WHAT I BELIEVE:
Expositions on the Nicene Creed
for Christians in the Twenty-First Century
Executive Director, Preaching Peace
(1) Rethinking the Creed
My orthodoxy is challenged quite a bit on Facebook by any number of conservative Protestant readers of my posts. This is because I do not affirm certain positions identified with Protestant Orthodoxy: a certain theory of biblical inspiration, penal substitutionary atonement and eternal conscious torment in hell. As I have mentioned in posts this past spring, these three pillars, plus the justification violence are the four pillars which I challenge. So they wonder how it is I can consider myself orthodox.
Let me begin by saying that orthodoxy cannot and should not be defined by Protestant Confessional definitions. It must begin with a creedal statement, in particular, the Nicene Creed (I am using the Greek and Latin texts of the Creed as found in Denzinger/Rahner, Enchiridion Symbolorum). I affirm the Nicene Creed in all its particulars. This may come as a shock to my progressive Christian friends, but it is true all the same. Now it is also true that I may not affirm the way many of the statements in the Creed have been interpreted. This does not mean that I simply accept at face value what The Institutional Church (the IC) requires me to believe about the statements of the creed. For me, the Nicene Creed functions as a touchstone precisely because it is a massive epistemological shift in theological thinking. What do I mean by this?
Conservative Protestants tend to come at the Creed and assume that if one affirms, e.g., the Virgin Birth, this means that one believes that Jesus had no earthly father. That is fine as far as it goes but it does not begin to get at the heart of why that statement is included in the Creed (in its revised form of 381) or its ethical implications. For me, the Virgin Birth signals two very important theological considerations; first that God is not like the other gods who rape women (Mary gives her assent) and second, the Virgin Birth is not about proving Jesus’ divinity but his humanity. In the first I follow Rene Girard’s reading, in the second I follow the work of Hans von Campenhausen. That Jesus is human and that God is nonviolent are two key aspects of my own personal belief system and I find them both in the affirmation of the Virgin Birth. “What about the miraculous element?” my progressive friends may say. Well, I observe that we live in a quantum universe where all things are possible; nothing is outside the realm of possibility. But I have already affirmed this when earlier in the Creed I say “I believe in God the Father, the Almighty.” The Greek for “Almighty” is ‘pantokrator’ which means all powerful but the Latin has ‘omnipotentem’, that is, not only ‘all powerful’ but also ‘full of possibility’ (potens = potential). God is a God full of possibilities and is also affirmed as the Creator (‘pointen’ or ‘creatorem’), that is God is a God full of creative possibilities. God, as full of creative possibilities, suggests that God is life-giving which I also affirm when I say that the Holy Spirit is ‘the Lord and Giver of Life.’
In other words I come to the Nicene Creed and read it ‘in bonum partem’ (in the best possible light). It contains statements not simply to be recited but to be interpreted. In fact it is best sung, it is a worship document of the highest order. As someone once said, “creeds are meant to be sung, not signed.”
The biggest leap of all in the creed is its Trinitarian structure. What does this mean for me? My Mennonite friends abjure the creed because it doesn’t say much about the life of Jesus. They have no idea that alongside the creed in the early church there was also the catechetical process which was all about the Life of Jesus. So we come to that tricky word ‘homoousias’ which is usually translated ‘of the same substance.’ Here we are in the language of Platonic metaphysics. That fine for those who find metaphysics important. I don’t. For me, ‘homoousias’ indicates an identity of character between the one named as ‘pater’ (Father) and Jesus. Some traditions record that in order to ameliorate the debate between the Arians and the Alexandrians at the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E., Constantine suggested the word and had it inserted into the Creed. If so, this was one of the most important and subversive moves ever made. If one reasons that in the Gospels that Jesus was nonviolent and non-retributive and if one says that Jesus is ‘homoousias’ with the Father, then one must also affirm that the Father is nonviolent and non-retributive. Wow! What a difference a word makes. In fact one might say that the Emperor sowed the seed for the deconstruction of the State with that little word! The state is violent, God is not, ergo, the state is not a manifestation of the reign of God.
So you see I am orthodox to the core, just not Protestant Orthodox. For my money, Protestant Orthodoxy in its modern pseudo guise of Conservative Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism is a farce, a false front, a red herring to authentic faith in the Living God named as Abba, Son, and Spirit. The Creed is not meant to be an end but a hermeneutic beginning whereby we are constantly rethinking the implications of what it means to have a Jesus-centered faith. If we just “sign” it, if we just blithely recite it we miss the point. We are meant to take it all in, absorb it, meditate and reflect upon it, and begin to allow it to reframe our theologies, particularly our violent and retributive theologies. If we sing it, if it becomes a worship document, if it becomes a prayer then we will have rightly understood it.
(2) The Problem of the Two Biblical Testaments
I truly apologize for the length of today’s post but inasmuch as it is THE key question plaguing contemporary Christianity, it cannot have a short, sweet and simple answer but deserves to be considered fully.
Yesterday a poster commented to another poster, “I see that you are sensing a contradiction between the two testaments as far as God’s nature. This goes way back. Have you ever read anything about Marcionism? I’m not equated Michael’s teachings with Marcionism, but they both see the [biblical] Testaments contradicting!”
Marcion might be called the arch-heretic of the early church. He could not reconcile the message of the gracious God he found in the writings of Paul with the violent capricious God of the Old Testament scriptures. Anytime anyone brings up this question they are automatically looked at in the light of Marcion. The Nicene Creed does not solve this problem. Unlike the revision of the Creed at Constantinople in 381 (and the earlier Apostles Creed upon which it was modeled), the Nicene Creed has no mention of the phrase “kata tas graphas” (“according to the Scriptures”) after affirming Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Nicene Creed ends with the phrase “[and we believe] in the Holy Spirit” where the emended Creed in 381 has “who has spoken through the prophets”
(which is also in the Apostle’s Creed).
If we acknowledge this editorial addition to the Creed it is important to note that the framers of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan document did not say “…the holy Spirit who has spoken through the Scriptures.” They could have, they had used the phrase earlier in the christological section, but they didn’t. Nor did they say “…the holy Spirit who has spoken through the Law and the prophets” as one finds for example in Matthew’s Gospel (5:17-20). They simply asserted that God had spoken “through the prophets.” How might we interpret this since there was no full blown theory of biblical inspiration in the early church?
We know there were major debates on how to read the Jewish scriptures in the early church. “Literalists” from Antioch collided with “allegorizers” from Alexandria on this. The big problem in the early church was precisely the question raised by Marcion: is the Abba to whom Jesus prayed to be equated with the God of the Old Testament?
Just because someone observes contradictions between the portraits of God in the Testaments does not mean they are Marcionite. I wrote about this in my book The Jesus Driven Life which I quote:
“However, a more significant piece of data to consider is the problem that arose in the second century about the use of the Jewish Scriptures for Christian theology and life. Sometime in the early decades of the second century a wealthy ship owner from the area around the Black Sea made his way, first to Ephesus and then on to Rome. Marcion (80-150? C.E.) was a gifted teacher who asked the key theological question that has plagued Christianity ever since: “What does the violent God of the Jewish Scriptures have to do with the gracious, compassionate God taught by Jesus and Paul?”
This really is a conundrum if we will admit it, for it appears that God changes from the Old to the New Testaments. There have been a number of ways to solve this apparent problem but until recently none have proved satisfactory. Marcion’s solution was to throw out the Jewish Scriptures and collect New Testament documents that had been purged of this Jewish influence (Luke and some of Paul’s letters). Influenced by the polytheism of his time and emerging Gnosticism, Marcion taught that there were two gods, the Creator God of the Jews and the higher God, who was Spirit, this latter God revealed in Jesus. By rejecting the ‘violent God’ of the Jewish Bible, Marcion also rejected the world made by the Creator, the world of flesh, blood, sweat and semen. His churches practiced rejection of sexual relations (even in marriage) and other ascetic practices.
The church leaders who opposed Marcion contended otherwise when they said it was one and the same God; that the God who created was the God who redeemed. This was the orthodox solution, which would soon run into a host of major problems and one in particular: how to reconcile the character of God as found in the Jewish Scriptures with the character of God found in the person of Jesus.
Many and varied are the ways by which the early Christian Fathers tried to bring the two ‘Testaments’ into relation. For Justin Martyr, they stand in a schema of promise and fulfillment, where the emphasis is on the fulfillment of ancient prophecy. For Clement of Alexandria they are pedagogically related, God could not reveal God’s self all at once and so accommodated revelation to our limited but growing understanding. For Irenaeus and Cyprian they are related as differing historical dispensations; God acts certain ways at certain periods of time.
Augustine’s theory, which included aspects of all of the above, goes under many names but is dualistically inspired by his neo-Platonic philosophical background: the Testaments can be related as letter-Spirit or even law-gospel, but his dictum that ‘the new in the old is concealed, the old in the new is revealed’ has been the maxim determinant in western Christian understanding of the testamental relationship for sixteen hundred years.
The majority solution, while rejecting the two gods theory of Marcion, tended to unify all biblical statements about God in just as much of a dualistic paradigm as Marcion’s. By the time we get to Augustine (400 C.E.), the most influential figure in Christian history after the Apostle Paul, God’s character has two sides, light and dark, loving and wrathful, merciful and punishing. This two-faced view of God (the Janus-Face) has dominated Christian theology ever since.
The early church was by and large committed to the way of peace and nonviolence. As they struggled with how to relate the apostolic writings to the Jewish canon they would gradually begin to accept that God, like all the other gods, was retributive. As we saw in the last chapter, it is short step from a doctrine of a punishing God to a view that Christian ethics can also be penal in its outworking.
It would be easy to criticize the early church fathers for their inability to see that something startlingly new had occurred in Jesus. The fact is they were working out their theology from a perspective dominated by the categories of Greek philosophy. The first important apologist of the second century, Justin Martyr, was a student of many Greek philosophical schools before he became a Christian. Clement of Alexandria and Origen were deeply influenced by Plato. Augustine would drink deeply from the well of Neo- Platonic thought. The problem with this is that God was already a ‘known’ quantity; what God could or could not do, what God was like had already been discussed and decided apart from God’s revelation to the Jewish people throughout their history and ultimately in Jesus Christ.
These early theologians were trying to put a square peg in a round hole by bringing together the dynamic revelatory God of Judaism with the static unchangeable thought patterns of Greek philosophy. One can see this over and over again. The God of Exodus 3:14 (“I will be who I will be”) who will not be named, labeled or boxed became the god who is unchangeable, without feeling, apart from space, time and history. This is a god who cannot suffer and who is not affected by the human situation. This god is remote and far removed from the vicissitudes of human existence.
