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Wilshirite: Nicene Christianity 1

Craig (aka Wilshirite) is one of my favorite kinds of people: a lay theologian. He has asked if he could post an extensive review of and interaction with Christopher R. Seitz’s Nicene Christianity at Dr. Platypus and has agreed to hang around to interact with anyone who would like to dialog in the comments.

Craig describes himself as “A 35-year-old Baptist with a wonderful, godly wife and two wonderfully energetic and inquisitive daughters. I work in Dallas as a software developer by day and read theology books as a hobby by night. I think that many Baptists have concentrated on our inner life with God, and our relationship with our neighbor and the physical world has suffered. While I am committed to the Baptist distinctives, I’m looking to rekindle some level of catholicity among Baptists and to bring renewed awareness of our connection with the broader church and its history.”

Craig has dug deeply into this volume (which, I must admit, I had never heard of!). I hope you will take the time to ponder his interaction with it.

With the passing of modernity and the waning influence of the liberal ecumenical movements, the church today has both a daunting challenge and an unparalleled opportunity. The people of God need to find their identity apart from the influence of wider society and its debased culture, and many churches do not have the foggiest idea of where or how to begin. We need to explore our faith and understand its relevance for these post-Constantinian times; looking back to eras similar to ours might?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùjust might?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùuncover lost secrets and some answers that we desperately seek. The ecumenical creeds of the church form one deposit from such times. The Apostles?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ and Nicene Creeds presented the testimony of the church as it sought the wisdom of Holy Scripture and defended itself and the faith against the attacks of heretics and unbelievers. If anything is to tie the various communions and individual churches of God to one another in the years to come, it will have to be the Bible and the ecumenical creeds. The days of a common episcopacy for the entire church are gone, and we are well beyond any hope for its resurrection. To borrow an analogy from Richard Foster, the various churches of God are ?¢‚Ǩ?ìstreams of living water.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù

So, with all of this in mind, I was encouraged to see a 2001 book, edited by Christopher R. Seitz, titled Nicene Christianity: The Future for a New Ecumenism (Brazos Press, 2001). It is my hope that this volume will further this vision of an ecumenism based on the content of the ecumenical creeds. Written as it was by theologians from churches with an episcopal form of government, it is my further hope that I can use this series of essays to dialogue with this book from a free-church perspective. Although I am not a theologian, I am a Baptist, and the Baptist tradition speaks of the priesthood of all believers. It is the whole Christian community that wrestles with the things of God. It is important to remind Baptists that there is a deeper, richer heritage that we have largely forgotten; yet it is also time that we show the church catholic that there is a Baptist tradition that it can no longer afford to ignore.

In his Introduction, Philip Turner lays out the purpose and objectives of Nicene Christianity. We are reminded that, for the creeds to serve as a unifying force for the content of the church?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s faith, their content must be considered and respected as a whole:

The times require even of those who say the creeds without effacing them by means of a thousand qualifications that they give attention to each article and not simply to certain favored ones?¢‚Ǩ¬¶. How frequently does one hear the incarnation depicted apart from the full narrative of Christ?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s relation to both God and creation? In this truncated form, the second article of the creed (which displays the mystery of the incarnation), by an ironic inversion, becomes little more than a disembodied theological principle that can be used without restraint to bless the human condition simpliciter. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìHe was crucified,?¢‚Ǩ¬ù the phrase that displays most clearly the full meaning of the incarnation, does no theological work beyond pointing to a moral tragedy. Phrases like ?¢‚Ǩ?ìhe ascended into heaven?¢‚Ǩ¬ù and ?¢‚Ǩ?ìhe will come again to judge the living and the dead?¢‚Ǩ¬ù simply have no meaning at all.

In hands such as these, Christianity becomes a religion of meaning and personal affirmation rather than a religion of salvation. (12-13.)

The point is that the use of truncated creeds is more destructive than simply abandoning them?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùand orthodox Christianity altogether. Either we understand that our trinitarian worldview informs the church?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s understanding of salvation, the sacraments, and her place in the world, or we surrender to our contemporary impulses and reduce all of the Christian faith to a ?¢‚Ǩ?ìlove relationship with God.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù The latter unravels the result and benefit (our personal relationship with God) of a broader and richer tapestry and reduces it to nothing but a simple faith that is based on emotion and subjectivity. After all, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìwhat?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s true for you might not be true for me?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùor Him.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù Turner sums it up thusly: ?¢‚Ǩ?ì[The Nicene Creed] must, in short, once more provide the basis for right Christian usage.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù

