The Rule of Faith and the Canon

One of the big ideas of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code concerned the canon of Scripture.  He picked up on a popular idea that Constantine brought to an end a free-flowing Christianity and imposed a certain orthodoxy on the church -- including a New Testament canon.  The truth is, that "official" list had been in the process of development for some time.  In fact, Marcion's attempt to create a canon served as the real impetus -- and his canon was much smaller than that embraced by the wider church.  In large part that was due to a strong anti-Judaism present in his theology and much of Gnostic thought.

So, how do you decide what belongs in this listing of authoritative books?  The early Christian leaders turned to a number of criteria, including apostolic authorship and perceived age.  Of course, since many documents claimed to be early and of apostolic origin, that proved insufficient.  Thus, creedal formulations began to emerge -- what have come to be known as the Rule of Faith.  The key to discerning what belonged in the canon was its content -- did it match what at least some Christians considered orthodoxy.  Everything, including New Testament Scripture, had to be measured against this standard.

The Rule of Faith proved necessary because heterodox and orthodox alike made use of the same texts. To refute heterodox opponents the church developed the Rule of Faith, a summary of the Christian faith that emerged out of the Scriptural witness, and then helped form the New Testament canon.  Though there is a strong relationship between the Rule and the New Testament, its origins can be found instead in oral tradition.  Kurt Aland made the following comment on this rule.
It presents the deposit of the developing faith possessed by the church.  Its content accordingly changed, even when the words remained the same for a longer period of time or altogether.  The formula attained life, indeed its real existence only through interpretation.  It presupposes a definite and continuously developing basic prior understanding, even though the regula fidei was only one of the normative points in which the church of the second century saw the pure doctrine being guaranteed.  [Kurt Aland, A History of Christianity: From the Beginnings to the Threshold of the Reformation (History of Christianity) (Volume 1), p. 115].
Though it was not the only guarantee, adherence to this Rule of Faith  was seen by many as constituting orthodox Christian faith.    

Because both heretics and orthodox quoted from and used Scripture, Tertullian, in his Prescriptions Against Heretics, insisted that one should not argue with the heterodox from Scripture.  To do so was a fruitless venture.  Furthermore, since the orthodox church had ownership of the Scriptures from the beginning, they alone could argue from Scripture.  Thus, if one was to argue from Scripture, one must first affirm the Rule of Faith.  Tertullian insisted that "This Rule, taught (as will be proved) by Christ, allows of no questions among us, except those  which heresies introduce and make heretics."  Therefore, ifs you did not contradict this Rule of Faith, you could discuss as much as you liked.  [Tertullian, "Prescription Against Heretics," in S.L. Greenslade, ed., Early Latin Theology,  (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), 39-41].

So, what did this precursor to the Apostles Creed look like?  Here is Tertullian's version, which emerged at the beginning of the third century.

 The Rule of Faith--to state here and now what we maintain--is of course that by which we believe that there is but one God, who is none other than the Creator of the World, who produced everything from nothing through his Word, and sent forth before all things; that this Word is called his Son, and in the Name of God was seen in divers ways by the patriarchs, was ever heard in the prophets and finally was brought down by the Spirit and Power of God the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her Womb, was born of her and lived as Jesus Christ; who thereafter proclaimed a new law and a new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles, was crucified, on the third day rose again, was caught up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of the Father; that he sent in his place the power of the Holy Spirit to guide believers; that he will come with glory to take the saints up into the fruition of the life eternal and the heavenly promises and to judge the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both good and evil with the restoration of their flesh.
You can see many of the elements that emerge as the Apostles Creed.  The concern is the oneness of God, who is Creator and the revelation of that God through the Word made flesh.  The Holy Spirit guides the believers to eternal life.  For a community not yet in control of their destiny that promise of heaven stands tall.

We live in a different context, with different concerns, but how do we express our faith in a way that is coherent and faithful?   We look to Scripture -- though with a critical eye -- but how do we know what texts we should look to?  Who decides the canon?  Is it open or closed?  If open, on what basis do we add books?  


Brian Morse said…
I do not wish to add new books to the canon. It is hard enough to pick new carpeting!
Seriously, those who have gone before us have established as good of canon as is possible. Fortunately, we still have some of the ancient writings that were not selected, yet contain the orthodox faith. The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians is a good example.
This article is the first that I recall encountering the rule of faith as written by Turtillian. You are right. It DOES read like the Apostles' Creed. I love the tradition that claims that John the Apostle directly taught Polycarp. Polycarp directly taught Irenaeus.... This gives evidence to the oral teaching that was passed on from Jesus to the apostles, to the anti-Nicene leaders.
Our liberal tradition encourages us to ask hard questions. My concern is that we are asking hard questions without first having an adequate understanding of the beliefs that we are questioning!
Peace & Grace
James George said…
Were Christians fail in this again and again is they confuse straight men engaging in homo sex out of lust when their God given nature is to be straight. The same would hold true for a Gay man to give into his lust and have sex with a women, going against his own God given nature to be a gay male. Ruining some womans life, faking reality and trying to fit in with this corrupt understanding by Bronze age ignorant goat herders as if they had the most intelligent view of our reality possible. Epic fail.
Robert Cornwall said…
Brian, thanks for the comments! I chose to highlight Tertullian's version, which is more developed than earlier versions and is a Western tradition -- in the same line as the Apostles Creed.

