Thursday, May 11, 2017

Nazarene Catechism, Part 1

Last week I received an email from the Church of the Nazarene about a new document they've created, essentially a catechism - a series of questions and answers to explain some finer and more specific points of our theology. It's called One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. On the one hand, I find it really cool that we've engaged in this way - something that might've been considered "too Catholic" several decades ago, and something that's in line with the historical tradition of the Church.

At the same time, I'm a little disappointed as well. This is the kind of thing we really could've benefited from 40 years ago. However, in our current cultural context, where the vulnerabilities of both propositional and systematic theology have been made plain, it seems a bit short sighted to choose them as the means of communicating theology. Perhaps it works well in different parts of the globe - those places where the Church of the Nazarene are growing strongest have very different theological and cultural contexts, so I don't want to diminish those possibilities - at the same time, speaking from my own context, it feels a bit like answering today's questions with yesterday's answers.

I'm going to respond to this document in a series of three (maybe four) posts that address specific issues that seem, to me, a bit problematic. The first, here, is the format itself, and some of the conceptual structures that underlay it. I know, when I've shared these concerns in other places, the response has been something like, "at least they're trying" or "this kind of specific, low-impact document is what the denomination has always done." Those are both true and valid, but I suspect my patience is running thin (and I'm only 35 years old - Lord, help me). I've seen my beloved denomination spinning its wheels quite a bit when it comes to innovation and bravery in facing the future. We're very much in institutional preservation mode (as I wrote about recently) and I think some of it comes from an adherence to a safe, albeit outdated, mindset.

For starters, I'll address the notion of propositional and systematic theology - these are constructs built upon logic. They are not bad, by any means, and come from a long tradition of honest wrestling with scripture and attempts to divine a faithful ethic from scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. It's just that they're products of an for a modern mindest - one built on certainty and foundation. They do not meet the requirements of belief in a post-modern age that questions institutions, authority, and certainty, while being infinitely more comfortable with doubt, ambiguity, and mystery. It is my opinion - and absolutely just an opinion - that a theology built on narrative and relationship makes more sense in our current environment. As I said before, this catechism is a callback to a passing age.

One of the hallmarks of this mindset is a focus on belief as intellectual assent and the world of ideas over embodied belief and action. Many of the answers to early questions and introduction of the catechism refer to verbal or written ideas, using words like "proclaim" or "communicate," as if the gospel itself is something other than a lifestyle. When we relegate "living the word" to just one facet of the Church's mission, we compromise the whole thing. None of our attempts at interpretation or decision-making make any sense without being rooted in lifestyle. It is the very reduction of the gospel to propositions and logic that hinder the passing of Christian faith from one generation to the next.

(I recognize that a focus strictly on lifestyle can also hinder the generational transmission of the gospel and I don't want to be seen advocating for that - simply that all of our theological work must be rooted in and organized around how it functions in everyday life. As much as I love to live in my head and the world of ideas, theology cannot survive there.)

To illustrate my point, the answer to Question 14 in the catechism talks about how the good news (gospel) is transmitted. The answer recognizes a "verbal witness" and also written scripture, but doesn't even mention the Church, which is the actual, scriptural means by which Jesus himself commissioned the gospel to be transmitted. This opens the door for an idolatry of scripture and neglects a pretty key aspect of both Christian tradition and present reality.

The answer to Question 73, on the other hand, provides a surprisingly outstanding description of the mission of the Church, but one that seems very different from the implications of the answer to Question 14. It's as if the catechism believes that being a faithful community in imitation of Christ is but one part of Christianity. That confuses me and, I suspect, distracts from faithful witness and practice.

The very way the catechism is constructed also reflects a more propositional direction - it focuses on the Apostle's Creed, the Sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer - not that these are bad influences, but this catechism leaves out the Sermon on the Mount, which is Christ's formative lifestyle guideline. I suspect this is left out because it leaves so much open to interpretation and doesn't really lend itself to definitive or propositional statements. Wrestling with the Sermon on the Mount requires nuance and, perhaps, real disagreement - which I'll cover more in Part II.

