Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Where Is the Spotlight?

December 14, 2021

I was sitting around the other night with a group of folks, all church-going Christians. All Lutherans, even. And they started telling a story. This story involved an associate pastor at their church – a very large, successful church by contemporary church standards. This associate pastor was a gifted preacher and teacher and also had a gift for working with young people. During his time with the congregation, focused on outreach to youth, large numbers of youth were attending the various programs offered by the church. Some of them were bringing family members as well. All seemed good and wonderful.

Then this pastor took a Call (a job offer of sorts, in our vernacular) to another congregation in another state. While it wasn’t stated explicitly, the implied result is that the youth attendance dropped dramatically. And now the congregation was in the position of determining what sort of person they ought to Call as their next associate pastor. And the consensus of the folks gathered there was that they needed someone very charismatic who could once again be a draw to youth.

Not an atypical story by any means. I’ve heard variations on this story in recent years. A beloved pastor retires and through careful planning and a five-year transition plan, leaves the congregation in the hands of a known and vetted pastor. And yet within a short span of time the congregation begins to shrivel and die. Vibrancy disappears. The new pastor isn’t this or that. The new pastor doesn’t have the same gifts as the older, retired, beloved pastor.

These aren’t congregations that I would imagine to be flimsy in any sense of the word. I know some of these pastors personally. I know their depth of character, their lives of faith, their excellent knowledge of the Word of God and their understanding of what the Church is as the Body of Christ. Yet somehow, when they retire – sometimes after decades of service to that congregation – the congregation begins within just a short time to shrink and shrivel.

What is the Church? What does it mean to be part of the Church and more specifically part of a congregation, one small piece of the Body of Christ? What does that entail? Where is the spotlight? I ask that question not as a condemnation of these retired pastors, as though they intentionally sought to be the center of the life of the Church. They weren’t and aren’t. They worked hard to emphasize discipleship and to instill in people an understanding of what the Church is, an understanding that goes back to 1 Corinthians and St. Paul. An understanding that the particular pastor is not what matters. What matters is Christ. The spotlight needs to be on Jesus, not on St. Paul or this pastor or that pastor. And what is apparently happening these days is that despite pastors who recognize this and try to practice this, at the end of the day (or their service), it turns out that for their parishioners, the spotlight really was on them as the pastor. Somehow what they sought to teach and instill in their parishioners never really took hold. Or, as the parable of the sower, took hold in a rather superficial way that only lasted until the pastor retired and people were disenchanted with the replacement.

Something is missing. Something is not getting communicated. Or more accurately, something is not taking hold. As a result, the Church has a tendency to utilize worldly wisdom to determine what sort of pastor they need to have in order to remain healthy and vibrant. And yet the irony (at least in my denomination), is that the health of the Church and congregation ought to be maintained even when the pastor is less than capable. Martin Luther designed an entire teaching curriculum to assist fathers and parents to teach their children the essence of the Christian faith in case they weren’t getting it on Sunday mornings, and in the understanding that even if they were getting good preaching and teaching Sunday morning, Sunday morning wasn’t enough given the plethora of other voices and ideas encountered or dominating their lives the other six and a half days a week.

Christ is what matters. And a healthy congregation needs to recognize that the pastor’s sermon and Bible study on Sunday morning cannot bear the weight of the faith, or even the weight of holding a congregation together. The Church is where the Word and Sacraments of God are rightly received, but that narrow definition is inadequate and always has been. The closing verses of both Acts 2 and Acts 4 make it clear that the Church was more than just a once a week gathering, and that the emphasis was on Jesus and his teachings rather than the particular rhetorical or empathic gifts of the teachers.

Somehow this needs to be communicated once again, so that Christians might draw strength and nourishment from their communion with one another, focused on Christ. Not to the detriment or diminishment of corporate worship or the Office of Holy Ministry or the Sacraments. But that these things might be more rightly revered and cherished. Somehow our programs are missing this, and pastors retiring from successful decades of service are forced to watch (or hear about) how their former parish is withering away.

