- Jason Byassee on tradition, Jaroslav Pelikan and the Masai creed: ‘I love the way Herbert McCabe, the Dominican priest and theologian, put it: “We don’t know what Christians will believe in the 24th century, but we know they will not be Arians or Nestorians.” Creeds, usually occasioned by a new teaching the church must either bless or condemn, cut off certain roads. But they do not mandate which road we all must go down for all time. Future ages will have to figure that out, while submitting to what has come before. But that submission is a granting of freedom, not a tragic cutting off of possibility’. There are some important implications here for the conversation currently going on in my own denomination about writing a new confession of faith.
- Anthony Gottlieb on God and gardens.
- Cynthia R. Nielsen continues her series on Gadamer with two more posts.
- Stanley Hauerwas responds to Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
- Renardo Barden reviews Dylan’s Christmas album: ‘Occasionally Dylan chases and misses the high notes and botches daring full-throttle endings. His church Latin is no good, and he’s losing yet more ground on his claim to sing as good as Caruso. But he’s still out there, making new of what’s old, light of what’s silly, and merry for merriment’s sake’.
- Halden Doerge offers some critiques of individualism as will to power: ‘… “individualism” is only scary to those who want to control the social lives of others. Honestly I don’t think it can possibly be a coincidence that the folks most virulently critical of individualism are white males who have significant university posts. Indeed I’m hard pressed to think of a single female scholar who has attacked individualism in ways akin to say Robert Bellah or Zygmunt Bauman … It seems to me that critiques of individualism invariably come beset with a totalizing vision of “the good society” that, ostensibly should be actualized whether people like it or not (because obviously they don’t like it or they’d be doing it already). In short, I don’t know how critiques of individualism, as such, avoid the charge that they are simply instances of the will to power. They are always animated with angst, fear, and revulsion towards the current shape of social life and deeply desirous of reshaping society in accordance with their own vision. It’s hard for me to image that not being ultimately fascist (Milbank is perhaps the most sophisticated example of a theological fascist writing today)’.
- Andre Muller posts on music.
- Finally, I’ve been posting on advent: Part I, II, III, IV.
Recently, Speaking of Faith ran a repeat of an interview with Jaroslav Pelikan on the need for creeds wherein Pelikan argued that ‘strong statements of belief are not antithetical, but necessary, if 21st-century pluralism is to thrive’. It can be downloaded here or listened to here.
Of course, Pelikan (1923–2006) is best known for his wonderfully-helpful 5 volume work The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. (Vols I, II, III, IV, V), but many have also benefited by drinking deeply from his many other books, including Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture, Divine Rhetoric: The Sermon on the Mount As Message and As Model in Augustine, Chrysostom, and Luther, Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, Acts (in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series), Fools for Christ: Essays on the Good, the True and the Beautiful, and Bach Among the Theologians.
Pelikan was ordained by the Lutheran Church, taught at Yale from 1962 until 1996, and in 1998 was received into the Orthodox Church in America. Those wanting to read more about Pelikan’s work can visit:
- David W. Lotz, ‘The Achievement of Jaroslav Pelikan’, First Things (June/July 1992).
- Mark A. Noll, ‘The Doctrine Doctor’, Christianity Today (December 2004).
- John H. Erickson, ‘In Memory of Jaroslav Pelikan: A Homily Delivered at His Funeral Vigil Service’, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (May 16, 2006).
- Timothy George, ‘Delighted by Doctrine’, Christian History (Summer 2006).
- Robert Louis Wilken, ‘Jaroslav Pelikan: Doctor Ecclesiae’, First Things (August/September 2006).
