“In too much fullness is some want…” –Sir John Suckling in Chapters into Verse
Over the past number of years I have repeatedly heard Roman Catholics emphasize the “fullness of [Roman] faith.” Within the grossly misguided context of evangelizing other Christians, this emphasis asserts that Roman fullness has something a bit more to offer than other communities of Christian faith. That is, according to these apologists, Rome has what others lack. And, to be clear, this attribution of lack includes every other Christian community and Church —- with, maybe, some accommodation for our Eastern Orthodox brethren. This emphasis upon Roman “fullness” is unabashedly bold, and clearly evidences a seriously un-catholic bias that un-catholicizes any claim to be truly catholic.
However our Roman family is not alone in its assertions. We all, individually and collectively, have our own definition and description of what this fullness must or must not include. We each have our own Shibboleths, our own self-or-ecclesiastically-constructed Babels, which require rigid adherence. Unfortunately, what may not be required is adherence. Repentance and reconciliation are called for. These Shibboleths include, and may not be restricted to, those Creeds, Councils, Confessions and Articles which we hold so dear and necessary. To be crystal, fullness is almost entirely determined by the theological “glass” that we have boldly blown for our own purposes.
Sir John Suckling, quoted above, makes an interesting point that directs us to a possibility that I have long-asserted: Sometimes, and more often than not, there can be too much fullness. There is such a thing as being too full. This article posits this position and offers a more reasonable possibility: Less is, in practice, more. And it is this little that should define fullness. When fullness spills beyond the bounds of its original design, as with our Lord’s reference to “new wine in old wineskins,” we no longer have fullness. In such an instance we have flooding, a mess that needs to be cleaned-up and corrected.
What we desperately need is God’s glass and God’s definition of what, within that specific context, fullness actually means, includes and excludes. Of God’s fullness we all want to receive, and not anyone else’s contrivances, even contextually appropriate contrivances appropriate to the time, that have been collected, collated and codified along the way. With the Gospel Greeks, “we would see Jesus” (St. John 12: 21). Often, as with rote rituals, our vision of Jesus Christ is impeded by other things of lesser importance.
To arrive at a reasonable and biblical fullness, a fullness free from excess, there are five priorities we must consider. These will be addressed below.
Fullness is centered upon Jesus Christ as revealed. The good news of the Gospel celebrates the person of Jesus Christ and the plan of redemption that is entirely centered upon what he has done, what he is doing and what he will do. Stated more exactly, Jesus is the program and the plan. In order for us to apprehend this person and plan we must entirely center ourselves within this revelation of God. As has been suggested by Thomas ‘a Kempis, “He who would fully understand the words of Christ, must entirely commit himself to the life of Christ.” Within this broad framework, there is a relationship between the Living Word and the Written Word that must not be over-or-under estimated. And what must not be lost or minimized, and what is crucial to my thesis, is that the centrality of Jesus Christ is not just at the core of the Written Revelation, but, as well, at the core of how we understand this revelation AND ALSO at the very heart of our experience, expression and expectation of this revelation. We have compromised Christ by not appreciating the priorities that guided the experience and expression of the apostolic authors of Written Revelation. This has led to increased separation and not to salvation and sanctification in their most social, communal, implications.
To understand and appreciate what I am proposing we must understand the orientation of the New Testament authors – specifically the four Gospels – and how they approached the Hebrew Bible as they sought to explain how this Old Testament revelation of God revealed Jesus as Messiah. When we study how these New Testament authors resourced the Hebrew Bible we discover that they were highly selective in both their use of texts and in the Text they actually cited. It was the Septuagint they cited, and priority was given to some texts above others —- including not citing some First Testament texts at all. Psalms and Isaiah, as two examples, were repeatedly referenced, while others only minimally or not at all. Only certain Old Testament texts were utilized in order to communicate the Jesus Story, the good news of the Gospel. As such, swaths of Scripture were ignored in order to communicate the overarching purpose of communicating Christ.
What this means for us, and the first step needed in order to define and defend the proper understanding of fullness, is to appreciate that while all of God’s revealed Word is inspired Scripture, there is a primacy of revelation which requires us to capitalize upon certain books or texts and to minimize others. The four Gospels are primary, Acts is secondary, and the Epistles are, fundamentally, commentary almost entirely rooted within the time and the communities to which they were originally intended. To be both brash and blunt, while we must appreciate Paul’s many Epistles, they are not Gospel and they may have minimal relevance to our contemporary setting unless there is an exact match between their intended audience and setting to our own current communities and cultural contexts. They are inspired revelation, but only of a tertiary nature and importance. The story of Jesus is the message, everything else is commentary. Epistles tell us about how this message was to be lived within the varied first century churches. Their relevance is rooted to a particular time, place, community and purpose. When we move beyond that, cherry picking our chosen texts to prove our multitudinous theological positions, we are on dangerous ground. Gospels trump any and every Epistle. Our misunderstanding about fullness is rooted within a misunderstanding of the biblical narrative, and its core message. To gain an appreciation of what fullness actually is and includes, we must embrace the intention of the four Gospels: Jesus is the fullness of the Godhead revealed, and it is his story – not the commentaries about it – to which we must attend. How this relates to our topic of fullness is very simple: If revelation can be prioritized, focusing on who Jesus is and what he taught (and this within the Trinitarian framework the four gospels suggest), then it is entirely reasonable to prioritize other things that enhance this specific message —————— and, at times, minimize those things which do not.
