Theologians interested in the cultivation of Christian belief in new global contexts often reflect on the relationship between culture and theological truth. A person suffering from culture shock may feel ‘not himself’ and may struggle to feel at home in a foreign context; so too Christian theologians ask about the relationship between the core truth of the gospel and the theological formulations encultured Christians take for granted, especially historic Western formulations.
In a previous post we heard from Kevin Vanhoozer, from his essay, “Christology in the West.”* Vanhoozer’s goal in that essay is to provide a framework for distinguishing between the reality a theologian attempts to describe—biblical truth—and the theologian’s description of that reality. If we can slice cleanly between these two, we can benefit from an inheritance of historic theological work (such as the homoousias of Nicaea or the hypostatic union of Chalcedon) while also providing a sound charter for ongoing theological reflection in varying contexts without fear of cultural imposition or compromising the gospel.
And so, while Vanhoozer defends continued dependence upon historic creedal formulations as essential for the unity and faithfulness of the church, he believes that “it takes a global village . . . fully to say who Jesus Christ is for us today” (30). What does he mean? How exactly can this balance be struck?
Two claims Vanhoozer makes I think strike a welcome balance. He writes:
(1) “What is normative in Chalcedon is not a particular metaphysical scheme but the underlying biblical ontology, not the particular concepts but the underlying judgments that they express” (30).
(2) “While the Bible alone has magisterial authority, the early catholic church consensus has ministerial authority insofar as it displays biblical judgments. It thus provides pedagogical direction and an important opportunity for global theology to display catholic sensibility, which is to say a concern for doing theology in communion with the saints” (32).
The first statement above means more or less that the theological reality is what really matters. Chalcedon says that Christ is two natures, without confusion, change, division, or separation, united in one person. All of those words—including nature and person—need to be explained, and all of those concepts need to be clarified and defended against error. We clarify in order to maximize accuracy and truth and to minimize error and inaccuracy; and how can we distinguish truth from error? There is an objective reality taught in Scripture, to which theology must constantly compare its formulations as to a rule or standard. Vanhoozer’s point appears to be that the words of Scripture and the objective reality they point to are immovable and authoritative; they are truth. Theology’s supplemental formations that attempt to bring additional clarity are sub-ultimate.
The second statement is intended to prevent biblicism. Biblicism is the idea that no theological formulation has any real authority, that theological statements, unless they are exactly the very words of the Bible verbatim, are always revisable and never binding. Statement two rejects such practice, mentioning the communion of the saints. The communion of the saints is the Spiritual unity of the body of Christ—the church is one because Christ is one and God is one. The idea in Vanhoozer’s second statement is that a dismissive attitude toward the creedal formulations of the historic church is itself a theological error; it undervalues the active, aiding, teaching presence and work of the self-same Spirit of Christ through the ages. In other words, humble teachability and eager reception of historic creeds is the right attitude simply because there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father over all” (Eph 4:5-6).
In his Unity of the Catholic Church, section 6, Cyprian of Carthage wrote, “you cannot have God for your Father unless you have the church for your Mother.” Cyprian died in 258. Calvin, writing some 1,300 years later, also speaks of the church as the “mother of all the godly” and of God as placing the saints in the “motherly care” of the church. “To those to whom he is a Father,” writes Calvin, “the Church must also be a mother” (Inst., 4.1.1).
Just as Scripture enjoins the people of God to teach the Word to their children (Deut 6), so children are expected to learn eagerly from their teachers: “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching” (Prov 1:8; 6:20; cf. Matt 18:3; 19:14). So Paul calls Timothy his “true son in the faith” (1 Tim 1:2) and Titus his “son in our common faith” (Titus 1:4). Disdain for the teaching of the historic church, through whom God himself cares for his people, is a breach of the theological core of the 5th commandment.
The communion of the saints is good and precious news. Whenever and wherever sinners are called into union and communion with Christ, they receive the very same adoption as every other son or daughter of God, ever, anywhere. The communion of Christians transcends even family bonds, even the limits of place and history. We can be sure that the apostles, the early church fathers, the great reformers such as Luther and Calvin, all labored and prayed for the historic church, even for us. There is only one name under heaven by which men must be saved, and so the grateful redeemed, from every nation, tribe, and tongue, a great multitude that no one can number, will finally gather before the throne of their redeemer. We are all together invested in growing together in unity into the head, who is Christ. It is harmful—not to mention theologically misguided—to neglect this priceless unity because of pride and self-concern.
“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?” says the proverb. “How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing, and fools hate knowledge?” (Prov. 1:22). And even more poignant: “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid” (Prov 12:12). Instead, “Buy the truth,” Scripture says, “and sell it not” (Prov 23:23).
*Kevin Vanhoozer, “Christology in the West: Conversations in Europe and North America,” in Christ without Borders: Christology in the Majority World. Edited by Gene L. Green, Stephen T. Pardue, and K. K. Yeo. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2014.