Didache Blog Tour – Day Nine: The Creeds

Didache Blog Tour – Day Nine: The Creeds December 11, 2009

Dwight Friesen has attempted to answer the compelling and important question,

Does the Didache teach or advise anything that substantively differs from what was decided at the earliest ecumenical church councils (such as Nicaea)?

In The Teaching of the Twelve: Beleiving and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community, I make a lot of how much the Didache is like the synoptic Gospels, and how little it resembles the Fourth Gospel, Paul, even more so, those who established the ecclecial hierarchy, like Ignatius.  I date the Didache early (AD 50-70) — we can talk about that more here if we need to.  But the point is that the Didache was seemingly unfamiliar with the writings of Paul.

So, the question this raises for me is, if the Didache portrays a different version of Christian faith than the early church councils, were the Councils overly Pauline in their perspective?

Dwight writes,

While the Didache is a one of our earliest glimpses into the practical life of primitive Christians; a glimpse into how the people gathering together in Christ and seeking to live in the way of Jesus actually engaged culture, economics, community, and ritual etc. it is striking at how little doctrine it presents.  While just the opposite could be said of the Creed born of our First Church Council at Nicæa (325) . . . in the document out of Nicæa we have a fairly clear confession of beliefs with no practices or rituals.

This to me is the primary difference between the two documents.  One is concerned with how we should live, the other what we confess.

You can go to Dwight’s blog to read his conclusion.

Online Resources:

Previously: Adam, Thomas, and me on chapter one. Amy, Ted, and me on chapter three.  Holly, Tripp, and me on chapter four.  Mike and me on chapter five.  Brother Maynard and me on chapter six.  Mike, Greg, and me on chapter seven.  Luke and me on the epilogue.  Jonathan and me on the importance of the Didache.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Aaron

    Overly Pauline? Would that also mean that you would think that the council was “overly biblical”? I mean the writings of the Apostle Paul are cannon… and the Didache, well, it isn’t.

  • Didache, the writings of Paul and the Nicene Creed are three very different kinds of documents written for two very different kinds of purposes.

    Didache really is sort of “practical instruction,” a sort of “manual for catechesis” followed by basic guidance for the life of the community that was using it. It’s an “internal” or “community” document. It’s a witness to how those folks then and there were ordering their lives, or at least how they hoped they might.

    Paul’s letters are written to established congregations across Asia Minor and the northern side of the Mediterranean (Greek and Roman contexts, primarily). It looks like Paul had a hand in establishing maybe three or four of these (Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi and Thessalonica). They’re also not seeking to establish doctrine once and for all, but rather to help each of these communities, whether he founded them or has some other relationship to them, connect to the “core” of their lives in Christ in their contexts (which were very, very different from each other!) as he thought they needed to, or in response to questions they were asking. From Paul we get one side of a dialog between him and these churches in those places, and occasionally a hint or two of the other side.

    The differences among these communities and contexts cannot be understated. Christianity WAS different in form and how it taught and acted from place to place. There were common elements, but there was much, much difference, much “indigenous adaptation” and even innovation.

    Those differences– not necessarily seen as problematic, but still real– were what lay behind the “drive to a common creed.” It would be wrong to describe the Nicene Creed (381, so really Constantinapolitan) as a “definitive statement of the doctrine of faith.” It wasn’t. It was by design a CONSENSUS statement that represented what nearly everyone could say. And what everyone could say didn’t come from ONE group’s platform (though it did exclude the Arians!), but rather represented the “emergent” core that could be discerned among the mainstream of the churches. It that way it’s function was as a “strong center,” not an “outer limit” or “boundary” for Christian communities.

    It’s not like Christianity suddenly shifted it’s focus from practice to doctrine here. That misses the point. It’s that there is ALSO an important value in having the praxis grounded in a common center that enlivens it (and that it can enliven!) everywhere.

    And re: Canon? There was no actual agreed upon canon of scripture among these churches at Nicea (325) or even at Constantinople (381). There appears to have been some general practical consensus– but by no means uniformity– with a list ascribed to Athanasius dating to about 367. But there actually continued to be fairly wide variation in the local or diocesan “canon books” until well into the ninth century, with Didache actually remaining IN some of these books in a number of places in Egypt and North Africa at least as late as the 8th century.

