15 May 2010

Creeds, Creedalism, and the Church in the 21st Century

I strongly believe that the Bible is our primary and authoritative source for theological information.  I also strongly believe that statements of faith (creeds, but that’s a bad word in Baptist circles, unfortunately) are important tools in studying the bible, sharing the gospel, and making disciples.

A creed is simply a concise statement of what one (or one’s group) believes.  It is a miniature systematic theology.  The church found creeds to be essential by the 4th century AD, and has used them effectively for the past 1600 years.  The only time things go wrong is when the creeds become the foundation rather than a reflection of scripture.  I don’t think that will be a problem in a 21st-century Baptist church.  In fact, even mentioning them to a few particular folks can get one run out of town on a rail.

Without creeds, things go awry in a hurry.  Just look at the drift of the SBC in the first half of the 20th century when ‘creedalism’ was a bad word through the convention.  In fact, the reformation doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers” was corrupted into what you now hear from many Baptists as, “the priesthood of the believer”, wherein they think any individual believer has the right and ability to interpret scripture apart from apostolic teaching, church history, or elder guidance.  I’ve had it thrown in my face in my own church.  Here's what Timothy George had to say about it-

"The priesthood of all believers was a cardinal principle of the Reformation of the 16th century. It was used by the reformers to buttress an evangelical understanding of the church over against the clericalism and sacerdotalism of medieval Catholicism. In modern theology, however, the ecclesial context of this Reformation principle has been almost totally eclipsed. For example, in the current SBC debate on the issue, both sides have referred (uncritically) to the "priesthood of the believer." The reformers talked instead of the "priesthood of all believers" (plural). For them it was never a question of a lonely, isolated seeker of truth, but rather of a band of faithful believers united in a common confession as a local, visible congregatio sanctorum."

When I talk about church history and elder guidance, I'm not envisioning a teaching magisterium or even an inerrant body of teaching from the mother church.  I'm envisioning the spirit-led and God-gifted men (and women) throughout the history of the church who have kept the church on the straight and narrow in the midst of heresies and movements that tried to drag her away.  Whether that be Aurelius Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, or Spurgeon, these men have been mightily used of God in keeping secularism, Pelagianism, and other falsehoods from dragging the church off-course.  While scripture is authoritative, the writings of these men are valuable resources in how the scriptures are interpreted and applied in an orthodox manner.
So a systematic approach to bible study is warranted in the culture of the SBC, I think.  J. I. Packer, in a recent Modern Reformation article, says it thusly- “It has often been said that Christianity in North America is 3,000 miles wide and half an inch deep. Something similar is true, by all accounts, in Africa and Asia, and (I can testify to this) in Britain also. Worshipers in evangelical churches, from the very young to the very old, and particularly the youth and the twenty- and thirty-somethings, know far less about the Bible and the faith than one would hope and than they themselves need to know for holy living. This is because the teaching mode of Christian communication is out of fashion, and all the emphasis in sermons and small groups is laid on experience in its various aspects. The result is a pietist form of piety, ardent and emotional, in which realizing the reality of fellowship with the Father and the Son is central while living one’s life with Spirit-given wisdom and discernment is neglected both as a topic and as a task. In the Western world in particular, where Christianity is marginalized and secular culture dismisses it as an ideological has-been, where daily we rub shoulders with persons of other faiths and of no faith, and where within the older Protestant churches tolerating the intolerable is advocated as a requirement of justice, versions of Christianity that care more for experiences of life than for principles of truth will neither strengthen churches nor glorify God.”

What is Packer’s answer to this?  Teaching of the truth of the gospel, of course!  He says, “The well-being of Christianity worldwide for this twenty-first century directly depends, I am convinced, on the recovery of what has historically been called catechesis—that is, the ministry of systematically teaching people in and coming into our churches the sinew-truths that Christians live by, and the faithful, practical, consistent way for Christians to live by them. During the past three centuries, catechesis as defined has shrunk, even in evangelical churches, from an all-age project to instruction for children and in some cases has vanished altogether. As one who for half a century has been attempting an essentially catechetical ministry by voice and pen, I long for the day when in all our churches systematic catechesis will come back into its own.”

I agree. 

I think this is one of the more important  answers to why we lose so much of our youth (I’m speaking of the church at large) when they leave for college.  Those statistics are appalling.  I also know that catechesis done in a dry and non-community environment will lead nowhere for most people.  It is essential it is done in a faith-community environment where people have each other’s ‘six’ and are willing to live out the truths they learn by giving of themselves and by service to both their brothers and the lost. 

This all comes back to basic Christian living…we as individuals and families need to live out the Christian life apart from church programming as well as within it, and we’ll find an amazing connection to our culture suddenly appear that we didn’t know was there.  The bible study, catechism, systematic theology, or whatever you call it (centered on the gospel, of course) is the foundation for living that life, and the actions and service, primarily the preaching and teaching of the word,  will be the means that God uses to bring the elect into His presence.

I’m looking forward to re-reading the book of Acts with an eye toward how the early church engaged their culture.  If I recall from the last time I read it, there’s a whole bunch of individuals sharing the gospel with other individuals, and not a lot of church-organized events and formal programs which lean on a professional pastorate to do the evangelization for the church.  And primarily, there was a tremendous dependence of all Christians to rely on the holy spirit to turn the hearts of the converts, rather than convincing them with methods and amusements, and this dependence was most faithfully demonstrated by an active and fervent prayer life among the believers.  And it was effected by sharing the gospel, which consisted of God’s judgment on sin, our hopelessness in sin, and God’s provision in Christ (all shared using the Old Testament, of course).

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