A basic theological framework
by Fr. Kurt Messick
edited: Sunday, May 11, 2003
Posted: Friday, May 09, 2003
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A basic theological formulation from the early days of my seminary career.
I shall begin with a statement I have recited countless times in my life, which for much of that period was as much as statement of faith as it was a statement taken on faith.
The Apostles’ Creed
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord;
who was conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen. (BCP, p.53-54)
The Apostles’ Creed is one of the earliest and most basic statements of the Christian faith. Even those strains of Christianity which have diverged from mainstream have had to take this statement of faith into account. Likewise, in the continuing quest to formulate my own gospel statement, I must take this statement into account, being one who follows in the traditions leading from the apostolic succession. However, this statement need not be a strict measure, but rather a guide and a check against the kinds of independent speculation (that would emphasise reason over all) that would lead away from a faith defined by scripture, tradition, and reason, all in relationship (however that may be defined, and a little beyond the scope of the present assignment) with each other.
Elements of a Gospel Statement
In determining a gospel statement, various factors must be assumed, without which the statement is incomplete or incompatible. Each of the small headings represents an elemental piece of a gospel statement. The various subjects of theology, for example, the exact nature of the divine, the precise formulations of cosmology and afterlife existence, etc., need not be of central importance, but become important for the present task only insofar as they alter the meanings for the gospel statement.
The Love of God
This is a basic starting point. In both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, God has concern, care for his creatures. From the very beginning in which creation was pronounced good, God's concern for his creation has been a point of emphasis of scripture and tradition. ‘God is not a wrathful taskmaster and judge but a gracious and kind father, who blesses us, that is, who delivers us from the law, sin, death, and every evil, and endows us with righteousness…’ (Luther, RCT, p. 91) Even in God's anger, there is an underlying concern for justice, and the offer of the hope of redemption, through God's love for his creatures.
Nor is this love remote and detached, but one that is continually present. ‘For the love directed to me—and this alone can make me a new creature—cannot be demonstrated by historical observation.’ (Bultmann, RCT, p. 103) This love is both active and reactive toward the members of creation, individuals in community, through God's identification and feeling. God rejoices as we rejoice; God suffers as we suffer. ‘Moltmann argues that a God who cannot suffer is a deficient, not a perfect, God.’ (McGrath, CT, p. 218)
In Jesus Christ
For the Christian, the true st example of God's love for the world is through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ demonstrates God's desire to form connections with creation in the most intimate ways possible. ‘It is when we look at Jesus Christ that we know decisively that God’s deity does not exclude, but includes his humanity.’ (Barth, RCT, p. 79) Christ's presence is a real presence in the life of the community, not merely an historical or moral example to follow. ‘…the healing and liberating power inaugurated by Christ should not be spiritualised out of history or treated as if it had nothing to do with the material conditions of our lives or the relationships which make us who we are.’ (LEV, p. 175)
Jesus, both in his experience as a human being as well as his teaching, sets a standard against which action in community can be discerned. ‘Christological truths are rooted in the connections between various particular human experiences of ourselves in relation to the sacred (that which gives purpose, value, dignity, and hope to our lives).’ (Heyward, LEV, p. 205) As scripture states, Jesus is 'the way, the truth, and the light,' in essence, Jesus fills a diversity of roles. And Jesus is the particular mediator of this truth. ‘Christianity is not a set of self-contained and freestanding ideas; it represents a sustained response to the questions raised by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.’ (CT, p. 273)
Toward all Humanity
God is not reaching out only for a particular subset of humanity, but rather offers his love toward all his creation.
Are you not like Ethiopians to me,
O people of Israel? says the Lord.
Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,
and the Philistines from Caphtor
and the Arameans from Kir? (Amos 9:7)
God may make particular revelations to certain communities, but these are not meant to be exclusive claims. As the passage from Amos reminds the Israelites, it is a mistake for any individual or community to assume a monopoly on revelation or salvation. However, there is an underlying unity in call to community. ‘The unity is not imposed by some prior conceptuality but emerges as the triune God comes to embrace humanity.’ (Thistlethwaite, LEV, p. 125)
That which is called religion demonstrates our attempts to grasp the divine, but it is a mistake to invest any particular religious expression as an inflexible universal requirement for salvation or truth. ‘Much in true human nature is unrelated to “religion”, but nothing in true human nature is unrelated to the Christian faith.’ (Barth, RCT, p. 159). God reaches out to all humanity in many ways, as befitting their particular history, culture, and needs. A God who becomes concerned only for the welfare of one community or one ethnic group becomes too narrow to be the loving creator of all. ‘For it conflicts with our concept of God, which we have received from Jesus, as the loving heavenly Father of all mankind; could such a Being have restricted the possibility of salvation to those who happen to have been born in certain countries in certain periods of history?’ (Hick, RCT, p. 400)
The precise relationship of religions and cultures to the will of God or love of God is complicated. Whether all are 'anonymous Christians' or 'anonymous Buddhists' or some other such, is not the point here. Most likely given the limited worldview that any individual or community must have, the truth falls somewhere between and beyond the positions we take on such matters. However, that God reaches out to the entire world in many ways is the point. And for the Christian, that way is through Jesus Christ. ‘The saving grace of God is thus available through non-Christian religious traditions, despite their shortcomings. Many of their adherents, Rahner argues, have thus accepted grace, without being fully aware of it.’ (CT, p. 462) Perhaps we too, are in receipt of grace of which we are not aware.
