Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The fallout of credalism . . . a personal reflection

We've been having a lively debate on the authority of the ancient creeds and the church fathers who wrote them, on several blogs lately. Mason, Martin, Kurt, and I have been trading comments across all four, and we've all shown up on a few others as well. Though in general I prefer to keep the subject matter here away from excessive navel-gazing, I think a recent personal story might throw some light on why I'm quite as passionate about this particular issue, besides my basic predisposition to be careful what/who is ascribed spiritual authority.

Beyond the obvious (I hope) subjects of my faith and my family, my real passion is international health and development. I have had the privilege to serve in this capacity a few times in my life--a two-year stint in Tanzania 25 years ago being the most obvious, though I have also done shorter volunteer stints in both Africa and Latin America, and I worked in an international project for the Centers for Disease control for a couple years in the mid-90s. I did my master's in International Health (met my wife in grad school, in fact), and all of my "best laid plans" were to make that field my life's work.

Well, as we all know, life doesn't exactly hew to plan, and mine has not. Being all that as it may, a little over two years ago I had another chance to do a short-term trip to Africa, this time to rural Democratic Republic of the Congo. While there, I had the privilege of working with some absolutely amazing Congolese doctors at the hospital we visited, and to help them a bit with some concepts in monitoring and evaluation of their projects, and general epidemiology. I also got to teach an inservice class for the nurses who run the hospital's network of rural health centers, and we spent most of three days looking at sanitation, water, and basic community nursing issues. It was an incredibly fulfilling time for me, and I took away three significant lessons from the trip: one, that I still had both the passion and the ability to be of some use in developing-world health, two, that I really wanted to re-connect with that field in some career way; and three, that other believers who were with me saw and reinforced one and two.

Not long after that, I was actually approached to consider a position with a mission agency I will not name, that would have (to my way of thinking) really resonated with both my passion and my skills. I dove into the process of applying, even though the notion of going on a full-support-raising mission structure terrified me (still does).

The opportunity fell apart because I couldn't sign the statement of faith without reservation. It wasn't even the inspiration of scripture part that did me in (though if I had studied through it as much as I have since, that probably would have got me too). It was that I could not say with absolute certainty, that I'm sure anybody who hasn't heard Jesus' message, as well as anybody who's rejected it, will suffer eternal conscious punishment in hell (both issues are elucidated elsewhere on this blog if anyone wants to dig further).

Now, I fully understand that a Christian mission organization wants to have its workers, those that represent them in the field, to be faithful believers. Not only does that make sense, I think it's only right. But somehow, it seems to me there is a disconnect when I can't find a way to help people have clean water and healthier lives, all because I'm not convinced they'll burn forever in hell if they don't get their beliefs in line.

It certainly goes deeper than this. It's not just about my job prospects. A whole lot of people over the centuries have actually shed the blood of those who wouldn't hew to their creeds; a whole lot of others have created horrible schisms between fellow-believers, a multitude of denominations, and a downright nasty witness to the world. But the point is the same, even if the outworkings vary. We do a whole lot of dividing on the basis of stuff that, I still maintain, is beyond the boundaries Jesus or his first followers taught. Along the way, we've left a lot of damage.

A new book I have to read. . .

Trevin Wax has just posted a new review on his blog . It's Lost In Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus, by Nick Perrin.

I can only go on Trevin's review so far, but it looks to me like an important study for anyone who cares about the actual words of the Lord Jesus. I look forward to getting a copy.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Standards of Truth/Doctrine/Dogma

I've alluded to this several times in other posts, but I think I need to throw it out as a subject in its own right. An awful lot of "doctrines" that are considered by church authorities as standards for faith, even standards for who is orthodox or heterodox, stand on what I submit are fairly tenuous grounds. I've been thinking about this a good deal lately, in part because of Scot McKnight's series on heresies on the Jesus Creed blog. It was further stimulated by a good discussion over on my friend Mason's blog.

