Posts tagged orthodoxy

One (Particular) God

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We believe in one God…

One of the things I have most appreciated about my academic study of religion is a newfound appreciation for Christianity’s Jewish background.  My first religion course in college was on Judaism, actually— “Early Judaism,” i.e. Judaism of the Second Temple period, that time after the exile and before 70 CE.  Of course, my college New Testament introduction and my later seminary courses also emphasized the stories of ancient Israel and the significance of this religious background for Jesus and his Jewish community.

In particular, I have found it fascinating to ponder the enormity of the Jewish commitment to monotheism.  In seminary I learned that some scholars believe Israel was originally henotheistic—worshipping only one god but accepting the potential existence of many.  Over time, they say, Israel increasingly emphasized that YHWH was not only the stronger god or the proper god to worship, but YHWH was indeed the only real deity.  The others were merely idols fashioned by human hands and imaginations.  Some more conservative Christians are disturbed to think about Israel potentially believing in other gods, but however things happened, Israel’s dedication to YHWH was radical in their polytheistic surroundings.

Many of us who grew up in a Western context find it enough to simply accept the existence of one God, so I appreciate Judaism’s emphasis on not only the number of gods but also the identity of the true God.  God has a name YHWH, typically translated “the LORD” or read by Jews as “Adonai.”  The character of this God matches what we might assume in some ways—but in some regards we may be surprised.

The Hebrew Scriptures always emphasize that YHWH is compassionate, forgiving, a lover of social justice, and a powerful force to be reckoned with, among other things.  Some passages actually explicitly or implicitly compare YHWH to other peoples’ gods.  For example, unlike Baal who doesn’t answer, YHWH never sleeps, always available to his people (1 King 18).  Unlike Marduk, YHWH didn’t make people to be his slaves but to be co-reigners over the earth (Gen. 1, as compared to the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish).  And in contrast with the sexual overtones of most religions, Judaism’s God transcended gender.

We who are Christians are also devoted to this one God who revealed himself as YHWH to Moses at the burning bush and rescued his people from slavery in Egypt.  This story is our heritage—with all of its rich descriptions of God’s character and actions and instruction for us.  When I say with the Nicene Creed that I believe in one God, I like to pause and remember that this is not just any abstract deity that I worship but a deeply personal God who has interacted with human beings throughout history.  And the better I get to know this God, the more I feel grateful that YHWH, in particular, is the one real deal.

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.

What is theology?

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When I was in high school, I wasn’t exposed to much discussion of theology. While I knew theology played an important role in certain events in history (e.g., the Reformation), the only significance of theology in my church experience was defining who was “in” and who was “out.” Any mention of theology focused on a narrow set of topics such as the divinity of Jesus, the pervasiveness of sin, and the importance of salvation by grace through faith and was used exclusively to determine who should be considered a “real Christian.” Of course, theology can be quite useful when it comes to putting boundaries around a group identity, but it is really about much more. In fact, I’ve come to think that theology should stretch to be about as big as God himself.

Michael Pahl, in his new book From Resurrection to New Creation: A First Journey in Christian Theology (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2010), defines theology this way (117):

theology, theological. From Greek theos, “God,” and logia, “rational discourse.” The doctrine of or teaching about the nature, person, and work of God or more generally about the totality of one’s religious beliefs; or, the discipline which studies God and/or religious beliefs.

Theology, then, is primarily about who God is and what God’s doing, but it is also about how our religious beliefs extend beyond God to other important areas of life.

I’ve come to see the proper realm of theology as anything which God might care about—if God’s personhood or work in the world touch it in any way, then it is an area deserving theological study and reflection.  The resurrection of Jesus, prayer, and the Bible might be some obvious topics, but some areas deserving our attention might initially appear entirely secular.  Can we discuss topics like poverty, music, the environment, literature, day care, vacations, or McDonald’s from a theological perspective?  I believe that we can.

Of course few academic theologians have spent much time on day care.  (But that doesn’t mean that none have or that more shouldn’t!)  What does academic theology typically cover?  It depends on the sort of theology.  Here are a few central areas of study:

Systematic theology tries to look at biblical teaching and Christian tradition as a whole and develop theology in a more organized (usually topical) fashion, often drawing heavily from philosophy.  It is sometimes called constructive theology, especially by those who feel traditional systematic theology has often forced theologians to try make theology less messy and complex for the sake of coherence.

Historical theology considers theology over time, with special attention to how Christian teaching has developed in various settings and how these theological developments have influenced the direction of the church.

Biblical theology explores the theology of specific biblical texts (the theology of Israel over time, the theology of Mark, the theology of Paul, etc.) without trying to harmonize the diverse emphases of their authors.

Practical theology focuses on the theology of church ministry (liturgy, pastoral care, evangelism, etc.).

I consider academic theology to be full of important information and tools for the church, making the study of theology through formal coursework, reading, and research quite valuable.  At the same time, just because pastors and professors with seminary degrees may have greater access to certain resources doesn’t mean that regular people shouldn’t be doing theology, too.

In fact, anyone with any thoughts on God whatsoever is, in a sense, doing theology.  While not everyone is called to academia, the whole church is called to the task of better understanding God and sharing him with others, making it important that all Christian communities aim to be gatherings of thoughtful theologians.

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