In The Unlikely Disciple, Kevin Roose's entertaining and sympathetic account of his undercover semester at Liberty University, he records a conversation with Jon, a freckle-faced, carrot-top "rapture nut" from Kentucky.

Jon tries to explain the rapture to Roose, taking him on a scriptural tour that begins with the seven days of creation and ends appropriately in the Apocalypse. Jon says to Kevin, "If all those numbers and verses weren't about the end of the world, what were they about?"

Good question. Surely parts of Revelation are about the end of the world, but the seven days of creation?

The Bible is so varied and so vast a collection of writings that it is important to know what it is about just to avoid getting sidetracked. The end of the world is certainly a part of what the Bible is about. But isn't the picture bigger than that?

In his general introduction to volume one of the new five-volume Ancient Christian Doctrine (IVP), Thomas Oden says that we can know what the Bible is about by paying attention to the orderly instruction the early church gave to new believers. "This teaching sought to express the commonly shared understanding of the unified meaning of the whole gist of Scripture."

That orderly instruction of new believers (catechesis) was refined into the church's creeds, which all include lines like "he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead" and "we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come." The End is in there.

But there is more to it than that.

One way to understand "the whole gist of Scripture" is to read what the contemporary writers said about the ideas embodied in creed and catechesis. These compact phrases need unpacking, and one good way to mine their meaning is by reading those who participated in the development of these teaching tools.

That is the general purpose of Ancient Christian Doctrine–to arrange the words of the patristic writers topically in order to correlate them with the various phrases of the Nicene Creed. Want to know what the church fathers thought when they talked about the Father as "the Almighty"? You can look it up here, beginning on page 87 of the first volume of this new series.

A review copy of volume one, subtitled "We Believe in One God," was waiting for me last week when I returned from a much-needed vacation in Southwest Michigan. This week, review copies of volumes two ("We Believe in One Lord Jesus Christ"), three ("We Believe in the Crucified and Risen Lord"), and four ("We Believe in the Holy Spirit") arrived. Volume five ("We Believe in One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church") will not be available until December or perhaps January.

As an Ancient-Future evangelical, I can hardly contain my enthusiasm.

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So far, I've been able to read only the Introduction to the series by general editor Tom Oden and the Introduction to volume one by Gerald Bray. Here are a few things that caught my attention in those essays:

1. Dangerous Words. Saying "I believe" (Latin: Credo) was a life-endangering act. Christianity was seen as–no, it actually was–subversive in the Roman Empire. Oden writes, "One who says credo without willingness to suffer and, if necessary, die for the faith has not genuinely said credo in its deepest Christian sense as baptism: to die and rise again (Rom 6)."

2. Learning by Heart. It was not just saying the creed that was perilous–writing it down also posed hazards. There were the hazards that stemmed from persecution, of course, but there was also the danger that the Christian "mystery" would fall into the hands of unbelievers, people who did not have the eyes of the Spirit with which to see and understand it, and who would distort it as they launched polemics against the church. There was also the danger of garbled transmission. As strange as it sounds to our modern ears, this earlier oral culture tended to trust the memory of the believer rather than the parchment of the scribe. Committing the core of Christian truth to memory, also transforms the heart. In AD 350, Cyril of Jerusalem called on new Christians to "engrave it by memory upon your heart."

3. A Novel Idea. The idea of "an objective body of teaching that Christians are expected to confess ... was a novelty in the ancient world," writes Bray. A normative set of teachings seems normal to us, but neither Judaism (which taught the Law rather than doctrine to its converts) nor paganism (which was an eclectic and syncretistic farrago) had such an orderly and concise approach to belief.

4. A Foundational Truth. "The unity of spirit and matter under the aegis of a good, almighty God" was the point of the first article of the Creed, and it was something that any practicing Jew should have been able to affirm, Bray writes. But this truth was "the essential precondition for two other doctrines that stand out as specifically Christian: the incarnation of the Son and the resurrection of the flesh."

5. The Real Elitists. This goodness and unity of spirit and matter became the key point of difference with the heretical voices that modern scholars came to label "the Gnostics" The contemporary press often portrays Gnostic teaching as an equally valid stream of Christian faith that was suppressed by oppressive "elitists who wrote the rules of orthodoxy." Not so, says Oden, it was the Gnostics who were elitist, who were "contemptuous of the naive consensus of uninformed believers, and who were never even interested in gaining the hearts of ordinary believers." The orthodox teachers who carefully preserved the apostolic teaching, on the other hand, were the ones who boiled down the key elements of the faith so that ordinary, unlettered people could grasp them and commit them to memory.

6. The First Inerrantists. The church fathers' authority for all doctrine was scriptural. If it wasn't taught by the apostles or prophets, it didn't belong as part of the church's doctrine. (Tradition was used to justify some worship practices, such as making the sign of the cross in baptism, but it was never the basis for early church doctrine.) The logical corollary was that Scripture was inerrant and infallible. But, says Gerald Bray, these great teachers of the early church "had a more relaxed understanding than these terms would imply today." That was (a) because the process of textual transmission was much less reliable than it is in our day and (b) because the truth they saw in Scripture was not always located in the literal meaning of the text. Bray writes that they believed the "real meaning of the text" was often found in "some hidden, spiritual interpretation, which the awkwardness of the literal reading was meant to point toward." The infallibility of the Bible "demanded an allegorical interpretation of certain parts of it, a conclusion that is foreign to most modern defenders of infallibility and inerrancy." Perhaps that is why we are seeing some contemporary evangelicals reviving the typological reading of the Hebrew Scriptures that characterized the patristic period.

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This morning for my devotional reading I turned in Ancient Christian Doctrine to the brief section of the Fathers' own comments on the use of Scripture. I read Tertullian and Origen and Augustine and (not my favorite patristic writer) Epiphanius. It was a good way to start the day. Thanks to Tom Oden, InterVarsity Press, Gerald Bray, and all the other volume editors for giving us this new study tool.

To learn more about the Nicene Creed, purchase Issue 85 of Christian History and Biography: "Debating Jesus' Divinity."