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Median Christianity vs. Mediocre Christianity, pt. 4: Conclusions

Note: This is the final part of my discussion of Median Christianity vs. Mediocre Christianity. For context, see parts 12, and 3. I apologize that this post is long, but I wanted to be precise in my treatment of the subject and in my conclusions.

The Task at Hand

My goal in this discussion has been to find a creed/confession that all true Christians can wholeheartedly give assent to. I am not interested in finding a formula that non-Christians cannot affirm, because such a creed will, I believe, be used by some Christians to exclude other Christians who simply believe differently in certain inessential areas. In the same way, I am not interested in constructing a rule of faith, but rather in formulating universal Christian beliefs; think of this task more as descriptive theology than prescriptive theology. My goal is to have a formula that every Christian can say without reservation, thus providing a tool to unify the Church. To that end, I will survey the confessions of the first 350 or so years of the Church, establish some criteria by which to judge them, and come to a conclusion about what I think should be the universal Christian Creed.

Survey of Ancient Confessions Through the Fourth Century CE

I begin my survey of ancient Christian confessions with what is, according to Oscar Cullmann, the oldest Christian confession: [1]

“Christ is Lord.”

Second, a sample of confessional material from the 50’s and 60’s CE, as collected from Paul. (For the complete list of Paul’s — and others’ — citations, see part 3 of this series.)

“Who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 1:3b-4)

“[We] are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom 3:24-26)

“That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (1 Cor 15:3b-5)

“In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor 5:19)

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” (Gal 3:13)

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:27-28)

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Gal 4:4-5)

The confessions that Paul cites, it is worth noting, originally come from a devotional/liturgical setting and have Jesus, rather than the Father, as their primary focus. They were not meant to convey precise truths about Jesus, but instead were meant to inspire devotion to him. Two prime examples of this phenomenon are Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 1:15-20, both of which are quite florid but imprecise. [2]

By the late second century CE, the Apostles’ Creed was formulated:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.

Whereas Paul’s confessions were pre-biblical, the Apostles’ Creed is (obviously enough) post-Biblical. That is to say, while the confessions that Paul cites had their basis in the earliest Christian tradition, the Apostles’ Creed has its basis in what is now known as the NT canon. For instance, it incorporates “who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate” from the Gospels and “he descended into hell” from Paul.

In 325 CE, the Nicene Creed was written…

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father; the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made, both in heaven and on earth; Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

And in the Holy Ghost.

…followed shortly thereafter, in 381, by the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (what the Book of Common Prayer and the Lutheran Book of Worshiphave listed as “the Nicene Creed”).

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Notice how much more theological flourish is in the latter creed when compared with the former. [3] Most interestingly, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed goes into much more detail about the nature of the Holy Spirit than any of the other creeds, and it includes an affirmation of Christ’s eternal generation. It is also interesting that, while the teaching about the Spirit is expanded quite significantly through the Apostles’, Nicene, and Niceno-Constantinopolitan creeds, the teaching about the Father remains more or less identical through them.

Having surveyed the development of the first few creeds of ancient Christendom, I will now make an assessment of the validity of each of them for assessing true Christianity today.

Assessment of the Ancient Confessions

I propose three different criteria for assessing these ancient confessions for use today. First, I give priority to the older formulations, because the older confessions are not as tainted by theological struggle. Second, non-devotional creeds are better than devotional ones, because a non-devotional creed will be more precise in its wording (cf. my discussion of the Pauline confessions above). Finally, the better creeds are those that are accurate in their treatment of the whole Bible and that do not include inessential doctrine. [4]

To begin, let’s examine the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed according to these criteria. While it is certainly very specific in its language, gaining it points under criterion (2), that precision comes from it being written during a profound ecclesiastical struggle, which inherently mars its ability to unify the Church. It also includes inaccuracies like the Virgin Birth (see Andrew T. Lincoln, “Contested Paternity and Contested Readings: Jesus’ Conception in Matthew 1.18-25,” JSNT 34: 211-231) and inessentials like the homoousion, the eternal generation of the Son, and the procession of the Spirit. It was, to say it simply, written as a wedge to cleave off “false” believers from the true Church; it was designed as a weapon. Thus, as it stands, this creed is not useful for the task of unifying the Church.