Therefore the early church fathers rejected the dualism of Marcion only to succumb to philosophical dualism. This affected the way they interpreted their Scriptures, both the Jewish canon and the emerging New Testament. They began to develop a doctrine of God that was both parts oil and water, Jewish and Greek, biblical and pagan. To put it quite bluntly, the definition of God that comes out of Greek philosophy cannot contain the biblical revelation of the dynamic character of the Trinitarian God known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
This rather long post is necessary for this is the major problem with the doctrine of inspiration popular in the Protestant imagination. Simply labeling one (or me) a Marcionite does not do justice to the issue. The fact is, if we say Jesus is ‘homoousias’ (of the same stuff) as the father, and if we assert that Jesus was non-violent and non-retributive in dealing with his enemies, and if we acknowledge the absolutely key role forgiveness plays in Jesus’ ministry and teaching, then we must come to the conclusion that either God is not like Jesus and the framers of the Creed were dead wrong or we must come to the conclusion that God is like Jesus, nonviolent, non-retributive and non-retaliatory. These are the only two options. There is no third option of trying to harmonize the character of Jesus with that of certain traditions about “God” in the Jewish Scriptures.
I would say that a generous “orthodox” reading of the Creed (of 381) suggests that the writers are following a specific trajectory “a prophetic reading of the Law”, a reading which critiqued the sacrificial system and its attendant sacrificial violence justifying hermeneutic. A splendid example of this can be found in Jeremiah 7, a text Jesus cites in the episode where he symbolically shuts down the Temple. Jeremiah 7:21-23 is translated in the New International Version: “this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves! 22 For when I brought your forefathers out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, 23 but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people.”
According to this translation, God gave many commands following the Exodus from Egypt; among them were commands about the sacrificial system. Now contrast the NIV translation of 7:22 with the translation of the Revised Standard Version: “For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
There is in the NIV the addition of the little word ‘just.’ The addition of this word indicates that among all the commandments given on Sinai were those of the sacrificial system, something that is certainly the case in Torah. Yet the RSV and almost all other translations do not have this addition. Jeremiah is saying that the sacrificial system was not part of the original Torah. The NIV translators (primarily conservative Evangelicals) could not handle the possibility that Jeremiah could be in contradiction to Torah and so brought his speech in line with what was in Torah. Yet, it is clear from the context that Jeremiah is a trenchant critic of the sacrificial system and the Temple.
Is Jeremiah a Marcionite? Is Jesus? Hardly. To critique the portrait of God found in certain texts of the Jewish Scriptures is not to engage in Marcionism but to follow the lead of the One God who by the Spirit “has spoken through the prophets.” So, like the Anabaptists of the 16th century, we can choose to follow the nonviolent Jesus or like the Calvinists of the 16th century and later we can follow the violence justifying God of certain Old Testament passages. We know where the latter has led. Are we ready yet to rethink the relation between the Testaments and follow Jesus?
(3) What Does it Mean to be Orthodox?
In our current postmodern climate many who have left the church but still retain their faith in Jesus don’t over worry much about whether or not they are ‘orthodox.’ Some find orthodoxy stifling. Some find theology, doctrine, dogma to be outdated or outmoded at best and repressive or oppressive at worst. I have any number of friends who fall into these categories. Occasionally they question me as to why this all seems so important to me. “Why,” they say “do you care what other people think about you? Isn’t it just important to have a relationship with Jesus and be a decent person?” I usually reply that of course these things are important but, for me, it is also important to be able to explain why the theological moves I am making are not outside the bounds of the faith of the church. I am seeking to show these friends that one can love Jesus and still engage theology as a joyful discipline.
I have other friends for whom doctrine or dogma is essential. How they articulate their faith is just as important as faith itself. I don’t find this unreasonable. After all, “faith seeks understanding” (Anselm of Canterbury). These friends have a need to trace their theological lineage, back to the Reformation (usually Luther and Calvin), back through the Middle Ages (they usually cite Wycliffe and Hus) and thence to the early church, ultimately landing in the apostolic church. For these friends, it is absolutely essential that they are able to say that that in which they believe is the same which has “been believed by everyone, everywhere at all times” (Vincent of Lerins). I admire that. Maybe it was growing up Roman Catholic but I share their desire as well.
Finally, I have friends who frankly just don’t give a damn whether or not they are orthodox. Whatever they believe is just fine, it works for them. They have a rather utilitarian approach to faith. If it doesn’t work in the real world, “Fuggedaboutit.” I also admire this kind of chutzpah. I share it to some degree. I do not share their anti-intellectualism though. I find that appalling and frankly, silly.
In some ways I find myself in all three camps at once. That is my conundrum.
On a personal level, I would like to be able to shake hands with Pope Francis, be questioned about my faith and come away recognized as a “faithful brother in the Lord.” On the other hand if I was rejected, I wouldn’t lose a lot of sleep over it. On the other hand (how many hands do I have?), as one trained to engage theology, biblical studies and church history, I cannot but reflect on what the church has believed, what I am discovering (or uncovering) and how the two relate.
My Evangelical friends (God bless their souls) are the ones who I am really trying to reach with this message of a peaceful way to read the Bible. Yet, many see me as the enemy because I challenge their four pillars: I/I (inerrancy/infallibility), penal substitution atonement, eternal conscious torment, and the ethical justification of violence (and war). None of the three great creeds, The Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed nor the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed affirm any of these four pillars of modern Evangelical faith. In fact the Creeds say virtually nothing about how we must conceive of the authority of scripture, the atoning death of Jesus, the afterlife or the problem of violence. In this sense, my Evangelical friends don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to tracing their heritage back to the patristic period. They are forced to do a strange kind of church history, citing a saying here or an author there (often of context) in order to try and find what they believe in these ancient authorities. They fail to see that their questions were not the questions of the fathers and mothers of the early church. I have listened to many a pastor try and trace the modern concept of the inerrancy of the Bible or penal substitution, e.g., back to the writers of the early church. It simply is not there.
Perhaps more egregious is that just as they fail to read their Bibles critically, so they also fail to read the patristic writers critically. They try so hard to prove they are orthodox only to ultimately betray that quest. The four pillars of Conservative Protestantism cannot be found as pillars of the ancient church. If they were they would have managed to make their way into at least one of the great ecumenical creeds.
I affirm the great creeds. So to my Conservative Evangelical friends I say this: stop accusing me of being innovative and unorthodox. I am neither. You, however, might just wish to look in the mirror and ask whether that in which you believe is really so ancient. I encourage you to stay away from cheap apologetics, cherry-picking history, self-justification and over rationalization (and that really bad excess of logic that stems from the influence of Francis Bacon on you). Try just asking about Jesus. What might it mean that God became flesh just like you and me and everyone you meet? What might it mean that Jesus knows the struggles of life and faith? What might it mean that Jesus didn’t know everything but also had to take a ‘faith journey?’ What might it mean that Jesus ‘broke’ with the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of his time? What might it mean for you, if in following Jesus, your theology and ethics changed to conform to his and if in that process others accused you of blasphemy? What might it mean for you to carry a cross and forgive your enemies, even your friends who abandon you and deny you and join the mob to crucify you? What might it mean for you to give up believing in your theology and begin trusting in God? What might it mean?
(4) What can We Say an Angry God?
Yesterday one of my FB friends from Melbourne, Australia asked me a question. She said,
“The biggest problem I have is the one everyone has – the Old Testament God can be the least loving thing imaginable, and yet the most loving at times also. The New Testament God (as shown in Jesus) is nothing but loving. Jesus lost his temper pretty badly (only once that is recorded, granted), but frequently showed signs of frustration and what I’d call mild anger at the disciples and some of the crowd. I often wonder if there isn’t a bit of ‘selective editing’ going on in the NT stuff to play down the anger side of Jesus (and hence, of God) or if the ‘angry God’ of the OT still exists but we chose to ignore him?”
The concept of the wrath of God is so deeply embedded in us that to understand what the Bible is doing with the concept can be difficult. Basically there are three positions one can take.
The texts that speak of God’s wrath or anger are literally true. God gets angry at sin, unrighteousness, idolatry, injustice and any number of other things. Heck, God gets angry if the ark of the covenant tips over and you try to help out! In this view, wrath is an attribute of God. This understands wrath as an affectus (emotion) of God.
Texts that speak of the wrath of God are to be interpreted in the light of an emerging dissociation of the affective view (#1) and see wrath as an effect: God allows us to go our own way and suffer the consequences of our actions. This view uses Romans 1:18-32 which begins by saying ‘the wrath of God is revealed from heaven’ and three times uses the verb ‘to give over’ with regard to the consequences of sin. Wrath in this view is not so much anger as it is resignation. My friend Brad Jersak calls this a ‘theology of consent.’
Both views #1 and #2 are grounded in a view of the Bible’s infallibility. However, if one is willing to come to the Bible critically, one can understand texts about God’s wrath as projections. That is, these texts are not really about God but instead reflect Israel’s and the church’s inability to break free from pagan notions of God’s wrath.
At one time or another, I have held all three views. I began at #1, moved to #2 in seminary and then have since moved to #3. My Melbourne friend is right to notice that there are two seeming contradictory trajectories in the Jewish Scriptures, sometimes God is like an angry alcoholic in the sky, at other times God is like a gentle grandmother. When these views are put together they create what I call a Janus-faced (or two-faced view of God), and this way of conceiving God has been the heritage of Christianity even going back into certain New Testament churches and documents.
When the early church sought to understand the character of God in the light of the revelation of Jesus what they produced was the doctrine of the Trinity. It took several hundred years for this to emerge and even then, there were splits, some deeper than others. There still remains a split today between the Eastern and Western churches on the Holy Spirit. It has never been completely settled. Today we stand at the cusp of a new Reformation, a time when Christians the world over are rethinking the doctrine of God. Who is this God we worship? How shall we understand God’s character? Is God like Jesus? What is the relation of Jesus to God? What is the relation of the various traditions about God in the Jewish Scriptures to the One Jesus called Abba? If I John says “God is Love” how does this statement play out in our thinking as an interpretive axiom? What is the role of the Passion and death of Jesus in the light of God’s love? These and many more questions can be raised.
The Big Hurdle is in the way we understand the issue of the authority and inspiration of Scripture. It is what sets apart view #3 from views #1 and #2. Those who are willing to rethink the Bible (and I don’t mean those who throw the Bible out, who I call “fundamentalist” progressives), and do the heard work of rethinking theology within the context of the larger historic Christian tradition, are the ones to whom we can turn fruitfully and find answers to these difficult questions. The fact is that just as the “fundamentalist” position is outdated, psychologically crippling, moldy and no longer intellectually viable, so also those who would throw out the theological baby with the ecclesial bathwater are just as ill informed and ungrateful for the real valuable positive gains that have also been made in Christian life and thought for the past 2000 years. We seek a third way, a genuine intelligent, spiritual, faith oriented, Jesus centered way. I believe this way is manifesting itself all over biblical scholarship and theology these days. I see it in hungry congregations and pastors willing to risk their ministries for the sake of the gospel. I am glad to be part of those who are helping move us into this wonderful new theological space that I believe is being created by the Spirit of Jesus.
