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. 

Joel Green on the Centrality of Scripture for Wesley (#AndCanItBe)

Given the ongoing discussion with regard to our “invisible Wesleyan message” and my recent reflections on finding our Wesleyan voice, I thought I’d point to a couple of paragraphs from Joel Green’s book, Reading Scripture as Wesleyans. These quotes illustrate the centrality of scripture for Wesley and for the tradition that bears his name.

For the heirs of John Wesley – I will call them “methodists” – the central importance of Scripture in the formation of God’s people is nonnegotiable. Evidence for this claim in Wesley is easy to document. Consider Wesley’s own words: “Bring me plain, scriptural proof for your assertion, or I cannot allow it” (1). “You are in danger of enthusiasm every hour if you depart ever so little from Scripture” (2). In his eighteenth-century Britain, Wesley and his movement were slandered for their emphasis on Scripture. Like rotten tomatoes, names like Bible-bigots and Bible-moths were tossed at them by their detractors. Wesley wore these derisive words as badges of honor (p. vii). 

To push further, we need to recognize that our heritage as Wesleyans is a tradition that underscores the importance of theological formation for biblical interpretation. As Wesleyans, we read with a constant eye to what Wesley called, “the Scripture way of salvation.” We read with a constant eye toward the ongoing formation of the people of God in holiness. There are other ways to read the Bible, to be sure. But methodists locate their reading of the Bible within the larger Wesleyan tradition. We read the Bible as Wesleyans. And we need to know what that looks like (p. ix).

Green certainly recognizes that the role of scripture in Methodism has been debated. Nevertheless, his comments help us to take stock of our heritage as we look to the future reflecting on the essential role of scripture in regaining our Wesleyan message.

____
1. John Wesley, Advice to the People Called Methodists with Regard to Dress, 5.1.
2. John Wesley, Farther Thoughts on Christian Perfection.

Related Posts
John Wesley and the Trustworthiness of Scripture
Wesley & God’s Concern for His Own Glory

Inerrancy and Interpretation (2): More on the Licona Controversy

In light of my previous assessment of the debate over Michael Licona’s comments on the raising of the dead saints in Matthew 27:52-53, I was pleased to see the publication by Southeastern Theological Review of this roundtable discussion between Licona, Danny Akin, Craig Blomberg, Paul Copan, Michael Kruger, and Charles Quarles, in which Licona’s rather controversial view was fairly evaluated by the participants. I was particularly encouraged with the tone of discussion and the general agreement that the issue is not inerrancy but hermenteutics. Despite some disagreement on how to take Matthew 27:52-53, the participants do a good job of articulating the relationship between authorial intent and interpretation, a relationship which Norman Geisler and Albert Mohler failed to take on board in their critiques of Licona. This roundtable discussion is an excellent example of how evangelical scholarship and peer review should be conducted. I am unaware of any apology to Licona from either Geisler or Mohler, but in light of this roundtable discussion, I think there should be an increased call for such an apology from both for their inflammatory and misdirected critiques of Licona’s work.

Inerrancy and Interpretation: The Licona Controversy

It is unfortunate indeed when members of the same team set their sights on one another. It is all the more tragic when the team on which they all play is evangelical Christianity. You have heard it said that, “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and misguided potshots certainly undermine the coherence of the larger whole. These reflections refer to the recent and volatile criticisms aimed at Michael Licona by Albert Mohler and Norman Geisler with regard to Licona’s interpretation of Matthew 27:52-53 in his magisterial defense of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.
The details of the controversy are available in other places; so I’ll simply sum up the core issue. In his massive book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Licona devoted a few paragraphs to Matthew 27:52-53, which says that at the time of Jesus’ death, “many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” Licona suggests that this passage is apocalyptic “special effects” rather than historical detail (552). In response to Licona’s interpretation of the passage, Norman Geisler, a prominent evangelical apologist, sent two open letters to Licona (1, 2) charging him with dehistoricizing the text, thus violating biblical inerrancy, and called upon him to recant his interpretation of the passage in question. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, followed Geisler calling Licona’s argument “shocking and disastrous.” Licona responded to these criticisms by affirming his commitment to inerrancy and stating his willingness to revise that portion of his argument in a future edition of the book, though he did not satisfy his critics by recanting.
One disturbing aspect of Mohler’s and Geisler’s criticisms is that they are not acknowledging that Licona understands his interpretation to comport with the truthfulness of scripture. The issue here is not one of inerrancy. The issue is about how we interpret and understand what the Bible is actually saying. Everyone involved in this debate knows that meaning depends on genre and authorial intent. So, the question is not whether Matthew was telling the truth. The question is whether he was intending to communicate apocalyptic symbolism or historical detail. If Licona is right, and Matthew is exhibiting a bit of apocalyptic flair in order to make a certain point, then Mohler and Geisler are guilty of not taking the text on its own terms. Instead, they are reading their presuppositions into the text, which subverts the truthfulness and authority of the text. Inerrancy is not incompatible with symbolism. Licona is not rejecting the literal truth of the text. Indeed, if Matthew is intending to communicate in apocalyptic poeticism, then the text is literally symbolic, and Mohler and Geisler have themselves missed the literal meaning of the text. Is it true and literal history or true and literal symbolism? That is the question on which this debate should turn.
Further, the charge that Licona is dehistoricizing the text is unfounded. Before a text can be dehistoricized, it must be shown that the author intended the text to be read as history. Licona is suggesting that Matthew did not intend the text to be taken as historical fact. Thus, he is not technically dehistoricizing this passage. Instead, he is suggesting that the genre of the text is something other than history, namely apocalyptic, and is interpreting it through the lens of what he takes to be the author’s intent. This does not conflict with grammatico-historical exegesis, as Mohler suggests; it is grammatico-historical exegesis, which takes into account genre, literary form, various textual devices, and the use of similar concepts and ideas in other relevant primary source literature.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that Mohler and Geisler are not arguing for the inerrancy of the text but for the inerrancy of their own particular interpretation of the text. They have mistakenly granted to their understanding of scripture a quality held only by scripture itself, namely authoritative truthfulness. Their interpretation may be right; but it could just as well be wrong. And the same is true for Licona.
At the end of the day, the issue here is not inerrancy but interpretation, not history but hermeneutics. The truly sad thing is that Licona’s contribution to evangelical theology is being overshadowed by this silly and misguided controversy. More so, Licona has had negative professional repercussions as a result of all this. I hope that Mohler and Geisler will withdraw their mistaken attacks, apologize for their ill-founded criticisms, and respectfully agree to disagree with Licona with regard to the interpretation of this text.

