It’s All About Me: How a distortion of “sola scriptura” turned American evangelicals into junkies of the self

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(Apostolic Succession for Newbies, Episode One)

Have you noticed the creeping narcissism in the evangelical church?[1]

Perhaps you have noticed it in the architecture as churches have been remade into the image of the places the world gathers: Foyers into coffeehouses, sanctuaries into concert halls, altars into comedy club stages. Candles and incense replaced with light shows and fog machines borrowed from the nightclub scene.

 

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…and that actually is a nightclub.

Perhaps you have noticed it in the songs we sing. The self-referential lyrics (count how often “me” and “I” appear)…the way the act of our worshipping becomes the subject rather than God…how few of our songs are about the nature and glory of God.)

Perhaps you have noticed it in the felt-needs orientation of our preaching  – With topics chosen by focus group and slickly marketed: “Come for our series, ‘Awesome Christian Sex!’” Or the way the preaching of the word of God has been reduced to a mere interruption in the song service (joining announcements and the offering.)

Surely you couldn’t help but notice it in Victoria Osteen’s recent exhortation, “You don’t worship for God. You worship for yourself.Oh, she was criticized her for it, but is this not a message we too are subtly sending? Perhaps Ms. Osteen is just more honest about it?

 Where did this start?

 The great strength of evangelicalism is a desire to reach people where they are with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, without a great deal of both self-awareness and self-discipline, our charisms tend to become our curses. As with most problems, our creeping narcissism is an unanticipated consequence – the end result in our culture of 5 centuries of the B-side of Reformers reclamation of the Bible from “ex cathedra” (infallible interpretation by the papacy).  “Sola scriptura” (the scriptures alone), was the rallying cry. Unfortunately, as “sola scriptura” is popularly articulated today, we no longer need a church at all, we are each capable, called even, to be our own sole interpreters of scripture – the Bible is “self-authenticating, clear to the rational reader, its own interpreter of itself, and sufficient of itself to be the final authority of doctrine.” [2] In other words, each individual’s head is the ultimate standard…and, just like that, the idea of the “priesthood of the believer” has been elevated to a de facto “papacy of the believer.” No wonder we have 40,000 denominations…and no wonder an increasing number people are choosing to stay home from them. After all, if I am my own pope, then I am my own church…which, come to think of it, comes pretty close to making me my own “god.”

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Regrettably, this is a wholesale corruption of what the Reformers actually taught. Calvin, Luther, and Cranmer each have notebooks filled with quotations from the early church fathers. Chris Armstrong, editor of Christian History Magazine, writes, “The Reformation is an argument not just about the Bible but about the early Christian fathers, whom the Protestants wanted to claim…you look and you see it everywhere. The Reformers use the Fathers all over the place…Calvin read Augustine…Luther read Jerome. The index of Calvin’s Institutes is filled with an enormous number of quotations from the Fathers. And in the first preface to that work Calvin did his best to show his teachings were in complete harmony with the Fathers. The Protestants…were keen to have ancestors. They knew that innovation was another word for heresy. ‘Ours is the ancient tradition,’ they said. ‘The innovations were introduced in the Middle Ages!’ They issued anthologies of the Fathers to show the Fathers had taught what the Reformers were teaching.”[3] You see, the magisterium, the gathered wisdom of bishops interpreting the scriptures under the lineage of the tradition was not their problem. In fact, they went to great lengths to prove specifically that their teaching was the Fathers!

But alas, we have jettisoned the Reformers’ actual belief in the wisdom of the church’s teachers, whose interpretation was expected to stand in the tradition of the early Fathers. The mess of pottage we have traded it for is a disembodied sound bit. Disengaged from the Reformers reliance on the Fathers, we have what can be cynically referred to as “solo scriptura” – my private interpretation. And when “solo scriptura” is combined with American individualism and allowed to simmer with post-modern “truthiness,” we get a toxic soup of the dystopic self. We then feed this soup to a generation reared as the centers of the universe, then wonder that they are consumed with self. How could they not be?

