Tag Archives: doctrine

Abusing the Apophatic: The Turn To Mystery As a Cop-Out

losskyIn our postmodern culture, talk of “mystery” is all the rage among religious folk.  Can’t explain something? Mystery.  Don’t like historic Christian teaching but still want to sound like you’re in continuity with the Tradition? Mystery it is.

The problem is that this is an abuse, a mischaracterization of the apophatic way (sometimes called “negative theology”) on that which which twists a valued mystical tradition into a cover for all kinds of bullshit.

Friends, please hear me out: stop using the apophatic as a cop-out.

Don’t believe me that this is a problem? I could cite my own personal experience, but we are all aware (I hope) that individual experience is just about the worst possible resource for knowledge in the Christian life.  To be sure, I’ve been in numerous conversations where my interlocutor attempted to dodge the particularities of Christian teaching by giving a nod to mystery and to the apophatic way. Let’s look instead two examples, in which I have added the emphases to highlight today’s topic.

Exhibit A

A piece by Gene Marshall over at ProgressiveChristianity.org mentions mystery several times. He goes so far as to reduce God to capital-M ‘Mystery,’ like so:

At the same time, “God,” as used in the Bible, points to an actual experience, an actual encounter with, how shall we say it, the Ground of our Being; the Mystery, Depth, and Greatness of our lives; Final Reality; Reality as a Whole; the Mystery that will not go away.

Drawing on the existentialism of Tillich and others, Marshall avoids anything particular about God by the apophatic turn.

Exhibit B

I generally try to avoid quoting comments, but in this instance it just fits too perfectly (I also mean nothing personal by this, as I have no idea who this particular commenter is).  Once again, in a discussion about Christian doctrine, the commenter uses the apophatic turn to stay in the realm of generic, personal-experience deity:

If you believe that God exist as three distinct persons and one of those persons incarnated as a human being in first century Palestine, good for you. It maybe right. Seems like you are 100% sure that Nicene Creed is the true doctrine about God and I am glad to hear that. Personally I cannot bring myself to believe that. I am agnostic about it. I am not an atheist. I believe that being similar to understanding of God most likely exist, more similar to understanding in Advaita Vedanta, Stoicism, Peripateticism and Process theology. But I maybe wrong. I am more of fan of apophatic theology.

Note here that “apophatic” has little content save being against the Nicene Creed and similar to a variety of non-Christian faiths and Process theology.  Further note how similar the above comments sound to that of Gretta Vosper, the United Church of Canada pastor fighting to keep her credentials because everyone else knows she’s an atheist while she maintains she’s evolved into a higher, non-theistic conception of the divine. Read: poppycock.

The Truth: The End of the Apophatic is the Holy Trinity

The real mystery: how did Kevin Smith ever make a movie this bad?
The real mystery: how did Kevin Smith ever make a movie this bad?

What’s truly sad is that apophatic theology is a valued part of Christian teaching, particularly in the East.  While the vast majority of Christians today have domesticated the transcendent, attempting to pull God down to our level and make the Divine only a friend, or a healer, a get-out-of-jail-free card or a cosmic soup of affirmation, the apophatic tradition at its best reminds us to keep silent before the incomprehensibility of our Maker.

Oh, Mystery there is: the One whom we love is too holy for words and, as Israel attests, the ‘I AM’ whose name is too holy to pronounce and too grand to scribble, this God, our God cannot be named by our limited imaginations, tamed by our feeble intellect, claimed for our puny projects.

But Christians, you see, revel not just in mystery but also in paradox.  This unutterable God has made Godself known to us in a particular way.  The goal of the apophatic, the Mystery that we claim as Christians, is named not by our own fatuous grasping but by God’s gracious condescension His creatures.  The great Russian Orthodox scholar-priest Vladimir Lossky thus reflects,

“This is the end of the endless way; the limit of the limitless ascent; Incomprehensibility reveals Himself in the very fact of His being incomprehensible, for his incomprehensibility is rooted in the fact that God is not only Nature but also Three Persons; the incomprehensible Nature is incomprehensible inasmuch as it is the Nature of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; God, incomprehensible because Trinity yet manifesting Himself as Trinity. Here apophaticism finds its fulfillment in the revelation of the Holy Trinity as primordial fact, ultimate reality, first datum which cannot be deduced, explained or discovered by way of any other truth; for there is nothing which is prior to it. Apophatic thought, renouncing every support, finds its support in God, whose incomprehensibility appears as Trinity. Here thought gains a stability which cannot be shaken; theology finds its foundation; ignorance passes into knowledge.”

