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WHAT ARE THE FUNDAMENTALS OF 
CHRISTIANITY? 



CONRAD H. MOEHLMANN 

Rochester Theological Seminary, Rochester, N.Y. 



ABSTRACT 



In view of the current demand of an organized group in Christianity that a definite 
list of "fundamentals" be insisted upon, it is imperative to discover what such a list 
would beif based on actual history. A survey of twenty Christian groups is made, 
showing in brief compass what each regards as essential. Considerable diversity 
exists in these statements. The Apostles' Creed, as the most universally accepted 
formula, is critically examined. It is found that several items in this creed are suscep- 
tible of varied interpretation. The conclusion is that no formulation adequately 
interprets the whole of Christianity. The attempt to require acceptance of a fixed 
creed leads to unfortunate results for religion. 



Of late there has been considerable interest in "funda- 
mentals.' ' Conferences on fundamentals have been widely con- 
vened. Questionnaires on fundamentals have been sent to 
thousands. The "fundamentals" of Christianity have been 
summarized in a few points. Superficial and easy conclusions 
have been reached. The general impression has been that the 
essence of Christianity is exceedingly easy to discover. New 
Testament scholarship has not reached a unanimous ver- 
dict on the teaching of Jesus; the historians of Christianity 
cannot fully explain the transition from primitive Christianity 
to nascent Catholicism or state in a few sentences the sig- 
nificance of the history of Christianity; the last book on Paul 
has by no means been written; the last primitive Christian 
document of the second century has not been found, to say 
nothing of being interpreted; the complicated history of 
medieval Christianity and the total importance of Protestant- 
ism have not been evaluated— but all this does not prevent 
some twentieth-century Christians from concluding that the 
final revelation has been granted unto them. 

History's verdict on what is fundamental may not be over- 
looked. A cross-section of a few of the numerous Christian 



16 



WHAT ARE THE FUNDAMENTALS OF CHRISTIANITY? 17 

interpretations of what is essential in Christianity should 
convince the unprejudiced of the great variety of thought and 
practice in Christianity, and enable valid conclusions on the 
value of creeds to be drawn. 

I. SURVEY OF CHRISTIAN FUNDAMENTALS 

In the United States alone there are some two hundred 
Christian groups. Each of these maintains some peculiar 
attitude in faith or in practice. The following survey must be 
restricted to an examination of the fundamentals of merely a 
score of Christian groups. But the tenets of both principal 
and minor bodies of Christians will be considered. Hence 
the investigation should prove fair and sufficient. Indeed, 
to prolong the study would be to accentuate the variations in 
Christian beliefs. 

1. The Orthodox Greek church accepts the interpretation 
of Christianity contained in the findings of the councils of 
Nicaea (a.d. 325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalce- 
don (451), Constantinople (553), Constantinople (680), Con- 
stantinople (691), Nicaea (787), Constantinople (879), etc. 

2. Roman Catholicism in addition to approving of the 
ecumenical creeds has as its basis the conclusions of the 
Council of Trent, those of the Vatican Council, and the papal 
decisions. And Roman Catholicism added the little word filio- 
que to the Nicene Creed. This addition is one of the reasons 
for the separation of the Greek church from the Latin church. 
Filioque does not appear until the late sixth century and in 
the early part of the ninth century had not been inserted in 
the creed. Its gradual adoption by the Latin church caused 
its transmission to Protestantism. 

3. The basis of Lutheranism is the Bible as interpreted by 
the Formula of Concord, 1580, the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene 
Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Augsburg Confession, the 
Apology for the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles, 
the Larger Catechism, and the Smaller Catechism. 



18 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

4. Calvinism came to be summarized in five points: 
particular, or absolute predestination; limited atonement; 
natural inability or total depravity; irresistible or efficacious 
grace; perseverance of the saints. 

5. Arminianism could counter with: conditional predestina- 
tion; universal atonement; saving faith; resistible grace; 
uncertainty of perseverance. 

