Are There Necessary Ontological Commitments for an Historic Christianity?

In my last, and till now most controversial post, I suggested that churches (to include Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, and perhaps Orthodox ones), seem to be far more susceptible to the kind of theological anti-realism that previously had been confined to academic institutions and scholarly domains. Today, it looks like this once scholarly anti-realism has seeped into the very woodwork of local parishes, congregations, ministries, and publishing houses.

While some have conjectured I might be stirring up a theological “witch hunt,” I’d hope that what I am actually doing is calling for transparency on the part of those who may be profiting through the use of religious language and practices, without themselves seriously believing in the metaphysical realities that ground such language and practices. Thus, popular level preaching, teaching, and writing on Christianity has taken a sort of Schleiermachian turn, where the subjective, human experience is more determinative of the truth about God than any revelatory content external to the person,  which has subsequently been captured in propositional statements about God.

This kind of faith seems to be what skeptics like Dan Dennett have rightly dubbed “belief in believing” in God, rather than belief in an actual God. Speaking of atheist and former anglican priest Don Cupitt, Dennett says this:

Others, such as Don Cupitt…feel the need to cast about for a religious creed that they can endorse with a straight face. They have a firm belief that belief in God is something to preserve, so when they find the traditional concepts of God frankly incredible they don’t give up. They seek a substitute. (Dennett, Breaking the Spell, 204-205)

Dennett goes on to correctly state that when such Christian anti-realists continue to try and retain this “belief in believing,” creedal revisionism is bound to follow:

This puts them [theological anti-realists] in a state of mind that makes them particularly receptive to novel emphases that somehow seem right or fitting. Like sausage-making and the crafting of legislation in a democracy, creed revision is a process that is upsetting to watch too closely. (Dennett, 205)

Sound like anyone in contemporary evangelical ministry you know of? There is certainly no lack of popular authors and ‘church’ leaders looking to revise, rather than recapture, classical, historical Christian creeds and the semantic content of their propositional statements. Not to mention the rampant reinterpretation of clear, biblical moral teachings, especially in the area of human sexuality. Of course, my implied argument here, is that the two are obviously, albeit not necessarily, related. Ditch the metaphysical commitments, lose the moral normativity.

On a side note, I do recognize that some denominations (e.g. the Episcopalian churches) have, for many years already, presented a kind of theological anti-realist message. But, they have done so rather openly and in a way that few congregants would likely be confused about what the ontological commitments of these churches and their communities really are. For example, I know that John Shelby Spong and I clearly disagree on what kinds of things exist when we talk about God, Jesus’ divinity, angels, and so on. Further, it may be worth noting that this Episcopalian openness vis-à-vis such historical, metaphysical commitments has by no means lead to its churches’ flourishing, as studies indicate. Still, better to act with integrity and fail, than to deceive and reap reward….is it not?

I think it is by now obvious that in more and more parts of “evangelical” churches, communities, on-line forums, etc., there is a real lack of transparency as to what are the necessary metaphysical commitments to call oneself or one’s congregation truly Christian. Thus, while talk about the love of Jesus may abound, apart from any serious belief that Jesus is seriously God, and that “God” seriously refers to a mind-independent, personal, transcendent, immaterial, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving creator, who has actual existence, well…that kind of talk (and the grace it supposedly proffers) is rather cheap indeed.

Therefore, I argued that pastors, theologians, priests, or other so-called ‘Christian’ leaders who do not hold to what many consider the basic ontological commitments necessary to an historical Christian faith, should finally come clean about what their metaphysical commitments actually are. There is no shame in this, especially since there is now abundant societal support for atheists to make this transition not only easily, but even beneficially (after all, counter-apologetics websites and forums abound on the internet, and the “New Atheism” has made non-belief vogue).

Here, therefore, I will attempt to clarify what I think these necessary, ontological commitments for an historical Christianity really are, and also show that these are neither idiosyncratic nor anachronistic. That is to say that conceptual novelty is the last thing I desire, even if clarity may require some modern parlance.

Since a classic Christianity is what I am interested in defending and recapturing, the most effective place to go with regard to isolating necessary metaphysical commitments would be one of the three early creeds (Apostles, Athanasian, Nicene). This for three reasons:

First, all major, historical Christian traditions (Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox) hold these first three creeds in high regard and see them as faithful summations of the main content of biblical revelation. Second, it is almost beyond a shadow of doubt that the early church Fathers who formulated these creeds also believed in the metaphysical realities behind the very statements they were formulating. In short, there were no philosophical categories even available to them that would have allowed them to think in nominalist or anti-realist terms. Historical speaking, we know that they thought this stuff was true. Finally, the early creeds just are the core, propositional content of historical, ecumenical Christianity. That does not mean that they are as authoritative as the Bible itself, or that they exhaust the biblical data, but it does mean that they define in propositional statements what the Bible says through other literary forms.

So, I present here the Nicene creed as a set of propositional claims that should demarcate the minimal metaphysical content of a truly Christian faith. I have further extracted from the Nicene language simple truth claims (TC) about ontological realities to demonstrate what all theological realists, really believe:

We believe in one God,

TC1) I believe that there is one God that really exists.

the Father almighty,

maker of heaven and earth,

(TC2) I believe that God created the universe (i.e. God caused the universe to come into existence). Also, conversely, I believe that God-concepts cannot cause universes to come into existence. Concepts have no causal powers; supernatural agents do.  

of all things visible and invisible.

