November 19, 2005

"No Creed But Christ"? Christ Who?

One of Chris' recent posts reminded me of a conversation I once had on-line in a chatroom with a "pastor" who was trying to give spiritual insight to the participants. I'll try to reconstruct the conversation here:
ME: "So, what denomination do you represent?"

PASTOR: "Oh, I'm non-denominational."

ME: "So, what theological tradition do you lean towards?"

PASTOR: "I'm not into all that stuff; I find that theology and denominations divide people. I just focus on Jesus."

ME: "Hmm... Okay, here's a challenge for you: Please tell me who Jesus is and what He's got to do with me without appealing to theology."

PASTOR: "Touché"
Everyone is a theologian, whether they like it or not; everyone has beliefs about God, even if it is only "that He does not exist." But in our pluralistic and "tolerant" society people need some way to buffer the differences of opinion that they feel to be detrimental to charity and Christian unity. I see 3 ways that this is often being accomplished (or at least attempted):

1) Suppression of beliefs. If you don't discuss your beliefs with others, then there is nothing about which to disagree, right? But if you think your beliefs are actually important, then how can you stay silent? Imagine believing that the atonement of Christ is God's only provision for salvation and then hearing a fellow church member say that they think earnest Buddhists are save too or that God's mercy extends even to "good" atheists. Quibbling over non-essentials or the mysterious fringes of what God's revelation includes is certainly questionable, but if we stand up for nothing, then Christianity will come to mean everything. However, people do, in fact, make distinctions (for instance, no one would agree that a "Christian" means a "pastry chef"); many just refuse to apply their discernment to a very meaningful extent. I suspect that it is simply a lack of confidence and grounding for one's beliefs that encourages silence.

2) Diminishing terms. If we take those words that are part of the vocabulary of Christianity and detach them from their definitions, then even if we do have disagreement over the meaning of these words we at least have unity in our surface language. So unity may even be had with liberals in saying things like, "I believe in Jesus," even though some may believe He is their God and redeemer, while others may believe he is just a good moral example. Or different people may speak (without qualification) of "hearing from God," though some may find His voice in the Bible, others may be referring to their personal feelings, and yet others may actually hear audible voices (from God knows where) in their heads. The extreme end of this is that we may all speak of worshipping "God" — Jews, Christians, Muslims, New Agers, etc. — and we can all blithely imagine that we are referencing the same thing in spite of the fact that each is pouring radically different content into the 3-letter string g-o-d. In fact, the term "faith" has now become the lowest common denominator of solidarity. It is enough to simply have "faith" — never mind the object of that faith. Even Oprah and secularists can get on board with this, since they can have faith in a force, love, humanity, self, or just the winds of fortune.

3) Sheer ignorance. Many people are just not knowledgeable enough about their own denomination or religion, much less anyone else's, to see those areas of conflict between them. You can't disagree with what you don't see. So if you hear a theological liberal talking about their experience of "God," or a Mormon claiming that the Bible is "inspired," then this may sound all cozy and orthodox if you don't understand what is really meant by such language. Even worse, some may come to confuse the incidental outward trappings with the meaningful underlying differences. I once heard a newscaster condescending to explain the difference between Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church merely in terms of icon use and their distinctions in making the sign of the cross. Some would even suggest that we divest ourselves of those dogmas and details which may be cause for disunity. As one fellow pointed out to me when attempting to rationalize his anemic brand of Christianity, "Didn't Jesus say that the really important thing was to just love God and your neighbor?" Sure, but now we need to know who God is and exactly what it means to love Him and other people. And the theological game is back on again.

In the end, everyone has doctrines, or at least limits to what they will tolerate in other's beliefs. While one person may draw the line at belief in a God, another may draw it at belief in a personal god, and another at Jesus as God, while yet another may draw the line at faith in this Jesus alone for salvation. It is simply a matter of knowledge and conviction that serves to set the boundaries of division and discernment. So let us give up the charade of ecumenism and get on with the tasks of study and conversation.