(5) What Does Faith Have to Do with Theology?
Theology is a dirty word in some quarters. For far too many people, theology suggests dry dusty out of touch unreal propositions. What could God possibly have to do with this kind of theology? Actually, not much, not much at all. Thirty eight years ago Lorri and I went to visit George Ladd at Fuller Seminary. I wanted to discuss some of his work. I had been a Christian for three years, had gone from Dispensational Fundamentalism to some sort of Jesus movement Evangelicalism, had discovered the ‘kingdom of God’ and had some questions. We met in his book lined office. George was a New Testament scholar. After each question I asked he would say, “It’s in my books.” He asked me what my goal in life was. I replied that I wanted to be a theologian. “Well”, he replied, in that slow New England cadence he spoke with, “you had better learn to eat sawdust without butter.”
George Ladd had no patience for speculative theology. If it couldn’t be found in scripture, it just wasn’t worth much. There are many Christians on Facebook who I suppose exhibit the same kind of attitude toward theology. That grieves me. Theology is a beautiful discipline but it is not for the faint of heart. I understand that a lot of what theologians talk about flies over the head of the average person. We can use a lot of technical language that functions as shorthand. I understand why the average person would shake their head and cry “Foul!” Still, after a lifetime of questions, sweat, blood, tears, prayers, petitions, sore knees, anguish, heartache and the exhilarating unbounded joy of finding a pearl or two of great price, I can say with Karl Barth that “theology is the most joyful of the sciences.” I confess to taking delight in “the study of God.”
I believe that theology is important, indeed a critical discipline especially in our time. In our postmodern world where it seems that everyone thinks that what they say about God is true and should matter for the rest of us, the theologian is a real necessity. Just as many have grown weary of the dry technical often over-parsed language of theology so I have grown weary of seeing people repeat something that they think is brand new (“God revealed such and such to me”) with no idea that what they are saying has been said before, sometimes with disastrous results. You know the saying: “those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.” Well, the same applies in theology. Those who would throw out the church, dogma, doctrine and theology really “don’t know what they are doing.”
Now I don’t blame folks for walking away from bad theology, doctrine or dogma. By bad theology I mean theology that keeps people fearful or suppressed. I have walked away from that kind of theology over and over again. But there is good theology, theology that is beneficent, healing, nurturing and life-giving. Theology, “discourse or study about God”, can be all of this and more when it bears witness to the character of the One God, Abba, Son and Spirit, who have revealed themselves as an intercommunion of love, a love which has been manifested in human history and which is poured out into our hearts. Genuine theology is “talk about God” that resists flights of imagination or fancy but remains focused on the heart of God seen in Jesus.
I believe in theology, but I do not believe in my theology. I believe in the discipline of theology but my faith rests, not in my capacity to think or consider all things divine, but in God’s thoughts about space, time, history, creation, humanity, you and me. Theology is not that in which we put our faith, it is simply our best articulation of how we frame our experience. Theology is not about who has it right, but who is living faithfully and thinking faithfully after God. Doctrine comes from the same French word that we get “doctor” from; in this sense theology can be and may be a healing science. Theology can be and may be medicine for the soul when practiced with a healer’s touch. Indeed, theology is a beautiful science.
If you are one of those who has thrown out theology I invite you to reconsider. The Holy Spirit can teach us all a lot, but we are also called to love God “with our minds.” There are enough brainless Christians in the world today practicing Zombie theology. We do not need to join them. We can and indeed are called to reason together. Yes, we will disagree. Yes, we will articulate differently. But we have a base, a place where we all begin. You guessed it if you have been paying attention during this post (and the first four posts of this series). Do you think you know what it is?
No, it is not scripture, although scripture plays a role.
No, it is not experience, as important as that is, it too plays a role.
No, it is not reason or logic, even though that too plays a role.
No, it is not the church, even though (and I know some of you will cringe to hear this), church too plays a role.
The place we begin our theological thinking is the doctrine of the trinity, confessing One God revealed as three modes/energies/expressions (if we were doing theology, the technical term would be ‘hypostases’): Abba, Son, Spirit. That’s right; we begin theology with…God! (Doh! Facepalm!). Imagine that. Talk about God begins with…God! Not just a god concept but with the revealed God, Abba, Son, Spirit.
This is why I affirm the Nicene Creed. This is why I delight in its phrases. This little statement has always been the basis for the Christian faith. To begin otherwise is to place oneself outside the realm of Christian thought. To begin here brings assurance that we have understood something deep and profound: God is one, and that Oneness has made all things very, very good. That oneness has been revealed in the exquisite extraordinary rabbi from Nazareth. And that oneness has filled all creation with life and light and the purity of love. One God who makes us all one. Now that is a theology worth preaching!
(6) The Brokenness of Revelation
As you know I don’t accept the standard Protestant view of the inerrancy or infallibility of Scripture. It is not simply the question of ‘historical errors’ (was Jesus crucified before or after the Passover meal) but the deeper theological ones (why is God as reflected in Jesus so substantively different than God is portrayed in many Old Testament texts) that have caused me to rethink the nature of the Bible. I am convinced by the work of René Girard that one must distinguish the perspectives and voices found in Scripture, which one writer calls “rightly dividing the word of truth.” For many, these two types of questions, plus a third question concerning origins (creationism vs. evolutionary theory) have caused many to dismiss the Bible out of hand as a ‘human’ book that cannot be trusted. Persons who affirm inerrancy and liberals who dismiss the Bible both work from the assumption that if God is perfect, and if God wrote the Bible, then the Bible must be perfect. I don’t share the premises or conclusion of this syllogism.
My view can be graphed in this simple chart:
If God speaks through Scripture, and I believe God does indeed speak, how shall we understand God speaking? I begin with several criteria. The first is that in Jesus the “fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily” (Col 2:9). Jesus is the figure who reveals the character of the Father (so Heb 1:1-3, John 1:1-18, etc). The second is this: God speaks through broken vessels. The greatest speech/act of God can be found in the cross. God did God’s best work on the cross reconciling a stubborn, blind and rebellious humanity by forgiving them their sins. The cross is the ultimate place of God’s brokenness. It is in this brokenness that we see most clearly the affection of God for humanity, an affection or love which takes even misjudgment, torture, humiliation and shame and still announces forgiveness. The cross of Jesus is the revelatory Big Bang!
Paul in 2 Corinthians 4 says we have “this treasure in clay jars.” This treasure is the gospel (vs. 3). If a jar could contain light, say, the light of the gospel, and it was perfect, then that light would not be seen, for it would have nowhere to shine through. But if it is cracked, then there are places for that light to leak out and shine forth. For me, Scripture is liked a cracked jar, it is because it is cracked that light is able to shine forth. If in our brokenness God shines God’s light in and through us, can we not also assert the same of the prophets and the apostles? Can we not say that we are most like God, not when we are whole, but when we are broken? Does not the Fourth Gospel (John) suggest as much in its view of the relationship between ‘glory’ and the cross?
In other words, we do not need to have a theory of Scripture where the Bible must be perfect in order for God to reveal God’s self. Some may object and say but if that is the case how do we distinguish between what is “man’s word” and what is “God’s Word?” I have already answered that by suggesting that revelation comes through the voice of the forgiving victim. It is the Crucified that speaks the eternal word: shalom. The forgiveness announced by Jesus on the cross is no different than the ‘shalom’ announced by the Risen Jesus. They are flip sides of a coin. God is at peace with humanity.
For this reason, I see the cross as the evacuation of all concepts of divine wrath, existential and eschatological. There was no wrath of God poured out on Jesus on the cross; the wrath is strictly ours. Nor is there an eschatological wrath, as though God was only partly ameliorated at the cross but will make sure to vent holy anger come The End. The cross is the death of all our god concepts, and we humans are the ones who, through the justification of scapegoating, believe that God is one with us when we victimize others. After all, God victimized plenty of people and people groups in the Old Testament. This sacrificial way of thinking is terminated by the anti-sacrifice Jesus. Jesus’ blood covers our sin, not through some divine forensic transaction but as we lift our blood stained hands we hear the divine voice “You are forgiven, each and every one of you, all of you.” The New Testament writers say this was all done “for us” (hyper humon), for our sakes, for our benefit. This is what the Nicene Creed affirms when it says Jesus “who for us humans and our salvation came down from heaven.” Just as Hebrews 10:5-8 says, this coming was not to be a sacrifice but was the opposite, it was anti-sacrificial. Jesus did not come to fulfill the logic of the sacrificial system (either Jewish or pagan) but to expose it and put an end to its reign in our lives.
The cross of Christ is the place of revelation, the resurrection of Jesus is the vindication of that revelation, and the ascension, where Jesus is given the Unpronounceable Name (Phil 2:5-11) is the place where that revelation is confirmed for all time. This is the good news, this is the gospel, and this is why we trust God to use our brokenness to shine his light from our lives into the lives of others, just as God uses the broken prophetic and apostolic witness to continue to shine light to us and for us today.
(7) The Trinity: “Is This Love or Confusion?”
. I have decided to a kind of exegesis on the Nicene Creed. I have no idea how long it will take. I have said that if one wishes to count oneself inside the Christian tradition one must start with the Nicene Creed. This has bothered some of my FB friends who have trouble with the creed itself as well as the doctrine of the Trinity. In this post, in one page, I am going to problematize the doctrine of the Trinity.
The subtitle of this post comes from the song by Jimi Hendrix. It is my vain attempt at humor. The doctrine of the Trinity can be complicated. It doesn’t have to be but it often is. It is a math problem. How does 1 = 3? 1 is 1 and 3 is 3? Math is pretty straightforward. If I buy 3 apples and take away 1 apple, I have 2 apples. Yet here, in this business of God math gets all mixed up. Kind of like “This Song is Over” by The Who where “1 and 1 don’t make 2, 1 and 1 make 1.” How are we supposed to say that there is one God, but somehow we also say that the Abba is God, Jesus is God and the Spirit is God. Raging battles were fought about this in the early church. Even the Nicene Creed didn’t settle the issue.
The first thing to observe is that the structure of the creed originates from an early Roman baptismal formula which is trinitarian in character. Early Christian converts were baptized in the name of the triune God (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds). This triune formula can also be found in the commission of Matthew 28:16-20. So, the belief that God is Father, Son and Spirit is old, even back to the apostolic church.
Second, the real problem comes when trying to fit this 1 and 3 business in terms of Platonic metaphysics. Plato, and following him Aristotle, had discussed God and Greek philosophy and had come to some conclusions about the divine: that it is unchanging, static, the prime mover, etc. So it is that the early Christian fathers wrestled with how to say that Jesus also is God. The move they made in the second century is the opposite move made in the early church. The fathers of the second century took an already known quantity from their philosophy, “God”, and sought to fit Jesus within that definition. They were asking “How is Jesus like God?” However, the early church experienced the Risen Jesus and was asking an altogether different question: “How is God like Jesus?” That is, rather than seeking to do some sort of metaphysical fitting of a round peg (Jesus) into a square hole (God), the early church realized that the appearance of Jesus meant that their view of God (their theology) needed to change.
