Who Can Define the Christian Faith?

Who is the authority for Christian doctrines? Is it the New Testament? Is it the Roman Catholic Church? In this article, I’ll be evaluating what the apostles and the early church fathers believed.

I will show that the teachings of Jesus and his apostles, which are found in the New Testament, are our infallible authority for Christian doctrine. Only Jesus and the apostles are “upstream” from doctrine; in other words, only statements by them can be taken as definitive of Christian doctrine. Everyone else is “downstream” from doctrine; our statements must be compared to the doctrines defined by Jesus and the apostles.

The inspiration for this argument comes from early Christians such as Irenaeus, Polycarp, and Cyprian. Whether you agree or disagree with the arguments offered in this essay, please don’t hesitate to comment. I would very much value your feedback.

Note: If you would like a full-fledged response to the Roman Catholic claim that, without the decisions of their institutional church, we have no way of telling what’s true, see my article offering foundations for an Anabaptist view of doctrinal authority.

Key term: By “defining” the faith, I mean “making a statement about doctrine that establishes what true doctrine is, a statement that has the authority to be binding on all Christians, as the apostolic writings are.” I don’t mean the word “define” in its broader colloquial sense.

Jesus had authority to define the faith.

Since Christians believed (and still do) that Jesus is the Son of God, they of course believed that Jesus is upstream from Christian doctrine. Here is one of many places where Jesus’ authority is discussed:

So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. (John 8:28 ESV)

What’s interesting is that Jesus says that when he (the Son of Man) is lifted up, his hearers will have evidence for his authority. Later, John clarifies that Jesus used “lifted up” to signify his death (John 12:33). And in fact, his death and resurrection, occurring as he foretold it, provide evidence for the authority for the other things he said. Other passages on Jesus’ authority are Matthew 28:18, Luke 4:32, John 7:16-17, 12:48-50, 14:9-11.1Early Christian passages: Ignatius to Ephesians 9

The apostles had authority to define the faith.

Christians also believed that Jesus, having authority to teach, also handed a unique calling to the apostles, thus making them upstream from Christian doctrine as well. Jesus said,

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12–15)2See (quoted below) Disputation with Manes 34, Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics 22

This passage is often interpreted to apply to all Christians, but Jesus didn’t actually say it to all of his followers. He said these words to the eleven apostles who were with him in the upper room after Judas had left to betray him. He told those specific men that the Spirit would guide them into all the truth.

One could claim that Jesus was addressing the apostles as church leaders, and that this means that church leaders will be led into all the truth. However, there’s no textual reason for that. Furthermore, this fails to recognize that the apostles, the ones addressed, already knew all doctrine. There was therefore no further doctrine for church leaders to learn beyond what the apostles knew and taught. So this promise doesn’t apply to church leaders.

In this same discourse, Jesus also said that those who listened to him would also listen to the apostles:

Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. (John 15:20)

After his resurrection, Jesus entrusted these same apostles to teach his message. He commissioned them to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19–20). However, Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:4–5).

Before Pentecost, Matthias was added to the eleven apostles to replace the unfaithful Judas Iscariot and fill out their number to twelve again (although that hardly matters for our purposes, since we don’t have teachings that specifically come from Matthias). On Pentecost, the apostles received the Holy Spirit, and it was then that they began to teach (Acts 2:1–4).

Paul had authority to define the faith.

Paul was not one of the original twelve apostles, but he was also considered an apostle. He was given apostolic authority by Jesus himself, as the apostles were, and therefore is upstream from doctrine:

And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ (Acts 26:15-18)

Writing to the Corinthians, Paul says, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Cor 9:1). An apostle is one who is sent, especially to represent the sender, and Paul had his authority because he was sent by Jesus himself, the one who had sent the twelve original apostles.

The other apostles recognized Paul’s apostleship. Peter recognizes his writings as authoritative, using the same word (graphe) of them as is used throughout the New Testament of the Old Testament Scriptures (2 Pet 3:15-16). More clearly, however, is Paul’s statement to the Galatians. In order to show that he was commissioned by Christ himself, he writes that he didn’t receive his doctrines from the original twelve apostles:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. . . . [W]hen he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. (Gal 1:11-17)

However, there is no doubt that he was teaching the same doctrines that the twelve were. He continues:

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. . . . Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. . . . And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, . . . and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. (Gal 1:18-2:10)

Paul says that, even though he wasn’t given the gospel by man, he was teaching the same faith. The specific issue in question was whether Gentiles needed to obey the Law of Moses, but Paul is clear that even the influential Christians at Jerusalem “added nothing to me,” which indicates that they were in agreement on other aspects of Christianity as well. In fact, we know that they were talking about other subjects, since they wanted him to be sure to remember the poor—which seems to be the only area they were concerned he might not be on board with them—and he fully agreed.

In other words, Paul’s calling really was from Christ, because Paul is confident that the other apostles called by Christ could verify to anyone who asked them, such as the Galatians, that his message was entirely correct.

Furthermore, Paul’s letters were among the earliest books to gain widespread acceptance among Christians as being authoritative. Even heretics like Marcion recognized Paul’s authority; they just interpreted him wrongly. In early Christian writings, he is frequently referred to as an apostle.3Cf. Mathetes to Diognetus 12, Martyrdom of Ignatius 5, Papias 5 ANF, Irenaeus Against Heresies 1 Preface, Athenagoras on the Resurrection 18, Clement of Alexandria, Exortation to the Heathen 2

In other words, Jesus and the apostles, including Paul, were upstream from doctrine and had authority to define the faith. However, might there be other people who are upstream from doctrine can continue to define the faith?

The faith taught in the first years of Christianity cannot be changed.

In the very first years of their ministry, the teaching of the apostles contained all of Christian doctrine. Paul wrote to the Galatians somewhere around A.D. 50, within thirty years of Pentecost. In that letter, he told the Galatian church,

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Gal 1:6–9)

Less than thirty years after the apostles first preached the gospel, Paul says that not even the apostles could change the gospel with new revelation. The gospel that was preached in those first years is the one and only gospel of Christianity.

But what if it’s just the gospel that didn’t change? How do we know that other teachings might have changed since then?

In the books written near the end of the apostles’ ministry, Christian leaders frequently warned their followers to maintain the traditions that the Christians had taught. The apostles and other early leaders, likely knowing that they would soon be dead, urged their people to stay true to what they were taught.

What is a tradition?

A “tradition” could be any one of quite a few things that are handed down, such as a long-held custom, a fact that’s transmitted orally, or a historical way of thinking. But the traditions of the apostles were different.

The Greek word translated as “tradition” can be translated as “ordinance,” “precept,” or “doctrine.” The reason “tradition” is a word that can be used of what the apostles taught is that they handed down these teachings. We’re used to scoffing at traditions that aren’t necessary to the Christian faith. After all, Jesus and Paul both spoke against the traditions of man. However, apostolic traditions carry significant weight, because they come from those who had authority to define the faith.

In the first Scripture quoted below, Paul classifies the Christian woman’s head covering as one of these apostolic traditions. Other traditions can be found throughout the New Testament books.

Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. (1 Cor 11:1–2)

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (2 Thes 2:15)

That these traditions must be maintained and held to indicates that they cannot be changed. Paul, or whoever wrote Hebrews, also implies that these traditions were for all time when he said,

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. (Hebrews 13:7–9)

These Christians were to imitate their leaders, who had taught them the word of God, and not to follow other teachings. Within this exhortation, he asserts that Jesus Christ himself never changes. If this fact is relevant in any way to the matters under discussion before and after it, it would seem to imply that Christian teachings could never be changed.

In his first letter to Timothy, Paul tells him to “guard the deposit entrusted to [him]” and he repeats this exhortation in the second letter (1 Tim 6:20, 2 Tim 1:13-14). That he has received a deposit to be guarded suggests that it should be preserved intact without changes.

When Paul left the church at Ephesus for the last time, he told their elders that he had taught them “the whole counsel of God”:

And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. . . . I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.

As you can see, Paul said that people, even church leaders, would teach things other than what he had taught, but they should remember his teachings. Previously unknown teachings are a mark of falsehood—what had already been taught was the truth.

