We Created Our Own Prison

My parents gave me my first guitar on Christmas day, 1999. It was a Washburn Oscar Schmidt dreadnought. I remember that day well. My (future) brother-in-law arrived at my parent’s house late morning. His arrival was exciting in its own right because he too played guitar. This meant I could start learning right away! Later that evening at my Uncle and Aunt’s house, he taught me the 12-bar blues pattern. He taught me a lot more as time went on, but one of the things I picked up from him was liking a band called Creed.

One thing I had learned by that point in my short time on Earth was that there did not exist much “new” music that was worth listening to. The quality of what passed as rock music had greatly diminished even since the 1980’s, which had a lot of terrible music too. So, imagine my excitement when I discovered a band that was still recording albums that I could purchase. How wonderful! I still think that Mark Tremonti is an underrated guitarist. Just listen to his work on Alter Bridge’s first album!

To this day, I’m unsure how the band Creed took their name, but I would imagine it had to do with the religious upbringing of at least one band member (Scott Stapp). In Christianity (speaking specifically of Lutheranism), the word Creed has a definite meaning. It’s a statement of belief, but it’s more than that. It’s a metric. It’s a yard stick. It’s a plumb line. It’s what you use to determine if the body with which you’re about to worship is Christian, despite the name of the church on the sign outside.

Recently on these digital pages, I’ve been pointing out the lack of a strong doctrine of church in FE bodies. As stated in an Issues, Etc. podcast, the prevailing definition of “church” among FE’s is simply a gathering of (somewhat) like-minded people who choose to associate with each other rather than the church being an institution created by Christ through his apostles (that sounds far too sacerdotal!). Typically, an FE will go so far as to say that Christ instituted the church (it’s his bride, after all) and yes it started with the Apostles, but really the church is just is just a loose collection of believers. There’s no idea of an apostolic body that possesses authority from God to forgive sin and to correct errors. Commonly, FE’s are told “YOU are the church.”

It’s precisely this view of church that gets us into so much trouble.

If we are the church, who is present to correct our wrongs and keep us in the holy faith? The common answer is that “scripture is the norm that judges the faithfulness of a church.” Surely, I agree with this but if we are the church, how do we know that our interpretation of the scriptures is correct? How do we know that we have not merely descended into a state of believing that our interpretation of the scriptures is accurate merely because key people or a plurality of people in our lives have told us that our understanding is correct? Inherent in this question is the underlying truth: we’re all sinners. We are imperfect. We must admit that we make mistakes, probably also including our interpretations of the very scriptures that are supposed to keep us straight.

This is a difficult topic, capable of undoing the assurance of the believer, yet it’s an important one. How is it that a believer can know that his thinking is in line with what the scriptures teach? For this, we cannot use the scriptures because it is our interpretation of the scriptures that is in question! The answer, even in FE churches, is that he must be educated by learned men who have made their lives’ work of pursuing God as he’s described himself in the scriptures. These men don’t simply wake up one morning and discover that understanding of the scriptures has been endowed to them in the middle of the night. Instead, these men learned from other men, who have learned from other men.

What we see forming then is a chain of succession, where each believer has learned his faith from a group of believers that came before him. Literally, our understanding of the scriptures depends on where we have learned our church history. Dangerously, our understanding of church history scarcely reaches beyond 50 years. This is especially true in FE bodies. There’s very little discussion of church history, and really that’s due to the low view of the church in FE circles.

I do not mean to diminish the work of faithful people in FE houses of worship. I benefit greatly from my friendships with these people, and as I’ve said before, I heard some form of the gospel for the first time from FE’s. In my experience rather, FE’s often give of themselves selflessly to serve the body in a local church. So, far be it from me to say that FE’s have a low opinion of church, as if they’re indifferent or hostile to hearing God’s word (though in a poetic/dramatic sense, this is true). I specifically point to the FE’s low view of church, namely that in the FE’s mind, church is not the primary means God has ordained to bestow his gifts through word and sacrament. Instead, church is the place I choose to attend in order to worship God. As I’ve described before, though it may be seen as a selfless act of worship, the focus is on what we give to God, not how he serves us. The focus is on the self, and the self’s perception of the worship time.

This self-driven ideology is most evident in the repugnance with which the doctrines of the church are held. To be fair, not every doctrine is ignored or outright denied, but many are. Perhaps worse still, there’s little agreement on which doctrines to keep or toss. Owing to the “we follow no creed” mentality, each individual has made the scriptures of private interpretation. This is how it is possible to have full-blown Pelagians in an FE church alongside monergists and to have modalists  alongside orthodox trinitarians. While they nobly attempt to achieve it and shower each other with love, the advertised unity of faith cannot be found. Doctrine is not discussed (except for things like end-time studies), because doctrine divides. Why does this even matter, though? Why not just let peace reign and keep doctrinal opinion to one’s self?