Thoughts?

Lutherans in the Spotlight

November 17, 2021

Lutherans – and particularly conservative, Confessional Lutherans – don’t often make it into the public spotlight. That’s partially intentional. Still, people are noticing that our aversion to the spotlight doesn’t mean we don’t have ideas (Biblical, hopefully!) to communicate to the power-brokers and king-makers of Washington D.C. Here’s a brief spotlight on the unfortunate necessity of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod working to help shape public policy and the rule of law.

One Last Time

October 30, 2021

I relented sometime in the last year and watched the musical Hamilton after my youngest two memorized literally every song and sang them incessantly. And while I’ll be the first to admit I’m no fan and therefore a poor critic of musicals, it impressed me thoroughly and I’m glad for once I didn’t let my stubbornness get the better of me.

We were listening to one of their Spotify playlists the other day and the song One Last Time came on. Take a moment to listen to it if you haven’t. It’s beautiful. Not just musically but in what it talks about. I won’t pretend to know whether it accurately reflects how Washington and Hamilton interacted as Washington retired, but I think it captures some of the core elements rather well.

President Washington retires rather than seeking an additional term. Rather than assuming the leadership mantle for life and becoming a beloved King he settles for the fleeting role of statesman. He sees that in his leaving office he has a unique opportunity to model to Americans – and the world – what democracy can really be. To give it flesh and bone or, perhaps more accurately, an empty office to fill.

Hamilton is understandably stunned and skeptical, to say the least. How counterintuitive, to follow a course of action that will widely be misunderstood as weakness when in reality it is in fact the strongest course of action Washington could possibly choose to follow. To take the risk that people will watch and learn, or in the mantra of Hamilton, that history has it’s eye on him.

I’ve found this song compelling in recent weeks. The lyrics haunting. Much has changed in my life this year. Much uncertainty. But perhaps the strangest of all those changes was stepping away from a group of people I had loved and served for nearly 11 years. Stepping away from brothers and sisters in Christ because I felt it was the Holy Spirit’s desire for them and for me that this should happen.

I’d never had to do that before. I’ve left employers before in the corporate/professional and academic worlds. Such comings and goings are expected. You miss some people and not others. And in nearly all of those situations I left knowing things would go along mostly unchanged. I was part of a larger entity. My departure wouldn’t substantially affect the organization.

That’s both true and untrue of a pastor and his congregation, a shepherd and his flock.

The nature of pastoral parish ministry is of necessity and privilege a very personal one. As one of my first seminary profs waxed eloquently about for the better part of an hour, a pastor performs a καλου εργου, a noble task. Pastors are privileged to be part of their congregant’s lives in an intensely personal way rarely afforded to those outside immediate family. We are privileged to be present shortly after births as well as shortly before deaths. We stand with people in their moments of greatest joy as well as deepest sorrow. This privilege is not afforded to us because of us personally, but rather the office we bear, the duty and responsibility of shepherd. Caring for the sheep. And that means getting to know them, just as a good shepherd can tell every sheep from another and knows their personality and quirks.

For eleven years I was invited into their lives. And then one day, I left.

In one sense they remain the congregation, the flock, and my departure doesn’t significantly alter that reality. They begin the process of finding a new shepherd. But in another way, the congregation was shaped by my service as shepherd, just as they had been shaped by other shepherds over the last century, and as they will, God-willing, be shaped by their future shepherds.

It’s weird to go from knowing the intimate details of their lives to not having contact with them. There’s a balance of sorts to try and maintain, to ensure I don’t become problematic in their duty of receiving a new shepherd, in not preventing them from grieving (or rejoicing!) and moving on. And not knowing where that balance line is, my communication with them has been minimal, to say the least.

And that’s hard.

I worry and pray for them, in some ways as I worried and prayed for them while I served them. Most of those prayers don’t change, and to them are added prayers for their protection and wisdom and peace as they prepare to Call and receive a new shepherd, and prayers for that shepherd that he will know them and love them even better than I attempted to.