6. Anabaptism was a radical type of Protestantism with 
an emphasis upon the freedom of the will, the illumination of 
the Spirit, the private interpretation of the Scriptures. Ana- 
baptists insisted that the New Testament is superior to the 
Old Testament, that the church should be composed of 
believers, that the ordinances do not have sacramental sig- 
nificance, that the church should separate from the state, that 
religious liberty is the right of every man, that war is anti- 
Christian, that voluntary communism is required by the New 
Testament, and that the paying of interest is contrary to the 
Bible. Anabaptism was condemned by Catholic and Protes- 
tant alike. 

7. The Six Principle Baptists employed Hebrews 6:1, 2 as 
their point of departure and insisted upon: repentance, faith, 
baptism, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, eternal 
judgment. 

8. The Primitive Baptists are remarkable for their hyper- 
Calvinism, premillenialism, complete literalism, and for their 
opposition to missions, Sunday-schools, secret societies, and 
the use of musical instruments in connection with worship. 

9. The Conservative Dunkers are orthodox trinitarians 
who demand trine forward immersion, confirmation while 
kneeling in the water of baptism, the evening eucharist, 
feet-washing, the love feast, the veiling of women, anointing 
with oil, non-resistance, total abstinence, abstinence from 
oaths, plain attire, and omission of wearing of jewelry. 

10. The Old Order of Amish Mennonites believe, among 
other things, in the strict ban (no social contact with the 



WHAT ARE THE FUNDAMENTALS OF CHRISTIANITY? 19 

excommunicated), washing of feet, marriage between members 
only, pouring, the celebration of the Lord's Supper twice a year, 
use of hooks and eyes instead of buttons, worship in private 
houses, autonomy of the local church. They allow no evening 
or protracted meetings, no church conferences, and no benevo- 
lent institutions. They do not associate with other Christian 
groups. 

n. The Free Methodist church in addition to support- 
ing the Articles of Faith of the Methodist Episcopal church 
emphasizes entire sanctification, a more rigid eschatology; 
they have general superintendents, and permit laymen in 
equal numbers and on the same basis as ministers in district, 
annual, and general conferences. 

12. The Cumberland Presbyterian church has adopted a 
revised Westminster Confession, is against the doctrine of 
reprobation, is non-liturgical, and requires no subscription to 
a confession for church membership. 

13. The Reformed church of America regards Christianity 
as defined in the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, the 
Athanasian Creed, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of the 
Synod of Dort, and the Heidelberg Catechism. 

14. The Protestant Episcopal church in America uses as its 
basis the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the revised 
Thirty-nine Articles. 

15. The Hicksite Friends rely on the "Light Within" and 
leave special doctrines and dogmas to the decisions of each 
individual. 

16. The Polish National Catholic church of America uses 
the Bible and the findings of the first four ecumenical councils 
as basic, rejects papal infallibility and eternal punishment, 
regards faith as merely helpful and the hearing of the word of 
God in the Polish National Catholic church as a sacrament, 
and approves private interpretation of the Bible. 

17. The Church Transcendent affirms that God is one, that 
humanity is God's family, that human rights are superior to 



20 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

property rights, that mind is superior to matter, that there 
should be one true international, interracial religion. It has 
a fourfold kind of membership: hereditary, adolescent, ple- 
nary, celestial. 

1 8. The Amana Society believes in the Bible, a new revela- 
tion to them, a fire and spirit baptism only, confirmation at 
the age of fifteen, a biennial celebration of the eucharist, 
plain dress, omission of amusements and oaths, non-resistance, 
and communism. 

19. The Pentecostal Holiness church holds to modern 
Arminianism, joyous demonstration in worship, premillenial- 
ism, divine healing, perfectionism, and the real baptism of the 
Holy Spirit. 

20. The General Convention of the New Jerusalem believes 
in one God, in a trinity of essence, a Bible plenarily dictated 
by the Lord Himself, the literal sense of the Bible, the deeper 
sense of the Bible, that the one God by a virgin birth lived a 
human life overcoming sin, that all the enemies of the human 
race are in subjection in every man who co-operates with God, 
that man is raised up in his body in the spiritual world, that 
the judgment occurs immediately after death in the world of 
spirits and is man's coming to a real knowledge of himself. 

