Our Beliefs

THE INCARNATION

The central fact of Christianity is the Incarnation.  "Incarnation" is a high-falutin' word that means "enfleshment."  (If you speak Spanish, you can see the connection between carne and encarnacion, or "incarnation" in English.) This is the doctrine that God, out of a profound love for us, at one point in human history exercised his desire to be one WITH us by becoming one OF us. This belief carries lots of implications about the nature of God and of God's love for us.  Incarnation teaches that the omnipotent Creator of the cosmos chose to assume human vulnerability in the person of Jesus of Nazareth; the Eternal One condescended to share in our mortality.  God, in the person of Jesus Christ, came among us and lived a perfect life of perfect love, and our reaction was to kill him.  But God is God, and death has no hold on God.  The resurrected Christ appeared to his disciples, people who abandoned him out of terror of getting caught up in his arrest, torture and death.  The resurrected Christ appeared not to condemn, chastise, or chide, but to reassure.  We learn that there is nothing we can do to make God stop loving us.


THE CREED

The Nicene Creed, adopted in the Fourth Century AD, is the summary of our faith.  This Creed unites virtually all Christians, Eastern and Western.  It is Trinitarian in its formulation, i.e., it is divided into paragraphs that address the three "Persons" of the Trinity.  The wording here is tricky.  In Latin, the word "persona" referred to the masks that actors wore in the amphitheaters so that the audience could see from a distance if they were angry, sad, or happy. The word eventually worked its way into the modern Romance languages and into English, hence persona (Spanish), personne (French), or person (English).  But for moderns the word "person" means an individual human being.  This leads to a simplistic and idolatrous interpretation of the Trinity, and gives us artistic depictions of God as an old white man with a long gray beard, a younger white man with a brown beard, and a dove.  The doctrine of the Trinity has confounded both Christians and others through the ages, but we have to remember that whenever we talk about God we are, of necessity, speaking in metaphor.  We cannot define God. But we do, along with the Jews and Muslims, assert that God is One. (Yeah, I know:  God is One, but the Trinity!  As I say, this doctrine has confounded us through the ages.)  For my own conception of God, the closest I can get to "defining" God is to say that God is Being, Being itself, the ground of all being.  In the early Church, besides theologians thinking and writing in Latin, there were many (perhaps more, at first) who were thinking and writing in Greek. In Greek, instead of speaking of the persona of God, they spoke of the hypostases of God, three states or three ways that God has of being God.  The analogy of H2O existing as a solid, a liquid, and a gas is crude, but useful.  In any event, we can say that the doctrine of the Trinity teaches that God is transcendent, incarnate, and immanent.  The Incarnate part of God is Jesus.  I love the juxtaposition of God as Transcendent yet immanent; God is beyond our capacity to understand, yet is closer to us than our own hands and feet.


THE BIBLE

The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, commonly referred to as the Bible, are the earliest witnesses to what the earliest tradition of our faith was. (Michael Ramsey, former Archbishop of Canterbury)  What we Christians call the Old Testament are the Jewish Holy Scriptures, which in Jewish tradition is often called the TaNaKh (for Torah, Nivi'im, v Kittuvim, that is Torah, Prophets, and Writings).  Many of the Christian writings from the apostolic era of the Church were eventually incorporated into the canon of sacred scripture, which we call the New Testament.  People often refer to the Bible as "the Good Book," which is a misnomer.  The Bible is not a book; it is a library.  In fact, that is what the word Bible literally means.  It's from the Greek ta biblia, meaning "the books," and from that word we get the Spanish and French words for "library" (biblioteca and bibliotheque).  Thinking of the Bible as a singular book can lead to the notion that it is some sort of oracle that fell out of the sky.  Rather, it is a collection of books that were written over many centuries and contain many genres.  The Bible contains history, myth, poetry, parable, theological reflection, metaphor, and lots of imagery.  (By "myth" I don't mean something that is not true.  "Myth" is an attempt to convey a divine truth in human language.)  We believe that the Scriptures are divinely inspired, but also contain much of the human element.  "God's revelation did not drop from heaven in a neat pattern, but was wrought out in a rough and bloody history - a history which demands the scientific study which critics and historians can bring." (Also from Michael Ramsey, 1948)  We describe the Bible as the Word of God (which is not the same as the "words" of God).  Nonetheless, by the phrase "the Word of God" we mean pre-eminently the person of Jesus Christ.  This is best expressed in the opening lines of the Gospel according to John:  "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."

It is helpful to remember that in pre-Christian times and even in the apostolic age, the technology of the book, as we understand it, did not yet exist.  Scrolls were bulky affairs, so the writings that we are now so accustomed to seeing bound in one volume were a collection of scrolls among many scrolls.  Which works were to make the cut and which were to be excluded?  This was determined by the people of God, first the Jews, and later Christians also.  In Jesus' day, people such as the Pharisees, as well as Jesus himself, regarded the writings of the prophets to be divinely inspired.  More conservative groups, such as the Sadducees, regarded only the five books of the Torah as inspired (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, & Deuteronomy).  In time, the Jewish community settled on the current collection.  Christians also took some time before settling on which early Christian writings to include in our canon and which to exclude.  So this begs the question, Did the Bible form the Church or did the Church form the Bible?  This is like asking, Which came first, the chicken or the egg?  For us, Scripture, Tradition, and Reason are the three pillars that hold up our faith.

While we do believe in the inspiration of Scripture, we do not believe in the "literal inerrancy" of Scripture.  We do believe in evolution; we do NOT believe in young earth creationism.  As my Systematic Theology professor in seminary liked to say, "The purpose of Systematic Theology is to attempt to make sense out of our faith without making nonsense out of everything else."  We believe in science.

From my observation, I can see two very broad categories of Christians:  Christians who believe in the Bible vs. Christians who believe in the God to whom the Bible points; Christians who believe in the Bible vs. Christians who believe in the Christ to whom the Gospels witness.  It's not the same thing.  There's a great difference between a Christianity whose starting point is belief in God vs. one whose starting point is belief in the Bible.  We Episcopalians do take the Bible very seriously, seriously enough to take it on its own terms, not trying to make the Bible into something that it is not, some sort of inerrant oracle.  We work hard to try to discern what is of divine origen and what is of human origen in the Bible.  It's not always easy; we don't always have an answer.  But "faith" means trust, and implies a willingness to take the next step even when we don't have an answer.  We don't presume to have all the answers, but we commit to trying to follow Christ in the way of love even when we don't really know what we're doing.  We trust in God's love even when we fail.

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