Creeds: Generosity

28 November 2010

I need to say thank you to my good friends Dr. Steve Lewis and Joe Anderson, whose discussion and friendly disagreement over the use and meaning of the creeds inspired me to think more deeply and more clearly about these issues than I ever had in the past.  I’m grateful to you both.

In our theological community, nitpicking is considered the acme of theological skill.  I honed the skill from a very early age; I’m one of the heirs of a particular strain of southern fundamentalism, so I was raised to it.  I can, in all modesty, nitpick with the best of ’em.   To be honest, the skill has served me very well in certain contexts.  It’s important at times to be exact, say what you mean to say, no more and no less, and to hear everything that others are saying — or, even more importantly, to hear what they’re not saying.

But…

But there are other times when it’s a weakness.  It can be a real problem when we’re trying to obey Ephesians 4:3 with living people, and I’ll save that discussion for another time.  But the trouble it causes the living doesn’t even hold a candle to the trouble it causes us when we’re dealing with the dead.  We read every historical formulation as though it were written yesterday, and criticize it for all the things it doesn’t say, all the things it says differently than we would say them.  We do not pay attention to the vital historical context in which the creeds were written, and therefore we do not notice the victories our fathers achieved.

What we ought to do is ask a different question.  Not, “Would I say it like this?” but “Did they succeed at addressing the problem before them in their day (not, notice, the problem before me, now)?”

For example, “Eternally begotten of the Father” in the Nicene Creed is hard to prove.  In Scripture, begetting seems to be discussed in the context of the Incarnation, and it’s not exegetically clear that it applies to the preincarnate Christ.  But what was the context?  The Nicene fathers were at war with the heresy of Arius, who said that Christ was not eternal, but “There was a time when He was not.”  “Eternally begotten of the Father” was the Nicene fathers’ way of clearly, unequivocally saying that the Arian claim was a lie.  For the need of the hour, it was a most effective tactic, imperfect as it may seem to us from our present vantage.  (Do you think you have a better solution to the problem?  Let’s say you’re right — so what?  Who couldn’t come up with a better answer, given a millennium and a half to think about it?  But the Nicene fathers didn’t have a millennium and a half.  Arius had to be refuted then; the sheep God committed to their care needed a solution then.)

Why did it matter?  As with all the early Christological controversies, what was at stake was nothing less than the very essence of the Christian faith: the promise that human beings can be partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4).  Jesus is the paradigm case: He shows that it is possible for full deity to really meet full humanity.  If His deity is diminished (as Arius would have had it) then what we struggling, sinful men partake of is not really the divine nature, but something less.  And if His humanity is diminished, then it is not possible for real human beings to partake of the divine nature — which is to say that we go over the same cliff by a different path.

Believe it or not, we get “mother of God” (Theotokos if you prefer the Greek) in the Definition of Chalcedon in similar fashion, as a refutation of Nestorius, who was perfectly happy to say that Mary was the mother of Jesus, but would not say that she was the mother of Christ.  For Nestorius, “Christ” meant both the man Jesus and the divine Word, come together in one, and he would not affirm that the divine Word had a mother.  The fathers took this (correctly, I might add) as a flat denial of John 1:14, and a serious threat to the theological underpinnings of the promise of 2 Pet. 1:4.  As a result, they adopted the verbiage “mother of God” to unequivocally deny the errors of Nestorius — and it worked, beautifully.  They were defending the truth that Jesus is undiminished deity and undiminished humanity.  They succeeded; we reap the benefits of their success–and make no mistake, “mother of God” was the instrument of their success.

Can we improve upon the wording of the Nicene Creed, or the Definition of Chalcedon?  Perhaps so.  Ought we to evaluate them as though it were written last Tuesday by some evangelical pastor in Tucson?  Of course not.  What we ought to do is read them as a stunning and hard-won refutation of a pernicious heresy.  We ought to say them as celebrations of victory — they are the particular formulations by which, once upon a time, the core truths of the faith once delivered to all the saints were preserved so that we might hear them now.   The men who wrote them are our people, members of Christ’s church and part of the same Body in which we now find salvation; we are their brothers-in-arms, their spiritual children and heirs.

We ought to be generous enough with them not to subject their words to tests they weren’t designed to meet.  Nor should we Monday-morning quarterback them, as if they ought to have been omniscient and foreseen the loopholes that later generations found in their words, or the abuses to which their words were later put.  It is enough to ask of them that they handled — often heroically — the problems of their own day.  It is far too much to ask that they would also have anticipated ours; that’s our job, not theirs.  “Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.”

