Christianity’s Most Vital Truth

One of the things I love most about worship in the Anglican tradition is the unison recitation of the Nicene Creed immediately following the sermon every Sunday. This fourth century document crisply summarizes the heart of what Christians have believed for two thousand years.

Every week we intone the words…

We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten from the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father. For us and for our salvation He came down from heaven. By the power of the Holy Spirit He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man.

Those are powerful words whenever they are repeated, but the significance of that declaration is especially meaningful at this time of year–Advent and Christmas.

When I taught Christian doctrine at a small Bible college, I used to ask my students what they believed to be the most important truth in all of Christianity. Their most common response was generally the Resurrection of Christ. Some suggested His Crucifixion. And these, along with a few others, are worthy suggestions. But I always told my students that I considered the Incarnation—the truth that the all-powerful and infinite God took on human form and became a human being who lived among us on earth—to be the single most important tenet in all of Christian doctrine.

After all, if Jesus was not really God in human form, then his death, while perhaps notable, was still just the death of a man. If he was not really God incarnate, then the literal truth of his resurrection from the grave can legitimately be challenged, and that story can just as easily be interpreted in ways that do not require any miraculous element.

But if Jesus Christ was “true God from true God” who “became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,” as the Creed declares and as orthodox believers understand the Scriptures to teach, then his crucifixion was far more than merely the death of a man. And if it was God in human form who died on that cross, then it is silly to deny the possibility of a literal, bodily resurrection.

In other words, if Jesus was not the incarnation, the “enfleshment,” of God, then everything else Christians say they believe about Jesus loses all significance. There is no more foundation for its truth. If, however, as we Christians believe, Jesus was in fact God in human flesh, then everything else the Creeds and the Gospels say about him is altogether reasonable and consistent with what we would expect from a God-man.

It was a fresh appreciation for the significance of the Incarnation of Christ some years ago that set me on this relentless pursuit of authentic faith. I began to subject every element in my practice of Christian faith to questions like these: “Is this worthy of association with one who was really and truly God in human flesh? Does this belief or this practice reflect the dignity, the gravitas, the majesty that should be accorded to one who was, and is, God with us?”

The result of that intense examination of my faith, which continues to this day, was my conclusion that much of what passes for Christian faith and practice is shallow and superficial. It reflects political ideology and cultural influence more than the teaching and example of One who, although He was God, considered our human predicament serious enough, and our eternal souls valuable enough, to become one of us in order to do something about our situation.

That is why I have been willing to change my mind, from time to time, about things I had previously embraced as essential Christian truth and practice. I now try to subject every element of my belief system to this standard: All that I believe and all that I do as a Christian must be consistent with the foundational truth upon which Christian faith rests—God became man.

People may reject our claim that Jesus Christ was really God in human form. But God forbid that they should be aided or encouraged in their denial of that truth by secondary “beliefs” and practices which are unworthy of the One who was, and is, God with us.

Correct Doctrine Is Not Enough (Bio, part 2)

Until I was in my mid-twenties and a Bible college graduate, my perception of Christian faith and practice was mainly shaped by protestant fundamentalism.  As a young pastor, I determined that the fundamentalist view of the Kingdom of God and Christian discipleship was too narrow and restrictive. I came to understand the Kingdom as a far broader and more inclusive reality than I had previously been taught, and I moved from fundamentalism to the “kinder and gentler” experience of American evangelicalism.

Then, as a student at Houghton College and later at Wheaton Grad School, I observed that much of evangelical Christianity had imbibed too deeply of American culture and looked more like the prevailing culture than the Kingdom of God. I was encouraged by the historical example of the Anabaptists, the “radicals” of the Reformation, who had strongly influenced my own Baptist tradition, and whose legacy was preserved, at least in theory, in groups such as the Mennonites.  My pilgrimage in pursuit of authentic faith led me to complete my MDiv degree in a Mennonite seminary and to devote a quarter century of my life to ministry among Mennonites.

When I formally embraced historical Anabaptism and joined a Mennonite congregation in 1982, I did so at the expense of relationships with a network of close friends and even within my family.  My friends and family professed Christian faith, but they rejected the idea of biblical nonresistance and found other elements of radical discipleship unpalatable. Identification with historical Anabaptism was costly for me.

As a Mennonite pastor, I began meeting regularly with a group of likeminded Mennonite leaders.  We believed that a voice was needed to call the Anabaptist tradition in America back to its historical and theological roots, and in 1992 we formed the Evangelical Anabaptist Fellowship. I was named EAF’s Executive Secretary and served in that role until the organization closed in 2001. EAF was not a denomination but rather a loose-knit, nationwide network of pastors and other church leaders from the Anabaptist tradition concerned that the doctrinal foundation of contemporary Anabaptism was being undermined by the growing influence of theological liberalism.  As “a voice for spiritual renewal” within the Anabaptist community, EAF employed the unofficial motto: “Reclaiming the evangelical heart of our Anabaptist heritage.”

I noted in an earlier post that I have sometimes been wrong-headed but I have never been half-hearted in my pursuit of authentic faith.  My experience with EAF is an example of that. For the nine years I was Executive Secretary, my strong emphasis on “doctrinal precision” built walls between believers and so contributed to divisiveness in the Body of Christ.  I know that the truth of the gospel sometimes drives a wedge between Christians and those outside the Kingdom.  I fear, however, that I may have encouraged division and separation between genuine believers simply because some of them didn’t articulate their convictions exactly as I did.

I now believe that, while doctrine is important, correct doctrine is not enough.  Paul told Titus (2:1) to “speak the things that are fitting for sound doctrine.”  Sound doctrine is truth which contributes to spiritual health and wholeness.  When an insistence on uniformity in doctrinal articulation, particularly a focus on orthodoxy without an equal emphasis on orthopraxy, builds barriers to fellowship between genuine believers, our doctrine may be correct—accurate, exact, precise—but it is not sound.

More anon.