Friday, September 29, 2006

Doctrine and Conduct (5)

If Jesus did write a statement of faith, I wonder what it would look like? I think we can work it out from the Gospels.

Let's start with that word 'faith'.

The Synoptic Gospels (I'll talk about John later) use the noun pistis 'faith' almost always in connection with miracles which are performed in response to faith (either the faith of their sufferer, or those who requested Jesus' help). In one place Jesus couldn't do any miracles because of their "lack of faith" (Mark 6:5-6). R.T. France sums it up nicely when he says "Faith in such contexts focuses on a practical trust in the power of Jesus to meet physical need" ("Faith" in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels).

The verb pisteuo 'I believe' is almost always used to describe the response to the preaching of the Gospel and becomes almost a synonym for "to be a disciple" and refers to "the need for practical trust in the power of God to provide for the necessities of life, to heal or to deliver from physical danger. To fail in such practical trust is, even in disciples, a mark of an 'unbelieving generation'." (ibid).

In two stories in particular, about the faith of the Roman centurion (Matt 8:10-13) and the faith of the Canaanite woman (Matt 15:21-28), it seems that Jesus is emphasising that participation in the blessings of salvation is no longer to be on the basis of race, but on the basis of faith. 'Faith' in both these contexts is the absolute trust in the authority of Jesus to provide for physical needs, and not on intellectual assent to doctrine. Faith is the way into the kingdom of God.

Faith, or faithfulness (which may be a better representation of pistis) is a distinctive characteristic of the people of God, and involves loyalty to God even when such loyalty is costly. It is spelled out in the stories of risk-taking (stepping out of a boat in the middle of a storm), and of disobedience to authorities ('unclean' people going out in crowds and touching Jesus); in the sayings about persistance and cross-carrying; and in the call to live-out the principles of justice, equity and fairness.

Faith is a lifestyle - not a dogma. It's not about what people think, but about what they do.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Doctrine and Conduct (4)

Over the years I've been interested to read the creeds and statements of faith of a lot of churches and denominations. At one stage I even started 'collecting' statements of faith which contained the same 'core doctrines' as Christadelphians. I discovered quite a few churches and denominations which were remarkably similar to Christadelphians in several of these core doctrines.

Something I have noticed about nearly all of these statements of faith is that they follow a fairly predictable order. Here are the subject headings of 'A Summary of Basic Bible Doctrine' from just one group (who are, incidentally, almost identical to Christadelphians in their beliefs) - although I won't say which group it's from as this is not important to the point I'm about to make. Each heading is expanded into several statements, but I just want to look at the headings for now.

1. GOD









Any summary of doctrine has to have some sort of order and structure so that it flows logically. This one starts with God, which is a fairly logical place to start (the Christadelphian statements of faith often start with the Bible, as a way of showing that the Bible is the foundation for what follows - which is also logical). However, where the various statements of faith go then can be very interesting. The above summary, for example, has a section dealing with the devil (# 6) before the section on Jesus Christ (# 7). This strikes me as very odd. I can only speculate that being a non-trintarian statement it is trying to avoid any hint of putting Jesus on an equal footing with God. (But why put the devil before Jesus?!)

What is not quite as odd, and in this way it is fairly typical, is that "Life in Christ" comes right at the end. This suggests that correct theology, outlined in the first 8 statements, has to come before we can have a life in Christ. Most statements of faith I have seen follow this sort of pattern. The Christadelphian statements generally attach "Commandments of Christ" as a separate statement - as a kind of appendix to the doctrinal one. So I am not criticising the above statement, or the Christadelphian ones, as though there is anything particularly strange about them.

To the contrary, I think these statements of faith have been influenced to a very large degree by earlier creeds and confessions (such as the Thirty Nine Articles, or the Westminster Confession). The way Christadelphian doctrine is taught generally follows a pattern outlined in literature such as The Christadelphian Instructor, A Declaration, or Preparing for Baptism. These documents follow the same general pattern as any Systematic Theology and appear to have been influenced by them, at least in their structure. I think this is how protestant Christians generally tend to think, and Christadelphians are no exception.