A few days ago, I posted a cartoon which included the caption [from the lips of a teacher]: ‘When writing your essays, I encourage you to think for yourselves while you express what I’d most agree with’. The post drew a thoughtful response from Andre who suggested that the cartoon raised a number of important questions, including one about ‘whether the command to “think for yourselves” isn’t also a product of late-capitalism, a variant of the command to enjoy’. I’d been thinking about Andre’s statement when I re-read Forsyth’s 1908 essay on ”The Love of Liberty and the Love of Truth’, an essay, I think, which contributes an essential mix into the issues that the Andre raises, and which I will keep pondering:
‘The New Testament knows nothing explicitly of the liberty to pursue truth. That blessing is of science and the modern age. It is not religious in its historical origin. And, in so far as it is religious at all it is the inevitable, but indirect result of another and greater liberty, which is that of the New Testament, the liberty that truth must pursue because truth first creates it. Free thought is not a primary Christian interest’. (p. 160)
‘… freedom is a thing entirely conditioned by the nature of its authority, of the reality to which it answers and owes its being’ (p. 161)
‘… theological freedom must always be limited by the Gospel that makes a Church a Church, makes it live, and makes its life free. Theology in a university, as an academic science, has a freedom (and a feebleness) which it can have in no Church. A Church of free thought would be no Church at all, but the most sectarian of sects, and the most scholastic of schools. There is something almost boyish in the aggressive use of a pulpit for free thought propaganda’. (p. 162)
‘The Church of a real Gospel is called to something more than a vague zeal for liberty as an unchartered freedom. It is called to throw its weight upon the positive Evangel which makes it free. For liberty itself could become an idol, and could be used for a cloak to hide the poverty of our faith, and to express a sympathy too soft to be firm or true’. (p. 168)
‘It has been said that the creeds represent extravagances and eccentricities imported into a simple Christianity. But to the historic eye it is rather the other way. They represent on the whole the growing corporate life which normally shed the raw Gnostic extravagances of youth. Unfortunately they came to be canonised in perpetuity, and used as means of oppression and obscurantism by their epigoni. And it was to prevent such abuse that churches arose in which the form of faith was non-confessional, based on an honest evangelical understanding, which was declaratory at most, and not exclusive … But of course if such trustful freedom became an evangelical failure, there is a natural danger that many minds would for practical purposes turn from an internal to an external authority, and would return to the idea of a brief and revisable creed which should be of obligation, as the only means of saving the Churches from dissolving into star dust and luminous mist’. (p. 170)
- Lecture 1: Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation
- Lecture 2: The Tanakh as Christian Scripture
- Lecture 3: The New Testament and the Regula Fidei
- Lecture 4: The Apostles’ Creed
- Lecture 5: The Creed as Critical Theory of Scripture
- Lecture 6: Genesis 1:1 and Luke 1:26-38
The video podcasts of those lectures are now available for download as MP4s. See here for details.
For his grand finale Robert Jenson offered a practical demonstration of what had been argued for in the first five lectures, namely, a creedal critical exegesis of Scripture. Due to time limitations Jenson took as his text Genesis 1:1-3 only. The joy of hearing him on this text was that it touched on many of the key themes of Jenson’s thought and gave us a kind of overview of his doctrine of creation and time.
His starting point was the observation that, although the two well-known translations of Genesis 1:1 are both grammatically possible, the shift in the NRSV to the temporal subordinate clause (‘when God created the heavens and the earth’) is a move from the most straightforward and default translation to something that more closely reflects the religiosity of ancient paganism. (There is no reason, Jenson contends, to abandon the LXX and KJV here) It is a departure from radical Judaism to a view of the universe in which chaos is antecedent to and coeval with God’s creating. Jenson noted that if in the beginning there is both God and chaos then both God and chaos are involved – at least at one level – in our creation. Creedal criticism, where the creed provides the lens for our suspicion of appearances, makes us immediately alert to this reading which assimilates YHWH to the anthropomorphic gods of religion. Even if it is only chaos it is a foothold outside God – a point of independence – something other than the absolute beginning of the Christian faith. It challenges our faith in the world’s ‘self-founded timeless being’. It is, says Jenson, Scripture’s scandalous ‘metaphysical put-down’ that we try and avoid. Interestingly, Jenson notes this same impulse in the cosmologist’s attempt to avoid creatio ex nihilo by means of positing multiple universes – a totally untestable and therefore unscientific hypothesis, which has nothing other than the conviction of ‘no absolute beginning’ as its basis.
With an eye on the creed Jenson continues: ‘Who is this God who tolerates no antecedents of his work?’ Creedal criticism assumes it to be obvious that it is the Father of the Son, Jesus Christ. It thus justifies the gloss ‘In the beginning the Father of Jesus created the heavens and the earth’. Thus we may conclude that ‘the contingency of the world is founded on the contingency of the life of Jesus’.
