Sunday, May 27, 2012

something from nothing

Forewarning: this is one of my papers for my Masters of Theological Studies class, so i'm assuming some things with my audience in this bit that i might not otherwise assume in a normal blog post. Enjoy! Also, there will be some unorthodox (not heretical) views expressed here. no apologies.
The Significance of ex nihilo

The doctrine of ex nihilo is one that I think the majority of Christendom just takes for granted; I know I did. When asked about creation or evolution, the common evangelical, western Christian just assumes that God would have had to create the world out of nothingness; to think otherwise would seem to take away from God’s omnipotence and indeed it does. In the past, I had never looked much past this obvious function of the doctrine. As I read Zizioulas, I discovered a much more rich application of the understanding that God created existence ex nihilo. Deeper than a supporting role to God’s omnipotence, I have found at least four very important applications of this doctrine that help to shape a believers understanding of our role in relation to God and existence.

I will present my own discoveries (though I am sure they have been thought of before) in a progressive order as this is the way I reasoned them out while reading through Zizioulas’ chapter on creation and salvation. First, the doctrine of ex nihilo gives us a particular anthropology to found our understanding of man on. In understanding all of creation, including humanity, as created from nothingness, it stands to reason that we as created things contain a “nature of nothingness” in some way. When we understand this as a fundamental part of what it means to be a human, we immediately clear up the issue of death in relation to humanity in particular, but also in the broad decay of nature and all non-human, created things. As finite beings, this doctrine gives an understanding to why there is death in the world at all. To be clear, let me put forth my own definition of the type of death that I am referring to here. I am speaking of a metaphysical death, beyond the physical. Some would frown on this as an annihilationist view of death, but I feel like it makes the most logical sense in light of scriptures. This metaphysical death, I believe, is what God was meaning when he warned man of the death that would result if he were to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 2:17. This form of death is not a punishment for the disobedience of man, but the very natural regression that creation is prone to by containing this “nil nature”; that is, we will eventually revert to nothingness if we separate ourselves from God. This is an understanding of our finitude. If it were not this way, God would have created demigods essentially in that, after being brought into existence, we would be eternal as he is on our own power or merit.

When our anthropology contains the understanding that apart from the creator’s sustenance we revert to our nature of nothingness, we can start to make sense of the fallen world we live in now. This is the second major application I took away from the reading. We can start to look at the fall by starting with the question “what did we fall away from?” In answer to this, I put forth that what we fell from was not “God’s good side or favor”, but instead, we fell from the position we were meant to occupy as the bridge that would connect finite, created things with the uncreated, infinite creator. Humanity, in its original state, was able to bear this role for all creation as we are the “only creature who both includes the material world and also exceeds it”[1] in the fact that we bear the imago Dei in that we have souls that reflect God. In choosing to disobey God, man essentially decided to deviate from God’s plan to bring creation into an eternal relationship with him. Unfortunately for man, this created a sort of metaphysical trap in which we revert to our “nil nature” after our physical death due to the lack of the eternal communion with the creator. This derailment, however, didn’t cause God to abandon the plan altogether, but only to come up with an alternative plan to connect creation with God. This view of the fall and the fallen world we live in not only explains why creation all around us is slowly reverting to nothingness (in the decay of nature and our own increasing immorality) but it also explains why the events of Golgotha were necessary.

The third major application of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is found in the doctrine of the salvation of man by Jesus Christ. The incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection were for salvation; this is affirmed by the greater Christian Tradition. In looking at this idea, I will again start with a question. “What does humanity, need saving from?” In answer to this, I want to say that there are two, interrelated main functions of Christ’s sacrifice. The first function is found in the incarnation of the Son of the Father. This function is in undoing what man did in choosing against God’s will for creation. In order for man to be able to do what he was initially intended to do, there had to be reconciliation between man and God in which a representative of humanity had to whole heartedly submit to God by their own volition just as Adam (being a representative of humanity) had said “no” to God by his own volition. Mary provides us with this in her free choice to say “yes” to God’s plan for the incarnation to occur through her. “Her consent was the free consent of humankind to the initiative of God.”[2] The second function of the incarnation was the crucifixion-resurrection event; this event was in a very basic way Jesus accomplishing what Adam had failed to in uniting creation to the creator in his own person by submitting to the will of the Father. In this act, we are saved from our natural obligation to revert to nothingness after our physical death as well as gaining the gift of sustained relationship with God after physical death.

