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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

On Creeds, Doctrinal Statements, and Orthodoxy

Here's one sure to ruffle some feathers! ;) But seriously, as always, I hope you understand my heart in writing these things and that you test anything I say and evaluate it for yourself.

Recently, I wrote a post regarding "whisper down the lane" theology which addressed the problem of people just believing what others tell them instead of searching the Scriptures for themselves. But today, I want to go even deeper with that and address an area of growing frustration for me -- the way people treat creeds and doctrinal statements (or "statements of faith") as if they were on the very level of Scripture.

Let me begin with an illustration from earlier in my life. Oh about 11 years ago, I had the distinct pleasure (all sarcasm intended!) of being put through the grueling process of ordination. The idea was rather basic. The church in which I was the Associate Pastor convened a meeting of about seven or eight gentlemen who were in various positions of ministry, and they grilled me for several hours on all kinds of theological points. Several of the men were ones which I chose, and several were chosen by the senior pastor of my church. The purpose of the meeting was to determine if I was fit to be a pastor or not.

In preparation for the meeting, I was instructed to compose a document containing my doctrinal beliefs. This document was then copied and given to each member of the ordination council, and they used that as the launching pad from which to torment me. Because I foolishly believed that these gentlemen wanted to know what I actually believed, I labored many, many hours creating statements that articulated my beliefs. In fact, I tried very hard not to mimic the words of the systematic theology books I had studied in Bible college.

When it was all said and done, one member of the council said to me, "When you write a doctrinal statement, you really should use the verbage that many of the great theologians use in their writings. There's no need to reinvent the wheel. There's a reason why they're considered great theologians, so just use their statements."

Anybody that knows me can probably guess how that went over with me. I was actually rather shocked. You mean to tell me that in order to be a pastor, I must be able to accurately parrot the statements of some other theologian? And to try to think it out on my own and use my own words means that I'm somehow reinventing the wheel?

This brings me to my current topic. Why do people want to run to creeds, doctrinal statements, and other written records of what others have agreed on without thinking it through for themselves? Now, if the creed actually states what you believe and you want to use that language, then be all means, go ahead! I have no problem with that. But I really wonder how many people understand what it is they are quoting anyway!

And the difficulty that we have is that once a creed has been accepted as the "standard" by which all orthodoxy is judged, there is no room for discussion without people labeling you as a heretic or a rebel or whatever other insulting term they can think up.

For example, I recently read a very good essay by one person who has chosen not to use the word "inerrant" in his view of Scripture. Now, all good evangelical Christians know that a belief in inerrancy is required for entrance into Heaven, right? (Excuse me while I remove my tongue from its firm position in my cheek...) But here's the issue that was raised in the essay. The definition of inerrancy as used by most Christians is specified as relating only to the original manuscripts of the Bible. Oh, and by the way, we don't have any of those laying around! Many people are very clear that the "doctrine of inerrancy" doesn't apply to later copies. In fact, we know that later copies must have some errors because copies that we have found (even from many centuries ago) disagree with one another on some words.

Here's my obligatory interruption to assure you I am not a heretic. I do believe that God has preserved His truth for us, but it's pretty obvious that we don't know for absolute certainty exactly what words may have been original and what have been added or modified. But I do believe by faith that the truth conveyed in Scripture has been preserved for us. In other words, any changes or "errors" in copying the text do not alter the teaching of Scripture.

However, getting back to the point, if the "doctrine of inerrancy" only applies to the original manuscripts, and we don't have the original manuscripts, is the doctrine of inerrancy even necessary for a definition of "orthodoxy"? But, it's in a lot of people's doctrinal statements, as if it's an absolutely essential doctrine. (And of course, they will generally argue that if you throw out the doctrine of inerrancy, you end up denying the resurrection of Christ and your whole faith falls apart. Hmmmm, interesting logic there. Amazingly, I have yet to deny the resurrection of Christ!! I guess I must just be odd.)

One other frustrating point of "orthodoxy" for me is the way in which most evangelical theologians and systematic theologies define the Trinity. It's not that I don't believe Jesus is God. It's not that I don't believe in the Holy Spirit. It's just the way that it's worded that bothers me.

First of all, what do you do with the fact that most of the time Paul greets his readers, he mentions the Father and the Son ... but no mention of the Holy Spirit. Look at the opening to most of his letters. (For example, 1 Corinthians 1:3: "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.") And what about Revelation 1:5 which mentions the "seven spirits" (or some would translate it as the "sevenfold spirit")? In fact, Revelation describes in heaven a throne with someone sitting on it (probably the Father) and the Lamb (obviously Jesus Christ) coming and taking a scroll from the right hand of the one on the throne. And again, the Lamb is mentioned as having seven horns which represent the seven spirits of God, but there is no mention of "the Holy Spirit" in the description there.

