Monday, January 28, 2008

DVD Review: "The Apostles' Creed"

I love Christian doctrine. Perhaps that’s because of the way I was brought up.

No, it wasn’t that my church taught me to love doctrine. In fact, it taught me to hate it by emphasizing all the things that our group had right that everyone else had wrong. In my youth, doctrine was not about being illuminated by the truth, it was about memorizing arguments that would prove other Christians wrong.

But when I finally broke out of that sectarian “remnant” mindset, I discovered that there was a classical Christian tradition that was not bankrupt (as I had been taught). There was indeed a rich foundation, built up out of biblical truth. I fell in love with what I thought I had despised.

There were several doors into my new experience: C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity was one, as was John R. W. Stott’s Basic Christianity. Much less celebrated, but equally important to me, was J. I. Packer’s I Want to Be a Christian (later renamed Growing in Christ).

At some point—I can’t remember quite when—I realized that one of the best ways to know what is central to Christian faith—what is “Mere” or “Basic”—is to meditate on the Apostles’ Creed. That was an important element in Packer’s I Want to Be a Christian, and I discovered that he was doing what others had done before him: Using the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments as the framework for Christian instruction. Loving music and being curious about church history, I soon realized that this was the same pattern that Martin Luther had followed. And not just in his catechism but in his hymn-writing. That Saxon Renaissance man made these three texts memorable by converting them into rhyming verse and setting them to music: Wir glauben all’ in einen Gott, Vater unser in Himmelreich, and Dies sind die heil’gen zehn Gebot’.

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This weekend I encountered the Apostles’ Creed again, but this time it wasn’t in a book or in a German hymn. It was on a DVD. Through his company Vision Video, our friend Ken Curtis (the founder of Christian History & Biography) has collaborated with others to bring us The Apostles’ Creed: A look at its origin and its relevance to our lives today.

The subtitle ("a look at its origin") does not refer to the historical development of the Creed, of which we know relatively little. We have no evidence for the authorship of the apostles, although pseudo-Augustine asserted it some time in the fifth or sixth century. We do however have late second-century quotations of creedal material by Irenaeus and Tertullian that show very strong parallels to what eventually crystallized in present form by the late seventh century. In between, we have much evidence that churches East and West were using similar material to prepare baptismal candidates.

The "origin" in the video's subtitle is instead the Creed's biblical foundations. The program features a number of well-known scholars commenting on the Creed's biblical roots: New Testament historian N. T. (“Tom”) Wright, theologian Alistair McGrath, and historian Martin Marty, among them. Even former Christian History managing editor Mark Galli is among the talking heads. But what is striking about the experience is not simply the quality of the scholars, but the ecumenicity of it all. Besides the Anglicans and Lutheran already mentioned, there’s Baptist Derek Tidball (London School of Theology), Greek Orthodox Kallistos Ware (Bishop of Diokleia, Oxford), Wesleyan Robert Mullholland (Asbury Seminary), and Seventh-day Adventist William Johnson (Andrews University).

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To someone whose upbringing taught him to pay attention to Christian differences, listening to voices from these varied tradition sing in unison is an attention-getting experience.

But this Apostles’ Creed DVD is not the velvet ecumenism that plays down doctrine. It is the diamond-hard ecumenism that brilliantly celebrates the central truths of the faith and explains them all by referencing their biblical foundations. This is the Christian tradition the way evangelicals love it: stated clearly and explained in explicitly biblical terms.

The result is that where the biblical text is (nearly) silent, the doctrine is skimmed over. Thus “he descended into hell” gets a brief commentary, but the more fanciful interpretations are ignored in favor of stressing the biblical truth that the Christ fully and truly died.

Similarly, because of the biblical grounding of these teachers, their comments on “the resurrection of the body” emphasize the unity of body and soul in the biblical picture of the human person. No soul-body dualism for these theologians.

This DVD is a two-hour abridged version of a series that is eventually going to run 13 or 14 hours (available Fall 2008). But the editors have made the two hours of talking heads move right along. There are a lot of quick cuts between speakers, often allowing just a phrase to escape Alistair McGrath’s lips before Derek Tidball or Kallistos Ware takes over. The pace is fast (well, except for Bishop Ware, who speaks ponderously—the basso profundo to Martin Marty’s high-strung tenor).

