Saturday, 15 November 2008

The Nicene Creed - some interpretations

In my book review of Brazos Presses' Nicene Christianity, I summarized those articles dealing with the nature of creeds as such and their role within the life of the Church. In this post, I outline the rest of the essays in the book, each of which deal with a different article of the Nicene Creed.

C. Seitz opens with the first article, focussing on the phrase maker of heaven and earth. His approach is strongly exegetical, attempting to show the Biblical roots of the phrase and the meaning the creed therefore assumes in its current elliptical form. The phrase “maker of heaven and earth” is often tied to the personal name of God, the LORD, which assumes a particular identity in Israel's unique history. Jesus is not related to “deity,” he is related to Yhwh. This holds for all the propositions in the first article: “Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, each in its own way bespeaks the divine and sacred name” (28). The implication is that it is not possible to talk of the Son without reference to the Father, who is the foundation for faith. In this light, attempts to recover a “historical” Jesus, measure his work according to an abstract standard of truth, or reduce the Father to the beneficia Chrisit are to be avoided.

C. Gunton struggles with the tension between exegesis and theology in his treatment of One Lord, ... Begotten, Not Made .... Both creedal and Biblical formulations of Jesus' “begottenness” are not clear enough to rebuke the threat of Arianism, which undermines Christ's salvific significance. The creedal formulation risks depersonalizing the Son and thus risks marring the image of God, who is “the one who is the love of Father and Son in the Spirit” (38; emphasis mine). An attempt to recapture Jesus' uniqueness by turning to Scripture, however, faces the challenge of his time-conditionality. How do we speak of one who is eternally begotten? The solution lies at a more abstract level of analysis. Though in terms of the economic Trinity the Son is subordinate to the Father, at the level of the immanent Trinity it is soteriologically necessary to hold that he is fully divine. The absolute distinction between Creator and creation requires us to believe that if someone is to restore a sinful creation back to its maker, he cannot partake of that creation's sinfulness. Gunton summarizes: “The paradox is twofold: first that by putting this man, and this man alone, on the side of the Creator we maintain the integrity of the creation; and we can do it while remaining true to a confession of his full humanity” (44). “Eternally begotten” maintains the necessary tension between the economic and immanent Trinities and enables us to maintain a sense of the monarchy of the Father without rendering the Son as less then fully divine.

A. Torrance deals with the question of Jesus' Being of one substance with the Father. This truth's affirmation is the ground and warrant of both our salvation and our ability to talk about God in the first place. Epistemologically, “Jesus mediates knowledge of God because he is Immanuel” (56). But epistemic access to the Godhead also has a Trinitarian structure: the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit, who is also “of one being with the Father,” creates the necessary subjective conditions for a recognition of the Incarnate Word. Soteriologically, only Jesus can save as sin is essentially against God, and thus only He Himself can deal with it. To this dimension belongs also his essential humanity: God Himself provides the requisite human response, and in doing so also makes it possible for us too to have the mind of Christ.

J. Augustine Di Noia, O.P., deals with the question of creation in terms of the science-theology relation. Whereas science and philosophy can analyse creation's physical and ontological structures, a theological account of the cosmos as the stage for a divine drama which seeks to share its life with humanity is required in order to “personalize” the universe. Creation is the decision of a free agent, and humanity as the imago dei is uniquely capable of entering into this relationship. God's presence amidst evolution is understood in terms of secondary causes, providentially guiding creation to its providential goal. The recently developed “anthropic principle,” which argues that creation itself is directed to the emergence of human life as such creates space for potential fruitful dialogue.

R. Jenson expands our categories to breaking point in his treatment of “He was made man” by attempting a form of “revisionary metaphysics.” How can Jesus' pre-existence be considered “incarnate,” a logical necessity if we do not wish to posit two separate identities for him? Jenson's answer has to do with the nature of the place he came from: heaven. Heaven is part of creation, yet not as another piece of space but as the future mode of the final kingdom. Jesus comes to us from this created eschatological future in the power of the Spirit, who is the agent and power of that future. The incarnation occurs in this agency, “in the absolute possibility that is the final reality of historical being” (82), so that the future comes from where Jesus is. “There is only one advent of the messiah.”

D. Yeago outlines the implications of the clause Crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. In short, the effect of the cross is to transform reality, as “divine love acts in a human way and human acts have divine force” (91). This global redemption took place as an episode in Israel's history in that Jesus accomplished the righteousness which was Israel's vocation: The cross was the “final test and unsurpassable realization of Jesus' distinctive way of being human” (97). The outcome is public: a renewed community with a divine calling and commandments. The “relational space” marred by sin is cleared by the cross, so that genuine communion with God is possible, as it takes place in Jesus alone, the new humanity and our hope.

C. Braaten reminds us the importance of physical Resurrection, which confirms Jesus' claims and continues his cause in history. Braaten outlines the various takes on the issue by key theologians (Pannenburg, Barth, Bultmann etc.) and concludes that it was an objective event, constituting a new mode of being in continuity with the old, applied by the Holy Spirit in preaching and the sacraments. The effect of such faith is motivation for mission, as the “resurrection is God's unique way of reclaiming the whole world for himself” (118).