Jenson cites Westermann to claim that Genesis 1:1 is a caption summary for the whole story that follows. This then leads on to 1:2, which is where the creation narrative properly begins. Jenson claims that the best scholarship locates this verse in the post-exilic editing of a priestly savant in the second temple and then poses the question of whether this scholar was (a) thinking paganly or (b) using pagan language of Near Eastern mythology to serve the purposes of 1:1. Under the guidance of the creed, Jenson choses to read it the second way. His account of 1:2 is something like this. Given the unavoidable sequentiality of the narration of events, the writer wields the language of subsistent nothingness as a place-marker to indicate an absence. There can be no question about before. In Jenson’s phraseology, ‘To ask what was God doing before he created the world is a dumb question.
Again in verse 3 Jenson’s creedally-suspicious mind spots ideology at work in the NRSV’s translation of ‘a wind from God’ where in every other instance of the phrase ruach elohim is translated ‘Spirit of/from God’. What’s more, because Genesis 1:3 is a late text the tradent knew this title. Jenson’s creedal reading thus concludes ‘The Holy Spirit agitated the empty possibility posited when God begins to create and there is nothing’. What’s more, this suggests that there is an ‘inner liveliness in God’ which is directed towards making something when there is nothing.
At this point Jenson offered asides on the Nicene concept of the Holy Spirit as ‘enlivener’ and the folly of continuing to insist on the filoque which was after all an illegal addition.
From here the story of creation begins: (a) God said let there be light; (b) God saw that the light was good; (c) God separated the light from the darkness. The world simply is an affirmative response to God’s command: ‘That’s all there is to it’! And this explosion of energy (light) is good (for something). Here Jenson explores all the non-creedal and non-trinitarian puzzlements surrounding this text. A monotheistic/Unitarian/Aristotelian God cannot speak. For such a god eternity is necessarily silent. At best, if a god like Aristotle’s did speak it would be an act of condescension. Moreover, for such a god to speak presupposes a polytheistic pantheon. However the creedal critic knows that not only can the Triune God speak, but God can be conceived as a conversation. ‘God is a conversation’. Only the Triune God who is a conversation can issue a command to creation before creation existed because the second person of the Trinity is himself a creature – Jesus of Nazareth. At this point Jenson talked of a conversation in which the Son, as the creature Jesus Christ, hears and speaks. ‘In what language does God speak?’, Jenson provocatively asks. In the language of Spirit – that universally self-translating language heard by the prophets, and which at Pentecost all the nations heard as their own.
And God saw that the light was good. Was it good because he saw it so, or did he discover it to be good? Jenson responds that there is ‘no humanly ascertainable difference’. However the key question Jenson moves quickly on to is, ‘Good for what?’ And here he refers us to the second and third articles of the creed – that is, that creation is the good stage for the drama of Jesus Christ. Moreover, this 78-year old ‘unreliable’ Lutheran affirms with Barth that creation is the ‘outer basis’ or ground for the covenant and its events, and that covenant is the inner ground of creation.
What about darkness? Does God create a non-good. Jenson accepts Augustine’s reading of darkness as absence, where light runs out. Evil is the ‘running out’ of being in its finitude. Thus like the dimming of light an apparent necessity (or at least an actuality) of created finitude. The creation of life includes within it ‘death on an enormous scale.’
The story moves from the creation of life (‘energy’ in (post-)modern parlance) to its endless differentiation. Jenson comments: ‘Never rest too much on agreement between science and theology’ precisely because science is constantly changing and it is inherent in its claim to be science that it is open to such change. So Jenson argues, our priestly savant used the best science of his day to tell of God’s creation of the world – ‘what other science was there?’ We ought to emulate his courage?
Question time followed. The first question in the gladiatorial fray went to the heart of Jenson’s theology asking whether the creatureliness of the Son (no logos asarkos) implied the eternity of creation (pantheism?). Jenson, clearly familiar with the need to defend this ‘novelty’ in his thought, was surprisingly brief in his response. It was two-fold: (a) his Ockham’s razor saw no need for a pre-incarnate logos (begging some prima facie questions posed by John’s prologue, of the Word’s becoming) and (b) a pre-incarnate logos becoming flesh presupposes a common timeline in divine and human history. This doesn’t correspond to Jenson’s view of the relation between time and eternity, and is a nonsense. However, he didn’t feel the need to defend this claim here. No doubt time did not permit.
