“Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus, guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us…. You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (II Timothy 1:13-14. 2:1-2)
Paul’s first letter to Timothy ends with this impassioned plea:
“O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith.”(6:20-21)
In II Timothy, his last will and testament, he picks up the theme again:
“Guard the truth that has been entrusted to you.”
In both these passages the gospel is regarded as a sacred deposit, a sacred treasure, which is to be guarded and protected during each generation and then passed on intact to the next: from Paul to Timothy, and from Timothy to faithful men.
Actually the chain begins and ends quite differently. First, it is from Christ to Paul to Timothy. The gospel is Christ’s, not something Paul made up. That is why it is a treasure; and that is why Paul must guard it. Second, its safe transmission does not end with the generation after Timothy but continues to this very day, to our entrustment with the treasure and our responsibility to pass it on intact. There is, in fact, no more sacred duty of every Christian in every generation. Yes, we are to share the gospel, to witness and tell the story. But before we can do that we must guard the story and make sure it is told in our day just as Jesus, himself, told it and lived it. The apostle Jude called this sacred deposit “the faith once for all delivered to the saints”(v 3), a message in word and deed not to be tampered with or altered, but rather cherished and taught as given by God himself.
Perhaps this seems so self- evidently true that you wonder what the fuss is about. However, this has been the perennial problem of the church: in every age there have been those who would alter the message in one way or another to make it more attractive or palatable to their generation. So the Gnostics in the second century presented a Christ who was not human at all and Arius in the fourth century offered a Jesus who was not quite God. The church then, and in every age thereafter, has had to fight hard to preserve and protect its great treasure.
Today is no different. Great forces within the church have campaigned for generations to modify the gospel message to accommodate a modern mindset. Using the same words and categories the church has always used, but changing the content and meaning of those words, the message has been altered so significantly in some circles that it is hard to say that the result is not an alternative religion. It looks like the Christian faith, sounds like the Christian faith, but it is not. The great American theologian Richard Niebuhr captured this when he spoke of what he saw all around him in the 1930s, a religion in which, under the banner of Christianity, was really “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” (Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America)
Even more, today the drive is toward something called “theological pluralism”, the idea that there is no one right way to tell the story, but many, and that our role should be tolerance of all. This, though, is perhaps the most dangerous and insidious of all heresies. It makes the gospel message as given by Christ to the apostles only one of several options. In so doing it is disloyal to Christ, misrepresenting the one who is “The Way, the Truth and the Life” and whose way we are to follow, whose truth we are to accept, and whose life we are to embrace. Moreover, it is terribly disloyal to the world around us for to have the truth about God, the world, and humankind but to refuse to offer it as such in the name of “tolerance” or “pluralism” is a true betrayal of humanity.
Every form of reshaping God or his gospel message to accommodate an age or culture is no less than the creation of God by man, a shaping of God in our own image. And that is idolatry.
Perhaps we feel that the task to preserve and protect the gospel is rightly the role of church leaders (in the early church it was the primary role of bishops). Actually, though, it is the role of every Christian: to learn the gospel as delivered to the apostles, live it and teach it, cherish it and teach others to cherish it, and defend it against all ersatz gospels. This has been symbolized historically in the sacrament of baptism itself where, in the early church, those to be baptized were first handed the Apostle’s Creed to memorize, then asked to repeat and affirm it at their baptism:
“one by one at their baptism, in a form of words called the Creed, and which has come down to them in that very form from the first ages. This is what even the humblest member of the church may and must contend for.” (John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, p 391)
This task must not be seen as onerous but as a high calling and a grand entrustment. It should be our pleasure to guard and protect God’s great gift of the gospel to humanity, for God’s sake and humanity’s. Nor is it even difficult, except that it may be unpopular:
“Blessed be God! We have not to find the truth, it is put in our hands; we have but to commit it to our hearts, to preserve it inviolate and to deliver it over to our posterity!” (John Henry Newman)
Fred Durham is the President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.