Over this last year I have pondered aloud what I should believe about orthodoxy, heterodoxy, and heresy. I have asked whether or not I should affirm any or all of the seven ecumenical creeds (here). In part, this is because I have wondered whether or not the biblical canon is enough to be the final word of doctrine and practice for the church. When I consider that the canon formed over a similar time period as something like the doctrine of the Trinity (here) what would lead me to see the church as correct about the canon and wrong about this or that major doctrine? In other words, why accept that the canon was formed correctly while denying that all or any of the councils were correct ? What is the role of tradition?
As someone considered as part of an “ecclesiastical community” in what sense to I attribute authority to early bishops and councils but not modern ones? Why would I consider Athanaius of Alexandria to be someone I should respect while Bartholomew I as an important Christian leader, but not one whom I ought to submit myself? While I will not rejoice in any divisions within Christianity (here) this does not mean I can come to see the episcopate of Roman Catholicism (here) and/or Eastern Orthodoxy (here) as a necessary, visible means of authentic Christianity. I wish I could, but I can’t. I simply do not believe it. So what is it upon which I base my understanding of orthodoxy?
This is something a good friend asked my the other day. Where to I draw the line? Who do I see as orthodox, heterodox, or heretical? Would I consider a Oneness Pentecostal, a Jehovah’s Witness, or a Mormon to be a brother or sister in Christ? Does the thesis of scholars like Bart D. Ehrman and Elaine Pagels stand true: early Christianity was as diverse as modern Christianity and all forms have a little bit of the truth? Is there an “in” and an “out”? How do we know we are faithful to the doctrine of the apostles or that we are going toward heresy?
The earliest, bare minimum creed we have is the Apostle’s Creed. It is unlikely that it came directly from the apostles, but it does not address later doctrinal debates like we see in the Nicene Creed, for example. This leads most to see it as a fairly early reflection of shared orthodoxy. It states the following:
I believe in God
the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth
I believe in Jesus Christ, his Son, our only Lord
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.
He ascended to heaven and is seated as the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit.
the holy, catholic church, the communion of the saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.
This would make the minimum requirements for Christian fellowship to be (1) belief in the one God, the Father; (2) his Son Jesus Christ; (3) the Holy Spirit; (4) the virgin conception/birth; (5) Jesus’ historicity as one who suffered under Pilate; (6) the crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ; (7) Christ’s descent to the grave and ascension into heaven; (8) his rule in the power of the Father and his role as coming judge; (8) the second coming; (9) the unity of the one, catholic church; (10) forgiveness of sins (atonement?); (11) our resurrection; (12) our eternal life.
Now there is reason for Nicaea, and Constantinople, and Chalcedon and I believe the Spirit guided the church to make right (more accurate) declarations about God, Christ, and the Spirit in order to correct error (or, at least, erroneous trajectories), but I am not sure if I can honestly denounce the Christianity of someone who either (a) doesn’t understand what is at stake when they do not affirm these councils/creeds or (b) does understand, but thinks that the councils/creeds went too far in declaring what is accurate about things that we cannot fully know. If someone cannot line up with the simplicities of the Apostle’s Creed it seems easier to wonder about their Christian confession (though, admittedly, the virgin birth and the descent into the grave may be hard for even the most honest Christian).
This is what twelve months of thinking about the Scriptures, Patristic thought, creeds, and councils has gotten me: I think I am still a doctrinal minimalist when it comes to what constitutes authentic Christianity. This doesn’t mean I don’t have formulated beliefs (e.g. I am Trinitarian and I think Oneness Pentecostals are incorrect in their doctrine; I think believer’s baptism is a more accurate reading of Scripture, but I do not denounce those who affirm infant baptism), it just means that I think experiencing the kingdom of God is more than what we affirm cognitively.