A Tale of Two Fictions

Today’s guest blogger is Dr. Brian Mattson, Senior Scholar of Public Theology for the Center For Cultural Leadership. You can fan his Facebook page (Dr. Brian G. Mattson), follow him on Twitter (@BrianGMattson), and read his blog (www.brianmattson.squarespace.com).

Greetings! I want to begin by thanking Aaron for the opportunity to hold down the fort on his blog this month. I hope he has a wonderful, restful, and energizing vacation from blogging, and I will do my best to continue his tradition of producing excellent content on Blogging Theologically.

My plan is a fairly simple one. I am going to write fifteen blog posts this month as a discrete series. Taken together, they form what I am calling 15 Meditations on the Apostles’ Creed. Following two introductory posts on the nature of Christian tradition, each subsequent post will be a simple meditation on an article of the creed.

But allow me to begin by addressing the question: Why Tradition? The Apostles’ Creed represents for the entire world of orthodox Christianity a tradition passed down from the early church to us as an articulation of the basics of Christian belief. The questions are: Do we need it and why?

I believe the answer to the former is yes, and the latter question will be taken up in the next post. But there are two basic pitfalls that we must endeavor to avoid, both to the right and to the left. Let me illustrate these pitfalls by telling a “Tale of Two Fictions.”

The first comes to us from the early 5th century. In A.D. 404, a church leader by the name of Tyrannius Rufinus wrote this account of what happened after Pentecost and the Twelve Apostles prepared to embark on their respective ministries:

As they were therefore on the point of taking leave of each other, they first settled an agreed norm for their future preaching, so that they might not find themselves, widely separated as they would be, giving out different doctrines to the people they invited to believe in Christ. So they met together in one spot and, being filled with the Holy Spirit, compiled this brief token, as I have said, of their future preaching, each making the contribution he thought fit; and they decreed that it should be handed out as standard teaching to believers.

This brief description purports to tell us the origins of the Apostles’ Creed, and the account became the near universally-held view of the church in the Middle Ages. It was taken for granted that the Creed was written by the Apostles themselves, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. A more detailed account comes to us from a 6th century sermon:

On the tenth day after the Ascension, when the disciples were gathered together for fear of the Jews, the Lord sent the promised Paraclete upon them. At His coming they were inflamed like red-hot iron and, being filled with the knowledge of all languages, they composed the creed. Peter said, “I believe in God the Father almighty…maker of heaven and earth”… Andrew said “and in Jesus Christ His Son…our Lord” … and James said “Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit… born from the Virgin Mary” … John said, “suffered under Pontius Pilate … was crucified, dead and buried”… [et cetera].

This story, as I said, won almost universal acceptance in the Middle Ages. The thought that the Apostles themselves were directly responsible for the Creed named after them is warming and enticing. Alas, it is, as renowned scholar J.N.D. Kelly puts it, a “pious fiction.” It is a story invented at some time or another in an attempt to vindicate the authenticity and theological purity of the creed. It is an attempt to read a more fully developed theology right back into the pages of the New Testament itself, indeed, to put its content directly onto the lips of Christ’s appointed spokesmen. Its intent is, indeed, pious, but fiction it remains, nonetheless.

This brings me to a second story, this one a positively impious fiction. The early Apostles and followers of Jesus went out into the world and taught a vast variety of differing doctrines and theologies. The early Christian movement was characterized by diversity, tolerance, inclusiveness, openness to differing interpretations. It was Spirit-filled, spontaneous, wild, uncontrolled and uncontrollable. After several centuries this primitive, pure, Spirit-worked movement was destroyed by those of another spirit: those dedicated not to the Spirit, but the letter. Doctrine, dogma and uniformity must reign in place of originality, freedom, tolerance and diversity. The powers-that-be, under the leadership of the supreme ruler, Emperor Constantine, constructed a giant doctrinal edifice, a creed, and they mercilessly imposed it upon the entire church. And so the primitive purity of original Christianity was polluted – indeed, snuffed out – in a giant political power play in the 4th century. This is a familiar sort of story. The story of the authoritarian. The story of what we might call, “The Man.” “The Man” is a symbolic way to describe authoritarian and totalitarian powers that persecute and keep authentic humanity down. Let me illustrate by quoting renowned theologian – oops, I mean, Hollywood actor, Jack Black. Playing Dewey Finn, a down-and-out rock musician-turned-substitute-teacher, he puts it this way, in a most memorable fashion:

