What does “We believe in God the Father mean?” or What did the early church know that we may need to re[dis]cover?

lightstock_146024_medium_user_870913Rowan Williams, wise and worrisome, reminds us that the earliest creeds begin with the notion of trust.  The early confessors were not typically facing a common question from our own day: whether or not to affirm there is god, whether some kind of generic god or gods exist?  The early Christians affirmed and embraced a mystery when they declared “we believe…”  They were declaring allegiance to a very peculiar version of God. They were publicly acknowledging they placed trust in this one and true God who has sent his Son on mission to reclaim the world; the same one and true God was now present in the world, being heard in the voice of the Spirit (Trinitarian from the get-go).  Don’t miss the mysterious direction of things. The Father had come our direction with the Son; now the Father was working (even wooing) within us to bring us his direction in the Spirit.

The early confessor was not saying (1) “I am affirming that there is a god.” This is what young modern evangelicals have in mind when they have seasons of doubt.  They also assume this is the question their non or post Christian friends have in mind in this secular age. It is an affirmation that is rooted in the domains of metaphysics (think, “what is real?”) and epistemology (think, “how do I know what is real?”).

The early confessor was saying (2) “I have come to trust this peculiar God and the mysterious story of his encounter and care for the world.”  They had seen Christ in the witness of the church: his life in their life, his word in their word, his life-giving breath still alive in their own. They had a corresponding testimony of their own; the transformation and restoration of creation had taken hold as the Spirit had worked in them.  There was ample mystery; the world still seemed demonstrably unruly and evil; Christians, maybe especially Christians, seemed to bear evil resistance to God’s project.  Yet they trusted and knew what they had seen God do. Rhetorically the creed said “count me in, I entrust myself to God’s care and plan, I believe”.  This profession is rooted in domain of experiential restoration, or edification – that God has and will build us up.

Sermonic type illustration: My students find much of Augustine baffling.  When we read his book on biblical interpretation they are struck by his assertion that the correct reading is marked by the uptick in the double love; the hearer will love God and his fellow humans more profoundly and appropriately.  My students protest; they think correct interpretation is about thinking or following procedure (about cognition as in (1)); they think proper appropriation or application (about transformation as in (2)) is another matter. As a younger teacher I tried to harmonize; now I teach better by not harmonizing. Augustine and the ancients are happy with tests that are rooted in transformation, conversion, or edification.

Speaking to our contemporaries we need many competencies and strategies to answer the mindsets behind the two different understandings of the creedal affirmation, “I believe,” — both (1) cognitive and (2) transformational. Our listeners will desire (sometimes even explicitly) what the ancients wisely knew: it is not enough to grasp truth, the truth has to grasp you.

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