Creedal Christianity is Nuanced
Last week I'm surprised no one brought up the Chesterton quote I've used before: "Nobody understands the nature of the Church, or the ringing note of the creed descending from antiquity, who does not realize that the whole world once very nearly died of broadmindedness and the brotherhood of all religions" (Everlasting Man, 178). And we're at that point again. People recognized as Christian clergymen deny the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, Creation, and Hell. And ordinary Christians are pressured to deny the reality of human life in the womb, sex as a biological fact, and marriage only between male and female. If you're not this broadminded, you're unloving, unchristian, and unamerican. So how can Creedal Christianity be broad without dying? By being nuanced.
You find nuances in Scripture. Jesus proves the dead do rise by the tense of the verb God uses. When deniers of the resurrection challenged Jesus, He replied, "Have you not read what God said to you, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead but of the living" (Mat. 22:31-32). John argues based on what Jesus actually said. Jesus had said about John: "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?" This led to a misunderstanding says John, "Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die." John corrects this by pointing out the nuance between what they heard and Jesus actually said. "But Jesus did not say that he would not die; He only said, "If I want him to remain alive until I return" (Jn. 21:22-23). And Paul argues correct theology from the nuance of a singular versus a plural. "The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say "and to seeds," meaning many people, but "and to your seed," meaning one person, who is Christ" (Gal. 3:16).
Nuance can work the opposite way. Rather than pure doctrine being highlighted, it's clouded. Nuance comes from the Latin word for cloud nubes. The Vulgate, the official translation of the Bible into Latin used for a 1,000 plus years by the Western Church, and reaffirmed as such by John Paul the II in 1986 (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Vulgate), clouds the Gospel itself with a nuance. Gen. 3:15 is the First Gospel Promise. The Lord promises, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your Seed and hers; He will crush your head, and you will strike His heel." Here's how the Vulgate mistranslates it: "I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel." The "He" Jesus becomes "she", Mary. And we wonder why Catholics make such a big deal over Mary? We might too if we grew up saying in our Christmas program, "She shall crush" the serpent's head.
Their doctrine of Penance, so damaging to being certain of forgiveness, also stems from a Latin mistranslation. The Medieval system of penance was founded on mistranslating the Greek metanoeo to change mind, repent' to the Latin poenitentiam agite do penance'. And the Catholic doctrine of being made righteous rather than declared righteous comes from the Greek dikaioo, to declare just' mistranslated into Latin as justificare, to make righteous' (Horton, Christian Faith, 631).
But don't get on your high and mighty Confessional Lutheran horse just yet. The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod in 1993 mistranslated the Nicene's Creed "And was made man" with "and became fully human." "Well", you say. "that's not the Bible." True. But the Bible does say "Joseph and Mary took Jesus to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord, as it is written in the Law, Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord" (Lk. 2:22-23). Sure, WELS is making the point that Jesus took the place of all people, male, female, old, young. Sure, it's a case of adiaphora, but our Confessions say in a time of persecution it's no longer a Scripturally indifferent thing. 1993 was the heyday of doing away with chair-man, police-man, fire-man. It went on to the nonsense of doing away with man-hole covers and then on to doing away with Gen. 1:27, "male and female He created them."
This clouded nuance is dangerous, but there is a more systemic one that pervades our theology at least since the 70's. It's evident in the Red Room being called the Fellowship Hall. Or you describing a church dinner or the campout as, "fellowship." This has to do with the communion of saints' we profess in the Creed. The Large Catechism takes it as a synonym for the Holy Christian Church. The phrase comes from the East where it meant "participation in the Holy Communion" (Elert, Eucharist & Church Fellowship, 211). In the West, we "'received the phrase from the East, but when the Greek precision was replaced by the Latin ambiguity, room was given for it to be understood of persons. This finally led to a merely social understanding of communio as fellowship of men constituted by their relation to one another(Confessing the Gospel 2, 538-40). Rather than understanding communion of saints as participating in the Communion of Jesus Body and Blood it became a meeting between people "in complete contradiction of its original meaning" (Elert, 11).
Do you see where some of the cloudiness we have about Communion fellowship stems from? If I won't commune you or commune with you I don't love you and you don't love me. Barney the purple dinosaur crashed our theology by a longstanding nuance between Greek and Latin that no one recognized until it clouded our theology for centuries. Nuances can be lost on faithful Christians and lead to problems, but unbelief misuses them. When trying to force the Lutherans and the Reformed into one church, Fredrick the III of Prussia, required the words of distribution be, "Jesus says, This is My Body.'" Everyone could say that because that's what Jesus said. The Reformed could believe Jesus meant "This represents My body" while the Lutherans could believe Jesus said what He meant.