You wanna learn something? You want me to teach you something? You wanna learn something? All right. Here’s a useful lesson for you: Give up. Just quit. Because in this life you can’t win. Yeah, you can try. But in the end you’re just going to lose BIG TIME. Because the world is run by The Man. Oh, you don’t know The Man? Oh, well, he’s everywhere. In the White House, down the hall, Ms. Mullins – she’s The Man. And The Man ruined the Ozone, and he’s burning down the Amazon, and he kidnapped Shamu and put her in a chlorine tank! Okay? And there used to be a way to stick it to the man. It was called Rock and Roll. But guess what? Oh, no. The Man ruined that, too, with a little thing called MTV! So don’t waste your time trying to make anything cool or pure or awesome because The Man is just going to call you a fat, washed up loser and crush your soul! So do yourselves a favor and just GIVE UP!”

This is the story told by Dan Brown (The DaVinci Code), Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, and others. In this worldview, the Church is “The Man” who went and ruined the purity of an earlier era. Like Rufinus in the 5th century, however, Dan Brown did not invent this story. It is a story that has been told and retold in seemingly infinite variation for the past 300 years by those influenced by the so-called “Enlightenment.” Think about it: the very name “Enlightenment” is suggestive, is it not? The institutional Church, with its juvenile faith in ridiculous doctrines and dogmas, has kept the world in ignorance and darkness. The emergence of “Reason” rather than “Faith” in the 18th century led to searches to discover the “real” history of Christianity. Lo and behold, the Enlightenment critics “discovered” that the early church (gasp!) believed just as they did, and then the Church (The Man) came along and ruined everything that was “cool or pure or awesome” with their doctrines and dogmas.

So here we have two fictions. The pious fiction attempts to vindicate the creed, to substantiate its purity, by placing it in the context of the earliest Christian community. The impious fiction attempts to cast doubt on the creed, to erode its purity, by making it a later phenomenon that stifled rather than expressed the primitive faith of the early church. Here is the point:

BOTH are fictions. Neither is correct. History is always more complicated than our melodramatic “Good guys, bad guys, white hats, black hats” readings of it.

Lesson number one in having a fruitful understanding of the role of tradition in Christianity is to avoid the “Two Fictions.” Avoid the pious reverence for tradition that attempts to place all Christian dogmas on the lips of the Apostles. This is, in fact, the approach literally taken by Roman Catholicism. All dogmas can be traced to some vague “oral tradition” passed down person to person, Pope to Pope. This may appear to give a solid foundation for Christian truth. It might even appear pious. But it is a foundation built on the sands of fiction.

On the other hand, avoid “The Man” theories of church history. This fiction is so popular today, forming, as I mentioned, the backbone of many popular novels. Dan Brown has made his millions peddling this myth, but it is not just a low-brow phenomenon. Many scholars in the academic guild are committed to this fiction, especially since the re-discovery of many of the early Gnostic gospels in the 1940s. The story is familiar. The Gnostic gospels give us a window into the “real” early Christian tradition, and the ecumenical creeds are the products of much later, power-hungry church leaders who rammed an ossified orthodoxy down the throats of the allegedly free-spirited, decentralized Christian communities.

Neither gullibility (pious fiction) nor cynicism (impious fiction). That is the way forward for a healthy appreciation of Christian tradition. And in my next post I will continue to point the way forward for a fruitful interaction with the Apostles’ Creed.

  • http://www.herenowkingdom.com Andy Catsimanes

    Thank you Dr. Mattson for your thoughtful approach to tradition. At times we Protestants are overly suspicious of anything that smacks of tradition, but occasionally I wonder if at some point we threw the baby out with the bathwater.

    If we understand Christian “tradition” in MacIntyre’s sense, as “an extended argument” for the truth of the Gospel, perhaps we can strike the right balance between the two fictions you’ve identified.