 …when “solo scriptura” is combined with American individualism and allowed to simmer with post-modern “truthiness,” we get a toxic soup of the dystopic self. We then feed this soup to a generation reared as the centers of the universe, then wonder that they are consumed with self. How could they not be?

The church has consumed “me” like a diet of high-fructose corn syrup. It tasted so good going down, that we did not notice that we grew both addicted to the taste and unable to roll over in our spiritual flabbiness. Worse, the poison has so clogged our synapses that we are unable even to remember what rigorous, healthy spiritual activity was once like.

Pastors have given up expecting meaningful commitment, service, or faithfulness from congregations. I remember suggesting to a pastor of a church of 3500 how transformative it would be to their community if they assembled 350 groups of 10 to meet and read and pray the Bible together in a year. I was stunned when the pastor said, “We have 3500 who attend, but we only have about 50 who are with us.

I am no longer stunned. I have watched how anything that smacks of commitment is sold on its potential to “bless.” This has now extended to our giving. Perry Noble’s church is offering a 90-day money back guarantee on tithing.  Seriously! Giving in order to get. It seems that every week contemporary mega-evangelicalism offers a new narcissistic low-water mark. And just like that, the commodification and monetization of the church is complete.

Where did we think “nothing but you and a Bible” was going to end? Where did we think that reshaping the church after our cultural preferences would lead?

Have you noticed the creeping narcissism? Do you have examples of your own? Do you see a way out?

 

Next Week: Part 2- Conciliarity: The Early Church’s balance between “rule by the man” (A secular idea adopted by Rome) and “rule by the book” (an Islamic idea adopted by Protestants).

 

[1] To be fair, mainliners have had this for years, but it plays out in different ways.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sola_scriptura

[3] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/januaryweb-only/1-12-52.0.html

Creeds are not Chex Mix. (Creeds for Newbies, Episode 4)

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When asked what I think of the trendy rewriting of creeds in progressive liturgical churches, I usually respond in the words of imminent theologian Ron Burgundy: “That’s just dumb.”

Creeds are not Chex Mix. You know, the party snack that you pick through taking out the morsels you like. But we don’t high-grade out what we like of God and leave the rest in the bowl. A Luby’s Cafeteria may make for a nice all-you-can-eat Sunday afternoon lunch, but picking and choosing a faith of our own creation is narcissistic and foolish. Not to mention a risky way to live one’s life. The old joke, “God created us in his image and we returned the favor,” comes to mind.

The creeds were written by the early and undivided church as summaries of the faith. They have been vetted by universal acceptance of the entire church, both through time and across geography. When Vincent of Lerins wrote in the 500’s,  “What has been believed everywhere, always, and by all,” he was referring to the faith bounded by the Nicene Creed. The impulse to re-write the creed to make it more relevant is, at best, misguided. The creed is not ours to futz with. (By the way, someone rewriting a creed is almost certainly a baby boomer.) Seriously, stop rewriting creeds.

Passing the Baton

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures …” (I Cor 15:3-4)

Our role is to explain not to change “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” (Jude 3) The creed is the universal. Beyond that is adiaphora (things indifferent) - perhaps helpful. Perhaps important. Just not mandatory for recognizing a “like” faith. So we do not change the core. We pass it on, handing the baton of faith to the next generation.

Passing the Baton

When it comes to the substance of the faith, there are two extremes: Fundamentalism and Universalism. Fundamentalism elevates the “you may” to “you must”—tithing, homeschooling, a particular theory of the atonement, etc. Fundamentalism raises the bar making options essential. The opposite is Universalism. Universalism drops the essentials making them optional. Universalism lowers the bar and says, in effect, “There is nothing you must believe.” Universalism leaves us with such a low bar to the faith that few see any reason to join. This is why we don’t “edit” universal truth. Fundamentalism hands the next runner an anvil to run with. Universalism gives them an empty hand-off. We receive and pass on, “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.

