Was Paul Crucified For You?
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’ But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, ‘Whoever does the works of the law will live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. – Galatians 3:10-14
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. – Philippians 2:3-13
The problem with claiming unity in Christ goes back to the matter of theological pluralism,as I have argued before. The simple fact of the matter is that we don’t all confess these truths about Christ. – Dr. David Watson, “Unity In Christ?”, Musings and Whatnot, August 2, 2015
The incessant demand that we in The United Methodist Church all assent to doctrine before we truly become “United” is getting more than tiresome. It does, however, need to be addressed both in love and with clarity. Denying that we are united by the words we say or the things we think about Jesus, God, etc. is not to say that doctrine is unimportant. On the contrary, doctrine is the church’s continually evolving sense of what it believes, which defines who it is. Precisely because the time and place and collective language are always changing, however, we must always be aware that doctrine is always changing, because our collective sense of our own identity is always changing. None of this means that the Gospel has changed, or that the Spirit has left the Church, or that innovation is a mark of heresy. It is what it is: We in the Church are always reflecting on our sense of Scripture; allowing it to interpret our experience, as well as allowing our experience to enlighten our hearts when reading Scripture; we discover new things about our collective tradition that offer insights we might not have had before; reason graced by the Holy Spirit moves through this person or that person, offering new ways to think about God.
Even if there are those who would dismiss what I just wrote, we should always remember that confessing the faith in English is not confessing the faith in French is not confessing the faith in Hindi is not confessing the faith in Russian is not confessing the faith in koine Greek. These languages are all too human, all too historical constructs, each different. Speaking words in one have no exact equivalent in any of the others. To claim that our collective confession in either the Apostle’s Creed or Nicene Creed provides unity pretends that language, at least language about God, has some essential quality that all other language does not have. Isn’t it more fruitful for faith to acknowledge our unity in the Spirit, and to hear in the words of the Creeds spoken in different tongues the possibilities of different insights, different ways of living the faith, ways that have never occurred to us?
Yet, as noted in the link above, there continues to be an ongoing insistence that it just isn’t enough to declare that we are the Church of Jesus Christ. Not only do we have to have the right words; we have to make sure when we speak them, we all have the same understanding of the words. Otherwise, we aren’t confessing the faith properly. Dr. Watson brings up our now-outdated statement on our theological task – yet again – declaring it “theological pluralism” without either defining the term or defending his claim (again). Perhaps he means a pluralistic approach to religious understanding, which is the affirmation that our sources and norms of God-talk are not restricted to the Christian Scriptures, but could incorporate non-Christian and even secular sources as authoritative. Whatever he might mean by “theological pluralism”, it’s a red herring, a non-issue because the General Conference in 1988 set new Doctrinal Standards and a theological task before us as a Church. Continuing to reference anything prior to that as having any relevance to us as a church is a bit like insisting we need to affirm the supremacy of the Papacy because the Christian churches used to do that before 1517. Just as our understanding of doctrine is ever-changing, so to are the reference points for beginning a discussion on doctrinal matters. We are in a different historical period as a denomination. We have firm guidelines, with our special Wesleyan emphases offered as tools to become a more fruitful Church.
Our unity in Christ, as St. Paul noted in many places in many letters, is rooted in our collective experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit revealing the grace of the Father in the Son. Ours is a unity rooted in the Persons of the Divine Trinity. Ours is a unity rooted in the Great Commission, to go make disciples of all nations, a commission itself rooted in the revelation of the risen crucified Christ. We are not united by our declarations of our current identity contained in our doctrinal statements, our creeds, our words, or how we define or understand those words. The insistence that is the case flies in the face of the Scriptural testimony and two thousand years of Christian practice. I cannot say it enough: Doctrine is our collective understanding of our identity. Our unity is rooted in the grace made real in us by the Holy Spirit in the Son for the glory of the Father. These reference events in our collective life – events that continue to shape our mission and ministry, our preaching and teaching, and, yes, our ongoing discovery of who we are as those claimed by the crucified and risen one.
I’ll just close with some more words from St. Paul:
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. – Galatians 1:11-12