The apostle Peter also admonished Christians to keep what they already had. He reminded them of the importance of faith, knowledge, steadfastness, and other virtues, saying,

Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. . . . I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things. (2 Pet 1:5–15)

Peter told his readers that they were already established in the truth; in other words, they already had what he intended to pass on to them. His current goal was to help them recall and live out what they had already been taught.

Jude also wrote to the church to remind them to hold fast to what they were given in the beginning. He said,

I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 3)

Jude realized that Christians needed to be warned against moving away from their faith. Like the other writers, he does not suggest that any part of the faith had not yet been revealed—no, the faith had been delivered once for all.

In the book of 1 John, the author writes,

And now I ask you, dear lady—not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning—that we love one another. And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it. . . . Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. (1 John 5-9)

The commandment John speaks of is “from the beginning,” and the goal is to “abide in the teaching of Christ” rather than to “[go] on ahead.” Every indication points to an already revealed body of doctrine, and no indication points to later developments.

Finally, the apostle John records Jesus’ own words in Revelation:

But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching [of the false teacher Jezebel], who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. Only hold fast what you have until I come. The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, (Rev 2:24-26)

Our Lord asked the Christians of Thyatira who had not been drawn away by a false teacher to do nothing but “hold fast what you have until I come.” They were to keep Jesus’ works until the end. This strongly indicates that they knew the whole faith and all that was required, and they were not to change any practice that had been delivered to them as an essential part of the Christian faith.

All doctrine was complete and public

As these passages clearly show, Christian doctrine was completely known by the end of the apostles’ lifetime; in fact, it’s most likely that it was completely known at the very beginning of their ministry. They preached these doctrines publicly, and every indication suggests that all of doctrine was well known to their followers. This leaves no room for finding out further truths that can be considered as Christian doctrine.

Does authority to teach equal truth?

A quick note. If someone’s definitions of the faith are authoritative, as I’ve shown Jesus’ and the apostles’ teachings are, are they therefore definitely true? In most cases authority and truth aren’t the same thing—after all, a jury has the authority to convict an accused man, but even though the man will be sentenced on the authority of that conviction, we can’t be absolutely certain that the man actually did the crime he was accused of.

However, in this case, authority and truth are the same thing. Since the God we serve is all-good and cannot lie, Jesus, who is God’s Son and authorized messenger, also cannot lie. Neither would Jesus have authorized human messengers to spread a false gospel and religion. So in the case of Christianity, authority and truth are the same. Either the apostles had both or neither. I’ve shown that they have both.

Were the apostles infallible in their teaching of Christian doctrine?

Jesus, being God, obviously is infallible. However, were the apostles infallible when they were teaching Christian doctrine?

I would say yes, if by “infallible,” we mean that the apostles were assuredly correct when they intended to teach true Christian doctrine. We have assurance (the testimony of Jesus) that all their teachings about Christianity were correct, and I think we can define that as “infallibility” or “inerrancy” of some kind. If Jesus trusted the apostles to pass on his doctrine, we can too.

Were the apostles infallible in other ways?

But did the apostles know every truth that there was to know? We have no reason to think so. Did they know every truth about God? Certainly not; the human mind isn’t big enough for that. Did they never make mistakes? We have good reason to think they made mistakes (Galatians 2:11-13).

The apostles were correct when they taught Christian doctrine, but that doesn’t mean they were correct about everything under the sun.

Can There Be Further Revelation?

I said that the faith was complete and known by Christians at least by the end of the apostle’s lives. This leaves no room for adding any essential elements to the faith or taking away any elements considered essentially part of the faith. Does this mean that there will be no further revelation?

Certainly not! God still speaks to people through the Holy Spirit. There’s so much more we can learn about God and about his intentions for his church. However, there’s no further revelation that adds to authoritative Christian doctrine.

Even so, we can find out more things about the Christian faith. Scripture shows us that Jesus is divine, but Scripture doesn’t indicate the precise relationship between the Father and the Son. Through Scriptural reasoning, we can find out more about the Trinity.

However, what we learn may be true, but it is not authoritative. It is still optional for Christians to believe it or not, and those who don’t believe it aren’t heretics. They simply disagree with us, not with the apostles.

What about the other New Testament books?

I said that the teachings of Jesus and his apostles, which are found in the New Testament, are our infallible authority for Christian doctrine. However, some of the books in the New Testament weren’t written by apostles. Are they also authoritative? I answer this question in my article on the New Testament canon. Basically, we can trust them, because their authors worked closely with the apostles.

Evaluation of Other Sources

If we had any doubt that the entirety of Christian doctrine was well-known to the first Christians, we can see what the pre-Nicene church on the subject. If the earliest Christians after the apostles lived had believed that more Christian doctrinal truths would be revealed, then there’s a chance my argument is wrong. On the other hand, if they simply didn’t say whether or not more doctrine would be revealed, this argument stands. But if early Christian writers specify that doctrine cannot be developed, then this argument is powerfully confirmed.

And that’s what actually happens. The writings of early Christian leaders show us that, for hundreds of years, the church believed that the faith was delivered once for all.4The early Christians also clearly believe the first three points, though that’s not usually in question. See, for example, Barnabas 5, Clement 42, 47, Irenaeus 1.8.1, 1.10.1,3, 3.12.7, 3.15.1 Here are a few relevant quotes:

We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. For it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed “perfect knowledge,” as some do even venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles. For, after our Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge: they departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things [sent] from God to us, and proclaiming the peace of heaven to men, who indeed do all equally and individually possess the Gospel of God.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1

For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to “the perfect” apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.3.1

You well understand, no doubt, that those who seek to set up any new dogma have the habit of very readily perverting into a conformity with their own notions any proofs they desire to take from the Scriptures. In anticipation, however, of this, the apostolic word marks out the case thus: “If any one preach any other gospel unto you than that which you have received, let him be accursed.” And consequently, in addition to what has been once committed to us by the apostles, a disciple of Christ ought to receive nothing new as doctrine. (Disputation with Manes, 40)

No doubt He had once said, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot hear them now;” but even then He added, “When He, the Spirit of truth, shall come, He will lead you into all truth.” He (thus) shows that there was nothing of which they were ignorant, to whom He had promised the future attainment of all truth by help of the Spirit of truth. And assuredly He fulfilled His promise, since it is proved in the Acts of the Apostles that the Holy Ghost did come down. Now they who reject that Scripture can neither belong to the Holy Spirit, seeing that they cannot acknowledge that the Holy Ghost has been sent as yet to the disciples, nor can they presume to claim to be a church themselves who positively have no means of proving when, and with what swaddling-clothes this body was established.

Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics 22 ANF

These men argued that the apostles had complete knowledge, and that their knowledge was widely known among church leaders. Multiple Christian leaders either explicitly said that all Christian doctrine was widely known in their day, or, if they didn’t answer that question directly, said that doctrine comes from the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. No suggestion is given that there are further clarifications, definitions, or developments to be revealed. For example, Ignatius, the great defender of the high role of bishops, speaks of doctrine as from the apostles and Jesus.5Epistle to Magnesians 13, Epistle to Antiochians 1 You can expand this footnote to see further statements on the same subject by early Christians.6As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.10.2)

True knowledge is [that which consists in] the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither receiving addition nor [suffering] curtailment [in the truths which she believes]; and [it consists in] reading [the word of God] without falsification, and a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures, both without danger and without blasphemy; and [above all, it consists in] the pre-eminent gift of love, which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and which excels all the other gifts [of God]. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.33.8)

But such people, in consequence of falling away from the right path, err in most individual points; as you might expect from not having the faculty for judging of what is true and false, strictly trained to select what is essential. For if they had, they would have obeyed the Scriptures. As, then, if a man should, similarly to those drugged by Circe, become a beast; so he, who has spurned the ecclesiastical tradition, and darted off to the opinions of heretical men, has ceased to be a man of God and to remain faithful to the Lord. But he who has returned from this deception, on hearing the Scriptures, and turned his life to the truth, is, as it were, from being a man made a god. For we have, as the source of teaching, the Lord, both by the prophets, the Gospel, and the blessed apostles, “in divers manners and at sundry times,” leading from the beginning of knowledge to the end. But if one should suppose that another origin was required, then no longer truly could an origin be preserved. (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata ?.16) [equates the apostolic tradition with church tradition]