The Great Tradition

Seventeenth century Archbishop Lancelot Andrewes explained “tradition” as “one canon (the Scriptures), two testaments, three creeds, and four councils, over the first five centuries.” The three creeds prioritize Christian beliefs. As Rupert Meldinius said in 1627, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity.” Creeds keep the main thing the main thing.

The creeds articulate God as trinity, an idea that is impossible to get one’s mind wrapped around – which doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. In fact, anyone who can contain the infinite God of the universe between their ears really needs to find themselves a bigger God.

Creeds are our wedding vows 

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Creeds are not about warm-fuzzies or even felt convictions. They are the substance of the faith the church has stood upon since soon after Jesus left. They are like marriage vows-so much so that they form the substance of the promises one makes in Holy Baptism. There is a reason we take marriage vows – It is because human love is fickle. We imagine that love sustains commitment, but actually it is just the opposite. It takes great commitment to sustain love. A couple makes vows and clings to them through thick and thin…and, at the end of life, a thing of loving beauty has been produced. The historic creeds work the same way. The Nicene Creed proclaimed in church is a promise to cling to the glory and vastness of God, even when the pressures of life scream to give up. When said in church, by the community of faith, the Nicene Creed is a weekly prayed promise to act in love toward God. It is our spiritual, “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part.”

Creeds answer the question, “What must we believe?” We answer,  “We believe in one God, the father, the almighty…”  

Aren’t all Religions are basically the same? (Creeds for Newbies, Episode 3)

The Original Creed

The first Christian creed was, “Jesus is Lord!” (Mark 1:1)  This drew a hedge around what it meant to be Christian…and since it was a play on the Roman creed, (“Caesar is Lord!”) it did this by being a bit prickly to those who were not.

But Aren’t All Religions Basically the Same?

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This is the mantra of the day-repeated often enough to be assumed uncritically. Unfortunately, the world’s great religions are not at all the same. Each makes individual faith claims that stand (or fall) on their own merits. To say anything less is deeply dishonoring to the world’s great traditions. Every one of the world’s major religions does, however, seek to answer 3 core human Questions:

  1. How did we get here?
  2. What went wrong?
  3. How do we fix it?

The Christian answers, by the way, are;

  1. One God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Gen 1:1-3).
  2. Sin – We voluntarily walked away from our loving creator and God’s good way for us. (Is 53:6)
  3. We don’t. God did. God’s grace was given through Jesus’ death & resurrection. (Eph 2:8-9)

All of which lead to the one really big human question: What about me? Christian Answer: We follow God by faith, living a life of gratitude toward God and faithful service to the world (John 1: 12, Eph 2:10).

The Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds very carefully only answer the first question. They stay on “Who is God?” That is the nature of a creed. Creeds assume that if you get the “who” right, everything else will fall into place. That focus on the “who” is what makes creeds different from confessions. Since creeds are the least you can belief, churches that cannot endorse the Nicene Creed, like the LDS or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, are not considered Christian churches. This is not personal. It is not meanness. It is simply that to not be able to endorse the Nicene Creed means we are talking about different Gods. As we said in our last post, creeds are the broad fence around the very least it means to be a Christian. A lot of groups fit into that playground: Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Pentecostals, Copts…anyone who holds to a trinitarian view of God. It is only these late theological innovators that do not wish to enter the fence of the trinity to whom Christians say, “We are sorry. But change your mind on the Trinity and come on in!”

The shape of Creeds: A Trinitarian Narrative

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At their most basic level, creeds do not express a systematic theology but a narrative one. As I said in the previous post, the creeds give us the interpretive framework from which to view the Christian story – a new story within which to orient our lives. The Christian story, in a nutshell, is that God, dwelling in triune love, desired to share his great love and so created. Taking love for granted, we wandered. God, unwilling to let us go, moved into the neighborhood in the form of Jesus, showed us a vision of a kingdom to come, and went to the cross to redeem us from our sinful God-rejection, walked victorious from a tomb 3 days later, breathed on his own 4o days after that, and went to heaven where he “ever lives to make intercession for us” (Heb. 7:25). From there he will someday return to make all things right. Humans are now invited into that divine love through the plan of God, the work of the Son, and sanctifying action of the Holy Spirit.

