I didn’t feel up for recording this week’s episode of Pseudepodcast, as my family and I are mourning the loss of my Uncle Jim, who departed this life with the sign of faith last Sunday, October 26. So Matt and Levi went solo, and they did a bang-up job…
…isn’t it amazing how that’s a compliment? “Bang-up job”? Anyway, they really did a great job. Now I wonder if I should come back! Just kidding. Anyway, as I was listening to yesterday’s show, I had some thoughts on some of the material that was covered. I’ve jotted them down for your perusal here.
Whosoever will be saved…
The so-called “third ecumenical Creed”, the Athanasian (neither ecumenical, nor technically a creed, nor written by Athanasius…but you should still subscribe to it unconditionally), is also known by the Latin shorthand (which isn’t particular short), the “Quicumque Vult“—the “whosoever will.” Seems like a funny nickname. Anyway, it’s simply the opening words of the formula, which read thusly in English:
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
These words are a source of much consternation to many who encounter them—indeed, even to many who are well-acquainted with them. It seems a bit harsh, doesn’t it? After all, we can’t expect that the Anglo-Saxons who heard the preaching of Augustine of Canterbury (to pick just one example) had a facile grasp of every article of the faith, in all of its (important) nuances, at the time of their conversion, can we? The Slavic chieftains who were converted by St. Cyril might not have polled very well on the recent survey put out by Christianity Today. Are we to consign them, and all who are similarly ignorant, to perdition?
The lines immediately following the creed’s rather stentorian opener shed some light on the matter. Imagine that! Context is important. Who woulda thunk it? To whit:
And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.
I think what’s really being said here is that, on a fundamental level, holding to the catholic faith has to do with worship. (For this insight I am indebted to Fr. William Weedon, a.k.a, “The Venerable Wede.”) Faith is not fundamentally an intellectual activity (though it does not preclude such); it is, properly speaking, not an activity at all, but a receptive posture towards God—not only with respect to Christ’s justifying work, but also with respect to doctrine. And the one who has such faith (and all Christians do) can do naught but joyfully confess that which has been given to them. Look at all of the people that Jesus healed—they fall before Him (adoration), and they confess Him to others (praise). This is the “human response” of worship: faith worships. In truth, it can’t not worship and remain faith. Worship is the first work which flows spontaneously from living faith (cf. Romans 12:1).
So when Æthelberht of Kent converted to Christianity (pictured above) towards the end of the sixth century, prompting widespread conversion among the Anglo-Saxons (I speak in human, phenomenological terms here), Christian worship commenced in his realm. They began to worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity. Most of them probably didn’t even know enough to be able to confound the Persons or divide the Substance. Now, as time went on and they were catechized, they could very well reject the fuller explication of the doctrine. (Incidentally, many did: if you read The Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, you’ll see that the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons was far from a linear crescendo of orthodoxy.) And this rejection of the catholic faith, either for heresy or apostasy, is what is condemned by the Athanasian Creed—and, by the Nicene, too, especially if you look at the 325 formula, as Matt pointed out—not “not being able to pass a theology exam the hour you first believed.”
We confess the catholic faith by worshiping the LORD who bought us, which worship entails gladly hearing and learning what the Scriptures tell us about Him. You’re not going to go to hell if you can’t explain the Trinity. Honestly, if that were the case, we’d all go to hell. However, if you arrogantly reject the teaching of the Church—which is to say, the Church’s exposition of God’s Word—concerning God’s revelation of Himself, you are calling God a liar (i.e., the inversion of worship). And as the Anglican Luther scholar Phillip Cary has adroitly put it, this is the one thing that faith cannot do if it is to remain faith. And without faith, we are without Christ, and will, as the Quicumque Vult says, “perish everlastingly.”
So there’s only one thing left to do here…
William Lane Craig, if you’re reading this: repent. You are actually a heretic, and you are leading God’s children into false belief. I don’t throw that word around like it’s nothing. Teachers are held to a higher standard. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (St. Matthew xviii, 6). Repent and be restored to communion.
If Justification and the Trinity were in a fight, which one would win?
Justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone is the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls. Yet amazingly (or perhaps not) this isn’t the only one that you’re not allowed to be wrong about. Put a little differently…did you read the first section of this article? The one about the Athanasian Creed? You can formally subscribe to justification sola fide, but if you reject the orthodox doctrine of God (like Arius did), and/or if you reject orthodox Christology (like Nestorius did†), you’re not a Christian. Why is that? (Also, you could possibly have a confession that’s formally false, yet still be justified. See here.)
I have two answers:
Justification is the only doctrine by which the Church stands or falls, but it’s not the only doctrine by which the Church falls.
Without justification, Christianity is just a set of true propositions about God, which, for all their truthiness, are completely unable to get you and God together. That’s the basic problem that justification is trying to solve: how can sinners come before the infinitely Holy and Righteous One without being consumed? Without justification, all you can do is…well…Fall. Melt. Burn up. Die. Go to hell without passing “Go” and collecting $200.
The Christian cannot stand before the Triune God, not even if the Triune God is perfectly formulated, without the death and resurrection of the Theanthropic Person, the God-Man Jesus Christ. The East is wrong: the Incarnation, narrowly defined, is not enough. Good Friday and Easter were necessary. God has said that He will by no means clear the guilty. Death—which is the penalty for, and not just the consequence of, sin—must be endured. That is why cur Deus homo. And it was endured, for us men and for our salvation. Blessed be God. No, this isn’t an invention of icky “Western scholasticism” unleashed upon the Church by Anselm. It’s an invention of God, the Maker and Preserver of all things.
