On Sunday we began our new series ‘The Need for Creed’. At the start of the series I felt it was worthwhile spending a short amount of time looking at why the Creedal confessions are important in 21st Century Christian life.
For some the creeds will be well known, for others less so, but what follows should I hope lay the foundation for a thorough exploration of the core beliefs that stand at the heart of our Christian faith. This week we’ll spend some time reflecting on why Christianity needs an organized confession of faith, and especially why it’s so important today.
Much of the session below is background reading – you may well want to condense this material and pick out only the most relevant parts of it to guide your discussion.
Part I – Background
Relativism and individualism – true for you but not for me…
We live in a world in which conflicting or antithetical ideas and commitments can be held to be true seemingly without contradiction or problem. We live in an age when the passion behind the belief is of greater importance than the belief itself, and in which the value of a belief is gauged not by the content of it but by the vociferousness of the proponent. We live in a culture in which the phrase ‘it may be true for you, but it’s not for me’ is common currency - In short we live within a society of deeply entrenched relativism.
Relativism is wide spread, deeply entrenched, and often very subtle – and as a cultural conditioner it exerts an influence in our life of faith. So in the first of our series looking at the Apostles Creed we are going to spend a little time thinking about the ways in which relativism influences our faith before moving on to think about the importance and role of a Creed in the life of faith.
Relativism is visible in many and varied ways – for example the prevalent ideas that:
- All truth claims are equally valid
- There is no such thing as an absolute moral standard
- No one has the right to judge the actions of another
To sum it up, as far as that is possible, relativism says that nothing can be asserted as being absolutely true. Instead ‘truth’ is a local and subjective concept, defined only in relation to a particular frame of reference (for example cultural norms or language etc)
It means that appeals to universals, i.e things that are true for all mankind or absolute in their own right, are impossible. For example no moral code can be said to be universal and therefore applicable to all mankind. Therefore the moral position against torture is simply the preference of a particular community or culture and not rooted in anything beyond these communal preferences. In a strictly relativistic frame work torture cannot be said to be wrong in any absolute sense.
It also means whatever an individual or community holds to be true is true simply by virtue of their own internal agreement. There is no appeal to anything outside of the community or individual, and no-one can pass any kind of judgment as to their validity. Truth is locally agreed and self referential.
Part II – Housegroup Session
The challenge to faith:
Pope Benedict XVI, along with many other Christian leaders and thinkers has labeled relativism as one of ‘the most significant threats to faith and morals today’. He also asserts that alongisde the tidal wave of relativism stands the inherent individualism of the post enlightenment western world and together these dual streams present a formidable challenge to our own belief structures and the way in which Christians seek to reach out with the good news of Jesus.
At the start of this study it’s probably worth asking how this widespread dogmatic relativistic individualism can be seen in our theology and life of faith. Perhaps we are able to identify some of the following in modern day Christianity, or to bring it closer to home in our own life of faith:
- We are reluctant to make truth claims about God
- We individualise God (‘I like to picture God as…’).
- We are hesitant to assert any rigid moral judgment.
- We feel obliged to accept any variation of interpretation without critique
On a more practical level we might have noticed in ourselves or the wider church:
- A nervousness in claiming that Jesus is ‘the way, the truth, and the life’
- Silence on issues of morality or justice
- A tendency to resist doctrine and prefer personal experience
- An acceptance of the idea that ‘all roads lead to God’
Reflect and Discuss: Think about your life of faith. Are there any ways in which you’re aware of the influence of relativism in your approach to the life of faith? Do any of the above sound familiar to you?
The passage that we’re reflecting on today seems to speak quite specifically to the culture in which we live. There are a number of striking aspects to it:
“People will no longer put up with (or be interested in) sound doctrine”
It’s certainly true to say that doctrine is often a dirty word in church. It seems to speak of rigidity and inflexibility. For various reasons, probably to do with mis-conceptions about the church of yesteryear and a fear of being pharisaical, we’ve tended to think that doctrine is less important than impassioned faith. ‘The Pharisees had good doctrine – but they rejected Jesus’ is something one hears often, the suggestion being that what one holds to be true is less important than the attitude of one’s heart.
In part this is true, it is possible to believe something to be true, to give assent to something without living in the light of that reality. However this simple assertion misses the point where doctrine is concerned.
Doctrine is not simply a dry intellectual assent to a set of ideas. Rather Christian doctrine is the expression of the reality of the living God as he has revealed himself. We don't simply believe a doctrine (or not), rather we place our trust in what it articulates and therefore live it. Good doctrine is a matter of the head and the heart, the whole person. It is the expression of the reality that stands behind all reality and shapes all of life. Doctrine is transformative because all transformation begins with ideas.