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I conclude with a tip of the hat to William Johnson. This Adventist New Testament scholar is the opposite of my Adventist upbringing. Biblically centrist and absolutely clear on what is “Mere” and “Basic.” Like Tom Wright, Johnson explains the judgment as God’s welcome setting things to rights, rather than as the day an angry God metes out punishment. Johnson also explains the book of Revelation as being about the cosmic restoration of all things in Christ, rather than, well, what seems to fascinate the people who want to sell you the apocalyptic decoder ring.

If you study the Bible, you will understand the Apostles’ Creed with great depth. If you study the Apostles’ Creed, you will discover what is “Mere” and “Basic” in the Bible. If you watch this video, you’ll have a good start on both.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Creation Care: Prophetic Vocation of the Church

The last section of the Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future demands a life of “embodied holiness” in the world. Part of that is “to be faithful stewards of the created order.”

Northern Seminary’s Phil Kenyon has planned a one-day seminar that considers creation care “as a prophetic vocation of the church.”

This is something I usually don’t deal with in church. I believe in it, and I practice it. I recycle, conserve, and use compact fluorescent bulbs, but it usually doesn’t impinge on my church life.

The seminar presenter will be Steven Bouma-Prediger, chair of the religion department at Hope College and director of Hope’s environmental studies program.

Steven’s book For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care won an award of merit for the Theology/Ethics category in the 2002 Christianity Today Book Awards.

Phil sent me this brief description of the seminar:

Deafness, ignorance, denial, indifference. Four reasons Christians today fail to take seriously their calling as caretakers of creation.

How can we regain our prophetic voice against these barriers to living faithfully? What will empower us to be the earthkeepers God calls us to be?

Our sacred text, the Bible, begins and ends with rivers and trees.

Indeed, the biblical story tells us that everything God creates and sustains is very good and that we humans are charged with serving and protecting God's good earth. And in the biblical story God's good future is of the earth redeemed and restored, not destroyed. If we are to regain our prophetic voice, we must get the biblical story right, and we must learn to live into that story with faith and joy. We must learn to be faithful stewards of creation.

View details and information about attending the April 16 conference here.

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A Good Book on Worship Is on the Way

I’m back on the blog.

The demands of the December holidays sapped my blogging energies—what with all the fun family stuff and the church music demands plus an early January trip to frigid Orange Park, Florida, to speak at the opening convocation for the new term at Bob Webber’s graduate school of liturgics, the Institute for Worship Studies.

The weather was colder in Orange Park/Jacksonville than it was in Chicago, but the trip was worth it: The students and faculty I met were mighty impressive. Check out IWS’s newly refurbished website.

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Speaking of worship studies, here’s a new book to watch for. I just e-mailed Paraclete Press an endorsement for Mark Galli’s forthcoming book, Beyond Smells and Bells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy. According to the publisher’s website, the slim volume of short essays is “for those who find themselves attracted to liturgy but don’t quite know why.” The book is due to be out April 1.

Here’s what I sent to Paraclete:

Genuine worship raises our sights above ourselves. It sets us into a community—past, present, and future. It fits us for God's mission. Above all, it brings us face-to-face with Jesus and trains us to play our role in his story. Much that passes for worship these days misses all of this. But Galli gets it decidedly right.

And here’s what I have to say to you about my friend Mark Galli. He’s a learner. In this book he talks vulnerably (as we said in the 70s) about the lessons he needed to learn and how he learned them in the school of life. Those same lessons, he shows, are taught us on a regular basis in the liturgy.

Take, for example, chapter 4, where he writes about courting and marrying his wife—only to discover that what he thought was a shared passion for theology was only a passing interest on her part. How do we get to know “the intimate Other” in marriage and in worship? Abandon romantic illusions, says Mark, both about your spouse and about God. At least when it comes to God, the liturgy helps us to face reality—and the real God (like the real wife) turns out to be both more challenging and more satisfying than the imagined one.

When the book rolls off the presses, be sure to get a copy.

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