    Finally, why hadn’t the Didache community heard of Paul? Paul Voobus remarks on that in his volume on Didache from about 30 years ago. I’d say look where Paul was– mostly in the “diaspora” world. And look where the Didache community was– probably Syria. Bottom line, Paul wasn’t doing his thing (starting new communities and encouraging others) all that much where they were. so their thing– being a Christian community following their rule of life– so Paul’s thing and their thing probably just didn’t intersect all that much.

  • Aaron

    You assume with your comments that the canon was not authoritative until it was declared as canon by the council. That is verging on heretical. The writings were obviously held as authoritative when they were written or they would not have been read or distributed.

    The author’s lack of knowledge about the contemporary writings of Paul say nothing about their authority. Afterall there was no internet or gas-powered engines to get people around sufficiently. And there is much about the world at the time we know nothing about.

    It is interesting to me that this discussion has the shadow of denying the authority of the Bible. I wonder what that is all about.

  • Dan Hauge

    There seems to be a recurring theme that, because the Didache does not engage in extended doctrinal discussion, that means that it represents a Christianity that is not at all interested in doctrine (contrasting it with the increasingly nefarious Paul, who evidently ruined Christianity by introducing all of these esoteric statements of belief). I generally like Taylor’s summation of the issues–these are documents that not only represent different churches (and therefore different forms of Christianity), they are also different kinds of documents altogether. While I agree it is extremely valuable to look at the kind of communal life and practice that the Didache represents, it seems to me a bit overstating the case to insist that the community represented by the Didache had no interest in understanding what they believed about Jesus (though it’s certainly possible that they didn’t).

  • Aaron,

    Assuming your comment is for me, let me assure you I have zero interest in undermining biblical authority. At the same time I have great interest in presenting church history as it was. And the reality is there was no one “canon,” no one “rule” across the whole of the church about which texts would be considered finally authoritative in the fourth or even ninth century. There was a fairly common set of practices (that is, comparing the canon books across time and place, you can see plenty of convergence), but there was some divergence as well. Canonization through all this period was more a process that settled out over time than a single authoritative list. By the time you actually get to “final, single authoritative lists” in the West (1546, Council of Trent, Roman Catholic; 1563, Church of England) the “convergence” had in practice been complete probably for a good five centuries or more.

  • Don,

    Just to be clear, I’m not arguing that the Didache community didn’t have any interest in stating its beliefs in some way. What I’m arguing is that Didache itself, as a document, doesn’t move in that direction primarily. It’s not trying to. That doesn’t mean THEY didn’t. It just means that since what we know about this community is pretty well limited to what we read in Didache, we don’t have much idea one way or the other exactly what their doctrinal formulations would have looked like.

    But frankly, that’s something we can say for lots of Christian communities in this period.

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

  • Aaron


    My comment was for you. Here is the thing: you imply that the “rule” was developed by human beings. If that is so then the canon has no authority above what those humans did.

    It is God who has made the Bible authoritative. The councils simply acknowledged that authority in their decision. Folks like Bart Ehrman would have us believe that the “rule” of the “canon” came down to a vote. Well, in some ways that is true, but it was a vote on what those in attendance decided together to be part of the cohesive story of our faith.

    Let me state it again, and very clearly: the Bible is authoritative because God made it that way, not because of any human decision.

    There are reasons that the Didache is not in the Bible, and when we begin to consider that it may have been left out because a few people decided to vote against it, well I am not sure that it leaves much to be said about the Bible’s authority.

    The lists are helpful, and the official decision by the councils were meaningful, but they were also responsive to what was already held by orthodox Christians. If canonization was the first and last word, then why would the epistles and the four gospels have any authority until that decision was made?

    Grace and Peace to you in our Lord Jesus Christ.

  • Aaron,

    Perhaps we should consider taking this conversation off the blog. It may be a bit off-topic relative to Tony’s post. And this is HIS blog!

    You may email me personally at burtonedwards at gmail dot com. I’d be glad to continue to discuss this with you. I just don’t think that discussion belongs here.

    Peace in Christ,
    Taylor Burton-Edwards

  • Aaron

    I am happy to talk further… but I do think that it directly relates to the content of Tony’s post. His question was “were the Councils overly Pauline in their perspective?” which is a question directly about the authority of the Pauline epistles. I think that when he asks the question he says that he is concerned that the council is “too biblical.” So the concept of canonization and the authority of Scripture is most certainly an issue directly related to his question.

