Friday, April 17, 2015

Echoes of the Old Testament in Revelation 13


In reading Revelation, one cannot imagine a more Old Testament saturated New Testament epistle. The imagery in ch.13 depicts a monstrous behemoth arising from the sea, a place of bubbling chaos that in other texts gives way to a Leviathan (Job 3:8). This multifaceted beast is most probably derived from Daniel 7, especially as it is similar to various animals found there (a bear and a leopard in Dan. 7:5-6; c.f. Rev. 13:2). John of Patmos describes this beast as singular, whereas Daniel describes it as a plurality and both beasts act similarly: speaking with arrogance (Dan. 7:8) or uttering blasphemies (Rev. 13:5). John’s singular beast has many of the same characteristics as Daniel’s three other beasts, but John seems to blend these allusions together. For example, the beast has the body of a leopard (v.2), feet of a bear (v.2), and a mouth like a lion (v.2): all of these characteristics are found in the individual beasts in Daniel 7:4-6. Daniel’s story culminates with the fourth final beast in Dan. 7:7 where it is described as “different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns,” which is echoed in John’s telling of the story in Rev. 13:1, where the beast described also has ten horns. Perhaps John sees and uses Daniel 7 in a blended fashion, using each separate image to inform a collective entity.
 
A quotation is found in Rev. 13:10. In Jeremiah 15:2, God is responding to what appears to be apostasy committed by his people, and when God quotes his people as saying “where shall we go” he responds as such:

“Those destined for pestilence, to pestilence, and those destined for the sword, to the sword; those destined for famine, to famine, and those destined for captivity, to captivity.”

The incorporated imagery suggests that John is keen to invoke the history of apostasy in Israel, with the hope that this inserted image will jar his readers into remembering what happens to them when they worship other gods. In Jeremiah 15:3, God follows this up with this phrase “I will appoint over them four [my emphasis] kinds of destroyers…” and he describes these kinds as various animals that consume life. This suggests a warning also to those who would forsake God in times of persecution. 

The phrase “the book of life” appears at least once in the Old Testament. Psalm 69:28 refers to “the book of the living.” Contextually, the reference in Psalm 69:28 refers to the security of the believer of being included in God’s deliverance from oppression. This climaxes in 13:10 where John uses “the book of the living” as “a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (v.10). The call for perseverance in the face of abomination and desolation is mighty in John’s apocalyptic narrative and it is one that all should heed.

NQ

Mutuality, Solidarity, and Singleness in Corinth: Musings

Small Church in Corinth
Corinth was similar in so far as they believed one could be involved in sexual conduct without any repercussions. While many in the church today would not yoke themselves to that, a church—and society—that is steeped in “victimless” pornography is not far removed from the sexual conduct in Corinth.

Another pressing issue for Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 is mutuality in marriage, and singleness for other brothers and sisters. What is more fascinating about this is how Paul presents a picture of husband and wife yielding to one another; in a culture that prioritizes the individual over and against the corporate nature of community, Paul’s admonitions are precise and completely at odds with how the evangelical church functions. In Christian circles, marriage is the prime rib of human experience, and singleness is viewed as a problem. Paul’s preference for both men and women to remain single in the Lord shows us two things: first, Paul did not view singleness as separation from a community of believers, but that they would be united to a community and able to serve more fully as a community. Second, Paul wants both men and women, single or married, to be full participants within the community of Christ. 

We need to encourage singleness in our churches, and maybe demonstrate this as brothers and sisters who embody the single life for the Christians who cannot be married (whether they be gay or straight). Solidarity with the other is a Christian virtue, and we tarnish it by not participating in the life of all the members of our community. Paul is eminently practical here.