(TC2.1) I believe that God created all the fundamental parts of the universe, anything that is material, all contingent immaterial entities or beings, or any other thing that exists contingently, or that exists in the space-time continuum.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,

(TC3) I believe that Jesus is Lord, and is therefore God.

the only Son of God,

begotten from the Father before all ages,

(TC3.1) I believe that Jesus is God and, as such, eternal and uncreated (He exists a se). 

God from God,

Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made;

(TC3.2) I believe that there was never a “time” when Jesus, as the Logos, was not 

of the same essence as the Father.

(TC3.3) I believe that Jesus and the Father share all the same properties of divinity.

Through him all things were made.

(TC3.4) I believe that Jesus possesses the same causal powers as God the Father.

For us and for our salvation

(TC4) I believe that only this God saves mankind.

(TC4.1) This salvation must be from sin and death (implied claim).

he came down from heaven;

he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,

(TC5) I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was born extra-naturally through Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit (therefore, at least one human conception and birth obtained in space-time without sexual intercourse between a man and a woman, or artificial insemination through the use of medical technology).

and was made human.

(TC5.1) I believe that Jesus was human just like us in every way (Jesus is fully human and, from above, fully divine) 

He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;

(TC6) I believe that Jesus’ human nature died a human death on the cross in or around 33 AD (Jesus did die) 

he suffered and was buried.

(TC7) I believe that he suffered, like a human man, and that he was entombed in a local, Jerusalem grave by a man named Joseph of Arimathea 

The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.

(TC8) I believe that Jesus rose physically from the dead, even if His resurrection body was somehow different than his pre-resurrection human body.

He ascended to heaven

(TC9) I believe that Jesus’ new, resurrection body was lifted up into the heavens. 

and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

(TC10) I believe that Jesus reigns (has total, causal power) with the Father and the Holy Spirit over all of the universe. 

He will come again with glory

(TC11) I believe that Jesus will literally return to this earth in his bodily form.

to judge the living and the dead.

(TC12) I believe that there will be a final judgement of mankind. (Yes, post-moderns, Jesus judges!)

His kingdom will never end.

(TC13) I believe that there will be an eternal (potential infinite) kingdom of all believers with God as King in a renewed created order, and this all after natural death has already occurred.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit,

(TC14) I believe that there are three persons in the Trinity, one of which is the Holy Spirit. 

the Lord, the giver of life.

(TC14.1) I believe that the Holy Spirit is the source of all life in the universe; the Holy Spirit animates everything that can be said to be life and gives all creatures their causal powers.  

He proceeds from the Father and the Son,

and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.

(TC14.2) I believe that all three persons of the Trinity can and should be worshipped and glorified, because they are all God.

He spoke through the prophets.

(TC15) I believe that the prophets and apostles, and the biblical books they wrote, are inspired by God and, therefore, reveal true knowledge about who God is and what He has done, is doing, and will do in human history. 

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.

(TC16) I believe that there is only one true (holy) church that exists in succession from the apostles themselves. Concurrently, I believe that it is not possible for human beings to know which actual persons are true members of that one, true church. (But, this is one reason for writing this post to begin with, since one can certainly openly reject wanting to be a part of this church).

We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

(TC17) I believe that one must be baptized by the Holy Spirit in order to be saved (I realize here, metaphysical interpretations can vary with regard to sacramentalism). 

We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,

(TC18) I believe that all believers in Jesus Christ will be raised again with new, glorified, physical bodies.

and to life in the world to come. 

(TC19) I believe that God will recreate the whole universe.  

Amen.

“So be it,” indeed! It’s high time that those who cannot affirm these metaphysical claims step down or ‘come out’ of their post-Truth closet! For some, maybe it means the road to an open embrace of atheism. But, if it be the case, at least you will know you are no longer deceiving yourself or others.

For others, however, perhaps this could be the beginning of a renewed relationship with the God who is there. After all, it has been the revival point for many who have gone on to embrace “classic Christianity.” Consider the words of one, former anti-realist, Thomas Oden:

“I was able to confess the Apostles’ Creed, but only with deep ambiguity. But I stumbled over “he arose from the dead.” I had to demythologize it and could say it only symbolically. I could not inwardly confess the resurrection as a factual historical event. I was assigned the task of teaching theology, but when I came to the resurrection, I honestly had to say at that stage that is was not about an actual event of a bodily resurrection but a community memory of an unexplained event. I could talk about the writings of the people who were remembering and proclaiming it as the saving event, but I could not explain to myself or to others how Christianity could be built on an event that never happened…That was my credo in my early thirties. It was new birth without bodily resurrections and forgiveness without atonement. Resurrection and atonement were words I choked on. That mean that the gospel was not about an event of divine salvation but about a human psychological experience of trust and freedom from anxiety, guilt and boredom”

And

“In my seminary teaching I appeared to be relatively orthodox, if by that one means using an orthodoxy vocabulary. I could still speak of God, sin and salvation, but always only in mythologized, secularized and worldly wise terms. God became the Liberator, sin became oppression and salvation became human effort. The trick was to learn to sound Christian while undermining traditional Christianity.”

Thomas Oden,  A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir

If a change of heart can occur for an intellect as great as Oden’s, then the belief in real, supernatural agents, and historical, bodily resurrections, can easily be rediscovered in the pulpits, pews, and pens of evangelicals today. Let’s recommit to theological realism, shall we?

 

 

 

 

 

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