Sunday, June 15, 2008

Rescuing the faith once delivered to all the saints

NOTE: This was written by the Rev. Bruce Coggin, a friend of mine, for a presentation at my parish. I think it is briliant.

When the leadership team bent on “realigning” the Diocese of Fort Worth reiterates its goals, one usually hears the hope that if only the Presiding Bishop and the General Convention would leave them alone, they could . . . Well, let them say it for themselves.

Becoming a member Diocese of the Province of the Southern Cone would allow the Diocese of Fort Worth the opportunity and freedom to continue to practice the “Faith once delivered to all the saints” without being constantly distracted by the controversies and divisions caused by innovations hostile to traditional Christian norms.
Jan 9, 2008, letter from Bishop and Standing Committee
diocesan website

That formula—the faith once delivered to all the saints—reappears frequently in their communications, written and oral, as the summation of all they hope for, the engine behind their drive to abandon the Episcopal Church for some other ecclesial structure where they can do what they say they can no longer do as Episcopalians. Those of us who are happy to be and remain Episcopalians might be forgiven for wondering what they’re talking about—though such an admission would draw hoots of derision from the realigners: “Of course, you don’t know what that is!” But as is often the case with such stock phrases, the meaning is neither simple nor very like what its users intend.

Laying aside the rhetorical Molotov cocktails—controversies, divisions, hostile innovations—in the letter quoted above, the statement posits a historical phenomenon—a finite and identifiable configuration of Christian faith and practice—something solid, definable, and presumably superior to other options. Does such a thing in fact exist? Has it ever?

The source of the phrase is Jude 1:3. The KJV reads, “Ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered to the saints.” The NEB offers, “Join the struggle in defence of the faith, the faith which God entrusted to his people once and for all.” Notice the expansion of the translation in the NEB: once becomes once and for all. The Greek word is eph’apax -- which means not some time ago but rather once only. The same word is used to describe Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself on the cross. It has happened, won’t happen again, doesn’t need to. That word might be construed to mean that nothing whatever can be added—or subtracted—from the faith delivered, but since not even the handful of Christians alive when Jude wrote agreed on what that faith was, that reading seems doubtful. Jude’s epistle is an ad hominem attack on some people historians and theologians later labeled docetists whom some considered troublemakers. The Johannine letters also deal with that dispute. To the docetists the idea that the god of all power, might, majesty, and honor could really fit himself into human flesh was both incomprehensible and repellent. They said God only seemed to take human flesh—and thus their name, from the Greek dokein —to seem human but really was not. The response in Jude and elsewhere seeks to affirm Jesus’ real humanity and historic solidity: one of us and like us. Beyond false belief, Jude also accuses the docetists of licentiousness and immorality, says they respect neither the past nor authority, they don’t understand the whole subject, and they cause divisions. The tendency to expand disagreement in belief to include broader arenas of offense is not new. In any case, the faith in that dispute—whether Jesus was real or not—is not what the realigners mean, though they might well include docetism among happy Episcopalians’ manifold faults.

But the faith and the church of Jude’s time were still far from gelled and hardly included a thorough articulation of what the realigners say they hanker for. So if the “faith” Jude’s phrase mentions is not what the realigners mean, then what do they mean? They seem to posit a conjunto of Christian belief and practice that is complete, succinct, unchallenged and unchallengable, unchanging, superior: true faith. Let alone the fact that many other quite un-Anglican bodies claim to own and practice the true faith (claims most often met with a mixture of derision and resentment), one doubts such a thing has ever existed—except in the judgment of those who claim to own and practice it. In the United States alone, thousands upon thousands of brands of Christianity flourish side by side, their number increasing daily. The senior brands go back to the Reformation, but Reformation protestants shared no such agreement. Before the Reformation, Rome and Orthodoxy split the horse blanket in the twelfth century, ostensibly over the filoque but just as much over power and control. The last time anything like a one-page-memo version of Christianity that suited just about everybody existed was the Nicaea/Chalcedon era, 350 years after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The formulation of faith and practice those councils produced we now call classical catholic Christianity
From our historical viewpoint, we might find it exhilarating to presume a great consensual triumph when the the session which produced universal agreement ended. But wise scholars caution those who speak of “the clear and undisputed meaning of the Constitution” that to understand the Constitution, we must read the minutes of the convention which show that the final document is the bare minimum expression of the very few things the founders could agree on. Too bad we don’t have minutes from the fourth century, but other documents reveal violent disagreement—including murder—right up to and beyond the moment the final gavel fell. The formula “believed by all people in all places at all times” is wishful thinking.

