Luke Timothy Johnson on The Creed: How Liberals and Conservatives Both Go Wrong

One of my very favorite recent books, written in 2003, is The Creed, written by Catholic biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson. Rarely have I read such a stimulating and faith building academic work on Christian theology and how the church should think about faith in the modern world.

A friend recently asked me for a list of the best books on the Apostle’s Creed. When I recommended this volume he began to read it with much interest. He later wrote to tell me how inspired he was by Johnson’s fresh and stimulating work. He even sent me a favorite quote. I noted the quote and then expanded it a bit. Read it and maybe you will also want to buy the book and read it for yourself.

Some groups within Christianity have remarkably clear boundaries. They know exactly who they are, how they are different from others, and what they demand of their members. They insist on the "literal" meaning of Scripture and on "classic Christian teaching." Even though they are often as individualistic in their piety as other forms of Christianity, they expect conformity to the group in matters of doctrine and behavior. They are also the forms of Christianity that are growing fastest in number and influence.

Unfortunately, these Christian groups tend to confuse the accidental with the essential. They tend to make some single element of belief or of morals the litmus test of membership, indeed of true Christianity. For some it is a literal inspiration or inerrancy of Scripture; for others, baptism in spirit; for others, recognition of papal authoritiy; for many, the condemnation of homosexuality and the canonization of the nuclear family; for many, a politics that calls itself conservative but is often reactionary. Failure to agree means exclusion. Such forms of Christianity flourish because they actually demand something of their members and they satisfy the human hunger for clarity and certainty.

They are also fundamentally sectarian, because they define themselves as much by what they oppose as what they affirm. They exemplify the classical definition of heresy as the elevation of one truth to the distortion of other truths. What each of them opposes in one way or another is the entire world shaped by Modernity. The Enlightenment is the great enemy.

These groups pay a remarkable amount of attention to some small point of self-definition, compared to the attention they give to the heart of the gospel. Worse, they are often preoccupied with external signs of conformity but neglect the evidence of abuse and corruption around them.  The classic example is their public opposition to sexual immorality accompanied by their blindness toward economic injustice.  And because they set their boundaries by what is nonessential rather than what is essential, they repel those outside (and some of those within) who despair at their consistent habit of straining the gnat while swallowing the camel.

At the other extreme, some groups lack any real sense of boundaries. They do not answer the question "What does it mean to be a Christian?" clearly, and offer little sense of what is demanded of the individual Christian. They have explicitly or implicitly assimilated to the world of Modernity, have resisted the creation of strong boundaries in favor of openness to the world, and have aligned themselves politically with the forces of change within culture rather than with the forces of resistance. They define Christainity in terms of acceptance and inclusion, and regard boundaries as barriers.

This extreme also has its inconsistencies. It is, in a sense, as sectarian or heretically selective as the first. It attacks the other style of Christianity for identifying Christianity with reactionary politics, but is itself just as committed to liberal politics. It bemoans the narrowness of a literalistic reading of Scripture in service of doctrine, but is just as committed to a literalistic reading of the Bible in service of history. It condemns the other extreme’s narrow-minded, exclusionary style of life, not recognizing in such condemnation another form of narrow-minded exclusiveness. It mocks the periodic appearance of charlatans among the ranks of Evangelical leaders, but seems incapable of recognizing the charlatans among its own leaders.

(The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters. New York: Doubleday, 2003, page 298-300.)

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