Third, if we try to understand the Trinity through the lens of Greek metaphysics we will always be stuck with a math problem. Instead of looking to the life of Jesus, his character and his actions and what he said about his Abba, we will end up looking for language that in the end has to eliminate the Life of Jesus from the conversation. And this is what the Creed does! It skips right from Jesus birth to his death. If we do not look to the life of Jesus and his character and from that move to the character of God, if instead, we begin with presuppositions about the character of God (whether taken from the Old Testament as Rick Warren did in The Purpose Driven Life or from Greek philosophy as Justin Martyr did) and try to fit Jesus into these presuppositions we will always end up struggling to see just how it is that Jesus and the Abba can both be called God inasmuch as their character is different.
Fourth, if we take the Gospel witnesses seriously, we see that in the Synoptic tradition Jesus does not refer to himself as ‘God.’ Nor when he prays does he call his Abba ‘God.’ As I said in The Jesus Driven Life, God is like a suitcase, unzip it, throw in whatever nouns and adjectives you like, zip it up and viola!, you have a doctrine of God. At the beginning of the 21st century this is no longer a viable theological move. If there is one thing we are beginning to see it is that when it comes to the relation of Jesus and God, it is that Jesus must be the lens by which all reality is interpreted and that includes whatever we might wish to call “God.”
Some may object and say, but in the Fourth Gospel doesn’t Jesus make himself out to be God? “I and the Father are one” and that kind of stuff. The answer is yes he does. The problem is that the writer of the Fourth Gospel presents Jesus as the reformulation of the character of God, and this was either misunderstood by Jesus’ interlocutors in the gospels (and most since then) or if it was understood that this is what Jesus was saying, he was requiring a change of theological perspective which they (and many since) cannot abide. It is difficult to let go of our god-concepts and allow them to re-shaped by Jesus.
If we take the structure of the Nicene Creed seriously one of the things we will have to do is to ask what it may mean for us to problematize the doctrine of the Trinity this way. Let me put it to you in a syllogistic formula. If with the creed we confess that Jesus is identical to the Father, and if, from the gospels, we can make a case that Jesus was nonviolent and non-retributive, loving, forgiving, healing, nurturing and caring, then (ergo) we must also say that the Abba is also nonviolent and non-retributive, loving, forgiving, healing, nurturing and caring. And this means that our suitcase is going to have to be unzipped and all of its contents poured out. It means our God concept will be reframed. It means that we take our empty theological luggage and instead of all kinds of adjectives and nouns, we simply place the name of Jesus inside, zip it up and say, if we have known the Son, we have also known the Abba. This is my starting place for elucidating a doctrine of the God as Trinity.
(8) Who are We?
The Nicene Creed is a corporate confession of faith. It begins with a “We” not an “I.” Even though this series is titled “What I Believe” it is the way I understand what “we” believe. For me, leaving the institutional church and leaving the Christian faith are two entirely separate things. Some would do both at once and I understand why they would do so. I have preferred rather, to try and remain within the institutional church, that is, to be part of a local congregation. I don’t want you to think this is easy for me. It is lifelong weekly struggle for me to attend an anemic worship service or listen to (yet) another boring sermon on the same old thing I have heard ad nauseum or deal with autocratic clergy. Believe me when I say that I completely understand why people leave the institutional church.
On the other hand, deep inside of me there is a faith that will not stop bubbling up, a faith nurtured by the Spirit, reading the Scriptures and meeting with friends who share the same passion for Jesus that I share. Even though FB (Facebook) is a virtual community I am also nurtured by relationships with many of my FB friends, a few of whom I have met in person, others who message me or I speak with by phone or Skype. I am grateful for all those who quest after the Living God and who realize that their quest has been fulfilled in Jesus, the One who has first quested for them. All of us are this “we” of the creed.
“We” indicates that faith occurs in relationships. I know there is a growing movement of folks who want to live up to the Kantian ideal to “Think for Yourself” and try to go it alone. I don’t believe you can. It takes two for real faith; no one is a Robinson Crusoe believer. We are relational creatures, not autonomous individuals. For those who are familiar with my work you are aware that I accept the work of modern research in the human brain regarding our neural networks, particularly when seen in the light of Rene Girard’s mimetic theory. There is no such thing as the autonomous individual, we are interdividual, and we are relational. One problem with post-modernity is the illusion that we can work things out for ourselves, alone, somehow in the company of the Holy Sprit, as though we don’t need each other. If as Girard, says, the notion of the autonomous individual is the “romantic lie” of modernism, then the notion that I can sit here typing away, just me and the Holy Ghost, is also a lie. While it is true that I can have a “personal” relationship with God through Jesus, it is nevertheless even truer that his reconciling work on the cross makes possible and real, genuine relationships with others so that my faith journey will always be part of another’s faith journey, and theirs mine.
The problem of the “We” of the creed is that some have perceived this “We” in an exclusive fashion and justified all sorts of heresy hunting. “We” believe this, you don’t therefore you cannot call yourself Christian. I am not saying this at all. What I am saying is that the “We” of the creed is an invitation to consider what the faith of the church has always been: an epistemological revolution! It not only changes what we think but how we think. This faith has been, at times, made into static statements that many have given assent to but they have not allowed it to change their perception of God. Perhaps we should fault the priests, pastors and theologians for this. Or we might just ask ourselves how we might reclaim the faith of the Christian tradition on behalf of the Christian tradition for the benefit of the Christian tradition. Unless we are content to just wander in a miasma “whatever you believe is cool” and thereby cut off all hope for relational sharing and learning, it is important not just to recite the creed but to engage it, not as an end point but as a beginning. We may find statements in the creed that are bothersome. We may find statements in need of radical revisiting and reinterpretation. But throwing the faith of the church out with the institutional dysfunction of the churches is no solution.
We live in a time where “we” are being radically challenged as Christians. Not by outsiders, but by those who would have us submit to positions that have long needed reformulation. We have seen the ill effects of people who confess this creed and then go to war or lynch another. We have seen the marginalizing effects of those who say “We” and mean “my group” and discriminate or exhibit hostility against those they disdain and believe God disdains as well. We ought to challenge them, not by throwing out the creed but by asking them how inclusive is this “We.” “I” am not the body of Christ; “we” are the body of Christ. “We” may be only two or three; “we” do not need thousands or millions to shine our light. In fact, thousands or millions may just be a mimetic effect of wanting to be socially included, whereas two or three may well be the place where Jesus does his best work.
“We” needs to be rethought. “We” is an invitation not a boundary. “We” is a start not an end. “We” is an affirmation that there would be no “we” were it not for the reconciling work of God in Jesus. “We” is not the mob, “we” is not the majority, and “we” is not the top of the hierarchy. “We” are those called to live in the same love we see acted out in Jesus, “we” are those who have known the pain of separation, loneliness, anxiety, fear, heartache and loss and who confess that our God also knows these realities (“he was crucified under Pontius Pilate”). “We” are those who hope beyond history, and yet who hope in space and time. “We” are those who recognize that faith is not knowledge; knowledge doesn’t save, if it does then I am surely lost! “We” are those who “believe”, that is, who trust a God who has shown clearly in the life of Jesus and demonstrated even more clearly in his forgiving death that we are worth an infinite amount to God. “We” are those who hold hands, who reach out hands to others, who clasp hands in prayer and clap hands in joy together. “We” is you and me, reconciled by God. So even where we disagree (and thankfully we do otherwise the whole point of these posts would be dull and boring), we learn from one another. “We” are on a journey. “We” shall overcome…some day.” In the meantime “we” must learn to let go of the tendrils of the lie of individual autonomy and recover the joy of relationships, and for me, this also means relating to those who have gone before, from the first disciples to you. “I” am grateful for “We.”
(9) What Does it Mean to Believe?
The Creed is a statement of faith; it is about what we believe. It does not begin with the words “We Think about” or “We Know.” This is a crucial beginning particularly in our contemporary culture where many who say “We believe” are really saying “We think about” or “we know.” Faith is not knowledge or about thought processes. It is all about trust. The creed then is an answer to the question “Whom do you trust?” The title of this series “What I believe” is a bit of a misnomer. Perhaps I should transition it at this point and title it “Whom I Believe” Inasmuch as it answers the question “Whom do I trust?”
In the early church there was a way of being “Christian” which would be deemed heretical. This was known as Gnosticism. So-called Christian Gnosticism has made a comeback in scholarly circles today largely due to a) the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts that were discovered in 1945 and b) the thesis of 20th century German scholar Walter Bauer (Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity) that Christian Gnosticism was the majority group in the early church while the ‘orthodox’ group was the minority. Popular books on this phenomenon have ebbed in recent years but you can still find, from time to time, authors who seek to argue that we can know all kinds of stuff about Jesus not found in the canonical gospels in these Gnostic texts.
I am not seeking in these posts to deal with the issue of the whether or not the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas is more like the [so-called] historical Jesus than Jesus as portrayed in the canonical gospels. What interests me here is the question of the relation of faith to reason. For the early Christian Gnostic, salvation was given by special knowledge or revealed truth. The ‘saved’ possessed this true knowledge while the ‘unsaved’ were divided into two camps, those who might eventually possess that knowledge and those who were unable to possess it, and thus doomed. For the Gnostic it was all about ‘special revelation, truth or knowledge.’
If this all sounds frightfully familiar that is because Protestant Christianity is largely a Gnostic religion. Philip Lee in his book Against the Protestant Gnostics (Oxford, 1987) shows that whether liberal or conservative, Protestantism in America shares a common Gnostic framework. The marks of Gnosticism (salvation by secret knowledge, dualism, denigration of the material world, etc) can indeed be found all over contemporary American Protestant expression of faith. Just walk into a Bible book store and notice how many titles promise “The Secret to…” or “The Keys to…” and you fill in the blank (the Christian Life, Success, Happiness, Raising Christian Children). Or notice the plethora of seminars being offered (many with a hefty fee) that promise to introduce you to an experience that cannot be found elsewhere or a technique that will enable you to rise above the masses in your spiritual journey. All these are forms of Gnosticism.
If there is one truth about the gospel it is this: it is public and it is free. The gospel is about God, a God who has revealed God’s self in the person of Jesus and who comes to us in the Spirit, sent by the Abba through Jesus. Jesus is the face of the Living God who is present with us. It is Jesus in whom we put our trust. We do not need anyone to give us the secrets of the reign of God; they are ours free of charge in the message of God’s grace and love in the gospel.