At 11/19/2005 6:43 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

What Paul said.

At 11/20/2005 6:49 PM, Blogger Vman said...

This is all due to people trying to make christianity acceptable to the masses. If you say that you don't believe in denominations or organized religion but you blieve in jesus, you sound more new age and acceptable to non christians.

At 11/21/2005 7:17 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

I think V is right. Although I think it's valid when some people disavow denominationalism because they follow Biblical teaching as consistently as they know how and find that it doesn't square 100% with any particular denomination.

At 11/21/2005 10:59 AM, Blogger Chris said...

my response to this ended up being very very long, so I put it on my blog so that I would be able to spell check/edit it at will...

My Response

At 11/21/2005 1:55 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

Hey Chris, nice blog post. I have to agree with much of what you say and I suppose that, understood a certain way, my comment could have looked like I was saying we should all go our own way.
I didn't mean that though. I think your argument might even work better for a Roman Catholic who arguable possesses a stronger lineage with the apostolic teaching. So you need to convert! However, the protestant reformation was right and you then need to convert again!

Well, let's not go there. I'll just say that following the 'church' as you advocate only fails to the extent that the church has deviated, via it's tradition, from the original teachings of the apostles. I'm not familiar with the Orthodox faith and can't weigh in with any cases there. With the RCC it's pretty easy (papal infallibility, indulgences...).
So what we protestants have to hang on to is a systemmatic method of Biblical interpretation (grammatico-historical). This is not done in a vacuum though. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before, tracing our theology to Paul and other Apostles through the heroes of the reformation, back through Augustine and others.
This is not a claim that we are somehow the 'true' church. But rather a response to the critique that we make it up for ourselves. (which many do by the way...and especially now in our post-modern age).

At 11/21/2005 3:12 PM, Blogger Chris said...

The nice way to put it is to say that the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church "split" way way back when. Basically it was over the filioque, which is the addition of "and The Son" to the Nicene Creed.

The baised Orthodox way to put it (my way ;) ) would be to say that the Catholic Church fell astray. It was at that point that they deviated to the point of absurdity (the points you mentioned) and it's members WERE in desperate need of reformation. Since there probably weren't a ton of english speaking Orthodox churches back then, the protestant movement was a good fit for this need. However, the Orthodox church has been around since the start. It used to just be called "the church" and it's members "christians"... With the advent of brand names we became "Orthodox" christians.

The American Brand of Orthodox Christianity

I am very impressed with the way many protestant denominations look back to the fathers of the faith for their teaching and inspiration. I am disgusted with those that throw it all out and make it up as they go along.

Let's take the filioque for example. Who really cares if the Creed says "the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son" or just "the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father"? Isn't that the kind of dogmatic nit-picky sillyness non-denominational protestants are trying to escape? Yep. But it is VERY important. See, if you say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father AND the Son, that gives the Father and the Son a leg up on the Holy Spirit. It puts Them above Him, and makes Him more of just an energy, or a lesser part of the Trinity. That's kind of what Jehova's witnesses say though, and they are wrong. Taken to it's extreme, the filioque allows you to not view/worship the Holy Spirit in the same light you view the Father and the Son. Is this crucial to your salvation? Probably not in the beginning, but maybe 10 generations down the line, if incremented bit by bit, you could end up with the holy duality instead of the Holy Trinity. Sounds silly, but there ARE certain denominations that are on the road to viewing it this way, and the extreme version of this (as I said) is the Jehovah's witnesses.

So, again, it is very important to study the early church fathers. And in my oppinion, especially to study the Orthodox church...

This might interest some who know nothing of church history (and even some who do). It takes you all the way up through the seventeenth century of the Church.

Church History

And once again, I am not saying that there is no salvation to be found in protestant (or even Catholic) churches. I simply think that the Orthodox church is the closest to being, if not the "true" church (otherwise, why would I be in it? If there is one ultimate truth, someone has to be closest to that truth. If you don't believe that your church is closest to that truth, why are you there?)...

At 11/22/2005 10:59 AM, Blogger Paul said...

