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…”  

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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

photocredit: ehow.com

photocredit: ehow.com

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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What the heck are Anglican/Episcopalians? How “brand name” Christianity might bless you. (1 of 2)

In this post-brand era, why would anyone join a denominational church? 

Many are blessed by what they are experiencing in the post-denominational “generic” church that dominates the church-going landscape today. If that is you, I am glad and genuinely celebrate with you your satisfaction in God. Many others, however, are longing for something more: searching for something “missing” in their Christian walk.

Do you long for a faith that is more internal than external? More communal than individual? More rigorous on yourself and roomier toward others? More focussed on the world’s needs and less on the church’s? Do you long for a faith experience with access to the ancient wisdom of the faith and less wedded to our contemporary culture? If any of this resonates, to quote the old commercial, “this Bud’s for you!”

Yes, denominations may be dying, but Anglicanism* is growing, and rapidly. This is especially true among young adults around the world. Some of the growth of Anglicanism is in Anglican churches, but it is also occurring in the larger evangelical world. “Wait a minute?” You might say, “I went to an Episcopal Church and it was 75, 75 year-olds.” That may be true, but Anglican thought and practice is popping up everywhere these days-like at Willow Creek or among the 1000 young adults at PhoenixOne. What is Anglicanism? The simplest definition I have is Reformed-monasticism. Huh? Let me flesh that out a bit…

Anglican Christianity is not about rigidity, ritualism, or being locked into any tradition, old or new, that is not rooted in Scripture and found in the great arc of God working through history. We aim for both the message and methods of Scripture and the earliest Christians.

Now that you know what we are not, what are we? To begin with, Anglicans/Episcopalians are Christians. And Christianity is Christianity. However, Anglican Christianity is a unique and nuanced expression of the Christian faith.

To be grasped Anglicanism really has to be experienced, and more than once. Anglicanism is not about a different Sunday morning experience, but a different vision of life. As such it takes time to be captivated by it. Because it represents a different vision for life, explaining it is also complicated. Indeed, if you ask 10 Episcopalians to explain Anglicanism you may get 11 answers. Another difficulty is that, although we are such a large group worldwide, we are very small in the U. S. Because we are small, most people’s experience of the Episcopal Church is through the media. The Episcopal Church is not very much as it is portrayed in the media-any more than Pentecostals spend all of their time doing backflips down the church aisles or Bible church people spend their days shouting at folks. Anglicanism is more complex than the stereotypes and is differentiated from the other branches of Christianity in some very distinct ways. These distinctions include:

  • Protestant theology/catholic worship. This is where “Reformed Monasticism” comes in. The Episcopal Church embraces the theology of the Reformation with the worship practices and spirituality of the ancient Christians. By “ancient,” Episcopalians are not referring to the theological innovations and abuses of 1200-1500 C.E.,  but rather to the first 5 centuries of the church. That early period saw the New Testament written, confirmed which books would comprise the Scriptures, and developed the Nicene Creed which defines the Christian faith and answered the cults about the nature of the Trinity with a clarity that the faith still relies on today. That period also gives us a pattern of worship. That pattern dates from at least the early-100’s. Our worship is built around monastic rhythms of being immersed in and formed by the daily reading and praying the Scriptures together as a community (called the Daily Office), the weekly communal celebration of communion (called the Eucharist) and then living those rhythms out in the world to bring honor to God’s name and aid our fellows. You will notice that our words and actions in worship are God-directed rather than back and forth from stage to congregation.
  • We both practice and are led by common prayer: “Common” is an old word for “shared”. Churches are always trying to figure out what banner to unify under. For some it is the beliefs of a person (like the Pope or Mark Driscoll), for some a doctrinal statement (like the Westminster or Augsburg Confession). Episcopalians are unified around the idea of being willing to pray the same words together…the words of Scripture and the “safe,” vetted words of the church until God works out our stuff in our own lives. That comes from our roots in England as being Catholics, Protestants and social Christians all in church together. Some long for the idea of “purity” and uniformity of belief in the church. History and experience tells us that theological uniformity is a mirage at best. Being unified around praying the same words is a value that is both holy and extremely difficult to live out. This can be very frustrating as there are often people with us that we think are a bit crazy. They tend to think we are a bit crazy back. But we are attempting to err on the side of generosity and give people room to “work out their salvation” in honesty and sincerity, not to mention “fear and trembling.” So we agree to major on the majors and give room on the minors. What are the majors?
  • Majoring on the Majors: “The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral” defines our “Big Rocks.” They are:  1) Scripture contains all things necessary to our salvation 2) The historic Creeds of the faith (Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed) as the sufficient doctrinal statements (which really means that Episcopalians see ourselves as “a church in relationship with other churches” rather than “the ‘true’ church”). 3) Our worship is ordered around the two sacraments that Jesus taught: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And 4) Churches are led by bishops who have continuity of relationship and teaching back to Jesus. (Btw, until the 1500s this was the only form of church leadership and to this day about 3/4 of the world’s Christians are part of churches led by bishops in lineal relationship with the first Apostles.)

Why is this important? Simply because it has a high probability of blessing you…and of other’s being blessed as a result of what you receive as you “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18)