Christianity 201

October 21, 2016

A Personal Statement of Faith

Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it.  (I Peter 3:15 CEB)

Yesterday on the other blog I posted a link to a book review at The Little Friar, the blog of Julius McCarter. Further down the page I noted this statement of faith which I found so very refreshing. The link is in the title below — think about that title for a minute — which I hope you’ll click and read this at source. (If you know Latin, you’ll like the blog tabs.)

for now

Every now and then, I’m asked to produce a personal statement of faith.  I always find statements like that difficult to write, though I’ve written on that before.

But, in an effort to say what I believe, here’s what I’ve put down this morning.  I’m sure it’s incomplete, as all statements of faith must necessarily be.  And I’m sure that, given the varieties of life that will be tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, I’ll say it much differently.  Any way …

I believe in one God who created the universe for good, who sustains it in wondrous order, and who calls it to fulfill its purpose in God.

I believe that God created human beings, male and female, in God’s own image, for communion with God and with one another. I believe, therefore, that God, whom we experience as personal, intends authentic personhood and relationship as the highest purpose for human beings.

I believe that the manifestations of God’s active benevolence toward creation are manifold, including:

  • God’s character revealed in the beauty, order, and majesty of the universe;
  • God’s revelation of a moral order, mysteriously the common heritage of all humanity;
  • God’s special relationship with Israel, later to include the Church;
  • God’s unique revelation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ;
  • God’s steadfast and continual involvement in human affairs to this day.

I believe that, since human beings fail to respond fully to God’s call to live out the purpose for which we were created, and since God is ever faithful to God’s purpose, God has always eagerly forgiven and restored all of his creation. I believe, further, that as the clearest statement of God’s love for creation, God in Christ reconciles the world to God’s self.

I believe that sacred scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, bear trustworthy witness to God’s character, God’s intention for creation, and God’s unshakable determination to effect God’s good purpose, especially as scripture bears testimony to God’s relationship with Israel, with the church, and quintessentially with all creation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

I believe that God calls those who trust God and seek to fulfill God’s will to relate to individuals and to society in ways which reflect God-likeness as taught in the Torah, exhorted in the Prophets, and modeled in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ: namely, to demonstrate authentic personhood, to act toward others with steadfast benevolence, and to work for rightness in all spheres of life.

I believe that God, who created for good purpose, who patiently and unwaveringly loves even the most errant with love surpassing that of human mothers and fathers.

I believe that God – who has not left any age or any individual without evidence of that good purpose and faithfulness nor without the testimony of the Word who comes to all as light, life, and truth – will not cease working out that purpose for which God created and to which God calls all.

I believe that my hope for the world, for our lives in it, and for eternity rests on God’s faithfulness shown to all humanity throughout all ages, in particular to Israel and the church, and most especially as evidence in the faithfulness of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.



February 5, 2015

Knowing What You Believe

(The Message) II Timothy 1:11-12 This is the Message I’ve been set apart to proclaim as preacher, emissary, and teacher. It’s also the cause of all this trouble I’m in. But I have no regrets. I couldn’t be more sure of my ground—the One I’ve trusted in can take care of what he’s trusted me to do right to the end.

Today we’re going to look at a creed — though not set out in that form — that many of us would not have had the opportunity to encounter before.  This is from Dr. Michael J. Kruger at the blog Canon Fodder:

One of the Clearest (and Earliest) Summaries of Early Christian Beliefs

Statement-of-FaithSince I am currently writing a book on Christianity in the second century, my research has been focused on some of our earliest patristic texts.  These texts are a treasure trove of fascinating statements and declarations that provide tremendous insight on what early Christians really believed.

Some of my prior posts on this theme include discussions of the persecution of Christians, early Christian sexual ethics, the divinity of Jesus, and the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.

Most recently, I came across an amazing paragraph in one of our earliest Christian apologies.  Aristides, a converted Athenian philosopher, wrote an apology to emperor Hadrian around 125 A.D.  As such, it is one of the earliest patristic writings we possess.  It is a lengthy treatise which compares the God of Christianity with the gods of the barbarians, the Egyptians, and the Greeks.

But, at one point, he summarizes what Christians believe in a manner that would rival even the Apostle’s Creed:

The Christians, then, trace the beginning of their religion from Jesus the Messiah; and he is named the Son of God Most High. And it is said that God came down from heaven, and from a Hebrew virgin assumed and clothed himself with flesh; and the Son of God lived in a daughter of man. This is taught in the gospel, as it is called, which a short time was preached among them; and you also if you will read therein, may perceive the power which belongs to it. This Jesus, then, was born of the race of the Hebrews; and he had twelve disciples in order that the purpose of his incarnation might in time be accomplished. But he himself was pierced by the Jews, and he died and was buried; and they say that after three days he rose and ascended to heaven (Apol. 2).