NQ

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Love and Participation in Philemon: Reflections


A dominant theme is how a hierarchical structure can (or even if it should) exist within the body of Christ. The master/slave relationship was rarely seen as reciprocal though there may have been leeway as regards the rights of slaves (Gorman, 7-8). But, what I think we see is Paul’s pressing for Onesimus’s freedom. For instance, Paul’s strong and consistent use of “in Christ” applies here because Paul can claim that he is “bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty,” thus seeming to imply that both master and slave are ‘in Christ’ and that Paul is as well: this is fitting as love is a grand Pauline theme (1 Cor. 13), and he consistently applies his principle here in a sensitive situation. Indeed, Paul’s claim for Philemon to “refresh my heart in Christ” may place the abolition of slavery directly within the freedom the Gospel offers (c.f. the “in Christ” language of Gal. 3:28). When there are no divisions within the body of Christ, we must then ask why the church attempts to perpetuate such division in—for example—excluding women from the pulpit, and why our individual churches do not include minorities in positions of equal standing in the Church. 

The character of the Church (and Paul is writing to a church here! See v.1-2) is one of participation in unity, where there is no slave or free in Christ. Paul’s advocacy for Onesimus seems to open up a seat at the table of fellowship.

NQ

Friday, April 10, 2015

And YHWH Remembered Hannah: Reflections on 1 Samuel

MY CONTEXT
A preacher does not usually give a sermon from 1 Samuel. This is common in much of evangelicalism, and it is certainly an experience I share. The Old Testament is generally set aside in favor of the New Testament, in the same way that one trades in a jalopy for a modern sports car. However, the most gripping element of this text is the reference to a “nazarite” in v11; my mind immediately returned to the story of Samson and the concept of being set apart. Because of this, I feel like I have always missed the centrality of Hannah who, in some sense, is the one who is set apart from the beginning and she is the one who sets Samuel apart. Because of the centrality of Samuel’s mother Hannah to this chapter (and the beginning narrative as a whole), I feel that the chapter is far more sensitive towards women than I previously imagined when I first read it.

CO-TEXT
My former film professor would always stress to use that the first ten minutes of the film were always the most important. It has to hook the audience in and give sufficient reason to justify the remainder of the film. I sense that this integrates quite well with 1 Samuel 1. For instance, we sense that Hannah is the underdog, beloved by her husband, but barren and at the mercy of her husband’s other wife. The themes of promise and fulfillment are present, as Hannah makes a pledge to God for a son, and God remembers her and fulfills her promise.
A larger theme is Divine Remembrance, as God remembered Noah (8:1), Abraham (19:29), Rachel (30:22), and many other patriarchs and matriarchs. Another potential theme is that Hannah seems to be consistently misunderstood, by both her husband Elkanah (v8, “am I not more to you than ten sons?”) and the priest Eli who chastises her as a drunk (v.14). The trajectory of the narrative pushes us toward Samuel, but through the witness of his mother. We, of course, sense the parallel with Samson who was a Narazite (Number 6; Judges 13:5-7), though we are uncertain about the future of the potential son of Hannah, for Samson’s tale ultimately ended in violence and death. Will Samuel share in Samson’s fate? However, for the purpose of this chapter, both Hannah and God are at center stage among many participants, co-texts, and players.

TEXT AND OBSERVATIONS
1Sam. 1:1 There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. 2 He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

Culturally, Elkanah’s having two wives does not seem to warrant special attention from an ethical standpoint. What is interesting, however, is the instruction found in Deuteronomy 21. Elkanah was apparently not dissatisfied with Hannah not being able to conceive, for the Torah stated that if he were unsatisfied, he could release her (though he could not sell her or treat her as a slave, v14). The lineage is interesting, as Jeroham is a name mentioned all throughout 1 Chronicles. What is most fascinating is Deuteronomy 21:15-16’s brief instruction to a man with two wives, and how there is no preference to be shown to the children, even if the man preferred one wife over the other. Yet in the 1 Samuel narrative, Peninnah’s children are not mentioned by name. One wonders if this is incidental or not, and has implications for Samuel perhaps being the preferred child from Elkanah’s preferred bride. Hannah’s not having children (אֵ֥ין) is the same particle used of Sarai in Gen. 11:30, suggesting a possible narrative continuity.

1Sam. 1:3 Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the LORD.