Called to be in Community
Community is the central focus of the gospel. It is the basis of the Golden Rule of so many traditions. It is the most concrete and specific example of the actions of God in the creation.
The community, in its corporate life, is called to embody an alternative order that stands as a sign of God's redemptive purpose in the world. Thus, "community" is not merely a concept; as the term is used here, it points to the concrete social manifestation of the people of God. (Hays, p. 196)
'We can know God only in relationship to the human race, or more particularly in God’s liberating activity in behalf of oppressed humanity.’ (Cone, LEV, p. 109) God's care for creation becomes most apparent in the movement toward justice and peace.
These are not to be taken as either small or large concepts only, but extend the entire breadth of human interrelationships. Justice and peace can be as intimate as the relationship between two people (or perhaps even between one person and other parts of creation, such as care for the environment -- the simple act of recycling a can rather than chucking it in the rubbish bin can be an act of love toward creation) or justice and peace can be writ large, as in striving for peace among nations or trying to address inequities in the social fabric of society. 'Community is possible when it begins with the fundamental equity of those who are displaced. It does not restore relations. It creates them.’ (Westhelle, LEV, p. 157) Community calls for a continuing re-creation of right relationships as creation continues to grow toward the will of God.
Community is the way in which we participate in the life and love of God. Through baptism, Christians become officially charged with specific duties toward God, the primary of which is to seek proper relationship with the rest of the community. ‘This [baptism] signifies both our new birth and the initiation of our journey into Christian forgiveness as citizens of God’s eschatological Kingdom, indeed as friends of God.’ (EF, p. 166) Our experience of the love of God is enhanced as we embrace right relationships with others; it is lessened as we pull away from those relationships.
Communities are not easily defined. Again, they can be as small as a monastic enclosure of a few monks with a rule of life, or as broad as the global village which must work together in many ways to ensure the survival of the entire planet. Communities, like individuals, do not live and grow in isolation from each other. They must interact on different levels, and these interactions are likewise opportunities to experience God. This is true for governments, schools, churches, and all other forms of community.
The call to community presupposes the individual of its members, the diversity inherent in creation. ‘The unity of the church presupposes a multiplicity of churches; the various churches do not need to deny their origins or their specific situations…. The same thing is not suitable for everyone, at every time, and in every place.’ (Kung, CT, p. 420) From the very outset of the scriptures the diversity of creation is apparent.
In the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit binds us together in community, striving after justice, sustaining us in our efforts. ‘The Spirit enables those who have been forgiven by Christ also to become those who forgive, seeking to restore communion with others in analogous fashion to the ways it has been restored to them.’ (EF, p. 129)
The Holy Spirit acts to help set relationship right again, that continues to call us into a recognition of our own actions and how they impact others, and gives us the strength to carry forward the work of God. ‘Our forgiveness is not a gift that we receive as isolated individuals; it is a gift from the Spirit that is irreducibly particular in terms of the narratives of our pasts, yet that gift calls us into communion.’ (EF, p. 173) The gifts of God, like the talents the Master gave in one of Jesus's parables, are not to be hoarded or buried, but shared in community, so that they may benefit all and increase.
The precise form, function, and relationship of the Holy Spirit is hard to define. Indeed, perhaps the Holy Spirit is the primary holy mystery. ‘According to Holy Scripture, the Holy Spirit is neither only the Spirit of the Father, nor only the Spirit of the Son, but is the Spirit of both. For this reason, the Spirit is able to teach us that love which is common both to the Father and to the Son and through which they love each other.’ (Augustine, CT, p.245) Attempts have been made, many of which fall in modalism or end by negating some aspect of God (and the Holy Spirit is very susceptible to this possibility). A clear, definitive statement of Holy Spirit, however, is not necessary to be aware of the presence and continuing action of God.
