By Whose Authority?

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. – Matthew 21:23-27

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Cassian’s insight is similar to what would later be called the Vincentian Canon, named after its progenitor St. Vincent of Lerins.  He argued, “we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”

The early church, led by the apostles and their successors, saw themselves as in continuity with the teaching of Jesus handed on by the disciples.  They determined to hold “the authority of all,” led by the Holy Spirit, above any individual or regional variations. – Rev. Drew McIntyre, “”Orthodoxy As The ‘Authority Of All'”, Uniting Grace, August 11, 2015

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Once I was all keen on calling all sorts of folks heretics. Now, I realize it’s a game, pure and simple, one I choose not to play. Are, say, Mormons “Christian” or not? They certainly think so. Are Jehovah’s Witnesses? Again – they believe themselves to be. Considering the bloody history of hunting heretics, I think it far wiser, and far more in keeping with a Wesleyan understanding of grace, to preach and teach our faith without worrying overmuch if we’re all getting it right. Isn’t that, after all, no different than wanting to make sure we are good enough and work hard enough to win salvation? All our doctrine errs, because we are human and sinful. Our faith is in the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not some words on a page or computer screen. – Me, comment on “Orthodoxy As . . .”, August 12, 2015

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A depiction of the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, where the first anathema against false doctrine was announced. It took about a century, and a couple more councils, to make it stick.

A depiction of the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, where the first anathema against false doctrine was announced. It took about a century, and a couple more councils, to make it stick.

Over time, Christian doctrine has been understood as the content of the teaching office of the Church. When people wish to know what it is we believe, we profess the doctrines of the Church as the collective wisdom of the saints. Theology, as distinct from doctrine, is the variety of ways in which ages have come to understand what those doctrines mean for them; how they apply both to faith and life; in their variety, and more than occasional conflict, demonstrated the brokenness of the Body of Christ. All the names we give ourselves – Catholic and Orthodox, Protestant and Radical, Calvinist and Arminian – are our collective confession of sin before the throne of God.

Doctrine itself, however, is little different. Not anything Divine, certainly not contained within the testimony of Scripture unless teased out by various methods and through a variety of hermeneutical tools, Christian doctrine is the all too human profession of self-identity. Not at all confession, because our confession is always in the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, doctrine is the always changing self-understanding of the people called by God to proclaim the Good News and work for the Kingdom of God. When I say that doctrine is “always changing”, I do not mean to imply there is nothing solid on which to hold. Rather, I am noting only the simple historical fact that Christian doctrine is now, and has always, changed.

Once upon a time, millions of Christians believed that Jesus Christ, no matter how exalted, was still a creature. Adopted by God to fulfill God’s purposes of salvation, there was nothing Divine in Christ, either in body or soul. This teaching, by the Bishop Arius, gained quite a following in the late Roman Empire. Holding that Divinity was a substance vouchsafed to God alone, not to be divided or subsumed under human nature, they refused to grant equality to Jesus as the Divine Son of God.

There were others, however, whose self-appointed leader was Bishop Athanasius, who insisted that the efficacy of salvation could only come through Divine action. Thus, Jesus Christ, for all it might sound confounding, confusing, and contradictory, was both fully human and fully divine, being of one substance with the Father. A better politician than Arius, Athanasius convinced the Emperor, Constantine, that the division within the church was harmful to the peace of the Empire; that the self-professed Arian Christians, erring as they did, threatened not only the stability of the Empire, but the immortal souls of those who so believed. Constantine agreed, less on theological and more on political grounds, and called a Council of all the Bishops of the Empire at the resort city of Nicaea, not far from the Imperial capital of Constantinople.

The Council convened quickly, before Arius and many of his followers could arrive. Athanasius managed to convince a majority of the correctness of his position. The result, the confession of Nicaea, expressed not only the belief in the dual nature of Christ, but anathematized anyone teaching or holding the belief that, as Athanasius claimed the Arians taught, “There was a time when He was not.” Lacking the kinds of instant communication we have today, however, it took time to spread the word. Arius poo-pooed the Nicaean declaration, rightly noting that the whole thing was rigged. He continued to lead his city, preach and teach his doctrine, and millions continued to believe as he did. The bishop who baptized Constantine on his deathbed was an Arian believer.

It took about a century for the general consensus that we as Christians now hold – the dual nature of Christ, that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, with no intermingling of the two natures – to become fully accepted in the Church. After Arius died, his writings were confiscated and destroyed; what little we know of his actual teachings comes from those who insisted he erred, and erred dangerously.

In the centuries since, the Church’s authority has come down hard on those whose teachings strayed from the “official” doctrines of the Church. By the tenth century, even the eastern and western churches had become separated over an argument about the procession of persons in the Trinity, each excommunicating the other. Luther considered the Pope the anti-Christ; Luther, for his part, was anathematized, excommunicated, any followers denied communion with the Mother Church, and because of the long-standing teaching extra ecclesiam nunc salus, damned to hell for all eternity. John Calvin thought it a good idea to burn Servetus at the stake because Servetus was, for all intents and purposes, a Unitarian. The desire to enforce conformity has been a deadly reality over seventeen hundred years of church history.

Which is why I am troubled by some among fellow United Methodists who not only insist on a juridical role for doctrine, but that doctrine is more than the collective self-identity of the professing Church. I always say that I hold to what I consider the traditional doctrines of the Church; my theology is so orthodox it’s actually boring. All the same, to insist that doctrine is not just profession but confession, that in which we believe, makes an idol no different from the golden calf of the Israelites in the desert. To insist that United Methodists all hold as “true” the words in our Articles of Religion makes such action little different from purchasing indulgences or other forms of what has been called works righteousness. To make of doctrine some kind of test of faith for individuals, rather than our collective profession of identity, all too human and subject to change, is not just dangerous. It perverts doctrine, making it something it is not.

To write, as Rev. McIntyre did, that “[h]eresy is by definition a lie” makes a categorical distinction between what is different only in degree. Of course those who teach what is not held in the official teachings of the various churches err. What they do not do is “lie”. Their “error”is little different from our own self-proclaimed “orthodox” doctrines. What difference exists is only matters of degree rather than kind. There is nothing of grace in the insistent demand for orthodox conformity. There is certainly none in the desire to make of doctrine something with legal force, particularly in the United Methodist Church. Down that way lies heresy trials, something we neither need nor should desire. Does the acceptance of distinct theologies, such as various liberation or protest theologies, become heretical? Indeed, on a personal note, I don’t really think the Virgin Birth is a doctrine that we need to hold. It matters not a whit to who Jesus was or is. It certainly defies the testimony of Scripture, in which St. Mary had other children, at the very least St. James, whom St. Paul calls, “our Lord’s brother”. In any event, the sexual history of Jesus’s mother hardly matters to who Jesus was or is; it’s more a residue of a genetic theory of original sin than anything else (and probably was originally conceived, no pun intended, to counter claims that Jesus was the result of Mary being raped by a Roman soldier). I don’t have any problem with it being a part of our collective profession; I also do not hold to it as a doctrine, and when speaking the collective confession, I remain silent on that line.

The ongoing demands for doctrinal conformity is just far too dangerous a road down which to travel. We have no business on that road, not least because ours is a Church that understand history. That history is just too bloody, in the name of orthodox conformity, for me to believe any good can come from it. Enforcing doctrinal conformity not only raises an idol at the Altar of God; it violates the spirit of grace that is at the heart of our unique Wesleyan approach to the faith. Considering Wesley’s doctrine of Christian Perfection was considered heretical both in his own time, and by many in our own, it would seem far more humble to be gracious and humble rather than strident and triumphant on such matters.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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