Aristides makes it clear that Christians affirm a number of key truths:

1. The divinity of Jesus:  “God came down from heaven…”  In the mind of Aristides, Jesus is not an angel, or a semi-divine being, but the very God of heaven itself.

2. The incarnation: “clothed himself with flesh.”  In very vivid language, the author affirms that Jesus is God enfleshed; he took upon himself a real human body (contra the Docetists).

3. The virgin birth:  “from a Hebrew virgin.” This doctrine flows naturally from the prior two.  If Jesus is God, and he took on human flesh, then his conception would be distinctive from other human beings.

4. The authority of the Gospels: “taught in the gospel…and you also if you read therein, may perceive the power which belongs to it.”  Notice for Aristides, there are books called a “gospel” which you can “read” to learn more about the person of Jesus. Moreover, these gospels contain a certain “power” which the reader can discern.

5. The authority of the apostles: “and he had twelve disciples.”  Aristides recognizes that Jesus had an authority structure through the twelve that was necessary “so that the purpose of his incarnation might in time be accomplished.”

6. His death on the cross: “pierced by the Jews.”  This is a clear reference to Jesus’ crucifixion under Pontius Pilate at the request of the Jewish leadership.

7.  His resurrection: “after three days he rose.”  Jesus did not stay in the grave but was raised from the dead.

8.  His ascension: “ascended into heaven.”  Jesus returned to his former heavenly home, in a position of power and glory.

This is a surprisingly thorough and wide-ranging summary of core Christian doctrines at a very early point in the life of the church.  And it was this form of Christianity that was publicly presented to the Emperor. Once again, we can see that core Christian beliefs were not latecomers that were invented in the fourth century (or later), but appear to have been in place from the very beginning.

September 2, 2012

Ending On Affirmation

When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. ~Matthew 26:30 (NIV)

Some of the most important words in a church service are spoken at the very beginning and at the very end. Like bookends, they frame everything that takes place in the middle. Michael F. Bird wrote the following at the blog Euangelion under the title After the Sermon.

What do you do in church straight after the sermon?

A. Sing the final hymn.
B. Listen to announcements.
C. Receive the benediction.
D. Run out the door for the nearest restaurant

I’m starting to think that the moment after the sermon is a great time to confess our faith by reciting either the creed or rehearsing the regula fidei.

There is a reason for this. After hearing about particular passage from scripture or listening to specific piece of God’s story, it is appropriate that we relate it to the wider story of scripture narrated in the regula fidei, or else situate the sermon in the context of the holy, catholic, and apostolic faith. In other words, the creed and regula fidei provide the prime context to accept and understand the sermon.

You can read the Apostles’ Creed here, but here is the regula fidei according to Tertullian:

[T]he Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen “in diverse manners” by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics.[1]

Now obviously Tertullian has certain specific heretics in mind here, so his rendering of the regula fidei is polemical and contextual. But the wonderful thing about the regula fidei is that it had no exact or precise formulation, though it had several common threads and recurring themes, it was variable. Which means, if you ask me, that it is possible to faithfully restate the regula fidei in our own contemporary language. I would suggest something like this:

God the Father, the maker of the universe, who, through Word and Spirit, made all things out of nothing, planned all things for the demonstration of his love and the satisfaction of his glory. He created Adam and Eve in his own image and after their rebellion, He also revealed himself as the Lord in diverse ways to the patriarchs, to Israel, and in the prophets, to call to himself a people worthy of his name, among and for the nations. When the time had fully come, He sent his Son, born of a woman and born under the Law, a Son of David, enfleshed as a man in the womb of the Virgin Mary through the Holy Spirit, and who came forth as Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was baptized and in the power of the Holy Spirit he preached the hope of Israel and the kingdom of God, he proclaimed good news to the poor, did many miraculous deeds, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he was buried and rose again on the third day according to the scriptures. Then, having made purification for sins, he ascended into the heavens, where he sat down at the right hand of the Father, from where he shall come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, and after the great resurrection, he shall take his people into the paradise of the new creation, and condemn the wicked to everlasting fate. The church now works in the mission of God, in dependence upon the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit, bearing testimony to Jesus Christ, to preach good news and to show mercy, until the day when God will be all in all.

Would that be a good thing for the congregation to recite after each and every Sunday sermon?

