November 13, 2007

The Faith Once Delivered

At the recent annual convention of the Diocese of Pittsburgh held in Johnstown, Pa.—reports of the convention can be found here and here—Bishop Robert Duncan read his letter in answer to the warning he had received recently from the Presiding Bishop. The letter, in essence, was as follows:
Dear Katharine,

Drop dead.

+Bob
His actual words were:
1st November, A.D. 2007
The Feast of All Saints

The Most Revd Katharine Jefferts Schori
Episcopal Church Center
New York, New York

Dear Katharine,

Here I stand. I can do no other. I will neither compromise the Faith once delivered to the saints, nor will I abandon the sheep who elected me to protect them.

Pax et bonum in Christ Jesus our Lord,

+Bob Pittsburgh
Mark Harris, on his blog, called this letter “classic Duncan.” I have to agree.

Almost everything about this letter is irritating, but, for me, one of the most objectionable aspects of it is the use of the phrase “the Faith once delivered to the saints.” This phrase, usually without the needless capitalization of “faith,” is constantly used by the so-called “orthodox” to suggest, succinctly, that their version of Christianity is the one true faith, the Christian faith as Jesus himself meant it to be understood.

The phrase, of course, comes from the third verse of the first (and only) chapter of the Letter of Jude:
Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints. (Authorized Version)
Jude is short and passionate, and its basic meaning is clear. Christians are to defend the Gospel against those promoting false teachings, “ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 4b). Much of the rest of the letter is about what these “ungodly men” will do and how they will be punished for it. Nevertheless, the nature of the false teachings the author of the letter is railing about is not clear, and the letter appears to be something of a generic encyclical warning the saints to be vigilant against those who would mislead them.

Scholarly consensus places the composition of Jude toward the end of the first or in the first quarter of the second century CE. Conservatives favor an earlier date, sometime in the last half of the first century. Whenever this letter was written, the epistle can be described a being early church literature, and therein lies a problem.

Bishop Duncan’s implication—the usual implication when “the faith once delivered” is invoked—is that the writer believes what Christians have always believed. Since the writer of Jude does not explicate “the faith,” however, we can only speculate about what he understood by the term. What is clear, however, is that much of the theology that became orthodox Christianity, that is, the consensus that emerged from the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century, was developed only after the Letter of Jude was written. Moreover, to the degree that conservatives insist on an earlier date for the writing of Jude, we know even less of what “the faith” refers to, even if it might be closer to the actual teachings of Jesus or the Apostles.

Of course, Duncan and his followers really don’t care what Jude’s writer meant; they are just latching onto a good sound bite. To them, “the faith [or Faith] once delivered to the saints” simply means what they believe and what they think everybody else should believe. That it includes, among other things, a good deal of medieval accretions and modern anti-Enlightment nonsense is rather beside the point.

The next time you hear someone piously pontificate about “the faith once delivered to the saints,” remember that the proper response is to ask, “Yes, and what was that?” You might even cite Jude 1:19, which says about the false teachers, “It is these worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions” (NRSV).

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