Filed under: Patristics
David Mills, the editor at Touchstone magazine, published a brilliant essay in the most recent issue on our need for the creed. I’ve said it before: Touchstone is one of the few magazines that treat the Fathers as newsworthy. If you don’t already get it, you should subscribe today. (The most recent issue carries my co-author Chris Bailey’s “leak” of the top-secret sequel to The Da Vinci Code.) David is also a frequent contributor to Mere Comments, Touchstone’s blog. Here’s just a snippet of good Mr. Mills on the relevance of the Fathers and the creed.
Binding themselves to the Creed is not only what Christians do but what Christians have done, and do now in part because our fathers did so and we trust that they set the right pattern for us to follow.
The Israelites tried hard (in their better moments) to keep themselves from taking up the beliefs of the pagans around them, and when they failed God punished their heresy with exile into slavery. “The Lord thy God is one God” (Deuteronomy 6:4) is a short creed, and it does not allow the additions “among others” or “though you may worship Ba’al if you find it helpful.”
The Apostles were just as dogmatic. The first recorded Christian creed was that blurted out by St. Peter, and approved by our Lord: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16). You cannot replace any “the” in that creed with an “a” without radically changing the story it tells.
St. Paul fought desperately for the truth of “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and his complex arguments show us how detailed and subtle he thought this faith to be. He thinks error very bad, telling Titus that a bishop must “by sound doctrine both exhort and convince the gain-sayers” and telling Timothy that those who rejected the Faith he “delivered to Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme” (I Timothy 1:19-20).
St. John, sometimes depicted as the “spiritual,” which is to say undogmatic, apostle, insists that getting the details right is essential to holiness and our relation to God. Those who change the story rebel against God. “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God,” he writes. “And every spirit that confesses not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist. . . “ (I John 4:2-3).
The Fathers, to whom many of us look as models, tolerated error no more than the Apostles, though at various times saying the Creed as it had developed so far could get them tortured to death. People who believed in “one God, the Father almighty” refused the ceremonial worship of Caesar, marked by offering a inch of incense in his honor, a refusal taken as treason. Most readers will know the famous story of St. Polycarp meeting the heretic Marcion in the street and calling him “the firstborn of Satan.”
These are the founders and the earliest heroes of our family. And so, faithful to the Apostles and the Fathers, we hold the Creed because the Church has believed since the New Testament that truth matters and that in the events recorded in the Bible God revealed himself and his will for the world; that this revelation has been reliably distilled into propositions (called doctrines); and these propositions have been provided for us in a compact statement called the Creed, which Christians should say with joy though the cross or the stake await them.
There’s something wonderful about the line: “Most readers will know the famous story of St. Polycarp…” Only in Touchstone can an author say that sort of thing. Don’t forget: subscribe today.
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