A Place for Christian Creeds

During times of cultural acceptance, Christianity in the United States has grown in many directions, some of which are not healthy. Setting aside the heretical movements of Christianity, like the prosperity gospel, which should be rightly be anathematized, there has been a growing movement toward fragmentation.

Denominations have divided. Often this has been for good cause, as when revisionist tendencies have denatured the gospel by rejecting the clear content of Scripture. However, there have been other cases where new denominations and congregations have been formed over non-essential doctrines or mere stylistic preferences.

As orthodox Christian ethics are more consistently and violently rejected in contemporary society, the resident alien church will need to form coalitions more broadly than in recent years. Congregations that refuse to revise doctrines for the spirit of the age will likely face greater punitive forces in society, which will require consolidation of small congregations.

If this scenario unfolds, a central point of contact will need to be established. One possible point of contact for broader Christian coalitions is the traditional Christian creeds.

No Creed but the Bible

Earlier in my life, I embraced the idea that creeds were an unhealthy addition to the Christian tradition.

I found myself fond of the idea, “No creed but the Bible.” This happens to be a refrain that was uttered explicitly by Alexander Campbell, whose primitivist Christian movement has done some good, but has sown a great deal of confusion by reviving the idea of baptismal regeneration.

As I’ve studied Church History and Historical Theology, I’ve realized that those that argue for no creed but the Bible often end up in heresy. If not them, then their followers have significantly modified Christian doctrines through spurious interpretation.

It’s taken years, but I’ve come around to an appreciation of the creeds. They have a place in grounding contemporary Christians in the great tradition.

The Authority of Scripture

Part of my rejection of the Apostles’ Creed, when I was first exposed to it, was due to the phrase describing Christ’s decent into hell. 

Used by CC license from:  http://ow.ly/NzHt302yzkO

Used by CC license from: http://ow.ly/NzHt302yzkO

When I tried to reconcile that passage with Scripture, I simply couldn’t. There might be themes that resonate somewhat with a descent into hell, but there was an insufficient connection between that firm theological statement and Scripture. As a result, my primitivist leanings were validated, and I ignored creeds for another decade.

As it turns out, there is a convincing case to be made for a textual variant in the Apostles’ Creed. It should read that Christ descended to the dead, which is clearly a biblical concept. In this case, textual criticism saves the day. A bad text only cost me a decade of being more strongly connected with traditional Christianity.

My instincts were right. Scripture is the ultimate authority, but when the creeds are rightly presented, they connect us to the theologians who were wrestling with the Bible in light of the controversies of their day. The creeds help me to interpret Scripture rightly to avoid the heresies that drove the creation of the creedal statements in the first place.

Creeds do no replace the authority of Scripture, they help ensure continuity of interpretation of Scripture.

Are the Creeds Enough?

The traditional, ecumenical creeds of the church are documents that reflect the time in which they were written. This is evident as the Christology in the various creeds becomes more complex over time, because the Church was responding to new attacks on a biblical view of Christ.

As a result, the creeds for a common center around which we can worship, but they can’t be used as final guidelines for the extent of Christian doctrine. In other words, they do a great deal to ensure that everyone is worshipping the same God, but there are a whole lot of errors they don’t prevent.

The contemporary church must go beyond the creeds. Even the early church did. For example, the prohibition against abortion was universally accepted in the early church, but since it was not contested within the church, it didn’t need an article in the creeds. Refusing to participate in abortion was also a product of discipleship, which is the result of proper belief in who God is, so it wasn’t necessary to affirm such an obvious ethical claim immediately after conversion.

Although the creeds are not complete, we should consider how we can anchor our worship in the creedal tradition. They provide a strong, common center around which community can be constructed. A creedal center allows others who differ from the majority of the congregation to worship together, even when differing on important secondary matters.

Conclusion

No one knows what the future holds. It may be that the present rumblings in opposition to the free exercise of religion come to nothing.

However, it may be that a crisis due to political machinations can unite faithful Christians around the central doctrines of the church and creeds can help form a common foundation.