Why is it that Elkanah goes alone? Are women not permitted or encouraged to worship and sacrifice to God at Shiloh? I confess to finding this odd. An interesting note is my Hebrew interlinear places two Hebrew nouns side by side and translates them as “yearly yearly.” One wonders if this is intentional, or is Elkanah is representing them all implicitly.

1Sam. 1:4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb.

It is fascinating to consider Elkanah’s preference for Hannah in this section. In an ancient context, it seems that he’s going above and beyond many husbands. The fact that Deuteronomy 21 and elsewhere had to present rules about how husbands may or may not treat their wives indicates that mistreatment abounded. Indeed, the mentioning of “sons” here possibly foreshadows that possible preferential treatment of Samuel would be forthcoming. It seems that מָנָ֥ה includes a semantic range involving “distribution” and “choice selection.”

What an interesting final part of a verse. God closed her womb. A similar scenario is presented in Genesis 29:31 regarding Leah and Rachel. In some sense this may be intended to provoke a response from Hannah (which will happen later), but it could also be a reference to a tragic state of affairs involving Hannah’s age (as the reference to “year by year” in v.3 may indicate some significant passage of time). Either way, God has a hand in this and it is certainly ambiguous.

1Sam. 1:6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. 7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8 Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

A repeated reference to God’s activity on Hannah’s body, but we now have external pressure placed upon Hannah, and this adds up “year” upon “year” (c.f. v.3). I imagine this was an awkward and troubling dinner setting for Hannah, especially as the years have passed by with her rival wife provoking her. It is somewhat humorous in a dark way, as Elkanah seems to attempt to understand Hannah, but completely misses the issue. In some ways, he answers his own question with “why are you sad” when he ends with the comment about “ten sons.” I wonder if Hannah felt incredibly burdened due to the cultural expectation placed on wives to bear children, and that she was somehow a failure as a wife by not being also a mother. Elkanah is certainly not lacking in empathy, and this makes him a nuanced and compelling supporting character.

1Sam. 1:9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the LORD. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the LORD. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: “O LORD of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

Aside from the uncomfortable dinner, Hannah’s distress seems to climax here as she prays. She acts of her own volition to promise her son, seemingly against a cultural expectation that the (potential) father would have control over this matter. Given Elkanah’s previous tenderness towards her, one can assume that she did so of her own freedom and knowing he would not challenge a pledge to God. Her prayer is especially powerful: “do not forget your servant.” This is deeply haunting, especially in light of the tale of the oppressed in all lands who are not remembered. Will God remember her, is the essential question. Psalm 10:12 seems to sum this up nicely with “Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; do not forget [my emphasis] the oppressed.” תִשְׁכַּ֣ח seems to sometimes be used in the context of imploring God not to forget the one in distress (Ps. 44:24; 74:19; Proverbs 4:5) and its an apt verb for Hannah to use here.

As it happened in Judges where Israel went astray into violence and depravity, the reader here may be curious about how this new nazirite will behave under God’s command. She assumes sovereignty over Samuel’s destiny, declaring for him to be a nazirite and the ethical restrictions on the life of a nazarite are similar to the one’s prescribed in Numbers 6 and the reference is clearly parallel to Samson’s hair in Judges 13:5, “for no razor shall touch his head.”

1Sam. 1:12 As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” 15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”

Eli is surprisingly harsh for a priest. For it says that Hannah was not making any noise. In some sense, one wonders to what extent Eli is comparable to a jaded pastor who thinks they have seen it all already. Perhaps it is a sexist attitude, a presumption that Eli offers in bitterness. If this is not the first time Hannah has arrived to the house of the Lord, is there a chance she has come in drunk before, and Eli is referring to the past where she did so? Or does grief simply overwhelm her and it is a visible equivalent to being intoxicated? Given also that she is known as someone who cannot bear children (presumably), his condescension reveals a deeply embedded cultural prejudice towards the role and worth of a woman. Hannah’s response, however, is gracious and straightforward. She may placate him with self-depreciation (c.f. the “worthless woman” comment) and makes it about her deep personal grief, hoping to strike a chord with Eli.

1Sam. 1:17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” 18 And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer. 19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the LORD; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the LORD remembered her.

