JOPLIN, Mo. —
Christianity often finds itself in a quandary similar to that of former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who said he couldn’t exactly define pornography but he knew it when he saw it.
The church cannot dispel all the mysteries underlying Christian beliefs, but it senses false faith. It took more than three centuries for the church to proclaim a formal creed. That expression of the faith common to Christians has been challenged before and since by revisionists who prefer different ideas. Many of the tinkerers, if not most of them, are utterly sincere, but misguided in seeking simple explanations.
Physicians treat diseases and psychiatrists grapple with mental health issues. Their aim is to restore health, which is seldom as interesting as the illnesses themselves. By the same token, compared to novel expressions of faith, the Apostles’ Creed is as dull as dishwater.
Heresies profess to answer mysteries and clarify faith, whereas orthodoxy is typically content with just being precise about what resists easy explanation.
Because Christianity is so complex -- for example, no other religion insists that God is one, yet three -- it attracts some adherents who are prone to simplify their beliefs. Whereas orthodoxy maintains that Jesus is at once fully divine and fully human, heresy attempts to address the puzzle as “either-or.”
The first “heresy,” oddly enough, was proposed by the least likely candidates -- the original apostles -- who initially treated the Christian faith as a refinement of Judaism.
Happily, St. Paul persuaded them that a follower of Jesus could be a Christian without first embracing Judaism. That decision ensured that gentile and Jewish Christians did not establish competing churches in the cities of the Roman Empire.
The agreement of the apostles to unshackle Christianity from Judaism made it possible to carry out Jesus’ command to teach all nations. But there was already a powerful movement -- Gnosticism -- that preferred the new faith to be less open and accessible. Compared to orthodoxy, this early heresy had “snob” appeal. It was pseudo-philosophical and exclusive, preferring the church to be a kind of fraternal lodge with restricted membership, arcane rites and hidden wisdom.
Perhaps the most pernicious of Gnosticism’s tenets was that the physical world is not God’s creation, but stands as a barrier to humankind’s redemption. Jesus, the Gnostics claimed, redeemed only those who can respond to the divine spark in their minds and escape the earthly prison of their bodies, becoming “pure spirits.” The church countered that Jesus was the Word made flesh, and his resurrection was not just spiritual but physical as well.
In his first letter to the Christians at Corinth, Paul took pains to reprimand a Gnostic faction in that community. In A.D. 325, the Roman Emperor Constantine, himself a convert to Christianity, assembled church leaders to confirm the faith shared by all. It proclaimed what came to be called the Nicene Creed.
DAVID YOUNT is the author of 14 books. He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22195 and firstname.lastname@example.org.