In God’s nature or substance, that “stuff” (if you’ll forgive the vulgar imprecision) of which God is, God is utterly unknowable because God is outside and above and beyond us.  But in God’s hypostases, the Tri-Personal God has made himself known to us.  The Mystery has given us a glimpse; not a full view everything, of course, for that would be like asking to stare at the sun when it is one block away.

But what we can know about this God, what God has revealed to us in Scripture, through the teaching of Apostles, Saints, and Doctors of the Church, and most especially through life of Jesus, we gladly and happily confess as the Most Blessed Trinity.

Ignorance passes into knowledge, and theology has its foundation.

To misappropriate the apophatic as an excuse to feign ignorance of God is not only wrong according to every possible standard of Christian truth, it is tragic.  The Mystery at the heart of all reality has opened a door, as it were, and given us a glimpse inside.

Who are we to shut it?

Source: Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 63-64 (emphasis added).
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Orthodoxy as the “Authority of All”

Icon of John Cassian, courtesy wikimedia commons.
Icon of John Cassian, courtesy wikimedia commons.

John Cassian, who had a profound impact on monasticism thanks to his influence on Benedict, comments on the universality of the orthodox consensus:

“The consensus of all ought of itself to be enough to refute heresy; for the authority of all shows indubitable truth, and a perfect reason results where no one disputes it. Therefore if a [person] seeks to hold opinions contrary to these, we should, at the very outset, condemn his perversity rather than listen to his assertions. For someone who impugns the judgment of all announces his [or her] own condemnation beforehand, and a [person] who disturbs what had been determined by all is not even given a hearing. For when the truth has been established by all [people] once and for all, whatever arises contrary to it is by this very fact to be recognized at once as a falsehood, because it differs from the truth.”

Cassian’s insight is similar to what would later be called the Vincentian Canon, named after its progenitor St. Vincent of Lerins.  He argued, “we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”

The early church, led by the apostles and their successors, saw themselves as in continuity with the teaching of Jesus handed on by the disciples.  They determined to hold “the authority of all,” led by the Holy Spirit, above any individual or regional variations.

In an age where atheist preachers are fighting to keep their pulpits, this insight is more important than ever.  The Christian movement is not subject to my personal whims but is, in Jude’s language, the “faith once delivered,” and the health of the Body is not possible unless we hold fast to that deposit of faith and practice held authoritative everywhere, by everyone, and for all time.

Source: Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: Volume 1, 338-339.

Heresy As Extremism: Why the Middle Way is the Narrow Way

Icon of Gregory the Great, from monasteryicons.com.
Icon of Gregory the Great, from monasteryicons.com.

“Sincerity is no guarantee of being correct.”

-Rev. Dr. Mickey Efird

The lies of heresy are not just false, they are false in the extreme.

We’ve examined before in this space how heresy flattens the mysteries of the gospel.  The great doctrines of the church, the Incarnation and Trinity, are in a real sense names for mysteries.  These mysteries the church, we believe, has been led to confess by the Holy Spirit.  In so confessing, we preserve and celebrate the mystery of God and God’s mighty saving work.  Heresy always simplifies that mystery to something more palatable and less gospel.

But heresy can also be understood as a form of extremism.  Jaroslav Pelikan, near the end of Volume 1 of The Christian Tradition, notes, “It was characteristic of heretics that they erred in one extreme or the other, denying either the One or the Three, either despising marriage or denigrating virginity.”  It is worth mentioning that Pelikan, the now-deceased don of church history at Yale, writes this after multiple chapters spent painstakingly quoting and examining what the heretics themselves wrote.  He then quotes Gregory the Great:

“But the church, by contrast, proceeds with ordered composure midway between the quarrels on both sides. It knows how to accept the higher good in such a way as simultaneously to venerate the lower, because it neither puts the highest on the same level with the lowest nor on the other hand despises the lowest when it venerates the highest.” (334-335)

If you’ve ever ridden a bicycle, you know that just a little ways this or that and you will take a tumble.  So it is with orthodoxy.  Precision in thought, as in machinery, only tolerates so much wiggle room. Chesterton noted that many are shocked at the vitriolic arguments about small points of doctrine, but they do so because they fail to recognize that there are no small points about the Divine:

“…it is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious.”

chesterton orthodoxyHeresy, even in the lightest of touches or turns, always perverts Christian truth into something “blasphemous or ferocious,” something extreme.  The Arians, sincere though they were, turned Christians into creature-worshippers.  The gnostic-influenced Christians, who’ve strangely enjoyed a kind of foolish re-appropriation of their literature in the last couple of decades, denied the good not only of God’s creation but the truth of the Incarnation as an affirmation of the physical order (modern Darbyism does something similar with its false doctrine of the rapture).