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Creeds: Harmony and Unison

21 November 2010

As we saw in a preceding post, when the language of the Creed is biblical, we are not free to abandon it, even if the framers of the creed — or later users of it — would not understand that language in the same way we do.  We are not free to shy away from the way the Bible talks about things.

So what do we do?  Isn’t it dishonest to recite the Creed knowing that we don’t mean the same thing as some others do when they say the same words?

Two issues here: First of all, how come this kind of thing always seems to only work one way?  How come it’s me being dishonest, and not them?  Especially since — from where I’m standing, at least — I mean what Scripture means by it, and they don’t.  Hardly seems right.  How about this: I am honestly employing the language of Scripture, and they are betraying their principles by unlawfully importing to the biblical expressions meanings that God did not intend?

Second, and more important, we can disagree and still be one.  Christ only has one Body.  What actually unifies us is not our doctrinal statements, nor our creeds, but our common participation in Christ.  A difference on whether Christ descended into hellfire after His death simply isn’t enough to trump our common participation in Christ.  You can’t undo the cross with a pen and a sheet of paper.

Or to say it in the old way: We believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  We believe in the communion of saints.  Or in the even older way: “There is one Body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling: one Lord, one faith, one baptism; One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”

When I go to, say, a GES conference, I find myself sharing an auditorium with many people with whom I disagree quite seriously, some of whom I would never allow to speak to a flock for which I am responsible.  In other circumstances, I find myself sharing a classroom or even a pulpit with someone I seriously disagree with.  And yet, we fellowship and worship together.  I recently became involved with a prayer effort in my community that puts me on the same team with a very broad range of folks.  And yet, we will continue to pray together.  Why?  Because Christ has united us.  They are my people, even if I don’t like it (I do, actually, but my likes and dislikes are irrelevant).

If a pen and paper can’t undo the work of the cross, neither can a clock or a calendar.

Back in 650 or 700, there were Christians.  Christ was building His church.  The gates of Hades were not prevailing against it.  These people said the Creed, and by those words they were expressing their belief in Jesus, the same Jesus I believe in.  They were joined to Him who is my Head; they were members of the Body in which I am also a member.  They still are; when I ascend the heavenly Zion on Sunday morning to worship before the mercy seat of the heavenly tabernacle, they are the “spirits of just men made perfect” about whom the author of Hebrews writes. I was baptized into the same Christ as they; I eat of the same bread, drink of the same wine, worship on the same holy mountain.  They were, and they are, my people, and if I cannot speak in unison with them on everything, I can still speak in harmony.

When I say the Creed, I am not trying to paper over the differences between us.  But I am claiming continuity with them.  I am in their debt, and I am grateful.  The Creed is their gift to me; they formulated it, spoke it, preserved it for me, and here it is: an adept summary of the Faith once delivered to all the saints, articulated as best they understood it, given to me, although I have done nothing to deserve or earn it.

They are my people.  When I say their creed, I am saying that I am in harmony with them, and because of that harmony, it is my creed too.


Creeds: Wording

14 November 2010

It’s important, when reading a historical document, to understand what the authors mean by what they say.  Corollary to this, it’s dishonest to pretend that their words mean something they did not intend.

For example, Lewis Sperry Chafer always maintained that he believed in the perseverance of the saints.  But what he meant by “perseverance of the saints” was that the saints would persevere in being saints, which is to say, eternal security.  This is mildly dishonest, because the terminology “perseverance of the saints” goes back to the Canons of Dordt, which definitely did not mean only eternal security; they meant that the saints will persevere in acting like saints.

It would have been more honest for Dr. Chafer to simply say that he didn’t believe in the perseverance of the saints, but he did believe in eternal security.

When the wording in question is biblical, however, we do not have the option of simply abandoning it.

For example, take “He descended into hell” in the Apostles’ Creed.  Arguably, that wording, when first introduced in the Latin version of the Creed, meant no more than that Jesus went where dead people go.  They used the word “Infernus,” which repeatedly appears in the Vulgate as a translation of “Sheol,” the Hebrew term.  In the Hebrew cosmology,  all the dead go to Sheol — some to Abraham’s bosom, and some to torment, to be sure.  But Sheol was all of it.  That is, apparently, within the semantic range of “Infernus.”  (The Greek OT translated “Sheol” as “Hades” with similar connotations.)

