Chronological Snobbery and the Question of Christ

Ever tempted to think we have little to learn from people who lived long ago? If so, C.S. Lewis would warn you against what he called “chronological snobbery.” For Lewis, that term referred to the widespread tendency among us modern folk to think we have reached a level of enlightenment and that the ancients have nothing to teach us. I bring this up because I came across a quote today that helpfully pushes back against that sort of arrogance. The quote comes in a little book I’m reading as part of my Christmas preaching preparation. It’s called For Us and for Our Salvation: The Doctrine of Christ in the Early Church by Stephen J. Nichols. The introduction takes on the problem of chronological snobbery head on:

In our contemporary struggle to present Christ as the Bible portrays him, we should not work in a vacuum. We owe it to ourselves to look to the past and to learn from the church’s struggles. Perhaps in no area of theology is this more necessary or beneficial than in the doctrine of Christ in the early church. The first four or five centuries of the church’s existence witnessed the launch of nearly every possible challenge. Further, one is hard-pressed to offer a better response to those challenges than that offered by the early church leaders. We may be able to devise fresh and contemporary ways to illustrate their teachings and expressions, or we may have to think of new ways to relate their teachings to particular challenges that we face in our day, but there is practically no room for improvement on those teachings. What these early church leaders said and did is tried and true (14). 

Despite our radically different contemporary contexts, the early Church has much to teach us. And when it comes to the question of Christ, their wisdom has stood the test of time. 

Introducing the So What? Podcast (@sowhat_podcast)

I’m excited to share with readers that I’ve recently begun contributing to the So What? Podcast, which is produced by People of Mars Hill here in Mobile. We are currently working through the Apostles’ Creed line by line. Episode 4 has just been released, which is on the creedal affirmation that Jesus Christ is God’s only Son and our Lord. I’m grateful to KyleDave, and Brad for the opportunity to take part in this, and I’m very excited about plans for upcoming episodes. So keep an eye out for future posts to stay up to date with the news. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. And be sure to check out the website, especially if you might be curious to know what I look like as a cartoon. Here’s the audio stream for the new episode in which we dig into questions of what it means for Jesus to be both Christ and Lord. And why does it matter? How does our creedal confession about Jesus relate to what scripture says about him? And is the Creed simply a matter of mental assent? Or is something more going on? Be sure to listen to the end for a few extras. Enjoy.

Christmas and Communion (or Incarnation and Eucharist)

Icon of the Nativity (15th cent.)
My Advent series of sermons this year focuses on the significance of the Eucharist. In preparing for this series, I’ve spent some time looking at the Eucharistic writings of the Church Fathers. One theme that emerges with regularity is the connection between the Incarnation and the Sacrament. I included this illustrative quote from Justin Martyr in yesterday’s sermon: 

We do not receive these gifts as ordinary food or ordinary drink. But as Jesus Christ our Savior who was made flesh through the word of God, and took flesh and blood for our salvation; in the same way the food over which thanksgiving has been offered through the word of prayer which we have from him – the food by which our blood and flesh are nourished through its transformation – is, we are taught, the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh (First Apology, 62).

While Justin doesn’t go into detail about the nature of the sacramental transformation, he does draw an analogy between the Incarnation and the Eucharist. Both are mysterious because both somehow convey the presence of God through physical means. The Incarnation is the basis for the meal. It is because Christ is a flesh and blood savior that he can offer his flesh and blood to us in the Eucharist. And because he continues presently embodied in heaven, he is able to continuously offer his body and blood to us at the Table. By offering his body and blood to us in the Communion meal, he surprisingly yet beautifully cultivates our communion with himself and our Father through the Spirit. So, without Christmas there is no Communion, neither with Christ nor the Father, and without Communion, we easily lose sight of the bodily nature of Christ’s ministry to us and for us, which we desperately need since we ourselves are embodied creatures.

Do We Need the Creed? In Dialogue with @umjeremy #UMC

Should churches stop using the historic Creeds in weekly worship? Rev. Jeremy Smith seems to think so and attempts to make the case with an essay that summarizes a longer sermon preached by Dr. Raymond E. Balcomb, a former pastor of First Methodist Church, Portland, Oregon. The post is a follow-up to another creed-critical post from about a year ago that came in response a tweet in which I quoted Tom Noble on the importance of the Creeds for the people called Methodist. You can read my response to Jeremy’s earlier post here. This is an important discussion, and I’m grateful to Jeremy for facilitating continued reflection on the topic. In the end, I’m unpersuaded by Balcomb’s rationale for leaving the Creeds out of Sunday worship. Here are a few reasons why. 
Not intended for public worship?