Let’s consider that last heresy for a moment, modalism. In modern American FE churches and by God’s grace, you’re unlikely to find someone who would deny the deity of Christ. Thank God it isn’t common. You’re also unlikely to find someone who will not profess the eternal natures of the Son and the Spirit. But if each of our FE churches had a dime for each time the modalist heresy was uttered (“Think of God as water. There’s liquid water, solid water, and vapor water, but these are just three expressions of the same thing –water!”), there wouldn’t be a leaky sanctuary roof in all of the country. This is a problem with no solution because FE’s have eschewed the creeds that would set the matter straight! We’ve created our own prison.

Really though, how bad can this heresy be? It doesn’t seem to be problematic. Once, I even had a FE believer who holds my highest regard as a friend explain why he embraces modalism: “It’s a clear expression of monotheism.”

I have to give him that one. It self-harmoniously explains how God has been present throughout history as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a prime example of what happens when we do not look to those who came before us to mold our understanding of the scriptures.

1600 years ago, Christendom convened in the 4th century to discuss several things, one of which was a heresy regarding the natures of Christ and the Trinity. Out of the meeting at Nicea in the early 300’s came the Nicene Creed, the 2nd in a series of three ecumenical creeds. For all but the last few hundred years, if a person was to deny the Nicene Creed, they weren’t considered an “offshoot” of Christianity or a “branch” thereof, but rather as anti-Christian. However, the difficulty with these creeds is that it was a very political process to have them “ratified,” if you will. In fact, Christianity split in the early 1000’s due to a controversial addition to the Nicene Creed. FE’s point to situations such as these as proof that the Creeds are unreliable because they originate in the works of man.

Yet, these councils are how errors have been corrected, even dating back to the first century, and it is easy to note the inconsistency of the anti-credal FE position. While the Eastern Church rejects the latest form of the Nicene creed improperly, but for reasoned, theological purposes, the FE rejects the Creeds as authoritative because they were penned by men. The FE is content to live in happy ignorance or denial of the fact that the scriptures themselves were assembled at the same type of councils that brought us the Creeds. Nonetheless, we learn to live without the Creeds.

Without a creed to lean on though, there can (and do) appear several errors. Without the Creeds, we cannot understand why modalism is so detrimental and why it is heresy. Without the Creeds, we have no reasoned defense of trinitarianism.

This means that it’s fair game to say that God is one person expressed in three different ways… which means that it’s ok to say, if one wants to, that it was God the Spirit who enacted creation, and it’s the Father who brings understanding and sanctification (not the Spirit). It’s also ok to say that when Jesus was quoting David, he was only speaking figuratively. This seems harmless so far. Even though it’s against scripture, we haven’t proven anything beyond our abilities to argue theology.

But that’s not where the effects of this heresy stop.

It would also mean that God has not given his only begotten son, because if the Son, Father, and Spirit are the same being, then it’s impossible for any of them to beget another. It would also undermine the chief ground of our salvation, that Christ was obedient to the Father, who is distinct from Christ, and thus also distinct from the human identity he took on, meaning that Christ acts as our mediator because he’s a different person than the one with whom we have issue. If the father and the son are the same person, then Christ is a liar, as he said he did not come to judge the world but that’s exactly what the Father did through Christ on the cross.

The scriptures are clear but if we cannot trust the scriptures on these matters, then on what do we base our salvation? The problems with this line of thinking don’t stop here, either: if the three “expressions” of God are but one person, then who died on the cross? Must we separate the human and divine natures of Christ and descend into yet another heresy that disqualify Christ as our mediator?

In our efforts to comprehend the incomprehensible, we have driven ourselves deep into the worst of heresies, where we deny God as he’s revealed himself. Along with God’s identity, we also have relinquished the basis of our salvation. It’s as bad as claiming that Christ was a being created in time.

I believe the Creeds. They are important. They ought to be defended alongside scripture. While they are not co-equal with scripture, they are subject to scripture and explain scripture well (like the rest of the Book of Concord). They protect us from making scripture our own private interpretation. They keep us from making the bold claim that we know better than the cumulative knowledge of dozens of generations of faithful Christians that came before us.

God acts in and through his church. Thus, I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.