“Celebrity” Deconversions & The Journey of Faith – Part II (Kinds of Experiences)

Further reflecting on the recent “rash” of celebrity deconversions in the Evangelical church, I now consider what kinds of personal experiences, in contrast to intellectual habits, may increase epistemic resiliency with regard to Christian faith. In other words, apart from intellectual preparedness, will some people have a greater capacity to overcome doubt, both emotional and intellectual, due to particular kinds of experiences they have had?

I think there are people who have a greater capacity to endure through doubt, and I believe there are three kinds of personal experiences that strengthen the epistemic resiliency of the Christ follower.

Profound Religious Conversion Experiences

Many adult believers who fall away from faith often relate some subjective feeling or experience of a personal encounter of Jesus they had, either as a youth, or teenager, which supplemented their belief that Christianity was true. This, along with community and a sense of purpose, provided the foundation for their adult faith. Thus, when they deconvert after being presented with counter-evidence they had not previously seen, they find themselves torn between this subjective, albeit deep, feeling of Jesus being real, and this apparently more objective and rational data that undermines the Jesus story.

However, there are also cases of converts who personally attest to an intense visual or audible appearance of Jesus, and this not in their youth, or still cognitively malleable teenage years, but as fully developed, mature adults. Some of these adult conversions also take place apart from the right kind of community (think current trends in Muslim conversions), and when the person already has a sense of purpose in their life. Moreover, many such cases of dramatic religious experience, whether occurring during an actual church service (as was my case), or in some other more private context, are reported by adult converts as being far more real than the daily reality that surrounds them.

In this sense, there seems to be a qualitative difference among kinds of religious experiences. Some seem generated in, or under, the “right” kinds of conditions: a youthful church member who has a feeling of Jesus during a Christian worship service, youth camp, or summer retreat. But others are not, they are had by non-church members, living adult lives already full of meaning and purpose, yet where there is also some accompanying visible or audible quality to their experience of Jesus. Of course, there are more types of religious experiences than just these, and various combinations of the qualities of such experiences could be considered. However, if we take adult conversions which occur through profound religious experience, under non-optimal conditions as genuine, it seems that we can identify at least one kind of religious experience that may lend to epistemic resiliency when counter-evidence to Christian truth claims is presented later in one’s life.

My conversion, for example, was at 34 years old. I was at the top of my game physically, and mentally, having just qualified for the Army special forces “Q-course” a few months prior. My motivation for going into my first ever Evangelical church the day of my conversion was not any particular desire to seek out and find God, but the girl who had asked me to go with her. After all, I already had my own personal, and very syncretistic beliefs about deity, and girls just interested me more than Jesus. However, the experience I had was so real, and also so altering when it came to my beliefs and behaviors, that it is difficult now, as a 44 year old, to not see this experience as a significant piece of evidence for the veracity of the Christian faith. Of course examples like mine can be abundantly multiplied, and are certainly not limited to white, male, heterosexual Westerners like myself.

Therefore, it seems that profound, religious experiences with visual or audible content that occur under sub-optimal conditions (e.g. not in an explicitly Christian environment, not being sought out directly, etc.) can increase epistemic resiliency in the journey of faith.

Witnessing or Interacting with the Demonic, or Extraordinary Evil

Another kind of experience that may lend to epistemic resiliency in the journey of Christian faith, is prior encounters with the spiritual realm. Many, even skeptics, attest to observing or encountering things that are so bizarre, as well as extraordinarily real, that they cannot be explained away as mere psychological phenomena. Interactions with demonic agents, or experiences of horrendous evils (genocide, torture, etc.), can open one up to something that can only be described as “non-physical,” yet entirely actual.

People who have converted to Christianity out of the occult are often very aware of this, and because of their many interactions with a realm beyond the natural one, they too have a certain epistemic resiliency that those who have not had these kinds of experiences do not. For when the abstract claims about supernatural agencies (like the many references to demonic possession in the New Testament) become real, concrete experiences, such experiences are rarely forgotten, remaining as vivid memories, and cognitive reminders, that, at a minimum, the Bible is right about the supernatural world.