Fullness is concisely communicated in the Acts 2:42 community and is more Petrine than Pauline. The book of Acts is a transitional text that continues to communicate “all that Jesus began to do and teach” AND chronicles how the Christian community began to live that good news. It links us to the Gospel narratives, but also outlines its expansion from Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria and the uttermost parts of the known world. As such, Acts has primary, secondary and tertiary implications and applications. The Gospel message in Acts is the message, while Peter and Paul’s varied journeys are historic information about how that core communication was carried throughout the Empire and beyond. It expresses how the primitive Christian community, namely Peter and Paul (as well as the first followers of Jesus), were obedient to our Lord’s “GO” directive.
Just after Pentecost, the followers of Jesus began to grow in numbers and in self-understanding. Following Peter’s Pentecost Homily, communicating choice words about Jesus, the community of his followers centered themselves upon four priorities: Apostolic Teaching, Fellowship, Breaking Bread and Prayer. These must be briefly commented upon. The “Apostolic Teaching,” at that time, was rather restricted. It focused upon Jesus and his salvific ministry. THIS, and THIS ALONE, was (and is!) the Apostolic teaching. There was no Paul. There were no nuanced messages to attract and accommodate and direct communities, Gentile or Jewish, throughout the Empire. There were no Creeds, Councils, Confessions or Articles. There was, within the Christian community, no dangerous development of doctrine. There was only Peter’s first sermon which presented Jesus as Messiah. With credit to Paul, the Apostolic Teaching was, essentially, what he communicated in 1 Corinthians 15: 1 – 8. From this essential message, the Apostolic Teaching, a fellowship of love was established that resulted in the Breaking of Bread and prayer. The Jesus Story was the center-point of this unfolding. Theology, per se, did not shape the community. Philosophy did not shape this community. Ideas and ideals did not shape this community. Jesus and his story did! To enjoy true fullness, therefore, this must be the primitive priority we must embrace. There is no program but the person Jesus Christ. From Jesus comes Apostolic Teaching, Fellowship, Breaking Bread and Prayer.
Fullness, within this primitive Acts 2 community, exists, expands, and is expressed through what is contained in the Vincentian Canon. The Vincentian Canon tells us that what is truly catholic has been believed “everywhere, always and by all.” These are important and instructive words. If we are really interested in the faith that is truly catholic, that is the faith of the Acts 2 community, we must restrict ourselves to the everywhere, always and by all standard of evaluation. And this is highly restrictive and clearly possible to attain and maintain. Some might suggest that this is an impossible standard. They would argue that there was no time when such a framework actually existed. I would heartily disagree. These few words root us to an infant community which was properly centered upon and within the essential of Jesus Christ. Only for a very short time – the infancy of the Jerusalem Christian community – can this everywhere, always and by all standard be seen, met and maintained. This is when Jesus was central. This is where Jesus was central. This was how Jesus was central. They had no New Testament. They had no Paul. They had only minimal expansion after Peter’s Pentecost proclamation. They had Apostolic Teaching, Fellowship, Breaking Bread and Prayer. These were the everywhere, always and by all standards by which they build a common life of common passion, power and purpose. These must be our essential standard. A truly full faith that is catholic is as simple and as profound as this. As such, fullness is often less, and not more. Apostolic Faith is, therefore, stripped of excess. Could it be that all of our Creeds, Councils, Confessions and Article, possibly appropriate to their time, are little more than factual footnotes?
Fullness limits, if not restricts, Creeds, Councils, Confessions, Articles, and all unnecessary defensive postulations and postures rooted in protective fear. Christians are indebted to the Creeds, Councils, Confessions and Articles of our faith. I am not sure, and I want to be cautious, that every utterance is the faith as envisioned by the Acts 2 community, however. Moreover, I am not sure that the primitive followers of Jesus would affirm everything communicated within these varied documents. In fact, I am almost entirely sure that they would not do so. Even today, among true followers of Jesus, we do not find entire agreement. In some cases, as with our Coptic and Oriental Orthodox brethren, some of these documents and their dictates have isolated Christian communities for over a thousand years. That is, the Creeds, Councils, Confessions and Articles were all aimed at defining and defending historically appropriate understandings about the true Faith, but they also ended up creating disruption, disagreement and division. They, at times, say “no” in a manner that is far too strident and reflect highly contextualized conflicts that may have little bearing upon us today.