So, when we come to a doctrinal statement which affirms that the Trinity is defined as three Persons who are "eternally distinct", I get uncomfortable. "Eternally distinct" implies that we will always understand God in eternity to be "Three in One". No, change that. It doesn't imply it. It outright affirms it! If you want to say that at this point in history, we have a revelation of God as "Three in One", I will let you say that. But to assume that's how we will always understand God? Or even more strongly put, to assume that is exactly how God really IS? That's frustrating for me. Because this is something that has been held up to be a test of orthodoxy.

Now, I'm not saying that I want to go all the way to the United Pentecostal "oneness" position. In fact, I've been there, done that, and don't even care to wear the T-shirt anymore! I'm not comfortable with that side of the issue. But must it be one or the other? Why is it that we can't even discuss the points I made above without getting into accusations of heresy?

In the aforementioned ordination council, one gentlemen repeatedly warned me that "heresy starts in degrees." Or it was something to that effect. In other words, he was saying, "You don't just wake up one day and choose to become a heretic. You slide down this slippery slope until there's no returning to orthodoxy." (My paraphrase) So, I guess for many, the answer is to draw the lines just as clear as possible and burn anyone who steps over them or even questions them.

That's not my kind of approach, and I am not interested in playing that game. So, if that means I'm not an "evangelical" because I won't sign off on a particular definition of the Trinity, then so be it. If it means I'm not an "evangelical" because I won't sign off on a particular statement of inerrancy, then so be it. I guess I'll just be a "Christian" and not try to fit into anyone's camp! ;)

Whew! I can't tell you how good it feels to admit that out loud (well, sorta out loud...)!

Until next time,

steve :)

2 comment(s):

I believe faithful copies of the original manuscripts exist, but the question remains of how one determines which textual variants truthfully convey in jot and tittle what God expressed. I also believe, as the end of days unfolds, that what the Bible says in the autographs might - MIGHT - be set forth once and for all through a reconstruction process of textual variants. The "end product" might be irrefuteably what the inspired Word of God said because it will completely agree within itself. How? Through linguistics? Mathematics? Only God knows.

As for the Trinity, Jesus said: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen" (Matthew 28:19-20). But Peter told the multitudes in Acts: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2:38). Why is there this discrepancy?

Oneness advocates often claim that the words of Jesus were inserted by Trinitarians to bolster their doctrine of the Trinity. However, I believe Jesus commanded His disciples in this peculiar manner, and Peter properly applied His commandment.

Jesus warned His disciples before He was crucified, "Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many" (Matthew 24:4-5). Jesus could not then say, after He rose from the dead, that He was the Christ. And it is recorded nowhere in the Gospels, post-resurrection, that He claimed this. Therefore, Jesus could not command His disciples to baptize in the name of Jesus Christ.

The name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost is the name of Jesus Christ. For Peter also said "there is none other name under heaven given among men," and that was where Peter was on the day of Pentecost, under heaven, "whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

I am not opposed to "orthodoxy," but to me, it is just a word, not the Word. I want to understand what the great theologians understood...as long as it lines up with what the Word of God says.

By Anonymous Michael Rew, at Sunday, September 18, 2005 12:42:00 PM  

What did those who were not great theologians, but who nonetheless were willingly thrown to lions and accepted other persecutions so confident about? What did the common folk of that period who were disciples know even though they read no words nor had written scriptures or morning devotional books? What so captivated them that in the absence the teachers with the words of encouragement and instruction (those whose extant writings now form the basis of our many, many discussions of truth) that they remained faithful and even grew in faith?

It was the experience of the in-dwelling Christ. It was substantive and real and rich and life-giving.

So it is today. There is a place for the exercise of our intellect.
We enter this place readily, but unfortunately we often seek it as a substitute for simple trust--as if we could deduce trust.

The truth is, that the center of our hearts is the reality of that which the Ark of the Covenant is but a shadow. Throwing open the doors of the ark within us, within the holy of holies--our hearts--and gazing their into the brilliance of the Lord is not an intellectual exercise. Never has been and never will be.

It is an exercise of faith in a revelation that springs from the whole of Scripture. He is Emmanuel, God with us. The union between Him and us is a simple function of the spiritual economy Jesus established through the cross and fulfilled by the resurrection.

By Anonymous ded, at Tuesday, September 20, 2005 7:06:00 PM  

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