The core crisis of Christianity is how could a religion based on the teachings of Jesus, who called for peace through love and generosity to the poor – and who disdained the rich – have grown so tolerant of war, greed and inequality. The Rev. Howard Bess traces this conundrum to the Church’s early days.
By the Rev. Howard Bess
Paul was Christianity’s first theologian, with his writings making up about half of the entire New Testament. Indeed, though Paul did not become a believer until years after Jesus’s crucifixion, Paul wrote before any of the four gospels describing Jesus’s life and teachings were committed to the written word.
Thus, Paul – more than anyone else – set the standard for what is required to be a Christian. And, in the 10thchapter of his letter to the Romans, he wrote these words: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
So, being a Christian was for Paul a matter of head and heart, not actions. By his standard, there is no amount of good deeds that can bring salvation. It is a matter of belief and belief only.
Paul’s standard has been challenged by some Christians over the centuries – and the New Testament’s Book of James stresses the value of good works – but never has Paul’s “head and heart” standard been dislodged as a central tenet of Christianity.
In the Fourth Century CE, under pressure from Roman rulers, the Church began to define what a Christian must believe, leading to the two dominant creeds, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, both based on Paul’s standard.
Before the Council of Nicaea in 325, Christianity was incredibly diverse. However, even then, Paul’s insistence that Christianity was defined by head and heart was dominant. The central issue of the two creeds was what was to be confessed by Christians as their core beliefs.
The Apostles’ Creed, by tradition, has its roots in the 12 apostles of Jesus of Nazareth. However, there is no documented connection to first, second or third centuries CE. In the Fourth Century CE, the wording of the Apostles’ Creed was set and remains the Catechism of the Catholic Church, beginning “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth…”
The Nicene Creed comes to us out of the Council of Nicaea, a gathering of Church leaders that was charged by Roman Emperor Constantine to settle once and for all what a person must believe to be saved and to be a full participant in the Kingdom of God. The key issue was the relationship between Jesus, the son, and God, the father.
It begins: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God …”
Both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed have the same structure. Even some of the wording is identical. And they have remained central to Christian teaching ever since.
The Protestant Reformation of the Sixteenth Century was a serious jolt to the world of Christianity, with the meaning and the necessity of the Reformation still debated. My own understanding is that Martin Luther was convinced that the Roman Church in practice had strayed from the “head and heart” standard of the Apostle Paul.
During the Reformation, the content of the long-established creeds was never in question. Instead, Luther believed that the Roman Church was compromising Paul’s formula for salvation through corrupt practices such as the selling of indulgences. Luther taught that salvation was a gift of God’s grace received through faith in Jesus Christ.
The depth of Luther’s convictions that salvation was by faith alone was made plain by his questioning of the inclusion of the Book of James in the Christian New Testament. James raised the question, “Can a person be saved by faith without works?” Luther’s response was to say the Book of James was unworthy to be included in the New Testament.
As a Baptist, my tradition is adamantly non-creedal, meaning every Baptist has the right to interpret the Christian faith. However, in the Baptist tradition, an individual dare not question Paul’s understanding of salvation by head and heart – without requirement of good works.
Believing that a person can become acceptable to God by good works or charity is the most offensive heresy imaginable. Yet, as far as we know, Jesus of Nazareth taught and lived a very moral and ethical life. He also called for peace and justice through love.
Though Christians with our lips confess that Jesus is Lord and pledge to follow his path, there are profound contradictions between the teachings of Jesus and the actions of many Christians.
How is it that our behavior is so out of step with the one we call “Lord?” With immunity of conscience, we fight and kill one another. We are motivated by greed and unbridled desire. Truth-telling is not honored. Hoarding material goods triumphs over generosity. Locks and high fences abound as though they can insure safety.
There are over 2 billion Christians in the world. Together, we have the power in numbers to bring peace, love, generosity and justice to the world. Collectively, we have the resources to make the world a much better place.
On Sunday, many Christians will recite in unison the Apostles’ Creed. Yet, nothing new and positive will happen on Monday since salvation is not tied to deeds, but only to faith.
Is it possible that Paul, Christianity’s first theologian, led us terribly astray?
The Rev. Howard Bess is an American Baptist minister, who lives in retirement in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.