In his introduction, Scot quotes Ben Quash, one of the authors of Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why It Matters What Christians Believe: "A heretic is is a baptized person who obstinately denies or doubts a truth which the Church teaches must be believed because it is part of the one, divinely revealed, and catholic (that is, universally valid) Christian faith." To my shock, in four posts so far, Scot has appeared to reinforce this definition several times, and I have not yet seen him challenge it. This shocks me because, coming from the Anabaptist tradition himself (as I do), Scot has got to realize that this definition validates the condemnation of his own spiritual forbears as heretics--for they certainly denied a number of "truths" that were universally accepted by "the church" of their time.

While I have not (yet) read the book, so I am going primarily on the discussion on Jesus Creed and other locations, I am highly troubled by the degree to which Christians of a variety of stripes appear to be perfectly OK with elevating various church fathers or reformers to canonical status. I say this because of the level of deference I encounter, in debates on doctrine, to those fathers' teachings, even when those teachings go beyond what is stated in canonical scriptural sources.

It should be familiar to anyone who has read much in my blog, that I believe this level of deference to extrabiblical authority is inappropriate. But just to make it blindingly clear, let me state the proposition directly:

If any proposition is not derivable from scriptural sources alone, it dare not rise to the level of dogma.

By this I actually challenge most of what is in the vast majority of creeds and statements of faith, including the ancient ones (cf this post). My issue is that an awful lot of cherished doctrines of long standing are, if viewed honestly, extrabiblical. Unless we are willing to grant apostolic, inspirational credentials to the church fathers (which the Roman Catholic church does for some, but Protestants claim not to), their writings, however carefully and prayerfully considered, do not rise to the same level of authority. This same filter must be applied to the Reformers.

From Ingatius and Iranaeus, through Augustine, to Calvin and Luther, and even to Wright and Piper and all the others today, we have the writings of Godly, dedicated men who deserve to have their reasoning and arguments considered in the light of scripture, but none of whom, severally or individually, deserve canonical deference.

I do not claim that everything these guys stood for was/is unbiblical--far from it. I say rather:
  1. If what they say is derivable from a careful, contextual reading of scripture, it deserves doctrinal consideration.
  2. If what they say may be supported (or at least is not contradicted) by scripture, but is not independently detectable there, it may or may not be true, but as a doctrinal test it must be considered optional. . .even if centuries of church tradition have adopted it!
  3. If what they say is not actually found in scripture (and here I actually place at least some christology, believe it or not), it's nothing more than opinion and dare not be elevated beyond that.
These criteria make a lot of Evangelicals nervous, because when consistently applied they actually strike at some pretty closely-held positions. One of the things these standards produce is a much shorter list of things for which we can maintain certainty. But if we are to really "rightly divide the word," one of the things we have to be about is dividing it from all those accretions it has gathered in our doctrines and creeds over the centuries. Frankly, I believe such a standard would return "systematic theology" to its rightful place--as a useful tool to contemplate the wonder and grandeur of God's work, but in humble acknowledgment that it is, at best, a good and honest guess, and not sufficient to divide the orthodox from the heterodox.

Put more simply, none of us--not even the doctors of divinity, the reformers, the church fathers--know half as much as we think. Writing people out of our fellowships, or worse, consigning them to damnation, on the basis of these things is wrong. It was wrong when they did it at the second council of Constantinople, and it's wrong when denominations, conventions, preachers, and the rest of us do it today.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Atonement and the Resurrection

Last week Trevin Wax posted a review of Mark Driscoll's new book "Death by Love: Letters from the Cross" on his (Trevin's) "Kingdom People" blog. It was a detailed and sympathetic review of a book that, according to Wax, concentrates heavily on the suffering and death of Jesus as it impacts the redemption of human sinners.

I was troubled, and I raised this question in the discussion, by the apparent lack of emphasis on the resurrection in this work. Wax's response bugged me even more: "The book is specifically about the atonement, so it is natural that it focuses more on the death of Christ than the resurrection." The more I thought about it, the more wrong that notion seemed.

