Within the broad spectrum of religious belief that is the Christian community, there is a movement to brush aside theological differences over “minor details” and focus on our similarities.
For the most part, I fully support this endeavour. I am an advocate of ecumenism, which is the pursuit of reuniting the many varieties of Christianity once more as one Church.
But at the same time I am beginning to see the dangers inherent in ignoring minor details. Because, first of all, we tend to disagree on what is actually minor to begin with. And secondly, maybe the things we’ve thought were minor actually are a whole lot more important than we realize.
That doesn’t mean I advocate increasing division. It means I think we need to appreciate why we believe the things we do and what the ramifications are for those beliefs. We can still respect those we disagree with, but let’s not be ignorant of what our beliefs mean for how our lives are lived.
At this point those of you not well-versed in the intricacies of various Christian traditions may wonder what some of the things are that Christians disagree on. It’s a massive list, but some of the more well-known issues from off the top of my head are: the nature of salvation (by faith, by grace, with works?); importance and ways of baptizing; the processes of justification and sanctification; the meaning and substance of Communion; liturgical versus non-liturgical worship structure; etc.
These differences don’t even touch on far more controversial issues like whether some groups who claim to be Christian may in fact be Christian, such as Mormons and (as claimed by some heavily Reformed Protestant elements) Roman Catholics, which could be a big deal as far as Christian salvation is concerned.
In addressing what “defines” a person as a Christian, I find a helpful rubric to be the standard established by the Christian Church in the 300s A.D. for that exact purpose: the Creeds.
From its beginnings Christianity has had a variety of interpretations. In the pages of the New Testament we read Paul lecturing the churches he helped found about remaining committed to the version of the Gospel he taught – as given to him by Christ and affirmed by the Apostles – and no other.
A variety of heresies (beliefs at variance with the standard) contended with orthodoxy during Christianity’s first 300 years, culminating in the epic clash with Arianism that was the catalyst for the calling of the great councils where the Creeds were established.
The Nicene, Apostles’ and Athanasian Creeds are all variations on the same theme of establishing the bedrock foundation of orthodox Christian belief as explained in Scripture and initially interpreted by the Apostles.
If one differs with the statements given in the Creeds, then one is not properly understood as an orthodox Christian. If a particular Christian practice or belief isn’t listed in the Creeds, then it is not considered a foundational point of contention (Christians may disagree with one another and still consider each other as Christian).
The Nicene Creed
I believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible: And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God; Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made: Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man: And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried: And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures: And ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of the Father: And he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; Who spake by the Prophets: And I believe one Catholic and Apostolic Church: I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins: And I look for the Resurrection of the dead: And the Life of the world to come. Amen.
The Creeds are a great starting place for establishing the foundation of Christian belief. But what, exactly, do these statements in the Creeds mean? And how are we to understand the Christian depiction of reality stemming from the Creeds and from the words of Scripture?
7 thoughts on “Variety of Christianities – Do differences matter?”
It is good to see your thoughtful attention to the perplexing issue of thousands of denomination all claiming to be the Church with differing and conflicting Faiths and Spirits.
The Eastern Orthodox would respectfully disagree with some of your basic premises. We see ourselves as the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church, the trunk of the tree succeeding Judaism, Christ and the Apostles. This is not triumphalism but verifiable history. The Roman Church was the first attempt at Reformation, breaking away with a different doctrine of the Church. We would also contend that the Church is one and has never been divided. Many have fallen away from the Church but the Church, the Body of Christ, remains one undivided reality and cannot be divided any more than Christ, her Head cannot be divided. Thus we reject the Branch Theory as a modern/late and heretical invention. This, being true we understand the only path of unification for all the broken branches is a return to the One Church that has never ceased to be. I will follow your posts with interest and commend you for taking on such an important issue. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1476390359255049&set=a.1476390372588381.1073741828.1476345759259509&type=1
Thank you for your comment, Father. I am incredibly pro-Orthodox and pro-Catholic in my outlook and agree that if the reunification of the Church is to happen this side of Christ’s return, it will be under the auspices of both Orthodox and Catholic in some form.
I think the fact that there has been this massive number of schisms in Church history is incredibly mournful and unfortunate. I don’t think the case is quite as historically easy to make that there remains any one direct inheritor of the Apostolic tradition over and above any other, though surely some have far more legitimate claim than others, with the Orthodox among the few at the top of that list.
The existence of several “little o” orthodox churches prior to the Great Schism I believe speaks to this truth: from the Coptics, to the Armenians, to the Church in India likely started by Thomas, to the Church in England that existed largely in isolation until voluntarily submitting to Rome at the Synod of Whitby.
The limited historical research I’ve done on the Schism itself doesn’t seem to indicate any clear-cut position as being entirely in the “right” or “wrong” between East and West; there was surely enough blame on both sides for deteriorating relations, and the end result was of course mutual excommunications that hold questionable legitimacy on both sides.
The primary impetus for the Reformation was also lamentably unavoidable in retrospect as Luther’s critiques of the Catholic Church at the time were by-and-large legitimate, but unfortunately the Catholic Church responded by excommunicating Luther then later reforming at Trent instead of keeping Luther in the fold. Luther and his followers were thus left with no recourse but to worship God as they were able.
