Posts tagged history

We believe; I believe.

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Πιστεύομεν…
We believe…

So starts the Nicene Creed.  Or at least the version from the Council of Nicaea.  Some ancient liturgical versions instead began in the first-person singular: “I believe.”  Modern recitations of the creed vary, not only by denomination, but even by specific prayer book edition.  And I think I like that.

I like it because I believe emphasizing the we and the I both matter to the Christian faith.  John’s Gospel recounts Jesus praying that we would all be one, just as he is one with the God the Father.  Together we are called the body of Christ, reconciled through the cross not only to God but to each other, built up into a new temple for God.

At the same time, each individual part of the body is considered significant for what it brings to the whole.   Jesus also emphasized, like John the Baptist before him, that merely being born into a Jewish family and following Jewish law was not enough.  Instead, one’s own personal repentance from sin and humility before God was what counted, and on this basis, Gentiles, too, could be included in the community of God.

Today I think we tend to err on one side or the other.  Sometimes we over-emphasize the we.  We rest of the knowledge that we are decent people who grew up going to church rather than owning our faith for ourselves and committing our lives to God.  We consider ourselves part of the Christian group without experiencing the spiritual growth that leads to a meaningful, active faith.  We forget that we are held accountable for our actions and neglect to include Christian teaching as a meaningful part of our decision-making processes.  It is easy sometimes to take our identity as Christians for granted because of the people around us—to resist becoming true followers of Jesus because it’s easier to stand on the fringes of the flock, hoping that will be enough.

On the other hand, we sometimes over-emphasize the I.  We think it possible to remain independent Christians apart from the community of the church.  We surrender to the individualism of Western (esp. American) culture, deciding that your problems have little to do with me and that my life is none of your business.  At best, our privatized religion makes us feel an obligation to people close by, such as our family and friends.  But to see ourselves as part of the larger church or society?  That’s difficult.  Without this sense of connection, we don’t love our neighbors so well, don’t value commitments to others, and don’t appreciate the legacy of church history.  We also miss out on a powerful sense of unity that comes from worshiping in a truly “together” way—rather than worshipping alone, even when surrounded by others.

I like saying the creed as an “I,” and I like saying it as a “we.”  I think we need both—our own faith commitment and a meaningful faith community.  With only one or the other, I think we’re missing out on a crucial part of Christianity.

This post is part of a series on the Nicene Creed.

Intro to the Nicene Creed

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We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

These words are probably either intimately familiar or extremely foreign to you, based on the tradition(s) in which you were raised—if you grew up in church to begin with.  For those of you less familiar, these four lines begin the Nicene Creed (this being the 1988 ecumenical translation—for others, see Wikipedia’s page on English versions of the Nicene Creed in current use).  The Nicene Creed, used in Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox traditions (with only a few important variations), is one of the great historic creeds of the church.

I like the Nicene Creed for many reasons:  First of all, I love that many churches recite this creed as a community over and over again, joining together with Christians throughout the ages.  Secondly, I like the Nicene Creed because it is a bit more detailed than the older Apostles’ Creed, especially when it comes to discussing the person of Jesus.  Lastly, I like the Nicene Creed because it was crafted to help put some parameters around orthodox Christian belief—to explain what “true” Christianity was really about.  I think that understanding what Christianity has been in the past better helps us understand our faith in the present, as well as our hopes for the church’s future.

Below are the concluding two sections of the Nicene Creed.  I invite you to reflect on these words, which will guide the discussion to follow.  I will be reciting just a few words or lines per post, highlighting some of the aspects of the creed I find most interesting and meaningful, as well as telling a bit of the Nicene Creed’s story.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father [and the Son],*
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

*We will get into it more later, but it is important to note that “and the Son” does not appear in Eastern Orthodox versions of the creed.

Organizing the Bible (Pt. 3 of 3)

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I’ve explained the basic organization of the Christian Bible and the special organization of the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Old Testament) used in Jewish circles.  However, there is a final topic which I alluded to in my original post: the Deuterocanon/Apocrypha.

The Deuterocanonical books make discussing the organization of the Bible tricky, since they can be put several places, depending on the tradition and the specific Bible.  They appear between the Old and New Testaments, after the New Testament, or woven into the Old Testament itself.  Many Protestant Bibles don’t contain these books at all, though some (especially Anglican) Bibles do.  Roman Catholic Bibles and Eastern Orthodox Bibles contain most of these books, but there is disagreement between them (and even between various Eastern Orthodox traditions like Greek, Russian, etc.) about which books should be included.

