The Parameters of Christian Orthodoxy

The Holy Fathers

Icon of Constantine and the Fathers of the Council of Nicæa (closeup)

God willed to reveal Himself and to enter into an intimate personal relation with mankind. This revelation and plan of salvation began to unfold through Moses and the prophets, but only in Jesus Christ do we find the fulfillment. He is the Incarnate Word of God, the embodiment of all God wants us to know about Himself. Revelation, then, is the total message of God as given in and through His Son.

Christ established a Church to bear witness to this saving message until the end of time.1 See Mt 28:18-20. The Apostles who experienced Christ and His message firsthand are the foundation stones of this Church. We would be mistaken, however, to imagine that their knowledge of God’s revelation in Christ was all thought out and formulated into precise language. What they communicated to the Church was not a catechism but the totality of the Good News in terms of a lived experience. This message is called the “Deposit of Faith.”2 See 1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:13-14.

Anything not already contained in the Deposit of Faith can never be proclaimed as part of the Christian Faith. However, the Church in every age receives the Deposit of Faith partly as things known explicitly, and partly as a lived experience that has yet to be reflected upon and articulated. The implications of a particular doctrine can gradually become clearer, thus making it possible, even necessary, for that doctrine to be refined and amplified. Developments of doctrine are legitimate, provided they are consistent with the truths from which they originate. This idea of continuity in Divine Revelation is summed up in one word: Tradition—from the Latin noun traditio, something handed on.

Tradition is enshrined in the books of the Bible. The Old Testament is the story of God’s breaking into history, choosing a people, and entering into covenant with them—one collective, great event to be remembered and transmitted both orally and in writings, sometimes by borrowed imagery (serpent, flood), sometimes by portrayal of God as shepherd or husband, but especially in the liturgy of Israel’s worship. This lived Tradition, which made God’s revelation alive to each succeeding generation, surged onward to its full realization in Christ. The New Testament recounts the earliest Christians’ experience of Christ. Formulated within the Church, these writings were gradually recognized as divinely inspired. The Bible, then, is a fruit of Tradition and exists within Tradition.

Because the infinite richness of revelation unfolds in time, Tradition encompasses not only Scripture but also the doctrinal definitions following from new insights into God’s revealed Word. Many Christian doctrines were formulated at general or “ecumenical” councils, gatherings of all the bishops of the world presided over by the Pope. There have been 21 ecumenical councils in the history of the Catholic Church, from Nicæa I (325) to Vatican II (1962-65). The earliest councils solidified the preeminence of the five principal Christian dioceses, called “patriarchates”—Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople. More importantly, they defined the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. The bishops did not presume to say the last word about these mysteries. They merely sought to exclude certain false ways of speaking about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The councils must be studied in the wider context of the Church Fathers, those highly regarded bishops and writers, the earliest of whom personally knew the Apostles. Tradition includes the decrees of the councils and the writings of the Fathers. It likewise includes the oral formulas of the early Christian preaching (such as the question-and-answer summaries of faith used in the rite of Baptism), apostolic decisions (as at the Council of Jerusalem discussed in Acts 15), interpretations, and customs traceable to apostolic times (such as infant Baptism and prayers for the dead).

Tradition is closely connected to the Sacred Liturgy, the Church’s life of worship. Before the New Testament was complete, the apostolic preaching went on, often within the celebration of the Eucharist. In the Liturgy, Christ comes in word and sacrament to feed and transform His people. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council described the Eucharistic liturgy as the “summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows.”3 Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 10; cf. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, no. 11. There is more to the Christian life than the Liturgy, of course, but the Liturgy should permeate the life of the Christian. Immersion in the waters of Baptism, anointings with oil, the words of Scripture and creed, the sign of the cross, Christ’s self-giving in the Sacrament of the Altar—we might say, with Dom Prosper Guéranger, that the Liturgy is “Tradition itself at its highest degree of power and solemnity.”4 P. Guéranger, Institutions Liturgiques, 2 vols (Paris: Débécourt and Le Mans: Fleuriot, 1840), 1:3.

Disputes inevitably arise over conflicting interpretations of God’s Word. The Church, as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth,”5 1 Tim 3:15. must be capable of discerning true doctrine and setting it forth clearly. Catholics believe that the Church’s teaching authority is invested in the Pope, who is the successor of Saint Peter, and the bishops in union with the Pope. To the Apostles under Peter and to their successors under the Pope, Christ promised the gift of infallibility,6 See Mt 16:15-19. which ensures that the Church will never invoke her full teaching authority to require the faithful to believe anything in faith and morals that is false. Aided by the Holy Spirit,7 See Jn 16:13. the Magisterium authoritatively guides the developed and living Tradition.

From here, we shall focus on the first four ecumenical councils. These dealt with controversies resulting in the earliest, and in some cases enduring, schisms from the Catholic Church.


The above is a chapter from my book, The Fullness of Truth: Catholicism and the World’s Major Religions, published by Newman House Press and available from the publisher or from Amazon.com. Now, as ever, it is important to know what defines Christian faithfulness where belief is concerned. The deposit of Christian faith is attacked not only by the explicit rejection of revealed truths but also by specious appeals to doctrinal development—appeals made to justify proposed changes, if not in doctrine then in practice, for the sake of mercy or charity. Last October’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family occasioned instances of the latter. Given that doctrine and practice are intertwined, it is difficult to see how certain changes in pastoral practice, such as the admission to Holy Communion of divorced and invalidly remarried Catholics, could represent anything other than a negation, never mind a development, of Catholic teaching, if not on the indissolubility of marriage then surely on the reverence due to the Most Blessed Sacrament.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. See Mt 28:18-20.
2. See 1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:13-14.
3. Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 10; cf. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, no. 11.
4. P. Guéranger, Institutions Liturgiques, 2 vols (Paris: Débécourt and Le Mans: Fleuriot, 1840), 1:3.
5. 1 Tim 3:15.
6. See Mt 16:15-19.
7. See Jn 16:13.