Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Critiquing a Statement of Faith – part 1 of 2

Somehow, I came across the statement of faith of the New Life Mission recently. While I am sure many earnest and precious Christians affirm it, and while I am sure many of them love the Lord Jesus and follow him far better than I, criticism is necessary, in my view. Below I have dashed off some critical annotations on its propositions, a venture especially worthwhile as many other 'statement of faiths' are sadly like it.

"We believe that the Bible, consisting of Old and New Testaments only, is verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit, is inerrant in the original manuscripts, and is the infallible and authoritative Word of God"

The first problem I have with this statement it is that declaration about the bible is first. Bible before God, huh? That suggests priorities are already out of key. It also wants to affirm something about manuscripts that no longer exists, manuscripts that cannot be accessed or used. Actually, as I argued here, such declarations about original manuscripts is a self-defeating position, even if the intentions are laudible. More could be said in criticism about the phrase 'verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit', but I leave that pass for now. Others will want to challenge the proposition that 'the ... Word of God' is a text, and not Christ, but I leave that too aside for now.

A more general issue strikes me about the Statement, one that is typical of many like it. It is entirely 'We believe that'. The statement thus fails to grasp the full colour of biblical notions of belief, which are mostly about a self-involving and relational commitment. 'We believe that' has its place, but what about 'We believe in'? Contrast this with the Apostles' Creed. This statement's first proposition is not a good start.

"We believe that the one triune God exists eternally in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

I am convinced that the trinity belongs at the heart and centre of anything that today wishes to call itself 'Christian'. But more could have been said, and the lack of detail contrasts rather conspicuously with the previous statement. Here, also, was a good chance for a 'We believe in'!

"We believe that Adam, created in the image of God, was tempted by Satan, the ruler of this world, and fell. Because of Adam's sin, all men have guilt imputed, are totally depraved, and need to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit for Salvation"

This arbitrarily mashes together a number of texts from at least 2 Corinthians and Genesis 1-3, and then, for good measure, imputes some questionable leaps of biblically external logic. Where does it say in Genesis that a personal being called 'Satan' tempted Adam? Where is the specific idea that guilt is 'imputed' to all? Further, where is the specific idea that 'guilt' is imputed to all? Besides, I am unconvinced 'total depravity' is the best language, but that is a well trodden debate, of course. I am also a little cautious about the language of 'regeneration', but I will leave that issue for now as my critique would not be very significant. However, that the statement speaks only of 'all men' is simply not helpful. This isn't about being 'politically correct'; it is just about living in the real world. Most importantly, to speak of 'guilt' and 'imputation' like this sets 'the gospel' in an impoverished direction, as shall become clear as the statement develops.

"We believe that Jesus Christ is God, was born of a virgin, baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, crucified as the Lamb of God, rose again from the dead, and ascended to heaven, where He is presently exalted at the Father's right hand."

I like this one more, but I wonder if our statements of faith should also say something about the faithful life of Jesus. Furthermore, and perhaps I am being too hard here, but 'Jesus Christ is God' is perhaps a statement that can lead to all kinds of heretical christologies. Christ is not God (the Father), and Paul, for example, avoids speaking of Christ as 'God' entirely (as recently maintained by Fee in his Pauline Christology). While I am orthodox and believe in the full divinity of Christ, 'Jesus Christ is God' strikes me as too blunt a sentence to capture the slippery and glorious truth, as the church has perceived it, of Christ's identity vis-a-vis God. Paul had a different way of expressing the intuition that this statement seeks to articulate. Again, perhaps I am being too hard. The Nicene Creed of course states: 'God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father', but the creed as a whole is much more careful in relating the nature of Christ in relation to God than this statement.

I'll complete my critical sweep through this statement in part 2. Until then, any thoughts?


At 6/12/2008 12:48 AM, Anonymous jason allen said...

Just curious, isn't having a statement of the bible or a statement about God a circular issue?

I mean, if you have a statement about God before the Bible doesn't it beg the question, how do you know what this God you affirm is like?

