From Creeds to Covenant and Beyond: Unity of the Spirit

In the past few weeks there have been a few blogs highlighting the importance of the creeds for demarcating the Christian faith over against beliefs that cross these essential boundaries between what is and is not Christian.  Progressives like Harvard theologian, Harvey Cox (see “The Future of Faith”), and his kindred spirits, decry the setting of such creedal boundaries as a corruption of, ironically enough, a purer and more primitive form of the Christian faith, which was part of the purpose of the ancient creeds to begin with.  Of course this supposed purer form of the faith was much more “diverse” and “inclusive” just like the progressives like Cox think they are today.  Yet, in spite of the criticism of the attempt to define the boundaries of Christian faith, as minimal as they are (as they were never intended to be exhaustive descriptions of everything about the Christian faith), Cox and friends cannot not lay out specific statements of beliefs of their own, which of course they do, that, as as any meaningful language would have it, must mean something over against something else.  No matter how much Cox tries to insist what is really important is some vague experience of oneness with the mystery of the universe, he can’t help but to express specific beliefs that are inevitably in harmony or disharmony with other statements of faith.  At any rate, I believe creeds, whether formal or informal, are inevitable whether you are orthodox are heterodox, or whatever.  So I commend those who have held up the creeds, the Apostles’ and Nicene, to reveal the lines and where they have been crossed by those who still claim the name Christian, who after such analysis seem to have “progressed” past Christianity and into paganism.

What I can’t commend, however, is the suggestion that the creeds are the sufficient standard by which to assess the faith and practice.  The creeds are a wonderful starting point, and, as Scott Fritzsche pointed out in his experience with Afghan Christians, who clung to the creed while longing for more, they can be a wonderful guide and resource when nothing else is available.  Yet of course the creeds are minimal statements, succinct summaries of that something more, which of course, as Scott’s beautiful story reveals is, Scripture, the Bible.

There are couple of ways the creeds point beyond themselves to something else, something more.  In the Nicene Creed, the phrase, “in accordance with the Scriptures”, itself a line from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (15:4), for instance, would seem  to point us beyond the Creed to the Scriptures.  And the proclamation in both the Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead surely begs the question, by what standard will we be judged?  Again I think the creeds at this point direct us to something beyond themselves, beginning with the Bible.

It is in Scripture that we should encounter a vitally important concept called covenant.  In the Old Testament we see the covenant God made with Abraham and his offspring, Isaac and Jacob.  Hundreds of years after Jacobs death we see God remember his covenant promise to Abraham and reveal his covenant love when he delivered Jacob’s descendants from slavery in Egypt.  In the wilderness before he brought them into the homeland that he had promised, he made a more specific covenant with them through his prophet Moses.  Even before they entered into the land of promise, however, there was a further promise of renewal after exile wherein God would circumcise the hearts of his people so they would obey and therefore live.  The covenant God made with Israel required obedience on the part of the people; obedience would bring blessing; rebellion would bring cursing.  The covenant with Israel contained regulations that only pertained to them and their distinct identity as an elect people holy to the Lord; it also contained moral laws that were universal for all people, including the Canaanites who were judged accordingly (Leviticus 18).  Nevertheless, within the Old Covenant itself there was the hint of something new to come (Deuteronomy 30:1-10).

The prophets picked up on this hint when Israel was under judgment for disobedience.  Jeremiah 31:31-34 refers to it as a “new covenant”, and as such it would be different from yet similar to the former covenant that God had made with Israel at Sinai.  Indeed, it would be different but not entirely; there would still be much continuity and overlap with the old.  Ezekiel also picks up on this hint and promise from Deuteronomy when it declares that after the judgment of exile God will give his people a new heart and put a new spirit, his very own spirit, within them so that they will wholeheartedly obey, and thus live in harmony with the word of God and the God of the word (Ezk 11:19-20; 36:26-28)

Of course as Christians we believe Jesus, as the true Messiah of Israel, fulfilled the precepts and the promises of the Old Testament thus ratifying by his shed blood the New Covenant, which is made effective in God’s people by faith and the Holy Spirit.  Jeremiah says under the New Covenant God would write his law on the hearts of his people; Ezekiel says God’s spirit will empower his people to follow his statutes and ordinances, terms that may be summed up by the word “word” (i.e. Psalm 119).  Thus, the main difference seems to be the motivating and empowering principle of obedience, but, as the New Testament reveals there are others as well.