February 16, 2011

Diverse in Doctrines, But Joined in Seeking

This week we’re catching up with devotional bloggers we visited last summer, which brings us back to Scott Shirley’s blog.  This is a piece worthy of much consideration and although it’s a bit longer, I hope you’ll take the time.  It appeared this week at his blog under the title The Divisiveness of Truth.

“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” – Psalms 133:1

Should everybody be allowed to read the Bible? (Spoiler alert: I think the answer is yes, but don’t stop reading yet.)

In the later part of the 14th century, John Wycliffe became the first person to translate the Bible into English. His aim was to get the Bible into the everyday language of the people. His story is complicated and full of twists but suffice it to say, his actions did not engender him to the hierarchy of the Church.

The translating of the Latin Bible into the “vulgar” English language worried Church authorities enough that by 1407 the English translation was denounced as unauthorized and translating or using translated Bibles was defined as heresy — a crime for which the punishment was death by burning. In 1415 Wycliffe himself was denounced, posthumously, as a heretic. His remains were exhumed in 1428 and burned. His ashes were spread over the Swift River.

The lens of history does not reflect well on the way the Catholic Church handled this issue. However, the Catholic Church may have been correct about one thing. They desperately feared a scriptural translation that could be read by king and commoner alike because they believed the commoner was not capable of “rightly dividing” the word of God. Putting the Bible into the hands of people not professionally trained to interpret it would result, they predicted, in rampant divisions within the Church and loss of the unity so often implored by the New Testament.

And that is exactly what happened!

By the end of the following century a German priest named Martin Luther, influenced by the work of Wycliffe, nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, thus setting the stage for the Protestant Reformation and the results that followed. Up through the time of Luther, the Church was mainly comprised of two sects or branches, the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic (the result of the first Church split right after the beginning of the second millennium). Since Luther, the church has splintered so many times it is difficult for scholars to accurately assess how many differing branches exist. But we have gone from two branches at the time of Luther to, according to many estimates, over 40,000 branches today.

Why? Because we started reading the Bible.

What Wycliffe, Luther, and all the reformers started was a needed and necessary work. The desire of the Reformation Movement was to rid the Church of the power to dictate the truths of the Bible and put this power squarely into the hands of the people. And despite the results of countless divisions, none of us really wants to go back to a situation where clergy dispenses truth to us. However, swirling beneath the surface of our everybody-should-study-the-Bible-for-themselves attitude is the same fear that fostered the Catholic Church’s resistance to an English Bible translation.  We are scared people will reach different conclusions.

And reach different conclusions we do. No theological position or doctrinal belief has been immune to human interpretive difference. Well intentioned Bible-believing Christians disagree about everything from issues as small as the order of a worship service to much bigger issues such as the nature of God, the incarnation, soteriology, or the theory of atonement.

The fallout of a disagreement over any Biblical issue considered foundational has usually resulted in Church division. One may wonder how it rightly could be otherwise. Whenever we disagree on a Biblical doctrine or teaching, we seem to think the only justifiable solution is to separate. After all, if two people hold opposing views, somebody must be wrong and they are, therefore, guilty of teaching false doctrine.  We dare not stay in fellowship with them for fear of appearing supportive of their views.

Our natural response when differences arise is to assume our position (or our Church’s position) is the correct one, or, at the very least, the most likely to be correct. There are very few individuals capable of viewing the religious opinions of others as having the potential of being as valid as their own opinions. Fewer still are the Churches who can pull off this bit of intellectual honesty. We all believe ourselves to be right. 40,000+ differing divisions all chirping the same song… come to us, we’ve got the Truth.

How can that be? How can we all be so confident yet differ so much? The main problem, as I see it, is that Churches and individuals alike rarely distinguish between Truth and truth. We are all after a perfect and certain understanding of God’s absolute Truth. We go to Church, listen to sermons, attend Sunday school classes and Bible studies, all in the pursuit of the Big T. Yet we vastly overestimate the results of our chase. We fail to realize that just having God’s Truth in a book doesn’t mean we are capable of understanding it perfectly. What we get, despite our sincerest efforts, isn’t Truth. We get our best approximation of “T”ruth — we get “t”ruth.

To gain meaning from the words of the Bible we are forced to interpret them through the filter of our own mind. Meaning requires interpretation and, unfortunately, our interpretive machinery is all too fallible. There’s a fundamental difference between Truth and our interpretations of Truth, and while we search for the former, our imperfections bring us only the latter. If we only recognized this imperfection within ourselves we could more easily understand why our Christian brother down the street suffers from the same condition.