What makes Gnosticism so appealing is the desire to be part of an in group. If I can just have that special experience or that special knowledge then I can know or be certain that my salvation is assured. Billions of dollars are made by people who claim to offer what is freely given in the message of and about Jesus. Yet in their desire to be different, to be special, people will spend their money for that little extra secret or experience that sets them apart from everyone else. This is all part of the belief system that we can ascend to God. It is a denial that God has descended and come to us. Gnostic ‘faith’ is all about finding one’s way to the divine as though the divine has not become human, suffered, died and been vindicated. It cannot abide the fact that it is a human being, with a ‘material’ body that was raised and exalted to God’s right hand. It denigrates matter, the creation, sweat, blood and semen. Gnosticism will have to do only with the spiritual. Thus it happens that we think that by abandoning our earthly existence we will find some succor on some heavenly plane. This is as far from gospel as one can get.
Faith is not about secret knowledge. Nor is it about certainty. Some Christians think that it is adherence to a complete system of formulated doctrine which is equated with the ‘Truth’ that will save them. However, the creed does not invite us to believe in our theology but in God! Theology is our best attempt to explore and linguistically explain our encounter with this God, but theology is not God. Certainty, having one’s ‘faith all worked out in a rational, systematic fashion’ is a Platonic ideal, but it is not the gospel. The gospel is a story about struggling, about ups and downs and ins and outs. It is about cross carrying, weeping, and dying as much as it is about resurrection and joy and celebration. You cannot have one without the other. If this was true for Jesus, is it also not true for us? Christian Gnostics seek certainty in many ways, one way is to try and prove that the Bible is perfect and we as its interpreters can fit all of the verses in scripture with every other verse and so come up with a perfect doctrinal system that we can call “The Truth” (which we then demand that others believe if they are to be saved). We know where this kind of logic leads: straight to the hell of judgmentalism, legalism, discrimination and fractured relationships.
“We believe” not “We think” or “We know.” If the Christian faith did not need to be worked out in each and every generation, if this faith did not need to explored and expressed in our own lives through all of its vicissitudes, then the Christian Gnostics are right. If, however, faith is about trust and learning to trust, if faith is about hoping against hope, about letting God be God, if faith is about living with ambiguity and uncertainty in this life trusting that God is always with us and that we are beloved by God, then what we have is assurance not certainty. Assurance is different than certainty. Assurance is given by God, certainty by our claim to special revelation or intellectual gymnastics.
As Anselm put it in the late 11th century “faith seeks understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). It is not the other way around. If I can just figure it all out then I will believe it. Rather, it is about trusting in God and then exploring the implications of who this God is in whom we trust. Faith in this sense is always a risk, a letting go of the need to be special or different. Faith is the way a child relates to (healthy functional) parents. The child does not worry about whether or not there is going to be food on the table; they just know that when they are hungry they will be fed. Even so it is with us who are “worth more than two sparrows.” Our God is no miser, nor an uncaring alcoholic in the sky. We trust the One who has lived among us, just like us, and died at our hands for us. We trust the Life-giving living God who raised Jesus from the dead, who brings us new life, and who will one day make all things “very, very, very good.” All the secrets and keys to all things are given us in the life, person, teaching and ministry of Jesus. They are right before us in the Gospels. The only question remaining is: will we trust Jesus that the downward path he took, becoming a servant, ministering to the marginalized, healing the diseased, is the path of God? Or will we continue to strive upwards for a god who is not there? Can we let go of our need for special experiences or certainty and simply be…human like Jesus?
(10) God the Abba
“We believe in God.” So states the creed. I am occasionally asked if I believe in God. My usual answer is no. I go on to explain. Why would I start by saying “no?” I begin with a “no” as if to say, “God? You mean like a supernatural Santa Claus in the sky? Or a great big humungous deity to be feared who requires sacrifice and blood and all that stuff? Or like the gods who dwell on Olympus with their tempers and lusts and that sort of thing? No, gave up believing in them a long time ago.” And I have. If you are a follower of Jesus, so have you.
However, if by God you mean something else, something completely ‘Other’ then yes, I do believe.
The Creed likewise does not begin “We believe that God…exists.” Our faith is not in our theology, nor is it in propositions about God. Our faith is “in” God. That is, as I explained in the last post, we trust our God. Who is this God we trust? This is the question the Creed answers. We are not those who need ever spend any time making apologies for the trust we have placed in God. The three opening words of the Creed (in English) are a confession of the character of our God. “We believe in, we trust in.”
Who is this God we trust? The Creed does a strange thing. It begins by saying “We believe in one God, Abba, Pantokrator, Creator of heaven and earth.” It does not stop there though. It continues “And in Jesus Christ”, “And in the Holy Spirit.” The noun God is being given redefinition or as I said in an earlier post the noun God, for the Christian, creates a math problem.
The Creed does not begin with “We believe that God is…(fill in the blank)” where we fill in the blank space with a cascading catena of nouns and adjectives (holy, just, righteous, eternal, etc). Rather, the Creed begins by describing for us the extraordinary character of the source of all life. The first thing it affirms about God is three-fold; there will be more, but the first three characterizations give a starting point that blows out of the water our misconceptions. These are: parenting skills, infinite possibilities and creativity.
“We believe in one God, the Abba…” Our God is first characterized by Jesus’ favorite way of speaking of God. God is a nurturing parental presence. This God does not treat children abusively giving stones instead of daily bread, or poisonous creatures or calamitous events instead of nourishment. This God is a parent who loves children deeply as a healthy parent loves their children. To this God we are of infinite worth (if God loves the little sparrows, how much more does God love us!). To this God we are beloved, cared for (your heavenly Abba knows your needs before you even ask) and precious. We are royal children (“It has pleased the Abba to reign over you, with you, under you and in you”). Our God is our Abba and we are the children of God’s reign.
“We believe in one God the Abba Almighty…” Our Abba has no competition from ‘other gods.’ Nor does our Abba have a dark side. There is nothing in the Creed (or in Jesus’ view of God) that God is Janus-faced or has a ‘shadow of turning.’ The Greek term used in the Creed is ‘pantokrator’ which is a pretty powerful designation meaning something like the one who holds all authority. A pantokrator’s decisions are final. No one can match their power. When they say something is a certain way, it is that way, period. So the one we call Abba, who has (in Jesus and by the Spirit) made us royal children and has authorized us to be so (John 1:13), has not changed her/his mind about us. If, in many patriarchal homes, the father has the last word, and that last word is usually spoken with a fist hammered on a table to give it authority, and often that last word is a threat, in the case of our Abba, this is not so. The authority of our God is a nurturing authority; God has all power to say to the universe, “These are my children, my beloved children, whom I love.”
In Latin, the word “omnipotentem” has transliterated and from which we derive that crazy theological word ‘omnipotent’ by which we usually mean “all-powerful.” We hear this word “all-powerful” and think of a king in the sky who can do anything he pleases just because he is king. If we import this kind of human metaphor into the word ‘omnipotentem’ we are not allowing the character of the Abba to redefine it for us. Our Abba is not like earthly rulers, who lord it over others. We know this because we see Jesus as a servant of all. Our Abba is ‘omnipotentem’ in a beautiful way. Omni = all and potens = power or potential. Our Abba is the one of all potential, of endless possibility. With our Abba, all things are possible. When we look at the universe we speak of ‘natural law’ and assume that somehow things are fixed or permanently set. Did you know that measurements of the speed of light fluctuate? The one supposed great constant in the universe of physics changes! Imagine that. Can you imagine a physical universe that is open to infinite possibilities and that is not static? Quantum physicists can and do! Our Abba is a God of incredible possibilities. But there is more.
“We believe in one God, Abba, Almighty, Creator of all that is.” Our Abba is not just full of infinite possibility, but of creative infinite possibility. Our Abba is not just an arbitrary deity who can do anything he/she wants because after all, he/she is God. No, our Abba is a God whose possibilities are creative or life oriented. Creation is alive, full of life, robustly manifesting life. Our Abba is a life-giver. Our Abba calls light out of chaos, out of darkness. Our Abba brings life to the grave. Our Abba transforms the decaying, dying cosmos into new creation all the time. Our Abba is full of life-giving possibility.
We believe is a God who is about life, not death, about restoring joy and honor, not about bringing misery and denigration. The very first thing we say about God is a good thing, it reflects Jesus’ view of God and it reflects the view of the God of ‘evangel’ of Gospel. Our Abba is beautiful.
(11) Jesus Christ
After the affirmation about the Abba of infinite life-giving creative possibilities, the Creed continues “And in one Lord, Jesus Christ his son…”
With this affirmation we have moved from the language of ‘mystery’ to the language of ‘history.’ This little word “and” collapses the transcendent and the immanent, the ideal and the real. In other words, like the words of John 1:14 “kai egeneto sarx” (“and became flesh”), the naming of Jesus Christ points us to the particular. No longer is ‘God’ to be conceived of in generic fashion. There are several implications of this move.
First is that any distinction formerly made between the seen and the unseen, between God and humanity, between creation and the Creator vanishes. No longer is dualism a possibility when discussing God. The naming of Jesus as a historical figure testifies that here and now, in time and space, “what we have seen and our hands have handled” (I John 1:1-4) is a tangible manifestation of God.
Second, that manifestation (or ‘hypostasis’ in Greek) turns us immediately to the accounts of Jesus life witnessed to in the four canonical gospels. Rather than indulge in canon criticism (and I know some of my readers will want to know why I accept the liminal four, see my book The Jesus Driven Life for my rationale), I will work within the parameters of the framers of the creed. The Jesus to whom they bear witness is the Living Lord whose character they know from the gospels. This same church had rejected Tatian’s attempt (known as the Diatessaron) to harmonize the gospels by combining them altogether and wrestled hard with their differences. Nevertheless, they knew the character of Jesus from these texts.
Third, the naming of Jesus Christ as “one Lord” is a political statement. He is the one who is recognized as the historical manifestation of divine authority. The use of the word “one” indicates exclusive allegiance. There is no co-ordination with the Empire or any Emperor in the Creed. Jesus alone has singular authority in the life of the church and the Christian believer.
Fourth, the relationship between Jesus and the Abba is designated as filial. He is the Abba’s child. This is the primary designation of Jesus in relation to the Abba. We are in the language of family. Other language might have been chosen. Jesus could have been called God’s messenger (angelos) or teacher (didaskalos) or ambassador (presbutes). He may well be all of these, but it is the word ‘son’ that is used. It is the familial that is chosen for two reasons.
First is the connection to the language Jesus used in the Gospels. God is his Abba. He perceived himself as God’s child. His relationship in the Gospels with this One he names as Abba is intimate and comfortable. He knows he is loved by his Abba. He teaches that this Abba loves all. Jesus’ favorite self designation is ‘the son of the human’ (or the true human). It is as a human that Jesus sees himself as bound to humanity in relation to God.
