What is it that Christians are to believe and proclaim? How do we know whether a certain belief falls within or without the boundaries of a Christian faith that seeks to be true to its ancient origins? When is our message authentically Christian? Many today are suspicious of those who try to tell us what we have to believe, and feel that notions of orthodoxy and heresy are oppressive and unhelpful: that individual Christians can decide for themselves what counts as Christian. What do Christians believe? For many the answer to this question is “whatever it is that people who choose to self-identify as Christians claim to believe.” So belief in the Trinity is Christian, but so is its denial; belief in the deity of Christ is Christian, but so is its rejection; belief in the resurrection is Christian, but so is disbelief. The problem with such an approach is that pretty much any belief can have a claim to being authentically Christian, and when a label becomes that elastic, it loses any hope of meaning anything.
The early Jesus communities were diverse groupings and there were disputes and tussles within them as to what belief constituted legitimate parts of the Christian proclamation. But from very early on there was a widely shared consensus—at least within those Jesus communities that saw themselves as directly linked to the ministry of the apostles—as to the basic shape of the church’s proclamation. There was still plenty of scope for disagreement and development, but the sense of the core of “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) was shared in common. And this core, this heart, was summed up in the rule of faith.
In order adequately to make sense of the church’s rule of faith—what it was, how it functioned, and why it mattered so much—I will need to present a lot of raw data. Without at least a basic familiarity with this data it is hard to speak intelligently of the rule. So the first two chapters will major on presenting the key texts and terminology. This may be a little overwhelming, but bear with me. My hope is that by the end of the book you will see that all the complex data can be made sense of by a rather simple hypothesis. And my hope is that once this is all clarified in chapter 5, you will appreciate just how important the rule of faith was and why it remains so for the church today.
We begin by considering the classic presentations of the rule of faith. The terminology used was fluid, and different early Christian authors spoke variously of the “rule of faith,” “the faith,” the “canon of truth,” “truth,” or similar expressions. By these terms they referred to summaries of the faith preached and taught by the churches.
I begin with an early summary of Christian faith that does not use the terminology related to a rule of faith but that includes some of the items customarily found under this heading. It occurs at the beginning of the examination of the Christian teacher Justin Martyr by the Roman prefect Rusticus about 165. In answer to the question of Rusticus, “What is your dogma?” Justin replied:
We piously believe in the God of the Christians, whom we regard to be the only one of these things from the beginning, the Maker and Fashioner of the whole creation, what is visible and invisible; and the Lord Jesus Christ, Child of God, who was proclaimed beforehand by the prophets as one who was going to be present with the race of humanity, the herald of salvation and teacher of good doctrines.
(Acts of Justin 2, recension B)
Irenaeus, writing in the180s and 190s, gave the earliest full listings of the main items. Irenaeus was the bishop of Lyons from about 178 to 202. Troubled by the teachings of various thinkers now commonly designated as “Gnostics,” he produced his major work, “Five Books of Unmasking and Overthrow of the Gnosis Falsely So-Called,” usually cited as Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses). We quote three statements from this work of the “immoveable truth proclaimed by the church” (Against Heresies 1.9.5) in contrast to the differing teachings offered by Gnostics. Another work, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, a guide of the teaching to be given to new converts, provides a comparable summary.
For the church, although dispersed throughout the whole world, as far as the ends of the earth, received from the apostles and their disciples, the faith in one God the Father Almighty, who has made the heaven, the earth, the seas, and all things in them; and in one Christ Jesus the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who has proclaimed through the prophets the plans of God and the comings of Christ, both the birth from the virgin, the passion, the rising from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus our Lord, and his coming [again] from heaven in the glory of the Father for the summing up of all things and the raising of all humanity, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, God, Savior, and King, according to the good pleasure of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, in earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to him [Phil 2:10–11], and that he might make a just judgment on all, that he might send the spiritual hosts of wickedness, the angels who transgressed and went into apostasy, and the impious, unjust, lawless, and blasphemers among human beings into the eternal fire; but might grant incorruptible life and eternal glory to those who are righteous, holy, and keep his commandments, and who persevere in his love either from the beginning or by repentance, and surround them with eternal glory.
