THE RULE OF FAITH: A Guide. (Cascade Companions). By Everett Ferguson. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017. Xii + 104 pages.
I am a member of the clergy in a non-creedal faith community. People in my tradition tend to recoil at anything that smacks of a creed, believing that such things crimp our freedom and end up being tests of fellowship. I understand the feeling, though I’m more comfortable with the historic creeds (Apostles and Nicene) than many in my tradition. While this resistance to creeds is understandable, especially considering the way faith statements have been used to exclude. Nonetheless, it seems to me that having some form of a summary of common beliefs might be helpful, even if we don’t call them creeds. With this in mind, perhaps the “Rule of Faith,” which emerged in a variety of forms early in the life of the church would be helpful to the contemporary church.
One who has deep knowledge of the early church and its development and use of these “rules” is Everett Ferguson, Professor Emeritus of Bile and Church History at Abilene Christian University. He is highly regarded in the field of early Christian history, and served as the Editor of the Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, [2nd edition, (Garland, 1997)]. Ecclesially, Ferguson hails from the Churches of Christ, a non-creedal community, that shares common roots with my denomination, a movement that many have called The Stone-Campbell Movement. Ferguson understands the resistance to creeds, but he is also deeply aware of the need to provide summaries of the Christian faith, especially ones that draw from Scripture.
With this in mind, Ferguson introduces us to the various forms that the Rule of Faith took in the first four to five centuries of Christian History. This brief book is a contribution to a series published by Cascade Books (Wipf and Stock) titled Cascade Companions. The purpose of this series is to “introduce the nonspecialist readers to that vital storehouse of authors, documents, themes, histories, arguments, and movements that comprise the heritage with brief yet compelling volumes.” This is a fitting contribution to that series, as it provides the general reader with a broad overview of the Rule of Faith, showing how these rules emerged, what the terms used in these rules meant, offered some interpretation, noting important studies by scholars (for further study), and show how these rules functioned in the life of the church. It’s important to remember that these were never official documents published by a hierarchy. These rules emerged as early Christian leaders like Justin, Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian, and Augustine (among others), sought to summarize the faith they embraced, to teach and on occasion refute those who challenged their faith. Then, in the closing chapter of the book, Ferguson offers us some suggestions about how the Rule of Faith might be relevant today, especially as we become less attached to creeds.
It is important to remember what Ferguson is attempting to do in this book. He wants to "clarify the relation of the rule of faith to Scripture and creed" (p. xi). Right from the beginning, Ferguson distinguishes the Rule of Faith from a creed. The former is a summation of what early Christian leaders like Origen, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Augustine believed were essential beliefs. Creeds had more ecclesial authority and tended to move beyond summation to interpretation, as well are requiring adherence -- the presence of anathemas being key. His thesis then is "that the rule of faith was a summary of apostolic preaching and teaching, to be found most authoritatively in written form in the Scriptures." While in form they might look like baptismal confessions and creeds, they had a different function. (p. xi).
With that in mind, Ferguson proceeds to cover a vast amount of material with a brevity of words. He invites us to ponder the question of what Christians believe, noting that many are suspicious of any notions of orthodoxy. I know that this is true in my circles. I am part of my faith community, in large part, because it allows a wide latitude in belief. However, what happens, as Everett points out does happen, when the label Christian becomes so elastic that any and every belief is allowable? He suggests that when this happens, then the Christian faith becomes almost meaningless (I'm putting that in gentler terms than does the author).
The book begins with an introduction to some of the more important rules of faith, beginning with one developed by Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century. While Justin doesn't use the term Rule, he includes many of the elements that would become important in the development of these Rules. Key to these are the emphasis on God the Creator and the centrality of Jesus.
The word rule comes from the Greek kanon, which becomes in Latin regula, which speak of standards of belief and behavior. We tend to use this word “canon” in relation to the formation of the Bible, but the word can and is used more broadly. In fact, there was no fixed usage in terminology in the first few centuries. Some writers spoke of the rule of faith, others used the phrase rule of truth, and others ecclesiastical rule. These are just a few of the options. But, while early leaders used a variety of descriptions, the content was amazing consistent. What appeared in these rules/canon were statements that early Christians understood to be essentials. This took place long before Nicaea. Having an interpretation of the rules and how they are used is helpful, as is the discussion of their function. He notes that these rules were used in several ways. They were used as guides to preaching and teaching—"It represented the content of the proclamation of the gospel and the instruction given to inquirers and potential converts." (p. 68). They provided the basis of catechesis or instruction of new converts. These rules, of course, were also used in refuting heresy. Consider that one of the chief sources of an early rule was to be found in Irenaeus' Against Heresies, which sought to refute Gnosticism. These rules were also used as guides to interpreting scripture, helping interpret difficult passages and providing some boundaries for interpretation. He notes that "authors allowed multiple interpretations provided they did not transgress the boundaries set by the rule of faith" (p. 78).
The concluding chapter of the book offers us a look at ways in which such rules might relevant today. A rule of faith can offer a succinct statement of core doctrine, without becoming a test of fellowship. Such statements can help inquirers know what the congregation believes and practices. It can help leaders know what to focus on and pass on to others. It can help Christians distinguish what is the center and was is the periphery. Such statements don't give an explanation, they simply lay out the core beliefs. They help us test the teachings given in our churches, and keep us focused on Christ. A rule of faith helps guide our interpretation of scripture. Ferguson notes that "Scripture is not 'flat'; not all of it is of equal importance (cf. Matt 22:36-40 AND 1 Cor 15:1-9). The rule of faith summarizes the most important facts of the gospel." (p. 88).
As I read through this, there were times when I differed with the author as to the “essentials,” but I found his emphasis on the importance of understanding a core set of beliefs compelling. If Christianity is nothing more than what we as individuals want it to be, then it would seem to lose its cohesion and meaning. As I like to point out to other members of my denomination who want to be completely free from any form of essential beliefs, at the very least Jesus should fit in somewhere near the center. After all, we call ourselves “Disciples of Christ.” If Christ isn’t part of our identity then the name is meaningless. In addition, one of the favorite Stone-Campbell Movement slogans is "in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity (love)." The thing that continually bedevils us is the challenge of defining what is essential and what is adiaphora (non-essential). The essentials might be few, and they may be simple, but there must be at least a few essentials around which we unite. That’s the value of this book. Not only does it provide examples of statements, it offers us a look at how these leaders formulated these “canons of faith.” So, the book may be simple, but it is quite helpful, not only as a guide to history, but as a foundation for a conversation about what is essential to the Christian faith. Maybe we can all take a turn at formulating a rule and then share them to see where things stand. If we do, then Ferguson will be of great assistance.