A Call to Be A Christian Missionary to Christians

I reviewed a volume not too long ago in which Mark Tietjen presents the thought of Soren Kierkegaard in an attempt to convince the reader that reading Kierkegaard is a worthwhile activity for the contemporary church. I am inclined to agree with him based on his book.

What struck me as perhaps the most significant lesson from the book was the call to be a Christian missionary to Christians. This is the subtitle of the book and it largely describes how Kierkegaard saw himself. It is, in our day, perhaps a necessary task.

Seven Ways to Be a Missionary to Christians

The following extended quotation, drawn from the conclusion of his book outlines some ways Tietjen sees that Christians can be missionaries to other Christians, which is Kierkegaard’s overall ministry:

-               If there are some who are Christians in name only, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians.
-               If there are some who have inherited a perverted form of Christianity and know nothing better, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians.
-               If there are Christians who value created goods over the Creator, then one can be a missionary to such Christians.
-               If there are Christians who struggle to trust in God and his goodness, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians.
-               If there are Christians who fail to believe God can redeem even the least redeemable person, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians.
-               If there are Christians who lose hope that God’s kindness, forgiveness and redemption extend even to them, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians.
-               If there are Christians who ‘speak in tongues of angels,’ and so on, but have not love, then one can be a Christian missionary to such Christians.
Thus to be a missionary is not simply to convert the lost but to incarnate divine love in obedience to and imitation of Jesus Christ, the God incarnate. This could involve a fresh gospel message, works of love, words of nurture or the trust of one who construes me as neighbor who bears God’s image. The truth is that just as all Christians are called to mission, so too could all Christians use the message and love of the Christian missionary. Mission work quite simply calls others, all others, to God. (161-162)
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Reshaping Missions to Mission

A necessary step into understanding what Tietjen is proposing, and what he claims Kierkegaard supports, is altering the concept of "missions." This is by no means a new conversation, but it is one that hasn't always found escape from the halls of academia.

In general terms "missions" refers to the concept of going out to evangelize, do good works, and spread the good news of Christianity. When you think "missions" think vocational missionaries, evangelistic meetings, and a focused effort to reach people who have not previously accepted the gospel.

The term "mission" encompasses those things, but it is an umbrella term that defines a broader range of activity. Advocates of the concept of "mission" are affirmative of focused evangelistic efforts, but also see the gospel importance of daily living. The faith and work integration movement has this vision. Every action has the potential to preach the gospel in some way.

Behind Tietjen's explanation of Kierkegaard as a Christian missionary to Christians is this understanding of the purpose of the Christian life. It broadens the pool of gospel workers to include all truly converted Christians and broadens the work that is considered to promote the advance of the gospel.

Speaking Truth to a post-Christian America

We live in a post-Christian America. Perhaps even a post-reality America. Although I do not believe that America was ever a "Christian nation" in the sense that the nation had a divine mandate or was especially blessed because of its faithfulness, I do see in the pages of history a general Christian consensus.

Obviously that consensus has decayed. And yet, a form of cultural Christianity continues on. This is the sort of Christianity that allows people voting for an immoral, authoritarian candidate for the highest office in the country to claim that he is somehow chosen by God for the office. (Which he may be, just not for the reasons they suppose.) Many of these people claim to be "Evangelical Christians," but do not darken the doors of any church on a regular basis. This is the sort of Christianity that needs Christian missionaries.

Or, on the other side of the political spectrum there are individuals who brand every form of social deconstruction a form of "progress" and make public arguments that adherence to any sense of moral law outside of "judge not" is sub-Christian. There is a large block of such professed Christians in the United States that need the gospel as much as your Buddhist neighbor. They need a vision of the transformative power of conversion, where the Lordship of Christ is apparent over every corner of life.

This is the sort of application that Tietjen is calling for. The gospel must be evident in every area of the life of every Christian. I must say that on this point I agree with him wholeheartedly.

Passing Along Thick Christianity

Most people try to pass along their beliefs to their children. Even the atheists that claim that all religious education is child abuse are, by virtue of making such a claim, demonstrating a dominant worldview claim that they hope their children will latch onto.