There’s also the human, most likely sinful aspect, of wondering what the long-term effects of my 11 years with them will be. What did they learn from me while I was with them? How was I a good shepherd and how did I fail them? And what did they learn from my departure as well? Did I teach them how to say good-bye, as Washington sings to Hamilton? Meaning did I model for them things that will be helpful as they move forward as individuals and a congregation? I wonder. I worry. I pray.

I can think of lots of things I wish I had done differently. I can worry about whether I was right to deal with this sheep or that sheep in this way or that. I can imagine how things might have differed had I opted for alternate courses of action, more firmness here, more gentleness there. But I can’t change any of those things now. Now they move on, one way or the other, for better or worse for their time with me, just as I move on changed for my time with them. We each have to follow the Holy Spirit’s calling in our lives the best we can.

My consolation in all of this is one day we’ll meet again. No longer as shepherd and sheep or pastor and congregant but simply as brothers and sisters in Christ. Fellow heirs of the kingdom of heaven. By the grace of God I pray I conveyed that hope and certainty to them over the course of 11 years. Not perfectly, obviously. But always pointing to the one and only Son of God as the best and most perfect one to not simply emulate but trust in with every moment of our lives, every circumstance. Because only He can handle those highs and lows, those doubts and misgivings and uncertainties and regrets. Only He can redeem them all until his return when we’ll never need to learn or teach how to say goodbye again.

Imagining Repentance

October 29, 2021

Your Grace, it is such an honor to have this time with you.

Thank you my son, I have wanted to meet with you for some time.

Really? A man as busy as you, leading the Church, and you’ve wanted to meet with me?

Of course my son. A good shepherd cares for every sheep from the least to the greatest. But sometimes more time is taken with the greater ones, as they have greater responsibilities. Especially now that you hold such an important position yourself.

I am thankful to God I can serve him and his people as President of the United States.

A fine understanding of vocation, my son, and the reason I have hoped to speak with you. I pray God continues to use you even more mightily in the future!

How do you mean, Your Grace?

My son, you loved your daughter Naomi very much, I know. Her loss – along with your wife – was very hard on you.

The hardest loss in my life, Your Grace.

Very understandable. And yet you support the murder of unborn children. A position you once were much less in agreement with, when you had far less influence than you do now.

I support the rights of women, Your Grace. I strive for the equality men and women are created under by God.

But the Word of God on this matter is clear, my son, as is the voice of the Church. Your Church. The One, True Church. She has not wavered on that stance, though of course some within her wish she would. The stance of the Church upholding the sanctity of human life from conception is clear.

Your Grace, you must understand….

I commend to your reading Job 10:11-12, Psalms 127 and 139. Consider Joseph’s faithfulness to the life of our Lord and Savior in the virgin’s womb. Consider the difficulty, the inconvenience, the scandal that Mary would be found to be with child before her marriage to Joseph was finalized. And yet in spite of these things they acted in faith that the child was of God. You may also be interested to read The Didache which dates to the time of the Apostles and which states categorically that Christians do not murder the children or the unborn. Even though these were common, culturally acceptable practices among the Greeks and Romans.

We must defend the conscience of each person, Your Grace, of each believer.

And at times my son, we must also speak hard truth, even to those in power. Ever this was the case as well you should know from Scripture.

Then what are you saying, Your Grace?

What you already know to be true in your heart. What you have grown accustomed to making excuses for to satisfy any number of needs. You know it is wrong to kill an unborn child, my son. It is a sin. A violation of the Fifth Commandment. A violation of the Holy Church’s Law. You consider yourself a good Catholic, do you not my son?

Of course, Your Grace!

How can you consider yourself as such when you publicly support with your person and words a policy the Bible, the Church, and your Savior condemn as sin? Can you say to your Savior’s face that your public and professional support of abortion is not a sin? Do you think He will commend you for your stance?

I…I do not know, Your Grace.

You must reflect on this, my son. Not in light of politics or career. Not in light of the so-called rights the West has created out of thin air and in blatant contradiction to the Word of God. You should well know that we do not improve upon an error by creating another error.