This understanding of the crucifix events gives us the fourth major application of the doctrine of ex nihilo in the form of a personal eschatology. Following from the idea that we are saved from our own nature of nothingness, or our nature of becoming void of the existence that comes from fellowship with God, is a different understanding of what “heaven” and “hell” is. If we define “heaven” solely as eternal relationship with God as I believe we should, then heaven is not a reward for the righteous in the superficial sense, but instead it is the natural and logical end to maintaining a relationship with the creator; that is, after our physical death, we now, through Christ, have the luxury of ongoing existence through the continued relationship with God. Concurrently, “hell” defined as eternal separation from God is not a vicious punishment from an all loving God, but it is the natural and logical end to divorcing oneself from the creator in the physical existence after which, one would simply revert back to their “nothing nature” and be eternally – that is permanently – separated from God. This gives new light to the necessary decision that man is to make on an individual basis to join in and maintain relationship with God through the Spirit of the Son or choose otherwise. With the understanding that we come from nothingness and, apart from God, we will revert to nothingness; the choice to not have a relationship with God is literally metaphysical suicide regardless of how moral a person’s life may have been.

While the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is, in my opinion, one of the fewest talked about doctrine of the church, it packs a load of theological implications. A non-exhaustive list of those implications are (in summary) an understanding of who we are as humans in a created and fallen world as well as why Christ came and reconciled us to the Father and rescued us from our natural reversion to non-existence and, finally, why it is imperative for us to make the free will decision to commune ourselves with the creator of existence; namely, so we can continue existing.

The Dread

[1] Zizioulas, Jean, and Douglas H. Knight. "Creation and Salvation." Lectures in Christian dogmatics. London: T & T Clark, 2008. 88-91. Print.
[2] Zizioulas, Jean, and Douglas H. Knight. "Creation and Salvation." Lectures in Christian dogmatics. London: T & T Clark, 2008. 104. Print.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Doctrine as the Teaching of the Church

Christian Doctrine

Christian doctrine is an area of theology that is essential to the life of the intellectual Christian. It is in this area, however, that the average Christian is largely unlearned. I say this as one who was not raised in a liturgical tradition; this, to me, has been crippling and paradoxically liberating. Crippling because of the lack of eloquence I am able to refer to the formal teachings of the church and at the same time, this lack of experience is liberating as it has afforded me the luxury of being able to approach certain topics in the church from an objective point of view. “Christian doctrine tells us that there is redemption for us and for the world, and each particular doctrine articulates some aspect of this redemption.”[1] Zizioulas articulates the driving power behind doctrine well in his first chapter entitled Doctrine as the Teaching of the Church. It is to the end of telling the redemption story of Christianity that we use doctrine in our communities.

The purposes of doctrine are pointed out in the title of this first chapter well. Teaching is the fundamental purpose for doctrine as it is the retelling and reinterpretation of the dogmas or beliefs of a particular system or people; in this case, Christianity. Without the tradition of indoctrinating our children and new believers, the beliefs and convictions of our original church fathers are not able to perpetuate into the next generations. It is this line of doctrine that has linked the modern church to its familial roots that were planted by the original disciples and authors of the bible — it is our lifeline to remaining a distinct people. Along with the purpose of keeping our beliefs relevant is the pragmatic reason of accuracy that doctrine affords us. Without some standard of beliefs set down, it is easy to see how any particular set of beliefs can be distorted until they no longer resemble the original beliefs. Moving beyond simply maintain relevance, Moltmann points out that the effect of the doctrines that we teach is to “develop and practice…thinking as well [as working out our doctrines].”[2] A theoretical doctrine is only so helpful if one does not allow it to affect their thinking and practice. This is a major part in understanding why we use doctrine as a means of communicating our faith.

