Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

The Gospel of Niggle 2

2.0 The Orthodoxy of Heresy
Ehrman, who relentlessly tries to unveil the truth about earliest Christianity in order to demonstrate that it was a suppressive machine of power-mongers, commits the very sin he castigates. If the “sin” of the proto-orthodoxy is suppression and intolerance, he aligns himself with their method for he never engages the traditional or even an alternative view of the general thesis in his entire book. Someone has said, and I forget who, that you either have time to write books or read books, but not both. What I haven’t forgotten, though, is that, in commenting on academics not knowing who else is writing about what, Ian Samson said:

most writers are so wrapped up in their own diddlings and dawdlings that it’d take a smack in the face with a piece of unplanned two-by-four to get them to sit up and take notice of the world outside.


After Brutus and Cassa slay Julius Ceasar, Shakespeare puts in the mouth of Brutus, “not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.” And then he confesses to the depth of his apparent love of Rome: “that as I slew my best lover for the good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself when it shall please my country to need my [own] death” (Julius Caesar, 3.22, 43-46). Ehrman, too, think he has to slay the orthodox to save the truth, but to do so he must keep his opponents under lock and key – and there are plenty who argue not only that orthodoxy is early (which Ehrman would agree with) but that it was the majority viewpoint or that it was, after all, what was most accurate about the early faith. I’m thinking especially of Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham, and C. FitzSimons Allison. The singular disappointment of Ehrman’s books for me, written always with a measured reserve, is that they never engage the traditional viewpoint or take their arguments into consideration. What we get is a single exposition of a view that very few believe.
Tertullian tells us that Marcion interpreted the Bible, as did Thomas Jefferson, “with a pen knife” (Prescription, 108). If Marcion used a pen knife to cut out what he did not like, both Ehrman and especially Pagels use “glue.” They add and add to what is already accepted as sacred.
So sacred that Pagels embraces the Gnostic vision of reality, calling the orthodox and the heretical “complementary interpretations of God’s presence on earth” that became rivals. She confesses two things that she “cannot love: the tendency to identify Christianity with a single, authorized set of beliefs – however these actually vary from church to church – coupled with the conviction that Christian belief alone offers access to God.” The Nag Hammadi texts, she claims, “are transforming what we know as Christianity.”
I am concerned at this point to emphasize that Pagels’ appeal to the marginalized as a prop to respond to marginalization in our society is not without value. Gnosticism has been embraced by feminist scholars, in part because they find in Gnosticism a similar marginalized voice. I support some of this agenda. What I don’t support about Pagels (and Ehrman) is their theology and history. Copernicus, too, made a discovery; it is of no use to science today to canonize pre-Copernican astronomy as an alternative scientific view.
What Pagels is claiming is the same thing Victorinus asked of Simplicianus who said Victorinus’ conversion meant nothing until he could see him inside a church. To which Victorinus asked, “Is it, then, walls that make a Christian?” Augustine then tells how Victorinus went to church in a “hubbub of delight”(Confessions 8.2.4-5). I am asking to take those real walls and make them metaphorical, and suggest to Pagels that indeed, she may not like it, but it is “walls that make Christians – creedal walls and creedal Christians.” And something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down. She wants those walls down. In effect, she wants to invert Danté’s Sixth Circle in Inferno to the Sixth Circle of Paradise. I am sorry to say this, but she knows she is standing Church history and theology on its head. We must make clear what these two scholars are actually suggesting.
Pagels loves to cite G.Thom. 70: “Jesus said, ‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” She observes her central creed: “The strength of this saying is that it does not tell us what to believe but challenges us to discover what lies hidden within ourselves… this perspective [she admits] seemed to me self-evidently true.” And it was also to Rousseau and his innumerable progeny, to use the words of Alan Jacobs. Pagels then connects G.Thom. 70 to Genesis 1:26, in the “image of God,” and argues that in Thomas Jesus “suggests… we have spiritual resources within us precisely because we were made ‘in the image of God’.” I will quote further from her own words: “In other words, one either discovers the light within that illuminates ‘the whole universe’ or lives in darkness, within and without.”
Pagels argues that John’s Gospel is a face-to-face repudiation of the Gnostic understanding of Jesus and, while very few would date G.Thomas that early, her points needs to be understood: she is not contending that Thomas is the original view of Jesus, but an alternative interpretation of Jesus. Again, Thomas and John differ, as she states it: “Thomas’s Jesus directs each disciple to discover the light within …; but John’s Jesus declares instead that ‘I am the light of the world’ and that ‘whoever does not come to me walks in darkness’.” And, “what John rejects as religiously inadequate … is much like the hidden ‘good news’ that Thomas’s gospel proclaims.”
Here is perhaps her most potent claim: “What such people seek, however, is often not a different ‘system of doctrines’ so much as insights or intimations of the divine that validate themselves in experience – what we might call hints and glimpses offered by the luminous epinoia” (spiritual intuition). “Most of us, sooner or later, find that, at critical points in our lives, we must strike out on our own to make a path where none exists. What I have come to love in the wealth and diversity of our religious traditions … is that they offer the testimony of innumerable people to spiritual discovery. Thus they encourage those who endeavor, in Jesus’ words, to ‘seek, and you shall find’.”
C.S. Lewis had words for this sense of creativity in humans: “’Originality’ in the NT is quite plainly the prerogative of God alone… Our whole destiny seems to lie in the opposite direction, in being as little as possible ourselves, in acquiring a fragrance that is not our own but borrowed, in becoming clean mirrors filled with the image of a face that is not ours.” So, Lewis contends, the proper method is not to ask “Is it mine?” but “Is it good?” Augustine said this only slightly differently: speaking of his past, he said: “My sin lay in this, that I sought pleasures, distinctions and truths within myself and in the other objects of your creation; and in doing so I fell headlong into pain, disgrace and error” (Confessions 1.20.31).
Avoiding nuances for the moment, the fundamental weakness of this growing school of thought, which fits comfortably within a general social ill-will against major religious establishments, especially the orthodox ones, is this: it is simply inaccurate to argue that the canon and the Nicene Creed is a singular event, suddenly dropped on unsuspecting church leaders by powerful political leaders with ulterior motives. By permitting, and I see this more in Pagels than Ehrman, the historical facts to fall so neatly into the lap of the orthodox as power-mongers who were embodied politically in Constantine, this revisionist scholarship suggests that what Christians have always believed is actually the thought of only a powerful few rather than the rounded faith of the majority.
Scholarship has offered alternatives to this revisionist historiography. My concern is the issue they raise for us to consider.
Here it is: one either chooses creedal orthodoxy, the faith Vincent of Lérins once described as “ubique, semper, omnibus,” “everywhere, always, by all,” or one chooses a radicalization of Christian diversity with boundaries either knocked down or enormously extended. In the time that remains, I’d like to offer a mild defense of the “orthodoxy of orthodoxy.” In doing so, I am trying to set the table for discussion; I do not pretend to be able to offer a definitive or complete defense. Instead, I propose some observations that can provoke our discussion to explore how we might defend our own orthodoxy.
In fact, I want to suggest that these scholars point out a gaping hole in Evangelical ecclesiology and that together we need to begin to think about how we might best plug that hole.

