Two thousand years of Christian History have produced many changes in the secondary things of the faith. But what is primary and unchangeable? All believers have drawn a line somewhere since the death of the first apostles. But where draw the line?
The first believers appealed to the specific teaching of Jesus and the twelve the Lord appointed. Then Paul met the Risen Jesus who called and appointed him too. The other apostles came to believe, in time, that he was indeed truly so called, as Paul himself claimed: “Last of all…he appeared to me.” After Paul the number of the apostles was closed. Appeal was to them collectively. But what happened when they died?
What we know is that the local churches continued to pass on what they had received from those apostles who first came to them. Those who were eyewitnesses told their story. Some wrote down what they knew. In time the church sorted out the writings that were accorded authority, either from the apostles own hands, or from those associated with them. The New Testament was recognized to have the status of Holy Scripture. It was the summation of the “apostle’s teaching” as Luke puts it in Acts, and from then on the line was drawn there. But still it was not enough. Disputes emerged about how to interpret the writings. Church leaders argued, debated, and disagreed about what the parameters of acceptable belief were to be. They appealed to the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit among them, and to the witness of the New Testament writings. They struggled to define theological orthodoxy – right belief – for believers.
Next came the creeds. The essentials of the faith to be believed and professed before receiving water baptism, the creeds attempted to sum up the central truths of the Holy Scriptures of both the Old and New Testament.The oldest of these creeds is known to us still as the Apostle’s Creed. It is derived from the early second century baptismal creed of the church in Rome, and assumed its present and final form in the third century. The Nicene Creed would followed in the fourth century, and it took on near universal authority in the Christian world. It was a defining line.
After the creeds came the councils. The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) was the model. These were gatherings of church leaders, all now called bishops (overseers), to deliberate and decide together what accorded with the faith of the apostles and what did not. Every evidence we have of these gatherings shows that the bishops appealed to the New Testament to clarify disputed points. And they sought to decide consensually.
The boundaries of the faith were settled. The organization of the one church was settled. The lines had been drawn. For a thousand years these would not be disputed. This is what the apostles taught: “The faith once delivered to the saints.” Anglican Christians call this settled pattern “the historic Faith and Order” of the church. These things were foundational, but secondary. The gospel was primary and unchangeable. The lines were designed to uphold the truth revealed in Christ Jesus.
Next Week: Reformation