D. Farrow confesses the significance of Christ's coming, which cannot be understood apart from Christ's ascension and heavenly session. Melchizedek provides the paradigm for understanding, as it combines the political dimension—Christ is the final authority as he currently rules through his church—and the priestly (Aaronic)--Christ's ascension to heaven completes the atonement, from where he now receives our sacramental thanksgiving. His return will be a public display in which he comes as judge. This return (parousia) will be the end of history as we know it, nevertheless it will break into our history. It will be an act of new creation, a fundamental act of reordering that impinges on creaturely reality.

T. Smail offers an overview of the Holy Spirit. His being is constituted by the Trinity, as he “furthers the purposes of the Father as revealed in the gospel of the incarnate Son” (151). In this movement he is a person, taking on a different role to Jesus as enabler of subjective response to Jesus and communicator of eschatological life. His relation to Father and Son has been a cause of division between East and West. After reviewing the pros and cons of each proposal, Smail offers his own suggestion: “from the Father there originate two converging movements of divine self-giving. On the one hand, the Son comes from the Father through the Spirit; on the other, the Spirit comes from the Father through the Son” (165).

K. Green-McCreight works out the implications of He spoke through the Prophets. Amongst other things, it testifies to the unity of Scripture as a whole. The Patristic term skopus signifies goal and boundary of Scripture, understood to be and objective reality, not entirely identifiable with the text but related to it and borne by it. Divine meaning, then, is not identifiable with pure lexical meaning, so that a rule of faith is necessary as part of our hermeneutic. By hearing the parts in relation to the whole, Scripture interprets itself. The rule also functions as a guide for evaluating different interpretations: they must account for the unity of the God of Israel and the new covenant.

W. J. Abraham talks of the siginficance of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. This clause is was not a definition but a witness to a living historical reality, a reality no longer fully evident. Given the tension between the fact that the most adequate referent of the creed is the Eastern church (they didn't introduce the filioque clause), yet the Holy Spirit, who is the true source of the church, as deigned to create multiple divided churches, we must pray for a new Pentecost and return to the church of the creed. This will involve 1) a return to the canonical heritage of the 1st millennium, 2) a relativising of our epistemological commitments, and 3) reckoning with the real possibility of divine judgement. Perhaps then the beautiful metaphors for the church in the New Testament will once again become more of a reality.

S.K. Wood negotiates the ecumenical challenge of one baptism for the forgiveness of sins from a catholic perspective. The prime distinction between believer's baptism and infant baptism is not the requirement of a mature profession of faith (both affirm that), but rather the location of that faith. For Catholics, there is a complex dynamic between the community, which proceeds the individual by nurturing him, and the individual himself, who must believe. Thus parents believe by proxy, until the child decides for itself in post-baptismal catechism. However it takes place, though, baptism is into the one Lord, who alone constitutes the unity of the churches. This raises the question of why baptised Protestants may not partake of the Eucharist. The answer is that Eucharist completes the unity the baptism only initiates, as it is here that “ecclesial and christological communion achieves repeatable sacramental visibility” (197). The Eucharist, however, separates the churches by identifying them in their particularity. This brings us to a bind: sacramental unity depends on ecclesial unity, yet the reverse is also true. However this is negotiated, the connection of baptism to Eucharist must be maintained as both constitute the church.

V. Guroian's contribution on the resurrection is unique in that it consists of an poetically evocative letter to his suffering mother, rather than abstract theology or biblical exegesis. It is theology in practice, as he weaves images from the Bible, nature, and poetry into a testimony to the need for faith in the resurrection of the flesh.


Kevin Davis said...

Very helpful review. Thanks.

How can Jesus' pre-existence be considered “incarnate,” a logical necessity if we do not wish to posit two separate identities for him? Jenson's answer has to do with the nature of the place he came from: heaven. Heaven is part of creation, yet not as another piece of space but as the future mode of the final kingdom. Jesus comes to us from this created eschatological future in the power of the Spirit, who is the agent and power of that future.

Sounds rather 'Back to the Future'-ish. Is he getting this just from the necessities of his metaphysics of time, or is it actually exegesis-driven?

Phil Sumpter said...

Hi Kevin,

I have to admit, I found this a difficult artilce (though the most difficult was Gunton's). Despite the abstraction, however, Jenson does reference the Bible a lot. He uses exegesis to argue that heaven itself is part of God's creation (his pied a terre) and that it breaks into our dimension of reality at specific points ("gates," as he calls them; e.g. temple, the church, the eucharist ...). That what is on the other side of the gates is "the future of mode of the kingdom" is asserted in terms of the Apocalypse: "Consider what John the See saw when the firmament-gate of heaven opened and he was permitted to look through. What he saw was "what must take place after this": he saw the future, as the Spirit anticipates it for and in God's triune life" (81). From this he concludes: "Heaven is a mode of God's final kingdom, which is the future of creation. For God also this is truly future and ins not simply dissolved into a timeless present. ... Just as teh kingdom will be created reality, it is creation also in its present availablility to God and can then, in turn, be the part of creation in which God chosses to dwell for us and from which he comes to us."

Does that make sense? Does it sound plausable? You are the systematic theologian, after all! I'd love to hear your wisdom on the subject.