Second, the use of the term ‘son’ (or child if you prefer) ties the name Jesus Christ back into Israel’s history, particularly that of the servant/child (Hebrew ebed, LXX pais) of Second Isaiah. This is confirmed by the full designation given to Jesus as Messiah (Christ). Jesus is the promised hope of the people of God, now enfleshed. He brings to fulfillment all of God’s good promises (for all of God’s promises are Yes and Amen!). As God’s ‘pais’, Jesus is the servant of the Father. As God’s ‘pais’ Jesus is the inheritor of the Abba’s reign.
Later in 381, the revisitation of the Creed in Constantinople will add the word ‘monogenes’ (only) which reflected the language of the Fourth Gospel (John 1:18). But at Nicaea in 325, this had not yet occurred. I would not say that adding ‘monogenes’ was a bad idea. However, the later addition of the word suggests that Jesus was an only child to some. We by faith are also the children of this Abba as well. Jesus is our brother. We too are royal heirs of God’s reign. Our major relationship to the Abba stems from Jesus’ relationship to ‘God.’ God is not related to as Lawgiver, or Judge, or an Emperor or President to whom one must do obeisance. The Creed simply does not go in that direction.
Imagine if you were having your morning coffee and your children came in to you with fear and trembling, unsure of your attitude toward them and began groveling at your feet begging you for breakfast and promising they would behave if you would feed them. If you cannot imagine that why would anyone think that we relate to our Abba that way? On the other hand if your children came to you in the morning, running to you with smiles and cries of joy at seeing you, jumped in your lap and kissed you and said “Daddy or mommy we’re hungry”, wouldn’t you know that they knew you loved them and cared for them? And that they loved you? So it is with us who are also God’s beloved children as Jesus is the Abba’s beloved child. The language of the Creed invokes intimacy and hope and this is why I affirm:
“I believe in one God, the Abba of infinite creative possibilities, and in Jesus Christ his child…”
(12) Jesus’ Relation to the Abba
“And in Jesus Christ, Son of God, begotten of the Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten, not created, of the same essence as the Father, through whom all things were created.”
If we are honest, this sounds a bit like gobbledygook. What is one to make of this metaphysical language? Today, we no longer all have Plato as part of our conscious worldview and so the language of being, substance, real, and ideal or the difference between begotten and made may seem to us a bit overwrought. This, however, was the language game of the third century. Does this mean that in affirming the trajectory of the Creed that we are also obliged to buy into this Platonic metaphysic?
I don’t think so. The question the Creed is trying to answer is this: what is the relationship of Jesus to the Father? It does so as a math problem. How can Christians confess they are monotheists (that they believe in one God) and still also affirm that Jesus too is God, and the Holy Spirit as well? How does 1 = 3? Or 3 = 1?
Let me problematize this further: how does the Jesus we know from the Gospels relate to the portraits of God found in the Jewish Scriptures? Their characters are quite different. A common solution is to speak of the attributes of God and then divvy them up between the various members of the Trinity, this way the Father gets to be the bad cop, Lawgiver and Judge, while Jesus gets to be the good cop, sweet and nice as your Uncle Bob, and the Holy Spirit, well, the Holy Spirit is just a mystery. This has never been a satisfying alternative.
I would like to suggest that we begin our reflections on this language of the Creed from another direction. Let’s assume for the moment that the question is valid: What do Jesus and the Father have in common? Let’s also assume that we take our definition of the Father from the Old Testament. The clear answer is not a whole lot. This is why so many have forsaken the Creed. God is just too much of an ogre in so many Old Testament stories and so unlike Jesus that to try and say all this theological Platonic mish-mash doesn’t make any sense.
But what if what the Creed is asserting is that Jesus defines the character of the Father for us? What if it is Jesus’ character that we can say is the character of the Father? What if it is in Jesus’ life, ministry and teaching we can say we see something divine? Perhaps it is our definition of God that has to change. Rather than starting with that which we think is God (nouns and adjectives) and then trying to fit Jesus into that picture, what if we started the other way around? What if we begin with Jesus and say that if “we have seen Jesus, we have seen the Father?” What if we don’t take our definition of the Father from every Old Testament text that refers to “God” and instead ask about the character of the Father as we see Jesus? This, I think, is what the framers of the Creed were seeking to accomplish (or at least that is my ‘in bonum partem’ reading of the Creed).
What if we used the language of the Fourth Gospel where what the Son sees the Father doing that he also does, or what the Son hears the Father saying, that he also says? What if, instead of metaphysical language we were to use the language of the social sciences, the language of imitation (or mimesis) to describe the relation of the Son to the Father? What if we asserted that just as we humans are hard wired to imitate each other, that we cannot but imitate one another, so also Jesus was an imitative person, but that instead of imitating those around him, he imitated the One he believed in as God? What if we were to argue that it was as a human imitating God that Jesus’ character reveals God’s character, that by knowing Jesus we know the Father? Would we not then be able to say Jesus revealed the divine in his life and that to know Jesus is to know the Father? What if we were to say that real divinity only comes through real humanity? What if we were to affirm the Creed with its “who for us (di’ humas) humans…Jesus became enfleshed (sarxothenta)”, just like us?
What if we were to say that the Creed is saying two dialectical things at once: In Jesus we see what God is really like, but we also see who we are really like as well? What if the Creed is moving us to say that God is best described as God in relationship? If we take Jesus’ ministry as a starting point, then can we not say that God is revealed as God in true humanness and that this true humanness is best revealed as compassion for the lowly, healing for the diseased, love for the unlovely, caring for the needy? Can we now say that describing God as a jumble of non-related nouns and adjectives (righteous, holy, just, true, eternal, etc) lacks any real sense of humanness? Do we describe one another that way? If I ask you about your significant other won’t you say “Well, they are like…” Is it not the case that the entire Creed is seeking to affirm with its old language of metaphysics that Jesus is “like” the Father? How alike are they? Down to the tiniest bit. Their character is substantively identical. In fact, they are so similar, Jesus did such a good job imitating the Father, as a human being (!) that the Father, upon raising him from the dead and enthroning Jesus at His right hand said “By the way, you look so much like me that people may confuse us so I will just give you my name, the Unpronounceable Name (“the name above all names” Phil 2:10-11) which now becomes the name “Jesus.”
This means that we can no longer look to texts to give us the character of God, of the Abba, we must begin by looking to Jesus. This does not mean that God, the Abba was not working throughout Israel’s history. It does mean that we have to discriminate which texts reflect this Abba and which ones don’t. It means using Jesus as our ‘critical’ lens when reading any text or understanding any statement about God. It means that if it looks like Jesus, then it is most likely God. If it doesn’t, then it isn’t. This is what I think the Creed might be saying to us today about ‘homoousias’ that Jesus was ‘of the same substance as the Father.’ We no longer need fret over the metaphysics of the language, we may rather rejoice in the epistemological (changing how we think) revolution that is occurring in the Creed. Jesus is the redefinition of God.
“And in Jesus Christ…through whom all things came into existence, whether in heaven or on earth, who for us humans and our salvation descended from heaven and became enfleshed.”
This is a pregnant statement. It asserts that even as the Abba was the Creator, the creation itself was ‘through’ the Son. Just a little later this is voiced again in a different way when it says that the Son “descended and was enfleshed.” In both of these statements we have the greatest anti-Gnostic theology ever stated. This part of the Creed ratifies the Father’s role as the creator of all life-giving infinite possibilities but focuses it further for those possibilities are not simply infinite, but rather Christologically infinite. In other words, this statement limits all talk of “God can do whatever God wants to do because God is God.” The “through whom (Jesus)” affirms that all that is life, both things seen phenomenologically and things unseen only come into existence through Jesus. Those who would denigrate the physical creation as though the natural world was “less than” the world of “spirit’ are here given pause. There has always been an emphasis in certain Christian circles on leaving this earth behind for heaven. Some Christian traditions have condemned this time, space, history and reality made by the Father as belonging to the devil. The Creed asserts otherwise. All reality belongs to the Abba and all reality was created with Jesus as the archetype.
Others have said that things only exist in the mind and have equated mind with spirit. The mind is a powerful tool, no doubt about that and we are discovering all the time how perception of our ‘reality’ is virtually equivalent to ‘reality’; nevertheless our perception or the way we interpret our external world can often be just a ‘figment of our imagination.’ The way to discern whether or not we have a genuine grounding in reality is to ask if, when we look at the creation, we see the beneficent handiwork of the Creator, or some malevolent influence. Some say that our rapacious use of natural resources is justified because “Jesus is coming back soon.” This false hope will never justify the abuse of the creation for if the return of Jesus is soon, or even physical, as some believe, still he is coming back to that which was made through him. We already did to him once what we do to the earth constantly: we crucified him. This affirmation of “through him” should open our eyes to the fact that the creation is a very good thing (“tov, tov” Gen. 2:1-3) and that in all of our dealings with her we should think of her as a gift from the Giver, not as a resource to be exploited.
What Jesus does he does “for us”, for our benefit. These two simple words give us the motive behind all that God does: whatever God does it is “for us.” This is not the same thing as when a (sick) parent says to a child “I’m beating you for your own good.” That kind of logic is a perversion, grounded in fear and shame. The Abba, creating through the Son brings to pass that God’s very self “God of God, Light of Light, True God of True God” will descend and become flesh for our benefit. The Creator becoming the creation. Absolutely unimaginable. This is not to be thought of as the old Greek or Roman myths where the gods take human form from time to time but rather as an affirmation that God has taken the creation into God’s innermost self, forever assuming created reality. The forever aspect of this is seen in the use of the verbs ‘descended’ and later ‘ascended.’ It is a human being that sits at the right hand of the Abba.
This “for us” is beneficial because it is salvific (“for our salvation”), our healing. ‘Soteria’ (salvation) is not just our ticket to heaven when we die; it is not just the ‘salvation of our souls’ (whatever that means). Salvation is the healing of our whole created person, body and spirit, and of all that is created, our relationships. God is “for us” means that God is not against us. Nowhere in the Creed is there language about the wrath of God against sin, nor some hatred of humanity. Nor is there any language about how high and holy and majestic God is, nor that God is to be feared and honored and kow-towed to in servile obedience as though we humans were worthless worms or miserable excrement. Rather there is an affirmation of all that we are and will be for we have been created “through the Son”, in his image and likeness. All creation bears a Jesus-like resemblance.
Finally, this affirmation suggests that we rethink the way we view our lifetimes, for this space, time and history, as dark as it can be at times (and it can seem pretty dark) has, as its end, all that has occurred to Jesus. History may at times feel like a crucifixion or a ‘dark night of the soul’ (St John of the Cross), it may feel as though human history, indeed even the creation itself, is going through a descent back into chaos. God, who brings light from darkness, and life from death, is also the one who has ascended because God has first descended. Like us, God knows the frailty of life. Like us God has shared in the depths of pain, loss, grief and despair. But God does not remain there. The Abba brings life. Just as the Abba was “for Jesus’ when The Spirit raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 1:3), so also will our Abba bring us out of our own human created apocalypses. This history, this space and time is ultimately valuable and precious for it is this space and time that is ‘saved.’ What we see, we see through a fog, dimly perceived. What God sees is the end where all things are very, very, very good. This is the God in whom we trust.
