One of the best known text books which is used to teach early Church history in many Universities and Seminaries is ‘ Creeds, Councils and Controversies’. This collection of original sources of material edited by Stevenson and Frend is one that will be familiar to many students. This details, along with the companion volume “A new Eusebius” , the early credal statements of the church, as well as the Ecumenical Councils held to formulate Church doctrine, and indeed the controversies that ensued in what is known as the Patristic period up to about 451 AD. Much of our understanding of God and the Bible actually comes from the blood , sweat and not a little tears shed by various theologians ,martyrs and others of this time.
First year Church history at Aberdeen University came as a shock to me! Having enjoyed history in school, I thought that this would be my strong point, only to find that this was taught at another level altogether. Our professor was the Rev Prof W Peter Stephens , a devout methodist minister and scholar, who was also an authority on the theology of the Swiss theologian Huldrych Zwingli. Professor Stephens was an old school professor who always lectured and taught in his black geneva gown. A most chivalrous tutor, he only picked on male students , and particularly sought to elicit answers from the hapless church candidates in his classes. So it was that at the beginning of many classes we ( church candidates) would be asked with no warning for example to supply the dates of early church councils, to match the heresy to the appropriate heretic , and asked puzzling questions on various points of Christian doctrine.
It soon became clear to me how little I knew about this vital era in the life of the church, and how vital this time was to the formulation of what we understand and believe about God and scripture today. I recall the Rev Murdo Campbell ( previously minister at Carloway, now Brightons Falkirk) , who was my hall of residence warden at the time, comment on this, as some of the most brilliant minds the world has ever seen, wrestling with huge theological issues to give understanding and direction to the church in the centuries to come. Murdo had/has a huge love of and understanding of Patristics ( study of the early church fathers) and I remember him saying “ We must have doctrine , without doctrine we have nothing”.
What the early centuries of the Church show us is truly brilliant minds wrestling with the big doctrinal and theological issues such as the doctrine of God, the person of Christ, the incarnation , the two natures of Christ, the Trinity, the inspiration of scripture etc . Some searching for the truth and groping for answers like Arius, Nestorius, Pelagius and others strayed into what we would call heresy today, a departing from the truth of God’s word. Others like Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine and others stood for what is believed and accepted throughout the Christian Church as orthodox theology to this day. To stand for the truth of God’s word is costly and difficult, but I believe that the early church fathers knew what is sometimes forgotten today, that truth is not a variable or relative concept that changes with the years. Something is either true or it is not, God’s word can only be interpreted in one of two ways. There is a wrong way and a right way, there is truth and there is error.
Today we live in a day when increasingly the Christian Faith is under attack not only from outside but sadly also from within the church. It is therefore all the more imperative that we are prepared to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3 ESV) , and to always be ready to give a defence to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear; (1 Peter 3:15 NKJV).
” but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect”
(1 Peter 3:15 ESV)
So what about “ Creeds, Councils and Controversies “ ? Well there are certainly plenty of Controversies within the church.They abound in many areas of the Church’s life, and last week’s General Assembly brought these once again into sharp focus. The church Councils of today are very different from the ecumenical councils of the first Century. But what about the Creeds ? Should they change ? Should they be modernised to reflect changes in morality , and made ‘relevant ‘ for a post modern world ? Should they be up for discussion as to what the people of God believe concerning the Nature of Christ ? or the Trinity ? In my opinion the answer has to be no, as we otherwise slide further into a morass of spiritual confusion, when everyone does what is right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25) . if we as an assembly of God’s people meeting in Tarbert midweek and Sunday, abandon our belief in the Triune nature of God enshrined in the doctrine of the Trinity for example then we are no longer a church, we are heterodox. This all begins I would say with our attitude to scripture, our understanding of the Bible, and our confidence in the Bible as the inspired word of God. it is for this reason that we will be studying the Apostles Creed at the prayer meeting for the next while under the title” I believe ‘ . The apostles Creed summarises much of what we as Christians and as a Christian Church believe. Tonight we will look at the beginning of this great summary of the Christian faith, with particular reference to Ephesians 3:14-19under the title
“I believe in the Trinity”
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith —that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
(Ephesians 3:14-19 ESV)