After years of formal education in biblical studies and religion and countless hours of my daily free time, I concluded that there are two consistent views about early Christianity and the traditions that depend on those views.
At points in my life, I have considered becoming a member of an Orthodox or Catholic church. If one believes that the canon of Scripture is God-ordained and the creeds of the early Church are God-given truth, then to be consistent you need to accept the authority of apostolic succession and of the “catholic” Church, whether the eastern or western tradition.
The canon of scripture refers to the decision which books are to be included in the list of books or collections of those books Christians should use in worship and practice and whether the canon is closed–God’s revelation has ceased–or still opened–continuing revelation. It wasn’t until the middle of the third century that some measure of agreement was reached. What that means is, if you base your faith on the Bible as inspired by God in its entirety (plenary inspiration), then you need to accept that those people who made that decision were led by God and were authoritative. This would seem to imply a belief in authority carrying on from the apostles into a sub-apostolic period.
Most Christians seem unaware that the New Testament of their English Bible is based on a translation from a modern critical edition of the Greek texts of the New Testament. Text critics still debate which variants contained in Greek papyrus rolls from the earliest centuries or the later codex Bibles represent the original text. No one knows, but scholars make conjectures based on principles of textual criticism. There’s no part of the New Testament that doesn’t have variants within the tradition of textual transmission. Most of these are inconsequential to matters of faith, but there is enough evidence to show that scribes considered the text to be fluid and sometimes in need of correction, change, or even addition.
Arguably the most important Christian doctrines stem from gatherings of Church leaders who debated over the precise wording of a statement of foundational beliefs called creeds. These are the Apostles’ Creed (beginning in middle to late second century), the Creed of Nicaea (325) and its expansion in 381, Chalcedonian Creed (451), and the Athanasian Creed (500). If you believe these to represent the correct interpretation of the Bible and are the core of Christian belief, then you would need to believe that the Church leaders and councils that formulated these creeds were given authority by God. I contend you need to run to your local Catholic or Orthodox church and repent of your “reformationist” ways.
When I considered this alternative as one of the consistent ways of practicing my Christianity, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. My connection to Christianity is not to the 2,000 year-old religion but to the response of those who became followers of Jesus and formed communities in the earliest years. This may be because of my “pauline” focus in the discipline of New Testament studies and a product of the serendipity of my educational choices or preferences. I wonder at times if it’s a result of my growing up in a church that was dispensational and viewed the “church age” beginning with Pentecost (Acts 2). The church of my teen-aged years had a hyperdispensationalist tradition which placed the birth of the church later in the book of Acts. This was why my Baptist pastor, my father, had to baptize people in a lake at a local Bible camp and why my spouse needed to be baptized as an adult when I wanted to join an American Baptist church. This is why I begin my book, Rewriting Paul, with a prologue discussing objectivity and admitting one’s own assumptions and preferences.
Let me be clear, though I’ve studied theology and church history, I don’t claim to be a theologian or church historian. In fact, once I get out of the first century I have to rely on shaky memory from years ago or do what most people do and get a quick refresher from Wikipedia. (My books are all in boxes in the living room or spread around on the floor of my study at home.)
It has seemed to me Protestant Christians who reject the authority of an apostolic succession to make choices about the wording of scripture, of which books are inspired by God, and which doctrines should be believed don’t have any basis for their contention that the Protestant Bible is the Word of God and its theology is the result of divine revelation. You can say it, but I don’t think you can argue it.
To be consistent I needed to take the view that there is not an authoritative text or body of people that speaks for God. I could have followed the path of others and become a Jew (I considered this when I did a DNA test if it came back with Jewish ancestry), a Buddhist (gave it a little bit of thought), or even a Muslim (I taught myself Arabic and think the Qur’an when chanted is beautiful). I happen to think the beginning of a movement is better than what develops over many years. You may disagree with that. It seems to me that traditions continually add more and more practices and most of the time people begin to participate in ceremonies without understanding their meaning. Some people like the pomp and circumstance of the bells and smells of the liturgy of the Church. In any case, my choice has been to try to discover what I think the essence of the earliest Christian practices was and to see how one might put that into practice in a contemporary way. The irony is if I succeed in that chances are in fifty to a hundred years it will also develop its own rigidity in rules and regulations.
I accept that there are important reasons why someone chooses to stick with their Christian faith and their church. It may be the tradition of their family whether that’s parents or the church one’s children are accustomed to. I regret that my family has had to follow me through my spiritual and intellectual journey. My oldest children had a conversion experience in the car after church one day and went on to attend Christian colleges. I had my wife get baptized to join a Baptist church only later to join a Quaker meeting and apologize for getting dunked before. I wouldn’t recommend this journey to anyone. But if you are someone like me and have been wandering through a similar journey, I would invite you to join me in thinking about how to hold on to a Christian heritage but reform the practice of it into something that genuinely transforms a person into a more capable and mature thinking and acting human being.