However, as I am an Anglican clergyman, this indebtedness to history is pronounced and, in some ways, obligatory. This said, however, unlike the perspective of the primitive (Acts 2) followers of Jesus, and as outlined in the Vincentian Canon, these documents are even more provisional than the New Testament Epistles. They are (being very generous) commentaries upon the commentaries communicated by Paul and the other authors outside of the strict Gospel narratives. They are important, at times pertinent, but highly provisional. Let us, all of us, be honest. When we look at Creeds, Councils, Confessions and Articles there are times when we disregard or discard certain assertions. There is no denomination that gives absolute fidelity to all of these. This is a fact, and numerous examples can be cited. Creeds, Councils, Confessions and Articles continue to distance followers of Jesus from the primitive experience and expression of the early church for whom Apostolic Teaching, Fellowship, Breaking Bread and Prayer were essential. How these may have been exported and explained to an expanding Church is a different matter, and certainly worthy of careful and prayerful consideration. But, importantly, integrity calls us to essentials and not to those exaggerations which, in philosophy and in practice, may separate us from the Christian community’s most ancient forms and formulations. To move beyond these primitive frameworks (and I make an exception for the Apostles’ Creed because it briefly summarizes the Bible basics as found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and does include the fundamentals. I think it was Dr. Tim Tennant who referred to this Creed as a succinct summary of basic Bible doctrine.) risks imposing non-essentials upon true followers of Jesus who may enjoy an essential fullness without subscribing to the exaggerated fullness which might be nice but not necessary. True fullness, while not always denying or decrying Creeds, Councils, Confessions and Articles, will severely limit and restrict their importance —- refusing to impose what is, at best, commentary upon the entire catholic community. Let us remember that things can be far too full and, consequently, become a flooded mess requiring clean-up. The point is Jesus Christ. The Gospels communicate him. The Epistles comment and expand upon these Gospels. The Creeds, Councils, Confessions and Articles comment upon the commentaries — often excessively expanding upon the primitive functional fullness exhibited in Acts 2: 42.
Fullness must assert no more than the primitive catholicity of the Acts 2: 42 community and assumes the Vincentian Canon as its framework of understanding. Recently I read and reflected upon Norwood’s fine book Reforming Rome: Karl Barth and Vatican II. Among the many excellent points Norwood makes, he draws attention to how Barth increasingly began to think in terms of being an Evangelical Catholic and not in terms of being a Reformed Protestant. This is a productive consideration. In short, if I extrapolate, if we affirm the Acts 2 community, as broadly seen in the Vincentian Canon, we are all catholics if we are followers of Jesus. We are Roman catholic, Anglican catholic, Eastern catholic, Reformed catholic, Protestant catholic. We are, if we affirm what is most essential (primitive Apostolic Teaching, Fellowship, Breaking Bread and Prayer) common catholics who broadly share a common life for a common purpose. With this, our Creeds, Councils, Confessions and Articles begin to fall away. Roman exaggeration, Protestant resistance, Orthodox culturalism and Anglican (unwise) conciliarism all bow before Jesus and the true catholicity that he encourages —- and the primitive followers of Jesus experienced and expressed.
This does not mean that denominational distinctives are necessarily wrong, but they are simply not needed or binding. If you want to emphasize Tradition, Capital T, please feel free to do so. But do not expect others to cross their “T” as you do. Your “T” does not define everyone’s understanding of Apostolic Teaching.
If you want to say “Transubstantiation,” go ahead and say so. But do not make this the deciding factor in Breaking Bread with others —- most especially when we all believe that Jesus meant Body and Blood when he said Body and Blood.
If you want to say “this is us,” please celebrate your identity. But also please avoid saying, along with this, “and with us wisdom will die” (Job). Others, too, have identities that are entirely Christo-centric and entirely in keeping with the Fellowship of the Acts 2 community. In short, they too enjoy catholic fullness.
If you want to be liturgical and pray the Daily Offices (which I highly commend), please do so. But do not assert that any liturgical stance is incumbent upon all. We need not say that Jesus’ “venerable” hands took up the “chalice” to appreciate that Jesus took…blessed…broke…and gave.
These examples, these philosophic proclivities, are almost endless. They are tedious and tiresome.
If we want to return to what is most needed, to what is truly catholic, let us look to Jesus, to what he “continued to do and teach” through the Acts 2: 42, and to what is communicated through the Vincentian Canon. I am not sure we need more fullness, but am quite certain that less fullness may, in practice, be the only fullness God expects or we need.