What am I to do, Your Grace?

No more and no less than each of us must do each day, and by the grace of God we are given a new day in which to do it, or another hour in which to begin it. Repent. Acknowledge your sin and guilt before your Savior. Take refuge in his mercy and grace and forgiveness, which you receive at Holy Eucharist. Turn from your sin. Do not endanger your very soul with so great a sin and worse, so great a refusal to see your sin. Repudiate it. Publicly, as you have embraced and facilitated it publicly.

What you ask, Your Grace….

I do not ask, my son. As the Vicar of Christ I command. I point you to his Word and his Church and call you to confession, to repentance, to forgiveness, and to eternal life. You are not responsible for what others do in spite of your refusal to condone such terrible sin any longer. But you can in your life and words sound a clear warning for all those like you who seek to obey the voice of God through His Church, yet insist on the right to determine which of His words you accept and reject.

(…)

Go now, my son. Reflect. Read. Pray. Repent. Confess. Receive the assurance of your forgiveness in the Eucharist. And trust that in your repentance you find not death but life, not suffering but joy, not enslavement but freedom. And by your great example, many far smaller and weaker sheep may be guided away from paths that lead only to death and suffering. Rise, my son. And may the Lord bless you and keep you; may he make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. Amen, amen, and amen.

Book Review: Crux, Mors, Inferni

September 22, 2021

Crux, Mors, Inferni: A Primer and Reader on the Descent of Christ by Samuel D. Renihan

I didn’t realize this was a self-published book. I’ll admit I’m biased to some extent, at least when looking for thorough, more scholarly books, against self-published titles under the assumption that if it was good enough, somebody would be publishing it other than the author. I realize that’s no longer necessarily true and the Internet provides many options in the realm of self-publication that only complicates the matter further.

That being said, after reading this I don’t feel the self-publication category suits this book and I’m curious why a publisher didn’t pick it up.

I found this book while looking for resources on The Apostles’ Creed. And of all the statements in the Creed, certainly the most confusing one is that Christ descended into hell. If I’ve heard or read a compelling discussion on this statement I don’t remember it. That’s not meant as criticism against my profs or Confirmation pastors, but perhaps a comment on my memory or, more likely, a comment on the confusion apt to surround this statement which is in turn based on 1 Peter 4:6 and somewhat on Ephesians 4:7-10.

Renihan does a good job with this topic, dividing the book into two main sections. In the first section he lays out the Biblical (and somewhat extra-Biblical) topography of creation – heaven, earth and hell as we typically talk about them. He then argues that the Biblical understanding leads logically and naturally to understanding a localized descent of Christ’s spirit into hell – not to suffer, not as part of his defeat, but as the turning point, the beginning of his glorification after his incarnate process of humiliation. Jesus goes to announce and confirm his victory over sin, death and Satan to the deepest recesses of Satan’s stronghold, and we should not interpret this descent as intending to give the dead a second chance at the Gospel (as is argued by the Mormons). In the second section he examines how Reformed theologians dealt with (or failed to deal with) the Creedal assertion of Christ’s descent into hell, often transforming it into a euphemism for death or burial or a spiritual suffering as opposed to an actual localized descent of Christ’s spirit.

I like his work and his argument. He is not exhaustive in his exegetical/Biblical examination. He picks and chooses and that’s probably a necessary evil. I don’t necessarily argue with the verses he opts to cite. However most of his argument rests on a single point that he substantiates mostly with references to Apocryphal writings rather than canonical Scriptures.

His basic thesis is that sheol is the destiny of all (prior to Christ’s death on the cross). It is the abode of the dead. But it is separated into three areas wherein the lowest two are intended for suffering and the upper third is a place of comfort and peace for the righteous dead, referred to as the bosom of Abraham in Luke 16. Renihan also supports this understanding with a reference to the three heavens (2 Corinthians 12), so there is a symmetry with three levels of heaven and three levels of hell, with the uppermost level of hell not a place of torment but rather of comfort – if not heavenly bliss. Jesus’ parable of Lazarus in Luke 16 depicts not the divide between heaven and hell, Renihan argues, but rather the divide between the upper portion of hell for the righteous dead, and the middle level of hell (for the wicked dead) and the lowest hell (for Satan and his demons).