An inch is everything when you are balancing.

This not only inveighs against those who wish to deconstruct orthodoxy as some kind of conservative fantasy, it also points us to why pious rhetoric that pits “the middle way” against “the narrow way” is ultimately false.  In terms of doctrine, the middle way – the balancing of heretical extremes in order to discover the one way to stand tall amid a thousand ways to totter over – is the narrow way.

Thus we can conceive of heresy, like Pelikan, as extremism.  Examples might include: emphasizing the transcendence of God to the detriment of the immanence of God; emphasizing works of piety so as to leave aside works of mercy; dogmatically adhering to classical Christian teaching in one area of sexuality while completely ignoring others; a simplistic biblicism that ignores experience and tradition (or, on the other hand, a Romantic attachment to experience which runs amok over scripture and tradition); or finally, as Bonhoeffer famously noted, grace divorced from the cross.

An inch is everything when you are balancing, which is why the narrow way of Christian truth is also the middle way.  I’ll let Chesterton have the last word:

“It is easy to be a madman; it is easy to be a heretic.  it is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s head.  It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.  To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom – that would indeed have been simple.  It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.”

Fundamentalism as Modernity

Richard Rohr has helped me to be wary of focusing too much on what I dislike or despise.  He argues, as we’ve said before, that what we fight against too long or too hard often becomes determinative for us.  We become what we hate, if we aren’t careful.

An excellent illustration of this is the fundamentalist/modernist split in the early 20th century (a fight still being waged, though pseudonymously).  The crux of that divide is often cast as “modernists who embrace Enlightenment, rationality, science, etc.” and “fundamentalists who reject all of the above.”  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  Both fundamentalists and modernists drink deeply from the waters of modernity.  William (Billy) Abraham from Perkins Theological Seminary describes it thus:

“The fundamentalists clearly see the elemental problem of the church as intellectual and theological. More precisely, they are betting the future on a very particular epistemology of theology. The solution offered, however, is wildly off base. For one, the whole attempt to secure the kind of formally approved foundations required is precisely the heart of the whole Enlightenment project. Hence, contemporary fundamentalists are throughougly modern creatures committed to the same intellectual aspirations as their secular enemies.  If the Enlightenment has caused so much trouble, it would be odd in the extreme to argue that we could get beyond it by accepting its basic premises and modes of operation. Second, as I have argued at length elsewhere, the Fundamentalist doctrine of Scripture is deeply flawed. The crucial weakness is that it has historically depended on a doctrine of divine dictation or on a latent confusing of divine inspiration with divine speaking and related speech acts of God.  Thirdly, and most importantly, the move to include the inerrancy of Scripture as the linchpin in a new creed for the church involves not only a radical departure from the actual canonical decisions of the church as made in the great ecumenical councils but also a profound reorientation of the inner structure of the church’s intellectual heritage and vision. It involves a shift from soteriology to epistemology.”

Read through the lens of intellectual history and philosophy, it thus becomes clear that the fundamentalist/ modernist spat, however vicious, is a civil war.  They are neighbors, not opposites.  it is a war of brother versus brother over whose mode of epistemological certainty is better.  This is why Christians who try to “prove” dogmas such as the resurrection false, via the means of scientific discourse, or prove it valid though Biblical or historical inquiry, are essentially doing the same thing.  They have both made the (mistaken, if well-meaning) choice to try to prove Christian doctrine rather than celebrate, confess, pray, or teach it.

As Abraham so insightfully points out, the decision to privilege epistemology over soteriology or some other aspect of Christian truth is not a neutral one.  In pursuing this, both do damage not only to the visible church, but to Christian doctrine, witness, and unity.

Where do you see evidence of this capitulation to modernity – in either its modernist or fundamentalist forms – in the church today?
Source: William J. Abraham, The Logic of Renewal (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003), 20.

Jesus: The Face of God

Stained glass window of the Confession of Peter, England. Courtesy Kevin Wailes via WIkimedia Commons.
Stained glass window of the Confession of Peter, England. Courtesy Kevin Wailes via WIkimedia Commons.

“Who do you say that I am?” -Jesus, Mark 8:29

Who is Jesus?

I get very nervous around clergy who dodge this question.  There are all manner of open questions in life.  Questions of politics, identity, and justice are often multivalent and complex, and should be treated as such.  When Christians repeat the (well-worn but still useful) phrase, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity” the list of essentials is, for me, pretty short (not much longer than the Nicene Creed, in fact).

But for Christians, there are some non-negotiables, else the descriptor has no value.  Chief among these are the two most sacred mysteries of Christian confession: the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ as fully human and fully divine, and the Trinity (the revelation that God is three and yet one, without division but with distinction).

