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,