This survey demonstrates that Christianity has never been 
in agreement regarding what is fundamental. Similarly, the 
documents of the primitive church reveal a refreshing variety 
of opinion. The Christology of Mark is not that of Paul or 
of John. The Orthodox Greek church differs from the Roman 
Catholic church in several dogmas. The Lutheran basis can- 
not be equated with either Calvinism or Arminianism, and 
Anabaptism was so radical as to be repudiated and caricatured 
by most Protestant bodies to say nothing of Roman Cathol- 
icism. Every variety of faith and practice has adherents and 
regards itself as 100 per cent orthodox. Laying on of hands, 
feet- washing, plain attire, premillenialism, omission of wearing 
of jewelry, wearing of hooks and eyes instead of buttons, 



WHAT ARE THE FUNDAMENTALS OF CHRISTIANITY? 21 

veiling of women, confirmation at the age of fifteen, the biennial 
celebration of the eucharist, are regarded as quite as important 
as the Nicene Creed, the Westminster Confession, the Augs- 
burg Confession, the Thirty-nine Articles. Indeed, the matter 
of the hooks and eyes may be far more divisive than the 
matter of the Smalcald Articles. What the past has fought 
for in the matter of religion is sometimes incomprehensible, 
to the third and fourth generations. 

II. AN EXAMINATION OF THE APOSTLES' CREED 

Many groups of Christians accept the Apostles' Creed as 
basis. But the "received" form of this summary is not at 
all identical with the Roman form or with the much earlier 
forms. On the basis of Schaff 's 1 brilliant study and employing 
the "received" text of the Western form, we shall indicate by 
numerals the approximate date of the first appearance of each 
affirmation . 

i. I believe in God (prior to a.d. 250 "in one God") the 
Father (a.d. 250) Almighty (a.d. 200) maker of heaven and 
earth (a.d. 650), 

2. and in Jesus Christ (a.d. 300) his (a.d. 220) only (a.d. 
390) begotten (a.d. 341) Son (a.d. 220) our Lord (a.d. 260), 

3. who (a.d. 390) was conceived (a.d. 550) by the Holy 
(a.d. 390) Ghost (a.d. 220), born (a.d. 220) of the virgin 
Mary (a.d. 220), 

4. suffered (a.d. 220) under Pontius Pilate (a.d. 200), was 
crucified (a.d. 220), dead (a.d. 220) and buried (a.d. 220); 

5. he descended into hell (a.d. 390), the third day (a.d. 220) 
he rose (a.d. 390) from the dead (a.d. 220), 

6. he ascended into heaven (a.d. 390) and sitteth at the 
right hand (a.d. 220) of God (a.d. 550) the Father (a.d. 220) 
Almighty (a.d. 550), 

7. from thence (a.d. 390) he shall come to judge the quick 
and the dead (a.d. 220). 

1 Creeds of Christendom, Vol. II, pp. 52-55. 



22 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

8. I believe in (a.d. 250) the Holy Ghost (a.d. 220), 

9. the holy Catholic (a.d. 450) Church (a.d. 250), the 
communion of saints (a.d. 550), 

10. the forgiveness of sins (a.d. 250), 

n. the resurrection (a.d. 220) of the body (a.d. 1543), 
12. and the life everlasting (a.d. 250). 
The conclusion of such a conservative authority as Schaff 
is worth quoting: 

If we regard, then, the present text of the Apostles' Creed as a complete 
whole, we can hardly trace it beyond the sixth, certainly not beyond the close 
of the fifth century, and its triumph over all the other forms in the Latin church 
was not completed till the eighth century. 

Even the Apostles' Creed was an exceedingly gradual 
development and required centuries to attain its present form. 
How a text not affirmed by the early church can be made obliga- 
tory for twentieth-century democratic Christians is a little 
difficult to understand. 