My own account of this involves two experiences with the demonic. One particularly malevolent one took place in a small apartment in a densely populated part of Munich, Germany, during a “sting” operation against child sex trafficking in which I participated (on the side of the investigative journalists, of course, not the perpetrators). The other, far too personal to relate in a blog post, had to do with someone I was involved with, who had dabbled with various forms of religious Yoga, and practiced things like astral projection.

One of my best friends, however, who converted to Christianity out of native American shamanism, relates a harrowing account of what it is like to live “on the other side.” Here is his story, one that will not leave you skeptical about the reality of the spiritual realm: http://www.readphoenixroad.com/

Thus, encounters with spiritual forces, especially demonic agents, or horrible moral evil, can also serve to bolster fidelity to some core claims of Christianity, in spite of other epistemic challenges. That the spiritual is real, and that it seems to be fundamentally dualistic, i.e. there is real evil and real good, increases our confidence in the biblical worldview.

Gross Immorality

Finally, a third kind of experience that may provide greater epistemic resiliency is one’s personal struggle with, or long-term involvement in gross immorality. What I mean by gross immorality here is those folks who have committed acts like murder, rape, unjust war, and torture; or who have engaged in sexual perversion over extended periods of time, or egregious forms of greedy behavior, fraud, or even political corruption, e.g. Chuck Colson.

People who have sinned in dramatic fashion, or pursued sensual pleasures or egotistical behaviors all the way to their fullest extent, often come to know experientially the total bankruptcy of what the world has to offer. Thus, upon conversion, they tend to more fully appreciate Peter’s words in John 6:68-69 when doubt comes to them later in life, “Lord, who will we go to? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that You are the Holy One of God!”

People who have been forgiven much, love much. And it is often the case that even if they come across challenges to their Christian faith, they nevertheless have had the experience that there really is nothing else out there to turn toward when the existential chips are down. There is a quality of Goodness and Beauty about Christ, and Christianity, that compels them to see beyond the intellectual challenges to some of its truth claims, and thereby remain steadfast in their faith.

Conversely, not everyone who is an adult Christian has strayed into deep sin, or egregious immorality. Normally, this is a good thing too! But, those Christians who, by and large, have lived a morally decent life, who have not drunk deeply from the well of iniquity, simply have not had the personal experience of moral evil against which they can contrast their current experience of a decent, Christian lifestyle. The “not knowing what it is like,” whether it be that of a bat (Thomas Nagel reference), or of a mafia boss (Michael Franzese), of serious moral depravity, gives the average Christian a sense of not actually being as wicked or depraved as the Bible seems to suggest. And that is in spite of professing it every Sunday with their mouth, or when trying to witness to a skeptic.

True, many adult deconverts will not walk away from their Christian morality, at least in the basics, and certainly not at first. But that is mainly due to the fact that most of their inner life has been shaped by years of Christian moral formation, and even good habits can be hard to break.

Thus, long-term involvement in gross immorality and sin can also act as one more factor in the epistemic resiliency of the born-again believer. Skeptics may make their claims against some propositional truths of Christianity, but the Goodness and Beauty of the faith is powerful to those who have engaged in evil, and know ugliness from the inside.

Conclusion: Personal Experiences can Increase Epistemic Resiliency, but They Cannot Be Actively Pursued

Of course, the main problem for epistemic resiliency based on personal experience, is that none of the kinds of experiences I related here can, or should, be actively pursued. They tend to just happen to the person. As such, people who just happen to have had these kinds of experiences will likely have a greater resiliency in their faith journeys than those who have not. But, none of these experiences can be intentionally sought out by a Christian believer! By their nature they are things that either occur unexpectedly, i.e. the profound religious experience, or that either happen prior to one becoming a Christian, i.e. practice of the occult, or that lead one to become a Christian, gross immorality.

Still, it seems to be the case that believers who have been through experiences like these, will often have an easier time of persevering to the end, at least in their beliefs, if not their practices.

Photo By The King of Mars – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78156864

Did Jesus Make Historical Errors?

A recent Facebook post asked the intriguing question of whether or not believers in Jesus (i.e. in Jesus’ full deity) would be comfortable if it were the case that Jesus referenced Old Testament events that themselves were not factually historically, but as if they were factually true. That is, could Jesus as God incarnate genuinely reference Old Testament narratives as historical events that contemporary commentators take to be allegorical, mythical, or just plain false? In short, did Jesus make historical errors?