Why does it matter that the Triune God is most fully known in Jesus?  William Placher recounts:

The Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance tells how, as a young army chaplain, he held the hand of a dying nineteen-year-old soldier, and then, back in Aberdeen as a pastor, visited one of the oldest women in his congregation – and how they both asked exactly the same question: “Is God really like Jesus?” And he assured them both, Torrance writes, “that God is indeed really like Jesus, and that there is no unknown God behind the back of Jesus for us to fear; to see the Lord Jesus is to see the very face of God.”

With apologies to Tillich, there is no “God above God” other than the Holy Trinity.  While it is very much the case that the economic Trinity (God’s work as revealed to us) does not tell us everything about the immanent Trinity (God’s essence), if we trust God and what God has revealed there must at least be a correspondence between these.  God in the immanent Trinity remains a mystery human intellect cannot comprehend; Jesus, however, as the Word of the Father sent in the power of the Spirit, tells us much about who God is: he is the loving Father who welcomes the prodigal home, the one who heals, restores, and makes new, the One who would rather suffer exclusion, torture, and death than watch His creatures do so.  To see Jesus is to see God.  This is Christian confession.  This is the Good News.

Placher concludes,

“If the Holy Spirit leads us to know that Jesus Christ, as we come to know him in the biblical stories, is the self-revelation of the one God, then Father, Son, and Spirit cannot be three separate Gods. Indeed, such a God cannot be just any one God, but must be the God whose identity we have come to know in the biblical narratives about Jesus. Thus, in Moltmann’s formulation, ‘The doctrine of the Trinity is nothing other than the conceptual framework needed to understand the story of Jesus as the story of God.’ The one God thus known does not hold power in reserve, apart from the love revealed in the crucified Jesus or the Spirit’s indwelling in our hearts; there is no God beyond the God triunely revealed, a God of love.”

Incarnation and Trinity: on these twin pillars Christian revelation stands (and they stand or fall together).  Embrace them, and you have a more beautiful, hopeful, loving God than any other religion, philosophy, or worldview has ever conceived.

But to deny, forget, or marginalize these is to begin doing something other than Christian prayer, thinking, and living.  Deny who Jesus is, or deny the Trinity, and the faith “once and for all delivered” is lost. (Jude 1:3)

To see Jesus is to see the very face of God.  Thanks be to God.

 

Source: William Placher, The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox 2007), 139-140.

Searching for Substance: Rachel Held Evans’ Decades-Old Prescription for Reaching Millennials

Webber saw this attraction 30 years ago.
Webber saw this attraction 30 years ago.

Everything old is new again.  It’s painful to watch a well-worn thesis go viral 30 years late and with someone else’s name attached.  Many folks have been talking about this self-aggrandizing piece by famous I-used-to-be-evangelical-but-now-I’m-enlightened blogger Rachel Held Evans (henceforth RHE).  Aside from seeing it all over Facebook and Twitter, I have unchurched friends sending me messages about it, I see some of my denominational supervisors writing about it, and I overhear colleagues talk about it at meetings. Thus it’s hard to argue that RHE is certainly an impressive trend in the progressive Christian blogosphere.  The problem is, her prescription for bringing millennials back to the church is at least 30 years old.  Robert Webber made this case just a couple of years after I was born.  The idea for which Evans is being lauded is literally as old as the millennials she intends to draw back.

RHE’s re-warmed argument runs as such:

“In response, many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology. Yet while these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, they are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making things worse.”

If young people don’t “simply want a better a better show,” don’t tell that to the fastest-growing megachurch in my state.  I may find the show aesthetically offensive, the methods manipulative, and the content lacking, but that doesn’t mean many churches have not found this prescription “successful.”  If it is now cliché to the sophisticated palate of RHE, it is only because this formula has been useful in many places and for many years.  Time will tell if young adults are now growing wise to the marketing.  In my own small town, the churches that are attracting millennials the fastest are still following the above formula that Evans finds passé.

That doesn’t mean she’s totally wrong, though.  What attracted RHE to sacramental Christianity includes many of the reasons I love and practice it:

“What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.”

The problem is that Evans’ solution is in danger of underwriting “the form of godliness without the power.” (2 Tim. 3:5) I would certainly agree that the aesthetics of Holy Communion or Ash Wednesday are far more powerful than a coffee bar or strobe lights.  But if these wonderful practices are divorced from their doctrinal content, they are little more than nice rituals and not a means of grace.

