The Church as Object of Faith

As mentioned before, the third main section of the present Creed concerns the Holy Spirit and His work in the holy Church, and we note that the Holy Spirit and the Church are paired together. Here we examine the creedal description of the Church.

The mention of the Church in the Creed was not specifically aimed at the fourth-century Arians or the Pneumatomachians, (those who denied the divinity of the Son and the Spirit respectively), for mention of the Church appears in older versions of the Creed as well. For example, the “old Roman Symbol,” the baptismal creed of the Roman church of the third century or earlier, contained the phrases, I believe “in the Holy Spirit, the holy Church, the remission of sins, and the resurrection of the flesh,” so obviously the inclusion of the Church in the creedal statement was not meant to counteract any fourth century Trinitarian heresy.

Why include it in the creed at all, then? In what sense was the visible Church an object of faith? One could understand how the divinity of Christ or His virgin birth were matters of faith, since these things were not mathematically demonstrable and required faith to believe them. But surely belief in the Church was not a matter of faith? After all, one could see the Church meeting before one’s eyes, every Sunday.

What one could not see with one’s physical eyes was the inner unity of the Church throughout the world, and the Church’s authority to speak the truth. We are used to the different congregations of the Orthodox Church today being obviously parts of one and the same Church. The Orthodox Church now, wherever it is throughout all the world, uses pretty much the same Liturgy, the same vestments, the same calendar, the same typikon. One can walk into an Orthodox church in Africa and find the clergy there dressed in the same way as the clergy back home in Canada or Russia or America, or Romania, all serving the same Liturgy of St. John Chrystostom with the same liturgical precision and actions. The calendar is pretty much identical, and the way that baptisms are performed, as well as marriages, ordinations, prayers for the sick, burials for the dead are all done in the same way with more or less the same words and rituals. Fasting rules are the same (whether the rules are kept is, of course, another question), and the commemorations and themes for each Sunday in Lent and the Paschal season are the same. The same Bible is read in church, using the same lectionary. Clearly, the church in (say) Kenya and the church in Canada are parts of the same Church.

It was otherwise in the early days. There was much more liturgical diversity. Then each bishop in each little town or city eucharistized and prayed the central prayer of the Liturgy making up his own words. The baptismal creeds differed somewhat in their wording from place to place, as did the fasting rules. No special vestments were worn by the clergy when they presided at services. There was no common calendar, and some churches even kept Pascha on a different date than others. Most churches venerated only their local saintly martyrs. There was no common lectionary, and some churches included books in their canon of the New Testament that others did not. The rituals and words for baptism differed from place to place (many scholars think that in Syria the anointing even preceded the immersion, unlike in the rest of the church, where anointing followed immersion).

One could go on, but you get the idea. As the churches in each place developed the internal machinery to talk to each other, there was increasing uniformity, but in the pre-Nicene days, local diversity was the order of the day. Those today who are used to seeing worldwide Orthodox uniformity in matters of vestments, typikon, prayers, Scriptural canon, lectionary and calendar cycles would regard the earlier situation as bewildering, if not chaotic.

Moreover, this early diversity was celebrated by the Fathers, not bemoaned. They looked at the astonishing diversity of the Church worldwide and stressed that this diversity made even more remarkable the Church’s underlying unity of faith. This unity of faith was what distinguished it from the many heresies that sprang up across the Roman world at different times. The heresy in Asia Minor was different from the heresy in Phrygia which was different from the heresy in Rome, but (as the Fathers stressed) the faith of the true Church was identical everywhere—in Asia and Phrygia and Rome and to the ends of the earth. This unity of faith was all the more impressive and significant given the diversity in almost everything else.

Thus, when the Creed says that the Church is an object of faith, it is talking about the invisible unity of the Church. The Creed focuses upon the unity of the local parish church with other local churches throughout the world, and says that whether one enters and receives the Eucharist in a little church in a small Egyptian village or in the large gathering in the mighty city of Alexandria, each Christian enters and worships in the same Church. The same Christ is present in each one, and this Presence, accessible to every church-going Christian throughout the world, makes all the various and varied congregations to be one Church. One’s liturgical experience might suggest otherwise, but the unity of the Church remains intact nonetheless. Thus, it did not matter where one lived in the world—one’s location did not effect one’s salvation. Baptism did not convey more grace and forgiveness if one received it in a rich and splendid church in Alexandria than if one received it in a humble impoverished Egyptian village. The grace and power of the sacramental mysteries of the Church were the same regardless of differences of outward splendour or differences of rite because the Church in all places was one. If in Christ there was neither Jew nor Greek (Gal. 3:28), in Him there was also neither east nor west.

Furthermore, in a time when the Church was challenged and rivalled by many heretical groups all claiming to be “the Church,” this unity was all the more important. The liturgical diversity of the local churches throughout the world was a fundamentally different kind of diversity than the faith diversity which separated the true Church from the heretical “churches.” One could not, therefore, validly conclude that since the Church in Libya had different liturgical traditions from (say) the Church in Edessa that all differences between groups claiming to be Christian were equally acceptable, and that one could therefore just as well worship with the Gnostic Valentinians as with the historic Church. It was not so. Whether or not one worshipped in Libya or Edessa was merely a matter of geography and the liturgical diversity between Libya and Edessa was irrelevant. But whether or not one worshipped with the apostolic church (say) in Rome or the Valentinian one was not irrelevant, for these two groups were distinguished by a diversity of faith. Just as one believed in the true Christ, so one must also believe in the true Church—and this was why the Church is an object of faith in the Creed.

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Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.

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Fr. Lawrence was formerly an Anglican priest, graduating from Wycliffe…
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