I’ve done this more than most. When I see a church with no denominational affilation (say, the Rock of Wonders Community of Jesus Christ now dwelling at this corner), I wonder “what do they believe?” When I see a Lutheran Church, I think to myself: the Lutheran dialectic of Law and gospel, etc.. When I see a Presbyterian Church, I wonder “what kind of Presbyterian?” In nearly every case, my perception is determined by a “doctrinal statement.”
Rarely, if ever (and I’m being generous to myself here), have I said either of these two things: (1) they are orthodox and that is all that matters or (2) I wonder how the people of that church lives. (I’ll get to this second point in another post.)
The emerging movement is forcing a very good question. Do we look at a local church on the basis of what they believe? on the basis of whether or not they are orthodoxly Christian tout simple? on the basis of how they live or perform the gospel locally?
These are good questions, and they are better questions than perhaps we first think. Without denying or minimizing in any way the importance of our faith — call it propositions if you will, is a doctrinal statement adequate for identification? Why do no churches, or almost no churches, post (as Abe Lincoln once suggested) the Great Commandment as its banner cry? (Had he known, as a fellow Illinoisan, that I would call it the Jesus Creed, he would happily have called it that.)
I begin this series of posts on the emerging movement and doctrinal statements with the following considerations.
First, the faith of early Christians emerged out of the “story” of the faith as articulated in the New Testament (which sees itself as the fulfillment of the Old Testament), out of the witness and guidance of the Holy Spirit, and out of the intellectual and creedal options available in the cultures where the Christians lived. In other words, the faith was shaped by the story line of the New Testament. The NT was its script — and, if you read it aright, there are several “scripts” within that NT. The “story” of the Bible, we must remind ourselves, was never simply a creed. The authors of the Bible did not articulate a systematic theology. Each author of the NT was more than happy to articulate theology starting all over again with new images — just move from Kingdom with Jesus, to Paul’s various metaphors (justification isn’t alone; “church” is everywhere), to Peter’s images, to the author of Hebrews (priestly images are explored), to John (who doesn’t use a central theological image so much as the image of Life, etc.). In other words, there was no sense of getting a foundation and building on it. Instead, it was the gospel itself giving birth to a variety of images — shaped by local context.
Second, that faith was articulated in a “catholic” way in the Nicene Creed — this simplifies, but so it will serve in this post, the process of “creedalizing” the Godhead from the 3d to the 8th Centuries. (Lots went on here, and there are some good books, but surely the most complete one now is by J. Pelikan, Credo.)
Third, that faith was then assumed, resumed, and extended in the Protestant Reformation — and I’m skipping rather naively over the serious breakdown between the Western and Eastern Churches and all the theological debates involved. The Reformation developed the importance of an “epistemology” for theology (sola scriptura) — though this is more complex than epistemology, and the centrality of personal faith, and the clarity that God’s grace shapes the whole. (The various solas.) The Reformers didn’t think the solas said it all; they were deeply dependent upon and interactive with the classical creeds.
Fourth, the various Protestant movements (Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, etc.) spawned by the Reformation delineated even more completely some confessional statements — and I’ll include here the entire Protestant tradition that broke free from the State churches to establish their own articulations of the faith.
Fifth, even more breakdowns occurred when local churches, and no more affiliated than with themselves with the ominous and potentially troubling word “autonomy” as their battle-cry began to form their own doctrinal statements. Local theology shaped by local theology.
So, let me define “doctrinal statement” as a local-church phenomenon, “confessions” as larger denominational level articulations, and “creeds” as the ancient, orthodox articulation.
What do we really need? Is not a doctrinal statement a locally-defined statement in order to delineate one church from another (“we believe this, but the other denominations believe this — come join us as the true church”)? Do we need more than Creeds and Confessions when it comes to “what we believe”?
Let me suggest that we need to rethink this: is it not enough for a local church to define its faith by what the Church (and let’s not omit the Reformation here for those of us who know we are Protestants when it comes down to the bottom of our faith) has always believed, everywhere? Is it not then generously orthodox of us to include any Christian who embraces the orthodox faith even though we may dispute baptism and eschatology and even a theory of soteriology?
Why is it so rarely the case that a local church includes a “how we live” statement along with a “what we believe” statement? Is the “performance” issue not important?
My next post will begin looking at Emergent Village’s suggestions about this concern.