(Against Heresies 1.10.1)
Many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ give their assent, . . . believing in one God, Creator of heaven and earth and all things in them, through Christ Jesus the Son of God. He because of his preeminent love for his creation submitted to birth from a virgin, uniting through himself man to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and being received in splendor, coming [again] in glory, the Savior of those who are saved and Judge of those who are judged, sending into eternal fire those who change the truth.
(Against Heresies 3.4.2)
He has a full faith in one God Almighty, from whom are all things; and a firm persuasion concerning the Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, by whom are all things, and his arrangements by which the Son of God became a man; and in the Spirit of God, who produces a recognition of the truth, who sets forth the arrangements of the Father and the Son to dwell among human beings in each generation, even as the Father wills.
(Against Heresies 4.33.7)
And this is the drawing up of our faith, the foundation of the building, and the consolidation of a way of life. God, the Father, uncreated, beyond grasp, invisible, one God the maker of all; this is the first and foremost article of our faith. But the second article is the Word of God, the Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was shown forth by the prophets according to the design of their prophecy and according to the manner in which the Father disposed, and through Him were made all things whatsoever. He also, in the end of times, for the recapitulation of all things, is become a man among men, visible and tangible, in order to abolish death and bring to light life, and bring about the communion of God and man. And the third article is the Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied and the patriarchs were taught about God and the just were led in the path of justice, and who in the end of times has been poured forth in a new manner upon humanity over all the earth renewing man to God.
(Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching 6)
Tertullian of Carthage was the first prolific Christian writer in Latin. His writings—which cover apologetic, anti-heretical, and moral/disciplinary subjects—come from about 196 to 212. He gives three statements of the rule of faith.
The rule of faith which is believed: there is but one God, and he alone is the creator of the world, who by the sending forth of his Word in the beginning brought the universe into being out of nothing; and this Word, called his Son, was seen in various ways in the name of God by the patriarchs, was heard always in the prophets, and last of all was brought down into the virgin Mary by the Spirit and power of God the Father, was made flesh in her womb and was born from her as Jesus Christ; thereafter he proclaimed a new law and a new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles, was nailed to the cross, was resurrected on the third day, was taken up to heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand and to send in his place the power of the Holy Spirit to guide believers, and will come again in glory to take the saints into the enjoyment of life eternal and heavenly promises, and to condemn the impious to everlasting fire, both parties being raised from the dead and having their flesh restored.
(On the Prescription of Heretics 13)
The rule of faith is entirely one, alone immoveable and unchangeable. The rule is that of believing in the one almighty God, the Founder of the universe, and in his Son Jesus Christ, born from the virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, raised from the dead on the third day, received into the heavens, sitting now at the right [hand] of the Father, going to come to judge the living and the dead through the resurrection of the flesh. . . . This law of faith is constant.
(On the Veiling of Virgins 1.3–4)
We believe in one only God, nevertheless under this dispensation (which we call “economy”) that there is a Son of the one God, his very Word which proceeds from him, through whom all things were made and without whom nothing has been made [John 1:1–3]. This one was sent by the Father into the virgin and from her was born man and God, Son of Man and Son of God, named Jesus Christ. This One suffered, this One died and was buried according to the Scriptures [1 Cor 15:3–4], was raised by the Father and taken back into heaven to sit at the right [hand] of the Father, will come to judge the living and the dead. He furthermore, according to his promise [John 16:7], sent from the Father the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. This rule has come down from the beginning of the gospel.
(Against Praxeas 2)
The writings of Hippolytus provide several difficulties. More than one person bore this name, some works by others may have been attributed to Hippolytus of Rome, and which writings are to be ascribed to whom remains a controversial matter. The author of a treatise Against Noetus (Contra haeresin Noeti) may have been a presbyter named Hippolytus in Rome in the first third of the third century. He quotes against Noetus what the elders of the church of Smyrna, apparently Noetus’s home city, said they had been taught.
The presbyters replied to Noetus: “We too know in truth one God; we know Christ; we know that the Son suffered even as he suffered, and died even as he died, and rose again on the third day, and is at the right hand of the Father, and is coming to judge the living and the dead. And these things that we have learned we affirm.”
