Saturday, March 22, 2008

Creeds: Are they outdated?

Is there any place for "creedal Christianity in the post-Christendom, late modern world of the West?" This is a question our adult Sunday school will be entertaining in another week, as we study what happened "after Acts." It is also the question Jaroslav Pelikan entertained in the eighth decade of his life. Krista Tippett writes, "Pelikan, who died on May 13, 2006, was a scholar who devoted his life to exploring the vitality of ancient theology and creeds. He insisted that even modern pluralists need strong statements of belief."

This is a controversial position. Much of postmodern theology, with its re-discovery of "intellectus," an immediate, non-discursive way of knowing, is apt to dismiss creedal Christianity as "stiff" if not "dead." Indeed, the biggest criticisms might be summarized this way:

1) Creeds are power plays, which marginalize minority opinion.

2) Creeds, as unchanging, are no longer suitable to match the diversity and change of life in the 21st century.

2) Creeds, as propositional, violate the mystery of God and Christian experience.

Brad has an important link here, to help deal with those criticisms.

"Jaroslav Pelikan understood what a difficult thing unchanging creeds can be for modern people. He knew as well as anyone that historically creeds were employed in part to consolidate power — both of church authority and of Christian empire. But he insisted on capturing a sense of the profound and positive reasons Christianity, alone among the major traditions, seemed to require creeds. The global spread of Christianity and of the translation of the Bible into now more than 2000 languages, as Pelikan described it, "is the history of how one sought in a new setting not to speak the same thing but to say the same thing."

"And creeds, he believed, also meet a deep human need — one that is not diminished but intensified by pluralism. Pluralism, he reiterates during this conversation, is not the same as relativism; the singing of a creed, in fact, is a way of indicating a universality of the faith across space and time. Pelikan's own generous sense of space and time, I think, helped him internalize the original impulse of creeds and communicate their meaning to the rest of us. Every time he recited or sang the creeds, he tangibly experienced the fact that these same words were sung in the Philippines that same morning and recited by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century and Thomas Aquinas in the 13th and intoned by his own grandfather in the 20th century. I have been struck by the number and diversity of people who have told me over the years that this program touched them in a special way. Among them have been more than a few Unitarians, whose faith tradition was formed in part in reaction against the very idea of creeds.

"Attempts to make creeds modern and contemporary often seem to sacrifice something in depth and grace. Jaroslav Pelikan compared this, interestingly, to the language of love. We can try to be creative and unconventional but there aren't terribly many ways to say "I love you." Again and again most of us fall back on well-worn words and find that they more than suffice.

"Having noted that, in one of the most poignant moments of this program, Jaroslav Pelikan recites one of the newest creeds he discovered — a creed written by the Maasai people of Africa. In 1960, they took the bare-bones summaries the great creeds represent, and enlivened them with the vocabulary of their lives. Pelikan reads this Maasai creed, which includes mention of hyenas and safari, with reverent passion and an almost child-like delight.

"And isn't religion at heart about mystery, I had to ask Jaroslav Pelikan, that can never be captured in words? Can creeds ever be sufficient as a statement of faith? He left me with a wonderful statement of St. Augustine, who apparently struggled with this same question in his own theologizing as well. We resolve to speak of these things nevertheless, Augustine concluded — inspiring Jaroslav Pelikan centuries later — not in order to say something, but in order not to remain altogether silent.
I am not Augustinian enough to fully agree that we are not saying anything while not remaining silent. Neither am I Reformed enough to affirm that all we ever can (and must ) do is speak. For Christians, religion is not at heart about mystery. Neither is it at heart about complete comprehnsion. It is about knowing and loving the God Who is Three in One, who reveals Himself in Jesus Christ, and invites us into His infinite, endless life of love, truth and beauty.
But I think Pelikan is on to something here. Creeds are not sufficient, but they are necessary. Belief matters. "For as (a person) thinks within himself, so he is." (Proverbs 23:7)


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Cyril of Alexandria for Maundy Thursday

image by Leszek Forczek


What could be stranger than this?
What more awesome?

He who is clothed with light as with a garment (Ps. 104:2)
is girded with a towel.

He who binds up the waters in His clouds (Job 26:8),
who sealed the abyss by His fearful Name,
is bound with a girdle.

He who gathers together
the waters of the sea as in a vessel (Ps. 33:7)
now pours water in to a basin.

He who covers the tops of the heavens with water (Ps. 104:3)
washes in water the feet of His disciples.

He who has weighed the heavens with His palm
and the earth with three fingers (Is. 40:12)
now wipes with undefiled palms
the soles of His servants’ feet.

He before whom every knees should bow,
of those that are in heaven,
on earth and under the earth (Phil.2:10)
now kneels before His servants.

Cyril of Alexandria

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Shield of the Trinity

Creeds of Christendom

"You are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound the Scripture without the assistance from the works of divine and learned men who have labored before you in the field of exposition . . . . It seems odd that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others." (Spurgeon, Commenting and Commentaries)

Here's a great site that presents Christian creeds, from the Bible to the ancient church to the Reformation to various denominations, to the Fundamentals to the Lausane Covenant to The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. Enjoy!

Eusebius, Father of Church History

Eusebius (circa 263 – 339) was the Bishop of Caesarea, Constantine's court theologian, and author History of the Church, "a massive piece of research that preserves quotations from many older writers that would otherwise have been lost."

