Which Christianity? By whose authority? These are important questions for Christian believers today, but they’re not new to our time. Even a surface reading of the New Testament will reveal the presence of a variety of Christianities in the early days after Christ. One of the earliest Christian documents, Paul’s letter to the Galatians, is written to churches who were being influenced by a form of Christianity other than the one Paul had brought to them. He appeals to them to stick with the Christianity they had received through his preaching.
What was the basis of Paul’s appeal? Why should they stick with his version of Christianity? Paul’s argument is threefold. First he recounts a plausible and, in those days, verifiable story of his having corroborated his version of Christianity with that of the early Christian leaders who actually knew the historical Jesus. He goes so far as to recount a story of his having corrected Peter based on an understanding of Christianity they held in common. Again, given the early nature of Galatians Paul’s story about confronting Peter was theoretically verifiable.
Second, Paul appeals to the experience mediated through the message he preached. It was his gospel that brought the reality of God’s presence into their lives. He readily bases the credibility of his message on the nature of the life it produces. His gospel produces the fruit of the Spirit–a life of love, joy, peace and other desirable qualities.
Finally, Paul presents his gospel as the fitting culmination of the story of the Hebrew Bible. The message of Christ he preached was a satisfying explanation of God’s true intention for humanity begun in the promise to Abraham to bless all people through him. Jesus as the Christ is a fitting fulfillment of that promise.
Ever since then there has been a body of believers who have held to this version of what it means to be Christian. They have based their beliefs upon documents which are in tune with this basic understanding of the meaning of Christ. These documents form of corpus often referred to as the canon or rule (our New Testament along with the Hebrew Scriptures). Canonical Christianity remains the dominant form of Christianity in the world today. Traditional Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant churches are forms of canonical Christianity.
The reasons for holding to this version of Christianity remain the same. Its origins are plausible and in part verifiable. Early Christian hymns and creeds embedded in the New Testament letters point to an early core message held to be the message of the apostles. Those who submit to this message find that through it they receive the Holy Spirit and the life that Spirit brings. Finally, this story of Jesus is a satisfying understanding of the larger story of God’s purpose for Israel and the many smaller stories of how God works in the world as recorded in the Hebrew Bible.
Canonical Christian communities are composed of those who willingly receive the authority of the texts which mediate the message described above. They are voluntary associations produced by the preaching of the gospel. A common feature of these communities dating back to the book of Galatians itself is a desire to preserve the message they’ve received. Hence, the emphasis on right belief.
It is common nowadays to interpret this concern for right belief as a power play (a suppression of alternative voices in a quest for power). The Da Vinci Code is a popular expression of this theory. It’s hard to see, however, what worldly benefit early Christians got for holding the message of Paul and those like him. As best we can tell it meant being ostracized, ridiculed, physically harmed, suffering financial loss, and sometimes being killed. Hardly the stuff of power! More likely is the reason they themselves give. They actually believed that the message they received brought people into a living fellowship with God producing an abiding sense of identity, security, and meaning, and they didn’t want that message lost.
By contrast, canonical Christians, find current proposals for alternative versions of Christianity lacking in spiritual power and far too speculative in their understanding of Christian origins. They see no need for a new Christianity when the old continues to be so highly satisfying both intellectually and spiritually. What is needed, they contend, is greater faithfulness to the message that has been given once for all in the received canon of Scripture and has proven itself so spiritually fertile for over two millennia.