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Knowing God with Heart and Mind
By J. Ellsworth Kalas
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1999 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Believing and Understanding
"But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name."
"I believe," the man cried; "help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24). We humans are always caught in something of this dilemma. We need to believe. Believing is essential to set our intellectual and emotional roots in some kind of certainty. We can't help believing. To believe is as natural to us as eating and sleeping. We are believing creatures.
But believing also makes us nervous, because believing is powerful and therefore risky. Beliefs have consequences. Therefore, to believe is not enough; more important is having a right basis of belief. So what should I believe, and why? And what difference will my believing make—in me, and in my world? Does everything about my believing matter, or is it enough simply to say, "I believe; help my unbelief?
The word believe, in its several forms, does not appear often in the Old Testament. But the idea is there, of course, implicit in all the stories of persons' relationships to God, sometimes for its presence and sometimes for its absence. In the New Testament believing is a dominant theme. And of course believing will be the guiding theme in this study. The Scriptures we read this week are intended to set the course for our journey—a journey of nearly a year of study but of a lifetime of living and believing.
Day 1 Genesis 12:1-9 (Abram's call); Exodus 3:1-17 (God appears to Moses) Introduction and Readings 1 and 2
Day 2 Job 42:1-6 (Job acknowledges God); Habakkuk 3:10-19 (in awe of God) Readings 3, 4, and 5
Day 3 Mark 9:14-29 (belief and faith); John 20:24-31 (doubt and belief) Readings 6 and 7
Day 4 Hebrews 11:1-6 (meaning of faith); Matthew 13:1-23 (the seed and the word) Readings 8 and 9
Day 5 Acts 17:16-34 (unknown God made known); Jude (contend for the faith) Readings 10, 11, and 12
Day 6 Read and respond to "The Church Teaching and Believing" and "Believing and Living."
Day 7 Rest and prayer
Pray for the persons and situations on your Prayer Concerns list and about issues or concerns emerging from your daily reading and study.
THE CHURCH TEACHING AND BELIEVING
To be human is to be a believer. We differ in what we believe, and in the intensity of our beliefs, but we insist on believing in something. Life simply can't exist without some such basis. These beliefs become the set-of-sails that determine the direction of our lives and our destination. And also, of course, the nature and quality of our journey.
Occasionally persons say they don't believe in anything. But such a statement is its own declaration of faith. To say, "I believe in nothing" is to declare how one has set one's life-sails. This statement, to the degree it is really believed, will determine where life will go.
So we have no option as to whether we will believe. The issue—and it is the issue—is in what we believe. And for Christians, more specifically, in whom we will believe.
Christians aren't naive about this business of believing. We do a tough-minded thing. We look life in the eye and say, "I believe ..."
However, we may not always come up to that ideal. We may recite the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed in public worship, but without any profound sense of ownership, and perhaps without much understanding or conviction. Indeed, at times we may have difficulty saying how our operating creed differs from that of our secular neighbor. We surely understand that "I believe; help my unbelief is part of life.
While it is true Christians are demonstrated better by their deeds than by their words, those deeds are ultimately determined by beliefs. And Christians are the inheritors of a magnificent body of beliefs. These beliefs have quite literally cost blood, beginning with the death of Christ at Calvary and continuing to the present day.
When the Council of Nicaea convened in A.D. 325, the gathered body included many who had suffered fearfully for their faith during the persecution under the Roman emperor Diocletian. For eight terrifying years Diocletian had wrecked churches, burned sacred books, and tortured and beheaded Christians. As thirty bishops paid honor to Constantine at the first council session, ten of the thirty were blind, their eyes having been burned out by Diocletian's forces. Every one of the thirty had bodily evidence of the years of persecution. Many of them had worked in the salt mines, others as galley slaves. The creedal words we sometimes speak in routine fashion were developed out of the strong convictions of persons whose confessions of faith often led to suffering and even death.
The importance of right believing is stated so matter-of-factly in the Gospel of Mark we generally miss it. A crowd had followed Jesus and his disciples to "a deserted place." When Jesus saw the crowd, "he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd" (Mark 6:34). Crowds are always a motley sight, and first-century crowds especially so. These people were marked by poverty and by an unusual number of physical ailments. Since Jesus often exercised the power to heal, we might expect he would walk through such a crowd performing miracles; the need must have been obvious. Some might argue he should have organized them into a coherent political body that would be able to seek their rights. But Jesus, moved by compassion, "began to teach them many things" (6:34). Give people a right basis of belief, and almost everything else that is good can follow. On the other hand, give us health, money, and even talent, and if we are not guided by right belief, we will not only squander these other elements, but we well may use them destructively.