Why are there inconsistencies among Christian groups about which books belong in the Bible?  And why these books, in particular?  After all, nobody is still bickering about what to include in the New Testament.  The process of canonizing these books may have been complex, but the reason why is actually quite simple: they appear in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint), though not the Hebrew version (the Masoretic text).

Many think the additional books in the Septuagint were originally written in Greek, while a few may have simply not survived in their Hebrew form.  Either way, they were composed later in Jewish history, and since some decided there were no truly inspired Scriptures after the time of the Jewish exile,  these later books  became suspect.  (It should be noted that a few Old Testament books may have been composed on the late side, as well, but because they discussed earlier periods, they were “safe.”)  For this reason, soon after the time of Jesus, Jews decided these additional books did not belong in their canon.  Christians kept them around for a while—though in various locations, various books were accepted.

They weren’t always given the same status as the books of the Old Testament, however.  When most Christians spoke Greek—the language of both the New Testament and Septuagint—it was easy to simply accept the Septuagint’s canon.  However, the church inevitably faced a decision about the inclusion of these books when the everyday language of the people switched to Latin and a new translation was needed.

Jerome, a Christian who translated the Latin Bible (the Vulgate) in the late fourth century CE, felt strongly that it was appropriate to translate the Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew manuscripts rather than the Septuagint.  While he did use the Septuagint to translate the Deterocanonical books, as well, he added prefaces noting their special status.  Throughout history a minority made a similar distinction, but because Jerome’s prefaces were left uncopied in many Latin Bible editions, a majority of people accepted the Apocrypha without question.

The real controversy over these books came with the Reformation, when Protestants decided these books should not be considered authoritative.  This was partially because the Jews had already rejected them from their own canon, but the theological content of some of the books was also a factor.  For example, parts of 2 Maccabees were traditionally used to support the doctrine of purgatory and the practice of prayers for the dead, which Reformers like Luther and Calvin thought were theological mistakes on the part of the Roman Catholic Church.

Protestants decided these questionable books should either be noted in the Bible as non-authoritative or they should be left out of it completely.  Today, the latter is more common, though some Protestants acknowledge the usefulness of these books for understanding Second Temple period Judaism (the time between the construction of the second temple in 515 BCE and the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 CE).  Indeed, there are some interesting developments of Jewish thought evidenced in these books, such as reflections on “original sin,” discussion of angels and demons, and the hopes of the Jewish people for the awaited Messiah, as well as the resurrection of the dead.  While I don’t consider the Deuterocanonical books to be Scripture and haven’t gotten to read them all yet, I look forward to incorporating them into my future study for this reason.  It’s exciting to learn more about Judaism from around the time of Jesus and the role these books have played in shaping Christian thought in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.

Organizing the Bible (Pt. 1 of 3)

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I went to a lot of different schools growing up, but a large chunk of my early education was spent in Christian schools of one sort or another: Catholic, Wesleyan, and fundamentalist Baptist.  I am not a big fan of most Christian schools, but there were a few advantages to such environments, one of them being my increased familiarity with various Bible-related things.  At the fundamentalist Baptist school, for example, I had to memorize the order of all the books of the Bible, as well as their spelling.  While obviously not as important as knowing the content and heart of the Bible’s message, as a teenager I was still a little surprised to first realize that many adults didn’t know these things I’d learned in middle school.

Whether or not you know where to turn to read Luke or Isaiah or Leviticus, however, really has nothing whatsoever to do with intelligence.  Instead, it reflects simple exposure to the Bible and the level of emphasis placed on learning such information—and precise memorization of book order is only marginally relevant, anyway, when you have a table of contents!

Still, I think it is helpful to have some general idea of what sorts of things come where in the Bible.  Here, then, is a basic summary of the Protestant Bible’s contents:

The Old Testament/First Testament/Hebrew Bible

  • Pentateuch/Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy)- The first five books of the Bible, containing the story of Israel’s beginning and the Jewish law.
  • Historical Books (Joshua-Esther)- These books continue to tell the story of Israel via narrative.
  • Wisdom Books (Job-Song of Songs, also called Song of Solomon)- There are a few different genres here (poetry, proverbs, etc.), but what holds it all together is the wisdom emphasis.
  • Major Prophets (Isaiah-Daniel)- Books attributed to Israel’s prophets which are longer in length.
  • Minor Prophets (Hosea-Malachi)- Books attributed to Israel’s prophets which are shorter in length.