As long as we are going to read the Bible ourselves and not allow Truth to be dictated to us from any earthly authority, we are going to have to deal with differences of opinion. This is unavoidable. It is possible, however, to maintain a unity of brotherhood without unanimity of opinion. But our unity cannot rest on our interpretive abilities and opinions of scripture because it is a fight our finite humanity cannot win. We will never all agree. Our unity must come from “faith in” Truth, not “beliefs about” Truth. We can, I believe, humbly unite through our constant desire to “diligently seek” after Him. It is our search that binds us, not our answers along the way.

Alexander Campbell said it very well…

“Dear Brother, for such I recognize you, notwithstanding the varieties of opinion which you express on some topics, on which we might NEVER agree. But if we should not, as not unity of opinion, but unity of faith, is the only true bond of Christian union, I will esteem and love you as I do every man, of whatever name, who believes sincerely that Jesus is the Messiah, and hope in his salvation.”- Alexander Campbell, A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things

Along this theme, check out this original parable by Scott Shirley, which appeared at his blog the next day.

February 4, 2011

Salad Bar Theology

Today, I want to continue the discussion I alluded to yesterday, which centers around the much longer item I blogged at Thinking Out Loud today, in reference to high profile ministers and musicians who don’t subscribe to key doctrines, and as to the question of whether or not they can be considered “Christian” in the sense the rest of us use that word.

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.  (Acts 17:11 NIV)

There is a general agreement today that younger generations of Christ-followers are not as attached to the name on the front door of the place they happen to worship.  Many churches have themselves gone out of their way to lose the denominational tag and have adopted generic names like “Community Church” or “Neighborhood Church” instead of wearing their affiliation more proudly.

Don’t get me wrong; there are things about this I like.  I also like the fact that many of our churches are singing out of the same songbook; there are common worship anthems and choruses with which we can all join together in one powerful voice.  Of course, there are also distinctives that each group has that we can learn from, just as there are some hymns and modern worship songs that remain somewhat unique to each group.

But in the process, we’ve become like consumers at the proverbial salad bar.   We take a bit of this and a bit of that, and we pass on chick peas because we don’t like the texture, but load up on the bacon bits because we love the flavor.   So we love grace and forgiveness, but we’re not so passionate about judgment or the wrath of God.   We’re quick to tell our relatives and c0-workers that we’re living in the end times, but don’t believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are still operative in the 21st century.  There are over 100 references to gluttony in scripture, but we ignore the chronic obesity that dogs many believers but are quick to give our views on the question of homosexuality.

We pick and choose.

Many of us make the choices based on careful study of the scriptures, such as the above-mentioned Bereans in Acts 17.   Some choose on the basis of preferences; rejecting certain doctrinal elements that might actually affect the way we live, not unlike atheists who reject the stories of Noah or Jonah because if they are true, so are other parts of the Bible and that would having to engage and respond.

But many of us make our decisions based entirely on what (a) our friends, (b) a TV preacher, (c) a favorite author, or (d) our church or pastor tells us.  But what if a Berean study of scripture led you to a different conclusion?

So here’s the question:  Would you be willing to confront your friends or church and/or change churches if your study of scripture led you to something different from what you’ve heretofore believed.

Many of the people in the current crisis in Egypt have been heard to say, “For the first time ever, I am starting to think for myself.”  This is a breakthrough moment for them.

The problem in some churches is not strictly salad bar theology, but the numbers of people who have been eating a prepared salad.

It’s time to take your church’s statement of faith and examine it, and make sure that you have a personal statement of faith; time to take ownership of a personal theology.

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect… (I Peter 3:15 NIV)

April 25, 2010

Prayer: Part of Our Common, Shared Experience

We all experience prayer differently.   I think the success of Philip Yancey’s book Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference? was that he touched on so many different aspects of it that it resonated with Christ-followers even though their experiences in prayer — and their understanding of prayer — may vary.

I think the success of Philip Yancey’s small-group curriculum on prayer is that those varied experiences are going to contribute to some rather lively, interesting discussion.   It’s probably the best discussion-starter curriculum on the market.

The reason is simple:  Although it’s never listed in those 7 – 12 “core” doctrinal statements your church, denomination or Christian organization has as part of its charter, prayer is part of the common, shared experienced of all of us.

I’ve never met a Christian who said, “I am a committed follower of Christ, but I don’t believe the practice of prayer needs to be part of that package.”

No way.   So why isn’t prayer mentioned in that handful of “core” doctrinal sentences?   Is it too self-evident?

My review of the Prayer DVD