All of this usefulness would be for naught, however, if the Christian church at large does not maintain clarity. Our doctrines also provide this for us; a base line of sorts to which we can hold all beliefs that come our way in order to discern what is worthy of ascription. An example of this is in a case of the original councils in which beliefs such as Arianism were dismissed as heretical to the doctrines that were set forth. While this divisiveness may superficially seem contradictory to the inclusive message of Christ, it serves the function of keeping the truths that were learned and reasoned from the God-man, Jesus untainted by personal preferences and cultural relevance. Following from this clarity is the essential common ground that believers can stand on. While there are definite differences between Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Western Protestant theologies, the distinct common ground of Trinitarian theology, the divinity of Christ and the works of the Holy Spirit is an essential bond that truly makes us “one, catholic, apostolic church”. Jesus calls the church to exist as one functioning body and to do this there has to be some agreement as to what metaphorical DNA we will have. The doctrines of the Christian church are that DNA that unites the hand, foot and nose of the entire church body despite our differences.

True to the purpose of distinguishing the Christian religion from all other world religions, there are friction points that are unavoidable. The most obvious to point out would be the great schism between the Roman Catholic Church in the west and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the east. The fact that what divided these two similar traditions was the minute interpretation of a particular phrase that was contingent on dialectical differences in concert with the political plights of Charlemagne gives testament to the fragile nature of religious beliefs in general. It is because of the great fragility of such matters that doctrine must be scrutinized carefully because there is potential for unnecessary division among the body which is against the basis of our faith that lies in Christ’s calling us to one body. Another area in which friction has turned into permanent change is in the Christian cults that have cropped up over time. Groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons find their roots in Christianity but became heretical when they denied fundamental teachings of the church. In such cases, it is right that those holding to the heretical beliefs be pointed out and publically spoken against if they refuse to alter their beliefs. The friction that comes along with definitively stating what one believes is a healthy friction because it only serves to further purify the beliefs that have been set forth. A more recent area of friction is in the doctrine of hell. A couple years ago, pastor-theologian, Rob Bell released his book Love Wins which stirred up a lot of controversy in conservative Christian circles and, in fact, indirectly led to my older brother leaving a pastoral job at a church in Kansas. Many brought accusations of heresy against Bell and his book but were unable to point out in exactly what way he deviated from true Christian dogma. It is in the crucible of such friction that Christians grow, mature and stretch their minds in a progressive way.

I myself have encountered several discussion indirectly related to doctrines of the Christian church. One such example is when, in December of 2011, Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church decided to cancel Sunday services in exchange for his entire church committing to doing acts of service in their community. While promoting this event, some other pastors across the country had opposing feelings; one such pastor, Erik Raymond, felt strongly enough to write a blog about it. My best friend who lived near Raymond’s church sent me the blog and asked my thoughts. The basis of Erik’s argument was to pose a dichotomy by asking if churches are primarily called to meet formally or to acting in service to the community. This gets right to the heart of the ecclesial doctrines of the church i.e. what is our function? I unfortunately never got a response from Raymond, but it is just as well since my purpose was not to confront him, but to give my two cents in response to his two cents. As alluded to before, I have also been privileged to witness my older brother who is a youth pastor in Iowa confront different doctrinal issues in his ministry career such as the aforementioned doctrine of hell.

Overall, I appreciate my experiences with doctrinal debates and the education that I have gained from pursuing a Christian academia. My understanding of doctrine is a little more liberal and abstract due to my lack of liturgical upbringing, but is no less a large part of my beliefs today. The purposes of defining ourselves, clarifying ourselves and purging our beliefs of falsehoods is a noble and well working function that the Christian church has yet to cease benefiting from.

The Dread

[1] Zizioulas, J., & Knight, D. H. (2008). Lectures in Christian dogmatics. London: T & T Clark. Page 1.
[2] Moltmann, J. (1993). The Trinity and the kingdom: the doctrine of God (!st Fortress Press ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. Page 20.