Which brings us to RHE’s solution: The Episcopal Church.  To be blunt, if the Episcopalians were drawing in millennials the way RHE’s analysis suggests they should be, then statistically TEC would not be dying out faster than Blockbuster. Evans does suggest one need not be a part of a denomination that is historically sacramental, but this is only to double down on the problem: going through the motions of ritual without the ecclesiology or doctrinal commitments which underlie them creates just another hip activity to do on Sunday.

Communion elements in stained glass from an Ohio parish, courtesy Nheyob via Wikimedia Commons.
Communion elements in stained glass from an Ohio parish, courtesy Nheyob via Wikimedia Commons.

Holy Communion serves as an example of why form and content must be in harmony. To name just three potential problems related to the Eucharist: absent (1) a sacramental theology capable of claiming that what happens at the table is something more than a snack, or (2) a Christology capable of handling the theological freight of the Great Thanksgiving, or  (3) a soteriology that recognizes the need to repent for sins of omission and sins of commission, this highest point of Christian worship becomes dead ritual, an aesthetic experience that pleases but does not transform.*

I don’t pretend to know what millennials want (even though I am one) because I don’t believe I can read a few polls, talk to my friends, and thereby understand everyone in my generation.  That said, I am quite sure that we should not design churches to fit the fancies of the same people who have made The Real World a successful franchise and the Kardashians famous.  Thus the appeal of the ancient forms of worship not designed by me or for me, an appeal which I gladly confess.

But the ancient forms demand substance to match the style.  I don’t know what millennials want, but what (read: Who) millennials need is the God revealed in the Bible and confessed in the creeds and liturgies of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.  Mainline churches like TEC and my own United Methodist Church reflect that apostolic teaching and practice on paper, but on the ground our pastors and other leaders too often compromise core Trinitarian and Christological confessions which frame Christian life and practice.  (The story of two “bishops,” Sprague and Spong, is enough evidence to suffice here.)  When this happens, we are trying to plant heirloom roses in poisoned soil.

As much as anyone else, I want millennials (indeed, all people) to know fellowship with the Three-One God and life in the Body of Christ.   With the ancient church and the Reformers, I believe the sacraments are among the most wonderful gifts of God.  This remains the case whether a critical mass of millennials find them “relevant” or not.  Of course, catechesis (teaching) about Christian worship in general and the sacraments in particular is necessary to help any new Christians connect with liturgical practice, as with anything not immediately self-evident.

But let’s not forget that form needs power; Webber, who originated Evans’ thesis, was very aware of the necessity to maintain the Christian story.  The practices of Christian liturgy without the doctrinal and ethical content which undergird them are little more than mansions built on sand.  Ritual without substance won’t do anyone – millennial or otherwise – any good at all.

P.S. The impressive growth of the ACNA – not all of which can be attributed to schism and sheep stealing, but at least in part to church planting and doctrinal fidelity – serves as a useful foil to TEC’s statistics and an example of what happens when the ancient and apostolic form meets the content for which it was intended.

*This assumes, of course, a heart transformed by the love of God and a life of prayer, service, mercy, and justice. Doctrine and ethics, faith and practice, go together – they do not compete with each other.

John Wesley’s Creed

John Wesley and Creed.  Now that's perfection.
John Wesley and Creed. Now that’s perfection.

“What I like best about being a Methodist is that you can believe anything you want.”

-Charles Wesley (via John Meunier)

Creeds are a point of contention among Christians.  Because we live in an age where authority is a dirty word, the idea that Christians should assent to any set of beliefs about God* is a scandal (dare I say – a heresy?).  Even churches that do affirm the creeds, like the United Methodist Church, are sometimes wary about their liturgical and pedagogical use.  An old article still (unfortunately) found on the UMC homepage actually claims, “Affirmations [like the creeds] help us come to our own understanding of the Christian faith.”

The last thing we as Christians need is “our own understanding of the Christian faith.”  There is, after all, a deposit of faith that was revealed in Christ and taught by the apostles; this is what Jude refers to as “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3)

Several folks I read to great benefit have been reflecting on creeds recently, and I commend their work to you.  David Watson of United Seminary asks if the Wesleys were creedal.  Joel Watts develops this, compiling an impressive list of quotations by Wesley on the creeds.  Lastly, Andrew Thompson from Memphis Theological Seminary weighs in on Wesley and the creeds with a focus on the doctrine of the Trinity, including some quite helpful reflections on common misconceptions about the creeds and Methodist worship.  Taylor Watson Burton-Edwards’ thoughtful feedback here and here on two of the above posts is also worth your attention.

Below is an excerpt from a letter that Wesley wrote to a Roman Catholic, attempting to find some common ground.  Thompson, linked above, quotes this section in part, observing keenly, “Wesley resorts to a creedal form of writing.”

