What other writings are authoritative for the community?
by Kendra Hotz
addition to scripture, Christians accord a level of authority to
certain creeds, confessions, and theological writings. After
Christianity was legalized under Constantine, a number of theological
differences emerged among Christians. There were
different ways of interpreting the Bible, different understandings
of the person and work of Christ, and divergent views about the
nature of human sinfulness.
adjudicate the most serious disagreements, the church established
the practice of gathering in ecumenical councils. All of the bishops
of the church would meet to discuss and decide matters crucial to
the faith. Seven such ecumenical councils were held before the “Great
Schism.” The first four of these are held in highest esteem
by nearly all Christians.
first ecumenical council was held in 325 at Nicea, where the central
question concerned whether or not Christ was truly divine. Everyone
acknowledged that Jesus is the Son of God, but there was disagreement
about whether the Son and Father were equal in divinity. The council
affirmed that Jesus Christ shares full humanity with us and full
divinity with the Father.
381 the church gathered again for the first council of Constantinople.
A theologian named Apollinaris had proposed that Christ had a human
body, but the mind of God. But the
council affirmed that Jesus shared our full humanity, including
a human mind. The results of these two councils
can be found summarized in the Nicene Creed that many churches still
use today. This creed holds great authority for almost all Christians,
and is understood as a faithful guide in interpreting scripture
concerning the person and work of Christ.
five other ecumenical councils continued the work of these first
two, focusing primarily on questions about the Incarnation and the
Trinity. They also resolved disputes regarding the use of images
in worship and the nature of human sin, affirming that it is appropriate
to make images of Christ and that human nature has been so corrupted
by sin that no one may achieve salvation apart from the grace of
addition to the seven ecumenical councils and the creeds they produced,
there are certain tradition-specific confessions that hold authority
for Christians. Confessions are documents that summarize the doctrines
considered essential for a particular faith community; they often
emphasize certain themes that are distinctive to that community.
the Presbyterian descendents of English Calvinism, for instance,
the Westminster Confession holds a place of special authority. It
is understood as secondary in authority to scripture, but as providing
guidance for the proper interpretation of scripture. This confession
begins with an affirmation of the sovereignty of God and includes
an extended treatment of the Ten Commandments. The sovereignty of
God and a positive appraisal of the law are two important themes
confession has also been rendered in the form of two catechisms,
a longer and a shorter one. A catechism is a series of questions
and answers that are designed to be used as an educational tool
for children. Many denominations, including Lutherans and Roman
Catholics, rely on confessions and catechisms to summarize their
traditions and educate their children.
churches produce new confessions, usually in response to some crisis
or event that causes the church to rethink its identity and to reaffirm
its faith. In many cases the need for a confession is prompted by
a threat that, if left unchecked, would undermine the very identity
and integrity of the church. During
the second world war, when the Christian Church of Germany had endorsed
Hitler’s anti-Semitism, a group called “the Confessing
Church,” led by Karl Barth, issued The Barmen Declaration.
This confession renounced the blending of Christian
faith with national identity, insisting that the German church ceased
to be the Christian church insofar as it sanctioned the Nazi regime.
addition to creeds and confessions, the writings of certain theologians
are regarded as bearing authority. Among Eastern Orthodox Christians,
the works of Athanasius, John of Damascus, and Gregory Palamas are
held is especially high esteem. These theologians offered interpretations
of the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the nature of human experiences
of God that provide Eastern Christians with concepts and vocabulary
that have become essential to their self-understanding as Christians.
stands unrivaled in the West in terms of influence. Although many
particular points of his theology may be disputed, his fundamental
understanding of God and humanity provides the framework for most
Western theology. Thomas Aquinas is especially influential for Roman
Catholics. The works of Martin Luther and John Calvin are of special
significance for Lutherans and Presbyterians respectively. And the
sermons, hymns, and other writings of John and Charles Wesley hold
special authority among Methodists. by the community.
©2006 Kendra Hotz
G. Hotz serves as Adjunct Professor of Theology at Memphis
Theological Seminary. She formerly taught at Calvin College. Hotz
is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and coauthor
(with Matthew T. Mathews) of Shaping
the Christian Life: Worship and the Religious Affections
(2006) and coauthor of Transforming
Care: A Christian Vision of Nursing Practice (2005).
from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on
Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra
Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John
Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for
purchase in December 2006.