Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Catechismal Gems

You know, often times among us progressive/liberal Christians, things like creeds, confessions, and catechisms get a bad rap.  There are definitely folks in the UCC who are overly-gung-ho about the idea that the UCC is a "non-creedal" church.  I'm not sure I exactly agree with that claim, but even if I were to give them that, I still insist that this doesn't mean we are a 'non-confessional' church.  We recognize the ancient ecumenical creeds (namely the Apostles' and the Nicene) and the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation as a true part of our theological heritage--it even states this in our UCC Constitution and other foundational documents.

I really do think that some of our historic creeds, confessions, and catechisms have some real gems of faith expression in them.  I've been at a worship service where I've cried (in a good way) through saying the Apostles' Creed, and specifically the third section:  "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting."  I'm sure entire books could be written (probably have been written) on all the wonderful things about God and about us that are implied in and connected to those 27 words.  

Now certainly there is much in the historic confessions that I would certainly not say, or at least not say in the same way, today.  In particular, I don't tend to agree with the Reformation-period Reformed confessions' tendency toward a penal substitutionary atonment theory or their extremely high view of God's providence.  But those caveats don't negate the riches in them.

Anyway, over a few posts, I want to share what I think are some of the greatest 'gems' in the catechisms and other confessions of our UCC heritage.  Today I begin with the Heidelberg Catechism--the primary confession from our German Reformed heritage, although it is interesting to note that an earlier version of Heidelberg (similar to, but not the same as, the version we know now) was originally intended as an attempt at a confession that both the Reformed and the Lutheran sides of the Reformation could agree to.

1.  What is your only comfort in life and in death?
That I am not my own,
but belong—
body and soul,
in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. ...

Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.

This opening question of Heidelberg may be (in my opinion, of course) the greatest gem in all the confessional writings.  

21. What is true faith?
True faith is
not only a knowledge and conviction
that everything God reveals in his Word is true;
it is also a deep-rooted assurance,
created in me by the Holy Spirit through the gospel,
that, out of sheer grace earned for us by Christ,
not only others, but I too,
have had my sins forgiven,
have been made forever right with God,
and have been granted salvation.

I really like this question for a couple reasons:  
a) "True faith ... is also a deep-rooted assurance, created in me by the Holy Spirit through the gospel":  the affirmation that even faith itself is not something we do or achieve, but is what God does in us, but also the movement of faith out of the realm of "knowledge and conviction" to "deep-rooted assurance"--the same move from faith as 'intellectual assent' or 'believe' more toward 'trust' that many of us in the late 20th- and early 21st- century are trying to advocate for, away from the excesses of rationalistic Enlightenment thinking;
b) the way it phrases "that not only others, but I too, have had...":  it's so fascinating and yet so poignant how it takes for granted that I understand that others have been forgiven, made right, etc., and that the challenge, the thing that I need to come to grasp is that "I too" have these things; truly I think there is definitely truth in the way it turns that phrase--plenty of people today bear the weight of believing that others are the holy ones while they themselves can't be good enough.  O sister, O brother, not only others, but you too, have had your sins forgiven, have been made forever right with God, and have been granted salvation.  Can it get anymore Gospel than that?

32. But why are you called a Christian?
Because by faith I am a member of Christ
and so I share in his anointing.
I am anointed
to confess his name,
to present myself to him as a living sacrifice of thanks,
to strive with a good conscience against sin and the devil
in this life, and afterward
to reign with Christ over all creation
for all eternity.

I'm not sure I have much to say on this one; it's content seems self-evident.

44. Why does the creed add, "He descended to hell?"
To assure me in times of personal crisis and temptation
that Christ my Lord,
by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul,
especially on the cross but also earlier,
has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.

Part of my own 'high' Christology is that God God's-self experienced the entirety of human experience, including the absolute depths of human pain and suffering, and so stands in complete solidarity with us through all.  Perhaps Heidelberg doesn't completely capture that with this question, but it at least gets at some of it.

49.  How does Christ's ascension to heaven benefit us?
First, he pleads our cause in heaven
in the presence of his Father.
Second, we have our own flesh in heaven—
a guarantee that Christ our head,
will take us, his members,
to himself in heaven. ...

This sort of goes along with the previous one (44), particularly the 'second' benefit.

52. How does Christ's return "to judge the living and the dead" comfort you?
In all my distress and persecution
I turn my eyes to the heavens
and confidently await as judge the very One
who has already stood trial in my place before God
and so has removed the whole curse from me.

Now, I don't necessarily identify with the substitutionary atonement implied in this question, but I like the way it points to that wonderful passage from Romans 8 (here with my own interpolation):  "Who is to condemn? It is [only] Christ Jesus, who [already] died [for us], yes, who [already] was raised [for us], who is [already] at the right hand of God [for us], who indeed [already] intercedes for us." 

81. Who are to come to the Lord's table?
Those who are displeased with themselves
because of their sins,
but who nevertheless trust
that their sins are pardoned
and that their continuing weakness is covered
by the suffering and death of Christ,
and who also desire more and more
to strengthen their faith
and to lead a better life. ...

This is not the feast for the perfect, but for the sinner!

95. What is idolatry?
Idolatry is
having or inventing something in which one trusts
in place of or alongside of the only true God,
who has revealed himself in his Word.

Oh how this is not any less of a danger today, even if our choices of what to 'have' or 'invent' are different!

105 - 107. What is God's will for you in the sixth commandment?
I am not to belittle, insult, hate, or kill my neighbor—
not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture,
and certainly not by actual deeds—
and I am not to be party to this in others;
rather, I am to put away all desire for revenge. ...

Does this commandment refer only to killing?
By forbidding murder God teaches us
that he hates the root of murder:
envy, hatred, anger, vindictiveness.
In God's sight all such are murder.

Is it enough then that we do not kill our neighbor in any such way?
By condemning envy, hatred, and anger
God tells us
to love our neighbors as ourselves,
to be patient, peace-loving, gentle,
merciful, and friendly to them,
to protect them from harm as much as we can,
and to do good even to our enemies.

Hmm... perhaps a much needed corrective on our attitudes toward others, not only individually, but as a society or nation.  

110. What does God forbid in the eighth commandment?
He forbids not only outright theft and robbery,
punishable by law.
But in God's sight theft also includes
cheating and swindling our neighbor
by schemes made to appear legitimate,
such as:
inaccurate measurements of weight, size, or volume;
fraudulent merchandising;
counterfeit money;
excessive interest;
or any other means forbidden by God.
In addition he forbids all greed
and pointless squandering of his gifts.

Hmm...  I'm thinking of credit card interest and oil-industry profits!

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