Sunday, May 04, 2008

Ecclesiology in the Earliest Creeds

Various sources confirm that creedal statements were employed by the early Church on the baptism of converts. This practice continues today of course but her creeds took some time to develop. The earliest form of what we now call “The Apostles Creed” was most likely something very similar to the following creed found in a second century Gnostic text:

“I [believe] in the Father almighty, - and in Jesus Christ, our Savior; -and in the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, in the holy Church, and in the remission of sins.”
However close this was or wasn’t to the earliest orthodox creeds, we can notice one thing about what data we do have on the matter. In addition to the Godhead and the remission of sins, all of our samples in the earliest creeds contain a reference to “the Church”. This deserves our attention (as does anything which the early Christians ranked among the Godhead and forgiveness of sins in terms of essentiality to Christianity).

What this point demonstrates is that the post-sixteenth century ecclesiology employed by many denominations today is terribly out of sync with the early Church. The importance assigned to it tells several things. First, that we cannot read “invisible Church” here. Second, we must understand the “Church” envisioned to hold some sort of authority. Finally, allegiance to this Church is an essential tenant of Christianity.

To prove that the early Christians cannot have meant an “invisible Church” here, one need only replace the word "Church" with “invisible Church” and recite the creed (taking note of how much less sense it makes). An invisible Church is not worth believing in at all much less would it be one of the top five most important tenants of Christianity (if it were really true)! The notion of “invisible Church” neither beckons one to affirm it by faith or reject it out of disbelief. It pleads for indifference! When we say “I believe in the invisible Church” or more likely in the form: “the Church is the collective body of all true Christians throughout the world regardless of which denomination they belong to”, it really boils down not to an affirmation of a tenant of Christianity but rather a denial of one. That is: “I don’t believe in the visible Church”. The invisible Church described above is certainly something that exists whether we believe in it or not. There is truly a sum total of all authentic Christians regardless of which system of doctrine ends up being true. What those who believe in it mean when they assert such things is that the early Christians had this sort of powerless idea of “Church” in mind when they said it. Such a “Church” isn’t worth believing in primarily because it asks nothing of the believer. Keep this point in mind as we progress through the next two.

Secondly, the Church of the creeds must have held authority. This is why the creeds beckoned the convert to believe in it in the first place. It had authority which could be pointed to as we saw in Acts 15 and the Jerusalem council. We should recall now that when Jesus beckoned others to believe in Him , He was not (and could not possibly) be asking for mere intellectual assent that He was real. He was asking them to acknowledge His authority (and live accordingly). The creed is acting similarly in regards to the Church. It is not requesting that the convert merely acknowledge that a Church exists (even a visible one how much less an invisible one!), it was asking the convert to acknowledge the authority such a Church had over the Christian being welcomed into her fold.

Finally, that the Church was visible and authoritative was not merely part of the Christian faith, but a defining tenant. In fact, one could argue that those outside the Church could not properly be called Christians. To be a Christian, meant to be baptized and welcomed into the Church. You couldn’t merely say “I believe in Christ” to be a Christian, you had to also say “I believe in His Church”. We still have to say it today. Attempts at redefining what His Church actually is are as futile as disbelieving it altogether.


Adrienne said...

Very good post. Keep up the good work. You're pretty smart for a 26 year old whippersnapper:)

Tim A. Troutman said...

Ah, you're the one who deposed me of my title as Best Armchair Theologian on Crestcat's blog awards! Hehe congratulations.

And thanks for the comments.

Adrienne said...

Only thanks to Tony (Soprano) and my 12 year old campaign manager at Little Pink Toolbox (daughter of Jackie at Mothers Pride)

Doc Rampage said...

None of this makes any sense to me. First of all, I don't know what this "invisible church" is. Protestants believe that the church referred to in the New Testament, and therefore in other early documents, was the entire body of believers. There is nothing invisible about this. Also, I don't see how this creed implies any sort of authority on the part of the church and I don't see any oath of allegiance there either --it's just a testament of belief. Or is this oath suggesting some authority of and promising some sort of allegiance to the remission of sins also?

Not that protestants deny the authority of the church or the need for allegiance to it --our difference is over who represents the church.

Tim A. Troutman said...

Bryan Cross has a recent post on the visibility of the Church. You might enjoy it.

Doc Rampage said...

Thanks for the pointer, Tim. If I have time, I might write a post responding to that one.