Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Faith of Chalcedon

Here is a first draft of an introduction to a proposed book on Chalcedonian faith. They say to "write what you know," so this is intensely personal. May God use it to give strength to those, who like me, have gone through the dark night of the soul and feel lost and forsaken.
There is no such thing as dispassionate theology. Theology, like all branches of human endeavor, is necessary connected to the whole person. Yet, this particular branch, much maligned and much abused, has an even stronger claim to be passionate. It is born out of and returns, always, to worship. We ask questions about the God we meet in worship; theology helps us to make sense of that experience. Good theology, passionate theology, grows out of that experience and leads us back to it. This is one of the reasons that theology is for everyone, not just trained professionals and clerics: we engage in what is called “primary theology” whenever we pray communally or individually, whenever we sing, whenever we are overcome by the strange ineffability of the divine who works in history. But theology is passionate in another sense: it is necessarily connected to the Passion of the Messiah Jesus. That is, all thinking about God is anchored in what God in Christ did on Golgotha – this is true whether we are speaking of the “Old” Testament, the “New” Testament, or the history of Christian life and thought. Theology is passionate because it reflects on Christ’s Passion, when he reconciled the world to the Father. That unspeakable grace is given words by theology, so that we might worship the God who enacted them.

This is a theological meditation. As such, it is passionate. I am not interested in a dry, academic treatment of my Subject – to do so would be to worship another God, not the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. There are other reasons as well. When I was much younger, I decided to do a project for my (public) school about the history of the Christian Creeds. While I quickly became disabused of the notion that a high schooler could adequately tackle the topic (I chose, instead, to do a preterist interpretation of the book of Matthew), it forever changed my course and my path. In my preliminary background reading, the theory (which I accepted as absolute truth) that the Church Fathers had gotten their idea of what it meant for Christ to be the “Logos” (Word) of God from classical, philosophical paganism was presented. This is a fairly common – and always disturbing to Protestants – claim about the development of doctrine (teaching) in the early Church. Being of a very conservative theological background, I had grown a distinct disliking for all things Greek (except the language): Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics were all evil men who had maliciously attacked the Bride of Christ and stolen her doctrinal purity. Once the linchpin of understanding John 1 was taking away, I did not know what to think. I was a follower of Jesus, but who was He? Or he? I wanted to tackle the question of the relationship between Jesus and the Father (as I often put it) with intellectual honesty and vigor. When I told my pastor this, he responded (in words I can never forget): “That’s fine, but if you come to a conclusion other than that he was fully God and fully man, we will know you have apostatized and left the faith.”

Left the faith. Damned. Accursed. But if the foundation is Greek philosophy and not Biblical religion, how could the Christological building stand? How could any of it stay? Left the faith. Damned. Accursed.

Here started the decade of Hell.

St. John of the Cross described – beautifully – my Dantean descent into the “dark night of the soul,” in which the Christian is stripped bare so that he might be fit for the Master’s use. During that time, I wandered spiritually, growing ever more confident in my emerging unitarian beliefs, yet growing ever more fearful of my own damnation. How could I see, in Scripture, what so many countless others had not seen? Was I to ascribe it to the episcopal “will to power”? Did the Catholic and Orthodox Church hold a conspiracy to trap men’s souls for their own gain and sovereignty? I certainly could look at the abhorrent behavior of many Church leaders, whether Roman, Eastern, or Protestant, for confirmation of some sort of this thesis. Invoking ‘God,’ as many atheists and unbelievers alike point out, is an easy way to gain your own earthly desires. There was a fear that grew in me at that point, since I could no longer trust any teacher in the Church – to question the Trinity would be to question their vested interests. Still the nagging question of how so many could be so wrong for so long dogged me.

The Creeds continued to be witnesses against me. I’d excuse myself from the assembly when we would say them (we didn’t say them very often which helped to cloak my growing separation) – I couldn’t say “of one substance with the Father.” I instead developed a liturgical bent that emphasized the grammar of the Scriptures over the grammar of theology. I dove deeply into Biblical Theology and despised Systematics. I was being stripped – no part of me was to be left untouched. A new foundation had to be laid before anything could be built. It is strange to be thankful for heresy, but it is necessary.

