Sunday, June 12, 2011

What Use are the Creeds?

Here is a draft of the second chapter of this short meditation. The chapters aren't meant to be long discourse, but are modelled after the brief remarks given by Bonhoeffer in his excellent little book on the Psalms.
What Use are the Creeds?

Following, then, the holy fathers, we unite in teaching all men to confess the one and only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. This selfsame one is perfect both in deity and in humanness; this selfsame one is also actually God and actually man, with a rational soul and a body. He is of the same reality as God as far as his deity is concerned and of the same reality as we ourselves as far as his humanness is concerned; thus like us in all respects, sin only excepted. Before time began he was begotten of the Father, in respect of his deity, and now in these "last days," for us and behalf of our salvation, this selfsame one was born of Mary the virgin, who is God-bearer in respect of his humanness.

We also teach that we apprehend this one and only Christ-Son, Lord, only-begotten -- in two natures; and we do this without confusing the two natures, without transmuting one nature into the other, without dividing them into two separate categories, without contrasting them according to area or function. The distinctiveness of each nature is not nullified by the union. Instead, the "properties" of each nature are conserved and both natures concur in one "person" and in one reality. They are not divided or cut into two persons, but are together the one and only and only-begotten Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus have the prophets of old testified; thus the Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us; thus the Symbol of Fathers has handed down to us.

(The Definition of Chalcedon, AD 451)

The mistake that I made early on, an easy mistake to make, is that the Creeds act as a definite proclamation of theology. Rather, they are guide-rails, meant to keep us on the right path by showing what is not the road. Note in the Definition given above that the two natures are not positively defined, but negatively: united, yet not confused, not transmuted, not divided. The only positive statement, essentially, is “one and only Christ – Son, Lord, only-begotten.” The union is proclaimed, but the mechanics of such is not, nor can it be. This frustrated me early on, but now I see it as necessary – not all of God’s knowledge is for us, but “the things revealed belong to us and our children forever that we might be careful to do all the words of this torah” (Dt. 29:29).

The Creeds, then, are meant to be summary grammars of Scriptural teaching. Instead of being positive contributions – revelations of the character of God – they are signs of the paths we should avoid. Avoid, then, the Arian god Jesus, who is a lesser being that cannot save derived from a greater being that cannot love. And so on. That way dragons lay. Creeds, in the end, are not stand alone documents able to bring us to salvation, for “faith comes from hearing, hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17). The Church Fathers, in general, can helpfully be read this way. The Creeds only make sense and are only used properly when they are reflections on what has been called from ancient times the “economy of salvation.” The economy is God’s act (comprised of His many acts in both Old and New Testaments) to bring salvation to the world through Word and Spirit. The Scriptures bear testimony to this event, whom we know as the Messiah Jesus.

In my own experience, maybe it would be proper to compare the Creeds to Balaam’s ass. The donkey faithfully tried to warn its rider of impending danger, yet Balaam (the true ass) refused until God knocked him down.

In the case of Chalcedon, which this meditation seeks to understand, how might this guiding work? The key is that the mysterious two natures of the Christ – the truly human and the truly divine – are in full union with one another; there is no conflict or discord. While they might still be distinguished (they are not confused or collapsed into one another), they work together so well as to be understood as one Person. In other words, Jesus is not schizophrenic, nor has multiple personalities. Remembering Paul’s assertion that we are being conformed to the image of the Son (more on this anon) and Irenaeus’ contention that “Christ became what we are so that we might become what he is,” we can posit that we – human beings in faith – are Chalcedonian by created nature. That is, we have our human natures, but God also gives us His nature, His Life, His Spirit and joins us in union to Himself. We don’t become God, of course, but we are united with Him (here, again, we are in the realm of mystery and can only define negatively – the practical applications of this mystery, though, are immense). The goal of Christian life is the ever-deepening union with the Spirit of God that makes us more and more like the Messiah here on earth.

When we view the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus, then, we can read it profitably not just as an historical record, but as giving us hope and direction for our lives. While our union with Christ is not perfect (our human nature often giving fits), we can start to see how that Chalcedonian union gives power to the Christian life. Consider the temptation narrative found in Matthew 4.

Here we see Christ being tested as to his resolve to follow the Father in all things. Christ responds, not with assertions of deity, but by doing what every believer united with the Spirit can do – he lives out the Scriptures, proclaiming them as his own. While we are not yet perfect in our union with Christ, certainly we can follow his example – Word and Spirit to overcome sin and evil and even death.

This reveals something important for us who are traveling down this road. While biological growth cannot be stopped, spiritual growth can. Our union with the Spirit – even though it is predestined to be accomplished (Rom. 8) – can stagnate and shrivel. Our human natures can, by reason of sin and disobedience, push the Spirit out. Remember how King Saul and Judas both lost their places of honor and responsibility. Our union progresses as we are constantly connected to both Word and Spirit, since they are the path to the Father. This gives us reason, not only to be learning the Scriptures, but to be memorizing them, to be living them. “Let this mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2). How, though, can we be connected with the Spirit? In a word, worship.

When believers gather together under the one Head, Jesus the Messiah, especially when they celebrate Eucharist (or communion) with him, they act as the one Body of Christ. Our human natures are joined to, and changed by, his human nature. At the same time, through the Spirit, God joins Himself to the community that is praying. This is especially true when the Psalms are being recited/chanted/sung, for they are the prayers of Christ to the Father. This joins the divine (God in the Spirit) to the human (God in Christ), creating a moment of union in the daily life of the Christian community. This moment, especially when pursued in the morning-evening pattern, gives a redemptive framework to the day: all that occurs between the moments of special union with God is offered up to God. It is in the context of this communal celebration that we have the opportunity – the privilege! – to hear God’s Word to us as a community. Instead of the individualization that often happens in our readings of Scripture, here we can join in union with Word and Spirit so that our common life might look more like the life of Christ. Think of how the earliest Church functioned in Acts, sharing all things so that the Word might be proclaimed.

The Creeds bring us to a way of reading – a hermeneutic – for the economy of salvation. Notice that this guidepost, though, doesn’t offer us a dispassionate, “objective” reading of the text, but one that fully takes the divine nature of it (its inspiration) along with its human nature (our contemporary application) seriously: the Word is living and active, as Hebrews tells us. Here is a Christ that is not far off, but as close to us as the confession of our lips (returning to Romans 10).

“Open my lips, o Lord, that my mouth might proclaim Your praise” (Ps. 51:15).

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