The creeds are the definition of the faith. They are the Faith which is believed. The Athanasian Creed, of the three great ones of the Western Church, is a masterful presentation of what we know. All of it can be tied to revelation, but the creeds presentation moves from those things which might be available to gently assisted reason to the more concrete revealed reality. The creed uses the names Father, Son and Spirit, but it starts out more philosophical with what might be call the attributes of God, shared by the Godhead in unity. The Christian Faith attributes these to the God of the Bible, but honestly many of these things are the god of classical theism. The second part of the creed moves into deeper revelation. It confesses and instructs how that God has revealed himself in three persons and how those persons are unique. The uniqueness that it wishes to establish is not hierarchy, but an order: Father Is, Son begotten, Spirit proceeding. The last part of this creed confesses the most concrete, but also the most controversial part of Christianity – the incarnation. In 40 verses it is an inexhaustible source of contemplation.
This sermon merely scratches the surface. It is more a Trinity Sunday encouragement to turn away from the confusion of our age and once again take up the solid definitions which are the gifts of ages of the church past.
The text is Jesus’ words “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”. As a church we spend a good deal of time on way and truth but comparatively little on life. What this sermon does is examine the modern problem with experiencing the life (materialism), look at the ways we might get shaken however briefly out of our materialist slumbers, and then it proclaims how god – the life – goes beyond that god knowable to reason and reveals himself as Father and Son (and Spirit). The revelation of Jesus forecloses some conceptions of God and assures us of our place in The Life.
There is a big word for you. Ontology is the statement of origins. Teleology is the statement of endings. The ontological argument is the argument for the existence of god* that boils down the unmoved mover – it all had to come from some where. Teleology is the opposite. It all has to go somewhere. The teleology of an embryo is to become a baby (sorry if that makes pro-choice a little uncomfortable). Religiously we say things like Jesus Christ, the alpha and the omega. The ontology and the teleology.
So why is Parson Brown stumbling around in Philosophy class? Well, Roger Olsen has written a man-bites-dog essay about denominations. All being good post-moderns we hear the world denomination and go “eww”, right? Dr. Olsen confesses his undying love for them, hence man-bites-dog, very interesting. And in the middle of it he says this.
I recently interacted with a well-known ecumenical theologian who has been intimately involved with the World Council of Churches for many years. He expressed the hope of someday seeing one worldwide Christian denomination. I don’t share his hope. He portrayed the existence of multiple denominations as evidence of “brokenness” in the body of Christ. I don’t see them that way. At least the plurality of denominations does not have to evidence brokenness in the body of Christ.
Now, let me first say that my gut loves this article and what it says. It is not that I have undying love for denominations – I don’t. What I do like are clear statements of belief – like this one, the Epitome of the Formula of Concord. As Lutherans we say we “believe, teach and confess” a bunch of things. If you don’t agree, you might still be a Christian, but you are not a Lutheran. For example, if you believe that “God is unwilling that all people repent and believe in the Gospel” you might make a perfectly good Calvinist. When you are worried that your are one of those people God has it in for on your death bed, come back to Luther and make a good confession. That puts me more in the Traditions wing. But, the lingering question comes from John 17:20-23. Jesus wishes that we are all one.
Is that a statement of ontology, we all have our being in Christ? Is that a statement of teleology, we all will be joined in one church? An enduring strain of Christianity longs for that prayer as a teleological reality. If we were not such sinners, the church would be one structure here and now. And there is truth there. There is one church – I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church as the creed says. But is there any way to see the results of the reformation as a good thing as Dr. Olson clearly does?
If I was going to attempt to answer yes, I have to see Jesus prayer as one of ontology. We all have our foundation and being in Christ alone. I am so used to thinking of Jesus’ prayer as being unanswered in the here and now and taking it as teleological that I’m not sure. It is easier to think in terms of a messed up world. That is probably why I’m a Lutheran and Dr. Olson is an Arminian. He can escape original sin while I can’t.
* – the god of philosophy is not the revealed God of the Bible.