For while the Lord has said that the nations are to be baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and their past sins are to be done away in baptism; this man, ignorant of the precept and of the law, commands peace to be granted and sins to be done away in the name of Paulus; and he says that this was commanded him by Paulus, as you will observe in the letter sent by the same Lucian to Celerinus, in which he very little considered that it is not martyrs that make the Gospel, but that martyrs are made by the Gospel; since Paul also, the apostle whom the Lord called a chosen vessel unto Him, laid down in his epistle:  “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from Him that called you into the grace of Christ, unto another gospel: which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the Gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” (Cyprian, Letter 22)

For which of us could have hoped that Paul, the persecutor and enemy of the Church, would prove its defender and guardian? Yea, and not that alone, but that he would become also its ruler, the founder and architect of the churches? Wherefore after him, and after those who were with Himself—that is, the disciples—we are not to look for the advent of any other (such), according to the Scriptures; for our Lord Jesus Christ says of this Paraclete, “He shall receive of mine.” Him therefore He selected as an acceptable vessel; and He sent this Paul to us in the Spirit. Into him the Spirit was poured; and as that Spirit could not abide upon all men, but only on Him who was born of Mary the mother of God, so that Spirit, the Paraclete, could not come into any other, but could only come upon the apostles and the sainted Paul. “For he is a chosen vessel,” He says, “unto me, to bear my name before kings and the Gentiles.” (Disputation with Manes 34)

Although I know, dearest brother, that very many of the bishops who are set over the churches of the Lord by divine condescension, throughout the whole world, maintain the plan of evangelical truth, and of the tradition of the Lord, and do not by human and novel institution depart from that which Christ our Master both prescribed and did; yet since some, either by ignorance or simplicity in sanctifying the cup of the Lord, and in ministering to the people, do not do that which Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, the founder and teacher of this sacrifice, did and taught, I have thought it as well a religious as a necessary thing to write to you this letter, that, if any one is still kept in this error, he may behold the light of truth, and return to the root and origin of the tradition of the Lord. . . . But if it is both enjoined by the Lord, and the same thing is confirmed and delivered by His apostle, that as often as we drink, we do in remembrance of the Lord the same thing which the Lord also did, we find that what was commanded is not observed by us, unless we also do what the Lord did; and that mixing the Lord’s cup in like manner we do not depart from the divine teaching; but that we must not at all depart from the evangelical precepts, and that disciples ought also to observe and to do the same things which the Master both taught and did. The blessed apostle in another place more earnestly and strongly teaches, saying, “I wonder that ye are so soon removed from Him that called you into grace, unto another gospel, which is not another; but there are some that trouble you, and would pervert the Gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any otherwise than that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be anathema. Since, then, neither the apostle himself nor an angel from heaven can preach or teach any otherwise than Christ has once taught and His apostles have announced, I wonder very much whence has originated this practice, that, contrary to evangelical and apostolical discipline, water is offered in some places in the Lord’s cup, which water by itself cannot express the blood of Christ.” (Cyprian, Letter 62)

“Wherefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning” (Polycarp, Philippians V)

In the Lord’s apostles we possess our authority; for even they did not of themselves choose to introduce anything, but faithfully delivered to the nations (of mankind) the doctrine which they had received from Christ. If, therefore, even “an angel from heaven should preach any other gospel” (than theirs), he would be called accursed by us. (Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics 6 ANF)

These things the apostles either neglected, or failed to understand, if they fulfilled them not, by concealing any portion of the light, that is, of the word of God and the mystery of Christ. Of no man, I am quite sure, were they afraid,—neither of Jews nor of Gentiles in their violence; with all the greater freedom, then, would they certainly preach in the church, who held not their tongue in synagogues and public places. Indeed they would have found it impossible either to convert Jews or to bring in Gentiles, unless they “set forth in order” that which they would have them believe. Much less, when churches were advanced in the faith, would they have withdrawn from them anything for the purpose of committing it separately to some few others. Although, even supposing that among intimate friends, so to speak, they did hold certain discussions, yet it is incredible that these could have been such as to bring in some other rule of faith, differing from and contrary to that which they were proclaiming through the Catholic churches (Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics 26)

Now, if this question also had entered into dispute, surely it would be found in the apostle, and that too as a great and vital point. No doubt, after the time of the apostles, the truth respecting the belief of God suffered corruption, but it is equally certain that during the life of the apostles their teaching on this great article did not suffer at all; so that no other teaching will have the right of being received as apostolic than that which is at the present day proclaimed in the churches of apostolic foundation. (Tertullian, The Five Books Against Marcion, 1.13 ANF)

Now, with regard to his statement that he “is acquainted with all our doctrines,” we have to say that this is a boastful and daring assertion; for if he had read the prophets in particular, which are full of acknowledged difficulties, and of declarations that are obscure to the multitude, and if he had perused the parables of the Gospels, and the other writings of the law and of the Jewish history, and the utterances of the apostles, and had read them candidly, with a desire to enter into their meaning, he would not have expressed himself with such boldness, nor said that he “was acquainted with all their doctrines.”  Even we ourselves, who have devoted much study to these writings, would not say that “we were acquainted with everything,” for we have a regard for truth. (Origen, Against Celsus 1.12) [Origen lists the sources of doctrine, which don’t include bishops. Note that he says Christians are too humble to say they are acquainted with everything; this could be taken to mean that not all doctrine was known, but it’s clear that he is not talking merely about the essential apostolic traditions but also other speculative truths that one can learn, doing this for rhetorical effect.]

Jesus taught us who it was that sent Him, in the words, “None knoweth the Father but the Son;” and in these, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him.” He, treating of Deity, stated to His true disciples the doctrine regarding God; and we, discovering traces of such teaching in the Scripture narratives, take occasion from such to aid our theological conceptions, hearing it declared in one passage, that “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all;” and in another, “God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” But the purposes for which the Father sent Him are innumerable; and these any one may ascertain who chooses, partly from the prophets who prophesied of Him, and partly from the narratives of the evangelists. And not a few things also will he learn from the apostles, and especially from Paul. Moreover, those who are pious He leadeth to the light, and those who sin He will punish . . . (Origen, Against Celsus 2.71)

In that he says there are three gates placed on each of the four sides, of single pearls, I think that these are the four virtues, to wit, prudence, fortitude, justice, temperance, which are associated with one another. And, being involved together, they make the number twelve. But the twelve gates we believe to be the number of the apostles, who, shining in the four virtues as precious stones, manifesting the light of their doctrine among the saints, cause it to enter the celestial city, that by intercourse with them the choir of angels may be gladdened. And that the gates cannot be shut, it is evidently shown that the doctrine of the apostles can be separated from rectitude by no tempest of contradiction. Even though the floods of the nations and the vain superstitions of heretics should revolt against their true faith, they are overcome, and shall be dissolved as the foam, because Christ is the Rock by which, and on which, the Church is founded. (Victorinus, Commentary on the Apocalypse 16)

They attend to this one commandment, and do not look unto what has been spoken by the apostle: “For I testify to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to keep the whole law.” In other respects, however, these consent to all the traditions delivered to the Church by the Apostles. (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 8.11)

Let nothing be innovated, says he [Stephen], nothing maintained, except what has been handed down. Whence is that tradition? Whether does it descend from the authority of the Lord and of the Gospel, or does it come from the commands and the epistles of the apostles? For that those things which are written must be done, God witnesses and admonishes, saying to Joshua the son of Nun: “The book of this law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate in it day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein.” Also the Lord, sending His apostles, commands that the nations should be baptized, and taught to observe all things which He commanded. If, therefore, it is either prescribed in the Gospel, or contained in the epistles or Acts of the Apostles, that those who come from any heresy should not be baptized, but only hands laid upon them to repentance, let this divine and holy tradition be observed. But if everywhere heretics are called nothing else than adversaries and antichrists, if they are pronounced to be people to be avoided, and to be perverted and condemned of their own selves, wherefore is it that they should not be thought worthy of being condemned by us, since it is evident from the apostolic testimony that they are of their own selves condemned? (Cyprian, Letter 73.2) [Note that though Cyprian and Stephen disagree, they both argue that nothing new should happen, only what was handed down from the apostles such as through the New Testament writings.]