(Against Noetus 1)
Later in the treatise he summarizes his own understanding of the scriptural testimonies.
Let us believe then, blessed brothers, according to the tradition of the apostles, that God the Word came down from heaven into the holy virgin Mary in order that, taking flesh from her and assuming a human (by which I mean a rational) soul and thus becoming all that a human being is, except for sin, he might save fallen humanity and confer immortality on those who believe on his name. In all, therefore, the word of truth is demonstrated to us, namely that the Father is One, whose Word also exists by whom he made all things, whom also, as we have said, the Father sent forth in latter times for the salvation of human beings. This one was preached by the Law and the Prophets as appointed to come into the world. And even as he was preached formerly, in the same manner also did he come and manifest himself, being by the virgin and the Holy Spirit made a new man; for having the heavenly from the Father as his Word and the earthly by taking to himself the flesh from the old Adam by means of the virgin, he now coming into the world was manifested as God in a body, coming forth as a perfect man. For it was not according to mere appearance or changeableness, but in truth that he became man.
Thus then, though demonstrated as God, he did not refuse the conditions proper to him as a human being. . . . [There follows an eloquent summary of the paradoxes of Christ’s divine nature in the midst of his human life. The author then concludes:] This one breathes upon the disciples, gives them the Spirit, and comes among them when the doors are shut, and is taken up by a cloud into the heavens while the disciples look at him, is set down on the right hand of the Father, and comes again as the Judge of the living and the dead. This is the God who for our sakes became a human being, to whom also the Father has put all things in subjection. To him be the glory and the power, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, in the holy church both now and forever. Amen.
(Against Noetus 17–18)
The “Teaching of the Apostles” (Didascalia Apostolorum) is a manual of church order from the first half of the third century. It survives in Syriac and was incorporated with modifications in the fourth-century Greek Apostolic Constitutions. I translate the conclusion of the document from the Latin version.
Therefore to him who is able to open the ears of your heart so that you may receive the words of the Lord which are provided through the gospel and doctrine of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and slept so that he might evangelize Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all his saints concerning both the end of the age and the coming resurrection of the dead; and he was raised from the dead so that he might demonstrate and give to us a guarantee of the resurrection; and he was taken up into heaven through the power of God and his Spirit, and seated at the right hand of the throne of the Almighty God above the cherubim; who is coming with excellence and glory to judge the living and the dead. To him is the power, glory, majesty, and dominion, to the Father and the Son, who was and is and will be, both now and in all generations and in the ages of the ages. Amen.
Origen (ca. 185–ca. 251) was the most learned and prolific Greek author of the early church. He was a teacher in Alexandria and then in Caesarea in Palestine. In his On First Principles (De principiis) in the preface he set forth the undisputed Christian doctrines in distinction from those topics lacking clarity and about which one could speculate. Since the Greek does not survive, I quote the statements of the essential teachings, preserved in the Latin translation of Rufinus.
The holy apostles, when preaching the faith of Christ, took certain doctrines, those namely which they believed to be necessary ones, and delivered them in the plainest terms to all believers. . . .
The kind of doctrines which are believed in plain terms through the apostolic teaching are the following:—
First, that God is one, who created and set in order all things, and who, when nothing existed, caused the universe to be. He is God from the first creation and foundation of the world, the God of all righteous men, of Adam, Abel, Seth, Enos, Enoch, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the twelve patriarchs, of Moses and the prophets. This God, in these last days, according to the previous announcements made through his prophets, sent the Lord Jesus Christ, first for the purpose of calling Israel, and secondly, after the unbelief of the people of Israel, of calling the Gentiles also. This just and good God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, himself gave the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospels, and he is God both of the apostles and also of the Old and New Testaments.
Then again: Christ Jesus, he who came to earth, was begotten of the Father before every created thing [Jerome says that Origen wrote, “not begotten”]. And after he had ministered to the Father in the foundation of all things, “for all things were made through him” [John 1:3], in these last times he emptied himself and was made man, was made flesh, although he was God; and being made man, he still remained what he was, namely, God. He took to himself a body like our body, differing in this alone, that it was born of a virgin and the Holy Spirit. And this Jesus Christ was born and suffered in truth and not merely in appearance, and truly died our common death. Moreover he truly rose from the dead, and after the resurrection associated with his disciples and was then taken up into heaven.
