“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved … For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time … Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 15:1-8)
Yes, it’s St Paul, getting towards the end of his lengthy letter to the people of Corinth, in a passage that is both fascinating and somewhat unique, I think, as it gives us a window into the development of the dogma of the early church.
‘Dogma’, in case you’re not familiar with the word, is a system of ‘foundational beliefs’, and is related to that other very religious word, ‘doctrine’.
‘Dogma’, ‘doctrine’, ‘theology‘, and ‘creed’ – words that normally evoke the response, boring, boring, boring, and certainly, much of the time they are boring, but that does not mean they are unimportant, and indeed, they have always been with us.
There is a school of thought that suggests that boring, dry dogma comes into play only after the dynamism of living faith has died out, but this cannot be the whole story, for dogma, doctrines and creeds are an inevitable product of growth.
I suppose if the Apostles had been content to keep their faith to themselves and a few chosen friends, perhaps they could have just met quietly together and retold the stories of Jesus to one another, but if they were going to share their faith, they had to work out ways of summarising it and translating it, and to do this they really had to sort out what was fundamental in their faith and what was less fundamental.
And it appears that what we have here from St Paul was perhaps the first formulation of what were the fundamentals of Christian belief:
Paul says, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received”, and we presume he means that he received it from the other Apostles, and not simply from the Lord Jesus Himself. He then gives this list:
- Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures
- He was buried
- He was raised on the third day
- He then met with various people, ultimately including Paul himself.
There they are: four basic affirmations that are, according to St Paul, of the fundamental beliefs (or ‘dogma‘) of the early Christian community – Christ died, Christ was buried, Christ rose again and He met with us – four basic affirmations from which would later be constructed the first credal formulation of the early church, known as the Apostles Creed, and these statements and that creed are startling, I think, not only for what they affirm, but for what they leave out!
st died, Christ was buried, Christ rose again, Christ met with us – four simple historical facts that form the basis of all Christian thinking and preaching. Simple, straightforward and easy to understand, unlike so much of Paul’s writing!
Am I exaggerating? What did St Pauls teach? ‘Justification by faith’ is the term we most often associate with Paul’s main line of teaching – a term that did not make it on to the list of foundational beliefs (nor into the Apostles Creed).
That’s not to say it isn’t important, but it is to say that it wasn’t considered to be the foundation of Christian faith.
Mind you, I often think that we misunderstand Paul’s teaching on justification by faith, as so often we fail to see the racial issues behind Paul’s emphasis on faith over works.
My understanding is that Paul was not so much pushing ‘faith over works’ as he was ‘grace over race’, as the Apostle was entirely convinced that it didn’t matter whether you were a Jew or a Greek or from Kazakhstan – all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and all are called by Christ into His church! None of that made it on to the list either!
We’ve been reading through this letter of Paul to the Corinthians for quite a few weeks now, and we’ve stopped and had a good look at a lot of what he had to say. It’s been about church order, spiritual gifts and how everybody’s got one and how love has to be the force that animates them all, and none of that made it in either!
Indeed, it would appear that when the first Christians agreed upon what was fundamenify>tal to their faith, that they didn’t import any of their pastoral or social concerns in their formulations at all. Instead they stuck with a handful of historical facts!
This is what is fascinating, I think, about this list of foundational Christian beliefs. There’s nothing particularly doctrinal about them. Indeed, apart from the reference to Christ dying for our sins there’s really nothing obviously religious about these core beliefs either!
What we have are four very specific statements about some things that happened in history – that Christ died, that He was buried, that He rose again, and that He met with people. This is not the whole of the Christian faith, but what it seems that the early church were keen to affirm is that Christian faith begins here, in history, with a recognition of a series of historical events.
At the risk of sounding like a fundamentalist, I think it needs to be said at this point that it follows that those who have tried to ‘de-historicize’ Christianity – take away the (so-called) historical shell of the faith in order to extract the eternal principles and apply them to modern life – miss the point entirely.
