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. 


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