This is a really good question, especially for all those who hold to a high Christology, whereby Jesus, possessing all of the properties of the Godhead, would be incapable of error. After all, could it really be the case that God might flunk a simple exam on Ancient Near Eastern history? Likely not, if He is indeed the greatest conceivable Being.

I see two possible solutions to this problem: one, that Jesus concealed knowledge from His audience for some greater good, or two, that Jesus, like his contemporaries, didn’t actually know the facts of the matter. Neither of these conclusions, however, should diminish our faith in the God-man, nor the reliability of the Scriptures.

Christology & Communication of Attributes

First, it is necessary to do some Christological work. For clearly what we are discussing here is the nature of the divine attributes, in particular the attribute of omniscience, and how those attributes are shared, or communicated, between Jesus’ divine nature and His human nature. Historically, scholastic theologians distinguished between the communication of divine attributes in the abstract (communicatio idiomatum in abstracto) and the communication of attributes in the concrete (communicatio idiomatum in concreto). The former meant that the divine attributes were shared with Jesus’ human nature at the level of essences, while the later held that the divine and human attributes were shared concretely in the particular person of Jesus of Nazareth (contra Nestorius, who thought that God could not suffer, or thirst, and most certainly not die).

If the sharing of divine attributes (let’s stick with omniscience as an example) were shared at the level of essences, that is between the divine essence and human essence, then, for example, it would be the case that baby Jesus, had he so desired, was entirely capable of formulating Einstein’s theory of relativity without any normal process of human learning, right there in the manager. Since God knows all truths about the universe (to include Einstein’s theory), then the Christ child not only knew this theory, but could articulate it as well since he would also possess divine omnipotence at the level of His human nature and, therefore, would not be limited by underdeveloped vocal cords, or cognition.

However, this seems highly unlikely, especially in light of verses like Luke 2:52, a verse almost all biblical scholars take at face value. But, if Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, then he likely also learned things, like any other 1st century Palestinian boy. That would mean that Jesus’ attributes, both divine and human, were shared in the concrete, in His very person, the individual being who just is both the second person of the Trinity and the man Jesus (the theanthropos). That means that the God-man can have divine attributes correctly applied to Him (see 1 Cor 2:8) and also human attributes correctly predicated of Him (Rom 1:3), even though He is only one man. But is also means that Jesus would have had to grow and develop as a human before certain capacities could be exercised.

However, if this communication of attributes in the concrete is assumed, it seems clear that there are times when Jesus’ divine attributes are non-operative (Matt 24:36-37). Now, if one believes that the communication of attributes does occur at the level of essences, or natures, then one might be able to say that in passages like these Jesus simply hides the fact that He knows such truths. He knows them, but conceals them from His followers, the same way He conceals the fact He can do S5 modal logic from Mary during their flight to Egypt.

But, if Jesus is not concealing His divine omniscience at times like this, then the only other option is that Jesus, being human, is actually unaware of certain truths; e.g. like the timing of the end times. We will look at this shortly. Another option would be to say that within the Trinity itself there are things the Father knows, which the Son does not. But, while this might be true in one sense (e.g. the Father knows the proposition “I am the Father” to be true, while the Son does not), in other areas of knowledge, like the timing of the end times, this is highly problematic.

One possibility that might answer the question of legitimate ignorance of historical facts by Jesus is sometimes referred to as kenotic Christology. Kenosis Christology suggests that Jesus empties Himself of some of His divine attributes (see Phil 2:5-11), but in doing so did not necessarily lose His divinity. Loss of divine attributes, or their fullness, does not mean lack of or deficiency in divine status. Here, Jesus relinquishes the “omni” of His divine attributes, but maintains the “supra” of those same attributes. So, while Jesus may be ignorant of the timing of the end times, He still can still exercise super-knowledge, or super-power, for example, in His knowledge of the thoughts of human person (Matt 12:25) and in His power to cast out demons, or walk on water.

So, how does this all play out with regard to the original question? How do these two, perhaps three, models of the communication of attributes apply to the idea that Jesus might have referenced OT narratives as genuinely historical events, when, in fact, they were either mythical constructs, or mistaken reports, or perhaps something in between, like mythicized history.

