There is a much beloved story (passed down from Polycarp to Irenaeus to us) about St. John the Apostle. According to the story, John, the Apostle of love, was inside a Roman bath house getting cleansed, as was the custom of his day. However, through the hot steam he suddenly realized that the heretic Cerinthus was sitting just across the room. John immediately jumped up and fled the bathhouse, explaining that Cerinthus was inside and he didn’t want to be killed when the building collapsed under the righteous judgment of God! Why such a strong reaction? Cerinthus was one of the gospel’s chief opponents. He was like a first century version of Bart Ehrman… wildly popular, followed by many, but in a few decades will be virtually forgotten. In contrast, St. John is still with us, still faithfully contending for the gospel. In fact, many scholars believe that several of John’s epistles were written in direct response to the teaching of the Gnostic Cerinthus. Cerinthus couldn’t accept the deity of Jesus Christ or the Resurrection. John was a man transformed by Easter. Jesus Christ is Risen! That was the faith of John. That was the faith of the Apostles. That was the faith of the early church. That is the faith of all Christians everywhere.
Why did John flee the bathhouse? He fled because Cerinthus had parted from what, even in John’s day, was already the great received tradition of the gospel. In other words, the gospel is not merely a matter of personal interpretation so that one person’s view is just as valid as the next person’s view. This is why Paul admonishes the Galatian Christians so strongly, saying: “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:10). This is why Paul tells Timothy, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful ones who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2).” This is why Jude admonishes us to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
When pastors or other church leaders deny core doctrines of the Christian faith, it is not merely some personal affront. My personal views on such matters are, quite frankly, irrelevant, but we should all take very seriously any attack on the received tradition of the church. There are, of course, dozens of things we disagree about as the church, but amazingly, we don’t disagree about Christianity per se. We have innumerable “in house” debates about the proper mode of baptism or whether or not Spirit-filled Christians should speak in tongues. We disagree about pre-destination and the precise way in which the Lord is present at the Eucharist, but none of these matters are central matters of faith. None of the disagreements appear in the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed. Someone pointing out that Christians disagree about things is a very different thing than saying that Christians cannot come to a solid agreement about what Christianity is. Precisely the opposite is true. Despite the amazing diversity of languages and cultures the church shares a common confession about Jesus Christ and the gospel. We are receivers of a tradition, not the inventors of it. There will be no end to the steady march of Cerinthus’ who rise up in each generation, but never forget, if we hold fast to the gospel we can be confident we will be vindicated.
Jesus Christ is Risen! Let us keep the feast!