Further questions focused on theodicy. In different ways, Jenson’s succinct conclusion was that ‘we can’t get God off the hook for evil. We can’t do it, but we have confidence that God can do it!’ Jenson mentioned in passing the open theist theodicy which diminishes the notion of omnipotence so that God is not morally responsible for all that happens. Jenson is not personally happy with this, but was not completely dismissive either.
The lecture was a powerful presentation of Christian reading/exegesis which depends on the premises of his previous lectures (see I, II, III, IV and V). One might reasonably be not entirely convinced by Jenson’s radically post-modern/pre-modern scepticism with respect to objective meaning in texts (see Lecture 5) and therefore have some doubts about the pathway Jenson takes to a theological interpretation. Are authorial intentions really as private as Jenson suggests (and Vanhoozer, for example, denies)? A comment Jenson made to post-graduates at a seminar on Wednesday morning about the infinite malleability of texts makes one wonder about the distinction between reading a text and projecting onto the text – if this distinction is lost the proposal of a creedal exegesis seems to have a certain kind of arbitrariness. However, even if Jenson is wrong about hermeneutics, it does not follow that his theological reflections on the text of Genesis 1 are wrong, just that its relation to something one might call ‘the meaning of Genesis 1’ is different from how he conceives it.
One might also think that Jenson’s suggestion that the contingent creaturely life of Jesus is part of the eternal life and conversation which is the Triune God requires considerably more unpacking than Jenson is want to do. Might Jenson’s formulation suggest that this creature who is also creator might be in fact self-creating? Might Ockham be cutting himself shaving?
A final thought: however one arrives, one never leaves a Jenson lecture unchanged. Whether he is lecturing on theology proper, on eschatology, on the Trinity, on culture, on anthropology, on ecumenism or on the relationship between Holy Scripture and the Church’s Creeds, Jenson is undoubtedly one of the most original and erudite theologians of our time. Certainly, as one commentator noted, ‘Jenson’s mind makes stimulating company’. One comes away from this series of Burns Lectures with a renewed love for Scripture, with a new appreciation of the abiding witness and value of the Church’s Creeds, and with a lively sense of doxological fervour for the Triune God. At the end of the day, isn’t that what all theology exists to be about?
Professor Jenson began the fourth of his six Burns Lectures by following up a question that arose after the previous lecture. The question concerned the Resurrection. He suggested that when we think of ‘living persons’ we must attend to two ‘aspects’:
- There is among us a voice which changes those to whom it is addressed. When the living voice of the gospel is heard – whether in liturgy, preaching, casual conversation, debate, etc. – then Christ is heard.
- A live human person is embodied. They are available. For this reason, a corpse is not a body. The Eucharistic elements are the body, as is the sound of the preachers’ voice, as is the touch of the baptiser. These are – in the conviction of the Church – actions of the body of Christ. Consequently, if one desires to see Christ, then one must look at the community of Christ, Christ’s body.
Jenson then turned more properly to the topic of The Apostles’ Creed, the Symbolum Apostolicum, which he described as the final deposit/version where the regula fidei ceases to be an intuition in the Church and ‘becomes a text’. He noted its relationship to baptism, and its shaping after the one name of the triune God in whose life the baptised participate. The triadic form, he suggested, represents the ‘internal structure’ of the one baptismal name according to the plot of God’s narrative with his people. This means that God’s history with his people is not only his people’s history but is also God’s own history.
Jenson proceeded to recall that it is precisely by their distinction from/relationship to one another that the three persons are one God. The Father is the Father of the Son, etc. Father, Son and Spirit (who is God’s ‘liveliness’) ‘mutually imply each other’. Moreover, and following Barth, Jenson contended that Father, Son and Spirit is ‘the Christian name for God’. (I have posted on this here). His defence of the position that it is ‘Father’ rather than ‘Mother’ was christologically determined: Jesus spoke of and addressed God as his ‘Father’ because Jesus was a Jew, and Christians address God as ‘Father’ – and not as ‘Mother’ – because we address God in Christ. Jenson described the Spirit as ‘the mutual love between the Father and the Son’. We live in this ‘mutual space’.