If we have a statement about Bible before God it begs the question, from where does this text's authority come.

So what do we do? Practical suggestions? Do you not see your criticism as problematic?

At 6/12/2008 1:24 AM, Anonymous Nick Norelli said...


Two things:

(1) When I first got saved I got like 6 books from these guys. They're off their nut.

(2) I think placing Scripture before God in a statement of faith is generally saying that we know God through his special revelation. In other words, that's the means by which we're able to make the following statements about what we believe about God.

At 6/12/2008 1:25 AM, Anonymous Doug Chaplin said...

"crucified as the Lamb of God"

I think I know why they said this, but I don't think it makes much sense.

At 6/12/2008 2:18 AM, Anonymous Ranger said...

I agree with Nick. I personally think a general statement of the Trinity should come first followed by a statement about how we know the Triune God, but I also understand the rationale for this formulation.

You could argue for some amount of natural revelation and theology, and thus it's not a circular issue based solely on the Bible.

I totally agree. Shouldn't it simply be "the crucified lamb of God" or to quote directly either "the lamb who was slain" (Rev. 5:12) or "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:29). The way they stated it is very awkward though.

At 6/12/2008 2:54 AM, Anonymous Drew said...

Doug caught one of my more opaque issues as well. To be correct, Jesus was crucified as a Nazarene who was called the King of the Jews. In fact it is one of the very few historical details that we can corroborate with a decent level of probability.

Even the passages from Revelation are a bit of a stretch here. It is clear that they are arguing for penal substitutionary atonement as the only way to understand the death of Jesus.

The verbally inspired stuff is just heretical. Better to hang with Muslims who elevate the Qu'ran to the same level as Jesus for Christians. That doctrine fits in much better with Islam than Christianity.

I agree with the problem with the word "that". This means that they believe in the following non-negotiable propositions that render the fullness of Truth. And that's pretty much it.

Finally, if one is to take an infallibilist position with Scripture, why make all of these other propositions that are not in the Bible as written? Why make fallible presumptions at all in order to codify the faith? May as well toss out this whole thing after you get done with the first part. OR at worst, admit that the other propositions must be tentative at best since they must be fallible. Total depravity, imputed guilt, regeneration, etc. are all concepts that are abstracted from that infallible word therefore, they are imperfect and tentative conclusions. The problem is that they will want to have both which is irrational.

They have basically mashed together Lutheranism, Dutch Calvinism, Free Methodism, and Fundamentalist Evangelicalism among other things into what amounts to a messy hodge-podge (get that pun there?).

Finally, there is no mention of forgiveness, reconciliation, or love here. It's all about "9 Steps to Avoid Hell". It's individualistic, and seems to mis the point of the Gospel as many statements of faith do. They can go find their manly Jesus with Mark Driscoll and leave me out.

At 6/12/2008 8:57 AM, Anonymous psychodougie said...

wow. harsh.

critiquing some statements of faith a while ago, you come to understand just how difficult it is. i think you reflected some of this Chris, with a certain amount of sympathy.

on that last one tho, i think it's good - to say that on e of the ways we are to understand the historical figure Jesus' death is as the lamb of God.

even this one, which i thought i would like, starts off in a less-than ideal position!

at least these guys just go back to old faithful (the nicene creed).

maybe that's the answer - writing your own is maybe just too hard! (or is part 3 gonna be CTRVHM's infallible statement of faith?)

At 6/12/2008 3:07 PM, Anonymous Shane Clifton said...

Starting with the Scriptures is making a methodological claim, and for this reason is surely appropriate (the order of the thing makes no statement about priorities - as i constantly tell students when they argue for male headship from Genesis 2).

I would be far from wanting to sign that statement of faith - but i do think you are being too pedantic. We know what they mean when the say "the word of God." And do we really want to quibble over the difference between we believe that or we believe in. The mashing together of texts is somewhat inevitable in a doctrinal statement (although i concur that this particular mashing is unusual). And finally, few doctrinal statements say much about the details of the life of Jesus - such detail can be found elsewhere.

