Christian tradition is important to understand because it is an essential ingredient in the formation of the assumptions we make about spirituality. These assumptions can be more unconscious than conscious depending upon the individual. And theological convictions stand back of the development of traditions. Thus the importance of knowing what we actually believe and why.
The core of Christian orthodoxy is what gives us a strand to unify as believers regardless of our agreements or disagreements on other theological and practical matters. As with the prior blog, my purpose is to state and clarify the assertions given by orthodox Christians regarding the source and nature of authentic human spirituality. And thus in naming what that core of Christian orthodoxy is my hope is that the reader will be provoked to think critically about he or she believes.
I will not attempt to defend or elaborate much on the rational for these theological assertions. Rather, I will propose the remainder of the outline of the core of Christian orthodoxy. The quotations from other authors will present both the assertions and arguments that I wish the reader to wrestle with.
I have the best job in that I get to spend a lot of time with Graduate students at the University of Arizona. And part of the blessing of that is learning from them about their fields of study. Many of them are scientists or in one of the Engineering programs. I am not a scientist nor an Engineer so when I ask them questions about the particulars of what they are studying they have to stop and think carefully about how to explain the ideas and concepts they utilize in their academic fields. If they were talking to a peer in their academic department they could assume that nearly everyone had a comprehension of the basic concepts used in their fields of study. When they engage me in conversation they cannot assume that and have to adjust their approach and simplify their terminology to help me grasp those concepts.
I would suggest there is a parallel between the dynamic of these conversations and the core theological affirmation which makes historic orthodox Christian faith unique. Namely, the Incarnation of the eternal Son as Jesus of Nazareth. He took on human nature and form in order to suffer and die as a sacrifice for all human beings and then be raised up from death by God the Father for our sakes. All this was done by grace for us—so that we may come to understand God’s good purpose for us. These are the basics of the hope of the Gospel—the basics of the apostles teaching to explain the mysterious work of God to delivers us. And the hope of the Lord’s disciples rests in the Person of the risen Lord.
The Incarnation of the Word become human in the man Jesus of Nazareth is essential to this hope. Without the Incarnation then the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ cannot be a sure basis for hope. For the sacrificial life and death of Christ only have power because of indestructible quality of the Divine life that filled the human person Jesus. And the Son came to give that life to humans, as he told us plainly: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10, NRSV)
So then, the second point in the outline is this: That the life, death and resurrection of Christ are the power of God revealed so we can participate in God’s life in this mortal life (not merely after we die). This is a gift of grace. St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), has written an insightful comment on the transformational life of our Lord.
He writes that “at the moment of his death he was certainly annihilated in his soul, without any consolation or relief, since the Father had left him that way in innermost aridity in the lower part. He was thereby compelled to cry out: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? [Mt.27:46]. This was the most extreme abandonment, sensitively, that he had suffered in his life. And by it he accomplished the most marvelous work of his whole life, surpassing all the works and deeds and miracles that he had ever performed on earth or in heaven. That is, he brought about the reconciliation and the union of the human race with God through grace. The Lord achieved this, as I say, at the moment in which he was most annihilated in all things: in his reputation before people, since in watching him die they mocked him instead of esteeming him; in his human nature, by dying; and in spiritual help and consolation from his Father, for he was forsaken by his Father at that time, annihilated and reduced to nothing, so as to pay the debt fully and bring people to union with God.” (St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 2, Chapter 7, Paragraph 11 [cited from The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. & Otilio Rodriquez, O.C.D. (ICS Publications: 1991), p.172].)
The point John of the Cross makes is simple and profound: The atonement of the Son for our sakes was accomplished so that redeemed humans can be united with their Creator. John of the Cross elsewhere asserts and describes how the totally of the human person can become united to Christ (his articulation of what some Protestants would describe under the category of “sanctification.”) This is the end goal of Christ’s redemption. Forgiveness of sins is by definition a part of his finished work—for without that how could any human being be united in spirit with God? The modern penchant of Christians to focus solely on the forgiveness of sins (and for some sanctification too) by grace misses the end goal Scripture testifies to. For Scripture, in describing God’s will for relating to us, uses the terms connoting communion, intimacy and participation in God through Christ (see John 6:53-57; 15:5-11; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 6:17; Galatians 2:19-21; Colossians 1:15-20; 2 Peter 1:3-4; Revelation 21:1-4).
Finally, this is the third point in the outline orthodox spirituality: True spirituality is rooted in the Triune God and characterized by productive action and experiential faith. If it is not so for some who profess to believe in the Name of Christ Jesus then something is amiss. For God is the Truth and he is present and active in the world and people’s lives; he speaks the truth to us so that we can enter the Kingdom and so begin to learn to practice the truth in the many dimensions of human existence.
The great Puritan pastor John Owen (1616-1683) affirmed this point well. To merely give an intellectual assent to Christian doctrine is never sufficient. God does not ask us for our intellectual assent but to yield our very souls to him and let him complete the work of salvation he accomplished in the Lord Jesus Christ.
“To learn the truth as it is in Jesus is to experience its transforming power in our lives, mortifying sin, renewing our natures and conforming us into the image of God in righteousness and true holiness. The whole purpose of the revelation of the mind and will of God in Scripture is that it may work in us a spiritual, practical power, so that we may do the things revealed to us. Where that is not understood and so neglected, men content themselves with a bare, speculative understanding of the gospel and end up rejecting ‘the counsel and wisdom of God’ in them. We must learn to esteem a little knowledge which gives true understanding of salvation and sanctification more highly than the highest ideas and speculations of the mind, even though gilded by the reputation of skill, cleverness, eloquence, wit and learning. He who has learned to be meek, humble, lowly, patient, self-denying, holy, zealous, peaceable, seeking purity of heart and desiring to lead a useful life, is indeed the one who is best acquainted with evangelical truth. So let this knowledge be esteemed above all that proud, presumptuous, puffed-up head knowledge which seeks only to get a great reputation for itself in the world. Do not be satisfied until you have discovered by personal experience the goodness, excellence and beauty in spiritual things. Do not be satisfied until you have embraced these truths with unconquerable love and delight. Without this, your faith is not better than the faith of devils (James 2:19).” (John Owen, Apostasy from the Gospel [Banner of Truth: 1992], pp.71-72; italics in original.)
These points are the groundwork for constructing an orthodox Christian spirituality. While this is admittedly a simplified presentation I think that these affirmations and the practice of them in life is rooted in the history of the Church’s witness. For our testimony is built upon the foundation of Christ himself (1 Corinthians 3:11). And our task is it to resolve to do the will of God and trust the Lord Jesus—and listen to his voice, receive the truth he chooses to reveal to us in Scripture and go to be where he is working in people who do not yet know him. To do this requires humility and a willingness to learn from our brothers and sisters in Christ—regardless of which stream of Christian tradition they have come to practice the faith.