Thursday, October 16, 2008

Do we really need no teachers?

Several days ago (or weeks, I forget which) a friend and I were discussing briefly the value of church creeds and confessions (or lack thereof). To support the belief that we don't need creeds or councils or the church fathers, but only the Bible, she cited 1 John 2:27: "As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you." It sounds good, but is that really true?

It's a question I can't really remain silent about, because I value a particular Protestant church tradition, that is, the Reformed tradition, with its wonderful confessions and catechisms.* So, do we really need no one to teach us? Is that what the Bible teaches?

1 John 2:27 in context.
The elder John's letters were written to combat an incipient form of Gnosticism. Briefly summarized, this was a Greek philosophy claiming that created matter was lowly and evil, and the divine could not truly inhabit it. Rather, God lived only in the "spirit" realm, where true virtue and goodness lie. Therefore God could not have actually taken upon himself human flesh, and "Jesus Christ" only appeared to be a human. (There are various Gnostic positions on this, e.g., docetism, cerinthianism, and others.) At the same time, because all virtue is exercised in the immaterial realm, what we do in our daily conversation is of little importance. Bodily sins have no affects on our inner spirits, so live it up! The real way to spiritual maturity was rather through special, secret knowledge (gnosis), and those who possessed it were the "enlightened ones" (pneumatikoi).

In chapter 2 of his first canonical letter, John writes to protect his flock from these "enlightened ones" who once were part of their church but now figured out that Jesus wasn't all he was cracked up to be (2:19). God incarnate, in touch with diseased sinners, and dying on a cross--preposterous! John's church was in danger of being led astray into believing that they didn't know the truth about Jesus and "real religion," so he had to assure them that in fact they did know the true God, that Jesus was the one God-man and mediator, that sin matters, and that they overcame evil not through exalted knowledge available only to the elite, but by believing in Jesus (2:12-14; 5:4-5).

When we examine it in context, John isn't saying anything at all like, "You don't need any teachers, because God's anointing, the Holy Spirit, lives in you." He's saying instead that what they know about the gospel--creation, fall into sin, redemption through the promised Messiah, and renewal by his Spirit--was in fact true and sufficient for godly living. What they needed to do instead was to live out what they already believed (2:3-6; 2:28-3:3).

Quite the contrary, they actually really did need teachers! John says that "we" (he and other apostles) were the ones who had seen, touched, and heard the incarnate Word of life. But this Word was only made known to the (likely) Ephesian church by means of the apostles' own testimony and proclamation, which they were glad to share (1:1-5). He even makes so bold a claim as to say that he is God's very own commissioned voice in the world: "We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the spirit of truth from the spirit of falsehood" (4:6).

I hope to explain further from Scripture why we do in fact need creeds, confessions, and church traditions. Whether I stick my foot in my mouth or say something hastily remains to be seen.
* These include the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort (which are collectively known as the Three Forms of Unity); the Westminster Confession and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms; and the three "ecumenical creeds": the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.

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