This is He who, being from everlasting, is to-day called the Son; through whom the Church is enriched, and grace, widely spread, increases in the saints, furnishing understanding, revealing mysteries, announcing times, rejoicing over the faithful, giving to those that seek, by whom the limits of faith are not broken through, nor the boundaries set by the fathers passed over. Then the fear of the law is chanted, and the grace of the prophets is known, and the faith of the gospels is established, and the tradition of the Apostles is preserved, and the grace of the Church exults; which grace if you grieve not, you shall know those things which the Word teaches, by whom He wills, and when He pleases. (Epistle to Diognetus 11) [Note that he mentions the “grace” of the church just as he speaks of the “grace” of the prophets, while he speaks of the “tradition” of the apostles to be “preserved.” This suggests the church has Spirit-filled prophecy, but that what was taught in the beginning must continue to be taught.]

Objections

Here are a few objections that have been raised from Scripture:

  • Doctrine develops within Scripture, from Old to New Testaments. Couldn’t it continue to develop? But that’s because there was a change in covenants. We are still in the New Testament, and Scripture teaches that there is no more development.
  • Scripture mentions that Christians grow in maturity and that the church is being built (Eph 4:12-15). But just because individual Christians or congregations grow in maturity doesn’t mean that Christian doctrine does. And the church can be grow in many ways (unity, love, peace, zeal) without changing or developing its doctrine.
  • Jesus compares the Kingdom to a mustard seed that grows into a large plant (Matt 13:31-32). But the Kingdom can grow in members, size, strength, power, etc. without developing in doctrine. Consider that the U.S. could take an influx of millions of people, but that wouldn’t indicate that the Constitution changed.
  • The Spirit helps us to interpret truths (1 Cor 2:9-16). But when individuals understand the faith more fully, that’s a long way from actually changing the faith.

Summary

So, as I’ve shown by quoting the relevant Scriptures, Jesus and the apostles offered no reason to think that any further church leaders would be needed in order to develop or clarify Christian doctrines; in fact, Scripture indicates the very opposite. Remember that Jesus told the eleven faithful apostles that the Spirit would guide them into all the truth, speaking to them what Jesus wished he could say to them.

We can conclude that no further defining of doctrine is needed beyond what the apostles gave. The Spirit revealed all Christian teachings to the apostles in their lifetime. The apostles already defined the Christian faith by spoken word or by writing. They gave us one faith that was intended for all Christians throughout all time until the end of the age. In this linked article, I show that this faith can be found in the teachings of Jesus and the apostles in the 27 New Testament books. We don’t need an institutional church to know what the true faith is.

Can the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Church further define the faith? Can councils be authoritative? Can doctrine develop? See this article for an evaluation.

  • 1
    Early Christian passages: Ignatius to Ephesians 9
  • 2
    See (quoted below) Disputation with Manes 34, Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics 22
  • 3
    Cf. Mathetes to Diognetus 12, Martyrdom of Ignatius 5, Papias 5 ANF, Irenaeus Against Heresies 1 Preface, Athenagoras on the Resurrection 18, Clement of Alexandria, Exortation to the Heathen 2
  • 4
    The early Christians also clearly believe the first three points, though that’s not usually in question. See, for example, Barnabas 5, Clement 42, 47, Irenaeus 1.8.1, 1.10.1,3, 3.12.7, 3.15.1
  • 5
    Epistle to Magnesians 13, Epistle to Antiochians 1
  • 6
    As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.10.2)

    True knowledge is [that which consists in] the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither receiving addition nor [suffering] curtailment [in the truths which she believes]; and [it consists in] reading [the word of God] without falsification, and a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures, both without danger and without blasphemy; and [above all, it consists in] the pre-eminent gift of love, which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and which excels all the other gifts [of God]. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.33.8)

    But such people, in consequence of falling away from the right path, err in most individual points; as you might expect from not having the faculty for judging of what is true and false, strictly trained to select what is essential. For if they had, they would have obeyed the Scriptures. As, then, if a man should, similarly to those drugged by Circe, become a beast; so he, who has spurned the ecclesiastical tradition, and darted off to the opinions of heretical men, has ceased to be a man of God and to remain faithful to the Lord. But he who has returned from this deception, on hearing the Scriptures, and turned his life to the truth, is, as it were, from being a man made a god. For we have, as the source of teaching, the Lord, both by the prophets, the Gospel, and the blessed apostles, “in divers manners and at sundry times,” leading from the beginning of knowledge to the end. But if one should suppose that another origin was required, then no longer truly could an origin be preserved. (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata ?.16) [equates the apostolic tradition with church tradition]

    For while the Lord has said that the nations are to be baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and their past sins are to be done away in baptism; this man, ignorant of the precept and of the law, commands peace to be granted and sins to be done away in the name of Paulus; and he says that this was commanded him by Paulus, as you will observe in the letter sent by the same Lucian to Celerinus, in which he very little considered that it is not martyrs that make the Gospel, but that martyrs are made by the Gospel; since Paul also, the apostle whom the Lord called a chosen vessel unto Him, laid down in his epistle:  “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from Him that called you into the grace of Christ, unto another gospel: which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the Gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” (Cyprian, Letter 22)

    For which of us could have hoped that Paul, the persecutor and enemy of the Church, would prove its defender and guardian? Yea, and not that alone, but that he would become also its ruler, the founder and architect of the churches? Wherefore after him, and after those who were with Himself—that is, the disciples—we are not to look for the advent of any other (such), according to the Scriptures; for our Lord Jesus Christ says of this Paraclete, “He shall receive of mine.” Him therefore He selected as an acceptable vessel; and He sent this Paul to us in the Spirit. Into him the Spirit was poured; and as that Spirit could not abide upon all men, but only on Him who was born of Mary the mother of God, so that Spirit, the Paraclete, could not come into any other, but could only come upon the apostles and the sainted Paul. “For he is a chosen vessel,” He says, “unto me, to bear my name before kings and the Gentiles.” (Disputation with Manes 34)

    Although I know, dearest brother, that very many of the bishops who are set over the churches of the Lord by divine condescension, throughout the whole world, maintain the plan of evangelical truth, and of the tradition of the Lord, and do not by human and novel institution depart from that which Christ our Master both prescribed and did; yet since some, either by ignorance or simplicity in sanctifying the cup of the Lord, and in ministering to the people, do not do that which Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, the founder and teacher of this sacrifice, did and taught, I have thought it as well a religious as a necessary thing to write to you this letter, that, if any one is still kept in this error, he may behold the light of truth, and return to the root and origin of the tradition of the Lord. . . . But if it is both enjoined by the Lord, and the same thing is confirmed and delivered by His apostle, that as often as we drink, we do in remembrance of the Lord the same thing which the Lord also did, we find that what was commanded is not observed by us, unless we also do what the Lord did; and that mixing the Lord’s cup in like manner we do not depart from the divine teaching; but that we must not at all depart from the evangelical precepts, and that disciples ought also to observe and to do the same things which the Master both taught and did. The blessed apostle in another place more earnestly and strongly teaches, saying, “I wonder that ye are so soon removed from Him that called you into grace, unto another gospel, which is not another; but there are some that trouble you, and would pervert the Gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any otherwise than that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be anathema. Since, then, neither the apostle himself nor an angel from heaven can preach or teach any otherwise than Christ has once taught and His apostles have announced, I wonder very much whence has originated this practice, that, contrary to evangelical and apostolical discipline, water is offered in some places in the Lord’s cup, which water by itself cannot express the blood of Christ.” (Cyprian, Letter 62)