That form of Christianity, however, is probably pretty close to what the realigners mean. It’s not insignificant that the Vatican has in these last days found it necessary to urge feuding Anglicans to make up our minds if we are sixteenth or first century Christians. Rome spots a birdnest on the ground, of course, and first century is a bit over the top, but fourth century? That’s the first time the church got it together—under more or less genial pressure from the empire to shape up, line up, and shut up—so an examination of the run-up to the formulation of classical catholic Christianity should help us understand what our diocesan leaders mean.

First and foremost, let’s not forget that a good many alternatives flanked the Nicene formulae, because up to then, nobody had said This is the truth, and there is no other—well, not effectively anyway. Recall that upon Jesus’ ascension, the apostles did not run out and buy KJV Bibles and copies of the 1928 Prayer Book. Recall what they had to work with: no written records, no clearly defined set of ideas, the memories of many people of the plethora of acts and sayings attributed to Jesus (many later repudiated), the individual experiences of everyone who knew Him, and the conviction that He was alive after the crucifixion and promised to gather His own into the heavenly mansions. All that is highly subjective, highly individual, and often extraordinarily hard to formulate and communicate to others. But they knew they should and set out to try.

Our knowledge of that earliest period—the half century after the crucifixion—is severely limited, though we glimpse that primitive Jerusalem Christianity throughout the New Testament, all of which was written down decades after most who actually saw Jesus had shuffled off the mortal coil.

For the sake of concision, here follows an abbreviated account of the principal types of pre-Nicene Christianity. There were dozens, but we will deal with only the most important variations we know about :

• Primitive Jerusalem Christianity: no records; fresh, mysterious, simple; its message, the kerygma—God has acted again in history, the final age has begun in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus; history will close upon his imminent return; visions, ecstasy; Jesus seen more as messiah than divine being; amorphous organization around the apostles.

• Primitive gentile Christianity: the concept of messiah means nothing; the gentile church had no eschatological background for Jesus; Jesus is son of God (raises questions about Jesus’ relation to God the Father); Jesus is Lord (therefore present now, not postponed to a second coming); Jesus the son of God came to earth, died, was resurrected and restored, is now Lord and present to his worshippers; rejection of Torah.

• Pauline Christianity: what we learn in Paul’s writings and those attributed to him; Paul knew primitive Jerusalem Christians but went to the gentiles; the gospel is universal; the gospel is about God’s grace (salvation granted to the unworthy); accepted messianic eschatology, the end coming soon—but not a paramount concern; rejected exclusivity for inclusivity; sin is real, the Mosaic law makes us aware of it, we invariably violate it, no human way out, leads to death; Christ supersedes the law, is condemned by the law but vindicated by God in the resurrection, power of sin broken; life in Christ produces what the law cannot but with few hard and fast ethical rules; love, not law: little interest in Jesus’ life, emphasis on him as Second Adam, something new, “in the form of God” became man and died, God raised him and made him Lord; justification, reconciliation, redemption, grace; church is those who wait for Jesus and live in Christ; initiation in baptism, sustenance in the eucharist.

• Johannine Christianity: what we learn from his gospel and letters; Jesus’ life secondary to his relation to the Father and the divine nature of Christ; truth about God exists independently of history, so Jesus is more revealer of God than actor in history; introduces Greek concept of logos, that which makes God’s being intelligible to humanity; the preexistent divine logos is incarnated in Jesus, and both are now present in history (via the Holy Spirit, the paraclete) and eternity; history is a medium of revelation; judgment is now; life in Christ resembles Paul’s but more mystical, sacramental understanding (Cana/water/wine; Nicodemus/born again; feeding/bread of life); all guaranteed by the paraclete, “only spirit gives life, flesh is no avail”; skirts gnosticism (see below) but seeks to communicate Jesus’ significance to the wider Greek culture.

• Jewish Christianity: various records; outgrowth of primitive form, led by James and successors (Jesus’ family), hounded in and out of Jerusalem, none there by A.D.135; a continuation of Judaism, Jesus is messiah in succession to the prophets, not divine, not virgin born, will be Messiah/Son of Man at return; rejected temple ritual but retained much of Torah and OT; an ethnic religion; they loathed Paul.

