Monday, August 21, 2006
The Great Jesus Debates
From chapter 6 of The Great Jesus Debates – 4 Early Church battles about the Person and work of Jesus, by Douglas Johnson. Published by Concordia 2005
Probably the most common and ‘popular’ accusation against the Early Church fathers is that they obscure the Gospel of Jesus by subjecting it to needless and even distorting intellectual formulas and complex creedal decrees. Those who make this accusation are typically, but not necessarily, individuals who are adverse to any and all theological statements of belief. They probably align themselves with a congregation, denomination, or even a non-Christian religion because they feel welcome, the music is good, the morality seems right, there are good programs, or the sermons are uplifting. Perhaps these individuals are even attracted to a group because its people rang their doorbell and invited them to church. For them, belief in some higher power and the dedication to living a good life are enough. Theological niceties are resented and should be avoided. Other, more existentially important matters, are at hand. In fact, much of the contemporary appeal of some forms of Judaism and Islam arises because they have a simple belief in one God, accompanied by an appropriately simple moral code. Thus some churches are tempted to believe that the less theology in which we indulge, the better we can get along with our neighbours in this multicultural world.
Rest assured, however, that the response of the Church fathers to this attitude would be fairly unanimous. On one hand, they would agree that idle speculation into the nature of God and his interaction with the human family can and does lead to disaster. In fact, much of the work of the early Christian thinkers and the decrees of the Early Church councils was accomplished precisely to limit such speculation. On the other hand, the early Church fathers would just as strongly insist that beliefs do matter, that our mind is an important, perhaps central, part of our being and what we believe has a profound influence on our relationships with God and our fellow human beings. Christianity is more than feelings and good works. What we think is important too.
Further, the people who decry theological statements really do have a theology in their minds, no matter how unreflective it may be. Therefore, we should think through our doctrines and straighten them out from the outset or they can lead us to precisely those entangling speculations we mean to avoid. A refusal to consider a clear statement of one’s own beliefs can leave a person open to all kinds of strange and harmful ideas and practices in the future.
For the Early Church fathers, ‘getting it right’ involved the grace of God in Jesus Christ. This was their touchstone. Whatever threatened to deny grace was rejected. This was the major source of those theological formulations that to some seem so burdensome today.