Let’s take the last two models first. On the kenotic model, Jesus simply does not know whether these events were factual, and that is because He has emptied himself of some of his divine attributes. He probably takes them as literal, because that is the way the contemporaries of his day took them. Thus, it would not be in any way wrong, again considering His setting aside of omni-science, for Him to assume what the scribes, pharisees, and laypeople of His time also assumed about these stories; they were, after all, Israel’s history. In this sense Jesus has accommodated His whole self to the human context, and, therefore, there is no inconsistency or problem with us understanding Jesus as still fully divine, yet without this kind of knowledge.

Alternatively, on the communication of attributes in the concrete model, we can only make basic remarks that accord with Orthodox, Chalcedonian Christology, yet which leave us a bit unsatisfied as to an actual explanation of how Jesus can be called both fully divine and fully human. At certain times Jesus displays only divine properties, and at other times, seemingly, only human properties. Thus, we say simply that when Jesus enacts a miracle, he acts miraculously according to his divine nature, and when he fails to know a bit about the future, his failure to know is according to his human nature. Beyond that, we cannot say much more. The “how” of this unity of contradictory attributes is simply not for us to understand. Again here there is no problem or inconsistency with saying that if Jesus did not know some truth about history, He did not know it according to His human nature. This should be unproblematic, unless we think that not knowing a fact about history is a sin; which I doubt anyone does.

Applying One Model to Understand Jesus’ OT References

On the first model, however, the communication of attributes in the abstract, we might say that Jesus knows the facticity of all historical events, to include those narrated in the OT (and knows them exhaustively), but chooses to conceal that knowledge from his original audience, and consequently from us. Why might He do this though? Why not tell them all of the facts of the story?

Well, on this view, that of Jesus as having attributes communicated at the level of natures, one solution to the problem of OT references presents itself.

With regard to OT narratives that Jesus seemingly references as historical, let’s say the story of Jonah, it is possible that on this model of Jesus’ attributes, a) Jesus was incapable of making factual mistakes due to the sharing of divine attributes in the abstract, and b) that not every story in the Old Testament, to include those Jesus referenced, was a one-to-one accurate account of a historical event that occurred in the same spacetime universe we inhabit right now. 

Thus, Jesus knows the facticity of any given historical event, yet also knows that some of these OT narratives that His audience takes as factual are indeed, to some degree, non-factual. But, Jesus conceals this knowledge from them, accommodating his communication to His audience for the sake of getting them to understand something more significant than just historical facts, something like a necessary theological truth; on this example of Jonah and the fish, it might be the analogy of “the sign of Jonah” with Jesus’ immanent resurrection from the grave. He conceals His omniscience from His listeners, resisting telling them every detail of the Jonah event, so that some greater good might obtain; some greater good for them.

Therefore, Jesus may have referenced stories in the OT that used hyperbole, metaphor, or other literary devices, subsequently refraining from correcting them for facticity, and that for the sake of making sure that the same theological content taught through those OT narratives, and that was understood as such by his contemporary audience, is the same content that He is commenting on, and adapting, for his hearers.

Moreover, Jesus might further refrain from giving this one-to-one, detailed account of a historical event because to do so could have some detrimental or opposite affect on human agents already depraved by sin. Or, if not a detrimental affect, an insufficient affect (i.e. something that does not effect in the agent that which they would need in order to come to know God). From a secular standpoint it is often thought that more propositional knowledge is always a good for us as human beings; however, if the chief end of man is to come into an eternal loving relationship with God, it is not obvious that merely more factual data will actually aid in that goal. In fact, it could hinder it.

Finally, this concealment of knowledge is already implied in the NT when Jesus tells parables so that some who hear them may, in fact, not understand their meaning. Thus, we should conclude that if God does hide certain facts from us, He does so for our benefit, and not to our detriment.

Of course, there is one other option that I am more than willing to entertain, namely, that these OT stories are presented as history, because they actually were historical. That said, Jesus refers to events in the OT as historical true simply because they were so.

Early Christian Creeds and Their Importance for Apologetics: Part VIII – Nicene Creed Lines 12-14

As we wrap up this in-depth look at the Nicene Creed and its usefulness for defending the core, historical and Apostolic claims of a “mere Christianity” let me first make one additional point about the nature of the belief statements found in the creeds, a point which matters with regard to discerning a form of the Christian faith that has ultimate meaning, from one that has only psychological meaning.