    “Wherefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning” (Polycarp, Philippians V)

    In the Lord’s apostles we possess our authority; for even they did not of themselves choose to introduce anything, but faithfully delivered to the nations (of mankind) the doctrine which they had received from Christ. If, therefore, even “an angel from heaven should preach any other gospel” (than theirs), he would be called accursed by us. (Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics 6 ANF)

    These things the apostles either neglected, or failed to understand, if they fulfilled them not, by concealing any portion of the light, that is, of the word of God and the mystery of Christ. Of no man, I am quite sure, were they afraid,—neither of Jews nor of Gentiles in their violence; with all the greater freedom, then, would they certainly preach in the church, who held not their tongue in synagogues and public places. Indeed they would have found it impossible either to convert Jews or to bring in Gentiles, unless they “set forth in order” that which they would have them believe. Much less, when churches were advanced in the faith, would they have withdrawn from them anything for the purpose of committing it separately to some few others. Although, even supposing that among intimate friends, so to speak, they did hold certain discussions, yet it is incredible that these could have been such as to bring in some other rule of faith, differing from and contrary to that which they were proclaiming through the Catholic churches (Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics 26)

    Now, if this question also had entered into dispute, surely it would be found in the apostle, and that too as a great and vital point. No doubt, after the time of the apostles, the truth respecting the belief of God suffered corruption, but it is equally certain that during the life of the apostles their teaching on this great article did not suffer at all; so that no other teaching will have the right of being received as apostolic than that which is at the present day proclaimed in the churches of apostolic foundation. (Tertullian, The Five Books Against Marcion, 1.13 ANF)

    Now, with regard to his statement that he “is acquainted with all our doctrines,” we have to say that this is a boastful and daring assertion; for if he had read the prophets in particular, which are full of acknowledged difficulties, and of declarations that are obscure to the multitude, and if he had perused the parables of the Gospels, and the other writings of the law and of the Jewish history, and the utterances of the apostles, and had read them candidly, with a desire to enter into their meaning, he would not have expressed himself with such boldness, nor said that he “was acquainted with all their doctrines.”  Even we ourselves, who have devoted much study to these writings, would not say that “we were acquainted with everything,” for we have a regard for truth. (Origen, Against Celsus 1.12) [Origen lists the sources of doctrine, which don’t include bishops. Note that he says Christians are too humble to say they are acquainted with everything; this could be taken to mean that not all doctrine was known, but it’s clear that he is not talking merely about the essential apostolic traditions but also other speculative truths that one can learn, doing this for rhetorical effect.]

    Jesus taught us who it was that sent Him, in the words, “None knoweth the Father but the Son;” and in these, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him.” He, treating of Deity, stated to His true disciples the doctrine regarding God; and we, discovering traces of such teaching in the Scripture narratives, take occasion from such to aid our theological conceptions, hearing it declared in one passage, that “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all;” and in another, “God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” But the purposes for which the Father sent Him are innumerable; and these any one may ascertain who chooses, partly from the prophets who prophesied of Him, and partly from the narratives of the evangelists. And not a few things also will he learn from the apostles, and especially from Paul. Moreover, those who are pious He leadeth to the light, and those who sin He will punish . . . (Origen, Against Celsus 2.71)

    In that he says there are three gates placed on each of the four sides, of single pearls, I think that these are the four virtues, to wit, prudence, fortitude, justice, temperance, which are associated with one another. And, being involved together, they make the number twelve. But the twelve gates we believe to be the number of the apostles, who, shining in the four virtues as precious stones, manifesting the light of their doctrine among the saints, cause it to enter the celestial city, that by intercourse with them the choir of angels may be gladdened. And that the gates cannot be shut, it is evidently shown that the doctrine of the apostles can be separated from rectitude by no tempest of contradiction. Even though the floods of the nations and the vain superstitions of heretics should revolt against their true faith, they are overcome, and shall be dissolved as the foam, because Christ is the Rock by which, and on which, the Church is founded. (Victorinus, Commentary on the Apocalypse 16)

    They attend to this one commandment, and do not look unto what has been spoken by the apostle: “For I testify to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to keep the whole law.” In other respects, however, these consent to all the traditions delivered to the Church by the Apostles. (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 8.11)

    Let nothing be innovated, says he [Stephen], nothing maintained, except what has been handed down. Whence is that tradition? Whether does it descend from the authority of the Lord and of the Gospel, or does it come from the commands and the epistles of the apostles? For that those things which are written must be done, God witnesses and admonishes, saying to Joshua the son of Nun: “The book of this law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate in it day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein.” Also the Lord, sending His apostles, commands that the nations should be baptized, and taught to observe all things which He commanded. If, therefore, it is either prescribed in the Gospel, or contained in the epistles or Acts of the Apostles, that those who come from any heresy should not be baptized, but only hands laid upon them to repentance, let this divine and holy tradition be observed. But if everywhere heretics are called nothing else than adversaries and antichrists, if they are pronounced to be people to be avoided, and to be perverted and condemned of their own selves, wherefore is it that they should not be thought worthy of being condemned by us, since it is evident from the apostolic testimony that they are of their own selves condemned? (Cyprian, Letter 73.2) [Note that though Cyprian and Stephen disagree, they both argue that nothing new should happen, only what was handed down from the apostles such as through the New Testament writings.]

    This is He who, being from everlasting, is to-day called the Son; through whom the Church is enriched, and grace, widely spread, increases in the saints, furnishing understanding, revealing mysteries, announcing times, rejoicing over the faithful, giving to those that seek, by whom the limits of faith are not broken through, nor the boundaries set by the fathers passed over. Then the fear of the law is chanted, and the grace of the prophets is known, and the faith of the gospels is established, and the tradition of the Apostles is preserved, and the grace of the Church exults; which grace if you grieve not, you shall know those things which the Word teaches, by whom He wills, and when He pleases. (Epistle to Diognetus 11) [Note that he mentions the “grace” of the church just as he speaks of the “grace” of the prophets, while he speaks of the “tradition” of the apostles to be “preserved.” This suggests the church has Spirit-filled prophecy, but that what was taught in the beginning must continue to be taught.]

20 thoughts on “Who Can Define the Christian Faith?”

  1. Hi Lynn,
    I would just like to point out a common mistranslation used by Reformation types to bolster their flimsy views. In 2 Peter 3:16 Paul’s writings are not called Scripture or equated with Scripture. There is no word for scripture in Greek or Latin. What English has done is transliterate the Latin word for writings and used it as a speciality word in English.
    What 2 Peter 3:16 does is call Paul’s letters ‘writings’ using the normal Greek word for any type of writing, which is graphe. There are no capital letters either. When referring to the Old Testament often ‘holy writings’ are used, often translated into English as ‘holy scriptures.’
    What Peter is saying is that he counts Paul’s writings as authoritative not Scripture. For the New Testament Church the holy writings were the Old Testament. There is no evidence that the NT texts were equated with the Old Testament until later.

    1. Hi Stefano, thanks for pointing out this possible confusion. So far as I can see, the New Testament uses graphe (often without clarificatory words) solely of the Old Testament Scriptures, with the exception of this passage and possibly Rom 15:4. So I think that interpretation is wholly reasonable, but I edited my statement anyway just to ensure it wouldn’t be problematic.

      1. You are right that the meaning of graphe depends on context not the word itself.
        Any claim that Peter is equating Paul’s letters with the Old Testament is tenuous at best as there is no clear context. The default position is to take the Greek at its normal meaning of ‘writings.’ For all know Peter is comparing Paul’s writings to his own, James’s and Jude’s.

  2. I thought I’d make some comments about the Tradition in the Orthodox Church and the nature of authority.

    The most important thing is that the Orthodox Church does not start making definitions just because it feels like it. It is because a false teacher has proclaimed an errant belief and the Church needs to clarify things. While ‘Jesus is Lord’ works in the New Testament by the 4th century ‘Lord’ could mean to some heretics an angel, or a human adopted by God or a secondary god so something like the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is created. Once the creed is there it becomes part of the Tradition.
    Does it reflect the same faith in the New Testament? Yes.
    It is created 300 years after the Apostles? Yes.
    Is it an integral part of Orthodox worship today? Yes.