All that being said, surely I agree the vast majority of Church schisms have surely not been legitimate but for utterly avoidable and human reasons. There are far too many. And the “spirit of protest” that seems to inhabit much of Christian Protestantism is likely demonic.
Yet from the New Testament Church on, while initially being united under James and the Apostles, Christianity has struggled to clearly define itself universally, as Paul’s pen attests, sadly. Post-apostolically, Rome surely held a position of eminence in a Church that was still loosely a confederation of orthodox and unorthodox (deemed later) teachings, though the core of course was by-and-large agreed upon. With the above examples of the Coptics, Armenians, Indians, etc., it is fairly easy to point to a mostly orthodox universal set of beliefs and arguably worship practices, but it is still nonetheless a very broad orthodoxy of practice and episcopal authority.
I should add a correction…I am not a Father, except to my children. I used to be but was laicized several years ago. It seems to me that history is rather clear. Rome added the Filioque while the East refused to change the creed. Papal infallibility and the Immaculate Conception where not docmatized unto the 1800’s. Later Rome changed its soteriology under the influence of Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas along with Rationalism and Scholasticism. Rome clearly deviated from what had been held by all from the beginning.
The following remarks by Pope Gregory, in a letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople, throw light on this issue:
“But if anyone usurp in the Church a title which embraces all the faithful, the universal
Church – 0 blasphemy! – will then fall with him, since he makes himself to be called the
universal. May all Christians reject this blasphemous title – this title which takes the
sacerdotal honor from every priest the moment it is insanely usurped by one!”
An African council, in an ill-considered decision, had offered a like title to the bishops of Rome, so to honor, the holy Apostle Peter, as they supposed. And what was the response of the See of Rome? It refused this
unfitting title! Saint Gregory explained that the See of Rome had refused the honor “lest, by
conferring a special matter upon one alone, all priests should be deprived of the honor which is
their due. How, then, while we are not ambitious of the glory of a title that has been offered to
us, does another to whom no one has offered it, have the presumption to take it?”
Thus, letter after devastating letter, like a deadly artillery barrage, Pope Saint Gregory
the Great’s epistles to the Orthodox bishops of his day fall with point-blank accuracy upon
today’s “infallible” popes, with their claims to supremacy as “successors” of Saint Peter’s throne
in the Vatican City.
In his monumental book The Papacy, Abbe Guettee — a French Roman Catholic priest
and scholar of the last century who later joined himself to the true Catholic Church, the Orthodox
Catholic Church — deals with this and many other historical incidents which bring into sharp
relief the contrast between the ancient See of Rome and today’ s Vatican.
Thanks for listening.
Thanks, Mr. Brag, this is very informative for me. I have to admit I am completely out of my depth as far as relations between the Orthodox and Catholics are concerned and am limited to Google searches for information at the moment! I will try to find a copy of The Papacy you mentioned by Abbe Guettee.
I would agree that during the medieval period the papacy became something totally out of line with what was originally intended. One reason I myself am not Catholic is due to my struggles with the doctrine of infallibility and the Immaculate Conception which you rightly point out were made official in the 19th Century. I have had some discussion on these points with a friend of mine who is in seminary to become a Catholic priest, and I am sympathetic to the situation contemporary Catholics find themselves in as inheritors of decisions made from roughly (give or take) 1000 – 1950…a long period of time, to be sure, and if not for Vatican II and the papcies of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, I would be less optimistic about the future of the Catholic Church.
As it stands, though, I am quite hopeful at the direction the Church has been heading, and I think we are seeing important precedents in humility and decreasing of the “monarchical” role of the papacy with Francis. But from the limited reading I have done, including the comments from St. Gregory you mention, while the Bishop of Rome shouldn’t be “lording” it over other bishops and priests, I still see the warrant for it being the “first among equals,” or in other words serving in a position of leadership while not demanding in rights or glorifications. St. Gregory says in some of his letters, it appears, that his “Apostlic See [is the] head of all Churches” (Epistle 13:50); “I, albeit unworthy, have been set up in command of the Church” (Epistle 5:154); and “As regards the Church of Constantinople, who can doubt that it is subject to the Apostlic See? Why, both our most religious lord the emperor, and our brother the Bishop of Constantinople continually acknowledge it” (Epistle 9:12).
While I can agree that the Catholic Church has made mistakes, I’m not sure that I can say there is any Church that has not, or that the Bishop of Rome is not supposed to be preeminent among equals in the Episcopacy. What are your thoughts?
Keep reading and searching with an open and sincere heart before God. I was once there myself, having been a baptist preacher, then a Lutheran pastor. A good read on this subject is “The Truth” What every Roman Catholic Should Know About the Orthodox Church” by Clark Carlton, a former Southern Baptist. Peace!
Read this series of articles on “Circling the Christian Buffet” for a tragic look at the results of a variety of Christianities – the result of being adrift on the seas of individual autonomy, personal preferences and sola scripture.http://heresyintheheartland.blogspot.com/2013/10/circling-christianity-buffet-part-1.html
I couldn’t agree more.