You put a finger on an important issue for mainliners -- we have no problem with asking hard questions, something we should do, but we seem lost as to the meaning of the beliefs we're questioning! One of the reasons I value my education at NCC and Fuller is that I was given a strong foundation, from which to build -- and ultimately question. Thus, I affirm the centrality of the biblical witness, but read it critically. In other words, I'm not a biblicist!
John McCauslin said…
How much of this rule was contextually driven? Which items were of signal importance for all people and for all times, and which items were mostly important to people living on the earth in the Third Century?

I feel compelled to ask why the church moved from the primary evangelical mission of proclaiming the Kingdom as taught by Jesus during his lifetime, to proclaiming a message focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ? And when we move from Tertullian's Rule to the Apostle's Creed we see mention of the Kingdom disappear altogether. Why?

My suspicion is that the concerns of the Church morphed from the pastoral and teaching focus of Jesus to the Church's focus on institutional preservation and the growth and consolidation of its authority.

I guess this is where my Stone-Campbellism comes to the fore: in my determination to reach back before the Church to recover the original message and focus of Jesus.

That is not to ignore the possibility that the Holy Spirit was guiding the Church in securing its strength and authority for a multi-millennial mission - the teaching of the "Church Militant"? Such a message would of necessity focus on indicia of authority and evidence to support and enforce the Church's rightful claim of power. Thus the Creed focuses on belief in the authority of the Church universal, and the establishment of Jesus as the heavenly enforcer, and the repetition of the miracle stories which evidence the Divine validation of this structure.

I am not opposed to the idea that the message of the Holy Spirit evolves from age to age, just as it morphed from the pre-Crucifixion teaching of Jesus to the post-Resurrection teaching of the Apostles. If we accept such an evolutionary premise, acknowledging that we are not in the Third Century and we are not confronting the same challenges, then we should be listening for a different message, a message more attuned to our time and place. Why should the teachings of the Holy Spirit and it's Church not continue to morph to meet the challenges of new and different circumstances.

An alternative defense of my position is found in the story of Pentecost. Before Pentecost the teachings of Jesus were presented in Aramaic. On Pentecost the teachings came to the people for the first time in their own tongues, in languages and idioms which made sense to the new converts. There is no question in my mind that the Holy Spirit is dynamic, adapting its work and its message and even its language to the people and times.

The people and the times have changed. Should we not be listening for today's message instead of the message intended for another people and time? If we accept this thesis should we not begin the process by seeking to recover the core of Jesus's message and then bring it forward 2000 years. Is such an endeavor not a more faithful approach to discerning a Rule of Faith which is relevant and valid for our time, than ritual repetition of a message intended for Christendom in the Third and Fourth Century Europe?
John McCauslin said…
In the effort to recover the original teachings of Jesus, for the early church began to develop its own rule of faith, the community described in the second chapter of the Book of Acts provides direction. That community is clearly described as winsome and appealing to its neighbors and very attractive to potential converts.

It is described as compassionate and sharing. It is not described as dogmatic nor even particularly unified in it's understanding of the person Jesus, the role of the church, or even the meaning of salvation.

It was exemplified by compassion and commitment to the community (and not just to the community of believers).
Steve Kindle said…
The emergence of creeds points to the singular omission which changed the church forever down to today: nowhere in the two great creeds, Apostle's and Nicene, is there any call to action, only to proper belief. As many are pointing out these days (Cox, Tribble, etc.), the transition from proper action to proper belief as the mark of the Christian has produced an anemic and quarreling church. Tertullian was right about one thing, that the orthodox and heterodox both argue from the same canon. His solution though is to predetermine the outcome by a rule of faith imposed on the text. Let's not lose sight of the fact that "orthodoxy" was defined by Tertullian in spite of a canon that cannot support such an outcome (Tertullian's own admission). If we are going to make any progress in Christian unity, I believe it must emerge from a more humble understanding of our own inadequacies of determining "the truth", and seek to find relationships based on common pursuits of ministry and not on agreement of beliefs. It's ironic that Tertullian was ultimately deemed heterodox because he transcended accepted beliefs about the Holy Spirit even though his life was full of good works.
Robert Cornwall said…
Steve, it is true that the creeds don't deal with actions, but going creedless doesn't guarantee proper action. While I believe the creeds have value for us, I also believe that we must approach them with all due humility. They invite us to ask the question -- who is this God I claim to serve and what does that mean? If we stop with the creeds then we will be all the poorer for that, but they can point us in the right direction (my humble belief).
Robert Cornwall said…
John, remember that the people asked Peter -- what must we do to be saved? He replied -- repent, be baptized in the name of Jesus so that your sins may be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit . . . the promise of salvation mentioned here is for those whom the Lord (Jesus) calls (Acts 2:38-39). The expressions of compassion are an expression of a community called together in service to God in Christ.
Robert Cornwall said…
John, I agree that the Spirit continues to speak, but the Spirit isn't speaking in a vacuum. There is an ongoing tradition that takes us back to the biblical story. The church of the second century made decisions as to which texts would be deemed useful and which were not. While not all would agree, I think that the Rule of Faith emerged early on and continued to be adapted as a way of summarizing the basic message. The Rule of Faith doesn't give all the details, but the concern of people like Irenaeus and Tertullian was to counter those like Marcion who wanted to separate Jesus from the god of the Old Testament. The rule of faith affirms that they belong together. It also addresses the Gnostics who preferred a spiritual gospel in which Jesus wasn't tainted by humanity -- thus the emphasis on birth.

