Healthy Theology 5: Believing Well
In the first post of this series, we learned that “theology” is simply learning to embrace good and right ideas about God. C. S. Lewis compared the study of theology to holding a map of the world—a much needed help if you are interested in serious exploration.
In the second post, we saw that not all ideas about God—or even teachings from God—are of equal weight and measure. Some things are primary, others are secondary. Some things are central, others are peripheral. Even Scripture itself teaches that a failure to appreciate the “weightier matters” of “first importance” can lead to disastrous consequences. Somehow, we need to learn how to put first things first.
The problem, as we found in the third post, is that good and honest hearts often disagree about how to interpret the teachings of Scripture. Common-sense only gets us so far. What we wish, of course, is that the Bible came with a preface giving us both a lens through which to read Scripture and a list of topics that are of first importance.
In the fourth installment of this series, we began to consider some ways to piece together what that preface might look like. Whatever group you come from—within the larger vision known as “Christianity”—you have likely adopted teachings shared by everyone else who claims to be a follower of Christ. There is a very good reason for this. Church history is an extended conversation among people searching for the same goal; when seen from this light, we can begin to appreciate the concept of shared values and healthy tradition.
Since the earliest days of Christianity, believers have sought for an appropriate shorthand that expresses the central claims of the Christian faith—the main theological themes in the light of which all other issues and teachings are clarified and understood. Some early Christians spoke of a “rule of faith” which could effectively describe the core of Christian doctrine; this rule of faith was eventually clarified and codified. These early “I believe” statements (which, in Latin, are called “creeds”) have stood the test of time across numerous divides in Christendom. The word “orthodoxy”—coined in the light of these early claims—has long served as a marker to signify core, central teachings of the Christian faith. In this post, I would like for us to consider what central teachings have long held prime position in Christian thought and life by examining the claims of the early Christian creeds.
BIG ROCKS FIRST
Stephen Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and First Things First, popularized an effective illustration meant to show the importance of priorities. Imagine a jar sitting on a table, accompanied by three piles: big rocks, small pebbles, and fine grain sand. Given the instruction to place all three piles in the jar, you quickly notice the need for priority. If you begin with the sand and pebbles, there will not be enough room for the big rocks. However, if you place the large rocks in first, the pebbles will then naturally fall around the big rocks, and the sand will fill the remaining crevices. The moral of the story? Big rocks first. “Church history is an extended conversation among people searching for the same goal; when seen from this light, we can begin to appreciate the concept of shared values and healthy tradition.”
“Church history is an extended conversation among people searching for the same goal; when seen from this light, we can begin to appreciate the concept of shared values and healthy tradition.”
C.S. Lewis understood the importance of emphasizing the big rocks when it comes to theology. In the preface to Mere Christianity, Lewis explained the rationale for choosing topics on which to write. “Ever since I became a Christian,” writes Lewis, “I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” Of course there are finer points of detail worth holding and defending—as Lewis himself, admits. But some things are central starting points. His illustration is not rocks vs pebbles, but rather a long central hallway that properly belongs in the house of faith. There are various doors leading to various rooms–important fields of exploration in their own right. But this shared central hallway of faith, what Baxter called “mere Christianity,” is what appeared to Lewis most in need of defending. “I was not writing to expound something I could call ‘my religion,’” writes Lewis, “but to expound ‘mere’ Christianity, which is what it is and what it was long before I was born and whether I like it or not.” Those occupying various rooms differ from one another, to be sure; and “one of the things Christians are disagreed about is the importance of their disagreements.” But “at the centre of each” room, group, or school of teaching within orthodox Christian thought “there is something, or Someone, who against all divergences of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice.”
What is the voice at the center? If we consult the earliest Christian statements of belief (such as the Old Roman symbol, the Apostles Creed, and the Nicene Creed), the outworking of a “rule of faith” meant to clarify the central teaching of Christianity, we may begin to hear that voice emerge.
ON GOD: THE FATHER, SON, & HOLY SPIRIT
For starters, Christians must affirm that there is one God who made everything there is – in heaven and on earth, whether visible or invisible. The very fact that something exists means that it owes its existence to God. All dependent things find their origin in God. Reflecting on this powerful truth has led to some fascinating explorations in philosophical theology. But on the most simple of terms, God is ultimate Creator—and shares that space with no one and no thing besides.
