More Than the Minimum

Brian LePort thinks that the Apostles’ Creed is (or at least should be) the minimum standard for Christian fellowship.  I wanted to make a few comments in response to a paragraph toward the end of Brian’s post but since they’re kind of lengthy I’m posting them here instead of there.  Brian said:

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).

From where I’m sitting it doesn’t much matter whether I (or any individual) denounce the Christianity of someone else; what matters is whether or not the Church has done so. Who am I to come in and attempt to overthrow settled doctrinal matters because they don’t agree with my sensibilities (and what is it about me that is causing this disagreement in the first place)? The Apostles’ Creed is good so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough — if it did then we’d have no reason for anything beyond it. Most heretics can affirm the Apostles’ Creed without issue. Why? Because it’s general and vague.  I’ve known a number of Socinians and Christadelphians who affirm the Apostles’ Creed, and I’d imagine that Oneness Pentecostals could affirm it without issue as well (although I don’t personally know any who do), but that doesn’t make them members of the body of Christ, sorry.  And I’ll just say this about salvation: There is no salvation outside of the Church.  Why?  Well, because the Church is the body of Christ and the body derives its life from the head.  To be detached from the head is to be detached from the source of life.  This counts a whole lotta folks out whether we like it or not, and I’ll admit that it’s unpleasant to think about, but the truth can be unpleasant at times.

Now with regard to using the Apostles’ Creed as standard for what constitutes the minimum for Christian fellowship, it seems arbitrary to me. For example, Brian characterizes the contents of the Apostles’ Creed as “simplicities” that if not affirmed are cause for alarm. What’s so simple about the Apostles’ Creed and difficult about the Ecumenical Creeds? They all seem pretty straightforward, in fact, I’d argue that the more precise the creed, the more likely it is to be understood since there’s less room for ambiguity. In other words, why the Apostles’ Creed and not the Ecumenical Creeds or some Reformed confession? How does one settle on one and not another?  I can say that the Ecumenical Creeds (and by that I mean the first seven) have the benefit of being ecumenical which automatically catapults them above the Apostles’ Creed or any Reformed confession.

But I think the thing that most stuck with me after reading Brian’s post was the strangeness of  seeking a “minimum” for Christian fellowship in the first place. To sit around and ask, “What’s the least someone can believe or do and still be a Christian?” strikes me as the wrong kind of question.  But more to the point, what exactly does Christian fellowship entail?  I think that’s the more important question here.  Obviously Christian fellowship at least entails being Christian (or so I’d think), so the issue of who is or is not a Christian is important, but presumably all Christians can agree on the Church’s faith as expressed in the Ecumenical Creeds.  It’s only heretics and non-Christians who should have problems with these statements of faith.  So anyway, what does Christian fellowship entail?  Hanging out at Starbucks drinking coffee?  Singing karaoke?  Partaking in the Lord’s Supper?  Singing songs of worship?  What?



25 thoughts on “More Than the Minimum

  1. Amen Nick. True Christianity can really only be expressed by dogmatic theology, and for me as an Anglican, and even ‘Anglo-Orthodox’ to quote Timothy Ware, I must stand with the Seven Ecumenical Councils. No minimalism here!

  2. I think Marc Cortez responded properly by bifurcating (or I guess trifurcating) between necessary beliefs for salvation, fellowship and orthodoxy. The first category is the easiest as “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Of course, confessing Jesus as Lord seems to entail some other things beyond the verbal confession.

    Fellowship would be similar I think, although somewhat restricted as it would not include those living out of fellowship with the Lord, including those being disciplined by the church, for instance.

    Orthodoxy is restricted to those who believe in accordance with the church universal, including Protestants, Orthodox and Catholics, but not including those who reject the councils.

  3. To answer the fellowship question, it seems to be unified in doctrine to the point of being able to worship together. Obviously JWs, for instance, are not in agreement on the god being worshipped. Christians worship the Triune God of Scripture, JWs don’t. So yeah, fellowship requires the councils for clarification. I know that many Anabaptists and some Baptists are proud to proclaim, “no creed but Christ,” but such a statement seems to diminish the continuing work of the Spirit amongst his bride.