Eli seems to relent from some of his condescension, and blesses her. Hannah returns to the table to eat and fellowship with Peninnah and Elkanah. The significance of a return to fellowship and a meal cannot be underestimated. Throughout the Old Testament it seems that to eat and drink with another person is to be in communion with them (Ex. 24:11), or in some cases be seen in excess (Judges 19). That Hannah returns to fellowship with her husband seems to indicate that she is relieved and at peace. The emphasis on they both going together in the morning to worship suggests a repair in the relationship, whereas Elkanah is the only one mentioned at the beginning to who goes and worships (c.f. v.2-3). Maybe this was the first time Hannah knew that God has heard, and to be heard is to be affirmed in a truly human sense: to be known by God is a wonderful Old Testament theme (Psalm 44:21).

The reference to “knew his wife” is a fairly word (וַיֵּ֤דַע) found throughout the Old Testament referring to sexual intercourse (Adam and Eve in Gen. 4:25), though it is not limited to sexual intercourse in some circumstances. In other instances the word seems to refer to mental knowledge (2 Chron. 33:13); the implied writer of this story seems to use the word in a fuller sense. Elkanah knew and knew his wife.

1Sam. 1:20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the LORD.”

I’ve heard that Samuel does not precisely mean, “I have asked him of the LORD.” Instead, a friend who knows Hebrew said it is something like “heard of [or from] God.” This makes good sense, as it seems to place the activity of God’s hearing (or remembering) to the forefront as the one who “heard” and “acted.” This all happened in due time, which may intimate that Hannah becoming with child was the point all along. I’m reminded of St. Paul’s doxological proclamation in Romans 11:33: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” What is most powerful is that this episode occurs after Hannah and Elkanah (if they were ever at odds) seem to have reconciled fully with one another. The birth of Samuel is thus a consequence of a restored marriage, with implications possibly towards a restored Israel, though this remains to be seen.

1Sam. 1:21 The man Elkanah and all his household went up to offer to the LORD the yearly sacrifice, and to pay his vow. 22 But Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, “As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, that he may appear in the presence of the LORD, and remain there forever; I will offer him as a nazirite for all time.” 23 Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Do what seems best to you, wait until you have weaned him; only—may the LORD establish his word.” So the woman remained and nursed her son, until she weaned him.

This time, perhaps because of the previously restored relationship, Elkanah’s entire household comes with him, unless we were meant to believe that Elkanah was representing his entire household as a type of figurehead. It is interesting that Hannah has the freedom to refuse to go up to the house of the Lord, telling her husband (presumably for the first time) that she has made a vow, which Elkanah takes with the utmost seriousness as vows are highly esteemed in Israel. Numbers 30:2-3 mentions both men and women making vows, so Hannah is certainly with Torah to make an independent vow to God provided Elkanah does not disagree. He does not, a seemingly more sensitive man. This is, after all, his son too.

The question lingers, however, about why Hannah did not immediately take Samuel to Eli. Perhaps she wanted to be more involved in his upbringing, and I cannot fathom the pain of giving up your only child. Maybe she is staving off the inevitable, but I suspect it is because she knows she has freedom to take her own initiative.

1Sam. 1:24 When she had weaned him, she took him up with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine. She brought him to the house of the LORD at Shiloh; and the child was young. 25 Then they slaughtered the bull, and they brought the child to Eli. 26 And she said, “Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the LORD. 27 For this child I prayed; and the LORD has granted me the petition that I made to him. 28 Therefore I have lent him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he is given to the LORD.”

She left him there for the LORD.
 
For me, the most interesting part of this text is the paragraph break in the NRSV. The emphasis is surely upon the final sentence, as Hannah’s final word to Samuel is “he is given to the LORD.” In cinematic terms, it is the final lingering shot that the camera holds, watching Hannah turn and leave Samuel there. It is powerful that Hannah is grateful to God for Samuel and says that she has “lent” (הִשְׁאִלְתִּ֙הוּ֙) him to God. It looks like this is the only time that specific word appears in the Old Testament, so this usage is especially significant to the implied writer’s narrative. Does Hannah harbor some optimism for Samuel to be returned to her someday, hope against all hope? According to the rest of the Samuel character arc, this does not happen. The story suggests otherwise, and one suspects that Hannah, based on her interaction with God and the fulfillment of his promise, that there may yet be mercy. It does not make her story a tragedy, but reveals the humanness of finite human beings. In the end, we hope for Hannah and Samuel’s reunion—this side or the next.