Where Do We Begin?
Contemporary wisdom says to begin by looking for the latest thing; but of course we know better than that, because the latest thing is usually a fad that will be history before we have finished making the payments. Because ours is also a scientific age, we want something that is tested. Christian doctrine can stand up to that test, offering nearly two millennia of data from life itself.
The record is impressive, even if uneven. The earliest generations of Christians were said to have out-lived, out-thought, out-loved, and out-died their opponents. Significant also is the fact that Christian beliefs have been tested over an extended period of centuries, in varieties of cultures and circumstances, and with impressive results. The believers who have taken the teachings of the church most seriously have won the respect of even their enemies; we often describe those believers as "saints" or "saintly." On the other hand, a great mass of those who have called themselves believers have not been that impressive. They may have proved better than the general populace, but not dramatically so.
We must also concede that much of the evidence is what a scholar might call anecdotal; that is, based on statements and stories rather than on hard statistics. Nevertheless, the huge accumulation of such anecdotal evidence is enough to make us examine the beliefs that, generally speaking, have produced these persons.
The lamp, a symbol of wisdom, knowledge, and learning, provides illumination to the Christian in the search for understanding.
Basically, this examination takes us back to a single document, the Bible. So our study each week begins with biblical sources. We will read daily from the Bible. The lessons will refer to ways doctrines have developed over the centuries and to the evolving of ancient and more modern creeds. We will study definitions that have come to us through ancient bodies that we call church councils. This study makes no attempt to create something new but does aim to explain these time-tested doctrines in modern language. We will be working at all times with what the New Testament describes as "the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3).
You will meet two terms that seem at times to be interchangeable but have rather distinct definitions, theology and doctrine. Theology, coming from the Latin words theos (God) and logos (speech) means literally the language about God, or talk about of God. Doctrine, from the Latin doctrina (teaching) and docere (to teach), is that which is officially taught by the church. Sometimes the Roman Catholic Church uses the word dogma to refer to a teaching considered infallible. But within general Christendom, the word doctrine is intended to mean teaching approved by the church. Theology may include general, speculative teaching, while doctrine refers to those teachings historically accepted as the position of the church, or of a particular denomination or church body.
Constantine, Roman emperor who first granted imperial favor to Christianity, called the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. to settle disputes among rival factions in the church. Though unbaptized at the time, Constantine took an active part in leading the council to formulate the statement of orthodox belief about the person of Christ that became the Nicene Creed.
The Sequence of Our Study
With what subjects shall we begin? The creeds typically begin with God. Our contemporary disposition, on the other hand, is to begin with our human condition; after all, we reason, how can we understand such subjects as God, salvation, and eternal life unless we understand ourselves and the predicament we're in.
We have chosen something of a middle ground. We assume most Christians want to know where we get our ideas about God and the other teachings of the church. So we begin with a study of the doctrine of revelation, and then the doctrine of the Scriptures. Our study of God leads us eventually to God as a covenant-maker— and that introduces us to the issue of the creature with whom God makes the covenant, humankind.
As soon as humankind enters the story, we get into the subject of sin. Sin, in turn, brings us to the need of grace and to the specific form of grace we call salvation. And when we speak of salvation, we are of course confronted by Jesus Christ. As we discuss the work of Christ as Savior, we consider a doctrine that goes all through the Scriptures, the Atonement.
But then comes the matter of our human response—confession, and particularly, the ability with which we make our response to God, which we call faith. And all of this study leads us into a discussion of the work of the Holy Spirit. Now, with God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit mentioned, we must think about the Trinity.
Back then to the human creature, particularly those persons who constitute the people of God— first the nation of Israel and then the church. And when we discuss the church, we come to the sacraments, the special mark of the church, and the broader field of worship, including prayer. Then we consider a more general theme, the Christian life, which, in turn, leads to the higher possibilities of the Christian life as defined in sanctification.
But Christian doctrine is never earthbound; it comes to completion in the Christian hope. Such completion has a flip side, however, called judgment. And with that, resurrection and then eternal life. Finally, we need to ask ourselves a pragmatic question—What difference do our beliefs make?—because biblical belief is practical. It affects our lives for both time and eternity.
