August 22, 2018

Mark Shea: Why Creeds? Everything Old Is New Again

PHOTO: Ben White on Unsplash

This is Part 5 of Mark’s series on the Creed.
It begins with Why Creeds? Part 1

As we saw last time, St. Paul records a brief summary of the Faith in 1 Timothy 3:16. As a young Evangelical, that gave me pause.  It meant that creeds–summaries of the Faith–were biblical, not some medieval accretion.

For, of course, even in the time of the apostles, there were already all kinds of urban legends about Jesus.  Diversity of opinion about Christ and his gospel is not anything new.  Jesus himself, two thousand years ago, asked the people closest to him the most important question that has ever been asked in the history of the world and they made clear that already, in his own lifetime, the Pew Research Polls on Views of Jesus were returning wildly varying answers:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Mt 16:13–14)

This is, indeed, precisely why Jesus had called his disciples: in order to create a circle of apostles (that is, “sent ones”) who could preserve the accurate story about him and make sure it got handed down without getting muddled.  The chief of these Sent Ones was Simon and he was the first of the apostles to answer Jesus’ question correctly:

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. (Mt 16:15–20)

A couple of things are notable about this scene.  The first, of course, is that Jesus really does commend Peter for his answer, thereby leaving in ruins all the claims of people today who say that Jesus was just a simple teacher who never claimed to be Messiah or Son of God.  This Life of Brian version of the New Testament is enormously popular with people who never bother to read the New Testament.  The notion that Jesus was merely a rustic preacher of the doctrine that Niceness is Nice who somehow got expanded into a God by especially delusional disciples collides with the fact that Jesus himself makes his claim to deity both here and elsewhere extremely clear.  When Peter calls him “the Christ, the Son of the living God” Jesus’ reply is not, “Whoa!  Let’s not get carried away!  Where did you get that crazy idea?”  On the contrary, it is affirmation and promotion to the head of the class.

The second thing to note about this scene is how Jesus makes his messianic claim to deity. There are a million ways he might have done so: miraculous writing in the sky, a voice out of heaven, etc.  The devil even makes some suggestions about how to do it in the story of the temptation:  turn stones to bread, take over the planet, jump off the Temple parapet after calling a press conference with cable media and let angels waft him gently to the ground (cf. Matthew 4:1-11).  But Jesus rejects all the special effects stuff.  Instead, he reveals himself, not directly, but through Peter’s confession.  This is what he has always done: draw the truth of his identity out of us.  He does not tell the Church who he is, he waits for the Church grasp it, believe it, and confess it aloud.  Then he says, “You got it, Peter.  Yes.  Exactly right.  And you didn’t figure it out yourself.  My Father has revealed it to you.”

It is important to grasp that when Peter makes this confession about Jesus he does so without fully grasping the meaning of his own words.  The evidence of this is seen just a few lines later when the same Jesus, Son of God, rebukes him as “Satan” and tells him to get behind him (Matthew 16:23).  And, of course, at the end of the road they take to Jerusalem, that same Peter will not merely tell Jesus he must not be crucified, but will abandon him to his fate when he is.

Peter, as we know, made a recovery from his epic failure with the help of Jesus.  But in the world swirling around the Church after the Resurrection of Christ the process of cooking up Latest Real Jesuses would never end.  And so the New Testament letters are, in large measure, written to put out various pastoral fires in the early Church arising from folk who have all sorts of wrong ideas about who Jesus is and what he has done.  The apostles have to deal with all sort of opinionated ignorami who insist that Jesus was not raised from the dead, or that he said, “Ignore Moses” or that he insisted everybody had to be Jewish, or that he was a phantom without a real human body or a host of other notions deriving, not from the experience of the apostles, but from some philosophy or theory.  That’s why Paul recites that creed–to nail down the core of what the “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2) actually saw and heard and make sure it is not forgotten.

In short it turns out Jesus knew what he was doing when he selected apostles, because he knew that, immediately with the birth of the Church, it would be necessary for those teaching the gospel to make sure that the story of Jesus and what it really meant did not get gummed up with human agendas and fake news.  Of which more next time.

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