    The Reformation view depends heavily on mass literacy and printing so everyone is running around shouting Bible verses at each other and splitting when their interpretations clash. If you want to copy the early church then you have to consider the following.
    1. Christ founded the Church at Pentecost.
    2. There was no Christian writing for the first 20 years until Paul wrote Corinthians.
    3. The Gospels and other writing were written over the next 50 years. These documents were created within communities not external to them.
    4. By 100 AD all the New Testament texts were written but they were separate documents.
    5. By the time of Irenaeus in 180 AD the Gospels were gathered together with most of other key NT texts.
    6. Over the next 200/400 years the limits of the canon became solidified.
    7. During this period only 5 or 10% of people were literate and copies of the Bible were rare and beyond the affordability of most people. Most Churches only had one copy. The only was most people heard the Bible was it being read in Church. The ‘bible study’ groups of modern times would be impossible so people naturally put trust in their leaders. For most people the faith was praxis (how you act) and kerygma (or preaching).

    For the inspiration of Scripture I should note that only the Greek New Testament is considered authentic. All other versions are just uninspired translations. The minute we see teachers without a knowledge of koine we can safely ignore them. Luckily, koine is a living language in our Church, as it has been for 2,000 years.

    Due to this complex history there is no simple answer to authority in the Orthodox Church. Most Orthodox would take about the Holy Tradition (what we have received from the past and will pass on) and its sources. The manifestation of tradition are:
    1. The Bible – it holds a prime place. As it’s the Churches book we can safely ignore innovative interpretations that contradict the Tradition. As a friend on mind once said ‘The Orthodox Church believes the whole Bible, not just the bits they (his previous teachers) tell you to underline.”
    2. Ecumenical Councils and the Creeds
    3. Later Councils
    4. The Church Fathers (and Mothers). I should point out that Orthodoxy does not put a time limit like 750 AD. We have Church Fathers up to the previous generation.
    5. The Liturgy and Orthodox Worship
    6. Canon Law
    7. The Lives of Saints and Martyrs and their Iconography

    I’ve looked hard and have yet to find an Orthodox belief that contradicts the Bible. Even if (just for a hypothetical) the early church to 313 did not believe in icons or military services or participation in government it still wouldn’t make them Anabaptists as there would still be another 20 or 30 or 40 other things that don’t tally with Anabaptist faith and practice – the most obvious being infant baptism and infant communion.

    I have posted some websites that elaborate on these.

    https://churchmotherofgod.org/articleschurch/articles-about-the-orthodox-church/2577-holy-tradition-the-source-of-the-orthodox-faith.html

    http://ww1.antiochian.org/content/scripture-and-tradition

    https://www.goarch.org/-/tradition-in-the-orthodox-church

    1. Thanks for the detailed comment, Stefano. This is the one main issue that separates Anabaptism and Eastern Orthodoxy. We believe that only Jesus and the apostles had the authority to define the faith, while I understand that you believe that Jesus, the apostles, and multiple other sources had the authority to define the faith. We believe that all authoritative Christian truths were available to the church in the earliest years of the church, while you believe that there were further authoritative Christian truths to be clarified later. The question is which of our two views is better evidenced.

      From my studies, it seems that in the beginning, all churches had access to apostolic teachings, whether in written form or oral form. The earliest Christian leaders after the apostles were careful to pass on exactly what the apostles taught (which they termed “tradition”), side by side with the apostolic writings. In time, the writings of the apostles and their associates were compiled into a New Testament canon which contained basically every doctrine by the apostles. But these books had always been available to the churches in major cities. They could be used as a Christian’s primary source of doctrine, while the teachings of the church helped ensure that the apostolic writings were properly understood.

      That’s basically the view of the Anabaptists. If we could all agree on that, we would all agree on doctrine, because the doctrines taught during that period were very consistent.

      However, after the first council of Nicaea, the idea arose that ecumenical councils were definitive as well. Later on, church fathers, canon law, etc. were also considered to be definitive. However, what is conspicuously missing is anyone before these events who believed that someone besides Jesus and the apostles could declare definitive doctrines. Also missing is anyone before these events who believed that there was Christian doctrine yet to be defined (other than some heretics like the Montanists).

      But if later Christians were the first ones to believe that later teachings were definitive–then on what basis can those teachings be accepted? None that I know of. Do you know of sources predating the councils that declare councils to be definitive?

      So whether or not Orthodox beliefs contradict the Scriptures, the only way they can be authoritative is if both 1) my interpretation (based on Irenaeus’s interpretation) of Scripture, given in this article, is wrong, and 2) there’s further evidence for the authority of ecumenical councils (etc.) besides the later claims of Christians. I’d be glad to hear your input on those points.

  3. Here is what Irenaeus says “We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. For it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed “perfect knowledge,” as some do even venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles. For, after our Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge: they departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things [sent] from God to us, and proclaiming the peace of heaven to men, who indeed do all equally and individually possess the Gospel of God.”
    Now Irenaeus is responding specifically to the Gnostics, who were all about supposedly ‘secret’ teachings of the Apostles to justify their beliefs. One of Irenaeus’s main arguments is to stress the reliability of the Gospels and express the universality of the Gospel message. He talks about the incarnation, physical resurrection and the Holy Spirit coming, which we can all agree on today. Irenaeus is expressing the reliability of the Gospels because the Gnostics denied it. The Gnostics set themselves up as a spiritual elite as they claimed they ‘knew’ the ‘real’ teachings that ordinary Christians didn’t. You know they wrote up their own versions, which shows you the NT wasn’t yet canonised. I would dispute the translation of the word ‘Scripture’ in your version as Irenaeus says ‘writing.’
    Now, Irenaeus’s comments were written for a certain time and place but his ideas have a continuing relevance. After this context, nothing said by Irenaeus contradicts the Orthodox understanding of authority. In fact he is a Church Father and supports our view as he stresses the rule of faith, apostolic succession and the authority of the church as guardians and interpreters of Scripture.

    Tell me Lynn, is Irenaeus an Anabaptist?

    As I have said previously, Orthodoxy does not contradict the Bible. You only think it does. The issue is not with Orthodoxy but with you. You think because Orthodoxy has icons, accepts ‘just war’ and is involved with ‘secular’ government we are somehow wrong. You make a case using the NT and historical evidence but your case is generally flimsy at best (as I have shown we we talked about ‘just war.’)
    If only Orthodoxy believed in ‘just war’ and participation in secular government I might have my doubts but the fact that many, many others groups who despise and dismiss us (like Lutherans or Baptists) also follow this teaching puts the burden of proof on you.

    Another question, during the Reformation Anabaptists wrote lots of confessions like the Schleitheim Confession (1527) and the Anabaptist Confession of 1659. There are many more. Where is the New Testament or Pre-Nicene evidence for this practice?
    I’ll point out some Pre-Nicene evidence of Christians meeting in councils to sort disputes next time I post.

    1. Do you disagree with Irenaeus that ‘it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed “perfect knowledge,” as some do even venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles’?

      To clarify, Irenaeus was not an Anabaptist. He was a Christian who believed the catholic (in the original sense) faith. So are at least some Anabaptists, including my church. We don’t feel anyone needs to be Anabaptist; it’s just that we are living out the original faith in the Anabaptist tradition.

      I don’t think you’re quite getting my argument. I’m not saying that councils are bad. I’m only saying that no one after the apostles could make definitive statements on doctrine. We don’t claim that confessions of faith are infallible. They’re simply descriptions of what we believe the true faith to be. They’re helpful in communicating our beliefs, but we don’t look to them to define the faith. We look to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.

      And I am aware that pre-Nicene Christians had councils. Councils can be a good thing, and I agree with a lot of the things decided at both local and ecumenical councils. However, councils can’t define doctrine. Only Jesus and the apostles could, and all doctrine was known during their day. Councils are helpful. But they are not anywhere near as authoritative as the apostolic teachings.

