the torah (i assume you are referencing matthew 5:17-20) is that though he did indeed ‘fulfill the law and not abolish it,’ he also turned it on its head through his teaching and his actions. reading through the gospel of john yesterday further highlighted that contrast in my mind.

      what are your thoughts on that? apart from his statement in response to the question about the greatest command (to love love God and love your neighbor), do you see jesus outlining any particular set of doctrinal beliefs?

      • All I can say from experience is that the things I believe about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Kingdom of God and so on – which can be formed into theological statements – don’t come from a perceived theological threat. Different beliefs are only a threat to presently held beliefs. Before I believed them threat, perceived or real, wasn’t possible. Your statement makes all theological statements reactionary. So the only way that people every formulate theological statements is in response to theological threats? Differing views (heated disagreements) may provide the context for theological clarity, but that’s a different thing than saying “every theological statements is a response to a perceived theological threat”. That doesn’t mean there aren’t theological threats – or incompatible theological points of view – but I think the statement goes too far.

        Did Jesus turn the Torah on its head? No. This is something Western evangelicals claim, but is actually not the case. It’s a veiled anti-semitism meant to heighten the distance and distinction between Judaism and Christianity. I recommend reading The Jewish Christian Schism Revisited by John Howard Yoder. His thesis is that Jesus did not intend to start a new religion apart from Judaism and that nothing Jesus taught necessitated a break from Judaism (and indeed followers of the Way were a sect within Judaism for nearly 100 years). Jesus wasn’t anti-Torah, he was pure “Torah-as-God-intended”. He did not simultaneously fulfill the law and turn it on it’s head, which would be an impossibility. Most of what Jesus taught was in the Torah. Some of his teachings were minority readings, to be sure, and he applied them in different ways (like suggesting that people should actually live out the jubilee laws, which nearly got him killed), but they are there. What made him radical was his application of Torah, and especially the radical traditions of nonviolence and hospitality-that-extends-to-all – even gentiles and enemies. If there is a contrast between what Jesus taught and what the Torah says it’s because we don’t know the Torah as well as we should or how Hebrew people would have approached the Torah. N.T. Wright has done some great work in this area. The late Dwight Pryor of the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies has also done excellent work in this area.

        Did Jesus outline any particular set of doctrinal beliefs? Well, did he teach anything? Did he talk about his Father? Did he speak of the Holy Spirit? I could go on and on. Of course Jesus outlined a particular set of doctrinal beliefs – or what he knew to be true as the Son of God. He just didn’t put them in a nice outline, with systematic headings like scholars do today. In reality, the only reason we can begin to formulate any doctrinal beliefs is because Jesus did teach particular things. Absent his teaching, we would be swinging in the dark to even begin to understand much of what we claim to know. And the scriptures Jesus talked about were the Law and the Prophets.

        • i agree with most, if not all, of what you’ve written here, michael. your bit about yoder’s take on jesus applying the torah as God intended (rather than the way in which the teachers of the law and scribes of his day had been) is spot on – which is perhaps a better way to express what i mean in saying he ‘turned it on its head.’

          obviously jesus had specific beliefs (if not, we’re in a whole heap of trouble!). my comment is merely a reflection of precisely what you pointed out in your comment :: ‘he just didn’t put them in a nice outline, with systematic headings.’ i think that gets at the heart of what i was saying in that he did not have a ‘statement of faith.’ to claim that jesus did not make faith statements would be ludicrous.

          i appreciate your points – and, as i said, agree with you. thanks so much for reading and engaging in the dialogue.

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