FINAL INTERPRETATION

The author is intent on setting up a grand story, but takes an entire chapter to establish the bleakness of the human condition as seen through the eyes of a barren wife. This prologue forces us to consider Samuel’s unique upbringing and his future through the lens of a broken society that has yet to be fully healed, and the importance of this is to establish, ultimately, the working of God in human history. The original audience likely saw Samuel as a mighty man, a man conceived from a strong woman through the power and promise of God, with the intent to restore Israel. The beginning of Samuel is filled with pain and loss, but also fulfillment and hope. God in his mercy has not forgotten us and God in his love did not forget them.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Challenge of Eagle and Empire

What are some similarities and differences between our context and Paul's context?

A strong similarity one could identify are the various power structures (government, military, mass brands) that still loom large and have a substantial grip upon the lives of many human beings. The Roman Eagle has, however, been replaced by a more tempered red, white, and blue flag. Coupled with this is the hierarchy of humanity, a division between the upper and lower classes with an economic context. Also of note are the various gods and religious centers within Paul’s own metropolitan context. Couple this with cultural idolatry (sex, consumerism, etc.), and it seems that this similar sociopolitical cocktail is blended to perfection.

In the areas of dissimilarity, the “corporate” versus “individual” mindset does seem to be reversed. Here in the States, the individual human is seen as autonomous and is able to function outside of the larger corporate body of people. An example would be the ‘unchurched’ Church, those who have left their faith communities. In the advent of technology, this is made possible. In Paul’s world, it seems that a human being was seen more in light of a proverb I once heard: “we are, therefore I am.” These days, it seems that the idiom is more “I am, therefore I am.” Some of the challenges the modern church must face include (and are not limited to!) our schismatic environment involving economics and race, notions of empire and imperialism, and assimilation by means of compromise. I suspect Paul could help guide us through his and our frame of reference.

NQ

Friday, April 3, 2015

Preaching Textual Variants? John 7:53-8:11

This is based on an assignment I did. Of course, this is not intended to be in-depth. For some helpful work on textual criticism, see Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman. The picture is of Luke 11:2 and it is from Codex Sinaiticus (compiled around 330-360 CE, generally).

Various modern English translations confirm in footnotes that John 7:53-8:11 is an interpolation. The CEB notes that “critical editions of the Gk New Testament do not contain 7:53-8:11” and the NRSV supports this with “most ancient authorities lack 7.53—8.11; other authorities add the passage here or after 7.36 or after 21.25 or after Luke 21.38, with variations of text; some mark the passage as doubtful.” Metzger explains that John’s pericope is missing from the “most early and diverse manuscripts” (Metzger, 187). There are external factors besides its manuscript omission: early church fathers don’t quote it until the twelfth century, showing a lack of awareness of the text in question (Metzger, 188) and that it also appears in multiple locations through John’s Gospel as the NRSV footnote states. This shows that scribes were uncertain about its placement within the narrative.

The text’s addition may have been due to a scribe’s belief in the truthfulness of the account, and because of this they had little issue in trying to place it within the narrative. Coupled with this, the story is moving and shows Jesus in a consistent and compassionate light (c.f. his interactions with the unmarried Samaritan woman in John 4). After all, Metzger acknowledges, “the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity” (Metzger, 188) as a self-contained story. It may have happened, but John in his original Gospel did not include it.