At the end of the day - doctrinal statements are not meant to represent a complete theology. They function to provide a community with a core set of common statements of belief - and to provide outsiders with an insight into the community. Given this latter purpose, you might say the doctrinal statements provided function perfectly. They tell you that the group in question is a fundamentalist denomination - a worthwhile insight whatever your own theological assumptions - sufficient to enable you decide whether or not you want much more to do with them.

At 6/12/2008 3:49 PM, Anonymous Bill said...

No interest in NLM here, but your post, Chris, brings up some very good questions. Altogether, it underscores a certain wisdom in sticking with the creeds of old. I mean, as politicized as the counil of Nicea was, I honestly wouldn't bet a nickle anyone today could necessarily do any better. No, not by a single "iota"! ;)

Group writing, for one thing, is an impossible nightmare all its own. One of my all time favorite Dilbert cartoons has a mission statement committe that can't get past the word "The". One of them said, "I think it might offend people named Theodore." :)

At 6/12/2008 4:07 PM, Anonymous Bill said...

I almost forgot. What truly fascinates me about the NLM statement is to wonder how typical it is, not just of fundamentalists but of evangelical protestants in general. And I wonder how many of my assumptions are valid about the social-congregational factors at the root of their statement, and at the root of their assumptions and their context (ie, Bible before God)...

Here's what I'd like to know:

What does their creed tell us about the state of simple, misinformed believers "out there"? And how can understanding them better help christian scholars do work [perhaps on the side] that might inspire and encourage such folks while also correcting their inaccuracies?

Of course, that's assuming such a task is even possible! :)

At 6/13/2008 1:44 AM, Anonymous Ranger said...

"Of course, that's assuming such a task is even possible!"

First, I think your tone toward the average believer is overly negative (probably unintentionally). I think it's presumptuous to assume that we are the "informed" and they are the "uninformed." Sure, in some areas that is the case, but overall I think scholars have a lot to learn from the "simple" believers "out there." And I think what we learn will be helpful to our task as scholars.

As such, I not only assume the task is possible, but think more scholars should be working toward this end. If we truly believe that they are misinformed and that we as scholars are also called to minister then it should be our task, and not merely "on the side."

At 6/13/2008 12:37 PM, Anonymous scott gray said...

it's just a rehashing of an old form. there's nothing new here. it draws lines in the sand to determine who's in and who's out.

what if a creed actually called someone to do something? what if a creed were more functionally tied to one's orthopraxy? what if the sermon on the mount was what we 'believe?' 'i believe the meek are blessed, and that they will inherit the earth.' credds about belief like this only help separate things: groups from each other, individuals from each other, orthopraxy from orthodoxy.



At 6/13/2008 11:23 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Thanks to you all for your helpful and informative comments,
Except the stupid ones, of course! ;-)
Hi Jason,
That is a great point. I would say that a creed is not a statement of method but precisely what it claims to be, a statement of faith, and therefore God must come first. Plus, the whole question of sources of knowledge can be further extended back to God. We don't know God because of the bible, but because of God's grace in Christ. Of course, the bible is the text sanctified to give us access to this Christ, but we can read the bible and not hear God's voice, as Jesus said in John.

That said, your point is certainly taken.

Hi Drew,
"The verbally inspired stuff is just heretical"

Isn't that a bit too hard? It may be in error, but heresy?

I suppose it depends what we mean by heresy.

"if one is to take an infallibilist position with Scripture, why make all of these other propositions that are not in the Bible as written?"

Amen! Well put.

Hi Dougie,
"or is part 3 gonna be CTRVHM's infallible statement of faith"
Now that is a good idea!!

Hi Shane,
I couldn’t help but feel that you are exercising a hermeneutic of blind love! Perhaps I am being too hard, granted, but I don’t think I was pedantic on the ‘in’ / ‘that’ issue. And while statements of faith are not meant to represent a complete theology, let’s try get the bit we present correct as possible! So whether ‘mashing together of texts is somewhat inevitable in a doctrinal statement’ is not the question, but whether it is appropriate. As I mentioned above, too, a statement of faith should be precisely that, a statement of faith, not methodology.

