“…refuse ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels …” – 1 TIMOTHY 2:23
The purpose of this article is to recognize the legitimacy of certain religious conflicts.
Since the Gospel was considered to be a matter of life and death, early Christians readily engaged any controversy affecting its core doctrines. They have continued the practice to this day.
The earliest believers were certain that the Apostle Peter was right when he said of Christ, “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved [i].” The Bible teaches that there is but a single way to be saved. Matthew and John made similar statements: The gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life [ii] … and Jesus is this Gate [iii] and the only Way[iv] to eternal life [v]. Eternal salvation can be obtained only by the name of Christ. As time passed, Peter’s primitive declaration would necessitate an effort to make clear who this Christ is, for many alleged christs were arriving in the world.
Jesus predicted [vi] theological quarrels. They began over the nature of Christ and the meaning of His teaching. The first conflict most likely originated circa A.D. 32-35 with Simon the Sorcerer who was censured by the Apostle Peter over an attempted bribe for spiritual power [vii]. By A.D. 50-95, theological debate was in full force. Quarrels were in large part due to the false teaching of Gnostic and Jewish cults creeping into the church [viii]. The New Testament epistles were written by the Apostles to correct not only these errors, but to admonish the moral laxity, worldliness, immaturity, and misconduct of the new believers as well [ix].
The theological bickering would not end by circulating letters with the stamp of apostolic authority. Writing at Rome while awaiting execution, Paul warned that difficult times would soon come by way of false teachers [x]. Paul instructs Christians to continue in the traditional faith taught by the church elders [xi] and move forward preaching the true Gospel [xii].
Hence the need for instructive creeds. Creeds unify the church by providing an easy to read summary of the Bible’s teaching. Absence of creeds cause division by permitting aberrant theological opinions to abound, and unless one does not know (or care) what to believe about Jesus Christ there is no need to write a creed. In this instance it is better, reckon some gullible persons, to know nothing and believe anything about the Messiah. All one needs to know is that he or she believes in Jesus.
American Evangelicals will be surprised to learn that the historic creeds of Christendom were developed to preserve Christian unity. These documents affirm the collective teaching of the Apostles and arrange them into concise statements. When Christian leaders say the historic creeds are irrelevant, they imply that Christian unity is irrelevant.
Sadly many churches are ignorant of these creeds or fail to realize their importance. The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds are widely recognized by denominations throughout the world, Protestant and Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox denominations alike – and for good reason: the church has for centuries considered acceptance of the Creeds a key part of Christian orthodoxy. These creeds have unified the church everywhere the Gospel has been preached, although many in modern American Evangelicalism deny that creedal or confessional documents have a unifying effect. There are some in Evangelical circles who claim that creeds have the opposite outcome, and these men would rather invent their own unifying “creed” known as a “statement of faith.”
There was a time when churches were proud to be associated with the historic creeds. Times have changed. Independant American churches of our time feel no need to recite the creeds, much less teach them to others. Ministries in modern America prefer vague “statements of faith.” Unclear statements of belief of this kind do not unify the church the same way the historic creeds do. Theological ambiguity is the hiding place for conflict-ridden heresy. These inclusive “professions” are a kind of faith that anyone can believe in, including Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons. Stating “I believe in Jesus” is no longer enough. There are many christs in this world. The Athanasian Creed was written for this very reason. It summarizes the Bible’s teaching on the nature and person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is no wonder American Evangelicalism is more theologically confused and divided each passing year. It does not know what it believes. Its members only know they “believe” in Jesus. They insist they believe whatever it was the New Testament church believed. Only a handful of Evangelicals can tell you what this is. Today’s à la mode place of worship does not learn from the doctors and elders of the past. They do not feel this study is necessary.
As a substitute to the historic creeds, American Evangelicalism learns eschatology from Left Behind novels, their demonology from Frank Peretti horror tales, and their doctrine of God from The Shack. Three persons in the Trinity, you say? Is that that inclusive or democratic? – perhaps the next generation of Christian writers will be creating a few more, to represent minorities better. It’s only fair.
American Evangelicals who absorb works of fiction say they are a “New Testament church which loves Jesus and follows the Bible, and the Bible only — not needing creeds.” Jehovah’s Witnesses make the same claim. Contemporary pastors mock the historic creeds of the church from the pulpit, implying of course that they are obsolete and therefore of no use today. Clergymen of the Disney Church no longer need a seminary education or receive ordination to start a ministry; rather you must be a “gifted communicator.” Anyone can start a church in America, and many do. These are dangerous men who are eager to draw inspiration from works of fiction and self-help books. The historic creeds of ancient Christendom are ignored and the American flock feed on fictitious extrabiblical literature to its peril.
The first Christian creed stated by Peter, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God [xiii]” no longer suffices in this complex world where there are many christs. Peter’s simple statement of belief would first be expanded into a creed, then an expanded creed, then a quite lengthy one, ultimately to become volumes of systematic theologies. These are necessary developments to combat each new heresy.
To be continued …
[i] Acts 4;12
[ii] Matthew 7:14
[iii] John 10:9
[iv] John 14:6
[v] John 1:4; John 3:15-16; John 5:24; John 6:68
[vi] Matthew 24:4-5
[vii] Acts 8:9-24
[viii] The books of Colossians and Galatians respectively
[ix] The Book of 1 Corinthians
[x] 2 Timothy 2:14f
[xi] 2 Timothy 3:10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:15
[xii] 2 Timothy 4:1-5
[xiii] Matthew 16:16