The Nicene Creed is slightly older than  the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, and the Apostles’ Creed is older still. However, they, like the Niceno-Constantinopolitan, declare inaccurate and non-essential doctrine to be essential for true Christianity. Namely, the Nicene Creed includes the homoousion, and the Apostles’ Creed includes Jesus’ being divinely conceived and the Virgin Birth. Thus, it too must be rejected in their traditional form; however, I will re-visit these two creeds shortly to see if they can be salvaged.

Finally, the Pauline confessions and the earliest confession, “Christ is Lord,” though they are old and though they are accurate in their treatment of the whole of Scripture, are not precise enough to function in themselves as true markers of Christianity today. Even when synthesized into a single confession, it still leaves much to be desired, especially in teaching about the Father and the Spirit. Thus, they must be rejected as possibilities for establishing a universal Christian creed, too.

Conclusion: My Proposal

After thinking through this idea for a while, I have decided to abandon my original proposal for a creed (“Christ, the Lord, is risen”) for the reasons I have just rejected the original confession and the Pauline confessions: it is not precise enough. It is more suited for a devotional setting rather than as a statement of beliefs. In its place, I propose a modified version of the Apostles’ Creed, with inessential doctrine removed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of a woman, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, and the forgiveness of sins. Amen.

I have change the line “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” to the Pauline “born of a woman,” and I have removed the references to the descent into Hell, to bodily resurrection, and to “life everlasting.” [5] I have also made the section about Jesus into its own paragraph, for the sake of style and formatting, but that does not impact any content.

A disclaimer on this proposal: I must make it very clear that this creed is only a means of describing Christianity, not a means of prescribing things to be believed. Accepting the doctrines in this creed is not the same as faith. As Rudolf Bultmann, discussing one of his teachers, warns, “He thought that the old Apostles’ Creed should continue to be confessed serenely in the worship service, because scarcely anyone considers it obligatory to take all its assertions as literally true. But if a new confession were to be formulated, it would consist of sentences that the listeners — or speakers — would think were sentences that they must accept as true, and therefore faith would once again be confused with accepting sentences as true.” [6] That is a pitfall which must be avoided at all costs.

All things considered, I think this confession, or something along the same lines, is the happiest medium between something as inclusive as “Christ is Lord” and as exclusive as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. It has all the essentials for basic Christian belief, it allows room for one to be captive to his/her conscience, and it isn’t unnecessarily exclusive. Moreover — and this is the important part — it provides a core of teaching that would allow Christians from different traditions and backgrounds to recognize each other for what they both really are: members of the body of Christ. It is, in sum, a tool for unity, rather than division.

——————————

1. Oscar Cullmann, Les premières confessions de foi chrétiennes (1943). Cited in Richard N. Longenecker, New Wine into Fresh Wineskins: Contextualizing the Early Christian Confessions (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1999), 14.

2. Longenecker, New Wine, 28-29. Longenecker notes nine major, interdependent themes of the confessions cited by the NT authors (New Wine, 34-44):

  1. “God is the initiator, sustainer, and ultimate agent of redemption.”
  2. “Jesus is Israel’s Messiah (the Christ)”
  3. “The eschatological age of redemption has been inaugurated.”
  4. “Jesus is God’s obedient son.”
  5. “Jesus is humanity’s redemptive Lord.”
  6. “The true humanity of Jesus.”
  7. “Christ’s redemptive death on a cross.”
  8. “Christ’s resurrection/exaltation to new life.”
  9. “New relationships established through the work of Christ.”

3. According to Wikipedia, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed was originally a separate creed, perhaps a confession a candidate for baptism would have to recite before being baptized, that was modified to look like the original Nicene Creed. It seems to be that this unnamed baptismal creed looks an awful lot like the Apostles’ Creed.

4. This third point is inspired by the Church’s treatment of Galileo. Galileo, of course, was found by the Inquisition to be “vehemently suspect of heresy” and lived the rest of his life in house arrest. The reason? He dared to suggest, contrary to a plain reading of 1 Chronicles 16:30, Psalms 93:1, 96:10, 104:5, and Ecclesiastes 1:5, that the Earth revolved around the Sun, rather than vice versa. The Catholic Church did not formally apologize until 2000.

