Saturday, September 02, 2006

Doctrine and Conduct (1)

It's an age-old discussion amongst Christadelphians: which is more important, doctrine or conduct?

The consensus, I think, is that both are important and neither one more than the other. Well, that's the theory at least. Just to quote myself:
“Practical teaching without sound theology is as impoverished as sound theology without practical teaching. The New Testament doesn’t make the distinction between orthodoxy [correct doctrine] and orthopraxy [good practice] that we often do, nor is there any hint in the Scriptures, as far as I can see, that God will forgive bad behavior more readily than poor theology, or vice versa. We need to teach them both and teach them well.”
In practice, however, the almost universal experience of Christadelphians is that wrong doctrine is treated far more seriously in the ecclesias than bad behaviour, and that candidates for baptism are instructed more thoroughly in doctrine than in Christian living. *

In this short series of posts I'd like to look at the teachings of Jesus and the early church to see where their emphasis was, and how this is relevant to Christadelphians in the twenty first century.

I will begin by looking at what has been called "The Jesus Creed" from Mark 12:28-31.
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."
This creed of Jesus begins with the creed of Israel - the sh'ma - recited twice daily by the orthodox, from Deuteronomy 6:4 "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one". This is one of the most quoted verses in the Christadelphian armoury against trinitarianism.

The sh'ma says: YHVH elohainu YHVH echad = YHVH [is] our God YHVH [is] one, OR YHVH our God [is] one YHVH, and the English translations offer both alternatives.

Either way it doesn't make a lot of sense to the English ear. It seems to me that the sh'ma isn't saying "there is one God" or "there is one YHVH". That would be a simple statement about monotheism, but that's not what the sh'ma says, regardless of whether or not monotheism is true. Rather, it is a statement about God, not about how many gods there are.

The first part seems relatively easy. YHVH elohainu = YHVH [is] our God.

Then the sh'ma makes a statement about this God of Israel and says He is "echad = one". From my Christadelphian background this also appears to be simple: God is one not three. But why on earth would the Torah be refuting an idea that wasn't going to be conceived for centuries? It would be an absurdity to argue that the Torah is really saying "in centuries from now a group within a sect of Judaism called Christianity will describe God as being Three, but in fact they will be wrong - He is One". Apart from being an anachronism it would have no relevance in the context.

On the other hand, it could be a statement about God's uniqueness in much the same way as the Son is described as "the one and only" (John 1:18 - at least in some manuscripts). So the sh'ma would be saying "YHVH is our God, and YHVH is unique". That would at least make sense.

But I sense that the sh'ma is saying something even more than "YHVH is unique, a one-of-a-kind God", true though that is, because the next verse begins with a vav - "and". YHVH is one AND you shall love YHVH ..." So the statement is relational: we are to love because He is echad=one. Turn that into simply an anti-trinitarian statement and it sounds absurd: "God is one [not three] so therefore love Him" (as if we can love Him because He is One, but not if He were Three).

I was discussing this with a former Christadelphian (Allon Maxwell) who made a great point:
Without the second half [of the sh'ma] the first has no real purpose.

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength."

If we don't get that second half of the SHEMA right, knowing how many Gods make one won't help at all. And worrying about how to pronounce it properly has all too often become a side track which diverts attention from learning how to love Him properly!

I think it's really important to get Allon's point: the first half of the Jesus creed has no purpose without the second.

Scott McKnight (“The Jesus Creed” 2004) demonstrated nicely that Jesus actually emphasised the point of Israel’s creed for His followers and elaborated it by adding Leviticus 19:18 - the commandment to love others – in addition to the commandment to love God. This highlights where Jesus saw the emphasis.

So the Law of Moses made a "doctrinal statement" about Israel's "one God" and immediately said how they were to respond to this "doctrine" - by loving God. Jesus emphasised that the way to do this was through following Him and loving others. The doctrine has no relevance without the behaviour.

* As an aside, I am reminded of a sign I've sometimes passed on a local Christadelphian hall: "Sincerity without truth cannot save". I've been tempted to pin a note to their door saying "Truth without sincerity cannot save either. In fact, neither truth nor sincerity saves - we are saved by grace".

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