Christians affirm that God took on humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (what is known as the incarnation). As a result, Jesus is portrayed both as divine (conceived by the Holy Spirit) and human (born of the Virgin Mary). Jesus suffered death at the hands of Pontius Pilate, being crucified and buried. However, on the third day he was raised from the dead by the power of God. After his resurrection, Christ ascended to take his place at the right hand of the Father. He is the Christ (meaning the anointed King), God’s own Son, our Savior and Lord.
Christians also believe in the Holy Spirit who is the Lord and giver of life. Scripture fills out the ways in which the Spirit serves in these roles. For example, the Spirit was there at creation bringing life to the world. He anointed Jesus at his baptism, directed and empowered him in his temptation and ministry, and by the will of God raised him from the dead. He was poured out on the apostles at Pentecost and sanctifies Christians so that the Church is made holy and made perfect in eternity.
What are we to make of these three confessions? Christians affirm that there is one Savior: our Lord and God. That God makes himself known to us in the New Testament as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ was not “created” or “made,” which means He is of the same essence as the Father—God from God, light from light, very God of very God. Likewise, the Holy Spirit is not created, but proceeds from God and is to be worshiped alongside the Father and the Son. This important teaching means that God is perfectly one, yet exists in an eternal relationship of giving and receiving love. As the Athanasian creed puts it, we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity, whose glory is equal, and majesty coeternal.
ON CREATION, SALVATION, & THE CHURCH
Christians affirm that God is “maker of all” and also that He is “the giver of life.” This means that God–by His Son and in the power of His Spirit–not only created the world but also sustains it. Everything came into being by God, and remains in being by God. For this reason, creation matters.
However, humanity has rebelled against God, and all of creation bears the effects of sin. We cry out for help, as we stand in need of something, or Someone, to restore our relationship to God and heal all the effects of sin. Christians affirm that sin has an ultimate remedy: Jesus Christ. For us and for our salvation Christ came down from heaven, was made man, and died, resulting in forgiveness of sins. Christ, the Holy One, died so that we might be Holy—set apart and redeemed.
Christians believe all the redeemed are placed in one community (or “church”) which is holy, catholic (a word meaning “universal”), and apostolic (that is, built on the teaching of the Apostles as recorded in Scripture). This one church enjoys fellowship together, known as the “communion of saints,” and experiences the gift of salvation, known as the “forgiveness of sins.” While a number of activities might characterize God’s people, two prominent ones exemplify these shared truths: those in the church have the shared experience of baptism (the tangible sharing in “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins”), and of participating in the Lord’s Supper (the tangible sharing in “the communion of saints.”)
ON THE END: RESURRECTION, JUDGMENT, & LIFE EVERLASTING
We believe that death is not the end. One day, the last enemy (death) will be destroyed, and that God will raise our bodies from the dead. Christ will then offer judgment of all people—the living and the dead. There is a warning of everlasting punishment for some. However, believers in Christ live in hope. We affirm that God will change our bodies to be like Christ’s glorious body, and that, in the world to come, we will enjoy life everlasting with God, sharing in a kingdom that shall have no end.
The early Christian creeds flow out of serious reflection on the Apostles’ doctrine, and, as such, invite us to take the Bible seriously. Christ’s death and resurrection were “according to the Scriptures,” foretold by the Holy Spirit “who spake by the prophets.”
These teachings have long been dubbed the “catholic faith”—meaning, what the Church universal affirms and believes. You will notice there is no emphasis on popes or priests, tongue-speaking or visions, Sunday school classes or youth campaigns. There is nothing in these teachings peculiar to one Christian subset, and everything taught here can be affirmed by believers across denominational lines.
BIG ROCKS…NOT THE ONLY ROCKS
Is this all that needs to be said in matters of doctrine? Of course not. Christians are called to live strong ethical lives as ones made in the very image of God, to live after the example of Jesus as recorded in the gospels, and to adhere to the Apostles teaching as developed in the epistles (which, in turn, are rooted in the larger revelation of God). There is certainly more to be said, and even the topics listed above are often fleshed out in varying (and sometimes, controversial) ways from person to person and group to group. But we are searching for some shared understanding that can offer a starting point for healthy theology, and a healthy reading of Scripture.
If our reading of Scripture causes us to deny these central teachings, we are not reading Scripture right. If our church community—due to experience or reasoned argument—has separated itself from all other believers based on peculiar teachings that are not central to the Christian faith, that may be a sign that we have failed to appreciate the universal faith of the Christian community. But if, in turn, we recognize the big rocks for what they are, we may just find that our house of faith is being built on solid rock rather than shifting sand.
(photo credit: black pile of stones)
Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. Nathan lives in Searcy, Arkansas, where he teaches in the College of Bible & Ministry at Harding University.