It’s a compelling argument, I have to admit, but I’m still hesitant to embrace it completely. Though admittedly, by accepting it completely it certainly provides for a level of reasonable interpretation of otherwise difficult parts of Scripture. The only real exception to this is Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross – today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43). Renihan makes reference to this but frankly it’s one of the weaker aspects of his argument.

How does all of this matter?

Renihan argues for the Patristic understanding (as supported by Ephesians 4) that Christ descended into hell to demonstrate his victory over Satan and sin and death, in no small part by leading those spirits of the righteous dead out of the upper level of hell and into heaven. From that point on, those who die in faith in Christ do not descend into Abraham’s bosom, the highest region of hell, but rather their spirit goes directly to be with their Lord in heaven, a reality described in Revelation 6:9-11.

It’s the most thorough treatment of the descent of Christ into hell I’ve encountered to date, and has a lot to back it Scripturally as well as in historical Christian exegesis. But I’m still staying on the fence until I have the opportunity to read a bit further. I’m definitely open to good recommendations on the topic!

The second half (2/3?) of the book was of less interest to me, emphasizing how Reformed theologians and preachers dealt with this statement of the Creed while clearly finding an actual, localized descent of Christ’s spirit into hell untenable with their overall theology.

This is definitely a worthwhile read. His writing is very accessible and doesn’t presume advanced theological training or linguistic competency in Greek or Hebrew, though he references the Greek in several places and provides translation as well. Certainly worthwhile exploration on the topic!

A Collection of Misinterpretations

August 11, 2021

A random assortment of interesting/frustrating news articles that caught my eye today.

First, as usual a great article from GetReligion.org (the Protestant jab aside). The press is insistent on characterizing the refusal of Sacraments to public and unrepentant members as ultimately a political ploy aimed at President Biden. That’s hardly the case. The press willingly and repeatedly ignores actually reporting on the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church (and many other Christian denominations) in favor of straw-man caricatures that suit their intentions of disparaging organized religion (particularly Christianity – you don’t see many similar articles about Judaism or Islam) or pressuring believers to view their historic and clearly articulated faith as no longer valid or binding in our more enlightened culture.

Second up in terms of allowing our implicit and explicit biases’ to affect our interpretation of things is this little article. The presence of gender-specific articles for both men and women in a single grave becomes an argument for historical evidence of a non-binary leader – someone 1000 years ago who didn’t neatly fit our allegedly cultural sex and gender classifications.

Because, you know, that’s the only possible explanation, which just so happens to justify the latest in cultural fads.

Because nobody is ever buried with items from someone else – possibly even someone of the opposite sex. A meaningful piece of jewelry from Mom or Dad, for example. How is it that objects can or should be used to argue for a sexual orientation (or lack thereof) in a burial from a thousand years ago? Is that good science? Good archaeology? Or just a convenient way of appealing to the apparent swing of the cultural pendulum, a swing that might mean a few bones thrown in terms of grants or donations?

Ugh.

And finally, I’ve been loathe to blog further regarding Covid and our responses to it (or responses imposed on us). I’m simply so tired of it all. The rhetoric on both sides is ridiculous. But this article I found somewhat darkly amusing. Apparently there have been posts online referencing I Am Legend, a mediocre but different zombie movie. People are referencing the movie claiming the zombies in it were the result of a vaccine.

That’s not literally true, as this article points out. But that’s rather splitting hairs, I’d argue. Yes, this is just a movie. A piece of fiction. And I’d hope that most of the people posting the memes are fully aware of that and aren’t presuming to claim the movie as any sort of evidence or justification of rejecting the Covid vaccine.

