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Martyred for the Gospel

Martyred for the Gospel
The burning of Tharchbishop of Cant. D. Tho. Cranmer in the town dich at Oxford, with his hand first thrust into the fyre, wherwith he subscribed before. [Click on the picture to see Cranmer's last words.]

Collect of the Day

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany.
The Collect.

O LORD, we beseech thee to keep thy Church and household continually in thy true religion; that they who do lean only upon the hope of thy heavenly grace may evermore be defended by thy mighty power; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Daily Bible Verse

Monday, June 26, 2006

One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church

In our worship services in the Anglican tradition we usually recite the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed, which has a section that says we are part of "one holy catholic and apostolic church" or "one catholic and apostolic church." This phrase is inferred from Saint Paul's epistle to the Ephesians:

  • "Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all." (Ephesians 4:3-6, KJV) [1]

Church history is full of theological controversies and theological debates from opposing parties. These challenges to the faith delivered to us by the apostles had to be answered and clarified. Many of these controversies forced the church to further define and explain doctrines that were already in existence but not yet clearly explicated. The controversies over the incarnation of Christ as fully human while remaining fully divine led to a more detailed understanding of the triunity of the Godhead.

Moreover, Tertullian, in the second century, was the first church father to try to explain the trinity in formal terms. There are those today who take this to mean that the doctrine of the trinity is not taught in Holy Scripture at all and that the first century apostles did not teach or understand the Godhead in this way.

This raises a question. Are the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Churches correct that oral tradition is also divine revelation on an equal par with Holy Scripture? If so, then their use of it appears to be more of a doctrine of ongoing revelation. While it is true that the first century Christians reinterpreted the Old Testament in terms of an ongoing revelation from God, it does not follow that the church after the time of the apostles has the authority to add further doctrine to Scripture. First of all, the first century church used the Septuagint as their translation of the Old Testament. Their understanding of the prophecies in Scripture were therefore colored by their use of the Greek translation of the Scriptures. But even this is not a hard and fast rule since Jesus Himself would have been reading the Tanakh and probably not the Septuagint.

There is a valid point that in the first three centuries of the church there was no canon of Scripture that was officially recognized, including the Old Testament. Not even the Jews had an official canon of the Tanakh. However, this does not justify making oral tradition of equal authority with Holy Scripture since we can tell from reading the church fathers that their opinions were often heretical. Origen, for example, was a univeralist and was posthumously condemned as a heretic. This is precisely why Protestants insist that the only binding "oral traditions" are those that we have recorded for us in Holy Scripture. To insist that oral tradition or "holy tradition" is divine revelation on an equal foundation with Holy Scripture is to essentially reopen the canon. How do we decide what is divine revelation and what is not? Anyone reading the ante-nicene, nicene and post-nicene church fathers will immediately notice that this is a mixed bag. It therefore follows that if the written accounts of the traditions handed down to us from the church fathers are heterodox or even heretical in some cases, then the oral traditions are likely to be in error to one degree or another as well.

Jaroslav Pelican makes the argument that the Tanakh had no vowel pointings until the Masoretes in reaction to Christianity provided these textual additions based on their oral traditions of what those pointings were supposed to be. In several cases their oral tradition amazingly contradicts the Septuagint, which would have been translated by Jews of a much earlier period who would have been familiar with both the Hebrew and Greek languages of the time and with the Hebrew oral traditions that guided their translation from Hebrew to Greek. So who is correct?

The consistent Protestant position is that only the original autographs are inerrant and infallible. Textual transmission is prone to error as well, as the thousands of Greek manuscripts attest. Granted, the majority of these errors are spelling, reduplication of letters or words, words omitted, or glosses accidentally put into the text by later scribes, or the attempts of scribes to smooth out unclear, rough readings or readings that did not agree with their own theology. This would not make the textual tradition untrustworthy because the science of textual criticism has verified that our extant textual tradition is highly reliable in spite of these minor variant readings in the majority of cases.

Pelican's analogy of the oral tradition of the Masoretes fails in the final analysis, however. As I said, the textual transmission process is highly accurate while the opinions of the church fathers are a mixed bag. And as I pointed out, even the Masoretes had an agenda in reaction to Christianity. All of these factors must be taken into account.

These are difficult issues no doubt. But we know that the trinity is not a matter of progressive revelation since the doctrine can be clearly seen in Scripture, even though it is not fully defined there. The fact that the modalists, arians, and other challenges to the orthodox doctrine failed points us in the direction that the apostolic tradition, both oral and written, upheld the trinity. This can be difficult because Protestants hold that only Scripture is inerrant and infallible and divine while the oral traditions are not. That means that the church fathers who support the trinity are not speaking infallibly or without error. This presents a problem with modern heretics who distort the Scriptures to support aberrant views of the trinity. It seems that we can be caught between a rock and a hard place at this point. Do we give in to Rome and Constantinople and fall into the slippery slope of oral traditions that lead to ongoing revelations that add doctrines like veneration of icons, saints and prayers to the saints? I think not. Despite the difficulties we must uphold the Scriptures as the final authority in all matters of faith and practice.