Although I am aware of the quibbles that some scholars have with it, the traditional distinction the Church has made is between the moral law which is universal and the ceremonial and civil laws that were unique to Israel under the Old Covenant but not for the Church under the New as they fulfilled their temporary purpose and find their ongoing significance and meaning in Christ.  Without going into great detail – as the topic really needs and deserves – as our United Methodist Articles of Religion make clear, the Church under the New Covenant is still obliged to obey the moral law (see Article 6)

Contrary to what is sometimes thought, Jesus did not come to say forget about the law and do as you please because you are under grace.  The Good News of the kingdom of God is not that we have license to do as we please; rather the Good News is that through Christ we receive forgiveness and the grace and the Spirit to do as we ought, which is to keep the moral commandments of God.  As Paul might say, “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything” (1 Cor 7:19 NRSV).   Of course this is something that we must continue to grow into in the “already/not yet” until the kingdom comes in all of its fullness and glory in the New Creation.

The moral law would most certainly include the prohibitions of the sexual immorality delineated in Leviticus 18,and unsurprisingly are reiterated in the New Testament.  Some of those who have argued for the acceptance of same sex sexual relationships have been reticent to say that they simply reject the commandments prohibiting homosexual acts.  Instead they have tried to argue that we have just misunderstood the biblical texts, which never condemned consensual and committed same sex relationships.  Others still argue that the issue is sufficiently unclear enough to go against the traditional understanding.  Still others, however, have been brazen enough, albeit also commendably honest enough to simply reject these particular commandments while acknowledging  that the biblical texts are clear that all forms of same sex sexual relations, consensual or otherwise, stand unequivocally condemned.

Luke Timothy Johnson, a renowned biblical scholar and professor at Emory University, for example says he “has little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties.”  He goes on to say “The exegetical situation is straightforward : we know what the text says.”  Nonetheless, although he doesn’t doubt that the Bible unequivocally prohibits all forms of same sex acts, Johnson further states that he does, in fact, reject the the clear commands of the Bible, Old and New Testaments, in favor of the authority of the testimony of personal experience.  But Jesus said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.   For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.  Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  (Matt 5:17-20 ESV)

I believe what Luke Timothy Johnson admits is more to the point of what is actually going on.  Even those who try to use the argument that Scripture is sufficiently unclear enough to disregard the traditional understanding of Christian sexuality and marriage, – a claim that is in itself extremely dubious in my opinion – frequently seem to fall back on “the Bible is flawed anyway” argument when pressed.  I think the reality, as many liberal scholars like Johnson admit, is that Scripture is sufficiently clear enough – more than sufficiently clear enough – to abide by the traditional position on sex and marriage.  What we are being asked to do is to reject the straightforward command of Scripture, which reveals to us the expectations of the covenant into which we were baptized, which in turn reveals the heart and the word and will of God.  And the Word and Will of God was most clearly revealed in the Word become flesh, who offered to God what Adam, Israel and the rest of humanity failed to offer God, perfect obedience (see Phlp 2).

The New Covenant as revealed in Scripture, and as ratified and embodied by Jesus must be our ultimate standard of faith and practice.  Although the creeds provide an important starting point, they themselves point beyond themselves to Scripture; Scripture directs us to the New Covenant; the New Covenant points us to Jesus, who in turn reveals to us God the Father.  It is the Spirit of God, promised in the Prophets, that puts this into effect in our lives when we believe.  According to the promise of the New Covenant, true believers shouldn’t be trying to figure out what is the least they can believe and still be Christian; rather true believers should be trying to figure out how much they can do to please the one who gave His only Son for us.

Pentecost is upon us, and for all of the wonderful gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to the church; the greatest gift is the gift of new life, a new heart, a circumcised heart designed and tailor made for our obedience; so God’s people will obey, rather than reject the straightforward commandments of God.

HolySpiritPeacemaker

I think that John Wesley would agree that the demons would assent to the statements in the Nicene Creed regarding the Triune God and the full divinity and humanity of Jesus as God incarnate.  According to Wesley the devils would acknowledge that “Jesus is the Christ, and that all Scripture, having been given by inspiration of God, is as true as God is true” (the latter many in our denomination deny as adamantly as Wesley affirmed it!) (Sermon 18, “The Marks of the New Birth”);  they wouldn’t, however, obey the straightforward commands of the covenant.

