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Creeds Under Fire: Creeds On Fire

San Williams

July 14, 2013
I Corinthians 8:5-6

07-14-2013 Sermon As most of you know, our sermon topics this summer came from members and friends of the congregation.  Our topic this morning was suggested by a student.  She asked:  “Why does the congregation still say the Apostles’ Creed, and what does it mean to say we believe that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary?  How,” wondered the student “is this possible?” 

Well, to the question about why we say the Apostles’ Creed– as well as other creeds of the church–we could give a straightforward answer right out of the Presbyterian Book of Order F-2.01:  “The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) states its faith and bears witness to God’s grace in Jesus Christ in the creeds and confessions in The Book of Confessions.  In these statements, the church declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do.  These statements identify the church as a community of people known by its convictions as well as by its actions.  They guide the church in its study and interpretation of the Scriptures; they summarize the essence of Reformed Christian tradition; they direct the church in maintaining sound doctrines; they equip the church for its work of proclamation.  They serve to strengthen personal commitment and the life and witness of the community of believers.”

Now, even though that statement from our Book of Order is a fine one indeed, I doubt it would free our student to leap up and start spouting the Apostles’ Creed with renewed conviction.  Chances are, for this student, as for so many others today, some of our creedal statements—such as the virgin birth—seem nonsensical, irrational and unreasonable. She may be asking, in effect:  How can one be both a believer and a critical thinker? After all, modernity is all about ascertaining truth by objective criteria that can be tested and conclusions reached based on the evidence. Faith, on the other hand, risks believing in things unseen, proclaims a reality that cannot be verified by scientific inquiry.  We may affirm that we believe that God created the heavens and the earth, that Jesus Christ is God’s Son, that he rose from the dead and sits on the right hand of God, and that the Holy Spirit is among us and so on, but these are statements of faith, not statements of fact.  Our student is asking a serious question, one that troubles many thoughtful believers and non-believers alike.  When we stand up to affirm our faith in worship with the words “born of the Virgin Mary,” some of us will figuratively cross our fingers behind our back, raise an eyebrow, or simply observe an embarrassed silence.  Our student isn’t the only one asking, “How is that possible?”

Now it’s tempting, especially in a university church full of educated, reasonable people, to do all we can to make our faith more palatable, more in harmony with rational thinking and scientific evidence.  We might even be tempted to do to the creeds what Thomas Jefferson did to the New Testament.  Jefferson, a man of reason if ever there was one, took a pair of scissors to the New Testament and snipped out everything that offended Enlightenment thinkers—miracles, healings, the resurrection, ascension and so on. His so-called Jefferson Bible attempted to ameliorate or soften the irrational scandal of its message. Similarly, why not mark through creedal statements like the Virgin Birth, if these statements are a barrier for many folks today, folks like the bright young student who asked the question?  But there’s a danger: The attempt to untangle the paradox of faith, to fit the mind of God inside the human brain, and to limit the activity of God to what strikes us as reasonable may leave us with a view of God that is more accessible to our modern minds, but one that is much less compelling.

But—our student might chime in—can’t we affirm our faith in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, without having to embrace the doctrine of the virgin birth?  The answer is clearly “yes.” In the New Testament, only the gospels of Matthew and Luke record the virgin birth of Jesus.  Mark and John tell the story of Jesus without it.  Paul, in his numerous letters, never mentions it.  Even Joseph Ratzinger, before his election as Pope Benedict XVI, wrote, “The doctrine of Jesus’ divinity would not be affected if Jesus had been the product of a normal human marriage…to confess Jesus as Son of God certainly does not entail denying that he was any other father’s son.”

To my mind, Luke Timothy Johnson in his book titled The Creed, put the whole matter in perspective.  He wrote:  “The plain fact is that it is neither possible nor important to know the biology of Jesus’ conception and birth.  The God who creates all things can create a human apart from sex, but it does not follow either that he does, or did in the case of Jesus.  Likewise, the conception of the Messiah through the sexual intercourse of Mary and Joseph could be just as ‘holy’ and just as much ‘out of the Holy Spirit’ as a conception that did not involve human sexual intercourse.  When finally we shift from a preoccupation with biology,” concludes Johnson, “we can begin to notice what is important in the creed’s statement.  And what is most important is that the incarnation of God’s Son came about through both divine and human agency.”

Thus we might suggest to our student that she is quite free to reject a literal interpretation of the Virgin Birth and still be in the mainstream of Christian belief.  Or better yet, maybe we’d encourage her to be agnostic when it comes to the Virgin Birth, and to remain opened-minded about it.  After all, surely if we believe that God created the world out of nothing and raised Jesus from the dead, we can reasonably believe that God could, if God so chose, create a human being apart from sex. The symbol of the Virgin Birth is admittedly one that jars credibility, but at the same time it reminds us that with God nothing is impossible. 

In the creedal statement we read from I Corinthians Paul acknowledges that there are many ways to construe the world.  There are all sorts of lords and gods that can define our lives, but then he affirms, “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” 

Likewise, in our postmodern world there are many ideologies, many views of reality, many ways to understand the world, and we are not denying their existence or claims.  Yet for us…we believe that the world is a gift from a good and loving Creator; therefore, we experience the world with awe, thanksgiving, and praise; and we treat the world, not as a possession to be exploited, but as a gift to be handled with great care.  We believe in Jesus as God’s Son; therefore, we experience the meaning of life, not in selfish gain, but in self-giving love toward our neighbor.  We believe in God the Holy Spirit; therefore, we experience God present in our midst guiding, inspiring, teaching us.  And we believe in the resurrection of the body; therefore, we do not give in to despair, but embrace the future hoping, praying and working toward the re-birth of all creation. 

Friends, creeds are problems for us only as long as they are viewed as intellectual propositions that don’t engage and direct how we live.  If our student is representative of her generation, we can guess that she’s not really looking to us for a logical argument that she can accept, but for a meaningful and purposeful way of life she can embrace.  She isn’t looking for simple answers, but for a community that is willing to risk believing even while doubting. Yes, we still say the Apostles’ Creed. Why?  Because we want our student, and all post-modern people, to be able to imagine the kind of world the creed construes–a world created out of God’s love, a world being redeemed and reconciled by the grace of God’s Son, a world infused with the presence of God’s Holy Spirit.  Then–and this is what really matters–by our personal convictions and actions we can show this student that it’s possible…and desirable… to live in that world.