“Wherefore, let us leave empty and vain thoughts, and come unto the glorious and venerable rule of our holy calling,” thus Titus Flavius Clemens, or as he is better known to history, Clement of Alexandria, in his first letter to the Corinthians. what was this “rule of faith’? Irenaeus outlines it in chapter 9 of the first book of Adversus Heraesis when he writes about St John:
proclaiming one God, the Almighty, and one Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten, by whom all things were made, declares that this was the Son of God, this the Only-begotten, this the Former of all things, this the true Light who enlighteneth every man, this the Creator of the world, this He that came to His own, this He that became flesh and dwelt among us
We see it in Tertullian (c.160-225), Hippolytus (c.170-236), as well as later in St Athanasius (c.296-373) and St Augustine (c. 354-4300. It consists of a statement of early Christian teaching and communal belief which could be used, as Clement used it, to refute heresy.
The core belief was that Jesus is the Son of God, the Creator of all things, who had become man and dwelt among us, and who died on the Cross, rose from the dead, and later ascended into Heaven, and who is the Way, the Truth and the Light. These beliefs were supported in the Apostolic writings which were identified by tradition because they were the “rule of faith” by which Christians could be assured of these things. That did not stop some Christians, like Irenaeus taking a view which rested on revelation, tradition, and on the power of the Holy Spirit, or others, like Clement, taking a more philosophical view. The “rule of faith” allowed both idioms; what it did not allow was Gnostic claims that there was “another Saviour, and another Logos, the son of Monogenes, and another Christ produced for the re-establishment of the Pleroma.” This “rule of faith” we see across the Mediterranean and what we call the Middle East, it was not the product of Rome or, indeed, of any central authority, it was the common possession of the Church from the “elders” supported by the Canon.
This is expressed best by Irenaeus when he wrote:
The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes. Nor was he alone [in this], for there were many still remaining who had received instructions from the apostles. In the time of this Clement, no small dissension having occurred among the brethren at Corinth, the Church in Rome despatched a most powerful letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace, renewing their faith, and declaring the tradition which it had lately received from the apostles, proclaiming the one God, omnipotent, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator of man, who brought on the deluge, and called Abraham, who led the people from the land of Egypt, spake with Moses, set forth the law, sent the prophets, and who has prepared fire for the devil and his angels. From this document, whosoever chooses to do so, may learn that He, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was preached by the Churches, and may also understand the apostolical tradition of the Church, since this Epistle is of older date than these men who are now propagating falsehood, and who conjure into existence another god beyond the Creator and the Maker of all existing things. To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Sorer having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.
This is worth quoting at length as it conveys better than any summary the way in which Bishops like Irenaeus saw themselves as receiving and passing on what had been received from the Apostles themselves, as recorded in the canonical Gospels. As Clement put it:
42:1 The Apostles received for us the gospel from our Lord Jesus Christ; our Lord Jesus Christ received it from God.
42:2 Christ, therefore, was sent out from God, and the Apostles from Christ; and both these things were done in good order, according to the will of God.
42:3 They, therefore, having received the promises, having been fully persuaded by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and having been confirmed by the word of God, with the full persuasion of the Holy Spirit, went forth preaching the good tidings that the kingdom of God was at hand.
42:4 Preaching, therefore, through the countries and cities, they appointed their firstfruits to be bishops and deacons over such as should believe, after they had proved them in the Spirit.
42:5 And this they did in no new way, for in truth it had in long past time been written concerning bishops and deacons; for the scripture, in a certain place, saith in this wise: I will establish their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons in faith.
As Irenaeus put it:
WE have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.
These men were not part of some “orthodox” conspiracy designed to impose order on “diversity:, they were the stewards the the Gospel message which they had the duty to protect and proclaim. It is not surprising that this “rule of faith” became the origin of the Nicere Creed.
That should not be taken to mean that there were not theological developments along the way, the Trinity is one example of such a development, but it does mean that, as Larry Hurtado put it:
Well before the influence of Constantine and the councils of bishops in the fourth century and thereafter, it was clear that proto-orthodox Christianity was ascendant, and represented the emergent mainstream. Proto-orthodox devotion to Jesus of the seond century constitutes the pattern of belief and practiced that shaped Christian tradition thereafter. [L.W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity].
I would be tempted to tweak that a little after what has been outlined here and to say that the Creeds approved by the Church Fathers, like the Canon they confirmed, served as a theological continuation of inherited orthodoxy, and as its chief means of transmitting what had been inherited.
None of that is to take away from the fierce debates over heresy and the part they played in focussing the mind of the Church on subjects such as the Trinity and Christology, but it is to say that it was the Church which preserved and transmitted what it had received from the Apostles.
My thanks to those of you who have borne with me thus far, and to those who have commented. The attempt to summarise such a vast topic inevitably produces simplifications, but I hope I have reflected what I have read. I am conscious that the sources here are Western in the main, and in later posts I hope to explore other examples of the tradition.