Balcomb asserts that the Creeds were never intended for public worship. I find this somewhat misleading because the early Creeds developed as part of the baptismal liturgy used on Easter Sunday. Baptismal candidates were asked to profess faith using statements that later solidified into what we know as the Apostles’ Creed. My point, however, has to do with context not development. If the Creeds were originally intended as part of the baptismal liturgy for new believers, then Balcomb’s assertion cannot be maintained, unless he is willing to argue that the baptismal liturgy was not intended for use in public worship. Admittedly, the Creeds may not have been originally used as a profession of faith in the weekly worship of the Church, but their occasional use in baptism in public worship as early as the second and third centuries is certain (cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed, chap 1). Given the use of creedal formulations in worship settings that marked entrance into the Church, should it surprise us that believers came to find it helpful to remember and renew their baptismal profession on a more regular basis by weekly recitation of the Creeds? The Creed was intended for use in baptismal worship; it was a natural step that it should find its way into the regular pattern of the Church’s liturgy. 

Too many questions?

Balcomb is also worried that the “Creed raises far more questions than it answers.” Rather than being a problem, this struck me as a good reason to say the Creeds. If they cause us to ask important questions about and wrestle with the historic articulations and meaning of our common faith, that seems to me quite healthy and favorable. I’m reminded of the chapter entitled “If you don’t get it, you’ve got it,” in Mark Galli’s Beyond Smells and Bells (chap. 5). Balcomb suggests that the creedal mixing of history and faith is confusing. Galli argues alternatively that the mystery of liturgical language is a reminder that the God we worship is, at some level, incomprehensible. The language of resurrection, ascension, of Christ’s coming again requires us to reckon with a God that we cannot control. Galli also suggests that our natural desire for worship that is completely understandable reflects a desire for a god that we can control. If we leave worship with no sense of mystery instead thinking we have all the answers, then we have not really worshiped the transcendent God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. The great Creeds of the Church contribute well to that sense of mystery and create opportunity for pastors to engage the Church in discussion about the meaning of their ancient formulations. Balcomb criticizes the inadequacy of the Creed as a summary of faith. Perhaps we should see the Creed as a starting point that when taken seriously facilitates our ongoing wrestling with a God that is far beyond our understanding but who, nevertheless, makes himself known. 

Creed or Scripture?

Balcomb’s worry about the questions raised by the Creed leads him to look for something more clear, and he asserts that we should not use the historic Creeds because there are passages of scripture that do a better job of summarizing the Christian position. He cites as an example, “Our Lord’s Summary of the Law,” in Matthew 22:37. But why should we set Creed and scripture against one another? Two points should be made in response. First, creedal language is largely drawn from scripture. As Timothy Tennent notes in his book of meditations on the Apostles’ Creed, “One of the wonderful features of the Apostles’ Creed is that it only uses language taken directly from the Scriptures” (This We Believe!, 12). At the start of each chapter Tennent cites passages of scripture that substantiate the creedal language. Second, the Church’s liturgy has historically used “Our Lord’s Summary of the Law” alongside the historic creeds. Take a look at the Book of Common Prayer and you’ll find both. The Church has seen no reason to create a false either-or in this case; I see no reason to start now.

Behavior over Belief?

The last element of Balcomb’s essay that I want to interact with is the false dichotomy he creates between belief and behavior by repeatedly insisting that behavior is more important that belief. He is critiquing the view that right belief leads to right behavior. I agree with Balcomb’s critique if he means that professing the apostolic faith does not ensure right behavior, but his claim that behavior is more important than belief is unhelpful for two reasons.
First, he misconstrues the language of faith. For example, he says, “It is easier to believe in Jesus than it is to emulate him.” Well, if by “believe” you mean something akin to mental assent, then sure. But it would be more accurate to put it like this: It’s easier to say you believe Jesus than it is to emulate him. The biblical language of faith involves the idea of transformation. Authentic faith comes together with faithful living. 
Second, Balcomb’s insistence that behavior is more important that belief doesn’t really capture the complexity of the relationship between belief and behavior. It is true that belief affects behavior, but it is also true that behavior affects belief. This is one of the reasons that the Creed is important, not because it is a belief this is supposed to result in a certain kind of behavior, but because it is a behavior that should result in a certain kind of belief. James K. A. Smith has recognized and argued that liturgies have formative power. They shape us. They make us into certain kinds of people. The repetitive nature of liturgical practice actually deepens and transforms our faith. Professing the faith of the Creed is not merely a mental exercise; it is a bodily practice in which our mouths, tongues, lungs, vocal cords, and other muscles learn to run in particular grooves. This habit forming practice shapes the way we believe in God. So, it’s no reason to be rid of the Creed because we think it is merely a matter of faith that lacks the power to produce right practice. The Creed is a practice that has the potential to produce and instill the right kind of faith – faith in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. 
Do we need the Creed?
Is the Creed really unhelpful in the end? Or does it provide a formative opportunity to grow in grace, faith, and as disciples of Jesus. Balcomb’s argument contains far too many flaws to serve as an adequate basis for overturning centuries of practice by removing creedal professions from public worship. The Creeds have long brought the apostolic faith to life in the experience of believers in powerfully formative ways. Let’s not rob our people of the opportunity to be confessionally united with the Church around the world and throughout the ages. 

