As everyone pretty well knows, trademarks exist to guard the rights of the trademark holder and to ensure the consumer that the article with said trademark is, indeed, authentic. Trademarks exist to eliminate confusion. When Anna and I moved to Illinois more than ten years ago, one of the then-recent news stories in Wichita was about some vendors selling knock-off Gucci, Dooney & Burke and Coach purses. These knock-offs looked an awful lot like the real thing, but they lacked the trademark, that is to say, the genuine characteristics necessary to authenticate themselves. The vendors were busted, of course. But not before they had sold these items literally right across the street from Towne East Mall wherein lay the then-upscale Dillards, itself an purveyor of authentic Gucci, Dooney & Burke and Coach purses.
With all the claims and counterclaims by Christians being thrown about in the media with regard to issues like gay marriage, not to mention the Current Unpleasantness® going on the ECUSA, and so forth, one begins to wonder which voice is the authentic voice of Christianity? A lot of people are claiming to be “the real Christians” preaching “the real Gospel” but how is one to know? Who are the knockoffs and who are the genuine articles?
There are a plethora of ways to resolve the issue, of course. But that’s just the problem. There are so many disagreements, so much contradiction between various groups (even within the very same denominations), that it seems impossible to arbitrate between them. After all, to arbitrate one would have to have a viewpoint that could authoritatively comment on these disparate views, a viewpoint that, to be objective, would have to stand outside of the viewpoints expressed. But who has that “objective” view? To be truly objective, wouldn’t it mean that the arbitrator is outside Christianity altogether? But wouldn’t that only bring in a whole truckload of other biases?
Perhaps I’m going about it wrong here. Perhaps it’s not so much a matter of external objectivity here that’s needed. Perhaps it’s more a matter of finding the point of bedrock agreement. Although one cannot say that Christians have a unified view of who Jesus is–which seems strange to say, but then again, that is the current reality–one can at least say that Christianity gets its name from Christ, and that therefore he was/is a central figure for Christians. So perhaps it would be better to find the one foundational point of agreement.
Let me be clear: I’m not talking about the lowest common denominator. I’m not talking about the one item, or two, or handful, of items on which all Christians can agree. That approach has already proven bankrupt and useless. Rather, I’m talking about finding the bedrock, foundational doctrine(s), Scripture(s), Church Liturgy(-ies), and Canon(s) upon which one can say, “This, at least, is essential Christianity.” I full well realize that since this approach is oriented around foundations, that there is bound to be significant, irreconcilable differences among those now claiming the name of Christ. And in fact, I realize that what this will mean is that some of those who now claim the name of Christ will, by their refusal to accept these foundation stones, be left outside of the named circle that accepts the foundations. To say it plainly: Some who now claim to be Christians will be found not to be so. But that’s the nature of a trademark: it reveals the genuine over against the knockoff.
But in our current state of tens of thousands of denominations and non-denominational groups, with all the disparity in teaching and practice among the billions of Christians worldwide, where does one start? Papal primacy seems to be a non-starter; Protestants and Orthodox won’t accept that. Sola scriptura seems to be a non-starter; Roman Catholics and Orthodox will deny that it is even possible to understand Scripture in isolation from the consensus of Church dogma. Orthodoxy’s claim to uniquely be the Church will similarly not be accepted by Roman Catholics and Protestants. So what is one to do?
Where in the world can we find a ChristianityTM by which we can judge, discern, and evaluate that which is authentically ChristianTM and that which is merely a knockoff?
It seems to me that a modest, and completely unoriginal (on my part) proposal would be simply this: When did the Church have the greatest consensus on Church dogma, Liturgy, Scriptural interpretation and Canon law? I’m not asking when there was one hundred percent perfect agreement. But rather, when was there the greatest amount of consensus, such that a Christian from Milan could be transplanted to, say, Antioch, and affirm, “Yep. This is the real stuff!”?
The answer here seems clear: Prior to the Great Schism. Or, to say it more precisely, the era of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. Yes, I recognize that this is not a perfectly seamless answer which eliminates all problems. What does one do about the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Monophysite scandal? What does one do, for some in the West, with the Fifth and subsequent councils? But again, what I am talking about here is the greatest amount of consensus.
Take, by way of example and point, the biblical council at Jerusalem. The Church came to consensus. Everyone accepted the decision of the council. Was there still some variation in practice between Christians oriented around our Jewish heritage and some who were oriented around the new work among the Gentiles? Of course. Was there consensus in belief and practice? Absolutely.
So, what’s the Christian trademark? The Old and New Testament canons, given us by the first Ecumenical Council. The Creed given us by the same council. The dogma of Christ given us by Nicea, Ephesus, Constantinople and Chalcedon. The Liturgies given us by the fourth century Church and by Gregory, Pope of Rome. The canons of the seven Councils. The deposit of the Faith given us by the Apostles, preserved in the Scriptures, and faithfully interpreted by the Christians of the seven Councils. In short, trademark ChristianityTM is the Christianity of the first millennium.
No matter whether you’re Protestant, Roman Catholic or Orthodox, the core beliefs you hold you hold because of these ChristiansTM. It’s true that many Christians have departed from this first millennium FaithTM, but one needs to ask, are the departures and accretions authentic or knockoffs? One can only answer that question by referring back to the original.
So when it comes to present-day questions about gay bishops, same sex marriage, abortion, cloning, divorce, and the whole host of matters plaguing our national consciousness, when it comes to the ChristianTM voice, it seems to me germane to ask: Does it match the first millennium Church and it’s faith and practice? If it does, it’s ChristianityTM. If it doesn’t, it’s a knockoff.