The Christian faith is not built on eternal principles, as important as they might be. It’s not based primarily on the wise teachings of Christ, as important as they are. It’s not even built on my passionate commitment to social justice, as startling as that may sound! It’s built on some very simple historical assertions.
I appreciate that for some people this leaves them feeling that the Christian faith is built on very shaky foundations. History can always be called into question, and what’s the relevance of a piece of 2000 year-old history anyway. Valid questions these may be, but if this is how the church has chosen to define the Christian faith, who are we to think we can redefine it any way we please?
When I was in America, an Episcopalian clergy friend passed on a lovely story to me about when the Greek Orthodox Bishop came to visit their seminary and gave a lecture on the formulation of the church’s creeds.
After the lecture, one of the students asked the bishop, “Bishop, what do you think I should do if there are parts of the creed that I don’t feel in good conscience I can say along with everybody else?”
The Bishop said, “Practice it! Say it over and over again until you’ve memorised it.”
“Yes”, he said, “but there are statements in the Creed that I‘m not sure about?”
“Then practice them, saying them over and over again”, said the Bishop, “until they are fully committed to memory. We have kids in our church in early Primary school who can recite all the creeds perfectly. With time and practice, you will get it”
“You misunderstand me”, he says. “What if I don’t believe everything in the creed?’
“What’s that got to do with it? It‘s not your creed, son!”, said the Bishop. “How old are you anyway – 25, 30 years old? You’ve got a lot to learn yet, son. Keep practicing and repeating the words. The understanding will come in good time!”
Now, you may wince a little at that story, for surely we want to affirm the right of every individual to raise honest questions about their faith. Even so, there is a balance, I’d suggest, between individual integrity and submission to the wisdom of the community, and the beauty of that story is that it reminds us that our faith is never really just our faith.
We did not think up the Christian faith. It is not the product of our own brilliance. We have applied our mind and our experience to our faith and have thereby shaped our faith, sure enough, but the fundamental message that we received and that we share is one that was passed down to us, and what we are doing when we stand up and repeat the words of those historic creeds together is to reaffirm our membership of the historic Christian community that has been built upon those basic beliefs!
I used to have a problem, in a previous church that I was a part of, whenever we‘d say the creed, because the priest would always introduce it by saying, “Let us state what we believe in the words of the Creed.” I used to think, “don’t tell me what I believe! Even I‘m not sure what I believe half the time”, and I do frankly prefer the way we do it now, by saying, “let us affirm together the faith of the church”.
For it is the church’s faith that is important, not just my faith. It is the facts about Christ in history that are fundamental, not my interpretation of those facts. For it is Christ who is the Saviour of the world and not me!
This indeed is Paul’s point. In as much as he had his own style and his own emphasis in preaching and teaching his people, the message was not any more his than it was about him.
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received … Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.” (1 Corinthians 15:3)
It’s the message that is important, not the messenger, because the message points to Christ, and it is Christ who does the healing, raising up and saving. So whether it is I or they or someone else entirely – whether you read it in a magazine or downloaded the message accidentally from the Internet, whether it came to you by video, tape, DVD or whether you heard it live, so we preached and so you believed, and that‘s all there is to it!
Paul’s conviction was the God worked through the message, and not simply through the messenger. And what is that message? In its bare essentials it is a series of simple historical statements about Christ – that he died, was buried, rose again and reappeared. Paul’s approach was that all you had to do was to share those truths, then stand back and let things rip!
Whether we share Paul’s optimism about the power of those bare statements of fact or whether we feel that they do need to be interpreted and packaged before they are likely to have a real impact, we can’t escape the fact that it is these simple historical facts that are the foundation of our faith.
And that’s important, because I think we do need to be reminded that Christian faith begins, not with wise teachings, not with a series of eternal truths, and not even with our own individual salvation, but with a piece of history.
For in the end, that’s what the Gospel is most essentially about – it’s about history. It’s about what God has done in the past, what God is doing in the present, and what is going to do in order to bring human history to a happy fulfilment.
The Gospel is the history of God’s dealings with the world and it’s a history that we are privileged to have been caught up in.
First preached by Rev. David B. Smith at Holy Trinity Church, February 2007.