The New Testament

  • Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John)- Four biographies of Jesus with a good deal of focus on his death and resurrection (though some teaching of Jesus remains in all).
  • History (Acts)- This is really Luke, Part 2.  The majority scholars accept that Luke and Acts have the same author writing to the same audience.  (There is a dissenting minority, however.)
  • Pauline Epistles (Romans-Philemon)- These are the epistles (letters) attributed to the apostle Paul, written to various churches under his care.
  • General Epistles (Hebrews-Jude)- These are the epistles attributed to authors other than Paul, written to various churches.
  • Apocalypse (Revelation, also called the Apocalypse of John)- There are some brief more personal letters to churches in Revelation, but a large part of it is based on a vision, expressed with lots of violent imagery, dualism, and other interesting literary devices.  Revelation belongs to a genre called apocalyptic literature (apocalypse simply means “revelation”), which will have to be discussed another day.

If you’re less familiar with the Bible’s content and organization, I hope this list provides a starting point for your explorations of Christian Scripture.  In future posts, I will try to give an overview of these various sections to give a sense of what all 66 books of the Bible have to offer.

Before that, though, it is important to note two things:

(1) Jews divide the Hebrew Bible differently than Christians divide the Old Testament, and hence, there is a different order to the same books.  Personally, I’ve come to really appreciate the Jewish way of ordering things.  But again, that’s for another post…

(2) Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians use all of these books, but they also include some other books in their Old Testament.  These books are called the Apocrypha (from a Greek word meaning “hidden”) or Deutero-canonical books (also from Greek, meaning “second canon”).  Since these books are considered Scripture for some Christians but not others, we will also deal with them separately.

This series is continued in Pt. 2.

Jesus was Jewish

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It’s in the title, but I’ll say it again:  Jesus was Jewish.

For those of you who have grown up in church, I’m not sure if this has been emphasized, but it sure wasn’t for me.  I don’t think I ever heard anyone seriously talk about Jesus as a first-century Jew until I got to college.  Jesus was always a nice guy, a prophet, maybe even God incarnate… but Jewish?  Not in my church, at least.

If you grew up with a Bible storybook, you probably remember Swedish Jesus.  I’m not sure why anyone would ever think Jesus had blue eyes, but apparently many American illustrators have been convinced.  And if Jesus wasn’t Swedish, he still wasn’t Jewish.  Though Sunday School portrayals of Jesus probably reflected more of my white American culture than I knew, Jesus was, in theory, supposed to be somehow removed from the messiness of life.  He probably didn’t throw up, definitely didn’t poop, and was also very “cultural neutral.”  Otherwise how could Jesus be relevant to our Gentile lives?  To China and Guatemala and South Africa and 98% of my elementary school?

I’ll save questions of relevance for another day and focus on the simple fact that this isn’t true:  We were wrong.

Jesus wasn’t a person devoid of everything that makes humans human.  Even if it’s hard to believe, he not only threw up and pooped, but he had to learn to walk as a baby, he  probably had a favorite food, and he enjoyed laughing with his friends.  And he lived at a specific time in a specific place.  In fact, Jesus lived as part of a specific people, speaking their language, keeping their customs, and otherwise surprising us by how very little he is like most of those who follow him today.  But even in his difference, he was like us—like us, Jesus had a culture.

So the next time you think of Jesus, remember that he kept the Sabbath (albeit, not always how the Pharisees preferred), ate kosher, and went to synagogue.  He was circumcised as a baby, visited the temple with his family for holy days, and grew up hearing stories about Abraham, Moses, and David.  He referred to Jewish texts in his teaching and declared the arrival of the kingdom of the Jewish God YHWH, eventually convincing his followers that he was the Jewish Messiah (for which the Greek translation is “Christ”).

While I will never be able to fully understand first-century Judaism, the bit I have been able to learn as a 21st-century white American Gentile (relying on the scholarship of others, I might add), has been very meaningful to me.  As I get to know Jesus’s culture better, I can better understand Jesus himself and better understand the message he was trying to communicate to his friends.  The story may be good by itself, but it all makes more sense—and feels more colorful and textured and delightfully complex—when we begin to understand where Jesus fits in context.

Review: Evangelical Renewal in the Mainline Churches

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Review of Evangelical Renewal in the Mainline Churches.  Edited By Ronald H. Nash.  Westchester, Ill.: Crossway, 1987.  174 pp.

One of the most interesting complexities of the evangelical movement is that it cannot be contained—little bits of it are present everywhere. Of course, many evangelicals in the U.S. are members of conservative denominations which originated in this country, many having separated from older mainline churches which were deemed “too liberal.”  I’ve often been intrigued that the conservative split-offs typically see themselves as the only people left who love Jesus.  Based on my own personal experience, I have never been convinced this was true, and lucky for me, Ronald Nash agrees and has edited a fabulous book on the topic.

