Sunday, October 4, 2015

The first instance of committee writing

In this final post on the Creed, we tackle what I would call the first recorded instance of Christian “committee writing”; it occurred in Constantinople in 381.

This almost has the feel of a laundry list of items drawn up by people trying to make sure nothing essential is forgotten. But they didn’t realize that playing with the words so much yielded perplexing results that would lead to unending arguments.
 We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
This statement is known as the “four marks” of the Church, the collective assembly of Christians, affirming that it is
  • one (Ephesians 4:5-6)—a whole entity united in belief, of which the local churches are only a part (Paul uses “the church of God that is in Corinth” in I Corinthians 1:2);
  • holy—set apart for God’s purpose, yet not devoid of sin (in Mark 2:17, Jesus says “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners”);
  • catholic—universal, geographically, ethnically or by gender (Galatians 3:28), as well as in the wholeness of faith within each locality (in the 4th century, “Catholic Christians” were those who were not heretical or estranged by their beliefs); and
  • apostolic—rooted in the living traditions taught by the apostles, including each local church’s bishops, who were ordained through the laying of hands on their heads by tactile successors of the Twelve (this claim is made today by Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox communions).
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
The last verse of the gospel of Matthew sets forth the commission to go out and baptize the world. The original use of baptism in Judaism had been as a sign of divine forgiveness; it became also a symbol of commitment to the Christian faith.

Early on, forgiveness was offered only once in a lifetime (baptism is still only administered once). Falling back into sin was deemed a sign of insincere conversion (what some Evangelical Protestants even today call “backsliding”).

The lack of an ordinary way for a Christian who committed a grave sin to be reconciled with God by those given the power “to loose and to bind” (Matt. 16:19) is widely cited as the reason Constantine converted when he thought he was dying (and was therefore unlikely ever to sin gravely again). In practice, however, there is evidence bishops did remit sins outside baptism.

After the Diocletian persecution, which nearly wiped out Christianity, bishops allowed Christians who had renounced the faith to confess their wrongdoing before the Christian community and be forgiven. This is distinct from the sign of forgiveness before communion in the Eucharist, which was meant to heal internal rifts among believers.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.
Judaism debated the question of the afterlife. The Pharisees, who are the theological ancestors of rabbinical Judaism after the year 70, believed in some, much debated, form of afterlife. The Sadducees did not. In Matthew 22:29-33, Jesus is placed in the middle of the debate and he comes down squarely on the side of the Pharisees.
Amen.
This Hebrew word, which means “so be it” or “truly” (often translated as “verily”), was absent from the creed approved in Nicea, but was added in Constantinople. It is found in the Old and New Testaments and was and still is used to conclude Jewish prayer, so as to confirm personal assent to what has just been said.

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