FYI. I'll be adding a lengthy comment here, but I can't guarantee I'll get it in before I take off tomorrow for vacation. I'm also trying to work on a new post on "Christian attrocities" in response to a discussion thread I found on Vman's blog.

At 11/23/2005 12:20 AM, Blogger Paul said...


First of all, let me state for the sake of my non-Christian readers that this is an in-house debate. You are Orthodox (note the capital "O"), Jeff attends a non-denominational Protestant church, and I attend a mainline Protestant church. Even so (and I think I speak for each of us), we are brothers in Christ. Of all those things over which we might dispute, there is a vast number of things on which we do agree — those being essential to "orthodoxy" and our salvation. However, no one can split a hair finer than a Christian theologian (which all Christians are to some degree), or enjoys doing so when given the chance. Truth is worth contending for and knowing as deeply as possible.

I must agree with you that "tradition" should not be abandoned wholesale. And you are right that most cultists and heretics begin with the mistake of attempting to blaze their own new trails. Unfortunately, most of them are not of the same theological prowess as the Fathers of the church and so they find themselves off in a ditch eventually. There are good reasons for each of the doctrinal milestones of the church, and, right or wrong, we do ourselves an intellectual disservice if we do not use each of those positions and the substance of those debates (at minimum) as our starting points. And where (and if) we depart, we should have our defenses in hand.

I can agree that such theological tradition is important in the sense that we "stand on the shoulders of giants," but I think there is some equivocation on the word "tradition" among the denominations. There is 1) the tradition of biblical study, theological inquiry, and doctrinal development, 2) the traditions of doctrine and practice as decreed by some empowered, official authority, and 3) the undocumented teachings of Jesus and the apostles which are supposedly passed down in some non-literary fashion.

The Protestant Reformers say that #1 is to be engaged and respected, but is not infallible, and #2 is based on a spurious understanding of the "church" and the work of the Holy Spirit. We are most sympathetic to #3, but there are problems in demonstrating what "traditions" are actually grounded in apostolic authority without some form of documentation; and Scripture has been canonized as the only wholly inspired and authoritative documentation for good reason. You can give me any of your doctrinal traditions and I can say, "prove it." But without a solid literary pedigree to the apostles themselves, there will always grounds for doubt. This leaves us only with the Bible as the final court of arbitration, and this is why the Reformers appeal to "Scripture Alone." It is not that there is nothing else by which we should be influenced, but rather that there is nothing that should trump Scripture when engaging in theological analysis.

Protestants hold to the perspicuity (clarity/understandability) of the Scripture. To hold that they are incoherent apart from some official interpreter seems to me a slander against a sovereign God who could surely get His point across if He so desired. But where Scripture is a bit heady or context laden, we may surely appeal to the minds of others who are more gifted and educated than ourselves, and who likewise are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. But where Scripture is blazingly clear and someone's "tradition" conflicts with it, what are we to do? Must we go with tradition every time? If this is so, then Scripture may simply be treated as a book of interesting stories, while we get our real theology from tradition. (This brings to mind the way that the Book of Mormon, in practice, overshadows the Bible, which they claim is inspired as well.) And by what means will we interpret the obscure and equivocal areas of "tradition"; who will interpret the interpretation? The buck must stop somewhere, and since we all agree that Scripture is a known quantity, and above reproach, then this is a reasonable place to make a stand.

As far as it's being "incomplete," I must agree that there is more to the story, as John mentions, but each of the authors has sought to commend to us his most important points. We have 4 Testaments of Jesus, and books like Romans and Hebrews are systematic works that would have been negligent in excluding any essential details. There were surely more parables about what the "kingdom of heaven" was like and more miracles that could have been mentioned, but things like these are not categorically different from what was recorded, only more detail on the same. How much must we thrash over uncertain and unverifiable tradition at the potential expense of those sure things we do have?