(14) Incarnation: True Humaness
“And in Jesus Christ…who was incarnate and became man.”
When the Creed affirms that Jesus became incarnate (Greek: sarxothenta, Latin: incarnates est) and became a human (Greek: evanthropesanta, Latin: homo factus), it saying two dialectically different things which are both essential. The first, ‘sarxothenta’ has to do with Jesus becoming that which is creaturely; the second, ‘enathropesantan’ has to do with his specific person, as a singular human being. The first has to do with his corporate character as one who has taken up in himself that which was created, the second to do with his assumption of being a real human being, a first century male Jewish teacher and prophet from Galilee.
It is important to affirm both of these. If we only affirm the second we can easily miss out on Jesus as a real person, if we affirm only the first we can miss out on Jesus sharing in our humanness, in our existence as creatures. They are both necessary affirmations if we wish to understand Jesus.
The first affirmation, ‘sarxothenta’ indicates his corporate character, his having become the True Human in whom we are all included, even as we are also included in the First human Adam. This is the logic of Romans 5:12-21, where Adam and Jesus are paralleled or in Phil. 2:5-11 where Adam and Jesus are paralleled in a hymn. Jesus in his person is all humanity; just as Adam in his person is a figure or type of all humanity. Now please don’t think for a moment I believe in a literal Adam, I am using Adam as a figure or trope of ‘sinful’ humanity in the same manner as Paul.
Unlike Adam, who I do not believe is a historical figure, Jesus is a historical figure, he is ‘enanthropesanta.’ The Adamic is the human species as sinful. The Adamic is that way we have of speaking about the brokenness of the human race. It speaks to all sorts of things but primarily to our violence. You will recall in earlier posts on Genesis or if you have read my book The Jesus Driven Life that I do not separate out Genesis 2-3 from Genesis 4-11 which is one contiguous narrative about humanity’s rapacious use of scapegoating violence. Adam’s ‘sin’ was not some sort of disobedience to certain ‘laws’ or the breaking of some supposed covenant (which is never mentioned); it has to do with his false identity through imitation of Eve. The Adamic way of life is that life we humans live when we imitate one another nonconsciously, when we seek to derive our value, worth and being from other humans.
Jesus, in contrast, imitated the One he knew as Abba. He drew his value, measure and self-worth from his faith that God loved him and all others, that God was a loving deity. As such a one, Jesus opened the way for us to have a new model, a new mode of being, also grounded in imitation, otherwise known as discipleship. What he does he does for all, his life lived is all human life lived out in perfect trust in this God. As such a corporate figure Jesus is all of us. What happens in his human existence is our human existence. All that he is, is all that creation is; what occurs in his flesh is also what happens in all that is created. We have already seen this in yesterday’s post.
As one who is ‘enanthropesanta’, as a specific human Jesus can be our new model. If it is the case that we are hard wired to imitate, then if we are to break free from our Adamic ways of violence, shunning, marginalizing, discriminating and hurting one another we need a model of humanity who is accepting, inclusive, caring, nurturing and loving and this example of real human or the True Human is found in the life of Jesus of Nazareth recorded in the canonical Gospels. In ‘sarxothenta’ we are included in him, in ‘enanthropesanta’ we are given a new way of being human. By affirming the former, we find our exodus from our Adamic existence in following the teacher from Nazareth, who has very concrete teaching on love, even enemy love; on retribution, in the forsaking of it; in forgiving, even as God forgives, an unlimited number (70 x 7). In Jesus we have one who came to demonstrate the way out of doing this thing we call human culture by showing us the culture of the Abba (the basileia tou theou, the reign of God).
With these two words ‘sarxothenta’ and ‘enanthropoesanta’ we acknowledge our Adamic existence, frailty and violent ways, and we also acknowledge that a way out (an exodus) has been provided so that, like Jesus we may become truly human. As Jesus is the child of the Father, so we too, who follow him, whose lives are modeled on his life, are also children of God. Becoming a child of God does not have to do with praying a prayer at the back of a tract, nor does it have to do with having all one’s doctrinal ducks lined up in a row. Being a child of the Abba means recognizing that all that we are’ in Jesus’ trumps all that we have been ‘in Adam.’
A final note to all my friends who are caught up in ‘grace preaching’ or the ‘finished work of Christ.’ These are important movements but they have not figured it all out. These emphases have been tried before in the history of Christianity. Inevitably they end up right back where they started: in self-justification because people actually believed they were beyond sin. One only has to study church history to realize that there is nothing new under the sun and if we do not wish to repeat the mistakes of the past we must learn where others made those mistakes.
Grace does not mean that sin is forever gone from our lives but it does mean that we may daily find ourselves being transformed. It does not mean that we somehow are magically taken from the realm of the Adamic but that we may, in choosing Jesus as our model instead of others, find ourselves becoming a little more like him today than we were yesterday. We do not have it all now. This was the mistake of the Corinthians who had an over-realized eschatology; they thought the future was completely present. Paul, grace preacher though he was, emphasizer of the finished work of Christ that he was, had to remind them that this life is still one of brokenness; that in this life we are ‘broken jars made of clay.’ One never finds Paul reveling in perfection; he only revels in Jesus.
We live with both natures in this business of space, time and history. We live between the times. Those who assert otherwise are in denial of the ways in which they nonconsciously participate in violence against others (not just deeds, but words, thoughts, and desires). Yes, grace trumps sin in this life, sin is forgiven. But we still hurt one another. “Sin is the destructive way we handle our pain.” If we deny this, we will only ever be about self-righteous justification and that is precisely what we do not wish to be! If we are humble and acknowledge our own propensity to hurt one another, we also acknowledge that the salvation of forgiveness is now extended into the human sphere; we are those who forgive others who have sinned against us and who seek forgiveness when we hurt others. Sin is not about abstract law breaking; it is about the way we imitate one another’s desires and seek being and value from the other. Jesus is the only model who can provide us with the real alternative of what seeking God does to save, transform and heal us. Now we may just find ourselves, in following Jesus, in taking him as our model for what it means to be fully and truly human as those who can indeed be called ‘children of the heavenly Abba.’
(15) Crucified and Risen
In the summer of 1933, six months after Hitler had taken control of the German government and implemented plans for the restructuring of the national church, Karl Barth wrote an essay overnight in which he said that the church must continue to “do theology as though nothing had happened.” The theological task of the church, while it keeps its eyes wide open to the world around it, is not grounded in world events, but rather in the revelation of God. Even so, as the US decides whether or not to take military action against Syria which potentially has global effects, we will continue our study of the Nicene Creed for today.
“He died and rose again on the third day.” With these words the most famous execution in human history is recounted. In 381 at the council of Constantinople when the Nicene Creed was revisited and edited the language would change to become more political “he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” In 325 the language was simple, “he died.”
Notice that there is no atonement theory in the creed. There is just the bare factual statement about Jesus’ death. There is no mention of Christ conquering the devil (Christus Victor), no mention of Jesus being a substitute for sin (Anselm), no mention of God pouring out wrath upon Jesus (Calvin and penal satisfaction). There is only the affirmation that Jesus died.
In the past twenty years the reasons and significance for Jesus’ death has been revisited and the dominant Evangelical perspective of penal substitution has been challenged. This view, first articulated by the Genevan Reformer John Calvin argues not only was Jesus a substitute in our place, but that as our substitute he took upon himself God’s holy wrath for sin. This view would come to define Protestant Orthodoxy and its heir Evangelicalism. There are some today would have said that to not hold this position is tantamount to heresy. This could not be further from the truth, for heresy has to do with dogma, not confessional statements and neither the Catholic Church nor any creed elevates penal substitution to that category. This means that those who hold to a different view of Jesus’ death are well within the bounds of the church.
The Creed also affirms that Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day. Stories of dying and rising gods were commonplace in the ancient world. These stories could be found in Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythologies. At the turn of the twentieth century some critical scholars suggested that St Paul took the story of Jesus and turned it into another dying/rising god myth. Christian apologists were quick to point out that the Gospel story was no myth but factual history and so debates about this became enflamed. René Girard has pointed out that the Passion narrative of Jesus does have the same structure that one finds in myths about the origins of human cultures. Does this vindicate the insight of these critical thinkers? Shall we assume Girard also sees the Passion of Jesus as mythological? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that just as every founding murder myth, every story about the origination of culture has a victim. Girard points out that Jesus functions in the Passion in the same way that scapegoats functioned in these cultural myths. There are similarities: false accusations, a mob, an all against one lynching. So whatever else may be happening in the gospel story it has a direct connection to myth.
But….there is a great big but. Unlike the victims of myth who “consent” to their persecutors’ false accusations, Jesus is silent and will not agree. Unlike the victims of myth, there is a small core of women (and perhaps one male) who stand by Jesus at the cross, he does not die quite alone. Unlike the guilty victims of myth, the gospel passion narratives go to great length to demonstrate Jesus’ innocence. Just as all human cultures have a victim(s), so also the Kingdom of God has a victim. Unlike human cultures where the death of the victims pleases the gods, there is no sense whatsoever that Jesus’ death pleases or placates the Abba.
The resurrection of Jesus is the vindication of the innocent victim and the beginning of the rehabilitation of all victims. “All human culture emerges from a tomb” (Philippe Sollers). So also a tomb is the womb of the Reign of God. This “lamb slain from the foundation of human culture (the cosmos)” is recognized as innocent, vindicated and given new life. God’s culture mirrors our violent human culture in that both are grounded in violence done to victims.
But the resurrection of Jesus changes the structure of the myth and thus turns the passion narrative into an anti-myth. The resurrection of Jesus was the big surprise. The expectation upon hearing the news that Jesus had been raised was one of intense, blood curdling fear. This can not only be seen in the disciples but also in the crowds to whom Peter preaches following Pentecost. Why was this? It was because the structure of myth called for a violent retribution, an eye for an eye, a balancing of accounts. In second Temple Jewish eschatology the day of the Lord was going to be a violent bloodbath. Jesus’ resurrection could only portent such a vision.
However, unlike other victims’ “blood that cried out from the ground for vengeance” Jesus’ blood spoke a better word. His blood spoke forgiveness and shalom. The resurrection of Jesus thus created a totally new possibility: that human communion would forever be grounded not in retributive violence or scapegoating, but in mercy and healing (“He is Ris’n with healing in His wings”). In the death and resurrection of Jesus we are still in the world we have created with our scapegoating violence but with a grand unexpected twist, God’s twist to our twistedness. Thus it is that we continue to do theology today “as though nothing has happened” yet because of the influence of the gospel in human history we are now keenly aware of victims and our propensity to violence. May the resurrection message get out to every human being that God is at peace with us so we may, at last, because of Jesus, be at peace with one another.
