Friday, August 11, 2006

The Creeds: Just how critical are they to faith?

Over on Jesus Creed (which I won't link because I don't like the trackback pings), Scot McKnight is taking Spencer Burke to task over his new book: A Heretic's Guide to Eternity. He asserts that the creeds must be respected and honored if one is to call oneself an orthodox Christian. He goes on to challenge Spencer's assertion that God is (for him) more valuably expressed as spirit than person. Quoting Spencer:
“I’m not sure I believe in God exclusively as a person anymore either…. The truth is that seeing God as spirit more than person doesn’t destroy my faith” (195).

What an honest statement! And in fact, he doesn't say that he doesn't see God as person. Only that he no longer sees God "exclusively" as a person.

So here's where Scot goes from this qualified hedging footstep toward spirit over person offered by Spencer:
[I will confess to you when I read that God is not a person, my blood boiled. To deny personhood to God, the hypostasis or “person”hood, denies the essence of Christian orthodoxy and the sole foundation for our personhood and the essence both of what the gospel is — restoring cracked (person-ed) Eikons to God, who is person — and what redemption is. This genuinely is what theologians have always called “heresy.” When he says he accepts the creedal view of Father, Son, and Spirit and then says he doesn’t believe God is “person” but “spirit” — frankly, this last statement completely undermines the former. What are the Father, Son, and Spirit but the persons of the Godhead?]

I am asking you: Did Spencer in that quote deny personhood to God? I haven't read the book, but now I want to.

Scot then rants forward:
Is Spencer a “heretic”? He says he is, and I see no reason to think he believes in the Trinity from reading this book. That’s what heresy means to me. Denial of God’s personhood flies in the face of everything orthodox. To say that you believe in the creedal view of God as Father, Son, and Spirit and deny “person” is to deny the Trinitarian concept of God.

Is Spencer a “Christian”? He says he is. What is a Christian? Is it not one who finds redemption through faith in Christ, the one who died and who was raised? If so, I see nothing in this book that makes me think that God’s grace comes to us through the death and resurrection of Christ. Grace seems to be what each person is “born into” in Spencer’s theses in this book. That means that I see no reason in this book to think Spencer believes in the gospel as the NT defines gospel (grace as the gift of God through Christ by faith).

So there's one definition that the entire historical church agrees to? Amazing how I missed that in my history of doctrine class.

This is exactly why people like Spencer are sorely needed as bridges in today's quest for interpreting the faith in a global, not-exclusively western reality.

Why are the ancient creeds given more street cred than the deep thinking of sincere Christians today who interact with both the creeds (their history, the debates that generated them, their multiple layers of meaning depending on which denominational take you hold) and today's postmodern, globalized, multidenominational, mocha-java cappucino world which (one might guess) is still an expression of the reality of God? Why wouldn't we take our cosmology into account, our questions, our debates and re-examine the creeds in light of those realities rather than always harking backwards by warning and threatening that those who do risk heresy? Why do we assume that what was formulated in the 4th century addresses what we worry about in the 21st?

There is nothing inherently more godly about the creeds and those men who formed them than being a seeking, open, creative theologian today who engages the creeds, our postmodern world and our contemporary Christian scene.

I'm amazed at how the default (orthodox) position assumes it is in the position of power to critique, as though it holds the better hand of cards. That only works if everyone is playing with the same deck... and clearly we aren't any more. Just as the 16th century gave us Luther and Calvin who responded to their contemporary world and applied the Bible and theology to it, so we have the same responsibility to do likewise today. Which means change. Which means the Gospel is dynamic, not static.

Somehow, God - the spirit-person - does nothing to stop the humble attempts of sincere Christians throughout the ages to reimagine Christianity. Maybe creativity and heart and the willingness to risk reputation are still related to being Christian after all. Isn't that how Jesus did it?


Dave said...

Spencer Burke contacted me via email awhile back and sent me a preview copy of the Heretic's Guide to Eternity. I received it the other day and have only scanned it so far, but at first glance I'm very impressed and eager to get into the book. Did you get a copy for yourself? I recommend that you do, one way or another. I'll be blogging on the book, probably several times, over the next few weeks. I think the book will raise enough points and sufficiently stretch my own thinking to warrant some longer reflections on its message.

I am not too impressed by the arguments of those who want to grant privilege of place to creeds and doctrinal formulations that are hundreds of years old, as if they represent the irreducible theological starting point for us living today. However, McKnight and others like him have grown up and thrived in a system that is based on maintaining those controls and his emotional ("blood boiling") response indicates that his objections may largely be based on a perceived threat to the power and control that his doctrinal foundationalism has made possible up until now. Otherwise I see no reason as to why he would take such instant offense at Burke's testimony and tentatively-phrased speculations.

Without having read much else than what you quote here, I feel like I already "get" where McKnight is coming from - his efforts are aimed already at delegitimizing Burke's book and ideas "pre-emptively" before most readers have had a chance to interact with them. (I don't even think the book has hit the market yet, or if so, just barely.)