In explaining this text, a minister must be careful to gently articulate the problems. Text-criticism is a highly specialized field, and requires precision and clarity in explaining the various complexities of the issue. Part of the issue may involve the long, steady process of educating a congregation. It is not as simple as ignoring an issue, especially in an age of Internet experts and popular level works from Barth Ehrman. Educating the congregation would establish a base in the more conservative areas of the Christian family, especially since there are many conservative textual scholars (c.f. Bruce Metzger and Philip Barton Payne) who have not abandoned their faith.

As for preaching this text, one again has to be careful not to overstress historical critical issues to a congregation, for fear of undermining one’s faith. A pastor has several options: she could mention the text critical aspects of this text by pointing to the footnotes in the Bible and suggest that these issues could be covered in greater detail in an adult bible study apart from the main sermon. Some pastors—such as Greg Boyd—do video blogs after their sermons on the more technical aspects of the text. I would personally have no problem preaching from John 7:53-8:11, provided my congregation was aware of the issues within the text, and I would happily explain it in greater detail on the side to anyone interested. Scripture is, after all, an open book and all great and inspired books have history.

NQ

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Paul on Christian Spirituality

In thinking about spirituality from a modern context, one gets the strong sense that spirituality is divorced from physicality, or embodied living. It is seen as dissimilar from the mind, and is projected—in some sense—into the realm of metaphysics. Thus, for many Christians, it has little to with how one lives in any embodied sense. Rather, it is exercising the soul and reducing the body to a secondary tier. 



Outside the church I believe many people do view spirituality in a more holistic sense, ala yoga or meditation. Thus in the Church, spirituality is seen as something distinct from materiality.

For Paul, I suspect it is the opposite. I am reminded of Romans 8:23, “the redemption [or liberation] of our bodies.” Paul seemed to believe redemption, in some sense, affected the physical body, and thus did not view these things as opposed to one another; after all, we are not redeemed ‘from’ our bodies. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul spends half the chapter discussing ‘how’ the body will be transformed into a “spiritual body.” Spirituality is not a metaphysical abstraction, but something that touches the totality of a human person. Spirituality seems to be in a mutual dance with physicality, and Paul’s modus operandi does not appear to divorce the two. Rather, they are united, such as the church is united to one another (c.f. 1 Cor. 12). So we are quite different from Paul, and this is something in which we ought to tremble.


NQ

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Drinking From The Deep Creedal Wells: Nicaea, Christology, and Salvation-History

This is intended as a reflection on the Creeds in Relation to New Testament Christology and the Christian Life

In reflecting upon this past quarter, one is hard pressed to consider a topic more pressing and pertinent than Christology. The topics of the virgin birth, subordinationism, and Christ’ sinlessness—or inability to sin—are persistently being debated in academic institutions and seminaries, with little end in sight. Often the relationship between theoretical dogma and ordinary life is overlooked, as the academic world and pastoral ministry can be seen as at odds with each other. However, in light of the Christian existence and the need to actually live a life based upon Scripture, one then needs to know the Scriptural reciprocity Scripture and the Creeds. The goal of this paper is to reflect upon the nature and witness of the Creeds for New Testament Christology, and the implications for daily life in the Church.

The Creeds of Nicaea (325AD) and Nicene-Constantinopolitan (381AD) are considered a vital part of the Church’s historical testimony. I confess that I had never read either Creed in its entirety until this past quarter, so perusing the ancient literature provided a theological jolt that would press anyone into more serious study. Thus, there are three crucial issues one may find within the Creeds that present Christian theology with some measure of doctrinal preeminence.

First, the Creeds have centralized key doctrinal issues that most consider to be top tier. For example, Christ’s equality with God the Father, his preexistence, virgin birth, death, and resurrection. Second tier subjects such as church government, differing views on eschatology (eternal conscious punishment or annihilationism), and even the inerrancy of Scripture are not present in any of the early Creeds—although baptism appears quite prominently as a feature as the universal church favors “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” This of course does not mean the aforementioned doctrines are not important doctrines—far from it! —But rather the early church did not view them in an ‘essentialist’ manner. Christology was—and is—more important than Christian views of church and government. So, in a way, this Creedal first order has helped provide an essential result of the basics of Christian orthodoxy, confirmed by Paul (1 Cor. 15:1-4 and passim) as Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead.

