I’m spending time this Lent with the Creed. I hadn’t gotten further than the first sentence before remembering something St. Peter said.
“False prophets,” complained Peter, “appeared in the past among the people, and in the same way false teachers will appear among you. They will bring in destructive, untrue doctrines, and will deny the master who redeemed them.”
That is true. What is also true is we need the heretics. But why mess with heresy at all? Simple: Heresy helps us define the faith. What we believe positively about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit comes to us defined by what we negatively do not believe.
A taunt I remember: “You’re not completely useless; you can always serve as a bad example.” Heresy can be a good teacher on these terms, if it helps us define orthodoxy. Heresy compelled the early Church―and the older Church, and even the Church today―to sharpen her theology time to time, to define what we mean about what we believe, and why we believe it.
Consider: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” This is the opening line from the Old Roman Creed (the Apostle’s Creed, more commonly) by which Christians are baptized into Christ.
Instead of immediately asking what it means, think a bit on what it does not mean. It does not mean we believe in two gods, one who made heaven and one who made the earth. We believe in one God, who made both heaven and earth.
Christianity was launched from the Resurrection facing two big competitors, Gnostics and polytheists. Gnostics challenged the idea that a lone deity would embrace both spirit and matter. Spirit is good; matter is icky. Most Gnostic belief systems (they are impossibly convoluted) featured a rogue god who violated orders and made humanity. This was a challenge to the god of the spiritual sphere. But being a more kindly sort, the spiritual god used Jesus, or something like Jesus, to help humans find a higher spiritual level so they could leave the fleshy old body behind. In various forms, it’s still around.
Christians held on to the God of the Hebrews who made both heaven and earth. That also meant most Gnostic teaching was thoroughly anti-Semitic. The God of the Jews did things with and for humans, and seemingly enjoyed it. The loftier Gnostic deity could not possibly have bothered choosing anyone, let alone the Jews.
Polytheists had their gods and goddesses too. That’s possibly the default faith, though I’d guess pantheism (god is creation, creation is god) might have outpaced it initially. Was I forced to choose, not having a Christian alternative, I would probably give pantheism a shot. Gentler, indiscriminately inclusive, and besides, we’re all just trying to find a rock, a sunset, a tree we can worship; whatever gets you buzzed.
In polytheism, the Greek sort anyway, the gods and godlets mess too much with humans, toying and teasing them to distraction, creating maze runs and clocking them with a stop watch while making bets.
So we say, whatever all that is, it is not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. By saying what we believe, we have said what we do not believe.
Christians had to sort their way through these messy antitheses. We can thank the Jews for that. The God of Moses incarnated in Christ is a thoroughly Jewish God, earthy, concerned with our flesh, and rather plain spoken on the whole. He is the one God who made heaven and earth, and we of the earth. We must say this because the other alternatives are so wretchedly disagreeable. We are left saying God is the God, the only one, who made heaven and earth.
Surprisingly, right there in the first article of the Creed, we brush against the Gospel. Actually, it’s not that soft. It’s more like we get slammed into it and come away dazed.
See? If we believe in the God who is the Father who made both heaven and earth, we must equally say God made me. By “we” I mean all of us has to say it, and we have to say it about you as well. Because God made you, not by accident, he tells everyone that he has always wanted one just like you. Now he has one.
Russell E. Saltzman, who writes from Kansas City, Missouri, is also a contributor at Aleteia. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His previous First Things contributions are here.