A God Not Made with Hands

(recently published in the Concern newsletter)

At Christmas we celebrate the incarnation of God as we remember Jesus, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary. The testimony to the virgin birth in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and in the prophecy of Isaiah, though often dismissed by modern skeptics  are nevertheless part of a  consistent and essential witness to the fact that in Jesus Christ God the Father presents us with the eternal Son of God. This is not Joseph's creation nor the ideological love-child of some mystic religious community. John identifies him as the pre-existent Logos, the Word of God, by which the Father spoke into being the heavens, the earth and every created thing.  The apostle Paul quotes the earliest praise of the church when he declares, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created:  things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,  and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross." (Col 1:15-19 NIV) God the Father declared "THIS is my Son, with whom I am well pleased," and God confirmed this truth as only God can do by raising Jesus from the dead, after he had made atonement on the cross for the sins of the world.

Read more: A God Not Made with Hands

Words of Faith: What is a Doctrinal Statement?

I am delighted to reprint a letter written by Gary Badcock, Peache Professor of Divinity Huron University College, in response to the question,Why do some people say that "A Song of Faith" and "A New Creed" are not doctrinal statements? What makes a doctrinal statement?  Gary's Response is careful, thorough, and precise. It may be a little difficult in some places, for those not familiar with serious Christian Theology, but please take the time to wrestle through to the clearer parts. Some contemporary references that may help you get the gist of what he is saying: Gary refers to "Byron" several times, meaning Byron United church in London, Ontario, which has produced a response to the United Church Remits on Doctrine. He also refers to "Words of Faith" by which he means the "official" United Church study document which promotes the three doctrinal changes. Gary's response to Greg's question follows:

 

Greg,

Thank you for this. It is a fair and important question that has come up a couple of times, so I will try to respond in a useful fashion. These are, of course, my thoughts as a Reformed, broadly Barthian, deeply Trinitarian and small "c" catholic/ smaller "e" evangelical theologian. They are not presented as the views of our committee on the remit at Byron, though there might well be a couple of "Amens" said if we took the trouble to ask the wider committee's views.

 

1. The word "doctrine" means, very simply, the teaching of the church.

Read more: Words of Faith: What is a Doctrinal Statement?

Words of Faith: Varieties of Creeds

 

In another place, I argue that the United Church (and indeed any organization) is creedal. It bears noting that our beliefs are often expressed in different forms for different organizational purposes. Some creeds are deliberately liturgical, favouring brevity for use in worship. These creeds often attempt to evoke joy and praise. They teach, but their primary use is not teaching. Other creeds are doctrinal, primarily for teaching.  Catechisms and doctrinal statements fall into this category, and go into more detail than most liturgical creeds. Some creeds are constitutional, applying convictions to issues of membership, structure, governance.  Here non-negotiable tenets of faith are married to more fluid beliefs about best practices.

Choosing the right form of creed for each purpose is important. The experience of any movement has been that the grand liturgical creeds never go into enough detail to help even the best-willed people cooperate in the daily grind over the course of generations. Doctrinal and constitutional creeds do not merely add a layer of administrative rules to the eternal truths of the Scriptures. They also address emergent misunderstandings of scripture and creed that have needed more detailed explanation for the fellowship of believers to successfully engage in mission together.

 

 

Words of Faith: A Creedal Church

 

‘Credo’ means ‘I believe’ in the Latin tongue.  It is the creed of the Canadian constitutional documents that your religious faith is not relevant to being Canadian, just being born here makes it so. It is the belief of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, that the society should use strong measures to communicate that alcohol consumption and motor vehicles don’t mix. It is the doctrinal conviction of the United Church of Canada

that that it is our duty, as disciples and servants of Christ, to further the extension of His Kingdom, to do good unto all men, to maintain the public and private worship of God, to hallow the Lord’s Day, to preserve the inviolability of marriage and the sanctity of the family, to uphold the just authority of the State, and so to live in all honesty, purity, and charity, that our lives shall testify of Christ. We joyfully receive the word of Christ, bidding His people go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, declaring unto them that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, and that He will have all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. We confidently believe that by His power and grace all His enemies shall finally be overcome, and the kingdoms of this world be made the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ.(Article 20)

As The United Church of Canada engages in an important discussion of the future of its doctrine, I really have to respond to a rampant cliché. Over and over people will say, “We are not a creedal church.” Let’s start by recognizing that this cliché is a creed. It is a statement of belief . Some seem to be saying that our church should not require adherence to a creed at all, that anyone may be a member, no matter what their belief. The merits of the proposal aside, it is still a creed: “Beliefs don’t matter” is a creed.