The point I am drawing out is the necessity of making metaphysical commitments, specifically as they apply to the propositions found in the Creed. Thus, to see the language of the Creeds and the entities they posit as non-real, i.e. as merely metaphorical or symbolic terms that relate only to human intra-mental experiences, would effectively empty any of these beliefs of their ultimate meaning.

Now, this cannot be, and for two reasons: first, projectivist (non-metaphysical) accounts of religious faith tend to reduce all of religious language down to just that, language. Skeptical philosophy starting with Feuerbach’s critique of Schleiermacher, and then later analytical philosophy (Russell, et al.), have rightly shown such religious belief to be nonsense. Second, to think that the writers of the Bible were some kind of metaphysical or theological anti-realists is anachronistic to the point of absurdity.

So, the view that intentionally avoids, or rejects, metaphysical commitments with regard to the referents the Bible claims as real (e.g. God, human souls, maybe Seraphim and the Devil) may still value the Bible as an intriguing and ancient piece of literature, or even a compelling moral text, but it will do nothing with regard to soteriological reality, while, often arrogantly, downplaying the belief of the biblical writers themselves. As I have argued elsewhere, theologians or pastors who empty the Bible of its metaphysical claims, should simply embrace their non-belief AND also resign their positions…well, at least those in pastoral ministries (although perhaps atheist theologians would serve their communities better by identifying as religious studies professors).

Thus, the Christian faith that we defend as Apologists is one that assumes the existence of immaterial, causally efficacious, and morally agentive beings (e.g. God, angels, demons, human souls, etc.) In short, these beings exist, they do actual work in the world, and they can be rightly called good or evil.

That said, when we lay claim to the belief that it was through the Holy Spirit that Mary became pregnant with the divine Logos, what we mean is something like God causally generating new genetic material to be created so that the Logos could be hypo-statically united to a real flesh-and-blood human body.

This also implies that when we speak of historical events, like the Resurrection, we speak of actual, super-natural occurrences in this very same time-space reality that we experience daily with our senses, and not some legendary or symbolic retelling of either human intra-mental projections, or products or artistic fancy. The former liberal theologian, then later classical Christian theologian Thomas Oden put it this way:

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. (Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir).

So, a genuine adherence to metaphysical realism when it comes to the kinds of being the Bible refers to, and the Creeds encapsulate, and the realness of historical events, is necessary if we are to call ourselves Apostolic and authentic Christians. It is this turn to the metaphysics of the Bible that brought Oden himself back to a historic faith.

On that note, let’s look at the last lines of the Nicene Creed. These lines pertain to three loci of theology: the Church, the Sacraments, and the End Times.

12. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.

I believe that there is only one true church, even if it is not possible for human beings to know with certainty which persons are actual members of that church

This claim is important, and the obvious discussion here will surround the nature of the “true” Church, likely taking us into an analysis of the three major traditions of Christian faith: Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. For our purposes here, I would argue that the Church is the total number of all human souls who have come into a personal, salvific relationship with Jesus Christ, whether explicitly through a conscious act of commitment, or implicitly through a non-cognitive, loving awareness of Christ, His excellences, and His saving grace (for example, in infants, or those with severe mental handicap).

13. We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

I believe that one must be baptized by the Holy Spirit in order to be saved

Again, obvious debate here on exactly the mode of baptism required for salvation. But, for our purposes we would want to defend some kind of baptism event: minimally a baptism by the Spirit at the moment of regeneration and new spiritual life, and then more fully the outward act of Baptism that professes a new believers entry into the community of faith.

14. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and to life in the world to come.

I believe that all believers in Jesus Christ will be raised again with new, glorified bodies

This final hope of an eternal life in a newly created world, with new physical bodies, is necessary to Christian faith. Our ultimate hope must be part and parcel of why we do what we do in defending the faith, even unto our own, temporary and this-worldly deaths.

Oh, and there is one last line,

15: Amen.

I believe that I believe! And, not just in my heart, but also with my whole mind.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mk 12:30, Matt 22:37, Luke 10:27).