UPDATE: Here’s a link to Licona’s response to Geisler entiteld “When the Saints Go Marching In (Matthew 27:52-53): Historicity, Apocalyptic, Symbol, and Biblical Inerrancy.” This paper was given at the 2011 meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.

_____
N.B. This is not to say that all criticism is out of line within the larger evangelical tent (or any tent, for that matter). It is simply to say that such criticism should be fair and charitable. One can be fair, charitable, and level strong criticism all at the same time. I’ve attempted to hold all of these qualities in balance in this post (and others), even as I’m arguing that the criticisms of Mohler and Geisler are unfair and ill-founded.

UPDATE: Inerrancy and Interpretation (2): More on the Licona Controversy

Can Wrath Be Righteous? And Are We Blinded by Culture?

There’s been a lot of talk, as of late, asserting that any God who is good and loving cannot also be a God of wrath. These attributes are mutually exclusive, or so these voices would have us believe. We should remember that such talk is not new, and that it may very well serve us by bringing greater clarity by sending us back to the scriptures for a closer look as we seek to know the God revealed in Jesus Christ and better understand the way he has made himself known.
The question as to whether God’s wrath could possibly be righteous was raised by Paul in the middle of the first century. Paul sets out his intention to describe God’s righteousness in Romans 1.17. He then immediately begins describing God’s wrath in Romans 1.18. The parallel is striking: “For in it (the gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed (1.17)…For the wrath of God is revealed (1.18). Key is the causal connective “for” at the beginning of 1.18, which indicates that the latter verse (18) is substantiating the claim made in the previous verse (17). The revelation of God’s righteousness is substantiated by the revelation of God’s wrath. So, did Paul think that God’s wrath is righteous? If his letter to the Romans is any indication, he certainly did. In fact, not only did he think of God’s wrath as righteous, he considered God’s wrath to be exhibit A of the evidence that substantiates the revelation of God’s righteousness. There is other evidence as well, not least the putting forward of Jesus as a propitiating sacrifice, but that is beyond the scope of the present question. The point here is that God’s wrath is not only righteous, it is an essential element in the manifestation of God’s righteousness.
James Dunn makes the interesting point in his massive book The Theology of Paul the Apostle that Paul’s understanding of God’s righteous wrath is typical of his Jewish context:
Not least of importance for Paul at this point are two fundamental axioms of the Jewish concept of divine justice: that God “will render to each according to his works” (2.6) and that God’s judgment will be impartial (2.11). God’s wrath must be just, “otherwise how will God judge the world?” (3.5-6) [41-42, emphasis added].
This raises the question as to why it was axiomatic to Paul’s second temple Jewish sensibilities that God’s wrath was distinctly just while to our modern sensibilities God’s wrath seems distinctly unjust. We don’t want God to judge justly; we want him to look the other way. Could it be that there is a bias characteristic of modern Western sensibilities that wrath and justice are antithetical when taken as attributes of God? And could it be that this is one reason we have so much trouble coming to terms with what scriptures say about these things? That Paul was on the same page as his Jewish contemporaries with regard to the compatibility of wrath and righteousness suggests that the current struggle with this issue is a matter of cultural tunnel vision. We have difficulty seeing things any other way.
In all these things we must remember that the scriptural imperative is to have our thoughts and biases shaped by scripture. We must endeavor to see the world the way the Bible sees the world, even if it means casting off some of our cultural presuppositions.
What do you think? Do we have a cultural bias against righteous wrath? Do you think Paul has the same bias? Or is there other evidence that he thinks righteousness and wrath are incompatible? Why might we think God unjust to punish sin and simultaneously think governing authorities unjust when they fail to punish lawbreakers?  

John Wesley & the Trustworthiness of Scripture

Here’s a gem from John Wesley on the trustworthiness (dare I say, inerrancy) of scripture:
I read Mr. Jenyns’s admired tract, on the “Internal Evidence of the Christian Religion.” He is undoubtedly a fine writer; but whether he is a Christian, Deist, or Atheist, I cannot tell. If he is a Christian, he betrays his own cause by averring, that “all Scripture is not given by inspiration of God; but the writers of it were sometimes left to themselves, and consequently made some mistakes.” Nay, if there be any mistakes in the Bible, there may as well be a thousand. If there be one falsehood in that book, it did not come from the God of truth (Journal: July 24, 1776, emphasis added).
Two observations are noteworthy. First, Wesley takes the character of God to be the basis for his doctrine of scripture. If God is true and scripture is God’s word, then scripture must be true as well. Second, for Wesley, if a Christian denies the trustworthiness of scripture by suggesting it contains error, it is a betrayal of his own cause. My guess is that many Methodist and Wesleyan types wouldn’t be too comfortable with their founder on this one.
Do you think Wesley’s attitude is characteristic of the various Wesleyan and Methodist groups that claim him as their founder? Is belief in the inerrancy of scripture essential to classical Wesleyan Methodism?