• Gnostic Christianity: gnosticism antedates Christianity, has roots all over the place and a vast literature; gnosis = special knowledge, the peephole in the curtain between us and Ultimate Reality, revealed through cult initiation; proceeds from a kind of free-floating, non-specific sense of unhappiness with life as it is; strongly anti-Semitic; apocalyptic; emphasized dualism, the struggle between good and evil, creation mostly evil; posits a vast structure of spiritual beings connecting God to us; body and soul are prisons for spirit; deliverance through a divine messenger; Jesus is docetic, an envelope for pure spirit; rejects the world, embraces asceticism; short on concrete terms, relies heavily on myths; the world is not redeemed but rather escaped; tremendously appealing in its humanity, it garnered many adherents.

Except for purely Jewish Christianity, all the above varieties and more were up and running concurrently—and adherents of all called themselves Christians—about the time the woman who became St. Helena went to Palestine and brought back what she promised were relics of the cross Jesus died on. Her son Constantine was running the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Raised a pagan, he converted famously to Christianity and was busy raising it to the status of state religion. But which kind? He gave the various church parties an ultimatum: clean up your act and give me a church that knows what it believes, an instrument of unity and centralization instead of the morass of claim and counter-claim and diversity and uncertainty I see now. So the church did what it always does: it held conventions—or councils or synods as they called them—meetings where people met and argued and voted.

Constantine forced an issue that had troubled the church for a long time, namely that Jesus had not returned to gather in the faithful, and that meant Christians had either to abandon that part of their faith or expand their understanding of Jesus’ gospel to encompass the possibility of a long and undefined future. The first choice was not a choice, so the church had to think: if the Second Coming, the parousia, is delayed or not what we think it is, then how are we to live in history? The councils Constantine set in motion undertook that monumental task. Working with the scriptures—some of which did not get into the Bible, by the way—and the work of people like Clement, Ignatius, Irenaeus, and the other Church Fathers, they started knocking the edges off loose definitions. They excluded the gnostics as too gauzy, the Jews as too picayune and tied to the past. The purely secular need to achieve a degree of unity sufficient to guarantee the church’s survival drove them: there were plenty of applicants for the job Constantine had in mind for the Christians. And it paid off. The Nicene/Chalcedonian formula presented a Christianity erected on four bases: the creeds, the sacraments, the apostolic succession, and the scriptures, all defined by those councils—for the moment.

And a splendid formulation it was and is, still accepted by the majority of Christians today, though by no means all. At least part of its long success is due to the way it excludes and assimilates, rejects the outworn or the bizarre and accepts much that was then new and risky, closes the door on small certainties and opens it to the nudging of the Holy Spirit. Classic catholic Christianity

• accepts Judaism’s insistence on the importance of history but rejects its obsession with ethnic identity;
• accepts the gnostic yearning for salvation but rejects its grotesque mythical claptrap;
• accepts the eschatological hope of eternal life in the Kingdom of God but rejects historical eschatology, a cataclysmic close of history at a predetermined moment;
• accepts ethical freedom in the context of Pauline love but rejects the demands of the Torah and other hyper-detailed moral codes;
• accepts John’s Christology and sacramentalism, the belief that God’s incarnation in Jesus expands in history, and rejects the docetist view that history doesn’t really count.

The formula has worked well because it preserves what is essential, lays aside what is not, and remains open to the possibility of adjustment to accommodate undeniable historical circumstance—and to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Constantine’s insistence got good results. Earliest Christianity had no unified body of ideas that distinguished between Christians and non-Christians, true and ersatz Christians. It clearly was a religion subject to change and could respond to the challenges of changing times, diverse thought, and cultural differences. Some of that scope was lost when classical catholic Christianity emerged, but there was and is nevertheless unity in the questions addressed: what is the relation between God and man? and who is Jesus? The Nicene formula is the product of people being forced to answer those inexpressibly complicated questions in fairly short order. It has worked because it lets the church look both backward and forward, because it cherishes and lives in tradition but is quite ready to make far-reaching adjustments if circumstances dictate. It is first and last the product of consensus, of people struggling among themselves and praying for the Spirit’s guidance to come to an arrangement where Christians find room to exercise their faith, with or without much dogmatic sophistication, and let others exercise theirs. There’s no denying that some of the councillors, like Athanasius, thought it was altogether too expansive; his creed damns lots of people. For most, however, the formula was just broad enough to include them. The Arian majority gave lots of ground to the conservatives, and both sides won.