Some suspect him to have been an Arian; others see him as an admirer of Origen, but one who did not go to the extremes of the Alexandrians in interpretating scripture.
Rob Bradshaw quotes D.S. Wallace Hadrill: "Some writers note that just as Caesarea lay halfway between Antioch and Alexandria, so Eusebius’ hermeneutic lay midway between the traditions of those two cities." At Nicea, Eusebius' hoped to reach a compromise between Arius and Athanasius, by teaching
1)Christ was not created out of nothing (as Arius taught)
2)Christ was begotton of the Father before time and eternity, of similar (homoi) essence to the Father.

This was later refined by Constantine's insertion, "of the same substance" (homoousios) into the creed that was finally drawn up in Nicea, 325.

read his Church History here

Canon and creeds

Here is a great website explaining the intimate relationship between the history of the NT canon and the Nicene Creed.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Chart showing the Development of NT Canon

Here is a chart that does an amazing job of showing the various contenders for NT canon, who accepted them and who did not, and to what degree of authority.

Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant OT

Click here for a PDF chart of the differences between Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant versions of the Old Testament.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Out of Africa

David Neff has a great
article in the February 2008 issue of Christianity Today entitled "Out of Africa." In it he reviews Thomas Oden's How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind (IVP, 2007). (Remember, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Plotinus and Augustine were all Africans!) Neff writes:

A few years ago, an African-American friend and I were discussing a popular black pastor whose doctrine of the Trinity just wasn't orthodox. My colleague thought Christianity Today should give the man a pass. After all, he was doing good ministry and the fine points of the Trinity were just more of that dead-white-European-male baggage.

I hadn't thought of it before that moment, but suddenly I had a flash: Athanasius, the architect of Trinitarian orthodoxy, was African, not European. (So, of course, was Arius, the heretic who drove Athanasius to distraction.)

I took the opportunity to remind my colleague that orthodoxy arose out of the African context.

Indeed, many of the shapers of Christian orthodoxy were African. Names like Augustine, Tertullian, Origen, Clement, Anthony, and Pachomius were familiar from my undergraduate church-history survey. But my professor had not presented them as Africans ministering and teaching in the context of an African culture.

That common omission is what theologian Thomas C. Oden wants to address with the
Early African Christianity Project as well as with his book, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind (IVP, 2007).

The title of Oden's book suggests a parallel to Tom Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization. That's unfortunate, because readers may expect Oden to play the raconteur in the Cahill manner. Instead, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind is an outline and an agenda for research. (The agenda genre is classic forward-thinking Oden, who has devoted other books to outlining where theologians should be turning their attention.)

Classical African Christianity, claims Oden, has been ignored — or treated as something other than African. Augustine, Athanasius, Tertullian, and others have been treated as Europeans in disguise.

The story of Christian theology has been told from a European perspective. Oden wants to tell that story differently: classical Christian theology was heavily shaped by Africans. The language we use to worship the Trinity, the received definitions of the Christ's two natures, the early church's methods for restoring repentant sinners, the basic patterns of monastic life, our fundamental approach to biblical interpretation, the church's devotion to its martyrs — all of these things have their roots in African theological debate, African prayer, and African biblical study.

The movement was from south to north. Concepts hatched in Alexandria or Carthage were appropriated in Constantinople, Rome, or Milan. Eventually, Arab Islamic expansion across north Africa drove many Christians from their native soil. The result is that some of what Cahill's Irish monks preserved was in fact African. Writes Oden:

There is little doubt that Irish Christianity sustained strong African and monastic motifs in its piety, hagiography and temperament. This can be seen visually in its crosses, funerary objects, décor, calendars and art forms, as well as literarily in poetry, song and preaching.

Oden theorizes that as the scholarly monks who followed the rules of Pachomius and Augustine were driven out of Africa by the Vandal and Arab invasions, they migrated to Sicily and the little island of Lérins off the coast of France. From there came the influences that shaped Irish monasticism. That monasticism, as Cahill tells the story, eventually shaped European Christianity, which in turn sent missionaries back to Africa.

But even before the seventh-century Muslim conquest, the influence flowed from south to north. Not only theologians like Athanasius, but influential rhetors (the Greek term for professional orators) like Augustine and Tertullian brought distinctly African patterns of argument to Rome. Throughout this book, Oden asserts the significance of the African context for the contributions of these key figures. Then he repeatedly appeals to African scholars to document and analyze the material in its African context.

Those repeated appeals may grow tiresome for the general reader, but Oden's focused audience is African scholars who need to take up the outlines of his agenda, document the broad strokes with all the historical detail, and above all, demonstrate just how socially and culturally African our orthodoxy is.

Why is Oden so urgent? Part of his motivation fits broadly into his program to redeem theology from liberalism. It was northern European liberalism (Adolf von Harnack is the chief villain in Oden's narrative) that dismissed the significance of the African context and tried to label many ideas of classical Christianity as Greek philosophy, alien to biblical thought.

But the urgency derives even more from the current sub-Saharan struggle between Christianity and Islam. As Oden writes:

"The rising charismatic and Pentecostal energies in Africa are stronger emotively than intellectually. They may not sufficiently sustain African Christians through the Islamic challenge unless fortified by rigorous apologetics."

That rigorous apologetic can clearly come from Africa's own history, but only if African theologians reclaim the history of Africa's north for the entire continent. That reclamation is at the heart of Oden's agenda.