Nash notes that many in mainline denominations have evangelical-ish beliefs (which he defines as the basic beliefs of historic Christianity, including the deity of Christ, the authority of Scripture, the importance of a personal faith, etc.) whether or not they have embraced the evangelical label.  Furthermore, there are discernible movements of self-identified evangelicals within mainline churches.  This book attempts to tell their stories, with chapters by various evangelical leaders outlining the history of renewal efforts within eight different traditions:

The United Methodist Church
The Episcopal Church
The Lutheran Churches (focused on Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA)
American Baptist Churches, U.S.A.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
The Disciples of Christ
The United Church of Christ
The U.S. Catholic Church

The upside of this book is its ecumenical flavor and its sense of hope about the vitality of mainline denominations.  These leaders are not ones to segregate themselves from those who aren’t like them; instead they want to “work within the system” to encourage an orthodox and vibrant faith within their churches.  The downside of this book is that occasionally a more narrow understanding of evangelical interests is presented.  For example, feminism is often lumped in with evangelicalism’s foes, despite the fact that there are many self-identified evangelical feminists.  While not by any means the focus of the book, such assumptions about evangelicals might be distracting or frustrating to some readers.

Additionally, some might complain that the book is outdated.  Certain important renewal organizations that now exist are not mentioned, and one wonders what each writer’s attitude toward renewal would be today.  Would they be just as optimistic?  Would they have any new concerns?  At the same time, because of its emphasis on the history of renewal efforts, this book offers something substantial that one might not gain from updated accounts focusing on the last twenty years.

All in all, Evangelical Renewal offers a valuable introduction to evangelical strands within mainline denominations, and as such, it is useful reading for evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike.  For evangelicals, it offers encouragement and a sense of connection with various renewal efforts, hopefully leading to a more gracious partnership between Christians from diverse backgrounds.  For non-evangelical members of mainline churches, this book provides insight into the concerns of evangelical renewal advocates.  Perhaps non-evangelicals can relate to some of these concerns more than they expected, or perhaps they realize they very thoroughly disagree with them.  Either way, it is always useful to understand those unlike you, making this book a tool for reaching across divides.

Review: The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

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Review of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.  By Mark A. Noll.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.  274 pp.

When a blog is meant to explore various intellectual questions about religion, there is no clear place to start—one place is about as good as the next with a topic this broad!  A particularly fitting place, however, might be with a book, and what could be more appropriate than a book about the life of the mind within Christianity?  After all, so many people might question this blog’s very premise.  Most teenagers have trouble getting up in the morning for school—do they really want to learn about theology?  Many would assume they don’t.

Because I was one of those teens who deviated from this stereotype, I was always frustrated by such assumptions.  Perhaps they are true of some high school students, but they weren’t true of me, and they aren’t true of many of you.  In fact, many of you may feel frustrated by the adult Christians you meet who seem much less intelligent than you.  Whether you’re looking at Christianity from the outside or the inside, this can be a humorously annoying experience at best—and a deeply hurtful one at its worst.  It feels unfair that the very adults who discredit your significance on the planet with “You’re just a kid,” often lack much of an intellectual life themselves.

It also may often seem that the stereotype of the anti-intellectual Christian (of any age) is quite true.  This can easily lead to superiority complexes among smart people, as well as bitterness on the part of those who have not felt their intellectual needs were met by their faith communities.  At the same time, these experiences can lead to valuable inquiry regarding the source of this anti-intellectualism.

Obviously anti-intellectualism among the faithful can have many different sources, but in the case of evangelical anti-intellectualism in particular, I was absolutely fascinated by Mark Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind when I first read it as an eighteen-year-old.  According to Noll, “the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” (3).  As an evangelical professor of Christian history at the University of Notre Dame (previously at Wheaton, an evangelical college near Chicago), Noll has written several books about the American religious experience, often focusing on evangelicalism.  As an expert in the field, as well as an insider to the movement, Noll explains when, why, and how evangelical Christianity in the United States became increasingly anti-intellectual—a story few know so well.   And because Noll is such an excellent writer, it doesn’t matter whether readers have studied revivalism, fundamentalism, or today’s evangelicalism in any great depth.  This was the first book I read relating to church history, but I found it to be an excellent introduction, not only to the problem of anti-intellectualism but also to evangelical history itself.

For anyone who has wondered why evangelicals often seem anti-intellectual or who wants to compare the evangelical experience in this area with that of other Christian traditions, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind will not disappoint.  Readers learn about the current state of evangelical intellectual life, the historic impact of the so-called “intellectual disaster of fundamentalism” on evangelical thought in politics and science, and where evangelicals might go from here.  This book added much to my knowledge of the American religious experience, as well as aiding me personally in better understanding myself and the Christian communities in which I grew up.

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