This does not mean that we throw out the authority of creeds, councils and the church. It merely means that we must test them by the Scriptures. This is the safeguard that keeps us from inventing a new sect or cult. We cannot allow ongoing revelation in the form of holy tradition, nor can we allow private interpretation to the point that the Scriptures are twisted to create new religions that have nothing to do with Christianity as it existed from the beginning.

The peace of God.


[1] The Holy Bible : King James Version. 1995 (Electronic edition of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version.). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

3 comments:

John Meade said...

Charlie,

Interesting and appropriate post. I hope that others read it. However, you might be interested in my presentation of the OT and NT canon issues here: http://chaosandoldnight.wordpress.com/2006/06/17/the-ot-canon-scripture-part-4a/ and here: http://chaosandoldnight.wordpress.com/2006/06/25/the-nt-canon-scripture-part-4b/.

Your last point about creeds seem to to strike the balance between creedalism and "no creed but the Bible." Excellent point. I am glad that you are writing on these issues because not many are. Although would how would you define the authority of creeds? I am assuming that they are not ultimate, but secondary in some way. Fraiser argued that tradition can be better viewed as a guide, rather than calling it an authority.

-John M

Charlie said...

Hi, John...

I was trying to make it very clear that I believe Holy Scripture is the final authority. For Evangelical Anglicans and for more mainline Protestants like the Lutherans and Presbyterians--at least the conservative ones--Scripture is the final authority over reason and tradition. However, that being said, I don't believe the Reformers would have held to the idea of "no creed but the Bible." Rather I think their position would have been something like "all creeds come from the Bible."

The problem with saying there is no creed but the Bible is that Scripture has to be interpreted. And all of us have doctrinal understandings of the Bible that we initially got from our own church tradition. Thus, while we may deny that we have "a creed," we in fact do have unwritten creeds that are expressing the preaching of our church. We also have "confessions of faith" that function in a similar way. In fact, when we say there is no creed but the Bible, this is just an admission that we are interpreting the Bible in a certain way and drawing doctrinal viewpoints from the Scriptures. What precisely ARE the creeds of the Bible? These have to be digested and summarized so that we can understand them in bits and bytes that we can grasp immediately. I know of no one who goes to church and just hears the Word of God read and that is the sermon. No, we hear the Scriptures expositionally preached and expounded. In short, we hear an interpretation of the Bible.

The creeds are authoritative but not infallible. The creeds may err. Sometimes even creeds may need to be corrected. I'm not sure if there are any errors that I would recommend fixing at this point, however. Some would say that the Nicene creed needs to be fixed regarding the dual procession of the Spirit from both the Father and the Son. I don't agree but that's just an example.

That being said, I think we ought to be very careful about throwing out the catholic or universal creeds since not even the Reformers did that, excepting the radical Reformers from the Anabaptist tradition. Scripture itself says that the church is the pillar and foundation of the truth(1 Timothy 3:15).

Even Baptists had "confessions of faith" which function in a credal way. The London Baptist Confession of Faith was edited from the Westminster Confession of Faith to fit with the Baptist views on credo-baptism and congregational polity. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary had the "Declaration of Principles" to show the common understanding of Reformed or Calvinistic Baptists of the 19th century.

I'm a big fan of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals for a very good reason. I think leaving essential doctrines unsaid or undeclared makes congregations think that doctrine isn't important or that particularization and detailed exposition of doctrine is unimportant or a waste of time.

Also, I've read enough about the Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, etc. to know that having no formal creeds or confessions of faith can lead to all sorts of doctrinal error. The original intent of disposing of the creeds was to get rid of doctrinal arguments and debates that brought dissension into fellowships of churches and denominations. But it was only a temporary fix. In the long haul, the problems were worse, rather than better.

I've read about half way through The Baptist Heritage by Leon MCBeth. I noted there that some Baptists in previous times denied the trinity and some even adopted the socinian error.

This is not to say that mainline denominations with creeds and official confessions of faith do not go off into apostasy as well. Obviously, they do. Just looking at the current state of the Presbyterian Church USA, Episcopal Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, etc., one can see that theological liberalism and reason have taken precedence over Holy Scripture.

I find myself in a quandary over these issues. I have been mostly Pentecostal for the first ten years of my Christian walk. But I did try the Reformed Baptist movement for awhile and then Presbyterian. I studied the Baptist confessions and catechisms and the Presbyterian and Reformed confessions and creeds. But when I came across the Reformed and Evangelical faith in Anglicanism, with the Reformed/Calvinistic tone of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the Articles of Religion, and the sacramental side of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, I knew I had found my rightful place in the church. The problem is that there are not many Evangelical churches out there which are faithful to their own confessions of faith. Most have sold out to the church growth movement or other contemporary trends.

Anyway, I hope this helps.

The peace of God be with you!

Charlie

Charlie said...

I thought you might also be interested in this link at Phil Johnson's reformed website, the Hall of Church History: http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/creeds.htm

Phil's list illustrates perfectly what I mean by the use of the term "creed." Creeds are simply a summary of what we believe Scripture teaches and are an interpretation of Scripture. Granted, creeds are fallible. But insomuch as they rightly express the infallible teaching of Scripture, they are to be understood as "authoritative."

Peace

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