The remainder of the lecture returned to themes introduced in earlier lectures. Specifically, to arguing that the structure of the Creed is determined by the NT itself, and this in a two-fold sense:
(i) by its references to God. Jenson noted that the NT is full of ‘primary trinitarianism’, that there is a trinitarian logic that governs the NT, and that ‘with very few exceptions’ references to God in the NT imply a trinity of Persons.
(ii) by its prayers, particularly the so-called Lord’s Prayer. In giving the Church the prayer Jesus did, he invited us to ‘piggy back’ on his prayer to the Father, to participate with him (who alone has a native right to address God as ‘Father’) in his own praying to the Father. In this context, Jenson suggested that ‘if you know how to pray the Lord’s Prayer then you’ve got it [i.e. you’ve got the gospel in nuce]!’
Jenson reminded us that the Creed does not encourage the parsing out of God’s works among the three Persons. The first article’s focus is praise (grounded in and recalling Genesis 1 and the Psalms) and the second’s is God’s works. He also suggested that the Creed does not support the Church’s native way of reading the OT. By moving directly from creation to the incarnation the Creed avoids (dismisses?) 2/3 of the Bible. While the regula fidei saved the OT as Scripture for the Church it did not preserve the ongoing role of the OT. Why? Here Jenson suggested two reasons: (i) the influence of the Gentile Church; and (ii) Marcion. It was at this point that Jenson offered his first of two real criticisms of the Apostles’ Creed, arguing that it by itself is an inadequate witness to the Church’s faith. The first line of the Creed – the reference to God as ‘Maker of heaven and earth’ – recalls the ‘last vestige of the Old Testament’. His other reservation concerning the Creed is its basic omission of Jesus’ life. To paraphrase Jenson: ‘It wouldn’t have hurt the Church one bit to add a line or two about Jesus preaching the kingdom of God, and of his fellowship with publicans, etc’.
To Jenson’s surprise, the question time that followed elicited no discussion about the feminist objections to God’s proper naming as Father, Son and Spirit. (I’m not sure what this says about the audience). Instead, discussion followed two main trajectories:
(i) the relationship between Jenson’s notion of ‘living persons’ and its implications for the parousia. His response to this question was unsatisfying. He rightly noted that the apocalyptic scenarios Scripture presents ‘cannot be harmonised’ and that the parousia represents ‘the explosion of the fire of love, love which is perfect in itself’. He preferenced the scene from the Book of the Revelation (over those from say Thessalonians) where the redeemed worship the Father in the crucified Lamb. But he was decidedly unclear about the Son’s locus in the parousia, and of the form which believers might reasonably anticipate concerning Jesus, suggesting instead that the Son’s parousia happens, among other ways, in the liturgical action of the people of God.
(ii) the article in the Creed ‘born of the Virgin Mary’. On this Jenson suggested that this article refers primarily to the absence of the will of the flesh in Christ’s birth. He also reminded us that the Creed is the Church’s and not the individual’s. What the Church must confess always need not necessarily be what any particular individual believer feels they can confess at the time. This latter response seems to beg further justification. I wonder how the absence of Joseph’s biological contribution or action in Christ’s birth constitutes ‘the absence of the will of the flesh’ if Mary’s fleshly identity is involved in the birth of Christ. Does perhaps Scripture indicate a parallel eclipsing of the human will in the way Mary was ‘overshadowed’ by the Holy Spirit? Are, in fact, both the doctrine of the virgin conception and the overshadowing of Mary, simply, tentative, possibly clumsy, ways of affirming that in Jesus’ birth and whole life history, his origin in the will of the Father and the power of the Spirit overrides the generative processes of fallen humanity (whether they be biological or socio-cultural)?
Professor Jenson’s third Burns Lecture was concerned with the emergence of the NT as canon.
Initially he looked at the emergence of the NT canon as documented in the writings of Irenaeus. He noted that Irenaeus‘ arguments are circular, however, this is not a vicious circularity, indeed ‘circularity is the very mark of the Holy Spirit’.
In the search for authoritative apostolic teaching, Paul’s writings were accepted in spite of the appearance of gnosticism. Paul’s letters are scripture but only in the broader context of the story to which they contribute. The acceptance of the gospels arose due to the ‘logical relation’ between the gospel and the earliest expressions of the regula fidei. ‘Jesus is risen’ – ‘the ‘shortest statement of the gospel’ – calls out for narrative specification of Jesus’ identity. The gospel offered precisely that thickness of description and ‘morally and religiously specific news’ that the Church’s continuing identity required. On the other hand the theology of Paul and the other writers gave specificity to the meaning of ‘is risen’. So ‘Jesus’ is a reference to a real person; ‘is risen’ is a statement of ‘utmost salvific import’, especially in Second Temple Judaism.