Not to argue against myself here, but if the attempt of this catechism is really to formulate a Nazarene-specific propositional theology, wouldn't it make more sense to use the Nicene Creed than the Apostles Creed? The Nicene Creed is the result of several hundred years of theological debate and an apt description of Modern Western Orthodox Christianity. I tend to prefer the Apostles Creed because of it's genuine openness to all of Christian tradition, but it doesn't even affirm the divinity of Jesus or the Holy Spirit - at least not in the kind of Trinitarian way that tradition might demand.

It just seems a bit careless given the stated purpose of the piece. In the same way, one could entirely affirm the answer to Question 18, on the importance of the Old Testament, and still claim it is subservient or of lesser importance to the New Testament. We should have some affirmation that we consider the whole thing equally important, right? Similarly, the answer to question 19 seems to say the gospels are more important than the rest of scripture - also problematic.

Ultimately, I think this reflects a propositional perspective on scripture, rather than a reliance on the whole as a collective witness to God's work in the world. If we're going to use scripture to interpret itself (which is not a terrible idea), it can't just be a battle of proof texts, or else we have to prioritize some parts over others. However, if we read the whole thing as equally important and make attempts to interpret scripture in light of our best knowledge of genre, author intent, etc, these issues become less of a problem. This is, most definitely, the process and perspective of most leaders in the Church of the Nazarene, but it's not the process implied in this catechism and this fact is more indication that our leaders are not entirely sure the general membership can handle the kind of uncertainty that comes with honest wreslting with scripture.

This lack of trust comes up again in the answer to Question 102, which talks about preparation for the Lord's Supper by "reaffirming our complete trust in Christ's sacrificial death on the cross." This gives the impression that intellectual assent is somehow part of salvation, an idea foreign to scripture and informed by Greek and modern western philosophical echoes of gnosticism. Belief is action, not assent. Trust does not exist without action; even if you were to argue that it does, that argument doesn't belong in a paragraph on the Lord's Supper, which is, in itself, an action. It feels like those in leadership don't trust our members to wrestle honestly with the difficulties these ideas present.

The entire catechism has such a reliance on what would've been "old hat" theological assumptions from decades past, rather than incorporating more nuanced and sometimes-ambiguous understanding of God and scripture that mark the movement from modernity to post-modernity. The answer to Question 114 assumes a dichotomous pre-history in which humans had some miraculous ability to freely choose between good and evil. Scripture never says or even implies this - it's a conclusion of systematic theology created to make the logic fit. It's the kind of answer you give to a first grade Sunday School class, but not the kind of thing you teach to adults who are much more capable of dealing with complex issues.

Additionally, that same answer strongly implies that only Christians can make good choices, which reflects a naive, shallow understanding of both humanity and salvation - one I doubt anyone involved with the production of this catechism actually holds. For a people "of the book" as it were, we seem loathe to wrestle with scripture and happy to accept the conclusion of people who claim to have done it for us.

I know I come off sounding angry and bitter, but I hope it's really just my frustration that shows through. This catechism looks basically like my Sunday School lessons from the 1980's and fails to reflect mature dialogue, theological and interpretive advances, or the assumption of adult capacity for deep thought - let along any understanding of post-modern society. It's like the last 30 years just haven't happened. Maybe that is the intention of the denomination - as I'll outline in my next post, it feels like our leadership is trying to shoehorn "unity" into us without consideration for actual, genuine, rational, real differences.

It begs the question of why we're trying to dig down and flesh out any of these ideas beyond what we've agreed is essential. The Church of the Nazarene has an Agreed Statement of Belief - why can't this be the formative theology of our denomination, allowing each of us, in context, to explore what they mean for our life and service, trusting the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth (even if it doesn't look the same around the world)?

We believe in one God—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We believe that the Old and New Testament Scriptures, given by plenary inspiration, contain all truth necessary to faith and Christian living.

We believe that man is born with a fallen nature, and is, therefore, inclined to evil, and that continually.

We believe that the finally impenitent are hopelessly and eternally lost.

We believe that the atonement through Jesus Christ is for the whole human race; and that whosoever repents and believes on the Lord Jesus Christ is justified and regenerated and saved from the dominion of sin.

We believe that believers are to be sanctified wholly, subsequent to regeneration, through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

We believe that the Holy Spirit bears witness to the new birth, and also to the entire sanctification of believers.

We believe that our Lord will return, the dead will be raised, and the final judgment will take place.

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