So my point in this is to raise the question of what one believes and whether it matters to the way we live.
John McCauslin said…
But the Rule of Faith here cited as well as the Apostles' Creed don't just leave out SOME of "the details". While leaving out ALL of the details of his teachings regarding personal conduct and the content of, and the way to obtain Salvation, everything within the Rule and the Creed can be understood instead as bearing evidence of the authority of the Church.

Again nothing about the "way we live" or how believing in the Virgin Birth affects the way we ought to live. I suppose our conduct may be affected by the specter of Jesus casting us into everlasting fire if we are "wicked," but that requires someone in authority to define wickedness for us.
John McCauslin said…
All are called, though not all will hear the call.

Still, there is no description of Salvation, only that we will receive the Holy Spirit - in this life a presume. And the only directive regarding conduct is the call for repentance, which I presume means turning away from the un-defined "former ways."

Interestingly there is no call to hold any particular beliefs in the quote you refer to. The Jerusalem Counsel also does not impose any dogmatic beliefs on converts.
John McCauslin said…
So what is needed is for the Church to lead its people in developing a Rule of Faith for their lives, a rule which makes sense in our context, time and place. Of course, such a Rule would be informed by the church's teachings over the ages and would have clear continuity with those teachings, but there is no reason why the modern church cannot undertake such an effort.
Robert Cornwall said…
John, several years ago, when I did the theology 101 study, we wrote our own creeds/rules of faith. From a Disciples perspective, I think this is the best route. The earlier creeds provide a model that can be incorporated and added to and redeveloped. The Good Confession is a good starting point -- but we need to further develop that statement for ourselves.
Steve Kindle said…
The key is "for ourselves." If we insist on others agreeing with our own Rule of Faith, we are recommitting the sin of creedalism. However, I don't see how the historic creeds can provide a model for today. They are composed of propositional statements that are without referent and therefore incomprehensible. To clarify, once in an adult Bible study, I suggested that there is no biblical statement that isn't interpreted; that none is self-explanatory. One member of the group said, "I can think of one that needs no interpretation." "Lay it on me," I said. "God is love." "Well," I replied, "what do you mean by God and by love?"
Robert Cornwall said…
Steve, I would argue that the historic creeds have a usefulness as markers of the historic conversations. We may not affirm all elements of them, or perhaps any of it, but we do need a starting place. To start from a blank slate ignores the work done in the intervening years. Of course, our "debate" may be rooted in my Episcopal background and your Church of Christ background. Episcopalians affirm tradition, even if they tweak it and even cross their fingers. Church of Christ folks have tended to think that nothing existed between 100 CE and 1801.
Steve Kindle said…
I'm not following you. Are you saying "we" meaning the universal church, or "we", you and me? If you mean the church universal, then I hear you saying the church needs a creed. I can't go there. If you are saying you and me (or whomever), it's necessary for individual faith development, and for trying to understand one another to be clear about what we believe, but beyond that I find we enter into the errors of creedalism.

It's not that nothing happened between 100 CE and 1801, It's that the creeds during that period were power plays that were forced on the unwitting people who had no defense against them. In the two centuries following Constantine, 25,000 Christians were executed by the church "for lack of creedal correctness." (Cox) Creeds too easily become cudgels for keeping power in the hands of the elite. By their very nature, I argue, they are incapable of imparting truth, as truth does not come in propositional statements that desperately need interpretation and clarification. More pointedly, they provide a false assurance that correct belief is the key to the kingdom. Frankly, I don't care what you believe as long as your life is Christlike. And I'm sure we will disagree as to just what a Christlike life would look like. But no matter; you do not answer to me nor I to you. And I hope neither of us will have to answer to a creed.
Robert Cornwall said…
Steve -- just our little debate -- you and me -- but as for whether we agree on what it means to be Christ-like -- I doubt we're all that far apart!!

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