Our diocesan leadership’s resistance to many things going on today in the Episcopal Church is not only their indisputable right, it’s entirely traditional: Christians have from the very beginning had to figure things out for themselves. Jesus left us only the most basic—though entirely sufficient—tools to work with: His love, the Holy Spirit, a mystical sacramental bond with him in baptism and the eucharist. All the rest we have to piece together as experience and circumstance teach us, and we have never all sung in unison. Never. Our leaders in Fort Worth err in supposing and saying we ever did, and their nostalgic formula is as illusory now as it was when Jude used it. And thank God for that! Is revelation closed? Is the church finished? Are all the answers in? The notion of a neatly defined, readily available packaged and bottled Christianity, one size fits all, is foreign to this history. That doesn’t mean we can play fast and loose with our religion, and thank God for the conservatives in the Episcopal Church who ask enthusiasts hard questions and avoid doing anything rashly. It does mean we dare not—cannot, indeed—preclude the movement of the Holy Spirit in the church to deepen our understanding of God and of Jesus and our own place and work in the spread of the Kingdom on earth. The faith of God in Christ has been given to the saints, is being given to the saints today, will be vouchsafed to future saints until that Kingdom comes.
Our job is not to protect it; God requires no protection. Our job is to be open to it, to do our best to understand it, and to work with those who are with us—and those who are against us—and trust God to take care of the tares among the wheat.


Fr Craig said...

WOW! thanks, Katie - this is outstanding. Any chance of obtaining permission to copy/distribute this? I am so sick of 'once delivered to the saints'! My bishop notes dryly 'I wish I could see what the receipt from the saints has listed on it."

It always seems to me that when conservatives are faced with clear evidence of their intellectual failures, they simply use slogans and insults to keep themselves whole... easier to denigrate their opponents than change themselves. May God have mercy on them (and, by the way, on me for my open contempt of them...)

Ann said...

Thanks for this -

Katie Sherrod said...

Fr, Craig,

You may certainly copy and distribute this, as long as you give credit to Fr. Bruce Coggin of Fort Worth as the author.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I'm a wee behind in my blog reading. This is simply brilliant. Thanks for posting it, Dr. Sherrod

Derek the ├ćnglican said...

This post is very interesting. It does, however, contain a number of historical and theological mistakes that undercut part of what it's trying to do. For instance:
-Constantine do not impose a uniformity on Christianity. He convened a council to tackle one issue--not *if* but *how* Jesus was divine.
-The fundamental formulations were not Constantinian either. The basis for the Nicean creed was not hammered out at Nicea. Instead, it was based in the baptismal creed of Caeserea. Compare our Apostles' Creed--it was the baptismal creed of Roman for which the first manuscript evidence is in the second century. Rather, the council adjusted a few phrases to exclude Arian belief.
-There was no compromise with Arian belief. The debate was whether Jesus was a creature created by God and bound in time. The council declared that he was neither. It's pretty much an either/or kind of thing.
-Athanasius didn't write the Athanasian Creed. In fact, it's far more likely to have been the work of Vincent of Lerins, a fifth century Gaulish monk who died about a century after Athanasius.

The post is also working with a rather atomized understanding of early Christian streams of thought that emerges more from modern academic studies than from early church documents. Yes, there was variation in Early Christianity. Yes, some of the beliefs listed here do match up with certain groups mentioned by early writers like Irenaeus and Eusebius. However, scholars like to isolate "pure" forms that do not seem to have existed as independent communities after the first century.There was much broader agreement on the shape of early Christianity than this post posits.

I certainly don't agree with what The Diocese of Fort Worth is doing. The use of the phrase "the faith once delivered" does not, in my estimation, refer to what they think it does. However, that does not mean that we should take liberties with Church History to score rhetorical points.

Rev. Raggsdale said...

Absolutely wonderful! I'm bookmarking this for later reference!

johnieb said...

Thanks very much for this, Ms. (You're a Doctoris now?) Sherrod and Fr. Coggin, and to Counterlight's new blog for the headsup.

BaronVonServers said...

Katie, (If I may be so bold as to use your given name...)

The 'Presiding Bishop(ess)' has publicly question the uniqueness of Jesus the Christ as the mediator of salvation.

How can ANY definition of the 'faith once delivered' by reconciled with that woman's public statements?

Katie Sherrod said...

Dear Baron,
I would use your given name if you had used it.
This calumny against the Presiding Bishop has been debunked again and again. Do your homework. She has done no such thing.