It’s not true to say that the attitude of the heart matters more than doctrine as the two are inseparable, and either one without the other is unable to support the burden of faith placed upon it.
Reflect and discuss: What comes to mind when you hear the word 'doctrine'? Do you think of it in positive or negative terms?
“Instead to suit their own desires they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear”
Everyone loves being vindicated, justified, proved right! I certainly do!
Paul talks about this age old reality as he writes to his young charge Timothy. It was as pressing an issue in their day as it is in ours. Because we all love to be proved right we have a tendency to refer to those who say what we already believe to be true. We listen most closely to those who agree with us and then use their agreement to justify our own position. We see this in the wider world in many spheres, but nowhere I think does it happen as much as it does in the Church!
We hold our faith deeply and dearly, it is the very foundation of our lives. Being challenged and asked to modify our thinking on issues of faith is deeply threatening and takes us to an uncomfortable place. And so naturally we prefer to stay where we are, and to help support this we seek out people who will justify our existing position. The problem is of course that whatever our existing position within the massive corpus of theological thought and tradition, we could justify almost anything we choose…one doesn’t have to dig too far into the theologians of old to find support for whatever we wish. Likewise we don’t need to look very hard in the contemporary Christian world to find someone who will re-assure us that we are right – no matter what we think.
And this is where the creed is so vital. The assertion of the Apostolic faith, i.e the faith of the disciples, passed on to those who followed them, ensures that we cannot simply take a position, sit there, and find someone who agrees with us to give us legitimacy. In the creed we are forced to ask difficult questions of our own faith and whether or not it conforms to that handed down by the early church fathers.
Charismatic preachers, church leaders, popular authors, all come and go. The ideas that those who are tasked with unpacking and teaching scripture put forward are usually a mixture of the good and the bad, the correct and the less so… (difficult to write as someone who’s job it is to teach here in Ashtead) … but in the creed we have a set of ideas and assertions by which the passing fads of each generation may be gauged and assessed.
This is not to say that the creed came down from heaven pre-written on stone tablets. It didn’t. But it is to say that the Christian faith is an ‘historic faith’ i.e faith in certain things, primarily revealed and made known in Christ, and that these specific tenets of belief define what it is to ‘a Christian’.
This means in effect that ‘a Christian’ is not an open ended and self referential description, it’s not ‘whatever we want it to be’…it has a definition beyond ourselves.
Reflect and discuss: How do you feel about this? Are you comfortable or uncomfortable with the ideas above? Why? Do you know the creed? Does it play a part in your life of faith? If so how, if not why? Do you see the Christian faith as an historic faith? What does this mean?
“…keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist…”
Looking outside of the Church…
In writing to Timothy, Paul makes an interesting connection between doctrine and the work of an evangelist. Having laid the foundation for this stirring chapter of his letter, calling on Timothy to stay true to the cause and to maintain the Apostolic faith, he concludes by asking him to do all that is required of him in ministry and in particular to do the work of the Gospel. In Paul’s mind there is a direct connection between true doctrine and the calling of disciples.
Let’s reflect on this a bit…
We’re always on the look out for ways of sharing Jesus aren’t we? Ways of explaining and making him known, rooted in the call of the great commission to go and make disciples in all nations. A great deal of ink has been used in trying to find ways of explaining this. Many pages have been printed with courses and diagrams to try to facilitate this great story of salvation. Most of which are brilliant and truly helpful.
But how often do we think though about the link between evangelism and doctrine? In sharing Christ we are calling people to something, calling them to place their trust in the person of Christ and in what and who he is. We’re asking them to re-orientate their understanding of reality. And so we must be able to articulate the new reality, the what and who of Jesus, to which we’re calling people. If we believe we’re inviting them to something then we must be clear about what we’re inviting them to.
The creed, as the statement of the Apostolic faith, the historic Christian faith, is a great help to us if we’re looking for a way of explaining the what and who of Christ and if we’re looking for a way of articulating what it is we’re inviting people to.
Reflect and discuss: Take a look at the Apostle’s creed. Does it help you to articulate your faith in such a way as to make sharing it easier? If you were to use the creed to help you share Christ what would you say? Which parts of the creed might you concentrate on when sharing your faith and why?
At the end of this first session why not spend some time in prayer, perhaps specifically asking God to:
- Open your heart and mind to grasp the truth of his revelation
- Give you a spirit of boldness to claim for Jesus what he claims for himself – that he is ‘the way, the truth, and the life’.
- Give you courage to take a stand on issues of morality and justice
- Give you opportunities to share Christ and invite others to place their trust in him