(16) What I Believe
The last element in the second article of the creed that we will reckon with is “He ascended into the heavens and comes to judge the living and the dead.”
In this word ‘ascended’ (anelthonta) we have the opposite of ‘katelthonta’ (descended). The logos of who becomes enfleshed (John 1:1, 14) returns to the Abba. This U shaped pattern, descent from the Abba, crucifixion at the bottom of the U, and ascent back or return to the Father is an early paradigm. In the twentieth century, as we noted before, scholars saw this pattern of the coming/dying/rising god myth which then got applied to Jesus in the Greek speaking (Hellenistic) churches. However, this U pattern can be found in the early hymn of Phil. 2:5-11 which many scholars trace back to the early Aramaic speaking Jewish-Christian churches. It is most likely that Paul inherited this pattern from them rather than being the inventor of ‘the religion of Christianity.’
The theological significance of this pattern is easily underestimated by those who can only see a mythic form. What is being asserted is rather remarkable, namely that it is a human being who is now enthroned at the right hand of God. A human person! This so struck the early church that the most oft cited scripture from the Old Testament found in the New Testament is Psalm 110:1, which the early Christians took to be the enthronement of the Vindicated Victim. Virtually every major New Testament writer cites this Psalm and verse as does Jesus toward the end of his ministry. Jesus’ belief that he would be vindicated was part of his self-understanding about his mission and what, I believe, gave him the courage to surrender to the arrest, trial and crucifixion when he could have begun a divine holy war calling legion upon legion of angels to end it all in a supernatural bloodbath (think Ben Affleck’s character in the movie Dogma times 10,000).
More than that though is the recognition by “Ha Shem” (The Name, the Jewish way of speaking of YHWH) that this human life so exemplified the character of divinity that from henceforth divinity would go by the name “Jesus.” It is Jesus who being enthroned at God’s right hand is given The Unpronounceable Name. It is the human Jesus who knows exactly what it is like to be human with all of its trials, tests and temptations that is seated at the right hand of God and been given all authority (Matt. 28:16-20). Why is this important? It is essential to our faith for we do not have to do with a god who cannot understand what it is like to walk a mile in our shoes. This God, who sent his logos to be enfleshed in the human figure of Jesus (enanthropesanta) knows our every weakness and is thus able to intercede for us before the Father. This Jesus, who dwells with us by the Spirit knows our deepest needs, our greatest fears, our darkest longings. We are no surprise to this True Human whose only desire for us is to be healed (sozo, soteria). Thus it is that we have one who can care for us beyond measure, each and every one of us. As Phil 2:5-11 says he came to the lowest point of human existence, there is no lower point you and I can go and most us still have a long way to go to ‘catch up with Jesus.’ As Corrie Ten Boom once said, “there is no deep pit of which Christ is not deeper still.”
The final phrase of the creed is that Jesus “is coming to judge the living and the dead.” Wow, everything has been good up until this point in the creed and then it might seem everything goes foul. Jesus the Judge. Man, are we screwed. Just when we thought this God was loving, kind, merciful, compassionate somebody had to go throw in a monkey wrench.
I note two things. The first is the use of the present participle ‘erkomenon.’ Jesus ‘is coming’ or is ‘in the process of coming at the present moment.’ Now it is true this could be a present tense participle with a future meaning but had the framers of the Creed wanted to be explicit about a future coming of Jesus they could have used a future participle or used the word ‘second’ (deutero). They didn’t. This leaves open the question of a ‘second’ return. I am not saying there is not going to be a ‘second physical coming’ of Jesus, I am saying that creedally speaking it is not required.
More to the point is that Jesus comes to judge ‘the living and the dead.’ What is essential in this statement is the verb: to judge. This can be taken one of two ways; neither meaning is inherent in the verb. It can mean penal justice or restorative justice. That raises the question about the nature of God’s justice. If God is about the business of balancing scales, then justice is perceived as penal. If God is about shalom, healing and the salvation of the creature, then justice is restorative. I believe the Scriptures move in the direction of restorative justice and much ink has been spilled on this recently. It is certainly a possibility in view of the fact that the final editor of the Creed in 381, Gregory of Nyssa, also affirmed such a view of universal restoration (or ultimate redemption).
Restorative justice does not mean that a person, whether living or dead, who stands before God simply “gets away with everything.” Rather as Paul says, “we shall all pass through the fire.” This fire cleanses and purifies. There has been nothing heretofore in the Creed to suggest anything of a penal nature in either the Abba or Jesus. It would anachronistic and frankly go against the trajectory of the New Testament revelation to suggest such at this point. If everything we have read in the Creed until now has been ‘good news’ it makes no sense that we would be thrust back into the realm of an ‘economy of exchange’ at this eschatological phrase. The End of all things is like the beginning where it can be said that it is all “very, very good.”
(17) The holy Spirit
“And in the holy Spirit.”
That’s it. No qualifiers, no descriptive, no adjectives. Pretty amazing. J.N.D. Kelly can write a book called Early Christian Doctrine that deals with the first 3 centuries and there is not a single chapter on the holy Spirit. In fact in his book Early Christian Creeds Kelly observes “Though it is tempting to try and define how they [the framers of the early creeds] conceived of the Person of the Holy Spirit, it is sobering to realize that no completely satisfactory answer can be expected to our questions.”
This does not mean that Scripture is silent on the Spirit; on the contrary there are three great theologians of the Spirit in the New Testament, the writer of Luke-Acts, the evangelist of the Fourth Gospel and Paul. Together they have quite a bit of significant things to say about the Spirit. I would like to suggest three things about why the framers of the Nicene Creed did not.
First, is a historical consideration. The debates in the second and early third centuries revolved around seeking to understand the relationship of Jesus to God (the Abba). These debates, acrimonious at times, were working on three parallel tracks: one was the relationship of the emerging faith to the Old Testament scriptures which also included which writings were to be considered apostolic. The second had to do with the relation of the human and the divine in Jesus although these debates wouldn’t become front and center until the mid-third through the fifth centuries (being finalized, as it were, at Chalcedon in 451). Finally, the relation of Jesus to the Father had profound implications for the way the early church understood God’s saving activity in Jesus.
Second, is a theological consideration. The apostolic emphasis was on the revelation of the Abba in the Son. The Pauline epistle to the Colossians expressed it thus: In Jesus dwelt the fullness of God in bodily form (Col. 2:9). The Johannine emphasis said the same thing: The logos (the structuring principle of all reality) became enfleshed in Jesus. Luke has no such theological statement but goes to great pains to show that the ministry of Jesus is a Spirit infused ministry.
A corollary to this is the Johannine emphasis on the work of the Spirit to bear witness to Jesus, “The Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you” (16:14). Just as Jesus surrendered to the Abba and manifested the Abba so that we can say if we see Jesus, we see the Father (14:8). In like manner, the Spirit is “effaced” or given another face, that of Jesus. To “see” the Spirit is to “see” Jesus”, to “see” Jesus is to “see” the Abba. Luke makes a similar move a few times in the Book of Acts where he refers to the holy Spirit as the Spirit of Jesus. Paul does likewise in 2 Cor. 3:17 “Now the Lord [Jesus] is the Spirit…”
Third, is an existential consideration. This has to do, not with God, but with us. We all have different life experiences and different ways of experiencing our world. I would like to suggest that there is no such thing as a uniform “experience” of the Spirit; we are all met by God on our own turf, as it were. Just as there have been movements to have all Christians think the exact same things (this is sometimes confused with orthodoxy), even so there have been and continue to be people who insist that we all have certain pre-programmed experiences of God. They argue that their particular experience should be the norm. I find this line of reasoning difficult.
We all seek validation and thus would like others to share our experience, thus validating our experience. This is a purely mimetic phenomenon. This one thinks that because they manifest the gift of healing by the Spirit, every Christian should be a healer, that one thinks that because they speak in tongues, everyone should speak in tongues. This one thinks that the Spirit told them that 37 days from now the end of the world is coming so we should all believe them, another thinks that we should all be vegan because the Spirit told them. We all seek validation of our experiences which is why we want others to affirm them. This is the greatest danger of social media like Facebook, where like-minded people “like” you, you add up the “likes” and Voila!, it must be a sign from God. If someone doesn’t happen to share your experience or challenges it, then the fur starts flying. This ought not to be the case. We must learn to honor each others’ unique experiences.
I wish everyone knew Greek and Hebrew and studied second temple Jewish literature and culture, knew all the major players and their theologies throughout church history, and could nuance theological discussions as I do. But I am dreaming. I am not the center of the universe nor is my experience to be the model for other’s experience. Do I celebrate those healers in my midst? Absolutely? How about those who have a prayer language? You bet? Does that mean that they are better than those who take up hammer and saw and build a home for the homeless? No way. Does being an academic give one a place to stand above others because they have all this wonderful Bible education? No way. Are we all different? Yes! Does the Spirit not meet each of us where we are at? Thankfully, yes.
The only criteria for discerning whether or not a person is Spirit filled is not the type of experience they manifest. It is whether or not the life they live looks like Jesus. It is whether or not, when one looks at them, one can see love for all, even enemies, joy no matter how difficult life’s circumstances, peace and peacemaking in the midst of conflict. Are they generous or do they withhold from those in need? Are they faithful and gentle? Do they exhibit self-control or do they let their desires (secular or religious) run amok? The fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22) are the indicator in a person’s life of the work of Jesus in that person’s life.
In the revision of the Creed at Constantinople in 381, there is more said about the Spirit. It is this language with which we are familiar when we recite the Creed in the churches today. There, four significant things are said about the Spirit. First is that, like the Abba and Jesus, the Spirit is a life-giving Lord. The Spirit, like Jesus and the Father has nothing to do with death or violence. Second, the Spirit has been sent by the Father; the Abba is the source of the Spirit. Third, the Spirit, like Jesus and the Abba is worshipped (“adored and glorified”). Finally the Spirit has “spoken through the prophets.”
All of this is to say that the Creeds lack definitions precisely here because to define is to limit (fin = to limit). There are no limits to the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit who is Jesus present to us who reveals the Abba to us. So we say “from the Abba through the Son by the Spirit.” (For you theological types, I will not comment on the problem of the filioque which I think was a huge mistake by the western church). I give thanks for the work of the holy Spirit in people today, from the atheist to the agnostic to the churchgoer, to the one who has left the church, to the struggling addict to the moms and dads and little children, to all the people of this world. I pray that Jesus will become known, that it will be his life that is lived out in the church worldwide so that indeed the world may know the Love of the Abba for all the creation.
“Be filled with the Spirit, walk in the Light of Jesus, and live in the grace and life-giving possibilities of our Abba.” One God, now and forever. Amen.