Where should a statement of faith begin?

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I was asked a while back by Brad Knight what I thought of this post by Roger Olson. Olson addresses the question:

When composing a Christian statement of faith, a statement of faith for a Christian church, educational institution, whatever, what or whom should the first article be about? Where should it begin?

He rejects starting either with God, because it may lead to subordinationism, or with the Bible, because it may lead to biblicism, and argues instead that “our primary focus of faith as Christians, that which conditions all else, is Jesus”. We cannot begin with a “generic or even pre-Jesus” account of God and then “project that onto Jesus”. We must confess fundamentally and primarily, in the words of Archbishop Michael Ramsay, that “God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all”. Martin Luther, Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann are also invoked in support of this view.

There is a polemical point to this chicken-or-egg argument. In Olson’s view, many evangelicals, not least in the US, start out with a quite un-Christilike notion of who God is—the warrior God of the Old Testament or the God of a “moralistic, therapeutic deism”, for example—to which Jesus is then unhappily accommodated. (Incidentally, it seems to me that a belief in God is unlikely to be both moralistic and therapeutic.)

In other words, Jesus must be put first in order to correct a theological failing of modern evangelical belief. That in itself does not invalidate Olson’s argument, but it raises some doubts about its necessity, and it raises the question of whether there may not be other—by which I mean better—ways of solving the problem.

From a biblical point of view

From a biblical point of view, it seems to me, the difficulty with Olson’s approach is that it assumes and perpetuates a tension, if not a conflict, between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. Olson may not agree with the opinion that the God of the Old Testament is warlike and, therefore, condones American militarism. But if he believes that the God of the Old Testament is not correctly portrayed in such terms, there is no reason—other than the polemical one—to insist that we begin our statements of faith with the un-warlike Jesus. Why not just help people to understand the God of the Old Testament better?

[pullquote]The New Testament presents Jesus as the fulfilment of the story of Israel, which is the story of Israel’s God, not as the correction of it.[/pullquote] There is no basis, as far as I can see, for the view that God is now understood to be essentially Christlike—that YHWH is now seen through the lens of the pacifist Jesus. Indeed, if the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the temple is to be viewed as an act of divine judgment, which is how Jesus clearly regarded it, can we really claim that the God of the New Testament is any less warlike than the God of the Old Testament? Of course, the opposite is equally true: the God of the Old Testament is no less compassionate and forgiving than the God of the New Testament. It’s just a question of understanding how the story works.

The fundamental difference is that according to the New Testament the supreme goal of YHWH, which is judgment and rule of the nations, is to be achieved finally not through observance of Torah but through a way of faithfulness unto death, pioneered by Jesus and pursued subsequently by the early churches. In this respect Jesus fulfils the role of the servant, of ideal Israel, and it is then Israel that is called to be Christlike—to suffer with Christ in order to be vindicated with Christ, and to leave vengeance to the wrath of God (cf. Rom. 12:14-19). But the suffering is made necessary by the fact that the wrath of God towards his people is exercised violently. The crucifixion of Jesus anticipated the crucifixion of thousands of Jews by the Romans during the siege.

In a narrative or apocalyptic trinitarianism we might then argue that the authority of God—the right to judge and rule the nations, to be confessed as Lord—is given to Jesus. To this extent, the “godhead”—or better, the kingship of God—has certainly been revised: it is the Lamb who was slain who has become king who delivers, judges, rules. But this is not presented in any way, as far as I can see, as a revision or reinvention or modification of God himself.

OK, we admit it, we are a chosen people

So what is it that we as “Christians” should fundamentally confess? What is it that we affirm in defiance of, as a challenge to, as a source of hope for, as an invitation to the world? If we really must compose a statement of faith—the premise of Olson’s question is too theological-institutional for my liking—where should we begin? What should lie at its heart? What should be its essential form?

I suggest that our basic confession should run something like this: We believe that we are the people of the living Creator God according to the narrative initiated in scripture.

This is, first, a relational or covenantal confession. It is not merely an affirmation that God is, that he has created all things. God matters to us not because we have come to the more or less rational or philosophical or even experiential conclusion that he exists but because we understand ourselves to be a chosen people for his own possession. [pullquote]We are as much part of this confession as God is.[/pullquote]

It is, secondly, a narrative and historical confession. The relationship between God and his people is not a static or synchronic arrangement. It is dynamic and diachronic; it unfolds and develops; it works itself out over time; it changes shape; it has ups and downs, like any relationship.

It is then in the context of this narrative—and, I think, only in the context of this narrative—that we confess the decisive significance of Jesus Christ. By his death he saved his people from destruction and—almost unwittingly, as far as the Gospel evidence goes—opened the door for Gentiles to inherit the promises made to the patriarchs. By his resurrection he gained the right to judge and rule first God’s people and then the nations. By his resurrection he became the new creation towards which all our feeble efforts point.

Doug Wilkinson | Thu, 08/15/2013 - 16:26 | Permalink

In as much as such things can become creeds, I think it would be important to be careful not to accidentally invalidate your position by overreacting to the one you are trying to push back against.  As an example, in the 381 version of the Nicene Creed they added the line, “whose kingdom shall have no end” in order to categorically reject chiliasm (or the belief that there will be a time limited, 1,000 year, reign of Christ in his kingdom).  The problem was that the church’s position, Amillennialism, was just being formulated and they didn’t realize that the phrase they took from Daniel 7 meant that the Amillennial reign that had already begun would never end as well.  The problem may really be that statements of faith or creeds can’t be infallible, and so should be approached as guidance, not scripture itself.

“We believe that we are the people of the living Creator God according to the narrative initiated in scripture.”  I really like the way you built up to this statement and the statement itself.  Well done.