CHRISTIAN HISTORY & BIOGRAPHY: Why should we care about the early councils today—or even recite a creed? Aren't the gospel accounts in the New Testament enough for today's church?

ROBERT LOUIS WILKEN: One begins with the simple and inescapable fact that the Scriptures need to be interpreted. The Bible is not a doctrinal treatise. It's not a catechism. It's not a set of well-defined teachings. It's basically a narrative, a story about what God has done in the coming of Christ. So from the beginning, how to understand the various parts of the Scripture in relation one to another was an enormous challenge for Christians.

Take, side by side, two portions of Scripture: First, the great passage in Colossians 1 about Christ being the image of the invisible God in whom all things consist. Second, the narrative in Mark of Christ as a preacher, prophet, and healer. In one passage, all things come into being through Christ. In the other, you've got someone who looks very much like a preacher in the style of John the Baptist. The conviction of the early church was that the Bible was one book. It had one story. So one had to try to find a way to bring what was read in Paul into relation to what was read in Mark. And this was not a simple matter of quoting biblical verses; there were honest differences of opinion as to how they were to be understood.

The basic problem was that Christians began, as Jews, with the belief that God is one. On the basis of his teachings and miracles, the kind of person Jesus was, and because he rose from the dead, Christians said, "This man is not like any other man"—he is in some sense divine, or God. But how do you say that God is one when you've got two identifiable realities God the Father and ...

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