Without justification, there are no Christians; ergo, there is no Church. In a way, justification constitutes the Church by recapitulating the communion between God and Man (and among men) which was intended from the beginning. Adam and Eve were the Church, the ecclesia, hearkening to the Word of God which called them forth from the earth and into communion with Him and with each other. The Fall? It was the first schism. Yes, I know that this definition of “Church” might not hold up dogmatically—just let me do my whimsical poet thing, OK?
The difference, then, between justification and the other essential articles of the faith is that it is constitutive of the Church in the same way that creation is constitutive of the Cosmos. Without justification, there wouldn’t even be a Church; the question of it falling—or, more likely, of people falling away from it—would be entirely moot.
Somewhere in the foregoing I said that you can formally subscribe to justification sola fide, but if you reject the orthodox doctrine of God and/or orthodox Christology, you’re not a Christian. (NB: this is why William Lane Craig is not a Christian.) The key distinction is made by the term “formally.” Think of a merely formal subscription as one in which the terms are accepted, but the content which the Church confesses with them is not affirmed. For example, the heresiarch Arius could quite cheerfully agree that “Jesus is Lord” (Κύριος Ἰέσους), but when he said “Jesus”, what he meant was not “true God and true Man in one person”, but rather, “the first most bestest creature that God made.” This is a problem.
The same problem can arise with respect to justification, such that a confession of justification sola fide may be formally orthodox, but materially heterodox. Simply put, it strains credulity to think that someone who rejects orthodox Trinitarianism could confess that we are saved “by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone.” When one looks at the Christological heresies from the first four centuries of the Church, it is manifestly evident that each one undermines the atonement. For example, as Levi pointed out so well on yesterday’s show, Apollinarism, by stipulating that Christ’s divine nature replaced His human soul, gives us a Savior who became something other than a man, for a man is a unity of body and soul. How could we be justified on account of the death of such a savior? How could such a savior be our substitute? How could he heal our souls if he does not have one? I could go on, but such examples suffice.
So, too, the error which equates human nature with sin. In addition to making God the author of evil—and the very worst and most schizophrenic “theologian of glory”, calling the evil human nature which He created “Good”—Christ in the Incarnation would not be healing human nature, but destroying it. He would become sin not by imputation, which is what St. Paul means when he says that “for our sake [God] made Him to be sin Who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Co. v, 21), but in reality. Such thinking is merely a concatenation of old heresies dressed up and taught to dance. You can call it a lot of things, but you can’t call it Christian. Here’s what I would call it:
1. Pseudo-Monophysitism/Eutychianism: Human nature, being sin, is immolated and annihilated in the Godhead, with the result that Christ has only one nature; thus He is not true God and true Man.
2. Pseudeo-Apollinarism: In being cleansed of sin, human nature becomes something essentially different, i.e., no longer human nature; thus Christ has two natures, but he is not at all true Man—he’s true God and true Something Else.
3. Pseudo-Gnostic, dualistic, Nietzschean, crappy existentialistic shell-game with your soul: Sin and Divinity are somehow in union with each other. Christ is evil. He’s not the spotless lamb of God. He didn’t “die for your sins.” He died justly, because He was a sinner. But get this—God raised Him from the dead because God’s unjust. Christ broke the Law for you; He didn’t fulfill it, because it isn’t actually good. God’s actually beyond good and evil. That’s why He could create evil, call it good, condemn evil creatures for sinning, torment them with His Law, and then break His own Law to save them. The point of salvation is leave you mind-blown. Incidentally, it also leaves God mind-blown. Anyway, don’t get too hung up on what the Law says is good or evil; the Law itself projects this distinction in order to terrify you. But the “Gospel” (which you think you know, but probably don’t) fixes the Law. Everything is a paradox, and up until now you’ve had no idea how radical and completely “other” God is.
As you can see, it’s best that we stay away from this error. To say that it undercuts a true confession of justification sola fide is a colossal understatement. It undercuts the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of God, the doctrine of the Person and Work of Christ, and probably a whole lot else. I’ve made no secret of my wariness over the fact that a genus of this error seems to have made its way into confessional Lutheranism. There’s a good case to be made, actually, that it’s a “mutant strain of Lutheranism” (as a friend likes to call it) that’s been with us from the beginning, like that mysterious squatter who cooks meth on your back forty (don’t look now…). And this makes a certain amount of sense, for wherever God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel. I wouldn’t leave the Lutheran Church for anything—believe me, I have tried. But we need to face up to our demons honestly. There are certain errors that we Lutherans are more prone towards on account of the semblance of truth they contain. It is for these that we must be especially watchful and on guard. Also, we need to be attend to the kind and degree of education which will enable us to see them when they arise, but that’s a topic for another post—yes, that’s usually my throwaway line, but I am actually writing one!
Well, anyway, I’ve just spent the hour that I’m going to gain with Daylight Savings Time (which the Canadians also follow, evidently) and then some writing this little essay, so I’d better go do something studious. I hope that my thoughts can be of help to anyone who happens to be reading. As always, your comments are welcome.
† Martin Luther surmised that Nestorius might not have been a Nestorian; I can’t track down the quote at the moment, but when I do, I’ll post it.