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Martin Downes

posted May 30, 2006 at 6:05 am

I came across an unattributed quotation about the success of the early church in a world of pagan philosophy and religions. To paraphrase slighty it was to the effect that the early church “out-thought, out-preached, out-loved, and out-suffered” its pagan rivals.
To my mind those four aspects neatly summarise what true orthodoxy accomplishes in the world, when it is true to its nature as orthodoxy.
The “Jesus” of gnosticism couldn’t build a mousetrap let alone a global church. For all the attention the gnostic Jesus gets he is not the authentic one of apostolic faith. He is not worthy of creeds and confessions, his followers will not build hospitals, neither will they ever produce many martyrs. I don’t think that the gnostic Jesus has the power to subdue Modernist and Postmodern autonomy beneath his feet.

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posted May 30, 2006 at 12:23 pm

Great post – I hope to see more on this

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posted May 30, 2006 at 3:18 pm

Scot, good series.
Martin – is it your idea of the creedal Jesus that his aim is “to subdue” anyone “under his feet”? I thought the primary mission of Christ was redemptive in nature.

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Murray Woolnough

posted May 30, 2006 at 4:44 pm

Martin wasn’t talking about “anybody”. He was talking about “Modernist and Postmodern autonomy” – value systems – being submitted to Jesus.
When we talk to anyone about repentance and submission to Jesus (the classic “accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour”) we are asking them to give up their reliance on the autonomy that our culture tells us we have. That fake veneer of autonomy needs to give way to the Lord and King of the universe. Every time someone turn to Christ, every time we confess the creed or come to communion, a little bit of reliance on that autonomy crumbles. One day every knee will bow at the name of Jesus – modernist and postmodern autonomy will finally be subdued under Jesus’ feet.
Jesus is a real ruler. His disciples can follow what their hearts tell them is true, or they can follow what he says is the secret to life, and the way to live. If we rely on him rather than ourselves and think, preach, love and suffer for his sake like the early church did, the world will be changed.
I appreciate Scot’s call for the time when Christian / Evangelical ecclesiology will reflect the unity that we have in the faith; when we can be united in name and action and not just in theory and words.

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Sam B

posted May 30, 2006 at 5:35 pm

Martin and Julie,
I guess there are a lot of pictures that come to mind of kneeling at Jesus’ feet. One that comes to mine is the woman who was known as an especially bad sinner who came and cried on his feet, wiping them dry with her hair. Her sense of shame and helplessness and love for the one in front of her who alone could and would heal her, is a picture of the unfeined love that I yearn to be our reality now. May God take us there.

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posted May 31, 2006 at 1:16 am

Scot I was just wondering out loud how does one deal with a 3rd century metaphysic in a quantum world? Can one still be Nicene and Chalcedonian and re-interpret the creeds in light of our new metaphysical understanding or would you say that this was close to Ehrman or Pagels?

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posted May 31, 2006 at 8:20 am

Scott (#6)
In what way do you think that the creeds might need to be re-intrepreted in light of our new metaphysical understanding? I don’t see any need for re-interpretation, but perhaps I am missing your point.

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posted June 2, 2006 at 1:25 am

Perhaps re-interpreted is incorrect. rephrased would be better. We surely have little understanding of substance as the early church did. Personhood and nature are being reframed because of our understanding of bio-chemical, corporeal, and brain/mind function so what would that do for our understanding of Jesus? Does that make sense

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