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Christianity FAQ



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

CHRISTIANITY Islam | Judaism
What other writings are authoritative for the community?
by Kendra Hotz

In 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.

To 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.

The 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.

In 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.

The 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 God.

In 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.

Among 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 in Calvinism.

This 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.

Occasionally 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.

In 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.

Augustine 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.

Copyright ©2006 Kendra Hotz

Kendra 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).

Excerpts 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.


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