Entire Sanctification in the Early Church (#AndCanItBe)

I’ve often heard that John Wesley’s emphasis on Entire Sanctification (or Christian Perfection) was not only the result of his reading of scripture (it was!) but of his reading of the early Church fathers also. I’ve not had opportunity to research that claim in detail, but I was reminded of it yesterday when I was reading Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians and discovered a quote that sounded like it was straight of a sermon by John Wesley. Here’s what the second century Bishop of Smyrna wrote: “For if one be in this company he has fulfilled all righteousness, for he who has love is far from all sin” (III:3, emphasis added). The company of which he speaks are those who have faith and love for God, Christ, and neighbor, and this folks, says Polycarp, are far from all sin, not most, all.

There are any number of passages by Wesley in which we could find similar themes; this quote from A Plain Account of Christian Perfection sums it up nicely: “Christian Perfection is that love of God and our neighbour, which implies deliverance from all sin” (18). There are at least three observations to be made as we compare Polycarp and Wesley.

First, and perhaps most obvious, is that both Polycarp and Wesley are happy to describe the believer’s deliverance from sin in terms of “all sin”. They both, of course, get this from 1 John 1:7, “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

Second, both Polycarp and Wesley understand love and sin as mutually exclusive. A heart full of love for God and neighbor cannot also be a heart in sin against God or neighbor. If we are actively loving and pursuing Christ, then we will not, at the same time, be sinning against him. For both men distance from sin must begins with love for God. This is why true holiness is never simply a matter of behavior modification. We could presumably go through the motions and do the right sorts of things and still not have a heart of love for God and others. Love is the both the foundation and the fount of authentic holiness, the beginning and the cause. Holiness is not mere obedience; the life of holiness must issue forth from love. 

Third, lest we think such holy love means anything goes, Polycarp and Wesley would agree that holy love produces a life that honors God. We’ve already seen that for Polycarp the love that is far from all sin is also love that fulfills all righteousness. Likewise, Wesley insists that, “Love is the fulfilling of the law, the end of the commandment.’ It is not only `the first and great’ command, but all the commandments in one” (Plain Account, 6). For neither of these men does love mean lawlessness. To the contrary, love means holiness. Those who love God will love God’s law and keep his commands. So, holiness is not primarily about what we do; it is about who we love. But if we love God, we will do what pleases him. Holiness does not consist in obedience, but obedience always accompanies holiness.
I’ll conclude by saying that while Entire Sanctification is often treated as distinctive to Wesley, it should be plain that this is not the case. The core themes of Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification were present in early church, and Wesley saw his emphasis on the doctrine of Christian Perfection as a recovery of that biblical truth taught by the apostles and the fathers. This brief comparison of his views with those of Polycarp expressed in his letter to the Philippians is part, though certainly not all, of the evidence that Wesley was right to see his work as standing in continuity with the ancient Church.
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N.B. Thomas A Noble’s recent book, Holy Trinity: Holy People: The Theology of Christian Perfection, devotes a chapter to the topic of Christian Perfection as taught by the Greek and Latin fathers (chapter 3).

Incarnation and Incorruption

As this Holy Week progresses toward Good Friday and then next week to Easter morning, I’m inclined to share this excerpt from Athansius’ On the Incarnation, a book that continually nourishes my soul and refreshes me. Athansius writes:
“Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death in place of all and offered it to the Father. This he did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, when He had fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire” (8).

A Novel Idea?

From the opening chapter of Tom Oden’s book, After Modernity…What? Agenda for Theology:
What the ancient church teachers least wished for a theology was that it would be “fresh” or “self-expressive” or an embellishment of purely private inspirations, as if these might stand as some decisive improvement” on the apostolic teaching.”
Yet from the first day I ever thought of becoming a theologian I have been earnestly taught and admonished to “think creatively” so as to make “some new contribution” to theology. Nothing at Yale was drummed into my head more firmly than that the theology I would seek would be my own, and my uniqueness would imprint it. So you can imagine that it took no small effort on my part to resist the repeated reinforcements of my best education in order to overcome the constant temptation to novelty. And you can understand how relieved I was to see such an intriguing epitaph prefigured in a dream, one that at last seems to be coming true on these pages – “to make no new contribution to theology” – Laus Deo (22).
It would seem, according to Oden, that the thing most needed by present-day theological studies is a revival of interest in the ancient and historic teaching of the Christian faith. Oden is certainly right that the task of passing on what has been handed down goes against the grain of contemporary theological studies where every graduate student is charged with making an “original contribution to knowledge” in his or her specialized discipline. My question is this: is there any wisdom for the practice of ministry in this statement from Oden? Where is the balance between finding new and effective ways to reach new people and ensuring the preservation of what we have received?