Then again, the apostles delivered this doctrine, that the Holy Spirit is united in honor and dignity with the Father and the Son. . . . It is, however, certainly taught with the utmost clearness in the church, that this Spirit inspired each one of the saints, both the prophets and the apostles, and that there was not one Spirit in the men of old and another in those who were inspired at the coming of Christ.
Next after this the apostles taught that the soul, having a substance and life of its own, will be rewarded according to its deserts after its departure from this world; for it will either obtain an inheritance of eternal life and blessedness, if its deeds shall warrant this, or it must be given over to eternal fire and torments, if the guilt of its crimes shall so determine. Further, there will be a time for the resurrection of the dead, when this body, which is now “sown in corruption” shall “rise in incorruption,” and that which is “sown in dishonor” shall “rise in glory” [1 Cor 15:42–43].
This also is laid down in the church’s teaching, that every rational soul is possessed of free will and choice; and also, that it is engaged in a struggle against the devil and his angels and the opposing powers; for these strive to weigh the soul down with sins, whereas we, if we lead a wise and upright life, endeavor to free ourselves from such a burden. There follows from this the conviction that we are not subject to necessity, so as to be compelled by every means, even against our will, to do either good or evil. . . .
Further, in regard to the devil and his angels and the opposing spiritual powers, the church teaching lays it down that these beings exist, but what they are or how they exist it has not explained very clearly. . . .
The church teaching also includes the doctrine that this world was made and began to exist at a definite time and that by reason of its corruptible nature it must suffer dissolution. . . .
Then there is the doctrine that the Scriptures were composed through the Spirit of God and that they have not only that meaning which is obvious, but also another which is hidden from the majority of readers. For the contents of Scripture are the outward forms of certain mysteries and images of divine things.
(On First Principles, preface 3–8)
Novatian was a presbyter in the church of Rome (mid-third century) who then went into schism and became a counter-bishop in Rome. He is the first major author in Rome to write in Latin. His treatise On the Trinity is an important theological contribution.
The rule of truth requires that we believe, first of all, in God the Father and Lord Almighty, that is, the absolutely perfect Creator of all things.
(On the Trinity 1)
The same rule of truth teaches us to believe after the Father also in the Son of God, Christ Jesus, the Lord our God, but the Son of God. We are to believe in this Son of this God, who is both the one and the only God, namely the Creator of all things. . . . This Jesus Christ, I repeat, the Son of this God, we read was not only promised in the Old Testament but we observe also to have been manifested in the New Testament, fulfilling the shadows and figures of all the mysteries, in his presence the embodiment of truth. [There follow prophecies of his virgin birth, miracles, humility, passion, resurrection, the faith of Gentiles and unbelief of Jews, his session at God’s right hand, and coming judgment.]
(On the Trinity 9)
Moreover, the order of reason and the authority of the faith . . . admonish us to believe after these things [concerning the Father and the Son] also in the Holy Spirit, who was formerly promised to the church and given in the appointed, proper time. For he was promised by the prophet Joel [Joel 3:2] and given by Christ. . . . Therefore, there is one and the same Spirit who was in the prophets and in the apostles, except that in the former he was occasional but in the latter always. . . . This is he who orders the rule of truth . . . [and] guards the gospel.
(On the Trinity 29)
Victorinus lived in the second half of the third century and was bishop of Petovium in what is now Slovenia.
The command of God is to confess the Father Almighty, that his Son Christ was begotten by the Father before the beginning of the world and was made man in true soul and flesh, . . . and that when he was received with his body into heaven by the Father, he gave forth the Holy Spirit, the gift and pledge of immortality, that he was announced by the Prophets, was described by the Law, was God’s hand and the Word of the Father from God, Lord over all and founder of the world. This is the canon and measure of faith, and no one worships at the holy altar except the one who confesses this faith (11.1).
(Commentary on the Apocalypse)