5. Note very well: my deletion of any phrase (except for references to the Virgin Birth) does not therefore imply that I do not believe that phrase to be true. Remember, I’m making a universal Christian creed, and not all Christians believe in, say, a literal bodily resurrection or eternal life post mortem.

6. Walter Harenberg, Der Spiegel on the New Testament (trans. James H. Burtness; London, Macmillan, 1970), 238. Emphasis added.

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“Two Sterile Camps” of Christianity

As I was reading on the bus this morning, I happened to come across this quote that illustrates the chasm fixed between conservative and liberal Christians. It’s one-sided, I’ll admit, and it’s long, but it’s useful nonetheless, and dovetails nicely with my earlier post this morning:

Christianity has in our time increasingly divided itself into these two sterile camps, neither of which gives hope of having the ability to revive this ancient faith system. The fundamentalists will appeal to the need for emotional security by trafficking in religious certainty. The system they create will survive momentarily — it might even flourish for a time — but it will not endure. Delusions can be immensely satisfying. For short periods of time people seem to enjoy turning off their brains and listening to those who assure them that all is well.

The anger, however, that is present in this premodern religious revival reveals its own vulnerability. Anger cannot dispel doubt. Suggested enemies — liberals, secular humanists, false prophets, whatever the nomenclature — cannot finally be blamed for the unbelievability of nonsensical words. Fundamentalism is both an expression of and an assisting cause in the terminal sickness that hangs over religious life today. When the depth of that sickness becomes obvious, it will leave in its wake disillusionment, despair, and pain. No seeds of renewal are contained in a literalism that is itself afraid of truth.

The other sterile camp confronting institutionalized religion today is an empty postmodern secularity that has infected both the mainline churches and the society at large. It expresses itself in the shallow life dedicated to the search for material pleasure conducted within a vast spiritual vacuum. It is revealed in the lives of those for whom God has died and fate is the final arbiter of meaning. Frequently this attitude is not so much articulated as it is lived. It is a response even of those who, because of the habits of a lifetime, still relate to religious institutions at nominal levels, even though they find no real sustenance there. Membership in such an institution does not finally affect their life, and ultimately it is so tangential to their being that they will not pass on to their children a living religious heritage. No seeds of renewal will be found for the church in those who either consciously or unconsciously take up citizenship in the secular city.

The church that does not face this dilemma seriously either does not understand the problem or does not know how to address it. Such a church drifts aimlessly, replacing faith with fellowship, avoiding the tough issues of life, standing for less and less for fear another part of its family will be offended and depart, knowing full well that the church’s drawing power is declining day by day. There is no future for Christianity unless the essence of Christian truth can be extracted from the phenomenalistic framework of the ancient past.

From John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, 133-134. Emphasis added.

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The Evolution Wars

I’ve been watching the evolution wars on a couple of biblioblogs recently (specifically, Exploring Our Matrix and Unsettled Christianity). I appreciate the work Dr. McGrath and Joel (respectively) are doing on the subject. However, I can’t help but think that a sustained, direct war on biblical literalism will, in reality, accomplish little actual change. Likewise, the war on liberal theology waged by the conservative side of Christianity (e.g. Al Mohler, Norman Geisler, et al.) will not effect much change, either. In my opinion, here’s why:

1) The two positions differ from each other in first principles.

On the one hand, Christian liberalism is devoted to follow evidence wherever it leads. If the evidence seems to show, for instance, that life arose on Earth through a process that lasted for millions and millions of years, the good liberal has an obligation to follow this evidence to its logical conclusions, even if that means he/she must re-think what it means for God to have created the world.

In the same way, Christian conservatism is devoted to follow the Bible wherever it leads. If the Bible seems to teach, for instance, that God created everything ex nihilo over the course of six 24-hour days, the good conservative has an obligation to follow this teaching to its logical conclusions, even if it means he/she must re-think the nature of science.

2) Both sides say harsh things about the other, but usually only to their supporters (“preaching to the choir”).