There is no question that Scripture, particularly the Pauline epistles, teach us that Jesus' death in some way dealt with the problem of corruption and sin and death in this world. But when the writers of Scripture talk about Jesus' death, his resurrection is never far away. Think of all the gospel accounts where Jesus, while prophesying his death, says in nearly the same breath that he'll be raised on the third day (Matt 16:21 &ff, Mat 20:17 &ff, Mark 8:31 &ff, Luke 18:31 &ff, and others). John is the only gospel where none of Jesus' comments about his death are associated with resurrection in the same paragraph, though in John 14:18-19 Jesus is clearly talking in that vein.

But it's not "just" Jesus who talked that way (I can't believe I just said that). Paul, whose writings form the backbone of most atonement theology, flat-out said in 1 Cor. 15:17:

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

It doesn't get much clearer than that. While Jesus already had the authority to forgive sins before he died (see Matt. 9:2-7), Paul teaches us that it was his death and resurrection together that wielded the ultimate power over evil, over the principalities and powers of this age.

It occurred to me as I chewed over this, that perhaps the reason Jesus' resurrection gets soft-pedaled so much in the church, is precisely because the prevailing view of atonement within the church is the Penal-Substitutionary notion that Jesus died in order to take upon himself the wrath and punishment of God for our sins. In P-S, the redemptive act was completed when Jesus "yielded up his spirit" on the cross. In fact, though P-S proponents wouldn't actually say this, the resurrection is pretty much unnecessary in the view of penal substitution, except perhaps for the fact that like any bereaved father, God wanted his son back (I won't get into a discussion on christology here). Maybe this is part of why P-S seems so inadequate to me.

But in the Christus Victor view, which comes much closer to my own position at this time in my life, the resurrection is absolutely essential. When Jesus died, Satan and the powers actually thought they had won. From Genesis to Revelation, we see that death is the ultimate weapon of evil against the purposes of God. When they managed to kill the Son of God, they thought they had triumphed and their ultimate weapon had taken down their ultimate enemy. It was when God raised Jesus from the dead, that Satan's greatest weapon of mass destruction was rendered powerless. Satan's defeat happened Sunday morning, not Friday afternoon!

Therefore, I contend, as subjects of the resurrected King, we have no business going on about Jesus' death for a whole book without spending much more energy on celebrating and proclaiming his resurrection.

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. . .We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.
Romans 6:4-5, 9 (ESV), emphasis added

That "no longer" intrigues me. Is Paul saying that, for Friday night and all that Saturday, death DID in fact have dominion over Jesus? We don't know, but death's owner certainly thought so. He hasn't learned much either. Death is still the ultimate threat that the powers of this world (human or otherwise) try to hold over us. It is only in the certainty of Jesus' resurrection that we can know that he has the power to save us. His blood alone was not enough for that!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The blood of another. . .

I have never embedded media in my blog before but this first time is worth it:

My gratitude to my brother Dave for working with artists Peter Buffet and Akon to inspire this work, and for sharing it with me. Be sure to check out the artists' collaborative website Is there Something I Can Do?

The issue of human slavery is one that gets far too little play in our media and our discussions. What play it does get is too-often tied to either a conservative political agenda that only talks about trafficking in terms of prostitution, or a liberal agenda that talks about economic exploitation. Both are real, both are evil, and both must be confronted by everyone who has a conscience, regardless of what "wing" of politics he/she occupies.

I have E. Benjamin Skinner's excellent and disturbing book A Crime So Monstrous linked already in my recommended books section, but I'll plug it again here. Skinner takes a hard-boiled look at human slavery around the world, primarily in its economic, prostitution, and home-domestic sides (he doesn't address child soldiers much, but this, too requires attention). He shows how slavery exists even here in the U.S. in the realms of prostitution, and domestic "servants" imported (often) from Haiti. Read it and weep/rage, and then find a way to speak out and get involved!