      I’m not aware of any evidence from before 325 where Christians believed that councils could define doctrine. For more on this, see this article. It’s mostly on the Roman Catholic view of doctrinal development, but I’ve linked to a relevant section on councils. That’s what I’d be glad to know about.

      I accept apostolic tradition, the teaching of the apostles. However, I don’t see any authoritative reason for accepting later church traditions as definitive.

  4. Irenaeus is rejecting the idea that the Apostles started preaching before they had received the secret Gnostic teachings from Jesus. The Gnostics claimed that only an elite such as Mary Magdalene or Matthias or James really knew the true teaching of Jesus. They used this tactic to explain away why ‘simple’ Christians didn’t know secret teachings like the demiurge or the archons. As far as I can see the statement has no relevance to our debate. The Orthodox Church is the one that has preserved the text of the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament over the centuries because we trust in the Apostles. However, we don’t think that the NT is a ‘how to’ book for every aspect of Christian life or that they anticipated the nuance of every possible future heresy. Why would teachers be appointed as successors of the Apostles if they didn’t teach?

    Hypothetical
    An Anabaptist leader decides, through his intensive study of the Bible, that baptism should only be administered to people aged 30 or above. He uses a host of Bible verses to justify his views. He is very eloquent and convincing. He rapidly gathers hundreds of thousands of followers and they form congregations. They draw followers away from your church. They call themselves ‘The Jesusites’ and condemn those who regard the age of consent as 18. What does your church do?

    1. You’re right that that’s the context in which Irenaeus was speaking. However, he answered the Gnostics by saying that Christian doctrine cannot change from what the apostles delivered in the beginning. So it seems that he believes that to be true.

      In this article, I gave multiple evidences from Scripture and the early church to support my conclusion that Christian doctrine cannot be further defined beyond what the apostles taught. I’d be glad to know why some of the other evidences don’t support my conclusion.

      However, even if I’m wrong, that still doesn’t establish that councils, etc. could further define the faith. It would just establish that we don’t know whether they do or not. So I’d also be glad to have evidence for your case–evidence which predates the councils and suggests that councils can define the faith. I think this is pretty important, because unless this can be proved, we don’t have good support for the claims of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and we won’t have good reason to give it the benefit of the doubt when we’re assessing whether it has changed or not.

      I’d point out that it’s not like we’re missing anything by not defining further doctrines. All churches have teachers, but not all churches believe that their teachers can define doctrines. Much of our teaching is simply applying New Testament principles to solve issues that the New Testament doesn’t specifically address. That’s something that Orthodox teachers do too.

      Good hypothetical question. A similar situation has actually happened, where a newer church is rebaptizing people who were baptized in mid-teens in other Anabaptist churches, and their charismatic and convincing leaders draw followers from other Anabaptist churches. What do we do? We continue to hold our position and offer our reasons for it. We respect that church for their many strong points, and we have cordial relations with them. Occasionally we work together with them on projects. We’d rather advance the Kingdom of God together, and be friendly in spite of our differences, than break off relations with them and anathematize them.

      By the way, I’m glad you’re looking so deeply into Anabaptist thought. Whether we end up agreeing or disagreeing, I think we’ll both have benefited from exploring more deeply what each other’s tradition believes, and from better understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each other’s tradition.

  5. I’m not sure why you think Irenaeus was making some kind of eternal statement when he is specifically talking about the issues in dispute with the Gnostics such as Jesus having a real body and really bodily rising from the dead. As I have said his extracts are not relevant to our discussion on the authority of an Ecumenical Council. I do note that Irenaeus is the first to advocate 4 Gospels and that isn’t made clear in the NT itself so he is doing some defining there.

    Pre-Nicene councils discussed and condemned the Montanists and Sabellianism. Other councils discussed the Quartodeciman Controversy. A famous council at Antioch condemned Paul of Samosata and Adoptionism in 269 AD with 70 bishops. These were ‘local’ councils but their decrees were universally adopted in the Pre and Post Nicene Church. I mention them specifically because you value the witness of the Pre-Nicene Church. Unlike Anabaptists, these decisions were (and are) permanent.

    There is no testimony about the authority of an Ecumenical Council as Christians could not have predicted the future. That all four churches that have any link to the ancient world accept Nicene is evidence enough that the idea existed that doctrine could be defined.
    I have avoided stating the Biblical evidence of the Council of Jerusalem and the sending of the Paraclete as you have already explained them away in an earlier post but that is the evidence we use. We don’t believe the promise was just for the Apostles as non-Apostles (elders and James) were at the Council.
    Do you consider James the Just an Apostle? How about Jude?

    Tell me, What age do you baptise your members? If you give me a number then you are defining.

    1. A clarification. I know that James is called an Apostle by Paul but what I mean is do you think he is one of the 12 Apostles? If the Paraclete only goes to the disciples of Jesus how does James, Jude and even Paul fit in?

      1. Apologies for writing this in haste, since I have engagements today. If something doesn’t make sense, feel free to ask for clarifications.

        I don’t hold that Irenaeus was making an eternal statement. I simply believe that he believed what he said. If I say, “Call the fire department to put out this house fire, because the fire department is intended to fight fires,” you would be justified in thinking that the fire department was intended to fight brush fires as well as house fires. So when Irenaeus gives this as a reason for not accepting Gnostic doctrine, I accept that reason. I don’t need him to reply to every single new doctrine that arose after his day with that same reason in order to know what he would have believed about those new doctrines.

        To clarify, what I mean by “definitive” is if that statement is authoritative and binding on all Christians. We believe that bishops can teach the faith, but that they cannot define doctrines–those have been fully defined by the apostles, as they and early Christians taught. We believe that councils of church leaders can have authority, but that they cannot establish what is true or false Christian doctrine. They can only help us to know what is true or false. But they can be mistaken.

        Here are a few questions I would submit to you. If nobody before the councils believed that councils could define doctrine, where did they get their authority to define doctrine? Could an ecumenical council make a mistake in its declarations? If not, why couldn’t it? Who says? Just because people accept them after the fact doesn’t mean that they have authority. People accept all sorts of positions.

        If the Holy Spirit guides the ecumenical councils accepted by the Orthodox into new truth, why can’t he have guided the Arians into new truth? The Anabaptists? The Anglicans? The robber councils?

        James the Just and Jude were apostles in a broader sense, such as the sense in which Timothy was an apostle. But they weren’t members of the twelve. I explain why we accept their writings even though they’re not apostles proper in this post. Paul was called specially by Christ, and received his doctrines straight from Christ, as the post above explains. That’s why we accept his teachings as binding.

        And as you said, I offered some reasons why the Jerusalem Council is not a good example of what Orthodox believe happened at ecumenical councils. I’d be glad to hear your critiques of that section.

        In answer to your questions, we baptize people when they have made a commitment to Christ. We don’t have a set age. For some, that happens younger than for others. I was baptized at age 14.

  6. Hi Again Lynn,
    I’m not sure when you’re still insisting that Irenaeus that anything to say about how ecumenical councils can define doctrine. You have a very eccentric interpretation. Irenaeus is saying ‘don’t believe the false teachings of the Gnostics but put your trust in the Gospels that’s all you need to refute them.’ The title of his work is enough to show he is only talking about Gnostics. He is countering the Gnostics rejection of the gospels by stressing the reliability of them. Of course, the trustworthiness of the Gospels is conditional on the succession of bishops and the witness of the Holy Spirit. I looked at some scholarship and couldn’t find anyone who claimed that Irenaeus was against anyone ‘defining’ doctrine. I couldn’t find a clear statement the other way either but I’ll throw in this quote from Kelly. If you haven’t read it I high recommend him. Do you have any scholarship to back up your view?

    J.N.D Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 5th edition, A & C Black, London. “Irenaeus makes two further points. First, the identity of the oral tradition with the original revelation is guaranteed by the unbroken succession of bishops in the great sees going back lineally to the apostles. Secondly, an additional safeguard is supplied by the Holy Spirit, for the message was committed to the Church, and the Church is the home of the Spirit. Indeed, the Church’s bishops are on his view Spirit-endowed men who have vouchsafe ‘an infallible charism of truth.'”

