Saturday, February 14, 2015

Disciples of Christ and the Creeds

I am about to conclude an Epiphany sermon series with a sermon that will lift up the importance of the Trinity to our ability to fruitfully speak of God.  My denomination -- the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) -- has long prided itself on being non-creedal.  We like to say that "We have no Creed but Christ, no book but the Bible." We take the Protestant principle of "Sola Scriptura" very seriously.  We do have something akin to a faith statement -- The Preamble to the Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but while it looks creedal we rarely recite it in worship.  In fact I expect most Disciples don't even know it exists. 

As I was working on formatting a new book on Disciples values and practices that I've titled "Freedom in Covenant," I decided to beef up the section in the book on the role of "Tradition" in our interpretation of Scripture with a quote from William Tabbernee, the former President of Philips Seminary and historian of the ancient church.  In a chapter in the Chalice Introduction to Disciples Theology on "Theology and Tradition, Tabbernee addresses the question of the use of creeds.  He quickly disabuses us of the notion that the Campbell's disdained creeds.  They simply wanted to put them in their proper place.  

Tabbernee has helpfully written:

The rhetoric inherent in the Campbell's memorable language over-simplified and, to a certain extent, distorted what they really believed about the relationship between scripture and tradition. Martin Luther's sola scriptura ("the Bible alone") did not really mean "nothing but the Bible" but simply that the Bible should be taken as the final arbitrator of truth when ecclesiastical authorities, such as popes, bishops, or councils, promoted views which appeared to be in direct contradiction with what is revealed in scripture.  Similarly, the Campbells did not totally reject everything that was not "as old as the New Testament." They only rejected post-New Testament "authorities," such as "creeds," if these were made  "a term of communion." By "term of communion," the Campbells meant the criteria by which one was deemed to be deemed worthy to belong to a particular Christian denomination and/or receive the Lord's supper in that (or another) denomination. . . . Neither Thomas nor Alexander Campbell believed that it was inappropriate to use creeds or other aspects of the "Apostolic Tradition" for educational, theological, or liturgical purposes -- as long as they were not used to exclude Christians from fellowship!  Indeed, the Campbells' most vehement attack on "creeds" was primarily directed not against the "ecumenical creeds" of the early church but against post-Reformation "confessions" such as the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647).   [Tabbernee, in Chalice Introduction to Disciples Theology, pp. 46-47].
 
So maybe if we're going to be true to our heritage we might want to be more open to hearing the witness of the ancient church as it expressed itself in the creeds.  It's not that they are to be deemed final authorities, but they may have something to teach us.  

2 comments:

Brian Morse said...

The early Church has much to teach us. Their writings tend to be fascinating.

Gary said...

And his disciples took him by night and let him down over the wall, lowering him in a basket. And when he had come to Jerusalem he attempted to join the disciples but they are all afraid of him for they did not believe he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists; but they were seeking to kill him. And when the brethren knew it, they brought him down to Caesarea and set him off to Tarsus. (Acts 9:25-30)

And (Ananias) . . .said, The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Just One and to hear a voice from his mouth; and you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now, why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name. When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple I fell into a trance and saw him saying to me, 'Make haste and get quickly out of Jerusalem, because they will not accept your testimony about me. And I said, 'Lord, they themselves know that in very synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in thee. And when the blood of Stephen thy witness was shed, I also was standing by and approving, and keeping the garments of those who killed him.' And he said to me, 'Depart; for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.' (Acts 22:14-21)

But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia; and I still was not known by sight to the churches of Christ in Judea; they only heard it said, “He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy. (Galatians 1:15-23)

My conclusion: Paul either had a very poor memory, was mentally ill, or lied about what he did in the weeks, months, and first few years after his conversion experience on the Damascus Road. Yet, Christians base their belief in the Resurrection, the pinnacle event of their faith, on this man's testimony, which in his own words, was a "heavenly vision" of a talking, bright light...along with the writings of four anonymous first century authors, writing decades after the alleged event, in a foreign language, in far away foreign lands, for purposes we do not and will never know.

That isn't evidence, folks. That is speculation, superstition, and fantasy.