The answer to this point from tradition-advocates is generally that we would not know what to make of Scripture were we not illuminated by the understanding of tradition. But this is just as problematic. How do we know that the correct "understanding" has been passed down intact? And whose understanding do we take? There is some conflict amongst even the best of the Church Fathers [again, for my non-Christian friends, this is typically not in the area of essentials], and do we go with the traditions as defined by the East or by the West? It seems to me that if we are going with tradition and church authority, that Rome has the better claim with both Peter and Paul ending their days there (among other reasons). In fact, many of the greatest defenders of orthodoxy were not of the Eastern Church but from the Western Church (e.g., Athanasius against Arianism, Augustine against Pelagianism), and some of the most notorious heretics were from the East (Nestorius, Eutyches, Paul of Samosata, Montanus, and the Arian dissenters at the Council of Nicea). And even you and your father have both admitted to me that there are beliefs held by the Orthodox Church with which you take issue.

I am not clear, then, on what grounds the East believes itself to be the bearer of full orthodoxy. It seems that when it comes down to this debate, the defense breaks down to a theological dispute, as you affirm by bringing up the "filioque" controversy. This is not just a matter of the East and West appealing to what they understand to be the oral tradition of the apostles on this matter; it is a principled debate driven by those things known from Scripture. To this the Reformers say a hearty yeah and amen; let the debate proceed and may the best theology win.

The difference with the Reformers is that we do not claim to be the inerrant bearers (or creators) of a stealth tradition. Instead, we believe that we must do the best we can in our theology, driven by the Holy Spirit, guided by tradition, but grounded ultimately in Scripture. We could be wrong in our understanding of any given doctrine, (many being self-evidentially beyond dispute though), and knowing this we do not find ourselves in the awkward position of having to continually choke down past theological missteps. With this new perspective in mind, the Reformers were able to cut themselves loose of the "traditions" of Rome and go back to the drawing board of Scripture, the early councils, and the writings of the past luminaries. It is encouraging for all parties that they found the theology of the early councils (like Nicea and Chalcedon) to be sound not on the grounds of the unquestionable authority of tradition, but on Scriptural and philosophical grounds. And this bears far more weight in my view than an evidence-defying position that some group landed on the right doctrines by mystical inspiration or that somewhere beneath the sheets such doctrines were transmitted unscathed from Christ Himself.

It seems to me that many times what is meant by "tradition" is those things contained in the liturgy. I have no doubt that this liturgy is ancient (though I believe there are some variations among the different Orthodox groups), but did this come from Christ and the apostles? I am skeptical of such a claim, but I am not sure it is a claim that is being made. As I understand, the liturgy is essentially a product of the church at Constantinople some centuries later. I have no problem affirming that, or admitting that it is a reasonable encapsulation of biblical theology, but I don't see any warrant in thinking that it is the God-ordained way that the worship of Christ must proceed.

As I recall my Scriptures they tell me that there is freedom in Christ, and that God desires worship in truth and Spirit. If I were to make a case against the Orthodox liturgy, which I am not keen to do, I might bring forward Jesus' admonition against repetition in prayer, the fact that excessive ritual and symbolism can numb the participant to the substance behind the form, and that other forms of practice may be more successfully evangelistic. (However, I could also articulate certain advantages to a fixed liturgy — advantages that are enjoyed by those Protestant churches that use the Nicene and Apostles Creed in their own liturgies.)

And perhaps my main concern with the Orthodox Church is its meager participation in the exercise of the Great Commission (missions/evangelism). If I were Orthodox I would imagine struggling to make sense of the raging spread of the Gospel throughout the world by those rascally Protestant denominations. And I mean an abundance of souls on fire for the biblical Christ and being martyred for their beliefs in many cases. If the Holy Spirit is absent from this, then we have a theologically strange phenomenon to explain. But if the Holy Spirit is present there — outside the ministrations of the Orthodox Church — then perhaps it needs to reconsider its place in the Body of Christ.

I am prepared to accept Orthodoxy as another viable denomination of Christianity, with its good and bad points (as all have), but I take issue with any elitist perspective it might hold for itself in the vein of the Roman Catholic Church.


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