When we tell the story of Jesus there really are two biblical starting points. You can start like the Gospel of John – ‘in the beginning was the word…”. Or you begin like Matthew & Luke with genealogies or human origin stories. One is called a Theology from Above. The eternal Word descends to earth for a time of humiliation and returns in exultation. The other is a Theology from below which essentially says its fine to talk about the pre-existent Christ and God and God, but we know Him revealed in human form as Jesus. This Jesus was actually born and lived among us. In his life, death and resurrection He revealed His deity. Take a quick look at the Nicene Creed 2nd article. Where does it start? “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds…” A pure theology from above, the pre-existant Christ. Then look at the apostle’s creed. “And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by they Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary” A theology from below. It begins with the baby and Mary.
If you were asking me, the theology from below is the theology for times of philosophical materialism (like now). The theology from above is for times of philosophical idealism. Big words those, so give me a couple of sentences to explain. If you look at the world and say or even just act on a daily basis that ‘this is all there is’ or that ‘only what I can see, taste, touch, smell or manipulate is real’, congratulations you are a philosophical materialist. If on the other hand you look at a chair or lets say a room full of chairs and ask, “what really makes a chair or defines a chair, what is chair-ness?” then you are an philosophical idealist. Just the fact that “chair-ness” probably caused you to snicker, or if you break out into hives at the thought of someone “finding themselves”, you are at least a functional materialist. This split has been around a long time. A picture nearby is of the famous paint the school of Athens. In the middle are Plato and Aristotle. Plato points up saying –“the chair-ness is not in this world”. Aristotle points down – “it’s all here Plato, baby.”
Long lead up to the Hymn I want to look at. We will sing this hymn this week. It is Praise Be to Christ which is number 538 in the Lutheran Service Book. The words are written by the living writerTimothy Dudley-Smith whose inclusion in the Lutheran Service Book is one of the best things about the new Hymnal. He is a former Bishop in the Anglican Church. An evangelical within that tradition and a longtime friend of the recently deceased John Stott who himself was a leading smart voice in evangelicalism. The tune is a public domain repurposed German Tune from Stuttgart that has some drama. If you listen to it you can feel it build right up until the end.
Now for what hopefully is the payoff. The Lutheran tradition, largely German, loves its idealism. The tune to this hymn was originally paired with the text – O God, of God, or light of light. Idealistic theology from above all the way. This is my and any materialists problem with that – how do I know and talk about such lofty things? The pitfall of a theology from above is thinking that we know the mind of God. We only know about the God from above through revelation. And that is where Dudley-Smith is a great theologian. He thinks as a Trinitarian.
Look at the first line of the first stanza: Praise be to Christ in whom we see the image of the Father shown, the firstborn Son revealed and known…
We can’t know the Father or as even John would say no one has seen the Father (John 1:18). But the human Jesus Christ, the image or to use a more loaded term the icon of the Father shown, has revealed and made known to us God. If you have seen me you have seen the Father. (John 14:9) The Theology from above and the theology from below meet when you think the Trinity. They meet in the person of Jesus. Stanza three of this hymn: Praise be to Him who Lord Most High, the fullness of the Godhead shares, and yet our human nature bares, who came as man to bleed and die. Very God of very God was made man. This hymn holds those in tension. It speaks to the idealist who wants to hear of God above. It also speaks to the materialist who says give me something I can really see. You can have good theology in almost any philosophy. This is a great example of a hymn that stays true to theology.
Although I think it was said shorter in a couple of places like: Luke 12:23-25 (“who can add a single hour to his span of life?) or Philippians 1:21-23 or Luke 17:33 or Matt 6:11 (daily bread) or Exod 16:18-20 (the manna only lasts one day) or a whole bunch of others.
With great effort, pure reason can get us enough truth to despair or at best a stoic acceptance. What it can’t do is provide the complete picture. That requires revelation. And revelation requires faith. It is not a faith grounded in nothing – the resurrection is not nothing. But it is still faith. Faith that while we do not own our future (or our past, or even our present), there is one who does. And he has promised good to us. Are you not worth more than the grass of the field that is here today and tomorrow tossed into the fire?