But not only does the text of creeds vary from generation 
to generation, but the interpretation of its clauses undergoes 
change. To begin with, consider the Apostles' Creed. After 
we confess this symbol, we ask ourselves what is meant. For 
example, consider the affirmation, "He descended into hell." 
One may read "hell," "Hades," "inhabitants of the spirit 
world." Moreover, we recall that the Roman creed did not 
contain this clause until after the fifth century. Finally, the 
investigator is confronted with the difficulty of interpreting the 
expression. It has been regarded as identical with "buried," 
as denoting the "intensity of Christ's suffering on the cross," 
and as an actual descent of the slain Jesus to the realm of the 
dead. What is "the communion of the saints"? What is 
denoted by "the resurrection of the body" ? Did the church 
appreciate Paul's soma pneumatikon? If so, the modern 
Christian were fortunate. Alas! one recalls that "body" first 
appeared in this creed in a.d. 1543, that "flesh" appeared in 
a.d. 220. The work must be done over again. This clause 



WHAT ARE THE FUNDAMENTALS OF CHRISTIANITY? 23 

must be connected with the gnostic controversy whose history 
is in our day being rewritten. 

The fourth-century church debated for more than half a 
century on homoousios of the Nicene Creed only to discover 
that its earlier significance had been modified. 

The symbol of Chalcedon was a compromise formula. 
Actually little progress had been made since a.d. 381. It can 
be understood only after several thoroughgoing courses upon 
it. "Born of the virgin Mary the mother of God; to be 
acknowledged in two natures, unconfusedly, unchangeably, 

indivisibly, inseparably." The once underlined was directed 
against Nestorius; the twice underlined against the Eu- 
tychians. Immediately we wish to know who these brethren 
were and what they desired to affirm and why their views 
could not be adopted by the church. This symbol had 
hardly been spread on the minutes, when the monophysites 
made a frontal attack. The sixth century beheld the dis- 
integration of the imperial church. The Eastern provincial 
churches separated from it. In succession, the Persian church, 
the Jacobites of Syria, the Copts of Egypt, the Ethiopian 
church, and the Armenian church departed from the orthodox 
fold. Christianity dissipated its vitality in doctrinal con- 
troversy and had no superior religion to offer to advancing 
Mohammedanism. In fact, during the succeeding thirteen 
centuries it has not been able to conquer Islam. Sometimes 
history exacts a heavy penalty for failure to understand the 
nature of Christianity. 

If the Christian church has never agreed regarding the 
interpretation of such a simple and ancient formula as the 
Apostles' Creed, is it conceivable that a small group of 
twentieth-century Christians will be able to formulate the 
fundamentals of Christianity for their brethren ? 

Consider the Apostles' Creed from another angle, from the 
point of view of completeness. What information does it 
give us regarding the attitude Christianity should take on 



24 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

disarmament, on internationalism, on the recently adopted 
amendments to the Constitution of the United States, on the 
general labor unrest ? Does it at all evaluate the Sermon on 
the Mount or enable us to understand the principal purpose of 
Jesus ? We must still face the problems of today ten minutes 
after pledging allegiance to the Apostles' Creed. The follow- 
ing excerpt from an editorial in a Catholic weekly should 
bring conviction: 

It has become plain that we can go little farther along present lines of 
attempting to patch up modern industrial society by legislative plasters. In 
laying down the first step in a real program of reform we must proceed on the 
assumption that our objectives are clear: Capitalism must go, the modern 
State must go, and in their places must arise a society based on the mediaeval 
Guild State. 

What, then, is the first step? Existing Catholic societies and agencies 
must merge their efforts and undertake to educate Catholic workingmen in 
the new economics. We will set down this one piece of educational reform and 
place it alongside the entire list of any existing reconstruction program as an 
equivalent. Indeed we will go so far as to say that we pin our hopes solely to 
the education of our people, and primarily of our Catholic workingmen, in 
the ancient Catholic principles and methods of social ethics. 

