Saturday, December 17, 2011

Your Church Is Too Big

I had a conversation awhile back with John Armstrong about orthodoxy before his book, Your Church Is Too Small, a title that plays on the well known book, Your God Is Too Small, came out. John’s understanding of what makes a Christian is typical, as his understanding of the nature of the creeds is superficial. John's understanding, as well as many evangelicals like him, is that one who can make a claim to believe the gospel or has a confessional stance based upon Nicea, can be considered a Christian and should be greeted into the church as a Christian. I wish I could find the conversation, but I imagine it was so long ago that it is now lost in cyberspace somewhere. In any case, let me share with you some things about what makes a Christian that I think are vital for everyone to understand.

First, orthodoxy can’t save you. Let me qualify that. Obviously, a little orthodoxy needs to be given to you, i.e., the real gospel, in order for you to believe it and be justified; but merely giving you that little orthodoxy can’t save you by itself. You actually have to believe it. So orthodoxy is needed, but simply being orthodox does not identify you as a Christian.

Second, orthopraxis can’t save you either. We are not saved by good works. Simply being a good citizen in society or the church and helping out doesn’t make you a Christian. But let me qualify that by saying a little orthopraxis is needed in the receiving of the gospel, as to repent and believe is a moral decision as well. The point here is simply that orthopraxis alone does nothing for you toward salvation, and as such, cannot identify you as a Christian.

What does identify a person as a Christian is both orthodoxy and orthopraxis together. One without the other signifies that one never performed the little orthopraxis of repenting and believing the little orthodoxy of the gospel, because the path of the Christian is one that begins and ends with both. Hence, one who truly believes the gospel for justification will continue on in sanctification, and both orthodoxy and orthopraxis are held therein.

Hence, the orthodox who come to Jesus on the day of Judgment and argue that they are to be identified as Christians, but their actions either deny His Lordship by indulging in evil (Matt 7:16-23) or refraining from good (25:31-46) are damned. But the practitioners of orthopraxis who come to Christ on that day without the orthodoxy of the gospel will be eternally damned as well (Rom 3:20; Gal 1:6-9; 5:4).

So it is through the truth that we are made holy (John 17:17-19). If one is to claim to be a Christian, therefore, one cannot exist without the other.

The point is that he who truly begins in the true Faith, evidenced by both orthodoxy and orthopraxis will end there, and because of that truth, the genuine Christian will have as his evidence that he is a Christian both orthodoxy and orthopraxis. If he lacks one, he needs to be corrected. If corrected, and he continues on without repentance, his claim to be a Christian is to be denied, and he is to be put out of the church, lest others be convinced that the heretic and/or the “heteroprax” are Christians too, and that doctrine and practice doesn’t really matter, then, as long as one makes the claim that he or she believed the gospel.

Therefore, based on the above understanding, then, what is orthodox and orthodprax evidences the truth or falsity of one’s claim to have believed. As such, one who lives in one but not the other, or one who lives without either, cannot legitimately make a claim that he or she is a Christian. Notice what Christ says about the nature of His sheep:

"Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter by the door into the fold of the sheep , but climbs up some other way, he is a thief and a robber. "But he who enters by the door is a shepherd of the sheep. "To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. "When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice." A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.

Note that it does not say, “those who hear his voice become his sheep,” but “his sheep hear his voice” and they “follow him because they know his voice” and that “a stranger they simply will not follow.” His sheep are His sheep when they hear the gospel and believe it (exercising the moral decision to repent [orthopraxis] and believe in a gospel filled with right doctrine [orthodoxy]). This is the pattern of the true Christian. He simply will not follow the path of heresy and heteropraxis, as his Master’s voice isn’t in them.

Now, with that in mind, let’s discuss what creeds are actually for, as John’s idea, as well as the continual claim by all sorts of heretical and “heteroprax” groups of people often make the claim that they are Christians because they believe either the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed, which are supposedly meant to be the summation of what is required to maintain orthodox Christianity. I reject completely that they are.

Instead, the creeds exist to keep the church on the orthodox path, but they are not the sum total of that path. They are the boundary markers against whatever heresy arose at that time, and they can help if that heresy arises again; but they do not make up the sum total of all Christian faith and practice (of course, the creeds themselves do not really contain much practice in them, even though the decisions of the larger Councils do). My point here is that creeds exist to provide boundary markers for the path, not to summarize the path for the entire journey of the church. Let me demonstrate that for you.

The Apostle’s Creed was formed to secure the gospel from the heresies of Gnosticism. Let’s look at it for a moment:

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. On the third day, He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, where He sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From there He will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy, historic Christian church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen. 
Now, this does give a good summation of the gospel, so it can be used that way. The problem is that when one takes this as only what is required to remain orthodox that he gets in trouble. Notice, the Gnostics are defeated by the creed in that it is argued that God the Father, not the evil demiurge, is the maker of heaven and earth (i.e., the physical realm and the spiritual realm, not just the spiritual). They are again refuted by the fact that Jesus was really born through the virgin, suffered, died, and was bodily resurrected (which is what resurrected means in early Christianity—i.e., there’s no such thing as a spiritual resurrection). Both spiritual and physical are affirmed as the realm over which Christ will judge, the orthodox church that teaches such is affirmed as the true church, and the necessity for forgiveness of sins committed in the body is affirmed, along with the resurrection of the body and eternal life in that state. This is all countering Gnosticism, and that’s a good thing. It kept Christians who encountered Gnostic heresy from straying from the path. They heard Christ’s voice in the creed, and followed Him rather than another. The heretics followed the stranger.

