Can being dogmatic actually lead us astray off the path of faith?
Church history has never been short of people who have claimed to be the “true defenders of the Gospel.” Far too often, this group is composed of Christians who look at other Christians and say, “Well, they’ve really mucked this up, haven’t they?” and then proceed to split from, condemn, dismiss, or destroy the opposition.
Some will say that the church has always done this, going all the way back to the early church controversies that led to the creation of the Nicene and Constantinopolitan creeds, among others. Theology, it is said, was at stake…. and the church put a stake in the ground for certain theological truths, an interpretive grid that would ensure that the Bible would be read the “right way.”
There is a danger in false teachings, to be sure… and creeds were written in order to help defend the church against such teachings.
But what about those creeds, anyway????
It’s interesting to me that what’s presented in the creeds (particularly in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan and Apostles’ creeds) is a story, primarily… and they are primarily concerned with stating the clear identity of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and telling the story of God’s revelation. They don’t work out a particular theological system.
In fact, you can make the argument that the creeds’ authors were actually responding to attempts to systematize the story—i.e., church leaders were overstepping the boundaries of faith by trying to figure out the how of Jesus’ incarnation and divinity and the Trinity… and so the church responded with an assertion that kept the mystery intact.
(your run-o-th-mill heretic) (an apophatic theologian)
“Jesus had the power of God.”
No…. he WAS God.
“Oh, so God the Father took the form of a human.”
No… he WAS human too.
“Okay… so Jesus was a lesser God, created by the Father.”
No…. he was FULLY God, and existed eternally.
“But then how can he be two things? He must have two wills.”
No, he has one will.
“Oh, so maybe he’s a weird human/divine combo.”
No, he’s both human and divine, fully, not a “third thing.”
“I don’t get it.”
That’s the point.
To the Greek (dualistic mind)…. rationally, these things don’t make sense. The whole thing is a big, fat contradiction. Of course, Jesus didn’t fit into Greek categories. When people tried to shove Him into Greek categories, crucial parts of the story were squeezed out of the mold. The creeds were written to prevent that. Creeds can be seen as defense against overstepping bounds, and embracing mystery, despite the logical inconsistency of it all, in a Greek-philosophy-dominated culture.
Because what’s at stake—is God’s character, his identity, his mission… things ultimately beyond our grasp, that CANNOT be “defended” by us; they can only be asserted and lived-out.
This naturally leads me to question: How many times have we as Christians overstepped the bounds of what we can possibly know, in order to create an artificial, “who’s in, who’s out” distinction?
Did Roman Catholics overstep with particular [e.g. Tridentine] views on sacramentalism and church authority, or especially in doctrines such as immaculate conception?
Did Luther and his followers overstep by making justification by faith the centerpiece of the gospel (thus strictly dividing it from sanctification)?
Did Wesley overstep with his defenses of Christian perfection?
Did Calvin overstep when he makes some apparently logical conclusions about election and predestining of the future of both the saved and damned (preservation of mystery was, in fact, Calvin’s point….)?
Isn’t it ironic that our “defenses of the Gospel” when it’s at stake, can actually strip or deemphasize aspects of the Gospel story?
The fact is, we all have systems, lenses, traditions, etc…. that seek to explain and interpret. These systems use of combinations of logic and experience, tradition and cultural developments, history and church authority, translations of scripture, etc. etc…. all of which shape our view of scripture and our experience of the Spirit. And they help us understand…. and they also hinder us, and cause us to overstep.
Overstepping, honestly, isn’t the big issue. We wouldn’t be able to say much about God without overstepping (although some examples are certainly worse than others.)
The big issue is how we overstep, and then say, “And I KNOW this is true….and if you don’t believe this, you do not believe the REAL Gospel!”
Because faith and dogmatism are antithetical.
I think the Creed-authors realized this, which is why the creeds were seen as so critical.
Because in a rationalistic world, the creeds guarded the Mystery for the universal Church.
And we sometimes need to say definitive things about God…. but we’d best remember: we should first determine why this need is present and if it is truly a need, and second, say what we say with humility, love, and openness, knowing that whenever we claim to speak for God, no matter how many people we believe stand behind us, we are standing on dangerous ground.
The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son.