I have a blog post in mind that I'm going to put together fairly soon on this notion of "heretics." I think that will happen over the weekend... you'll recognize it when you see it! :o)

Kansas Bob said...

I grew up Episcopal and recited th creeds every week.

I love this Julie ...

"Just as the 16th century which gave us Luther and Calvin who responded to their contemporary world and applied the Bible and theology to it, so we have the same responsibility to do likewise today. Which means change. Which means the Gospel is dynamic, not static.

... creeds never did a thing to help me pray of develop a relationship with God.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I find myself somewhat out of sympathy with both these gentlemen but that is probably a function of the brevity of my acquaintance with them.

I clinked through on the Spencer Burke link and read to the concluding paragraph:

"Throughout this book, I want to explore what it means to move beyond religion—particularly Christianity. After all, that’s the tradition I know best. But I believe that you will find value in these pages regardless of your spiritual background. I believe that the message of Jesus, once loosed from its religious confines, has the potential to contribute to the global yearning for the sacred and the divine. I believe that there is hope for the heretic, for God’s grace is a much bigger gift than we’ve ever imagined. "

I honor (I think) the intent here but am put off by the attempt to divorce 'religion' from 'the sacred and divine.' Divorce 'institutional church' from that, if you feel you must, but what misguided interpretation of the word 'religion' would lead you to think that the message of Jesus has to be extricated from it?

The following quote would appear to be a representative of the statements from Burke about creeds that caused McKnight to take exception:

"Throughout history, the church has put up creeds and doctrines to ensure that all things related to Jesus rotate around the axis of religion."

We have neither time nor space here for me to do justice to my reactions to this extraordinary statement. I'm struggling with a picture of 4th or 5th century Christians sitting down thinking, "I know, let's make up a creed so we can keep this great message cooped up rotating around the axis of religion."

As for McKnight losing it about 'person/spirit' I can see that his anti-pantheist, anti-deist buttons might be pushed by that type of statement but, again, I'm not sure what either of them means by "person" or "spirit" and I'm not persuaded they define them in the same way or that the(sort of) discussion is in anyway constructive, sigh. . .

I guess my final comment is on this paragraph from McKnight:

"Is Spencer a “Christian”? He says he is. What is a Christian? Is it not one who finds redemption through faith in Christ, the one who died and who was raised?"

Well, no, not everyone defines it that way. McKnight does obviously, lots of people do. But lots of people don't. My question would be, in essence, "Who is McKnight and why do I care what he thinks?" He's only the gatekeeper of Christian identity if we let him be.

Rebecca C.
(Obviously short of patience and humor.)

julieunplugged said...

Dave, can't wait to read your review. That ought to be good. :)

Bob... yes. Me too.

Rebecca, I don't regard either of them as points of light on my journey. I don't know Spencer well enough to credit or debunk him. I do know the ooze a bit but it hasn't compelled me to do any deep searching.

My purpose in pointing out this discussion was that it was bugging me that in the "emergent" conversation, this kind of shut-down was being published to a well-read blog as a condescending, "You're a nice guy but..." invalidation of his exploration.

Lol! on your evaluation of those writing the creeds.

One of the things I liberated from my mind and imagination was the sense that either the "creed makers" or bibilical writers were "speaking as from God" and conversely, that they had nefarious intentions.

To me, the best light to view the development of Christian faith is to treat the history of its development like I do my family - we do the best we have with the current set of circumstances and try to believe the best unless there is compelling evidence to undermine those assumptions.

I do think that plurality of position is a late breaking wave on the theological scene, though, and that historically, theologians have been very comfortable defining who's got it right and who hasn't in forceful terms that are off-putting today in our post-modern context. It's that archaic need to control the definitions that feels the most out of step with reality to me now.

Thanks for your humorless insights. :) LOL! I loved your signature.


OldMom said...

"One of the things I liberated from my mind and imagination was the sense that either the "creed makers" or bibilical writers were "speaking as from God" and conversely, that they had nefarious intentions."

This is one of your greatest strengths--you manage the trick of not just switching black/white and thinking that you've now got it RIGHT.

I was headed back to post another comment because I realized I had addressed everything but what YOU actually were talking about.

I guess my reaction to the heresy stuff is muted by my background. UUs are nothing if not able to have their own religious conversations with, basically, no concern about anyone else's opinion at all. And 'heretic' is not a word I was taught to resent.

Good topic!


John said...

Hi, Im from Melbourne Australia.
Hooray for Spencer.

Meanwhile please check out these references re Real God.


Rick said...

Read it, and had a neat conversation with Spencer on my cellphone over his statement that we need to re-create God instead of just worshipping Him. He said it was provocative, getting at how we have really "created" a concept of God that needs to be "re-created" - etc. Lots of that going on, and I was disappointed to see Scot's take go in such a pointedly negative direction. I think there's room for both men to be "right", and I'm sure the both appreciate that other's contribution. And I recommend the book if you can get your hands on it early or if you're able to snatch a freebie :)

julieunplugged said...

