In our contemporary struggle to present Christ as the Bible portrays him, we should not work in a vacuum. We owe it to ourselves to look to the past and to learn from the church’s struggles. Perhaps in no area of theology is this more necessary or beneficial than in the doctrine of Christ in the early church. The first four or five centuries of the church’s existence witnessed the launch of nearly every possible challenge. Further, one is hard-pressed to offer a better response to those challenges than that offered by the early church leaders. We may be able to devise fresh and contemporary ways to illustrate their teachings and expressions, or we may have to think of new ways to relate their teachings to particular challenges that we face in our day, but there is practically no room for improvement on those teachings. What these early church leaders said and did is tried and true (14).
|Icon of the Nativity (15th cent.)|
We do not receive these gifts as ordinary food or ordinary drink. But as Jesus Christ our Savior who was made flesh through the word of God, and took flesh and blood for our salvation; in the same way the food over which thanksgiving has been offered through the word of prayer which we have from him – the food by which our blood and flesh are nourished through its transformation – is, we are taught, the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh (First Apology, 62).
Balcomb asserts that the Creeds were never intended for public worship. I find this somewhat misleading because the early Creeds developed as part of the baptismal liturgy used on Easter Sunday. Baptismal candidates were asked to profess faith using statements that later solidified into what we know as the Apostles’ Creed. My point, however, has to do with context not development. If the Creeds were originally intended as part of the baptismal liturgy for new believers, then Balcomb’s assertion cannot be maintained, unless he is willing to argue that the baptismal liturgy was not intended for use in public worship. Admittedly, the Creeds may not have been originally used as a profession of faith in the weekly worship of the Church, but their occasional use in baptism in public worship as early as the second and third centuries is certain (cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed, chap 1). Given the use of creedal formulations in worship settings that marked entrance into the Church, should it surprise us that believers came to find it helpful to remember and renew their baptismal profession on a more regular basis by weekly recitation of the Creeds? The Creed was intended for use in baptismal worship; it was a natural step that it should find its way into the regular pattern of the Church’s liturgy.
Too many questions?
Balcomb’s worry about the questions raised by the Creed leads him to look for something more clear, and he asserts that we should not use the historic Creeds because there are passages of scripture that do a better job of summarizing the Christian position. He cites as an example, “Our Lord’s Summary of the Law,” in Matthew 22:37. But why should we set Creed and scripture against one another? Two points should be made in response. First, creedal language is largely drawn from scripture. As Timothy Tennent notes in his book of meditations on the Apostles’ Creed, “One of the wonderful features of the Apostles’ Creed is that it only uses language taken directly from the Scriptures” (This We Believe!, 12). At the start of each chapter Tennent cites passages of scripture that substantiate the creedal language. Second, the Church’s liturgy has historically used “Our Lord’s Summary of the Law” alongside the historic creeds. Take a look at the Book of Common Prayer and you’ll find both. The Church has seen no reason to create a false either-or in this case; I see no reason to start now.
Behavior over Belief?
There are any number of passages by Wesley in which we could find similar themes; this quote from A Plain Account of Christian Perfection sums it up nicely: “Christian Perfection is that love of God and our neighbour, which implies deliverance from all sin” (18). There are at least three observations to be made as we compare Polycarp and Wesley.
Second, both Polycarp and Wesley understand love and sin as mutually exclusive. A heart full of love for God and neighbor cannot also be a heart in sin against God or neighbor. If we are actively loving and pursuing Christ, then we will not, at the same time, be sinning against him. For both men distance from sin must begins with love for God. This is why true holiness is never simply a matter of behavior modification. We could presumably go through the motions and do the right sorts of things and still not have a heart of love for God and others. Love is the both the foundation and the fount of authentic holiness, the beginning and the cause. Holiness is not mere obedience; the life of holiness must issue forth from love.
“Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death in place of all and offered it to the Father. This he did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, when He had fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire” (8).
What the ancient church teachers least wished for a theology was that it would be “fresh” or “self-expressive” or an embellishment of purely private inspirations, as if these might stand as some decisive improvement” on the apostolic teaching.”
Yet from the first day I ever thought of becoming a theologian I have been earnestly taught and admonished to “think creatively” so as to make “some new contribution” to theology. Nothing at Yale was drummed into my head more firmly than that the theology I would seek would be my own, and my uniqueness would imprint it. So you can imagine that it took no small effort on my part to resist the repeated reinforcements of my best education in order to overcome the constant temptation to novelty. And you can understand how relieved I was to see such an intriguing epitaph prefigured in a dream, one that at last seems to be coming true on these pages – “to make no new contribution to theology” – Laus Deo (22).