Thursday, November 10, 2022

Developing Doctrine

Doctrine: a particular principle, position, or policy taught or advocated, as of a religion or government; a body or system of teachings relating to a particular subject.

If only understanding (and agreeing to) Christian doctrine was so easy….

Matthew 28: 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20(a) teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

John 21: 25 Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

The dating of when the books of the New Testament were written is a bit difficult to nail down.  Suffice it to say, even if the earliest dates for each book are utilized, those to whom Jesus gave the Great Commission and the communities they reached would not have had access to these for many years, even decades. 

They would have had access to what these disciple-missionaries knew from the oral teaching by and the life of Christ.  They would have had knowledge of what the Apostle John mentions – the many other things Jesus did that are not in his book.  But they wouldn’t have had the book – or books.  No Gospels, no letters, no Sola Scriptura.

Yet we know, even after 2,000 years, that having the books does little to help resolve differences – even by the most honest and sincere and ecumenically-minded theologians.

Where did these first disciples go?  Many places, many traditions, many possibilities.  By tradition, James went to Spain, Bartholomew went to India and Armenia as did Thomas, Matthew to Ethiopia, Simon and Jude to the Parthian Empire, Matthias to the north shore of the Black Sea, Andrew to Crimea and present-day Ukraine. 

All points in-between were also covered by these and others.  Of course, different countries and cultures have their own tradition regarding which apostles, etc.  They don’t all agree….

As we know, they did not all go together.  They also did not have identical memories and understandings; they did not have a common memorized creed.  We see even Peter and Paul in disagreement in the book of Acts.

All of this commonality was yet to be developed, the doctrines to be worked out, the creeds to be memorialized.

Why all of this background?

The Council of Chalcedon Re-Examined, by V.C. Samuel

Chalcedon resulted in the first long-lasting (and remaining) split in the Christian Church.  Yes, there have been other divides, but some lasted years or decades, maybe even a century or two.  But nothing like what happened after Chalcedon.  The split gave us what we today know as the Oriental Orthodox Churches – including Ethiopian, Armenian, and Coptic, among a small handful of others.

The controversy was regarding the nature of Christ – as you can imagine, one of the things not commonly understood by the earliest Church fathers, probably not commonly taught by the apostles in their various and different journeys.  But it was not a controversy about the two natures – divine and human are both admitted on all sides.  The question is…how were these two natures to be understood in the one Christ?

Something of the author:

Fr. Dr. Vilakuvel Cherian Samuel (1912 – 1998), a priest of the Indian (Malankara) Orthodox Church, was one of the great scholars of theology, and an ecumenical committed and distinguished historian.

He seems to have spent a lifetime studying this subject and the controversy.  He has both Bachelors and Masters degrees from schools in India, then he received his Ph. D from the Divinity School at Yale and studied further at Chicago University.  His studies were devoted to the early Church fathers and the early councils, especially Chalcedon in 451.

He had knowledge of many ancient languages: Syriac, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin.  He also knew French, German, and English.  To get to the punchline…

He came up with a concrete conclusion that the difference between the Churches was only verbal and not substantial.  This was due to the cultural, linguistic, and political pressures of the time.

I know many believe otherwise as is obvious by the continuing division.  I intend to work through this book of 384 pages of text and almost 950 endnotes, written by a man who is at least qualified to have an opinion on the matter.

As he writes:

The subject of this study is the split in the Church following the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

After noting that there had been many earlier splits in the Church, he comments that none of these have lasted more than a couple hundred years.  Not so Chalcedon, which remains open to this day.

Most scholars hold to the view that the reasons for the split were sound, and that the Churches which rejected Chalcedon are in error.  One Armenian archbishop suggests that the Council did not work out the balance that it claimed – that of the divine and the human.  Only after later developments in the sixth century can the Council be properly understood.  Another Armenian suggests that the Council did violence to a considerable part of the Christian east.


They admit, for example, that the Church of Armenia had not been directly involved in the controversy centring round the Council of Chalcedon.  But neither the Coptic Church of Egypt nor the Syrian Church of the near east can advance this argument.

As regular readers know, this subject has been of interest to me for some time.  There are many resources that make the claim opposite to that which appears to be offered by Samuel.  I think this will be a good way to hear the other side of the story.


  1. Modern missions here in the West have developed the notion of taking the Gospel to the unreached "as a seed, rather than a potted plant." You go live among them & learn their language & culture while you tell them Bible stories, & when you know the language & culture well enough, you start translating the Bible into their language. You may have to introduce writing to do this. You teach them some basic fundamentals & wait ubtil they are able to make disciples by themselves & plant daughter churches suited to their culture. They don't usually look very Western.
    At this point, you tell them it is time to go on to the next place & that you'll be back from time to time to see how they're doing. These indigenous churches typically thrive.
    Modern splits are more about who's going to be boss, I'm afraid. :(

  2. Modern missions try to introduce unreached peoples to the Gospel in a way that is compatible w/ their culture. The Missionary moves in & learns the language & their ways. He tells Bible stories & listens to their legends & tales. Then he translates the Bible into their culture & language. Some complications arise. The peoples of New Guinea have only pigs as domestic animals (if that). They don't know what a sheep or a dog is. Also, you may have to introduce writing & teach them to read.
    While the resulting acculturated churches don't look very Episcopalian, they do grow & spread like mad. The missionaries say that they are bringing seeds rather than a potted plant.

  3. Kudos on your willingness to dive into these questions. Christianity has and always will be a faith of symmetry and paradox. I believe a factor in the early church growth (given the sparsity of the written word as you describe) was the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in these people and places. Given the Holy Spirit, then and now, it challenges the mind as to how much we disagree and divide ourselves (seemingly ad infinitum).

    1. Thank you.

      "...was the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in these people and places."

      Yes. That and the work of charity toward widows, orphans, the sick. Elevating the status of woman and slaves/servants. Then again, this also can be attributed to the Holy Spirit!

  4. What a great post - thank you. The division of Christ's Body is a very sad thing - no matter how much we pray for the Holy Spirit to draw us together as one it does not happen - no doubt there is sin and pride in there. Still our prayer should be that all of us who believe in the Risen Christ belong to 1 Christianity! Imagine how much impact Christ's united Church could have in this world! That book sounds great - thank you. Ted in Ohio

    1. Thank you, Ted. I have recently been thinking about something: Protestantism is often blamed as the biggest cause for disunity. Except that Protestants seem somewhat more comfortable than Orthodox or Catholics with differences on the non-essentials.

      I may be totally wrong on this. As I said, just started thinking about it.

      In any case, my vision of the unified Church is for Orthodox to perform the liturgy, Protestants to teach Bible study, and Catholics to open universities focused on teaching natural law!

  5. you said "I intend to work through this book of 384 pages of text and almost 950 endnotes, written by a man who is at least qualified to have an opinion on the matter."
    Did you mean in your private time or here in the blog?

    1. Here at the blog. I have done something similar with dozens of books (check the bibliography tab at the top of the page).

      Now, it will take some time...and I have two other books on my shelf that are calling my name at the same time. But it will be at the blog...unless it turns into a doctrinal food fight. However, the regular people who participate in discussion here know that we want to try to avoid such debates and focus on what we can learn from the author (with my less valuable commentary thrown in).

    2. Your modesty is admirable, but your commentary is equally valuable to this reader. Thank you. Peg in Oregon

    3. Thanks, looking fowards to your post.

  6. In respect to dating the New Testament, I recommend "Redating the New Testament" by Bishop John AT Robinson. He came to some surprisingly conservative conclusions at the end of a long and radical career.