The tragic element about the fundamentalist controversy 
is its diversion of Christianity's attention from the realities 
of the present day. It is far more essential to the survival of 
Christianity that the church provide a proper background and 
atmosphere for twentieth-century civilization than that it 
seek to awaken interest in its ancient doctrinal fossils. 

No confession of faith has ever been composed that ade- 
quately described the faith of its subscribers. 

Probably the greatest fallacy of fashioners of creeds is the 
assumption that subscription accomplishes something. As 
soon as the Nicene Creed had been signed, the battle began. 
Had they signed homoousios or homoiousios? The tyro in 
church history is familiar with the general bedlam that con- 
tinued for decades. Just how many times was Athanasius 
banished and what atrocities were not alleged against him! 
How many parties and minor groups came into existence 



WHAT ARE THE FUNDAMENTALS OF CHRISTIANITY? 25 

between a.d. 325-381 ! But the test case must be the Apostles' 

Creed and the witness a conservative historian: 

It is a singular fact that in the non-episcopal churches of Great Britain 
and the United States, the Apostles' Creed is practically far less used but 
much more generally believeo. than in some State Churches where it is part of 
the regular worship, like the Lord's Prayer. 

The Constitution of the United States did more for religion 
by its assertion of the principle of the separation of church and 
state than the constitutions of Europe that made religion 
obligatory. 

Our study of the Apostles' Creed has shown that the 
simplest and most ancient of the church's symbols has under- 
gone many textual modifications and transformations, that 
its interpretation has varied, that it does not at all summarize 
the faith of the primitive church, that it has not secured 
uniformity of belief, that its recitation by no means guarantees 
the acceptance of its contents, that concentration of attention 
on doctrine causes Christianity to lose contact with life. The 
same conclusions would need to be reached regarding any 
confession of faith. The Nicene Creed, for example, exists 
in three forms: the original form, the form as now received by 
the Eastern church, and the Latin or Western form. The 
filioque of the Latin form first appeared in a.d. 589 and is 
one of the reasons for the cleavage between the Greek and the 
Roman churches. 

UI. SOME CONCLUSIONS 

The adoption of summaries of faith has been preceded by, 
accompanied by, and followed by tragic controversy. They 
have not fairly described the genius of any group. They 
have often damaged the influence of Christianity; contradict- 
ing faith and love; neglecting the "whom" in the emphasis 
upon the "what," destroying the freedom which is in Christ; 
utterly forgetting "for in Christ Jesus neither circumcision 
availeth anything nor uncircumcision; but faith manifesting 
itself in love"; reducing Christianity to a new legalism 



26 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

when it must remain an experience. They make the test of 
Christianity intellectual. They tend to exalt themselves over 
the Bible. They cannot detect error. They are productive of 
religious astigmatism. They result in disagreement rather than 
uniformity. They are readily misunderstood by the historically 
untutored. It is easier and more worth-while to interpret 
the New Testament than the creeds. "Creeds are often 
procrustean beds for the torture of theological thinkers." 
They cannot be reconciled with "soul freedom." They 
involve the exchange of the comfort of growth and differ- 
ence for the strait-jacket of conformity. They themselves 
constantly undergo change in text and in interpretation. 
The Bible because of its variety cannot be reduced to a creed. 
Man's experience of God cannot be listed under five points. 
Summaries are either too brief and therefore superficial or 
too extensive and therefore subject to all the laws of interpreta- 
tion. Life is more than meat, and faith is more than a sum- 
mary. The church is at the parting of the way. If it gave 
one-tenth the attention to developing a keen edge for the 
conscience of the individual, to regenerating itself, to inter- 
preting the religious significance of the industrial, economic, 
and social transformations of the present, to Christianizing all 
life which it has been bestowing upon correctness of dogmatic 
phraseology, the Kingdom of God should become a more 
thrilling experience for multitudes. But if a summary there 
must be, it should be biblical. Matthew 22:37-40 should 
suffice. "And he said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord 
thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with 
all thy mind. This is the great and first commandment. 
And a second like unto it is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor 
as thyself. On these two commandments the whole law 
hangeth, and the prophets."