  • Dan Hauge


    I feel I did receive your point pretty well, and I agree with you. My comment wasn’t directed toward you so much as it was responding to an admittedly vague sense of subtext I see in some of Tony’s writings and other bloggers on this topic. There seems to be a desire to posit a very strong dichotomy between ‘believing doctrines’ and ‘living for Jesus’ in the emergent blogosphere, and I believe your initial comment did a good job of moderating that tendency.

  • Aaron,


    We can talk separately, too, about God/church/scriptures/canon if you like.

    But what I think is relevant here is that asking whether something like the Nicene Creed may be overly influenced by one particular voice in scripture (Paul) is not the same, at all, as questioning biblical authority per se.

    The collection of voices by the name of John in the NT, for example, has a different sort of emphasis, tenor and feel than Paul, or Luke for that matter (in Luke-Acts). So there is diversity even here– very real diversity. In deciding that the attempt to create just one continuous gospel narrative out the of four distinct narratives we actually have (the Diatessaron), the decision of the church was that this was both not helpful and potentially heretical. In other words, the church understood that there was deep value in having differing perspectives about the life and ministry of Jesus presented together, in their distinctiveness, as canon (this as early as 170 AD).

    So asking whether something may be too Pauline isn’t asking whether it is too biblical. It’s just asking whether perhaps one voice may have dominated others, ALL of which are considered authoritative.

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

  • Brandon

    I appreciate both of your knowledge on this and enjoyed reading this too. I wonder, and with fear and trembling, if the councils were too pauline. I know it sounds terrible aaron, but what if the councils were influenced by other people that they agreed with in their immeadiate area? What if it was a human decision? I mean, I know it was, whether influenced by God or not, but what if there should be some other so called “authoritative books” in the cannon. What if they messed up what God intended just like the rest of us do every day? Does the gospel need or God need ONE AUTHORITATIVE AND SUPREME book, or is God bigger. Because if he does then i wish jesus would’ve just written it and saved us the trouble. Just questions and some of my thoughts, please don’t think i’m a heretic:)

  • Aaron

    It may be appropriate for both of you, Taylor and Brandon, to do some honest research on how the canon was derived, and what criteria were used. It may in some ways appear to have been a human decision, where your and Tony’s critique about it being “too Pauline” may have merit.

    However, if you read good scholarship (not Ehrman’s camp) then you may be surprised how lacking it was in “feeling” or “opinion” and how solid the decision was made based on the documents themselves.

    Grace and Peace to you.

  • Brandon

    Are you serious? You think these questions are because i haven’t studied enough. These questions come from studying this stuff and realizing that all the answers just aren’t out there. Somewhere or another it comes down to faith. I can’t just study myself into proving the authority of scripture, or better yet proving that scripture alone is authoritative.

  • Aaron

    I’m sorry… that was not meant to be a comment to suggest that you are ignorant. I was merely commenting that there are may versions of what happened at Nicea running around. There was much to be said about the scholarship of those texts and the reliability of the eye-witness accounts that were accepted as biblical canon. Other impressions of the account suggest that it was fully a human decision and that it all just came down to a vote of conscious.

    I apologize for my offense. Please forgive me for that accusation.

  • Brandon

    no offense taken, all is forgiven, i understand your point on the different sides (welcome to post modernity), I’m just saying that there is no amount of scholarship that can prove the authority of scripture, whether the decision was inspired by God, or any of that. I know the history of the councils, and the opposing sides, but even if we were there, i don’t know if we could know whether or not these people were really after God’s will. Only by faith.

  • Jane Smith

    Tony says: “This to me is the primary difference between the two documents. One [the Didache] is concerned with how we should live, the other [the Nicene Creed] what we confess.”

    Surely what we confess will have a direct influence on how we live? And if it doesn’t, do we really believe what we confess to believing?

    I suspect the answer is very often “no”, which is why so many of us “Christians” (whatever that means) come across as hollow and insincere.

    There is also another issue here which, as far as I can see, is seldom acknowledged in any Christian circle. The authors of the Didache, like Jesus himself, clearly thought that the end times were at hand. The fact is that Jesus was wrong. The Kingdom of God did not come in his lifetime, or in the lifetime of his disciples and followers.

    This doesn’t make Jesus not worthy of our commitment and love: it adds to the poignancy of the man and his message.


  • Pingback: council of nicaea()

  • Pingback: Genesis: Just a Bunch of Stories? « A Great Work()