Hi Rick.

If you've read my UPI columns, I wrote a bit about the power of the images of God we bear into our world. I had this kind of idea in mind - the need of each generation/era to re-imagine God, to recreate God.

I think one of the chief issues that I care about in theological discussions is how cosmology impacts our theology. Each era then is in the process of conforming God to our current assumptions, even when we don't admit or know we're doing it. So much better to do it consciously.

I am glad you read his book and I look forward to getting a copy myself. :)


JJ said...

The thing that always trips me up about the creeds, is that Jesus didn't lay a single one out. If creeds are so vital to our faith and orthodoxy, why was Jesus so disinterested in them? You'd think that at some point he would have sat all the boys and girls and down and laid it out - "ok, it is important that you believe these things about me: ..." I mean he never even clearly stated anywhere that he was God (though I believe he is, it just wasn't what He considered the important stuff). Instead, his constant was teaching us how to live, how to apply Love into our lives, how to do "mercy, not sacrifice".

The fact that, as one writer I have read put it, the creeds contain "not one iota of the ethical teaching of Christ" always brings me back to a place of wondering if linking adherence to creeds with orthodoxy isn't totally contrary to what Christ would have wanted...

Bilbo said...

Hi Julie,

You mentioned how you are interested in how cosmology impacts our theology. I think I know what you mean but I suspect some folks may not. You might want to write a column on the subject for everyone's consideration. Just a thought...As I see it the word heresy/heretic has become an exclusive pejorative term and shorthand to dismiss those who don't conform to what the religious authoritities/establishment asserts one ought to believe...which is why...the word has lost any practical significance, imo, except as a modern day warning label for those who have already established or determined what they believe. Personally I am glad to see the likes of Burke implying that it is O.K. to reflect and explore our theological options...and...I find it baffling at times that others seem to suggest that theological reflection and exploration is not needed because apparently some matters of the heart just no longer need to be individually determined by one's conscious. I can understand why some if not many may not need or desire to figure it all out but I struggle to understand why so many folks would want to impose their understanding, reflections,
conclusions, and conscious decisions on everyone else...especially.... in light of the fact that we all have different orientations, backgrounds, levels of intelligence, and psychological needs. It's just beyond my understanding.

Chuck said...

JJ, I love the notion you shared about the absence of ethical content in the traditional creeds. Why didn't we notice that sooner?? Do you (or anyone) recall the writer who presented the concept?

Just before I read this post and the volumes of comments, I had been dialoging on spirituality and worship, and we were dissecting the concept of "Love God and love others". My own response to that statement was that God was too indistinct for me to understand how to love God. So the best I could do was to love my neighbor and hope that "lives" into loving/knowing/experiencing God. So I really resonate with the inclination to view God as different than "personal".

Anonymous said...

Hi all!

Big Surprise! I think the creeds are not only important, but essential for understanding God. ;-)

Re-inventing or re-imagining god with each generation has been the ongoing activity of humans. This isn't some new and exciting discovery. It also, imo, isn't a logical idea. If God must be re-imagined or re-invented, it is only because he isn't real. It is recreating God in our image, which I think is backwards. A God who must change to fit the people each generation seems more dependent on them than they on Him. I don't see God that way.

Does "orthodoxy" have it all right? No. But I think the creeds of old are important because they are closer to the time Christ walked the earth and they distill the essentials of the faith as it has been accepted by the majority of the church. I know, I know....there is debate about that and we've all read the Da Vinci Code, right? ;-) Well, color me not convinced that the early church was highjacked by powerful forces bent on getting their own way no matter what the truth. Not all people who study early church history and early writings end up like Mr. Erhman, "a happy agnostic." Many retain not only their faith, but the belief that the traditional timeline is very accurate, as is the Bible.

I feel less and less need to try to convince others of my beliefs, or of calling people "heretics" because they believe differently. But I still have problems with people wanting to dismantle orthodox Christianity as irrelevant. Irrelevant to you? Fine, but not to me. Please don't lump those who believe as intolerant, ignorant or unenlightened. (I'm speaking in general here, not pointing fingers at anyone in particular.)

I still think truth is eternal and unchangable.


julieunplugged said...

Carrie does it change things for you if the word used to discuss God" is not "recreate" or "reimagine" but to express God using our current language and understanding of reality rather than being bound by the past attempts?

No generation has adequately unfolded the character or characteristics of God, though we might way that we can see continunity in the thread of what we call God, of what we consider "of God" versus what is "not God."

When I think about the creeds, it's not that I would seek to disavow them as much as it is to understand them again... not assume I know what they mean today when they were written at a time very different than ours.

I think I will take up Bill's challenge to discuss the impact of cosmology on theology in another entry. Seems a good idea.

Also, for those who read juesuscreed, the thread in question is now over 100 posts long and Spencer Burke participated right to the end. Some interesting discussion there which has helped me to refine my thoughts about heaven and hell for sure. Also worthy of another post, when I find the time. :)