Early Christian Creeds and Their Importance for Apologetics: Part II – The Nicene Creed

Continuing in this examination of the early creeds and their usefulness for apologetics, I turn now to the Nicene Creed. About this particular creedal formulae J.N.D. Kelly states:

Prior to the beginning of the fourth century all creeds and summaries of faith were local in character. It was taken for granted, of course, that they enshrined the universally accepted Catholic faith, handed down from the Apostles. But they owed their immediate authority, no less than their individual stamp, to the liturgy of the local church in which they had emerged. Moreover, while creed-like formularies were to be found in the Eucharist, in the rite of exorcism and elsewhere, those in the main line of development were confined to baptism and the catechetical preparation leading up to it. A great revolution now takes place with the introduction of synodal or conciliar creeds. The custom becomes established, beginning with the council of Nicea, for ecclesiastics meeting in solemn conclave to frame formularies giving utterance to their agreement on matters of faith.

He goes on to say:

The new creeds were intended, of course, to have a far more than local authority. Sometimes including anathemas, they were put forth not merely as epitomes of the beliefs of their promulgators, but as tests of the orthodoxy of Christians in general…It was devised [the Nicene Creed] as the touchstone by which the doctrines of Church teachers and leaders might be certified as correct. (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, 205.)

As I mentioned in the first part of this series, the earliest creedal formulas, formulas that point to a core deposit of Apostolic teaching about Christ, are found in the very lines of the New Testament itself (see 1 Cor 15:3-8, Phil 2:5-11). Here, Kelly points out, however, that as the Church grew in size and influence, it became necessary to take the core truths about faith in Christ that had been inscripturated by the NT writers, and consolidate them into simple formulas to ensure that local churches would be roughly on the same page in regards to what they were teaching about Jesus Christ. This included pointing out false teachings.

To use an analogy, my family owns several pizzerias in Chicago. They are all the same company though, just different locations. We want to ensure that every one of our pizza restaurants produces the same kind of pizza as all the others. We want the pizza produced to be as similar as possible regardless of which location one goes to for dinner. So, how can this continuity in texture and taste of each pizza be maintained across various local restaurants?

Well, the first thing you need is a recipe, and then you need some detailed instructions about how to put the pizza together. Then, you need to get that recipe and those instructions into the hands of the local managers, who then need to get it down to their workers, who subsequently need to know what the recipe says and practice what the instructions tell them to do.

However, no recipe for a pizza, or any food item really, needs to contain all the information about a pizza in order to make a pizza, and make it well. For example, you don’t necessarily need to know the percentage of flour to yeast in the dough, or what brand of yeast is used, or how many ounces of salt is in the pepperoni, or how much fennel is in each ounce of sausage, or what exactly the spice mix in the sauce consists of. It’s not bad to know all that detail, but to start you only need to know the rough outline or the more general characteristics of the pizza in order to actually make it. You just need to know you need a certain amount of dough, sauce, cheese, sausage, etc. and how they all fit together.

A creedal statement could act as a sort of general recipe for how to make a church an Apostolic one, and it could tell you how your Christian life should (in a minimal way) look, and what a biblically-centered church should (again minimally) believe. Obviously there is more to the restaurant than just the pizzas (there are the servers, the drinks, the salads, the cleanliness, etc.), but if you get the pizza wrong, you probably aren’t going to be a very good pizzeria. And, as I said above, there will always be more one can learn about how the pizza is made and what goes into it. Same in the church, it is more than just the core beliefs, but if you get them wrong, you aren’t going to produce very good Christians (that sounds a bit mechanistic, but you get my drift). Also, you don’t want to stop at the basic outline of the recipe, a good manager (i.e. pastor) will know the product better than the new believer. He, the manager, will know what the ratio of salt to sugar in the dough is, and why that matters.

In conclusion, the early creeds themselves, and specifically Nicaea, were essentially apologetical. They were designed to clarify truth claims, and refute false claims. They were defenses of the core truths found in the Scriptures themselves, without being exhaustive about the truth that is found in Scripture. So, to know these claims and defend them seems to be a task that still applies to us today as inheritors of an apostolic and historical Christian faith. This does not mean the creeds are equal to Scripture, but that they are like general recipes for belief that keep us all on the same page.

In the next post I will look at line 1 of the Nicene Creed and break it down into basic claims.