So the next time you say the creed. Don’t just say it. Pray it.

Scales and Playgrounds: Why you need the Creed (Creeds for Newbies, Episode 2)

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Creeds over Confessions

Last week one more friend, one with a graduate degree in theology proudly said, “I don’t say creeds. I’m non-creedal.” This friend is both orthodox and devout in his Christian faith, yet he says, “I don’t want to be bound by statements that limit the faith.” Like so many, he is confusing “creedal” with “confessional.”

A Big, Big Playground

Creeds are not about limiting the faith, but rather about pushing the faith’s boundaries out to their widest possible limit. A creed is about how little one can believe and still be recognizably “Christian.” Creeds give the edges of what C. S. Lewis referred to as “Mere Christianity.” Confessions, which came later, do exactly the opposite. Confessions attempt to narrow the conversation from “how little can one believe” to “how much should one believe.” If beliefs are a dartboard, a creed is the outermost circle. “You hit the target, way to go!” A confession is the bull’s eye.

Belief as a bull’s eye is, of course, my friend’s real issue: Whose bull’s eye, whose confession are we to use? Augsburg? Belgic? Heldelberg? Helvetic? Thirty-nine Articles? Baptist? Westminster? …And those are just the ones written between 1430 and 1630! A creed is a fenced playground, but a creed represents the largest playground possible. A confession is the kindergarten play ground – very small and safe. The Nicene Creed is the high school ballfields – a square half mile. If you can’t find room to play at the high school, you really just don’t want to be there.

We Fear Creeds

Creeds have been ignored by evangelicals and progressives alike. Evangelicals busily moved past the creeds in a desire to be culturally relevant and a fear of the world creeping into the church – so evangelicals tightened the reigns with detailed, specific, narrow confessional boundaries. “Are you a Reformed, dispensational, pre-trib, pre-millennial regular Baptist?” “No! I am a Reformed, dispensational, mid-trib, pre-millennial regular Baptist.” “Oh. Sorry, we can’t be friends.” This resulted in “many protestants” – a now collapsing array of denominations.

At the same time liberals were also busy jettisoning historic creeds. For liberals though it was a desire to be theologically relevant and a fear that the world was creeping out of the church.

Scales Before Jazz

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When my children suggested to their piano teacher that they learn popular songs, their piano teacher would patronizingly reply, “We learn scales before Jazz.” The reference was lost on my kids who had never heard Jazz. What they wanted to play was the theme to the after school cartoon, “Arthur.” But the teacher was right, if you know your scales you can play any musical. Creeds are the substance of the faith – The “scales” to teach to every child and newcomer. By definition, creeds are catholic (universal), confessions are sectarian genres. Everyone has a genre preference. But if one doesn’t know the basics, regardless of the genre, what we end up with is bad music.

Creeds unite us around the basic Christian story (the “who” and “why”) rather than the symbols of our tradition (the “how” and “what”). The symbols of our tradition are rich and powerful, but our traditional actions and symbols never stand alone. Their power is that they point to greater truths-the truths specifically expressed in the creeds. Confirmation programs, for example, lose power specifically when our teachers have forgotten to keep the main thing (salvation in Christ Jesus) the main thing. And one cannot master Jazz who has not first mastered their scales.

So Christian, don’t give up your creeds!

The Bible’s Lucky Decoder Ring: The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.

Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.

He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

The Bible’s Lucky Decoder Glasses (Creeds for Newbies, Episode 1)

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The First Council of Nicea

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(Part 1)

In 1934, the Little Orphan Annie radio show hit on a terrific marketing gimmick: kids could mail away for a “secret decoder ring” in order to decipher hidden messages.

Perhaps you remember the young protagonist, Ralphie, in the classic movie, “A Christmas Story,” ordering one…

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…only to be disappointed that the “secret message” was nothing more than “a  crummy commercial.”

If you grew up in the sixties you might have had Johnny Quest “lucky decoder glasses” to interpret secret messages.

