The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord.
So goes the old hymn. But, is that entirely true? Does the organized, hierarchical, religious institution, called “the Church,” have only one foundation? Many debate where tradition enters into that matter.
Whereas this blog site previously has posted commentary on the Council of Nicaea and other postulates (ex. the illegitimacy of organized, hierarchical Christianity, the reform of “professional ministry”), this article will deal mainly with the subjectivity—also known as tradition—that provides a foundation for the institutional Church.
A. It is tradition and only tradition that validates the Christian texts as sacred and “inspired.” When one examines the 1 C (A.D.) manuscript evidence, the only thing that can be concluded is certain documents were “accepted” as authentic by various churches throughout the ancient world. Other manuscripts were not accepted as authentic. There was an undeniable subjectivity to it, albeit a collective subjectivity. Since 325 A.D., “the Church” has run with that collective subjectivity. So, the standard for inspiration looks a lot more like consensus over time, just like what happened with the Hebrew Tanakh. In that case, are we willing to say that those at Nicaea were inspired to declare what was inspired?
B. The Council of Nicaea was an extremely politically mandated and entangled meeting. Had it not been for the Roman Emperor Constantine, representatives from various local congregations never would have met, in order to come to a consensus on what is accepted as opposed to debated. So, the take away there is, “how much does one read into the event of Nicaea?”
C. Add to all of this the fact that many of these documents, the gospels especially, were edited and redacted, while being compiled. While I have no problem with saying that final editors could have been as “inspired” as the members of Nicaea to decide what is Holy Scripture, I also am painfully aware that (presumably) we sometimes have individuals, and not groups, making the decision on what is a holy text (e.g. the gospels).
Despite these things, I do see that the Bible’s texts indeed record humans experiencing the Divine (as revealed expressly in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth). These records have been being validated for millennia by those who read them and see them either as formative and/or as descriptive of their own experience with God. Moreover, all communities, not just religious ones, are formed by one of two means: either the organic agreement of the bulk of its constituents, or by the mandate of the powerful. In the case of the institutional Church, it is tragically a very strange mixture. Those at Nicaea never would have been coerced to find consensus and officially declare a minimalist canon, if it had not been for the mandate of the most powerful, political figure in the ancient world.
Still, what the documents reveal is foundational for discovering a kind of Life, which runs antithetically to those in power and sympathetically to those, who are oppressed by the rich and mighty. In other words, I can find no better expression of what is humanity at its best than in the records we have of Jesus of Nazareth. If there is a life I want to imitate, it is His. Who else taught love of neighbor, yes, even of enemy? Who else demonstrated to the fullest a self-sacrificial desire for the well-being of others? Who else becomes the focal point of a narrative for humanity by telling off his own people, just before dying to remedy their sickness of soul, and not only theirs but of the whole world? Who else sets the world stage for eliminating racial barriers, barriers of social class, gender barriers, ethnic and national barriers, etc.?! Who else says that redemption is not in presenting your merits to God but in God reconciling all things to himself by a Divinely devised and provisioned plan to be made a participant in this obviously Divine nature? And who else puts all of that in the form of the words and works of a miraculously incarnated Person, as recorded by a compilation of eye witness accounts, instead of producing a sterile list of religious maxims and prohibitions dropped unconvincingly from the skies?
The above reasons are why I still believe in Jesus of Nazareth, not in institutional “Christianity” but in the Person of the Messiah/Christ of God. I believe, because it makes for a good story, many would say the best or greatest story… and story—as you would know, reader—is far more powerful for faith than tenets of faith are for faith.
Finding Rational and Experiential Balance
Is it rational to accept as sufficient Christianity’s agreement on the collective subjectivity of others (i.e. Nicaea) that lived almost 1750 years ago & nearly 300 years after the physical presence of its chief figure? Is that satisfactory for tests of good reason?
As far as the mind goes, I am comfortable with saying that if faith were merely a matter of rational empiricism, then I’m agnostic… because not everything, not even the historical events of the 1st-3rd Centuries, can be known empirically and 100% accurately on the intellectual level. But, my mind is not all that I am, because it is just a thing which interprets my experience. There is that part of me—call it my soul—that still believes. And that is not apart from reason but more of a supra-rational or mystical evidence, a metaphysic.
My reason does not have to perfectly match (entirely explain in concrete, empirical terms) my experience and the tradition of the Church. But, somehow, Scripture encompasses them all… and the overlap of them all is wherein I find my faith settling and resting. This is not to say no reason is involved, because we must reason well, but also, reason alone can not adequately explain or justify what Scripture, Experience and Tradition provide alongside of Reason. Again, Scripture encompasses and complements and even guides tradition, reason and community. These organically interplay, and their interplay should remain organic, instead of becoming an organizational monster like the kingdoms of this fallen world.
To see in chart form what I mean, please see a diagram of wha this often called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral but not really Wesleyan or a quadrilateral, according to hair splitters like Allan Bevere: [and if we’re splitting hairs, please note I would rather replace “Tradition” with “community,” as a nuance]