The overall argument of the lecture was for the mutual interdependence of gospels and letters, alongside the mutual interdependence of creed and canon. Just as the crisis of identity threatening the Church’s fading regula fidei called for both the narrative of the gospels and the theology of the letters, so the emerging creedal formulations arising out of the regula fidei required the canon.
In something of a introductory survey of the Second-Century Church, Jenson reminded us that it was Clement of Alexandria who was the first to refer to the ‘Old Testament’ and to the ‘New Testament’. He also argued that the NT canon probably would have been formed even without Marcion, but that it may have been a different canon. Still, ‘we cannot say’.
Jenson proceeded to argue that creed and canon ‘fit together’ like two halves of a puzzle: the NT is indispensable to the creedal tradition and the canon is indispensable to the NT. Although he didn’t specify which creeds have authority for the Church (e.g. what ought we make of the Reformation creeds?), he did define the criterion by which that may be determined. He reserved the title ‘creed’ for those statements which derived ‘organically out of the regula fidei‘. Thus this notion of the communal self-consciousness of the first witnesses (he praised Bauckham’s recent study here, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) becomes more and more central to his emerging argument. Canon and creed together as the source of the identity of the Church over time take over where ‘regula fidei’ leaves off.
He made a brief comment on inspiration, stressing that the work of the Spirit – undergirding that circular reasoning we talked of earlier – was a work from within (not from outside) both the writers and the interpreters of the canon. The inspiration of the Spirit, on Jenson’s view, is not a gift separable from the presence of the Spirit. Like other gifts, it is a gift in the self-giving of the Spirit and not apart from that.
This afternoon, I was priviledged to hear a lecture by Robert W. Jenson who is visiting the University of Otago to deliver this year’s Burns Lectures on the theme of ‘The Regula Fidei and Scripture’. I’ve heard Professor Jenson lecture on a number of occassions, and on three different continents, and he is always enormously stimulating. In his opening lecture today entitled ‘Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation’, Jenson argued that the relationship between Holy Scripture and the ecumenical Creeds determines the whole life of the Church because together they witness to the Church being the same community yesterday, today and forever. He defined the Church as ‘the community of a message of the God of Israel who raised Christ from the dead’. Those already familiar with Jenson’s work would have heard here themes discussed and argued elsewhere in his writings.
Jenson proceeded to note that whereas the Christian community in the first century lived in the orbit of, and was defined in the light of, as it were, a first-hand history of Jesus and with little regard for its future, the second-century Church had to think through the community’s ‘future history’ and the shape which it would take as the institution of the future. It is to this end that both Scripture and the Regula Fidei bear witness to the one history of God with his people. Creeds are, he insisted, ‘a sort of communal linguistic awareness’ – a ‘gift of the Spirit’ who guides the church in every generation. On the relationship between the Regula Fidei and Church tradition more generally Jenson had little to say, at least in this lecture. [One hopes that this might get some teasing out in subsequent lectures].
Where more breath was expired, however, was over the question of Modernity and the demise of Regula Fidei. Modernity, Jenson repeated, sponsored a shift whereby Scripture and Creed came to be seen as alien to one another rather than as co-witnesses to the one Word of God and of the abiding presence of God with his people. Describing himself as an ‘unreliable Lutheran’, Jenson argued that the modern biblical studies movement began as a movement to redeem itself from creeds.
One fundamental conviction that drove Jenson’s entire presentation was his confidence that ‘Christ does not fit into other narratives. Other narratives have to fit into Christ’. I wish Jenson had unpacked this further (again, perhaps he will in the remaining lectures), but I did find one place where he does do such unpacking:
I have long thought that Niebuhr’s book, for all its individual insights, was based on a false setting of the question. Whatever preposition you put between Christ and culture, its mere presence there marks and enforces the supposition that Christ and culture are entities different in kind. But it is of course only the risen Christ who can now have a relation to a culture, and this living Christ’s body is the church. And the church – with its scriptures, odd rituals and peculiar forms of government – is plainly itself a culture.