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It may surprise you to know that there are “lucky decoder glasses” to reading and interpreting the Bible – A set of lenses Christians have looked through as keys to understanding the Bible for nearly 2000 years.

Everyone has a set of interpretive lenses through which they see the world and read any text. For orthodox Christianity those lenses are a document originally written in 325 CE called, “The Nicene Creed.”

Settling Fights

As with all doctrinal statements, the Nicene Creed was written to settle a fight. More precisely to clear up confusion over the Bible’s teaching about the nature of Jesus and his relationship with God. You see, Jesus was so unique that people had a hard time “getting” him. Now, my evangelical friends will say, “The Bible settles who Jesus is, just read the plain meaning of the text!” The only problem is “reading the plain meaning” was not working. The early church was reading the Bible…in fact, not only were they reading from the same Testament, they were even reading from the same Gospel, and yet coming to radically different conclusions.

Let’s be honest, the Christian claim that Jesus is fully God while at the same time being fully human is pretty confusing. It shattered any existing thought paradigm. Two thousand years later it is still pretty tough to wrap one’s mind around a claim that astounding.

It may be of interest to you that the early Christians struggled with the humanity of Jesus more than his deity. Greeks, influenced by Gnostic thought and the idea “flesh” was corrupt and “spirit” was good,  had a tough time with the notion that Jesus could be a real, actual human. So the early church wrote a creed we know as the “Apostle’s Creed.” It was used in Baptisms. The line, “Born of a virgin” was included specifically to insist that Jesus was an actual, real, burping, got gassy, snored while sleeping on his back, human being.

A century and a half later the struggle had shifted. A priest named Arius had started teaching that Jesus was something less than God (as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons teach today).

Arius’ new teaching began to win people over. (It helped that he was a good preacher and musician. He penned a catchy ditty that all the cool kids were singing, “There was a time when he was not…”) Arius argued out of the gospel of John, “Jesus said, ‘The father is greater than I.'” (John 14:28) The church answered with, “The father and I are one.’  (John 10:30) and ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the father.‘” (John 14:9) So there they are: reading the same gospel and coming to two thoroughly opposite conclusions as to Jesus’ identity and the nature of his relationship with the Father. So is Jesus less than or equal too the Father? This really, really matters because Jesus’ role is to make sacrifice for sins. If Jesus is anything less than completely holy, anything less than divine, his sacrifice will be incomplete…and we will remain dead in our trespasses. (1 John 2:2, Heb 9:26-10:12)

When the “Bible alone” is not enough

How did the church settle this dispute? Is the faith to be, as Arius’ would have had it, endlessly malleable or is there an inner core that is non-negotiable – a “…faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all“? (Vincent of Lerins, early 400s.)

The church had two trump cards in this argument: catholicity and orthodoxy. 1) Catholicity (universal), the unbroken line of bishops (apostolic authority) traced back to Jesus – an argument of continuity of relationship with Jesus (those related to Jesus by touch). 2) Orthodoxy, an argument of continuity in Jesus’ teachings (those related to Jesus by teaching). The church has argued one or the other for 2,000 years, but both were seen as vital.

Those bishop’s unbroken interpretation of the scriptures present in the conciliar statements generated when they met in worldwide (ecumenical) council. The first of these councils met  in a town in Turkey named Nicea in 325CE. 318 bishops from all around the world attended. They came from as far away as England. The meeting was presided upon by no less dignitary than the rather newly converted emperor of Rome, Constantine. The statement they wrote, stating in unambiguous terms, that Jesus was fully and completely God in flesh, was signed by 315 of the bishops present (Arius and two cronies refused).

Since that time, Christians, whether they are aware of the fact or not, read the Bible through the “lucky decoder lenses” of those bishop’s statement, the Nicene Creed.

And, since the Nicene Creed is so undergirds how we view and interpret the rest of the Bible, it is a pretty decent idea to, as more and more churches are beginning to, pray that creed in church every Sunday. 

(Part two: Creeds: “The Substance of the faith” not “things indifferent” – Creeds are not confessions and it is above our pay grade to rewrite them.)

 

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