However it is fair game to remind us all that even the best-intentioned efforts can have unanticipated consequences, something the critics of such memes are quick to forget. The fact that the scientific method and scientific processes and individual and collective scientists did and continue to do their best in formulating Covid vaccines does not, in and of itself, preclude the possibility of unanticipated, negative side-effects. Rare but causal side effects have already been identified in many of the vaccines, and such observations are quickly drowned out by shouted insistence that the benefits are far greater to far more people than the infrequent side-effects. That may or may not be true – we won’t know for some time, as more and more unanticipated side-effects are identified, and as the overall effectiveness of the vaccines becomes better understood.

The role of good science fiction is to contemplate not just literal science but potential side-effects or abuses of science. Great heroes and villains populate the genre for their manipulation of various aspects of science and technology or their responses to it. The genre provides a ‘safe’ zone for contemplating real issues in the context of make-believe. The original Star Trek series utilized it for these purposes, as have great authors such as Ray Bradbury and Walter Miller Jr. Even The Lord of the Rings could be (and has been) interpreted as a commentary on science and technology and industry, noting that it isn’t these things in and of themselves that are evil, but only how they are used or misused or, just as validly, accidentally developed or implemented without enough information to accurately determine longer-range consequences.

Back to School

August 10, 2021

It’s that time of year again. For so many years as a student, as a teacher, or as someone involved in campus ministry (sometimes all three at once!) my year was more defined by the ebb and flow of the American academic year. August and September always seem like starting months – more so than January.

This is a good article whether you’re a Christian student headed to school (really of any grade, adjusted for age-appropriateness of course), or the parent/grandparent/concerned friend or relative of a student.

Of course, these suggestions are all things that should already be going on in the life of every person of faith. If these habits and practices and skills haven’t already begun to be owned by the time college rolls around, it’s going to be a hard time for a student to pick them up. Although this article is aimed at Catholic students, the same ideas hold true for Christians of any stripe. Know who you are, where you’ve come from, where you’re going, who created and redeemed you, who abides with you constantly. Don’t expect to have an answer to every objection or criticism leveled at the Bible or the Church or your faith personally. But know that you’re likely to encounter objections and criticisms, or assumptions that you can continue to consider yourself a Christian if you don’t actually believe the Bible.

Friday & Worship

July 16, 2021

Parts of the Roman Catholic world are abuzz today over a declaration issued by Pope Francis. The Pope issued a mortu propio, essentially a directive directly from himself as the Pope, without necessary consultation with other Church leadership or authority. These are apparently issued relatively infrequently (the first in the 15th century) and can have profound impact on Church practice.

This one – entitled TRADITIONIS CUSTODES, essentially curtails the use of the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM), also referred to as the Tridentine Mass. This was the form of worship the Roman Catholic Church made use of almost exclusively for nearly 400 years – up until the reforms of Vatican II. In issuing this pronouncement, Pope Francis appears to be making it more difficult, though not completely impossible, for parishes to offer TLM, encouraging them instead to move towards worship in the vernacular.

From my denomination’s perspective, this would be the equivalent of the Synodical President effectively banning a particular form of worship. Pope Francis’ directive requires local bishops to make determination of whether or not TLM is necessary or appropriate within their jurisdiction, the equivalent of making every individual congregation in our denomination get special permission from their District President to celebrate a particular form of worship. One can imagine the challenges in this rather easily, from the logistical perspective to say the least. And if your bishop doesn’t wish to see TLM observed? I guess you’re out of luck.

Our denomination has struggled for years over the issue of worship, so this isn’t exactly a foreign subject. Thus far at least there have been no definitive pronouncements on the topic of traditional vs. contemporary worship, though more than a few would have done so if given the opportunity or they thought they could get away with it without splintering our denomination.