We are only beginning to conform our interpretation of Scripture to that of the Council of Nicea and those church fathers who came before the Council. To use all of this as the basis of a new ecumenism, we must wrestle with the creeds and, indeed, the Bible itself to make the faith alive and fresh for our time and place. Lutheran theologian Douglas John Hall calls this ?¢‚Ǩ?ìcontextualizing the faith.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù It is pointless for a living faith to rotely parrot creeds of the past, for this leads to religion having form with no spirit. To engage in discipline (that is, to truly be Christ?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s disciples) is to express and live out the Gospel of Christ in today?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s world by interacting and wrestling with the writings of the Scriptures, the writings of the giants of the faith, and the promptings of the Holy Spirit. In other words, we must consciously make the faith our faith.

[I]t became habitual in the church to identify ?¢‚ǨÀúdiscipline?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ almost exclusively with harsh or at any rate rigorous methods of ?¢‚ǨÀúeducating?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ (i.e., indoctrinating, controlling) the person?¢‚Ǩ¬¶. This is hardly what one would have expected from the etymological meaning of the word, which derives from discere (to learn, discern). Obviously, what happened was that the unfortunate measures which were too often employed in the practice of teaching the faith were themselves identified as the process necessary for Christian ?¢‚ǨÀúdiscernment.?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ Thus, while the obvious primary meaning of the verb discere (?¢‚ǨÀúto discipline?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢) is contained in English verbs like ?¢‚ǨÀútrain, educate, teach, instruct, school, lead, guide,?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ the connotation which has survived as primary is exactly what the Concise Oxford Dictionary lists as such: ?¢‚ǨÀúBring under control, train to obedience and order, drill?¢‚Ǩ¬¶chastise.?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ In short, the derivative sense of the verb (derived from bad educational practice!) has succeeded the original meaning and, for the most part, altogether obscured it. This is what happens when ?¢‚ǨÀúthe discipline,?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ understood as intellectual and moral content, is divorced from those who are its practitioners?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùfrom their lives, their personal struggles, their social condition, their racial and sexual identities?¢‚Ǩ¬¶.

And that does not matter! Those for whom the discipline is an end in itself have always behaved as if what mattered ultimately and utterly were verbal agreement or conformity with some doctrinal norm. This is the disease of religious rationalism, especially the pseudo-intellectualism of those ?¢‚ǨÀúwho combine unusual insecurity with na?ɬØvet?ɬ©.?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢… What matters is not that every Christian should give assent to the same ideas in the same terminology, but that whatever they assent to should emerge from a real struggle within their souls, and should have the effect of overcoming the alienation of spirit which exists between them and ?¢‚ǨÀúthe others.?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ In a word, the discipline is secondary to the disciples. (Douglas John Hall, Thinking the Faith [Augsburg, 1989] 61-63)

In other words, as Turner proceeds to argue, the contemporary church will never regain a true understanding of orthodox Christianity until it practices theology within its own life and worship. However, it can never do this as long as modern Christianity continues to see the church as it does. Being the children of the Enlightenment that we are, we have pushed the church out of the center of the Christian life and inserted the sovereign individual in her place. An attitude of ?¢‚Ǩ?ìjust me and Jesus?¢‚Ǩ¬ù pervades modern Christianity like a cancer sapping the Body of Christ of all its life and energy, threatening to leave behind nothing but an empty shell. It is apparent, too, that churches will not be able to become the center of the Christian life until they themselves stop behaving as individuals, bickering among themselves and dividing over the most trivial of reasons. Church order, the practice of worship, and discipline (as described by Douglas John Hall) must be a part of any new ecumenical discussions?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùwhat we are now referring to as ?¢‚Ǩ?ìNicene Christianity.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù

Next: ?¢‚Ǩ?ìOur Help Is in the Name of the Lord, the Maker of Heaven and Earth?¢‚Ǩ¬ù

technorati tags: christianity, christopher r. seitz, ecumenism, nicene christianity, nicene creed, orthodoxy



I’ve done a bit more fiddling with my biblical timelines, mostly rearranging what goes on which one so that most of them only cover about 500 years of history, give or take. In the process, my original three timelines have become four:

Part One: up to Abraham
Part Two: Abraham to Moses
Part Three: Joshua to Saul
Part Four: David to the Fall of Jerusalem

I anticipate two additional pages, but I have only barely begun to work on them. Part Five will cover the period from the Exile to the Maccabees, and Part Six will cover events leading up to and including the New Testament period.

technorati tags: chronology, old testament