Second, the Creeds have really teased out a lot of the theological themes in the New Testament. A classic example is the doctrine of the Trinity. Nowhere in the New Testament—disregarding the textual interpolation in 1 John 5:7-8—is the doctrine of the Trinity clearly and systematically laid out in a manner that would provide unequivocal support. However, given the data regarding Jesus’ divinity (John 5:18; 10:30), some form of his preexistence (1 Cor. 10:4; Col. 1:15-20), his equality with God (Phil. 2:6-7), and his possibly being called God (θεὸς in Rom. 9:5; c.f. Titus 2:13 if by Paul) all offer some strong possible glimpses of the relationship within the Godhead, or as Richard Bauckham says, “the divine identity.” The inclusion of Christ and the Holy Spirit in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 is a classic example of an early proto-Trinitarian doxology (c.f. 1 Cor. 12:4-6). Christ is also spoken about in the same way as YHWH, where 2 Thess. 1:8-9 speaks of “the Lord Jesus from Heaven” (τοῦ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ ἀπ᾿ οὐρανοῦ) in the same way YHWH is spoken of in the Old Testament (c.f. Isaiah 66:15-16), bringing judgment upon the oppressors of the church. This all seems to culminate in our fulfilled affirmation of Christ:

“And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all things, Light of Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance/being with the Father.”
This teasing of doctrine out of the New Testament is helpful, insofar as it finds common threads among the diverse authors of Scripture and manages to intertwine them in an embroidery—an embroidery that illustrates the beauty of Scripture as she dances throughout history, leaving footprints in the sands of time for us to follow.

Third and finally, the Creeds place a definitive capstone on the salvation-history narrative that Scripture seems to point towards. They tell the story of the preexistence and consubstantial Son who was sent into the world “who for us [humans], and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made [human].” In a world driven by personal and corporate narrative and the accumulation of particular experiences, this salvation story offers humanity a glimpse into the divine reality. This narrative categorically rejects other competing narratives, such as sexual, racial, and economic exploitation in favor of a life of humbleness and service. It tells a story of God waging a war against the forces of evil and death, being subjected to these forces in a state of humiliation, and rising in triumph over the grave. It assumes the unity of the holy Catholic Church (Eastern, Roman, Protestant), and where we place our hope: in the resurrection of the dead and in the life of the world to come. It is to stand with the Prophets of old who denounce injustice and corruption, whether secular or religious. It presents to us an ecologically minded framework for the care of the earth, as this earth was given by God the Father through Christ (1 Cor. 8:4-6), and thus demands our care as viceroys, as caretakers. It confirms the unique humanity of both male and female, as Christ died for “us humans” (ἀνθρώπους) and was made human for us (ἐνανθρωπήσαντα), that neither male nor female are excluded from the drama of redemption.

This new creation under the reign of the eternal Godhead will have no end. Thus, fear is no longer a necessity, but a memorial. Our salvation narrative ultimately trusts in the final defeat, abolition, and annihilation of evil and death. It proclaims hope for the dearly departed in Christ, and requires our action within this very page-turning narrative. It is a call for holy living ‘in Christ’ where we place ourselves within his paradigm and partake in his church. Ours is a pursuit of theosis, a dance towards the divine, nearing a place where the streets have no name. It is the rejection of darkness and an assumption of never ending light (Rev. 21:25), where God dwells with mortals (Rev. 21:3).

The richness of the Christian tradition is indeed a comfort for many, offering to us chances of reflection and refinement as we seek to offer our faith in an increasingly unique and challenging world. The Creeds offer us a chance to offer a concise look at this faith, with its potential and implications for the future. It demands allegiance in a military manner, and confirms our trust in the working out of our lives with fear and trembling. It calls us to think of the future as an approaching reality, not as a distant unattainable goal. Our τέλος requires working towards this now. This is why we exhort people to now be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5), and why we proclaim his coming—where he is both Judge and King. 


The Creeds thus are relevant, necessary, and vital to the Christian understanding of God and our understanding of how we relate to the world. 

NQ