Ted Campbell once suggested this list “is as close as John Wesley came to a statement of essential fundamental teachings, even though it is not structured as a list of fundamental teachings.”  While not a formal creed, it draws heavily on the structure and content of the Nicene Creed and Apostle’s Creed.  More specifically, it bears commonality to the baptismal form of creeds (note the personal language of “I believe”). Campbell also notes that a certain Bishop Pearson – whom Watts quotes in the above link – contemporary with the Wesleys, had written a well-known exposition on the Apostle’s Creed, which may have influenced the whole Wesley clan (including Mama Sussanah, who herself wrote a commentary on the Apostle’s Creed).  With all of this in mind, consider what I am happy to call, with only a bit of tongue-in-cheek, John Wesley’s Creed:

A true Protestant may express his belief in these, or the like words:

As I am assured that there is an infinite and independent Being, and that it is impossible there should be more than one, so I believe that the one God is the Father of all things, especially of angels and men; that he is in a peculiar manner the Father of those whom he regenerates by his Spirit, whom he adopts in his Son as co-heirs with him, and crowns with an eternal inheritance; but in a still higher sense the Father of his only Son, whom he hath begotten from eternity.

I believe this Father of all, not only to be able to do whatsoever pleaseth him, but also to have an eternal right of making what and when and how he pleaseth, and of possessing and disposing of all that he has made; and that he, of his own goodness, created heaven and earth and all that is therein.

I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Saviour of the world, the Messiah so long foretold; that, being anointed with the Holy Ghost, he was a prophet, revealing to us the whole will of God; that he was a priest, who gave himself a sacrifice for sin, and still makes intercession for transgressors; that he is a king, who has all power in heaven and in earth, and will reign till he has subdued all things to himself.

I believe he is the proper, natural Son of God, God of God, very God of very Gods and that he is the Lord of all, having absolute, supreme, universal dominion over all things; but more peculiarly our Lord, who believe in him, both by conquest, purchase, and voluntary obligation.

I believe that he was made man, joining the human nature with the divine in one person; being conceived by the singular operation of the Holy Ghost, and born of the blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as before she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin.

I believe he suffered inexpressible pains both of body and soul, and at last death, even the death of the cross, at the time that Pontius Pilate governed Judaea under the Roman Emperor; that his body was then laid in the grave, and his soul went to the place of separate spirits; that the third day he rose again from the dead; that he ascended into heaven; where he remains in the midst of the throne of God, in the highest power and glory, as mediator till the end of the world, as God to all eternity; that in the end he will come down from heaven to judge every man according to his works, both those who shall be then alive and all who have died before that day.

I believe the infinite and eternal Spirit of God, equal with the Father and the Son, to be not only perfectly holy in himself but the immediate cause of all holiness in us; enlightening our understandings, rectifying our wills and affections, renewing our natures, uniting our persons to Christ, assuring us of the adoption of sons, leading us in our actions, purifying and sanctifying our souls and bodies, to a full and eternal enjoyment of God.

I believe that Christ by his apostles gathered unto himself a Church, to which he has continually added such as shall be saved; that this catholic (that is, universal) Church, extending to all nations and all ages, is holy in all its members, who have fellowship with God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost; that they have fellowship with the holy angels, who constantly minister to these heirs of salvation; and with all the living members of Christ on earth, as well as all who are departed in his faith and fear.

I believe God forgives all the sins of them that truly repent and unfeignly believe his holy gospel; and that at the last day all men shall rise again, every one with his own body. I believe that, as the unjust shall after their resurrection be tormented in hell for ever, so the just shall enjoy inconceivable happiness in the presence of God to all eternity.

 Before you say, “It’s not what you believe, it’s what you do,” hold the phone.  Wesley adds briefly after this list: “Does he practise accordingly? If he does not, we grant all his faith will not save him.”  For Wesley, it is faith AND works, belief AND practice that make up the Christian life.

So, what do you make of John Wesley’s Creed? What holds up today as truths central to Christian belief? What doesn’t?

Thanks be to God that the Christian faith is not malleable based on our whims.  The good news is this: I don’t have to grope in the darkness and come to my own understanding of God. God has come for me and to me long before I have ever sought out God. What is this God like? I have only to look in the back of the United Methodist Hymnal.

*Outside of believing that God is benignly benevolent and really wants me to be personally fulfilled on my own terms – AKA Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

The Gospel According to Frank Underwood

[Warning: Spoilers about a very intense Season 3 House of Cards scene, and broader HOC spoilers, below.]