It has long been recognized that humility and charity are two mark of true Christian character (see, for instance, C. J. Mahaney’s excellent little book Humility: True Greatness). However, for some reason, both sides in this debate act with very little charity or humility toward the other. Rather than treating each other like fellow Christians — remember, we’re all trying to follow the faith the best way we know how — both sides treat the other like willful distorters of the truth. Such an attitude had its place in the past, but now is anachronistic. For instance, Tertullian wrote, concerning heretics, that “obstinacy must be conquered, not coaxed” (Scorpiace 2). Such a tactic, though, is ineffective in the end, which brings me to my third point:

3) Harsh and direct fighting only serve to make the other side more convinced of their own superiority.

Think back to the last time you had an argument face-to-face with someone. As the argument went on, which was more tempting: to calmly and rationally examine your own position and see how the other side might inform your position in ways you hadn’t seen, or to entrench yourself deeper and argue even harder for what you already thought? If I were a gambling man, I’d bet that it would be the latter more than the former. When you perceive an attack, whether explicit or implicit, on a system of thought that you cherish, the natural response is to attack right back, not to examine yourself or your way of thinking. Which leads to the conclusion that:

4) If you want to persuade someone to your side, you have to be willing to admit where you’re wrong.

Conservatives: do you want to reclaim a historical interpretation of Genesis 1-3? Then be willing to admit that your position has a hard time explaining scientific data cogently. Liberals: do you want to see evolution accepted as fact by all Christians? Then be willing to admit that to do so entails a radical re-thinking of Christian theology, with which not everyone is comfortable. Both sides: do you want to see an end to this debate? Then be willing to admit that your side does not hold a monopoly on truth; be willing to learn from the other.

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“Ecumenism is the Devil’s Game”

“I agree that ecuminicism [sic] is the devil’s game…”
(From a comment on this blog post.)

Such a sentiment flies in the face of how Christians are to treat each other. The Bible clearly says that God’s followers should love each other and have unity among them:

How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the LORD bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore.

(Psalm 133)

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. . . . We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

(1 John 4:7-12, 19-21)

To declare that ecumenism, which may be succinctly defined as “inter-denominational humility, charity, and love,” is “the devil’s game” is to profoundly misunderstand the nature of Christian teaching. Doctrine is not a weapon to be wielded against others, nor is it barbed wire for setting up division within the Church.

To take the the Bible seriously — to believe truly that it is “good and pleasant . . . when God’s people live together in unity,” that “there the LORD bestows his blessing, / even life forevermore,” and that “whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” — means that efforts to unite God’s universal church (i.e., ecumenism) must be received not with hate, but with joy.

So, is ecumenism the devil’s game? No. In fact, it is quite the opposite — it is a movement of the Spirit to unite God’s church after two millennia of division.

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An Ecumenical Definition of Inerrency

I find this definition of inerrency to be quite helpful. I think it can accomodate both a conservative and a liberal view of Scripture — in other words, it would help reconcile the two perpetually warring clans of Christianity.

“Since therefore everything which the inspired editor or holy writer expressed is to be valued as expressed by the Holy Spirit, it is to be confessed that the books of scripture teach with certainty, fidelity, and without error the truth which God wants to have set down in the Holy Scripture for the sake of our salvation.”

[Anton Vögtle, “Die Konstitution über die Offenbarung,” quoted in Werner Harenberg, Der Spiegel on the New Testament (London: Macmillan, 1970), 55.]

This definition allows for many of the points of friction between conservative and liberal Christians to be smoothed away. Did Moses write the Pentatech or was it edited over the course of several centuries? Doesn’t matter. Does Genesis 1-3 address human origins or is it a metaphor for the human need for God or a critique of other, contemporaneous religions’ view of the divine? Doesn’t matter. Are the Gospels concerned primarily with the historical or the theological? Doesn’t matter.

In short, each group could maintain its own particular understanding of Scripture — it would be unfair, for instance, under the guise of ecumenism or Christian cooperation, to try to force a Young-Earth Creationist to give up his/her hermeneutic — while still finding common ground to accept the other side’s position as valid. Each side could then be captive both to conscience and to consensus.

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Christian Cooperation in a Nutshell

“Many live in the illusion that the true unity of the church would be won if the great majority of Christians would agree to the same dogmatic formula. But identity of dogmatic formulas is of no importance. There must be unity in faith, that is, in unconditioned trust in the Word of God. Each one may say it and confess it as he wishes.”

Manfred Mezger, quoted in Werner Harenberg, Der Spiegel on the New Testament (London: Macmillan, 1970), 39.

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