The problem is that the heretics of the next generation then just affirmed the creed in that they accepted that God was the Creator of the physical realm and that Jesus was born, suffered, and died, but that He was only indwelt by God, but not God Himself (Adoptionism), that He was just a man (Ebionite), or that He was the supremely created being who comes closest to being like God, but is not God Himself (Arianism). Now the Apostle’s Creed, although it is an important creed to set the boundary markers for orthodoxy, no longer is capable of setting the boundary markers. It does not provide a light to the new part of the path that we have come upon along our journey toward Christ.

Hence, the Nicene Creed, building upon the Apostle’s Creed, needed to be set in place to provide those markers who would seek to hear the voice of Christ and follow. So Nicea argued that the Jesus was both God and man, as Christians had been saying for the previous two and a half centuries before it. Here is the main addition:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.

Notice now that this counters the heresies that Jesus, the man, was adopted by the divine Christ. It counters the heresy that He was just a man, and it counters the heresy that He is a created being by arguing that He is true God from true God, not made and of one being with the Father.
Many will then argue that we can stop here, as though Nicea covered the only bases important enough to be covered (of course, not even the Fathers at the time believed that since it was necessary to convene another council, i.e., Constantinople I, in order to clarify and reaffirm Nicea. Anyone, therefore, who affirms Nicea can be considered a Christian. The problem, of course, is that the heresy simply adapted and accepted Nicea, but then argued that Christ was incarnated as two persons, one divine and one human (Nestorianism), that He had one mixed nature (monophysitism), or that He had only one will (monothelitism).
Nicea didn’t deal with these heresies, and, as such, the creed needed to be fortified again by the councils of Ephesus (contra Nestorianism), Chalcedon (contra monophysitism), and the second (contra assumed-Nestorianism) and third (contra monothelitism and monoenergism—not to be confused with monoergism) councils of Constantinople in order to fortify and reaffirm the creeds.

The point I’m making here is that it is given to the church in every generation to keep the boundary markers for the path of Christ and to affirm the teachings of the orthodox church in setting up other markers as we continue down the path. This doesn’t mean we’re setting up “new” markers, as we are simply reaffirming what Christians have believed everywhere, but that they are things that have not been repudiated by major heresies before.

In other words, it doesn’t really matter that doctrines like the eternality of hell, inerrancy, justification by faith alone through grace alone, etc. don’t appear in the Nicean creed. It only matters that the orthodox have affirmed these throughout their walking along the path, and that they accurately shed light upon the path we are to follow. Nicea does not contain the boundary markers for our new heresies that have simply adapted and taken upon new forms of rebellion against Christ and His gospel.

Hence, it was the task of the Reformers to counter the heresy that a person could work toward his salvation, even with helps from God. It has been our task in recent times to work on bibliology and eschatology (specifically in terms of Christ’s Second Advent and hell), and perhaps, upon the very nature of and ability to know truth itself, as heresy works hard now to undermine, not just individual orthodox doctrines, but all orthodox doctrine. To argue that our “church is too small” because we don’t accept Nicea as the all encompassing creed is to be ignorant of what creeds are for, and as such, will lead to the gates being opened to countless heresies. Indeed, it, therefore, may be a heresy itself that seeks to undermine the importance of these doctrines to the path of the gospel.

Again, the little amount of orthodoxy one needs to know in order to be saved, and what orthodoxy one will affirm once he is given the truth may be two different things, but they are related, as one will always result in the other. Orthodoxy breeds more orthodoxy just as orthopraxis breeds more orthopraxis. We learn. We grow. We listen. We follow. If the voice of the stranger calls us to another path, we will not obey him, for sheep only hear their Master’s voice, and His voice leads us onto the right path.

Again, orthodoxy cannot save you. You must submit your life to Christ as Lord. We must repent of our false doctrine and evil practices, but how, pray tell, will that be possible if we do not know what false doctrines we believe are evil and work to destroy the gospel of salvation? Hence, all of this is connected to the gospel. This isn’t a question of believing different things about celebrating Easter, eschatological timelines, or views of creation days. Orthodoxy affirms our very first creed by expanding upon it against the heresies that are formed to undermine it. And our very first creed is this: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” All heresy, in one way or another, seeks to undermine this by distorting who the God is who is saving us, who Christ is who is capable of saving us, His work on the cross, His promise of eternal life, etc. Hence, in Scripture, we have numerous statements concerning the damnation of those who distort the nature of God, Christ, His work on the cross, His resurrection, etc.

Why is it important? I don’t know. Why is salvation important? Answer that question and then you have your answer for why orthodoxy is important as the vehicle through which one can be saved and as part of the two pieces of criteria we use to evaluate whether we are saved. I think it’s important, don’t you? If we do begin to see the seriousness of it, maybe we'll be compelled to conclude that our church isn’t too small after all. In fact, maybe it’s too big.

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