  4. @Nick: I appreciate your thoughts. For the most part it would appear to me that the seven ecumenical creeds are to be taken seriously, because, as you noted, they are ecumenical. I do need to review the content of each creed before I can say I completely agree though.

    I am not trying to make it individualistic (though I can see where this accusation has ground), but I cannot say I believe something that I do not believe. While I do not think JW’s or Oneness Pentecostals are in good shape for the most part, at the end of the day allegiance to Christ is first and foremost and he will show his true people to the world at the judgment.

    I hope that what I said doesn’t sound like I want to settle with the bare minimum. As I tried to make clear in the comments I do not stop pushing people toward a more orthodox understanding (e.g. my Oneness Pentecostal friends and family) but at the end of the day I must say that the Spirit is as much a part of the work in saving and sanctifying them as he is me. With that in mind I won’t call a loyalist to Christ lost with broad sweeps because I simply don’t know.

  5. Esteban: As well you should!

    Fr. Robert: Right you are.

    Kyle: I agree. Marc’s comment was one of the more helpful ones in that thread. I had actually mentioned it in the initial draft of this post but deleted it last minute.

    Wrapped up in confessing Jesus is confessing a particular Jesus. The Jesus that JWs or Mormons or Oneness Pentecostals, et al. confess is not the Jesus that saves. I think this point is underappreciated and hidden under the canard that one needn’t mentally assent to detailed doctrines in order to be saved.

    Brian: No one would ask you to say that you believe something that you don’t. I’d ask you why you don’t believe it though. Allegiance to Christ is key, of course, but it must be to the Christ that the Church confesses. I don’t understand your last comment. Are you saying that you believe that the Spirit is presently saving and sanctifying heretics? If so I’d be interested in why you believe this. And if I’m understanding you correctly then where does it stop? Is the Spirit also saving and sanctifying militant atheists or Muslims?

  6. @Nick: I would say that the work of the Spirit is not determined by our cognitive knowledge nor our doctrinal precision. We cannot know if each and every person who espouses incorrect beliefs has done so in such a way that now they are in rebellion against God. I am sure there are some, maybe even many. But to say because someone currently believes this or that their allegiance to Christ is void and null seems, to me, to be stepping beyond what we can actually know.

    When it comes to militant atheist and/or Muslims there is no confessing of Jesus as Lord, there is no belief in the resurrection. I am not sure why I’d see them as being sanctified by the Spirit. Drawn? Maybe, but that is different than having actually gone to the point of confessing Christ as Lord.

    There are some people whom we may never know where they are in relation to God. The Fourth Gospel presents Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea as legitimate, though secret, disciples. We may have Christian brothers or sisters in the synagogue or the mosque right now who have come to faith in Christ, but have not made public confession nor have they lined up their doctrinal ducks. We don’t know them yet, but God is sovereign and good.

    As far as what I do and do not believe, for example, I’d say that the seventh ecumenical creed says some things about icons that I am not sure that I believe. I do believe in the unity of the saints, both dead and alive, but I am not sure that I must venerate them anymore than I ought to venerate the brother or sister who sits in the pew next to me on a Sunday. I have no qualms with Nicaea, Constantinople, or even Chalcedon. I just haven’t had time to ponder the later creeds to see if I can say that I honestly feel like the right decision was made.

    I hope that provides some clarification on my nuanced view.

  7. Nick,

    I agree with your points about seeking a “minimum” or not.

    I think it would be helpful to simply say that there is an “objective” standard and “subjective” appropriation of that standard. If someone does not affirm the former, then they necessarily have not done the latter; since these two are inextricably related realities.

    The standard of course being Jesus and who He really is (the second person of the Trinity, which then presupposes the Trinity, which then means the Gospel is necessarily Trinitarian in shape). It’s certainly possible to have a “different Jesus” who cannot save. And who we believe this Jesus to be will shape how we conceive of “salvation” in the first place. I.e. JW’s have a “works-righteousness salvation” because their Jesus can’t actually “bridge” the gap between God and man, because their Jesus isn’t the “God-Man” etc.