However, it's not how Jesus thought.

Jesus never gave a systematic theology, or an outline of basic doctrine. He never once (so far as we know from the Gospels) gave a sermon about the Godhead, or the nature of man, or life after death, or the Age to Come.
Matthew says that Jesus went about preaching the Kingdom of God and then immediately gave us his account of the kinds of things Jesus taught about the kingdom by giving us the sermon on the mount. Jesus message was the good news of the kingdom, and that message is encapsulated in a sermon about how to live!

Doctrine and Conduct (3)

Going off on a tangent from the previous posts about the Jewish sh'ma and the relevance to Christian living of the doctrine of 'One God', I just want to say something about the way we teach this.

I have been associated with Christadelphians for all of my life, and for most of it I never heard the word ‘Unitarian’ used to describe Christadelphian theology. In fact, in the preface to John Thomas’s major work on ‘God manifestation’ – Phanerosis – the publisher describes him as being “neither Trinitarian nor Unitarian”. I think it’s only been the current generation of Christadelphians – and then still only a handful - who have started to borrow the term ‘Biblical Unitarians’ to describe Christadelphian theology. The avoidance of the term ‘Unitarian’ may have been to avoid any association with Universalist Unitarians, but I think it was more likely to avoid any confusion with the view held by many Unitarians that Jesus was fully human but in no way Divine, and had a human father. By describing the Godhead in terms which were “neither Trinitarian nor Unitarian” I think John Thomas, for all his faults, may have been trying to come to terms with the union of divinity and humanity in Jesus without ignoring either and without falling into the Nicean trap. (However, I think modern Christadelphians have now mostly lost sight of the “neither Trinitarian nor Unitarian” distinction.)

I do think it would be helpful to present to the Christian world an understanding of the Godhead without polarising people at trinitarian or unitarian extremes, or labelling any alternative view as ‘idolatry’ or ‘apostasy’ or ‘heresy’. If only we could explain the relationship between the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit in clear, positive, Biblical and relatively simple terms without condemning any other view I think a “neither Trinitarian nor Unitarian” explanation of the relationship may have wider appeal than we might imagine.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Doctrine and Conduct (2)

The final point of my last message was this:
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.
So what was the "doctrinal statement" being made in the sh'ma - "'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one" - and how does this connect to the behaviour which is commanded?

I suggested that the sh'ma could be simply a statement of monotheism - i.e. there is one God - or it could be saying that Israel's God is unique, a one-of-a-kind God. These statements are not mutually exclusive of course, so the sh'ma could be saying both. However, as someone else pointed out so well, the first half of the sh'ma has no purpose without the second and Jesus gave this doctrine a greater depth of meaning by adding a new dimension. The sh'ma connected the Oneness of God with the command to love Him with our whole being, and Jesus added to this the commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves.

It seems to me then that the Jesus Creed is saying something like this:

God is One. On one level He is also "at one" with His whole creation because in Him we live and move and have our being*. There is a connectedness between everything in creation, and between the created and the Creator, and the created only finds true meaning when it realises and acknowledges this connection and responds by loving the Creator with its whole being. When the connection - the "union" or Oneness - is lost on a spiritual level between the Creator and the created, it can be restored again, but only through love. The Creator loves His creation, and when the created loves its Creator the connection begins to be restored on the spiritual level. The connection is made complete when the created discovers their part in Creation and loves themselves, others, and God. Everything is made complete, perfect and whole through love**.

God is One - He is whole, complete, and perfect. His purpose in creation is for everything to be part of the Oneness, to be "at one" with Himself in perfect unity, or Oneness, through love.
When we put the "doctrinal statement" that "God is One" in its context we see that it is really a statement about the unity which should exist in creation, and between the created and its Creator. It is not so much a statement about God as it is about God's relationship with His creation.

* Acts 17:28

** Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. (2 Corinthians 13:11)

And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:14)

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18)

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".