The Pope’s orders are effective immediately, and allow for no period of consideration, questioning and the like. For those attached to TLM (and apparently there are many) this is a particularly brutal, insensitive and rash decision. I can empathize with them. I hurt for those whose desired form of worship has now been made more elusive or even unavailable. And I pray this will not be a wedge between the faithful and the Church. While I’m not Roman Catholic, anything that drives people away from the communion of the saints is a bad thing, even if it originates from within the Church. I pray those who are hurt and angry will – by the grace of God – be granted peace and the ability to forgive these decisions they vehemently disagree with, and that their faith might in the process grow rather than diminish.

Book Review: The Apostles’ Creed for Today

July 12, 2021

The Apostles’ Creed for Today by Justo L. Gonzalez

The tone of this book begins markedly different than the previous two I’ve read and reviewed, and while that tone diminishes somewhat through the book, it still is an underlying assumption throughout.

First off, this book is fantastic for the depth of history it provides. Given that Gonzalez was the youngest recipient of Yale’s Ph.D in historical theology, this should come as no surprise. He does a good job of tracing the history of the Creed back as far as textual sources will allow – the middle 2nd century and a baptismal creedal formula in use in Rome very similar to what we know as the Apostles’ Creed, though not exactly the same. Thus Gonzalez also effectively denies apostolic authorship of the Creed, at least in the way referenced by Augustine in the 4th century and later writers. But Gonzalez’ work clearly demonstrates a strong assertion that the Creed is old, very old, and may well be rooted in the words of the Apostles’ themselves and the first century Church.

Gonzalez also provides helpful distinctions in the difference in use of the Apostles’ Creed in the West and the Nicene Creed in the East, while also casting some aspersions on the former as perhaps a later political and theological tool, a claim to an older Creedal formulae than the Nicene Creed. However the scholarship Gonzalez refers to in this short book clearly refutes such an interpretation. The Apostles’ Creed is likely older, but was not developed to bulwark claims of greater legitimacy by the Western Church.

Finally Gonzalez goes to great pains to distinguish how the Apostles’ Creed would likely be interpreted by early Christians as opposed to today’s Church. Sometimes this is very helpful, sometimes it is speculative to the point of being unhelpful. While we definitely have an overly-emotionalized spiritual climate in much of the Church today, this does not mean there were no emotional elements in the early Church. And the glaringly political overtones of some of the Creed should not be lost on the Church today, particularly in America where political affiliations now increasingly divide and shatter congregations.

However Gonzalez does not presume what Dr. Mohler asserts in his book, that the Creed represents the bare minimum of belief for someone to call themselves a Christian in any meaningful or definable way. Gonzalez states on p.7 …it would be helpful to think of the Creed not so much as a personal statement of faith but rather as a statement of what it is that makes the church be the church, and of our allegiance to the essence of the gospel and therefore to the church that proclaims it. Gonzalez seems wary of challenging or catechizing readers who may not accept certain statements in the Creed, and more interested in helping them to understand what it says. While understanding is important, this single statement on p.7 perpetuates an underlying theme of permissiveness throughout the book. You may or may not believe any one (or more) of the particular statements in the Creed. That’s the beauty of the Church – it can encompass many different theological stances, Gonzalez asserts later on. Given Gonzalez’ emphasis on ecumenism this isn’t surprising, but denying any of the statements in the Creed is a direct assault on the Bible itself. While Gonzalez never goes this far overtly, it seems clear he would rather agree to disagree while undermining the authority of Scripture. What is left is a vacuum devoid of any authority, and therefore devoid of any meaningful way of either agreeing or disagreeing. This is the crux of conflict in modern Christianity in Europe and America. If the Bible is not authoritative, there is no authority left other than personal opinion.

Gonzalez displays typical modern sensitivity to matters of gender and race, and it is clear that his theology is strongly influenced by concepts of social justice as foundational Biblical mandates. He is openly supportive of alternative, non-gender specific references to both God the Father and God the Son that once again undermine Biblical authority by ignoring what the Bible actually says in favor of something more personally appealing.