While Nicea perturbed me, Chalcedon absolutely infuriated me. Here, indeed!, was the acme of Plato’s takeover of the Church: one Person (I still have not received a good definition of this), two Natures undivided, yet distinct; different, yet united. Surely there was nothing – nothing – in Scripture to back this up. Surely it was the final straw that made Christianity pagan. I could not, would not, have anything to do with it. Instead, foreswearing theology, I would read the Scriptures and only them.

For me, the Creeds and theology acted as a strait-jacket. I have since learned to see them as kindly guideposts, apophatically leading me away from theology as rationality to theology as worship. But to get to the full sense of what is happening, it is important to see what I thought of the heritage of the Church. It was rubbish. I had separately myself from the community of the faithful and stood alone.

And yet, in that loneliness there was a fresh Wind, a Breath from God.

I saw, in Paul’s epistles, a recurring theme: what God has done in Jesus, He intends to do in the whole human creation. I had, without fully knowing it, stumbled across the foundation I had been looking for and avoiding. This confirmed, in my mind, the full humanity of Jesus – the necessary humanity of Jesus. Much of my frustration with Church teaching was its implicit Docetism – Jesus became the Christ, the Pantokrator, the far-off and aloof God. Since his presence was no longer close, no longer that of a brother or a friend, but rather a Dread Sovereign, something was needful to fill that emotional gap: enter Mary and the Saints. Jesus, for me, had been rescued – what God had done in Jesus, He intended to do in the whole human creation. Jesus was close. Jesus was close.

Paul also led me to another important point. Whenever God the Father (or, as I liked to refer to Him, the Father, God) is mentioned, in the same breath Jesus and the Spirit are mentioned. I did not know what to make of it precisely, but there was something inescapable about the identity of God: He is forever connected to Jesus and the Spirit. They exist – in some way I couldn’t understand and didn’t want to admit – always in union, even if just linguistically. God is never separate from Jesus or the Spirit. And, if John is to be believed, then Jesus is somehow equated with God’s Word (albeit not Platonically); this means that God has always been linked, somehow, to Jesus as the Word and the Spirit. For God speaks and breaths always.

I had done the impossible (or, at least at that time, I thought that I had done it): I had become a Biblical Trinitarian. I did not want to go to the ontological level – I would never bow to Platonic metaphysics. I still needed some confirmation that this is where the Spirit was leading, but I knew I was on the right track.

In the midst of this I had reluctantly started seminary. This was a dark time. One day, as my wife and I sat in our empty coffee shop on a Sunday afternoon I lost it. I screamed in a voice and in a way I did not know possible. The dark night had done me in: I was naked and I was afraid. The words of Psalm 22, of Christ’s Passion, were extended to me. I screamed, “Either God has abandoned His Church since the 2nd century or He has forsaken me!” Not even the moon or stars gave their brightness. All was lost. In the darkest part of the night, all that remains is the promise of the dawn.

Two days later, in my Church History class, I was saved. That is an intentional word. Looking back over my journals and blogging, I had slowly stopped calling myself a Christian and was now only a follower of Jesus. He had the words of life, and I could not seem to leave him, but I couldn’t quite trust him. We read that day these words from Irenaeus, a 2nd century bishop in France: “Christ became what we are, so that we might become what he is.” What God has done in Jesus, He intends to do in the whole human creation. I cried, as I cry now, with a heart that was both broken and healed. The naked and bare Adam was given, not a coat of skins, but the garment of the Messiah – that adornment for a wedding feast. And he gave me a greater gift, one I had never had before, the Spirit of God filled me head to toe, enlivening me, freeing me, causing the tormentors of persistent sin and degradation to flee at the sign of the Cross, as Antony of the Desert counseled.

It is my firm contention now, dear reader, to take you further on this journey with me. It is a short step, I assure you, from this place to Chalcedon – to find reconciliation of the Scriptures with the Creeds. And it pertains to this mystery of Father, Son, and Spirit – not in a detached way, but the way in which they work, even now, to bring you and me into conformity to the image of the Son; to bring us into union, the divine Spirit and our created selves, body and soul, that joins us truly and wholly to the body of Christ.

Come and see.

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