Such is the sequence our study will follow. But the pattern is more of a weaving because all our doctrinal beliefs are somehow intertwined. What we believe about God affects what we believe about humankind, and what we believe about humankind affects our belief about the judgment or about eternal life. You will find such connecting as you study and will make any number of additional connections on your own.
A Personal Study
Be prepared for the fact this study will be personal. While the truths are objective, the approach is subjective. At all times we will be asking ourselves what a particular belief means to us, and how we ought to respond to it. This is consistent, of course, with the classical language of the Apostles' Creed: "I believe." This language is remarkably personal, considering we ordinarily recite this creed in a company of believers. And when we declare "We believe" in the Nicene Creed, we emphasize that company. But when we say "I," there is no escape clause, and no need to see if someone else is supporting the position. So while on one hand we are studying the beliefs of the Christian community, we respond to these beliefs in the first person singular. When we speak of God, and of matters related to God, we are making statements on which we bet our lives.
A creed is a concise, organized statement of belief authorized by the church and initially used as a confession of faith by candidates for baptism. The word creed derives from the Latin meaning "I believe," the first words of most creeds and confessions of faith. In Middle English the word symbole was used to mean creed along with the more familiar crede. In Latin and Greek, the roots of our English word symbol mean mark or token, something identifying or representing something else. In that sense, a creed is a symbol of the belief it states.
In our study together, we will leave room for differences of opinion. Such an attitude is a matter not only of Christian charity but also of common sense and humility. We respect the opinions of others, remembering they too are made in God's image. We remember also we are human creatures with limited perception. When we talk about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, grace, eternal life, or any other of these great topics, we are beyond our depth. Our being able to participate in such thinking and discussion is a divine compliment. We ought therefore to exercise a great deal of humility. Let us believe passionately, and affirm earnestly, but listen generously.
At the same time, remember that the creeds came out of vigorous, sometimes contentious debate. There's nothing wrong with earnest, intense discussion. Through such intellectual and spiritual engagement the lasting truths of the faith have been put into their classical form. Good discussion should deepen faith even as it clarifies understanding.
Understanding and Faith
We will discover, as we study, that understanding aids devotion. Because Christianity so often speaks of the importance of simplicity in faith, we can easily conclude knowledge is an enemy of faith. Not so. Simplicity of trust has nothing to fear from depths of knowledge. Indeed, understanding seems to be the main point in Jesus' explanation of the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:18-23). As he explains the parable's meaning, he says, "When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart" (13:19). By contrast, the one who bears abundant fruit is "the one who hears the word and understands it" (13:23).
Biblical use of words like understanding, knowledge, and wisdom goes further than just intellectual apprehension. Their use includes a sense of involvement of the whole being, including the emotional and spiritual nature. But everything in Scripture encourages thoughtful study.
Another important distinction should be made. The aim of this study is not to prove but to understand. To prove assumes a base of truth or logic exists that passes judgment on doctrine. More than that, the desire to prove easily comes in conflict with the exercise of faith. We understand many things we cannot prove or do not even desire to prove.
In doctrine we confess from the beginning we are not able to prove what we believe. We are compelled to exercise faith. But acting on faith is not unique to Christian belief in particular or to religious belief in general. It is true of all of life. At times we will be content to say, "I don't know, but here's what I believe." We will come to realize that such words are not a confession of defeat but a declaration of trust.
An Inherited Body of Belief
Fortunately, when it comes to doctrine, we are not reinventing the wheel. We are the inheritors and beneficiaries of a body of teaching. These doctrines have stood the test of time. Still more, they have endured the test of debate, not only by those who were the enemies of Christianity but also by those who belonged to the community of God but who differed on particular matters of doctrine. The fact that most of these beliefs have at one or more times been contested does not diminish their integrity; it adds to it. We would have reason for suspicion if matters as significant as these had never been questioned. Our inherited body of belief is substantial today not only because of the divine care of the Holy Spirit but because our predecessors in the Christian community have given such a legacy to us. No doubt doctrinal questions will continue to arise, and heresies (views outside the official teachings of the church) too. But we can say with some scholarly certainty that any "new" questions will be a repeat of questions the church has faced in centuries past.
The doctrines of the church do not exist in a vacuum. The church is meant to witness to its generation and to work toward the transformation of the surrounding secular culture. But the church is also part of that culture and is inevitably influenced by it. Sometimes, indeed, the influence has been so strong that later generations are embarrassed by the way the church reflected the culture of its time rather than reflecting the character of God.
Excerpted from Christian Believer by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Copyright © 1999 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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