Photo of Kevin Spacey by Sarah Ackerman, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of Kevin Spacey by Sarah Ackerman, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What does Frank Underwood believe about Jesus? As Underwood, Kevin Spacey masterfully plays the House of Cards protagonist, a character with moral abandon seldom seen on the small or large screen.  In season 3, just released by Netflix, now-President Underwood is not showing any signs of slowing down.  He (literally) urinates on the memory of his ancestors to open the season, and an episode 4 ethical dilemma finds him talking ethics with a Bishop late one night in a church.  Spacey’s Underwood is so skillfully sleezy that we almost believe him when he tells the good Bishop he wants a few moments alone to pray.

C’mon, do you really think Frank is going to pray to anyone but himself? (To be fair, he has conversed with Satan on screen as well.)  Of course not.  He stares up a crucifix, shares a few critical words with Jesus, and then spits upon it – a treatment not unlike what the real Jesus endured on the cross, actually.  As you can imagine, this scene shocked audiences.  Much has been made of this scene, but the broader implications of his conversation with and about the Son of God has been largely ignored. Here’s a snippet, edited down to the relevant statements:

Underwood: “I understand the Old Testament God, whose power is absolute, who rules through fear, but…him?” [points to crucifix]

Bishop: “There’s no such thing as absolute power for us, except on the receiving end….Two rules: Love God. Love each other. Period.  You weren’t chosen, Mr. President. Only he [Jesus] was.”

(Frank asks for alone time to pray.)

Underwood – looking up at crucifix: “Love? That’s what you’re selling. Well, I don’t buy it.”  [Spits]

Frank, without knowing it, has just made a theological argument for a very old Christian heresy.  Notice the strong division between the  “Old Testament God” and Jesus.  For Underwood, the OT deity is a being of power and intimidation, and, while he doesn’t elaborate, his attitude towards Jesus on the cross indicates he understands the discontinuity: this Jesus wields power very differently than does the fictional President.  This bifurcation between the Old and New Testaments, even to the point of asserting the centrality of different deities to each, is called Marcionism.  The definition from Theopedia is helpful:

“Marcionism was an early heresy led by Marcion, who proposed the first canon of Christian texts. The proposed canon consisted of the Gospel of Luke and several of Paul’s epistles; however, Marcion edited the writings by deleting any references that appeared to approve of the Old Testament and the creator God of the Jews. Marcionism thus rejected the Old Testament God, claiming that Jesus represented the true sovereign God who was different from the God of the Hebrew people.”

Underwood expresses a sentiment that is still not uncommon today, though typically less developed than Marcion’s own views.  Here in the Bible Belt, you even occasionally drive by churches that advertise themselves as “New Testament Christians,” whatever the hell that means.

It’s no surprise that Frank’s gospel is a false one, a heresy (to be fair, he’s kind of an inverse Marcionite, since he identifies with the “Old Testament Deity” that Marcion rejected).  What is a surprise, a problem even now, is how easily we still buy into Marcion’s lie today.  Make no mistake: the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament both contain the revelation of the one God’s gracious activity towards us, God’s creatures.  Where Marcion posited radical discontinuity, the orthodox position has always on a strong connection between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.  There is a beauty to the canon, which is no surprise if you believe (as Christians do) that the 66 books of our Bible represent a beautiful library in which everywhere God is revealed in  loving self-disclosure.

The life and witness of Jesus makes no sense without an appreciation of the Old Testament narrative.  There is no understanding Jesus and his mission apart from his role as Israel’s Messiah, fulfilling the promise to Abraham to “bless many nations” as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.  This same Jesus is sent by and begotten of the Father and united with the Spirit, one God in Triunity, who (Christians believe) is none other than the God confessed still by Jews in the Shema: “Hear O Israel, your God is one.”

Two Testaments. One God.  Frank Underwood is a very effective politician, but as a theologian he is a pure heretic.

An icon of the Holy Trinity, based on the famed Rublev Icon.
An icon of the Holy Trinity, based on the famed Rublev Icon.

The good news is that God’s loving action is revealed in both Testaments, which tell the story of a God radically committed to His creation.  So committed, in fact, that God abdicated all God’s power  and, in Christ, subjected Himself to the totality of wrath, sin, evil, and abandonment that vexes humanity, and submitted to death on our behalf.  In submitting to death, it was conquered, and we were healed.

To Frank Underwood, and to us, the cross is and always remains a scandal.  After all, a God of power is comprehensible, recognizable on the world’s terms.  But what earthly ruler – a Nietzschean like Underwood, a Caesar, or a Putin – would dare endorse the seeming naiveté of a God who gives up power out of selfless, other-regarding love for ungrateful creatures who will ultimately put God to death rather than submit to His Kingdom of love and mercy?