Bound together in a Shared Creation
Human beings are beings of this world, whatever its cause, whatever its future. It is in this world that all human beings encounter each other. As such, they all share a common lineage from a similar creation, and have a common call to justice from God. ‘…it is truth for all men, whether they know it or not, as surely as they are all Adam’s children and heirs.’ (Barth, RCT, p. 159)
God's love for creation is testified to in scripture in many ways: through the pronouncing of creation to be good; through the covenants of Noah and of Abraham (a covenant which, while made to a particular person, extended to his descendants, is actually a gift to creation--Israel is called to be a blessing to the nations, not merely itself). ‘All creation, including human creatures but not especially human creatures, are looked after, cared for, sustained, and protected by the generous guarantees that the Creator has embedded in the creation.’ (Brueggemann, p. 530)
God shares in the fate of this creation. It is not just an idle fancy. God freely chose to create, and freely chose to assume the obligations of creation. This further illustrates the need for relationships, not only among human beings, but throughout all creation and with God. 'Creation is not only God’s freedom but also his destiny.’ (RCT: Tillich, p. 141)
The world is far from perfect, however. It is up to humanity, acting in community, to work toward making creation conform to the will of God. ‘In that it is God’s creation, it is to be honored, respected, and affirmed; in that it is a fallen creation, it is to be criticized with the object of redeeming it.’ (CT, p. 234) Whether the 'fallenness' of creation is due to some sort of positive evil presence or through an absence (of love, of justice, etc.) is beside the point. There is work to be done in creation. We all share in that work.
Called to a Shared Future
The words 'common future' are too narrow; 'shared future' has a broader meaning, more respectful of the diversity from which we come and to which we are going. A shared future carries with it the hope of justice and peace, as humanity in community learns to live with each other. Different communities bring different contexts and different revelations, but the ultimate goal of sustaining each other remains. ‘Standing with the masses struggling for life and land, the church in Brazil and internationally has been growing into greater awareness that “we are the ones we have been waiting for”.’ (Westhelle, LEV, p. 147)
Christianity, through the process of reaching out to the entire world, is itself informed by the experiences of others in the world, and needs to take into account the lessons others have learned, to make the future more acceptable to the particular groups, and more accessible to the global community. ‘Asian Christians are heir to both the biblical story and to our own story as Asian people, and we are concerned to bring the two in dialogue with one another.’ (LEV; Pui-Lan, p. 281)
At times, the future looks bleak. ‘At the turn of the century, we may reraise the question in light of undoubted delay: Can the impetus for justice that Israel finds rooted in Yahweh’s own resolve be fully stopped?’ (Brueggemann, p. 526) Particularly in light of a century in which mass genocide and global warfare has been practiced by the so-called Enlightened nations, one wonders if God is still present. However, creation survives, and the work toward justice continues. ‘God has taken that risk upon himself in creating us with freedom through persuasion. He has faith in us, and it is up to us to respond in faith to him.’ (RCT: Ford, p. 141)
The world is a harsh place for the Christian. The future is the point of realisation of justice and mercy. But it is somehow always beyond.
It is the paradox of Christian being that the believer is taken out of the world and exists, so to speak, as unworldly and that at the same time he remains within the world, within his historicity. To be historical means to live from the future. The believer too lives from the future; first because his faith and his freedom can never be possession; as belonging to the eschatological event they can never become facts of past time but are reality only over and over again as event; secondly because the believer remains within history. (RCT: Bultmann, p. 339)
But, the work for justice continues, and the life of faith in community is the force which sustains us. The call to justice, however, ultimately relies on a faith that God will ensure a just conclusion.
The precise formulation of these elements into a narrative form has not yet been accomplished. The construction of a gospel statement is an ongoing process, one that calls for examination and reflection at different times and at different levels. It is an ongoing dialogue with self and community , with a discerning heart turned toward the influence of the Holy Spirit.
It is easy to get lost in the side issues, and get distracted from the central purpose of the gospel statement, which for me, is the call to strive toward justice. 'The command to justice is understood as marking the polity of the community of Israel. That is, justice is not charity, nor is it romantic do-goodism.’ (Brueggemann, p. 423) This command toward justice is also a defining characteristic of right relationships in Christianity.
So, do the elements of this gospel statement conform to the Apostles' Creed? Taken line by line, there is no part of the gospel statement which contradicts the delineation of the Apostles' Creed. The Trinity is present; the particulars of history are not relevant (while they are not necessarily assumed, they are likewise not contradicted). Perhaps the only fuzziness would be in the statement 'the resurrection of the body', which is not addressed. To this statement, I cannot be explicit. Under the call to have faith in God's ultimate justice, perhaps resurrection of the body may take place.
I look forward to continuing the process of development and discernment of a personal gospel statement through the remainder of my seminary career, and indeed, through the remainder of my life.
'Christian theology: An introduction.' Alister E. McGrath. 1994: Blackwell Publishers.
'Lift every voice: Constructing Christian theologies from the underside.' Susan Brooks Thistlewaite & Mary Potter Engel, eds. 1998: Orbis Books.
'The moral vision of the new testament.' Richard B. Hays. 1996: HarperSanFrancisco.
'Readings in Christian theology.' Peter C. Hodgson & Robert H. King, eds. 1985: Fortress Press.
'Theology of the old testament: Testimony, dispute, advocacy.' Walter Brueggemann. 1997: Augsburg Fortress Publications