Finally, as evidence of Gonzalez’ suspicion of Biblical authority, he quotes it very rarely, referring far more often to the writings of Church Fathers. Again this isn’t surprising given his doctoral emphasis, but it does display less of a concern for the Bible as the source of the Creed. It isn’t that Gonzalez never refers to Scripture in this book, it’s just that often he rationalizes from other sources and causes. For example, on his discussion of the final statement of the Creed regarding the resurrection of the body and life everlasting, Gonzalez cites two reasons why these statements are important. The first is his assertion the early Church wanted to emphasize the ongoing work of God’s creative powers in Christian hope, and the second was as an affirmation of the innate goodness of the material, contra prevailing philosophical theories of the day which denigrated anything physical and glorified spirit as our true nature imprisoned in our decaying flesh.

Both of these may well be true, but there’s the other glaring reason these assertions are in the Creed – it’s what God has told us in his Word! The opening verses of John 14 should be reason enough to include statements regarding resurrection and eternal life, let alone Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 4:13ff!

This is a good book overall, particularly if you desire a bit more historical background on the Creed. But it should also be read cautiously. The Creed depends upon and is drawn from the Word of God. As such, what the Creed asserts should not be juggled so lightly. Those who sincerely question and are seeking greater faith should be encouraged towards such, not told that they are free to accept or reject aspects of the Creed – and therefore the Bible – based on their own personal opinions. This is not a means of unifying the Church but undermining it.

Book Review – I Believe

June 29, 2021

I Believe: Exploring the Apostles’ Creed by Alister McGrath

The first book I finished in preparation to teach on the Apostles’ Creed is this one. Alister McGrath is a well-known theologian who comes from a different Christian tradition than mine – one of the reasons I wanted to read his take on the Apostles’ Creed. I know he and I differ on some rather fundamental issues but I was curious how he would deal with the Creed. Overall, he deals with it very, very well.

He notes early on that one’s view of the Creed is tied to one’s view of Scripture. Since the Creed simply summarizes core aspects of Biblical revelation, if one dismisses the Bible as just the work of human authors or unreliable in the process of copying and translation, one is not going to be terribly excited about the Creed, and will likely dismiss all or parts of it out of hand. However if one takes Scripture seriously, as Christians have for the past two thousand years, then the Creed will be a handy way of boiling down the core matters that define whether one is a Christian or not.

This is important.

Anyone can call themselves a Christian. But for 2000 years the basic litmus test for such an assertion is whether or not they believe everything the Creed states. Not because the Creed is inspired in any way, but because the Creed is anchored firmly in Scripture and Scripture is the defining source for Christian faith. You can call yourself a Christian all you want, but if you deny any elements of the Creed, you are dismantling a very integrated theology and world-view, one that Christians for thousands of years have insisted cannot be dismantled. It is either accepted in entirety, or it cannot stand up to sustained critical examination.

With this in mind, it’s interesting that McGrath is able to assert wholeheartedly the opening description of God the Father – Maker of Heaven and Earth. If he is an ardent supporter or defender of theistic evolution, he doesn’t go into it here. He rightly maintains that God is the creator of all things but skirts the issue of whether the Biblical description of a seven-day creation is literal or possibly metaphorical. Some might argue that such an issue is tangential and unrelated to the generic statement of God as maker of heaven and earth. However as McGrath notes elsewhere in this book, to discount the miraculous in one part of Scripture throws a wrench into maintaining support for the miraculous elsewhere. And while I don’t doubt McGrath would argue theistic evolution is not denying God’s miraculous creative role, there are many Christians (myself included) who disagree with him.

This is a good introductory exploration of the Creed. Each chapter takes up one of the twelve faith statements. McGrath first explains all of the relevant parts of the statement at hand. He then returns to address how the ideas play out today. To affirm that God is the Father is one thing, but if it is to be more than an intellectual assent, it should have some interplay with how we live our lives if we believe it to be true, and McGrath does respectable work at connecting those dots.

At just over 100 pages in length (plus a bibliography and some helpful notes for those who want to use the book for small group study) it’s not exhaustive by any means. But it’s a good reminder (perhaps to those in McGrath’s Reformed stream of Christianity) that the Creeds are very helpful and good, and should be greatly esteemed.