Therefore the real question is always about the relation of the church culture to some other culture with which the church’s mission involves it at a time and place. And I do not think the relation can be the same in every case. During the time of “Christendom,” the culture of the church and the culture of the West were barely distinguishable. I do not think this “Constantinian settlement” was avoidable. When the empire said, “Come over and help us hold civilization together,” should the bishops have just refused?
As to Christendom’s consequences for faith, some were beneficial and some were malign, as is usual with great historical configurations. During the present collapse of Christendom and its replacement by an antinomian and would-be pagan culture, confrontation must of course be more the style.
This is the boldest statement that I have ever read on the Creeds of the Church:
‘We may have ground for believing the Creeds of the Church to be the most perfectly balanced and harmonious expression of the truth whereof our earthly knowledge is, or will be, capable. Yet when we struggle, as in the language of the Athanasian Creed, to express the relations which have been exhibited to us in the eternal Godhead through the use of the words ‘Person’ and ‘Substance,’ or ‘upostasis and ousia; or when we thus profess our belief in the Person of the Holy Ghost, ‘The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding,’ need we fear to own that the instruments which, perforce, we make use of upon earth, even in the Creeds of the Church, are necessarily imperfect instruments; the power of conception imperfect; the power of phrase and imagery imperfect also; and that their sufficiency of truth (though not their correctness meanwhile) is so far temporary that it is limited to earth and to time; and that, in the perfect light and knowledge of the presence of God, the perfectest knowledge represented by them will be superseded and absorbed, while the glosses and materialisms with which, in various ways, we may have been unconsciously clothing them to our own imaginations, will be – not superseded only but corrected, and, it may be, reproved? Moreover, if the truths represented in the Creeds are wider and deeper than our conceptions of them, we can admit that there may possibly be particulars in which, even now, the experience of spiritual life may deepen and enlarge the meaning, to us, of our Creeds; as, for instance, the words heaven and hell may present to us ideas differing, in the direction of more correctness, from those which they presented to some of our forefathers. It is not that the Creeds will be some day corrected. It is not that we shall see hereafter how false they were, but how far the best conceptions which they opened to us, the best, that is, that our earthly faculties were capable of, lagged in their clumsiness behind the perfect apprehension of the truths which they had, nevertheless, not untruly represented; but which we then shall have power to see and know as they are. The truth which is dimly imaged for us in the Creeds, will never belie, but will infinitely transcend, what their words represented on earth’. – Arthur Lyttelton. ‘The Atonement’, in Lux Mundi: A Series of Studies in the Religion of the Incarnation. (Edited by Charles Gore. London: J. Murray, 1890), 256-7.
Now contrast this with a comment recently made by NT Wright at a seminar at the University of St Andrews:
‘The idea that doctrines are portable stories is of course already present in the classic statements of Christian doctrines, that is, the great early Creeds. They are not simply check-lists which could in principle be presented in any order at all. They consciously tell the story – precisely the scriptural story! – from creation to new creation, focussing particularly of course on Jesus and summing up what scripture says about him in a powerful brief narrative (a process we can already see happening within the New Testament itself; not only in the obvious places but also when Luke, for instance, decides to telescope Paul’s defence together as in Acts 26.22f: ‘saying nothing but what Moses and the prophets said would take place, that the Messiah must suffer and that, by being the first to rise again, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.’)’ … You can, in fact, join up all the dots not only in the classic early creeds and most of the later ones (for instance, the post-Reformation Confessions and Articles) and still be many a mile away from affirming what the biblical writers, all through, were wanting people to affirm. You can join all the dots and still produce, shall we say, a thistle instead of a rose, an elephant instead of a donkey. Or whatever. To take a rather different but related example, if I come upon the letters BC written down somewhere, only the larger context, the larger implicit narrative, can tell me whether they mean Bishop’s Council (if it’s a note in my diary), British Columbia (if it’s a note of my cousins’ address), Before Christ (if it’s in a notebook about ancient history), or the two musical notes which bear those names (if it’s about the end of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony). Implicit narrative is all; and if you affirm a doctrine but put it in the wrong implicit narrative, you potentially falsify it as fully and thoroughly as if you simply denied it altogether.’