    I don’t see a difference between the God who atheists worship and self-conscious “Jesus only” oneness Pentecostals worship; since in the end they both bottom out at the same place (the self).

    I think Paul says it best in I Cor. 12:3 . . . and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

    Clearly when someone comes to faith in the “true” Christ they don’t have to have a full orbed understanding of the Trinity etc. It’s just that if they are truly saved that they have believed in the Jesus who indeed is the second person of said Trinity. If not, they have not believed in a saving Gospel.

  8. Brian: I think that’s a bit of a red herring to be honest. I’ll call it the ‘cognitive canard’ if you will. If I told someone that I knew you and then proceeded to describe you as a 7 foot tall black woman from Tuscany, Italy who had a penchant for gambling, cheating on her husband, and punching midgets in the mouth, then anyone who actually knew you would say that I didn’t know you at all because I got your look and your character wrong. They wouldn’t say, “Well, I can’t say for sure that Nick doesn’t know Brian because it’s not my place to say so, or, it goes beyond the bounds of what I can know about either Nick or Brian.” That would be ridiculous. What kind of allegiance could I have to you without knowing anything about you, or claiming to know things about you that just aren’t true?

    As far as Muslims and atheists, why not? You’re using some kind of standard here, i.e., confessing Jesus as Lord and confessing belief in the resurrection, but why that standard? That stuff is found in Scripture, but the Church that gave us the creeds gave us the NT, right?

    I have some opinions on your “secret” Christian scenario but I’ll reserve them for another time. I don’t have the energy to go off on tangents right now.

    Bobby: I’m in almost total agreement.

  9. This subject should bring us to the reality and theology of The Mystical Body of Christ, and Communion therein. Here is a profound quote from an Orthodox Christian, Symeon the New Theologian: “The Holy Trinity, pervading everyone from first to last, from head to foot, binds them together . . . The saints in each generation, joined to those who have gone before, and filled like them with light, become a golden chain, in which each saint is a separate link, united to the next by faith, works and love. Do in the One God then form a single chain which cannot quickly be broken.”

    Certainly we have no “minimalism” here, but the abounding reality of the Body-Life of Christ! But we still cannot escape the totality of the Church of God. The what, when and where?

  10. @Nick: While I understand the analogy it seems to stretch reality a bit. We have a Jesus who is known from the proclamation of the apostolic community over two millennium ago, not someone who lives across the country whom you could meet today through various means. We know Christ personally through the Spirit, but this is still not as tangible as if you were to come see me in person. If it were there be no reason for our hope in Christ’s appearing. On that day if we find out all who did not affirm the councils and creeds were lost, Christ is just and right in his judgment. If he discover he has those we do not know, Christ is just and right in his judgment.

    Again, as regards atheist or Muslims, there doesn’t seem to be any sense in which they respond in allegiance to the apostolic proclamation. While it is true that the same church handed these documents and traditions down to us, it is also true that this is a church of humans, culturally and historically confined, and not infallible. It appears that I am being presented with an either-or that doesn’t necessarily exist in reality: either the Christ of all the ecumenical councils or everyone and anyone is saved; either all of what the early church affirmed or there is no reason to see the earliest Christian documents as authoritative for faith and doctrine. The either-or isn’t necessarily the only options.

  11. Where is the Catholic who steps in to make fun of our Protestant arguments over authority?

  12. @Brian I saw that! Honestly though, I’ve often struggled with the question and know that many of my Reformed brethren would never admit it, but view the WCF or 1689 LBCF as the standard for guiding interpretation. Tradition is important for interpretation.

  13. Fr. Robert: Great quotation!

    Brian: I’m saddened by your first paragraph. There’s no way I can respond to it without sounding some way that I don’t want to sound so I’ll just leave it alone.

    And you haven’t been presented with only two options; you’ve simply been pressed on your standards which are inconsistent by any measure.

    Bobby: Same to you!

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