Used by Creative Commons License. Via Flickr: http://ow.ly/YEqPy

Used by Creative Commons License. Via Flickr: http://ow.ly/YEqPy

The rationale for this is simple. If someone actually believes his religion is true in an objective way, then it follows that he will hope his child will also believe that the same religion is true. This is because truth about the world tends to make the world easier to live in.

For the sincere Christian believers, the content of their belief may be passed to their children either as thick belief or as thin belief. Surely there is room on the spectrum between these points for degrees of each, but the ends of the scale are useful to illustrate my point.

What is Thick Christianity?

Thick Christianity is a doctrinally sound, ethically rich, gospel saturated faith. This is not to say that it is overflowing with systematic theology (though it may be), or that every choice made is moral (which it certainly won’t be), or even that conversion will occur in the children. Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit, thus even when thick Christianity is communicated some children may never be born again. However, children who have been exposed to thick Christianity will be able to explain the content of and rationale for the Christian faith whether they have personally accepted it or not.

I have heard it said, though I no longer remember by whom, that in one generation the gospel is loved and known. In the second it is assumed. In the third it is forgotten and abandoned.

This pattern can be witnessed in the fall of once boldly Christian institutions into a malaise of unbelief within a few short generations. A prime example of this is Oberlin University in Ohio. Once it was a robustly Christian institution, but a search of the website now reveals that the gospel is no longer central to their mission. The same phenomenon can occur in churches and denominations. A congregation that was once vibrantly faithful can so easily fall into cultural Christianity in a few years if the central message of the gospel is assumed for a while. Later it will likely be neglected and changed or forgotten. At that point a church becomes a social club and a university becomes just another non-profit educational establishment. There is still some value for society in these mediating institutions, but the transformational power of the gospel is lost.

Thin Christianity is more subject to this sort of generational attenuation than is thick Christianity because thin Christianity lacks the substance that would sustain it. We should expect this, because early in Scripture we get evidence of the importance of living thickly for the propagation of faithfulness between generations.

In Deuteronomy 6, which is part of Moses’ farewell to the Israelites, he affirms the important theological truth of the oneness of God. (v. 4) Then he commands them, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.” (vv. 5-6) In other words, theological truth must result in right ethical action for the believer. The oneness of God led to worship both through adoration and through action. This is part of living a thick Christianity and not merely being a hearer of the word. (cf. Jas. 1:22)

But there is more to the story. Immediately after this Moses gives another command to his audience, “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (v. 7)

The significance of verse 7 is not that teaching should be done when sitting, walking, lying down, or rising, but rather that all of life is teaching opportunity for communicating a thick Christianity to our children. Teach them not just the “what” of Christianity, but the “why.” This is what makes a Christianity thick. It is a form of Christianity that is lived, authentic, and grounded in substance. This is the sort of Christianity that has a hope of being sustained across generations.

Ultimately, God does the work of salvation in our children. However, if our Christianity is true, it makes sense to live it in such a way that our religion cannot be reduced to a weekly routine or a set of prohibitions.

What is Thin Christianity?

Despite what some might expect, a thin Christianity is not necessarily unorthodox. Someone can be a faithful Fundamentalist with (mostly) biblical doctrine and live a thin Christianity before their family. There are many faithful Christians that have the right doctrine, but they often do not know why. In other cases, they do understand the basis of their doctrine, but fail to communicate it effectively to their children.

The difference is the depth of living in Christ. Our kids are with us all the time and they can tell when we’re going through the motions. Thin Christianity may have all the right motions, but it is often missing the most important emotion: joy.

A Call to Live Christianity Thickly

Thankfully, sometimes God takes thin Christianity and uses it to make Christians that live thickly. Grace is a wonderful thing.

But it is a much better thing to pass on a thick Christianity to our children. That way they get the benefit of doing the right things for the right reasons, of being faithful and experiencing the joy of knowing Christ richly, and of being able to reference a heritage of thick Christianity when they live well before their children. And by living well I don’t mean getting everything right, I mean pursuing the joy of the Lord in all things.

This is, I think, what Paul was getting at when he wrote Colossians 3:12-17:

Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.