Early Christian Creeds and Their Importance for Apologetics: Part I

In reflecting a lot recently about the importance of the early Christian, ecumenical creeds. In light of the multifarious challenges facing Christians today, everything ranging from: post-modernism, progressive Christianity, liberation and process theologies, the ever-increasing proliferation of cults (e.g. Scientology), heresies (e.g. oneness Pentacostalism), or otherwise non-orthodox portrayals of Jesus, or just the seemingly endless battles of biblical interpretation, it seems relevant and critical to retrieve a clear understanding of what the early church held to be the most basic, most fundamental, and most central beliefs of the Christian Church- the church founded by the Apostles and eyewitnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Thus, regaining a familiarity with these core beliefs, handed down by the first witnesses, and later consolidated by Christ-followers into formal and definitional statements, can provide a second mooring for understanding what we believe, why we believe it, and why we need to defend it. This task, therefore, can help us to better discern, as the theologian Thomas Oden put it, what is “Classical Christianity” over and against other, non-classical christianities.

Further, knowing the creeds can also help us to better appreciate the rich, intellectual history of our faith; something we probably would want to do as loyal defenders of Christ’s church, but are often times unaware of. So, to know the deposit of faith left for us by our spiritual forefathers, can be not only apologetically useful for defending certain indispensable truth claims, but also spiritually formative in putting us in touch with our own past- a past often disparaged not only by those outside the Christian faith, but also those within it.

Before we continue with this project, let me state up front: I am not claiming that creeds are on the same authoritative level as the revealed Scriptures themselves. The content of revelation is in the Bible. Creeds, if anything, are nothing more than an extraction and summarization of those parts of the inspired Scriptures that are most clear to us, and most weighty for the life of the follower of Jesus. The earliest creeds were baptismal formulas developed in house churches, designed to help neophytes (new believers) express their newfound faith in Christ and enter into His community of faith.

In this series of posts, therefore, I would like to invite everyone into a conversation that, hopefully, will be an ongoing exploration of one of the earliest, and possibly first truly universal, creeds of the apostolic Church, namely the Nicene Creed (325 AD). I will take each line of the Nicene Creed and discuss it in detail. In doing so, this will raise all kinds of good questions about what are, in our contemporary contexts, the kinds of claims we need to defend in order to remain faithful to a Christianity that is rooted in a historical proclamation, not just in theological musings unanchored from historical events and metaphysical realities.

Moreover, we might also see where we do have some disagreements within the church catholic (Eastern, Orthodox Protestant, and Roman), perhaps not about the creedal claims themselves, but about how more precisely to understand each claim. This endeavor should lead to fruitful theological discussion (something the early church Fathers never shied away from), a discussion that has already begun in many scholarly circles. Finally, as we go through this I will be studying and completing our discussion using J.N.D Kelly’s classic work on the topic, shown here:

In going forward, then, what I hope to accomplish is to think about the kinds of apologetical issues that arise as we explore each statement of belief found in the Nicene Creed. So, for example, if the first line of the creed states: “We believe in one God, the Father almighty,” what claims can we draw out of this that apologists would need to defend?

For example, in examining the first line, I see the need to defend the truth claim “that there is one God” not 8, or 12, or zero. Moreover, I should probably also defend the claim that God is called “Father” and not “mother” or “brother.” In first thinking about the kinds of things we would need to defend in order for a core belief to be true, only then can we consider what sources (philosophical, historical, scientific) we should access to get the data we need to defend that claim. Thus, line 1 of the Nicene Creed about belief in “one God” could be defended from Scripture alone (Gen 1:1, Jas 2:19), but, it would seem that natural theology is necessary to make a cogent case for its truthfulness. And then, we might further ask, which disciplines fuel natural theological arguments and who has presented most articulately or powerfully certain natural theological claims.

Finally, it is worth thinking about what audiences we need to defend this claim against (e.g. some theologians might reject the notion that God should be called “Father.” Should we agree with them, or stick with what is clearly stated in both Bible and creed?). Obviously, atheists, and even some who identify as “Christian” believe that there is no God to speak of; that god is just a concept. And so on, and so forth.

In the next post I will look more specifically at the Nicene Creed and its origins. Then, I will begin to extract from each line the propositional content requiring argumentative defense.