Thus St. Paul said to the Corinthians,

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved.” (1 Cor. 1:18, CEB)

At least Underwood is honest enough to know that he cannot conduct his affairs as he does and also worship the God who hangs on a cross. Frank understands the foolishness of the cross.  But now the question is to us, followers of the risen Lord. Do we, “who are being saved,” embrace the foolishness that is the cross?

I conclude with the words of Charles Wesley, who captures both the pain and the beauty, the incomprehensibility and the glory of the cross in his excellent hymn:

O Love divine, what has thou done!
The immortal God hath died for me!
The Father’s coeternal Son
bore all my sins upon the tree.
Th’ immortal God for me hath died:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Arminianism & Postmodern Spirituality

Jacob Arminius, the guy who saved Calvin from the Calvinists. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Jacob Arminius, the guy who saved Calvin from the Calvinists. Courtesy Wikipedia.

“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” -Psalm 150:6

During a recent talk at Pfeiffer University, Reggie McNeal, author of Missional Renaissance and a leader in the missional church movement, discussed the shift in spirituality from Enlightenment modernity to 21st century postmodernity.  In previous generations, when there was a measure of Christian influence in the culture, evangelism could begin with certain premises.  But times have changed.

A case in point is whether or not human beings are, from the outset, separated from God.  Much 20th century evangelism began from the premise that the person on the street who has never heard of Jesus is in a state of sin, totally apart from God and lacking a saving relationship with Christ.  Hence the old revivalist standby question: “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?”  The answer, of course, is that if one has not “received Christ” they will certainly go to hell.  Many an altar call has been successful through this strategy.

But postmodern spirituality no longer makes such a soteriological strategy wise (if indeed it ever was).  As McNeal pointed out – and research from many quarters has borne out – North Americans today are less religious, but more spiritual than ever.  While measures of religiosity such as church attendance, baptism rates, etc. are at historic lows, huge majorities of Americans still express belief in the Divine in various ways.  Thus, beginning a conversation with non-Christians from a premise of a-priori separation is not a fruitful evangelistic strategy.

Enter classical Arminianism.  Arminians affirm that God’s grace is active in all persons, preceding human knowledge of or decision for God.  Unlike the Calvinist conception of grace, which is irresistible, prevenient grace (which “comes before”) is active upon all people but does not overwhelm individual will.  Prevenient, or, as John Wesley called it, “preventing” grace is the common possession of all people, made in the Image of God.  No one is utterly separate from God because God is always drawing us toward Himself by prevenient grace.

This makes for a powerful evangelical message to postmoderns already convinced they have a connection with the Divine.  Arminian spirituality recognizes, in common with many ostensibly secular Western persons, that all people do indeed have a relationship to and knowledge of God, however incomplete.  Thus, the message of a postmodern,  authentically Arminian evangelicalism can, without hesitation, say to the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd: You are not fully separate from God, in fact, He’s been working on you all along.  Thus a subtle but powerful shift in evangelical rhetoric occurs, from “come and meet He of whom you are ignorant,” to “come and embrace fully the One whom you know in part.”

So those of an Arminian bent are especially geared, if we own our doctrinal inheritance, to reach the inwardly spiritual but outwardly agnostic masses of the 21st century.  The work of the Society for Evangelical Arminians has been superb in helping Arminians reclaim our voice in the wider Christian conversation.  Such resources aid us in proclaiming, without compromise, that the instincts of an increasing number of youth and young adults are not wrong: they do apprehend the true God, albeit through a glass and darkly.  This is a significantly more hopeful starting point for conversation than the lie – too often told – that anyone could be, even if they so desired, fully apart from God.

Courtesy evangelicalarminians.org.
Courtesy evangelicalarminians.org.

What do you think about the connections between Arminian doctrine and postmodern spirituality? How best to contemporary Christians reach out to the “nones” among us?

Salvation in Three Tenses

classic-christianity

We often speak of salvation as if it is only an event in the past.  A robust, Biblical look at salvation reveals something much more wonderful, though.  Tom Oden points this out in his massive systematic theology Classic Christianity:

“There are three tenses in the vocabulary of salvation: We have been saved from the penalty of sin for our justification.  We are being saved from the power of sin for our sanctification.  We will be saved from the remnants of sin for God’s glorification.  Salvation includes the whole range of divine activity on behalf of humanity in past, present, and future history.” (Oden, 566.)

The Bible speaks of these tenses in many places, of course, but as Oden points out sometimes it speaks of all three at once.  Note, for instance, all three tenses in Titus 2:11-13 (NRSV):

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Salvation is not only something that we once received at the altar years ago, or a hope we can only look forward to.  Salvation is past, it is present, and it is yet to come.  Thanks be to God.