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Creed (Part II) – Correct Belief and Correct Behaviour [C1]

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Part Two: Correct Belief (orthodoxy) & Correct Behaviour (orthopraxy) in the Early Church

In the history of the early Church, perhaps no story illustrates this connection better than the martyrdom of Saint Perpetua and St Felicity, saints mentioned in Eucharistic Prayer No. 1, otherwise known as the Roman Canon.

Sacra Conversazione Mary with the Child, St Felicity of Carthage and St Perpetua

In the Passion of Sts Perpetua and Felicity, we are introduced to this 3rd century pair living in the Roman province of Carthage, present day North Africa. Perpetua was a noble woman and Felicity was her slave. During the reign of Roman Emperor Septimus Severus, a decree was issued banning conversions to Christianity. In Carthage, a local persecution of Christians had broken out in the province and the Proconsul had ordered all his subjects to offer incense to the image of the Emperor as an act of ritual worship.

In the cartoon retelling, inspired by the Passion, Perpetua was asked to offer a pinch of incense to the image of the Emperor by the Proconsul. Her father attempted to persuade her “It’s all very simple my child, one simple pinch of incense, you don’t even have to mean it.” Perpetua refused. Her father should have known that this was not possible. Before this incident, Perpetua has declared to her Father,

'Do you see this vase here, for example, or water pot or whatever?'

'Yes, I do', said he.

And I told him: 'Could it be called by any other name than what it is?'

And he said: 'No.'

'Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.”

Earlier on, Perpetua’s father blames the slave Felicity for corrupting her daughter with this religion and demanded that she be separated from her. Perpetua refused, declaring to her Father “she is not my slave. She is my sister!” alluding to Paul’s letter to the Philemon 1:15-16 “Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother.” As far as Perpetua is concerned, all have been ‘baptised into Christ and clothed with Christ” (Gal 3:27), and her attitude scandalises her father’s sensibilities in the process.

Both Perpetua and Felicity were remembered by the early Christians for their martyrdom. Contemporary scholars note that religious confession aside, the story of the saint’s martyrdom was also a radical example of the living out of what we would today consider “progressive” ideals.* Perpetua took the doctrine of spiritual equality seriously and broke through the class barrier, embracing Felicity as an equal. She herself did not simply obey her father, as women were supposed to do in ancient Rome, but exhibited an independence of mind by deciding to become a Christian. If we admire her “correct behaviour”, it would necessarily flow from her “correct belief”, in the Confession that there is only One God, (hence the Emperor is not God), and that because she believed in the Resurrection of the Body, her martyrdom will ultimately not be in vain.

* (The word “progressive” is used in a similar way to how it is used in the Singapore National Pledge, i.e. the virtue of being forward looking and seeking to be ahead of our time. In the case of St. Perpetua, she was ahead of her time in terms of discerning what it means to uphold the dignity of every human person made in the image and likeness of God. She had correct belief, which shone forth in correct behaviour. This is contrasted with the nebulous or euphemistic use of the word “progressive” in modern times, which is often based on incorrect or relativistic belief, and which in turn gives rise to incorrect behaviour.)

Part Three: Correct Belief (orthodoxy) only for Correct Behaviour (orthopraxy)?

At this point, there might be suspicion that orthodoxy is necessary only in so far as it ensures orthopraxy. This cannot be farther from the truth. Love of truth is inseparable from love of God. If truth is desired for the sake of truth itself, even more so truths about God. As St. Thomas Aquinas himself said, the articles of faith are truth-bearing because they are related to the First Truth that is God [Summa Theologica II-II, 1.1.], hence calling Sacred Doctrine “wisdom above all human wisdom” [Summa Theologica I, 1.6].

The creed also reflects God himself; many have found God’s own beauty in contemplating the creed. Saint John of the Cross puts this poetically by using the imagery of the mirror (“silvered surface”) as articles of faith through which we see, as it were, the gaze of Christ himself.

As the commentary to his Spiritual Canticle 12:5 notes “Faith, as we mentioned, proposes these truths to us in its covered and inexplicit articles. The soul, in other words, says: Oh, if only the truths hidden in your articles, which you teach me in an inexplicit and dark manner, you would give me now completely, clearly, and explicitly, freed of their covering, as my desire begs!”

Conclusion: Creed or Chaos: The Whirling Adventure of Orthodoxy

If you have listened this far, then you would have been following how it would be not only impossible for a Christian to downplay the Creed in favour of a more “practical” Christianity. It is not only impossible, but boring. It is the articles of the Creed which makes for the dynamism of the Catholic religion, and the sure signpost pointing the way to the person of Jesus Christ. We may do well to consider the words of two famous British Christian writers in the early 20th century, G.K Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers. Their words are worth quoting in full.

People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy… It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic… She [the Church] swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles…. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable…

It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob…To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.”

G.K Chesterton, Chapter 6, “The Paradoxes of Christianity” in Orthodoxy

First Council of Nicea by V.Surikov (1876-7)

Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as a bad press. We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine—dull dogma as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama.

It is the dogma that is the drama—not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death—but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world, lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that man might be glad to believe.

Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos? [1]

May the testimony of the Bible, and the examples of the Saints inspire you to confess Jesus Christ with Courage. How will that look like as a Singaporean Christian? Tune in next month as we dive into the letter “D” for discipleship. Let us pray.

Closing Prayer – Lead Kindly Light by St John Henry Newman

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still

Will lead me on.

O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till

The night is gone,

And with the morn those angel faces smile,

Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

Recommended Closing Song

Recommended Readings

Frank Sheed, Theology and Sanity


© Presented by the Catholic Theology Network (writers / contributors / sound): Nick Chui (MTS, JPII Institute for Marriage and Family, AU), Dominic Chan (M.A., Theology, Augustine Institute), Keenan Tan (M.A., Theology, Augustine Institute), Debra Dass (Diploma in Theology, CTIS), Marcia Vanderstraaten (Diploma in Theology, CTIS); publicity & design: Chandra Nugraha.

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