Conversation involve questions. The asking of questions is either meant to illicit and answer or to provoke thought that provides an answer, even if the answer is a tentative “I don’t know.” I often tell my students that it is better to have an informed “I don’t know” than a forced make-ready answer.

When it comes to Christ, when it comes to following Christ, when it comes to who Christ is and what he did, there are some questions that need to be asked. The answers to these questions will and do divide. The division regards differences in beliefs, convictions, or knowledge concerning the object.

Christ asked Peter a very divisive question: “Who do you say that I am?” Others had differing opinions. Some said Elijah. Others John the Baptist. The contrastive de tells us that Christ was asking what Peter thought in contrast to what the others thought. “You are the Christ, the son of the living God,” he answered (Matt. 16:16). With this answer Peter contrasted his beliefs about Christ with all the others who gave different options. Peter believed he was right and the others wrong.

This was an early confession, a creed, a statement of faith that was in response to a question. It was not from the lips of Christ, but one of his followers. Peter was the first to put his theology into a creed. This creed not only separated him from other contemporaries, but has separated Christianity as a confession of faith from all other alternatives since. “Who do you say that I am?”

But this was not the end. As I will attempt to demonstrate, there was a progressive development of a creedal belief in the New Testament that distinguished Christianity as a distinct system of belief.

By the time Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians (56AD), there was already the workings of a defined Christian creed. Not only was Christianity defined by a belief in Christ as the son of God, but added to this was the confession of Christ’s death burial and resurrection.

1 Corinthians 15:3-8 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; 7 then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; 8 and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.

Paul says that this was of “first importance.” In other words, this was essential to the Christian faith. As well, Paul says that he “received” this. It was given over to him and he “delivered” it to others. It was already part of the Christian tradition. As Keener notes in the IVP Bible Background Commentary,

“Handed on to you … what I had received†is the language of what scholars call “traditioning.†Jewish teachers would pass on their teachings to their students, who would in turn pass them on to their own students. The students could take notes, but they delighted especially in oral memorization and became quite skilled at it; memorization was a central feature of ancient education. In the first generation, the tradition would be very accurate; this tradition may even be a verbatim citation.“

This was an established creed of the day, it was part of the tradition that was being handed down. This “tradition” is often referred to as the paradosis or the “things received or handed on.”

Paul further illustrates how this Christian creedal tradition included a belief and confession of Christ’s ontological identity with the father as well as his present Lordship in Phil 2.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:5-11)

Paul borrows language commonly used in Greek homonoia speeches (cf. Keener). This passage is believed to be a creedal hymn that was pre-Pauline in origin (probably beginning in v. 6). It was part of the kerygmatic (preaching) essence of the Gospel (Ralph Martin, Word Biblical Commentary).

This developing creedal tradition that separated Christianity as a definite system of belief is further seen in Paul’s second letter to Timothy. There were more questions that had to be answered and your answer would separate you from the alternatives.

For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory. 11 It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him; 12 If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us; 13 If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself. 14 Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers. (2 Timothy 2:10-14)

This verse, like the previous, starting in v. 11 and ending in v. 13, is believed to be a well established statement of faith that was put to a rhythmic hymn. It was probably used at one’s baptism. Notice Paul introduction in verse 11, “It is a trustworthy statement . . .” The “statement” was already part of this baptismal song. Notice the rhythm and parallel structure.

For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him
If we endure, we will also reign with Him

If we deny Him, He also will deny us
If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself

More importantly, notice the creedal additions. Added to the early Christian kerygma was the admonition for us to die with him. This was not a literal death, but one in which our old self dies with Christ—which often carried the implication of suffering and possible death. The Christian confession that was put to hymn was that if we die with him we will live with him. But just as important in this early Christian creed was the warning that if we deny him he will also deny us. This is a statement of divine judgment. Paul tell Timothy to “remind them of these things.” The reminder again implies that it was a teaching already well established in the early Church. As well, the reminder serves as a warning that their are distinctives in belief that the Church must uphold.

Jude speaks of these distinctive beliefs, this creed, this doctrinal distinction, this paradosis, this kerygma when he talks about contending for/fighting for the faith “once for all handed over [paradidomi] to the saints.”

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 1:3 )

There was a definite system of belief that defined early Christian orthodoxy (”right teaching”).

What does all this mean? It means that the early church was well on their way to having a definite set of beliefs that distinguished them from outsiders. They had a definite orthodoxy. The taking of the name Christian had meaning. Yes, it had much to do with the way one lives (orthopraxy), but, as we have seen, it also had to do with what one believes (orthodoxy). The early church was creedal. One’s “membership” in the church was dependent first on what one believed—on how one answered certain questions.

I know that one of the taboos of our emerging generation is that we don’t like labels. I understand. Labels can be misunderstood, nuanced according to traditions, and controlling in a very bad way (try wearing the label “dispensationalist”!). We also don’t like to make judgment calls, especially when it comes to orthodoxy. We don’t want to say who is in and who is out. We don’t like to have “orthodoxy” at all.

While I am not in favor of over-defining our orthodoxy to such a degree where, in the end, the only one truly orthodox is your traditional circle (the “us-four-and-no-more-and-I-am-not-sure-about-you-three mentality), there are questions that must be asked. The answer to these questions will divide us from others. Wrong answers to these questions will place one outside of the Christian creedal confession.Â

Who do you say that Christ is?

What is the Gospel?

What did Christ do?

What is our need?

What are we to do?

What happens if we don’t believe?

What happens if we do believe?

What is our authority?

What defines right behavior?

If one believes right about questions like these, then he or she is orthodox because he or she has answered in distinction to the false options. But if someone gets these questions wrong, he or she is outside of Christian orthodoxy (heterodox).

It is important to note that if someone says they don’t know what the answers are, this is honest and noble, but we must recognize that an ”I don’t know” answer does not define orthodoxy, it defines indecision. If Peter would have answered Christ’s question “Who do you say that I am?” with “I don’t know” or “I can’t say for certain” or “Answering such a question would label me and I don’t like labels” or “Any answer I give is going to make someone angry, so I prefer not to answer” these would have amounted to a wrong answer—an unorthodox answer.

We don’t define the right answers any more than Peter did. God does. We discover them. There are difficulties, yes. We need to be humble in our approach to such issues. But we need to understand that there is a right answer and a wrong answer. The right answers have been a major part of what defines Christian orthodoxy from the very beginning, the wrong answer is outside of Christian orthodoxy.

I encourage all of us who empathize with postmodern skepticism, doubt, and suspicion to understand that our tendencies toward these attitudes does not define or redefine orthodoxy. Orthodoxy has been established from the very beginning. If we deny orthodoxy a place—a definite and important place—we are outside of orthodoxy.

Once orthodoxy is defined, recognized, and acknowledged the inevitable outcome will be separation. There will be those who are within the bounds of orthodoxy and those that are outside its bounds. There will be those with right answers, like Peter, and those with wrong answers, like the others. We will have to make judgment calls if we are going to “contend” for the faith.

While we must recognize that not all orthodoxy is equal and being unorthodox in some issues is worse than being so in others, this recognition cannot relativize our contending for the faith that was once for all handed on to the saint—the faith handed to you.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

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