Hi Scott,

“what if a creed actually called someone to do something?”

Vanhoozer and Thiselton are two big names working on precisely these sort of issues. You raise a great point, one I tried to develop in terms of a statement of scripture’s trustworthiness on the blog a while back.

At 6/14/2008 6:21 AM, Anonymous psychodougie said...

just thinking some more (well, studying for my Biblical Theology exam this Thursday).

what about simply Romans 1:2-4
(We trust in/proclaim/seek to live in accordance with) the Gospel of God,
Promised through his prophets,
regarding his son, the son of David,
who was declared to be the Son of God by his Resurrection.

surely the heresy bell wouldn't be rung to vigorously with that one?

At 6/14/2008 5:32 PM, Anonymous gatesofsplendor said...

Ranger and Chris
"You could argue for some amount of natural revelation and theology, and thus it's not a circular issue based solely on the Bible."

1) A Natural Theology comes from scripture, while the Greeks had something akin to a natural theology, it could never get you to Christ.

2) All foundations of a given metanarrative end up being circular. You either posit reason, sense experience, scripture, or some other foundation (mystical experience?) that is held on an intuitve or emotional ground as a final authority. So avoiding circularity is not a possibility, you always assume that your reason is reliable, senses are not deceiving you or that Scripture is from God himself.

3) Inerrancy is not philosophically problematic. The standard syllogism that God's words are truthful, because he is God and cannot lie is a valid one. It can be disputed or not whether scripture is historically inaccurate, contradictory, or what have you, but your willingness to accept that is based on other background knowledge that you assume in your epistemology.

At 6/15/2008 5:26 AM, Anonymous Rob G. Reid said...

Chris, you may or may not every read this, since this post is several days old. But I wish you would critique Pastor John Piper's church's "statement of faith" it is 40 pages long and all church members have to sign off on it. It is completely ridiculous. Ironically, he is one of the most prominent, ultra conservative, ultra calvinist pastor's in America. Please consider reviewing that document!

At 6/17/2008 10:46 PM, Anonymous Pilgrim said...

All I can say is thank God I'm an atheist: makes much more sense than dealing with all this claptrap.

At 6/21/2008 7:11 PM, Anonymous bobbyt said...

Having just escaped from a fairly rigorous twenty-seven years in a Calvinistic Baptist church, I find myself suspicious of carefully worked-out and highly-detailed 'statements of faith'. I am more and more of the opinion that whatever the theological colouring of many Christians, they appear to be more interested in defending an often speculative position than being challenged by the Bible to question their assumptions. "I know what I love and I love what I know, so leave me alone!" seems to be their attitude. I came across this quote from Volf in "Exclusion and Embrace": '. . . traditions are always secondary phenomena, in need of being interrogated and reshaped in the light of both basic commitments and changing cultural contexts. Christian theologians have their own good reasons to suspect that there is some truth to Nietzsche's aphorism - 'the will to a system is a lack of integrity'. Goldingay (Old Testament Theology Volume 1) says: ". . . the creeds . . . may (or may not) have been appropriate situational responses to the contexts in which they arose but do not form a reliable guide to the contents of biblical faith."
God bless

At 6/21/2008 9:52 PM, Anonymous Pilgrim said...

The problem I have with that first statement...

"We believe that the Bible, consisting of Old and New Testaments only, is verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit, is inerrant in the original manuscripts, and is the infallible and authoritative Word of God"

... is the ludicrous twaddle about the original manuscripts being inerrant: what kind of incompetent deity would provide inerrant manuscripts then allow sloppy copy editors to corrupt them?

The texts we have are the texts with which we must interact, not some mythical infallible original documents. And the texts we have are far from infallible or inerrant.

At 6/27/2008 10:10 PM, Anonymous Rev. Paul Beisel said...

Chris, I like your critique.


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