Of course that’s not what most people are saying when they say we are not a creedal church, they mean that strict adherence to the Apostles’ Creed, or the Nicene Creed, or the New Creed is not required to be a member (nor paid accountable minister) of the church.  It would be better to say that the creed of the United Church accommodates a range of beliefs. But think about it, every creed does that.  The Apostles’ Creed doesn’t state a particular belief in how many days creation took, merely addressing “God the Father” as “Creator of heaven and earth.”  All creeds have a breadth, just as they have boundaries. To put it another way, by declaring certain things as our common faith, we simultaneously declare that some beliefs don’t matter.

There are those that want to change the essence of the 20 Articles. They don’t believe that “Jesus Christ is the only Mediator between God and man.(Article 7)” Others would just like to update the language, and replace the gender specific “man” with “person.” Some don’t believe about Jesus that “For our redemption, He fulfilled all righteousness, offered Himself a perfect sacrifice on the Cross, satisfied Divine justice, and made propitiation for the sins of the whole world.(Article 7)” Others would quibble about propitiation vs. expiation while the rest of the church rolls its eyes.  These are two very different movements within the church.  The current discussion in the church is not about editing this creed, but about adding various additional statements which may illuminate, limit or even contradict the 20 Articles.

I can’t find myself in common cause with those who think the Christian church through the ages has been wrong about the identity of Christ, or the salvation he declares as his purpose. The United church stands for, and intentionally framed its doctrine to stand with the historic community of Christian faith. I believe that there is a chasm fixed between those who seem to think we are only now beginning to approach knowledge of God, and we who believe “that in the fullness of time He (God) has perfectly revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who is the brightness of the Father’s glory and the express image of His person. (Article 2)” The United Church exists to “proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope(A New Creed)” just as MADD exists to resist drunk driving, or the Heart and Stroke Foundation exists to promote health, and resist smoking. If you don’t believe the core of what these organisations believe, then don’t be a part of them! But if you believe their core beliefs, and wish to participate in their mission, then join in. Creeds are indispensible in giving an organisation its mandate.

In the current doctrine of the United Church, the 20 Articles of Faith, a fair degree of latitude is expressed. For instance, in Article 15, “we acknowledge as a part, more or less pure, of this universal brotherhood(sic), every particular church throughout the world which professes this faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to Him as divine Lord and Saviour.”  This is a rather broad belief about the many denominational distinctives that exist within the universal church.

Much is made of the ordination standard expressed in Polity section 11.2:

The Conference shall examine each Candidate on the Statement of Doctrine of the United Church and shall, before ordination, commissioning, or admission, be satisfied that such Candidate is in essential agreement therewith, and as a member of the Order of Ministry of the United Church accepts the statement as being in substance agreeable to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures.

A key point of debate in this section is the word “essential.” Apparently essential agreement was the phrase chosen to express the belief that particular words and idioms of the 20 Articles might not be the best choice from some people’s point of view, so this allowed a the prospective minister to profess the idea (essence) without necessarily liking the wording. Additionally, in the fine theological points balancing faith and works, election and freedom, predestination and human choice, a candidate for ministry could accept the doctrine as a reasonable compromise rather than a perfect theological statement.

In my opinion, the 20 Articles of Faith are essentially a good creed. In what is declared and in what is not specified it does a great job of expressing the essence of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, through the Scriptures, of the  Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and declaring God’s work and will for his people, the church.  I actually thank God for the times it is a little archaic in language, knowing that contained within its century old provisions is the truth that is greater than any terms we can bring: a truth which nevertheless can be “essentially” communicated in every language and every generation. The greatest effort of the framers of this creed was the attempt to frame ideas that have always, and everywhere been the faith of the body of Christ, and I am pretty sure that from the Apostles to the present day every Christian, in every time and place, could say it expressed the faith that their community knows and practices. Essentially.