You heard nuances misused in the Passion Reading. Weeks ago we had the text where Jesus first uttered the phrase, "Destroy this temple." That was at least 3 years before our text. But His enemies throw the phrase in His face at Calvary; earlier an attempt was made to use false witness to condemn Him with it. But even false witnesses couldn't agree what He said. Mark records witnesses saying, "We heard him say, 'I will destroy this man-made temple and in 3 days will build another, not made by man.'"
Matthew records them saying, "This fellows said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in 3 days." What Jesus actually said was, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.'" The Holy Spirit explains, "But the temple He had spoken of was His body."
It's the Body of Jesus that is being given on the cross, destroyed on the cross. Do you have aches and pains of body, soul, mind, heart, and spirit? Groans too deep to be uttered but expressed in your body? Well, no matter how deep, how painful, how inexpressible they may be, they aren't to pay for your sins. No, Jesus gave over His Body to do that in your place. Therefore, your suffering, sighing, bleeding, aging, and dying is about something else. It's not coming from a God who is wrathful or even ticked off at you. No, Jesus bore all that for us and our salvation. So, my pains, aches, sadness, forlornness can be embraced as God working in my life for my good. This is Luther's "embrace the cross and let the nails go in deep." This is not the military equivalent of "embrace the suck" which recognizes you have to deal with a bad situation. Embrace the cross is about knowing that this is the will of God concerning you and His will no matter how painful, long, or wearing can only be good for Jesus' sake.
Here's a nuance I've dealt poorly with for years. It's the person who comes to Good Friday and says, "How can God forsake God?" But if you stumble here, you're stumbling at the high point of the Gospel. You can only get to this, at best misunderstanding and at worst making fun, by Modalism. A Modalist says the 3 members of the Trinity aren't 3 distinct Persons but 3 modes or ways the one God manifests Himself. This is so destructive because even if you're not making fun of what is going on you're obscuring the point: God indeed is doing battle with God. God the Son is being punished by God the Father for the sins of the world. If God is not in the balance, then His suffering is not enough; His blood can't cover anyone's sins; His offering can't satisfy the eternal wrath of God. There is a profound nuance here that if you run roughshod over you're not just a village idiot, you're a damned one. All of God in the Person of Jesus is on the cross paying for the sins of the world. All of God, the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are being satisfied. The Mystery continues into Easter. Scripture says the Father raises the Son (Rom. 6:4), the Son raises the Son (Jn. 2:19), and the Spirit raises Him (Rom. 8:11).
Then there's Jesus actual cry, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani". Easy to see how a non-Hebrew or Aramaic speaking Roman could think Jesus calls for Elijah, but are they purposely interjecting a cloud over this most holy of events? God forsakes His Son which means the Son is in hell. Both Matthew and Mark tell you what Jesus actually says: "My God, My God why have you forsaken Me." They have nuances, but both emphasize Jesus cries to the "God of Me" not to His Father. If you've ever been hurt sharply, physically or emotionally, you more than likely said, "My God". That's because in the darkness of pain, the sudden bleakness of despair you felt God Himself had left you. He didn't, hasn't, won't, can't. He abandoned the innocent Jesus, so as never to abandon, forsake, give up on you. He left His Son in hell, let Him know and feel the God-forsakenness of damnation, so you might never really experience it. So no matter your pain, strain, or quarantine, you are to know God hasn't forsaken you.
Nuanced doesn't mean unclear. Read Bondage of the Will: "..if the Scripture be obscure or ambiguous, what need was there for it being sent down from heaven? Are we not obscure and ambiguous enough in ourselves?...[T]hey who deny the all-clearness and all-plainness of the Scriptures, leave us nothing else but darkness" (108-09). Creedal Christianity wants to make the forgiveness of sins clear, certain. We say, "The gospel promises the forgiveness of sins with certainty. Anyone who believes that the forgiveness of sins is uncertain must be intent on abolishing the gospel" (AP, IV, Kolb, 161). A genuine Biblical nuance isn't a cloud but a nimbus, a halo, that highlights the Gospel. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek Lent VI (20210324); Passion Reading 6, 2nd Chief Part, Creed