There are basics of the faith that we must adhere to:
Anyone with a bit of knowledge about church history and theology will understand my title. And I could have worded it in other ways as well, such as: “I’m a Chalcedon Christian.” I refer of course to the great early church creeds. The Apostles’ Creed is another classic.
The point of my title is that the basic truths of Christianity are nicely summarised in these early creeds. They affirm what has always been historic, orthodox Christianity, and by extension, inform us as to what is to be regarded as heterodoxy.
They are not divinely inspired and inerrant documents as are the 66 books of the Bible, but they are very important documents nonetheless. The four main creeds of the early church are these:
-The Apostles’ Creed (developed from the second century onwards)
-The Nicene Creed (from the Council of Nicea, 325)
-The Athanasian Creed (attributed to Athanasius, the great theologian of the fourth century)
–The Chacedonian Creed (from the Council of Chalcedon, 451)
The first one, which is the shortest, famously says this:
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. AMEN.
These in turn have some earlier counterparts in the New Testament, where short summaries of basic Christian teachings are found, such as 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.
This is what C. S. Lewis referred to as “Mere Christianity”. These are the basics, the essentials, of the Christian faith. Sure, there is much more doctrine and theology out there, but much of it is of a secondary order. We can differ on fine points of eschatology or church government and the like.
We can agree to disagree on issues like how we are to understand baptism and such matters. These are not primary doctrines that make or break a believer. But things like the deity of Christ are. Thus the importance of the early creeds.
As such, all three of the main wings of the Christian church affirm these core truths found in the creeds. Catholics, the Orthodox, and Protestants all affirm these major biblical doctrines. Sure, they differ plenty with each other – and even among themselves – on plenty of other issues. But they all adhere to these core Christian truths.
Now, I write all this in part because of some comments and remarks that come my way from time to time. I have often discussed the heresy hunters and the like: those who are ready to tar and feather you if you dare to have one bit of theological difference from them.
They have their lists of what we all MUST believe – including plenty of secondary matters – and they are happy to go after you like some sort of arch-heretic if your theological thinking is in the least bit out of line with theirs. I have often written about this, eg: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2014/04/09/on-heresy-hunters/
But related to this is another group of people who can really be a nuisance to me. I will write a piece on some key Christian, or I will quote some important Christian thinker, only to have some folks come to my site and insist that I have likely lost my salvation because I have dared to mention these folks.
They will inform me that so and so did not believe this, or did believe that, or once said this, or one did not say that. And for this reason they are sure that such Christians are beyond the pale, and how dare I even mention their names or quote from them!
Often it is some fightin’ fundie who has a rather narrow view of who is a Christian, or a particular type of evangelical who has a list of what we must and must not believe. They might have a pet theological view, say on eschatology, and anyone who takes a slightly different take on this is obviously a false prophet and a heretic to boot.
I get these folks writing in to me quite often. Let me give you just one example of this – out of many. I recently penned a piece on C. S. Lewis and politics. Not only was he one of the greatest Christian apologists of the last century, but because of his many writings, he has likely influenced millions of people, either to become Christians, or to grow in their Christian faith.
Yet incredibly we have some loony Lewis-haters out there. They can’t stand the guy and are convinced he is likely the anti-Christ or some such thing, all because he did not perfectly believe the way these critics believe. One guy recently came along with this comment (which I did NOT post): “Politics, a good place for Clive Staples since he was a train wreck on theology, denying most every essential of the faith.”
Oh dear. Either this guy knows nothing about Lewis, or nothing about the early church creeds, or nothing about both! Lewis was fully orthodox on all the Christian essentials. Yes, there are some areas where I might differ with him, but to throw him out altogether is simply ludicrous.
Lewis did what he wrote about: he adhered to mere Christianity, that is, to the Christianity of the creeds which contain our basic essential doctrines. No, he was not an evangelical like I am – or like this critic might be. But so what? Many of our greatest Christians were not. Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Bonhoeffer and countless other very important Christian thinkers were not evangelicals either.
To throw out an Augustine or a Lewis because they did not fully toe the evangelical line is the height of foolishness. It reveals not just arrogance, but an unteachable spirit. Anyone who thinks we should jettison all these vitally crucial Christians because they did not fully line up with every jot and tittle of evangelical concerns is the real problem here.
Sadly I get these folks all too often. They know little if anything about basic theology, basic church history, and basic Christian spirituality. And they are likely too proud and to uninformed to even know it. All we can do is pray for such people and hope that they can be open to learning a few things.
As I often say, those who ask honest questions and are looking for honest answers, I am happy to spend all day with. But those who have shut their minds, gone on a Pharisaical ego trip, and have written off most of Christianity’s greatest minds will likely not be easily reached – and are usually not worth spending too much time with.
So I repeat, I am a Nicene Christian. As such, I am more or less willing to extend the right hand of fellowship to others who are also in the same camp. Sure, we may well yet have plenty of things we differ on, but I am not going to write everyone off if they differ in various ways, often on lesser points.
Theological orthodoxy matters, but so too does Christian unity. Trying to get the biblical balance right here is crucial. As John Stott (someone I do not always agree with) once put it:
“This combination is rare in the contemporary church. Some leaders are great champions of the truth and anxious to fight for it, but display little love. Others are great advocates of love, but have no equal commitment to truth, as Jesus and his apostles had. Truth is hard if it is not softened by love, and love is soft if it is not strengthened by the truth.”