Wesley, as he was wont to do for his hearers and readers, might ask us to ponder whether we have the faith of a Christian or the faith of devils.  The difference of the former from the latter he describes thus: “it is not barely a speculative, rational thing, a cold, lifeless assent, a train of ideas in the head; but also a disposition of the heart” (Sermon 1, “Salvation by Faith”).

The unity that we so desperately need cannot be found in assent to a few truths in a couple of creeds; the unity we are called to keep (not manufacture ourselves) is a unity of the Spirit (Eph 4:3), and the Spirit was given so that we will obey God’s word from the heart.  It should be evident that the unity of the Spirit can only be found within the boundaries of the New Covenant, which necessarily includes the recapitulation of the moral law found in the Old Covenant under Moses.  Hence Paul, in Ephesians chapter 5 precludes the possibility of fellowship with those who flout the laws against sexual immorality (Eph 5:1-20).  Neither is the concern for sound doctrine and the preservation of the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” in Jude about the nature of God and the incarnation, but those “who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (v. 4).  The following verses would indicate that one of Jude’s primary concerns was sexual immorality as his reference to the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah would suggest.

We are not called to just keep the unity of the creeds, as significant and as important as that is; we are called “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  As Romans 8 makes plain the Spirit was given “so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh but according to the Spirit” (v. 4).  The unity of the Spirit can only be found among those who set their mind on the Spirit and seek to obey and please God from the heart.  The mind set on the flesh, being hostile to God, will not submit to God’s law, and naturally cannot please God; those who are in the Spirit will submit to the moral law and therefore please God (see Rom 8:8-9).  In the United Methodist Church we are of two minds because we are of two spirits.  We can only find unity in the Spirit of God according to the terms of the New Covenant set forth in Scripture.  Whether we like it or not we are divided; the divide is spiritual; and I don’t think there is any legislation that can fix that.  Only the unity of the Spirit and the mind of Christ as revealed in Scripture can.

 

Romans 8 (NRSV)

8There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. 12So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,

17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

 

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2 thoughts on “From Creeds to Covenant and Beyond: Unity of the Spirit

  1. Interesting for “the unity we are called to keep (not manufacture ourselves) is a unity of the Spirit (Eph 4:3)” moves on to calling us to the unity of the faith where we are not blown back and forth by every wind of doctrine.

    “11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

    14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

    As I wrote in my dissertation,

    “Such unity involves something more than a spiritual bond of peace. The unity of the faith defines some doctrinal boundaries within which to live and function.. . .George Buttrick, F. F. Bruce, Donald Guthrie and James A. Motyer, and A. F. Harper concluded that sharing a common faith in Christ is more than sharing a common body of belief. For one author, “the unity of the faith” in Ephesians means a deeper knowledge of Christ himself as the embodiment of God’s treasure and the supplier of the Church’s needs as its head (Guthrie and Motyer 1116). However, to interpret it so personally is troublesome, for then neither orthodoxy nor a common theological confession is important as some propose (Buttrick 692). Such a brand of personalism opens a spiritual Pandora’s box of Christian subjectivity, which says, “My Christian faith is as valid as yours.” Today, many churches find themselves struggling with this critical biblically-based doctrinal aspect of church health.”

    And, as I wrote in an online article, that some want “more “freedom in the Spirit” apart from biblical teaching by either a reductionist or a. syncretistic treatment of basic Christian beliefs about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, Salvation, or Christian living.”
    http://bachdevelopment.com/bach77.html

    So, it appears to me that there is much more to unity than unity in the Spirit which calls to mature into the unity of the Faith.

  2. A view from the pew from a lifelong Methodist: You are absolutely right that the creeds are only a stepping off point. But the problem for the person in the pew is that the great truths that give rise to the creeds are not taught well. I spent the bulk of my life reciting the Apostle’s Creed, As an adult I came to realize that I really had no understanding as to what I was saying “I believe”. That abruptly changed in an overwhelming way when I engaged the Heidelberg Catechism and three modern books about it. All of a sudden, Christianity went from feeling like rocket science to being simply unfathomable; the random pieces of the puzzle that was Christianity I had been collecting finally had a home; the Bible started making sense; it felt like I had been staring at something in a dim light and all of a sudden somebody started turning on a series of high intensity lights. The whole time I kept wondering why nobody had never had this conversation with me before. I discovered the existence of the triune God of holy love who is determined to love us; most definitely a God worth worshiping! For me, true redemption began with head knowledge. I am now pursuing how to live a life centered in this amazing God and no longer sure how church fits in.

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