    Now your questions:
    “If nobody before the councils believed that councils could define doctrine, where did they get their authority to define doctrine? Could an ecumenical council make a mistake in its declarations? If not, why couldn’t it? Who says? Just because people accept them after the fact doesn’t mean that they have authority. People accept all sorts of positions.”

    My answer.
    I never said that ‘nobody before the councils believed…’ I just said they did predict or speculate on the matter. The praxis of the Pre-Nicene Church shows the imperative to define against Montanism, Sabellianism and Adoptionism without a clear theology of the Holy Spirit to explain the practice. These heresies were manipulating Scripture. The Church never bothered to hold councils against the Gnostics because their deviation was easy to detect and refute.

    I know that false councils are the great fear of sola scriptura types. It is a great tactic to remove Christians from their roots. But honestly, it isn’t that difficult to figure out the true councils if you look. There really aren’t that many. As a council is just elaborating what you already believed, you just check to see if it matches that. The current terminology is the ‘reception of the council.’ That is why the Russian Orthodox Church can accept the 7 Ecumenical Councils even though they never sent representatives.
    Take the Robber Council of Ephesus of 449 AD. Even the modern Monophysites reject that one. The Council of Hieria of 754 was rejected because the emperor didn’t invite any leaders (Patriarchs) of the other churches and interfered by imposing his own views to win favour with God so he could defeat the Muslims in battle. We Orthodox reject the Council of Lyon of 1274 and Florence of 1439 because the imposed doctrines didn’t match Orthodoxy. Other councils like the synod of Dort, or the Westminster Assembly are so far removed from Orthodoxy that no one in our Churches has ever considered them true for a moment.
    You might be surprised to learn that no council has ever imposed infant baptism on our church. The issue has never been in dispute so there is no need. The same with a host of other things like baptismal regeneration or real presence in the Eucharist or the three fold minister or a male priesthood. There were a series of local councils responding to some of the issues raised by the Reformation and Trent (like the Council of Jerusalem of 1672) but they are currently waiting authorisation from an Ecumenical Council (not that is matters because we accept them anyway). In the end I suppose I should say we know which councils are true for the same reasons you think your interpretation of the Bible is true.

    Tell me Lynn, can you find me an example of an Arian martyr? The fact that this movement collapsed so completely is due to the Holy Spirit. Many simple people were confused by the subtleties of the Arians. Luckily homousious was used to clarify things.

    Words like Trinity or New Testament or Bible or hypostasis or physis or lateria or prokenesis have all proven useful in defending the truth of Scripture.

    Your Quote
    “We believe that councils of church leaders can have authority, but that they cannot establish what is true or false Christian doctrine. They can only help us to know what is true or false. But they can be mistaken.”
    ?????????????? What can I say?

    1. Hi Stefano,
      First, I should note what I mean by “define the faith.” I believe that bishops have the authority to teach the faith. That is, they have authority to help people understand the faith. However, whether they are right or not depends on whether they accurately represent the faith. On the other hand, I believe that the apostles had the authority to both teach and define the faith. That is, they had the authority to help people understand the faith, but the key difference is this: Whatever they said the faith is, the faith is that. So they were upstream from the faith, giving us the true doctrines as Jesus and the Holy Spirit directly revealed those doctrines to the apostles. However, bishops are downstream from the faith. They simply hand down what the apostles defined, helping us to understand what is true. It’s not true just because a bishop says it. However, it is true just because one of the twelve apostles said it. This may help you understand what I meant by the quotation that you quoted at the end of your last comment.

      I get that, since you are already convinced of Orthodoxy, it makes sense to you that councils of bishops could define the faith. However, when someone claims to speak with authority to define Christian doctrine, the natural question of anyone who isn’t yet convinced is, “Who says?”

      In this article, I offered reasons from Scripture and the early church, for why we should believe that Christian doctrine was all revealed to the apostles and the earliest churches. I also have noted that no Christian leader before 325 ever taught that anyone but Jesus and the apostles could define the faith. Before 325, their goal was always to use Scripture and tradition to find out what Jesus and the apostles taught.

      So where did the councils of bishops get their authority to define the faith? So far, you’ve offered me an alternative reading of Irenaeus that wouldn’t necessitate him believing the truth of what he literally said. But even if your reading of Irenaeus is correct, you still haven’t answered the question, “Who says?” I really would be glad to know if you have evidence to establish the idea that Christian doctrine can be defined by a council of bishops. Did an apostle ever say that?

  7. Lynn,
    I suppose my response is to say no one ever denied the authority of the church to define doctrine. There were disputes about the definitions such as at Chalcedon but not the methodology. Again, I can deny the authority of 14 fake Roman Catholic Ecumenical Councils (for various reasons) that took place after the 8th Century without denying the methodology behind what they were doing.

    The denial of the authority of the Church and the authority of councils is very much a feature of the Reformation.

    So the answer to ‘who says?’ is ‘everybody says’. It is only after 1517 with the whole ‘sola scriptura’ thing that this idea came up.

    I’ll stress again that Nothing defined by councils goes against the Bible. You have a bunch of highly subjective interpretations to support your views. I have my own on the Holy Spirit coming, the promises of Christ to the Church, the church as the body of Christ and the New Israel and the fact that the Apostles did pass their authority on to their successors (insert the various supporting Bible verses here for evidence but you already know them).

    As for your testimony from Irenaeus and Tertullian, neither of them actually say what you propose. You are forcing your modern interpretation into your reading of those extracts (as well as ignoring the rest of their writings). I do notice that you tend to interpret your extracts in isolation. As I have said, the evidence that the Pre-Nicene Church was holding councils (the praxis) is plenty of evidence.
    Can you provide me with any Pre-Nicene evidence that anyone spoke out about holding councils? Historians can identify over 20 dealing with the Montanists, Adoptionism, the Quartodecimans and Re-Baptistism so there are plenty of councils to criticise.

    1. As I said before, I do believe that councils of bishops have authority. I think that holding councils is a great idea. However, though bishops have the authority to teach and to lead their churches, no amount of bishops can add to the apostolic deposit of faith.

      As far as I am aware, none of the pre-Nicene councils claimed to be speaking definitively, making statements that are authoritative on the level of what the apostles taught. No one before Nicaea taught or even hinted that this could happen. So I hope you’ll understand if I go with what Scripture and the early church seem to teach over what later bishops claimed for themselves.

      You say I’m forcing a modern interpretation on texts, or reading texts in isolation. If that’s really what’s happening, I want to know. I take care to ensure that I’m true to the context of what the early authors are writing, but of course I can be mistaken. If you have any references to their writings that show that I’m mistaken, I will look into them.

  8. I don’t reading anything about Anabaptists holding any sort of councils. Can you enlighten me if I’m wrong?

    So, do you have a problem with the Nicene-Constantinoplian Creed? Does it contradict the New Testament?

    1. Anabaptists have held councils, though they aren’t always called that. Their results have been confessions of faith rather than decrees and canons. One such confession that many churches accept is the Dortrecht Confession. But they don’t hold it as capable of defining doctrine as Scripture does; they merely hold it as an accurate description of the faith of the apostles.

      And I believe the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (as would virtually all Anabaptists). It doesn’t contradict the New Testament so far as I can see. However, I accept it as an accurate description of what the pre-Nicene church believed rather than as a definitive statement on the level of Scripture.

  9. Thank you for information on the Dortrecht Confession. I had come across it in my research but hadn’t realised a council was involved. I read that 51 ministers were involved in drafting the confession. Great stuff. Exactly the way Orthodox do things.

    Great to hear you don’t have issues with the Creed. You say it is an ‘accurate description’ of Pre-Nicene Christianity. I think it was accurate then, accurate now and accurate in another thousand years. Why would it stop being accurate?

    So… Do you recite the Creed every Sunday?

    1. We typically use the Apostles’ Creed rather than the Nicene Creed. We don’t recite it every Sunday though. The creeds are accurate and useful for describing our beliefs. Nothing has stopped them from being accurate.

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