Friday, May 4, 2012

What do you believe?

I have a bad habit of starting a book and then leaving it for a long time, picking it up later and reading for a while, then neglecting it again ... Usually I'm reading four or five books in this poorly structured way at any given time.

The other day I resumed reading The Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez.  It is a well-written, accessible history of Christian faith through the ages.  I started it this winter and just got a chapter or two into it, and now I'm devouring it.  There is so much here that is good to be thinking about right here, right now!

For example, reading about how the Apostles Creed came to be.  It's not called the Apostles Creed because Peter, Andrew, James, John, and the crew wrote it down, as some stories have it.  No, it was written about 150 AD or so to encapsulate the faith as it was handed down through the Apostles.  Imagine a time when the great-grandchildren of the original twelve apostles are now adults within the church.  The stories of Jesus, the writings of Paul and the other New Testament authors, are all being read and retold within the churches.

But there are also other movements growing and active in the culture.  Some groups tell wild stories -- tempting stories -- about how Jesus was not really who the apostles said he was.  Jesus really had a secret mission to accomplish, they say -- a mission to impart a secret knowledge that will save us from this evil, physical world and set our spirits free from these embarrassing physical bodies.  The physical world, they said, was not created by the true God but rather by an evil spirit who created the physical universe either as an experiment or out of disobedience to the true God.  These groups, called "gnostic" meaning "knowledge" for the secret knowledge Jesus supposedly taught -- were very popular in the 2nd century.

There's another set of stories circulating about this time, started by a man named Marcion.  Marcion grew up in the church but he despised two things.  First he hated everything Jewish.  He believed the Old Testament was the product of an evil, sadistic god that was totally separate from the God Jesus named his Father.  This Old Testament god was selfish, jealous, vengeful, violent, and cruel.  The God Jesus named Father was loving, accepting, tolerant, and would never judge anyone.  Marcion taught that the entire Old Testament should be discarded.  He also wanted to get rid of much of the New Testament that seemed too "infected" with Jewish ideas.  From the New Testament, Marcion kept Luke's gospel and the writings of Paul, but he discarded all the Old Testament quotations in them, believing they'd been added later.

The second thing Marcion hated was the idea of the physical world.  He believed, like the gnostics, that spiritual reality was good, but physical matter was evil.  Because of this, the idea of Jesus being born in a physical sense was repulsive to him.  Marcion claimed that Jesus simply appeared, fully grown, in the appearance of a physical body.  The Christian churches throughout the Mediterranean rejected Marcion, so he went to Rome and started his own church.  Though he was discredited, his followers remained an identifiable presence within Rome for several hundred years.

In this context, where you have Marcion on the one hand and the Gnostics on the other attacking Christian teaching -- not by claiming it's false, but by the much more dangerous tactic of claiming that they have the true understanding of Jesus and his message, while the Christian churches mean well, but they are sadly mistaken -- it was important to define what was and was not true to the teaching of Jesus.

So the first argument the churches made was to state that Jesus would not have entrusted his secret message -- if he had one, which he didn't -- to just one apostle, but he would have entrusted it to all of them.  This is one reason the New Testament includes four gospels that occasionally contradict one another.  These multiple witnesses who sometimes disagree on the details do in fact agree on the main points.

One thing the four New Testament gospels agree on is that Jesus entrusted his work to all of the apostles, not to some secret messenger.  (It's about this time that the Gnostics began writing their spurious "gospels", each claiming to have been written by that secret messenger -- so the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Peter, and the recently discovered Gospel of Judas all come from these Gnostic groups writing in the mid-2nd century.)

Another thing all four gospels -- as well as the rest of the New Testament -- agree on is that physical reality is not evil, but that God delights in the physical world, though of course it is broken by sin.  What's more, this God is not different from the God of the Old Testament, but rather Jesus must be understood against the backdrop and heritage of the Old Testament scriptures.

So when the Apostles Creed was written, probably in Rome around 150 AD, it was written specifically  to combat these heresies.  Both Gnosticism and Marcionism, by the way, are very popular in our own day.  So it might be worth looking at the Apostles Creed:

I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, died, and was buried. 
He descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again from the dead. 
He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He shall come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, 
the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

Read it through carefully.  Can you see how various phrases within this creed would fly in the face of the Gnostics or Marcion?  One of the earliest uses for this creed -- something we still do today -- was that it was used as a public statement of faith for people desiring baptism.  This ensured that those being baptized were not accepting some altered form of Christianity but rather the true version that was passed down by the unanimous testimony of Jesus' apostles.

So what do you believe?  Take a look at these questions:
1. Is it hard for you to accept the Old Testament?
2. Does the idea of Jesus having some special teaching, aside from the church's traditional message, appeal to you?
3. Does the idea of your spirit "escaping" from your physical body appeal to you?

We could go on and on, but you get the idea.  If these kinds of questions appeal to you, you have probably been influenced by some of the Gnostic ideas about Jesus that are popular today.  You can read many of these ideas every Christmas and Easter when the news magazines come out with their latest "Jesus issue" that calls traditional Christianity into question.  There are many forms of these ancient heresies, and many others like them, in our world today.  Don't allow yourself to be led away from Jesus, who is the truth, to pursue these tempting teachings!

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