Note that I said “arguably” above.  Later, in the middle ages, many Christians taught that after dying on the cross, Jesus spent three days in hellfire suffering for the sins of the world before He was raised from the dead.  There is some argument as to what the original framers of the phrase in the creed actually meant by it — just that Jesus really died, and really went where dead people go, or that Jesus suffered the flames of hell to really pay for our sin after He said “It is finished.”  Turns out, “Infernus” can mean either the place of the dead generally, or the place where bad people go to suffer for their sins.

So what does one do with the creed?  When I say it, I say “He descended into Hades” rather than “He descended into hell” because the English word “hell” has connotations of suffering for sin, which is the meaning I don’t endorse.  But many of my conservative brethren would ask: With that ambiguity in play, why would I be willing to say that phrase at all?

We cannot simply abandon “He descended into Hades” for the very good reason that it’s true.  Scripture speaks of the death of Jesus in just that way, albeit obliquely (Acts 2:31).  To say “He did not descend into Hades” is to say that He did not go where dead people go — which is to depart from Scripture, and the Christian faith.  We just can’t say that.

So we say the creed, and when we say the words “He descended into Hades” we know that some of the people who have said those words do not mean what we mean by them.  In fact, the people involved in framing that part of the creed may not have meant what we mean by it.  However, they would have justified the language by appeal to Acts 2:31, just like I would, and Acts 2:31 ultimately does not mean what they mean by it; it means what God means by it.  I affirm the biblical language wholeheartedly, and to the best of my understanding, I mean what God meant by it.


Every Common Bush

15 June 2010

From Aurora Leigh, book seven, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes:
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries…

It’s not Christian haiku, especially not in its looooong context.  But it ought to be.


Desert Island Reading

17 August 2008

If you had to be stuck on a desert island for [life, ten years, or some other long period of time], what books would you want with you?”

It’s a common thought experiment, and usually the occasion of much consideration and discussion. If you hang out with the more passionate readers, as I often do, it will also be the occasion of heated debate. Yesterday, I happened upon an interesting twist on it, and I’d like to share it.

So get out your pen and paper, and here we go.

No, seriously, get out a pen and paper. (Or open a Word document, or whatever). You’ll thank me later.

The challenge is to answer the standard question, as stated above, but with two additional conditions. First, all your physical needs are taken care of, so assume you have no pragmatic need for medical texts, homesteading reference books, etc. This is strictly life-of-the-mind stuff. (Of course, if you enjoy reading medical texts, that’s another thing…) Second, you have only two minutes to answer, starting right now.

Go. Tick tock.

Done? Good. I’d love to hear your list. This was mine: Read the rest of this entry »


Latin in a Week: The Review

3 August 2008

A week ago, most of the Latin I knew could be found on the back of a dime.

Okay, that’s a slight understatement. I had the usual collection of Latin expressions that one picks up: carpe diem, cogito ergo sum, quid pro quo, et cetera. I also had several of the slightly more arcane ones that you pick up in an academic setting (id est, ad hominem, post hoc ergo prompter hoc) and in other weird places I hang out (carpe noctem, aut pax aut bellum, nemo me impune lacessit). But that aside, I didn’t know beans about Latin.

Enter Veritas Press, at which one can evidently find staffers crazy enough to think it possible to teach Latin in a single week. I found out about this a week ago Thursday, signed up Friday morning, bought a textbook Friday afternoon, and enjoyed a restful weekend, because the class would start the following Monday. Iacta alea fuit.

We finished yesterday (Friday). It was great.

Everything about it was great: the textbook, the teacher, the online delivery system, and the company I got to keep as a student. The only little, tiny drawback was the fact that the class ran from 8 am to 4 pm, Eastern time. That means 5 am to 1 pm out here, and rolling out of bed at 4:45 am to study Latin was imperfectly blissful. My wife wasn’t a fan of the alarm going off that early, either. (But when I offered to sleep on the couch she gave me a speech about how she was willing to sacrifice a little sleep so that I could learn Latin — what a woman!)

But on with the review. First, the textbook. Written as GIs swelled the Read the rest of this entry »


John Donne on Suffering

15 June 2008

I recently renewed my acquaintance with John Donne’s Devotions, an outstanding work I first met as a senior in high school. As it always does, the closing passage from Meditation XVII really struck me.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

(The bold emphasis is mine.)