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.

 

Words of Faith: The Primacy of Scripture.

The United Church is voting on changes to its doctrine. Every presbytery and every congregation will cast a ballot to decide whether changes will be made to the central document of the denomination, "The Basis of Union." Actually there are four choices:

 

  1. to approve a change which would make our doctrinal statement read that Scripture is the primary source of doctrine, and that the 20 Articles, along with the 1948 Statement of Faith are secondary sources.
  2. to approve a change which would make our doctrinal statement read that Scripture is the primary source of doctrine, and that the 20 Articles, along with the 1968 "A New Creed" (as it currently reads, it has been amended over the years) are secondary sources.
  3. to approve a change which would make our doctrinal statement read that Scripture is the primary source of doctrine, and that the 20 Articles, along with the 2008 "Song of Faith" are secondary sources.
  4. the fourth choice isn't so obvious, but if all three proposals are rejected, the doctrine of our church remains the 20 Articles.
Now if you've heard me preach, you know that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the primary source of faith in Jesus Christ. (No, more than that, they are the only way of knowing who this Jesus Christ is!) Yet I am very uncomfortable with the proposal to make the statement that "Scripture is the primary source of our doctrine" the primary statement of our doctrine. Passing any of these proposals would deeply undermine the community of the United Church. Let me explain.
The 20 articles clearly put scripture first: they defer to scripture, they declare their intention to merely represent what scripture already teaches. Yet in doing so, they articulate what the primacy of scripture means to the church. Without that, primacy tells us nothing at all.
Let me focus on one analogy, that of artwork.

Photograph

For some, who accept the primacy of Scripture, the Bible could be described as a photograph. Each figure, each colour, each pixel it an accurate presentation of reality, rendered exactly as history unfolded. The Story is entirely, mechanically, and perfectly reproduced.

Painting

For others, who accept the primacy of Scripture, the Bible is more like a painting. Much of it, for sure, is Realist: detailed, accurate, like the focus of a Bateman print almost photographic in its quality. But other parts are Impressionistic, Expressionist, or even occasionally abstract. These parts tell the story truly, but don't communicate in the same way as a photograph. Still the Story is told in its own way, perfectly communicated in the manner of art, rather than the perfection of photography.

Palette

For others, who would claim the primacy of Scripture, the Bible is more of a palette, the source of colours for constructing all sorts of stories. They may very well dismiss the narrative arc that pervades the Scripture, the grand tale of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration, and merely choose a bit of blue from Job, some red from the passion narratives, and paint a picture more compatible to their convictions. Indeed, perhaps it is better to say that the Bible becomes a source for a mosaic- cut into tiles, and made into a whole new glorious piece of art; or perhaps one extracts narrative threads and weaves a whole new tapestry. All the while declaring that Scripture is primary.
No doubt my tone has given away that I lean toward the painting viewpoint. I sympathize with the photographic perspective, since the same story emerges in the end. In fact, the 20 Articles allow for both perspectives, while, I think, favouring the painting. But I do not accept the validity of the third perspective. The palette/mosaic/tapestry approach is taken by people on the left and the right, as they create a Jesus and a faith in their own image, all the while claiming scripture as their source and inspiration. I see the third viewpoint as an error to which we all are prone, from which our creeds, confessions and the communion with other Christians through all the centuries guard us.
For a statement that seeks to express that our unity as a church consists of our shared confidence in Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture, the vague generality that Scripture is primary can not stand alone. Definition and detail can not be subordinated to this statement, but need to be incorporated into it: which lo and behold, our current doctrine already does.

 

Words of Faith: Moral and Doctrinal Standards among Clergy

 

During a track and field meet, something interesting happened at the high jump. It was perfectly ordinary at first, until one athlete, having missed two attempts, was making his third and final approach. He made a misstep, and knowing he couldn’t make the leap, he gave up and simply ducked under the bar.  Of course he fully expected to be disqualified, but when he looked to the judges, they appeared not to have noticed. They simply signalled for the next round to begin.

Confused at first, and relieved, he walked back to the line up and prepared to go on as if nothing happened.  But he had an amusing thought – why not see if it happened again? So on his first attempt he faked a stumble, ducked under the bar, and looked to the judges. Once again they didn’t seem to notice, and he saw that he had automatically been advanced.

Of course it wasn’t long before others caught on. Several athletes began to walk under the bar, while others continued to jump as normal.  Though the crowd began to jeer the new interpretation of high-jumping the judges paid no attention, in fact they seemed to be entirely absorbed in conversation among themselves.

Slowly the high jump devolved into a bit of a farce. Those walking under the bar began to amuse themselves as they crawled, slid, and limbo-ed past the apparatus. They began to get a few chuckles from the bleachers, and soon were playing  to the crowd to applause and laughter.

Shortly the change took on a new edge. Those practicing the high jump were boring and conventional. Whenever they rattled the bar, or knocked it down, the judges, disturbed by the noise would impatiently turn to their jobs, mark their records and disqualify the failing jumpers. Soon enough even the crowds turned on them, jeering their pointless efforts, mocking them when they rattled the bar, and cheering the judges when a high jumper was disqualified.

The event isn’t over yet. There are still people lining up to run under the bar, but it must be noted that the crowds have shrunk dramatically. In the long run it turns out  that what happened at the high jump just isn’t that interesting after all.

My apologies: I was going to write about the decline of faith, moral, and doctrinal standards in the church. I appear to have run out of space with my little digression so, perhaps another time.

 

Pastors' Union Seeks First Contract

 

Dr. Miller,

Many years ago I submitted a redraft of the Articles of Faith, in an attempt to take a light hearted look at theological drift. Theological Digest was kind enough to publish it.  I just came across a “new Item” I created  four years ago, when I heard that the CAW was trying to organize clergy. I thought you might like the opportunity to reject it:

 

I just received another appeal from the CAW (Canadian Auto Workers Union) to join the union drive among the United Church of Canada Clergy. Seriously. And I ran across this bit that I wrote when I first heard about it in 2005. Today I can only add that if the CAW does for the United Church of Canada what it has done for the Auto Industry, would God be pleased or displeased?

Pastor's Union Seeks First Contract


Ottawa, Canada - Preachers, Pastors and Apostles United Local 0904 is considering expanding its current job action to secure its first contract. “Our work-to-rule campaign is having a huge effect,” insists Rev. Buster Hardcore. “We believe all our demands will be met once the full impact hits our communities.”

Read more: Pastors' Union Seeks First Contract