Full Text for I Believe One Holy Christian Church -- What Does It Mean Today? (Text)

I Believe One Holy Christian Church-What Does It Mean Today? BY Bo GIERTZ Bishop of Goteborg, The Church of S\\:cclen Trrrzzslated by Rfr. Wilhelnz Torgerso?~ n~~d Mr. Donald Poock I BELIEVE ONE CHURCH-what does that mean? We really do not have to believe that there is a Church. The parish Church of Sittensen is there for all to see. The Territorial Church of Hann- over or the Church of Sweden are concrete realities to which one can point on the basis of official documents, of geographical maps, and in telephone directories. It really does not require faith. Faith directs itself to what one hopes, to what one cannot see, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews; and that applies also when we confess: I believe one Church. This faith in the Church is part of our Christian faith. The Church is properly part of the creed. There she is mentioned as one of the redemptive acts. She is part of the work of God which we accept in faith. The work of God in the world is somehow always noticeable or visible. But the divine aspect cannot be demonstrated, cannot be controlled, can- not be photographed. So it is also with Jesus Christ. People could see and hear Him. But that He was the Son of God they could not see or find out in a way obvious to all. Here only faith could hear the Word of God. Only faith could see His deeds to be God's deeds. Only to faith it was obvious that He was the Messiah, the Son of the living God. That is still the case today. Some cannot see Him at all. He escapes them in the haze of some Gemeindetheologie (a post-resurrection theology "constructed" by the early Christian community), in al- leged "gnostic accretions" and in whatever else supposedly effaced the so-called "historical image of Jesus." And even when we have His image before us, only faith sees who He really is. In my opinion an exact scientific investigation demands that we come to terms with (1) the entire method of fixing the rabbical tradition, (2) the apos- tolic office which pledges its holder to inviolable faithfulness, (3) the equally obligating apostolic witness, (4) the well-known pericopes used and heard repeatedly in the worship service of the church and (5) the very figure of Jesus that cannot simply have been invented. This guarantees that we do not have to grope in the dark when our task is to determine who Jesus claimed to be and how the disciples san- and experienced Him. And even then the question who He really was can be answered only in faith, just as was the case when Jesus lived. One Holy Clrristiltn CIZZ~TC~I ~ ~ ~ 183 So it is also with the Church. Everyone can see her, but some see more than others. The\ see that God is at work here. They see that this is Gcd7s ~hurih. That means: They believe in the Church. \\'hat does that llleall today? What do I beliere when I be- lieve in the Church? 1. I believe one holy Church. This means: I be1ier.e that this Church is God's Church. God alone is holy. Here on earth we can only call holy what God has made holy, what He has accepted as part of His sanctifying work. And precisely that is the case with the Church. She was founded by God with the specific intent of serving His redemptive work oh earth. Thus the Church is part of the Third Article as a redemp- tive act. The Holy Ghost is sent to witness to Christ, to portray to us His image, to continue His work. In this the Church is His means. She is His means because she is custodian of the means of grace and fellolvship of the saints. She is God's Church, God's work, God's people, Christ's body, and however else the Bible refers to her. ItTe want to expand on this somewhat more precisely. God's Church is foz~rzded by God. Her prototype in the Old Covenant is God's people Israel. The Church is established bv Christ as the Christian Church under the New Covenant. Jesus sieaks of her as "Mv Church" in Rlatt. 16 : 18. Liberal theology denied that Jesus could have founded a church. Those who interpreted Early Christianity as extremely eschatological thought the same. IVhen I was a student in the twenties, this school of thought-in the nleanwhile supported by form criticism-was dominant. Let me remark on the side that with some astonish- ment I have taken note that there is one German school of exegesis that stands pat on the theories of that time. The thirties broueht to our circles a new sensitivity arising out of a deeper understand~ng of the sources and the contemporarv Jewish environment. It seems to me that we can marshal the strongest possible reasons to be found in scientific exegesis to make clear that Jesus during His lifetime reall) established a community, an ekklesia. This is proven b!? the selection of the twelve apostles. The number is symbolic: It signifies the nen- Israel. ilrith the help of contemporary Jewish ideas we can quite ac- curately determine the nature and function of the apostolic office. An apostle, shaliach, is a person commissioned who in the name of his master acts with the full power to represent him. The Eelv Testament shows very clearly how this applies to the apostles of Christ. That Jesus chose apostles proves-as does, for instance, the institution of the Lord's Supper-that He did not expect an in~n~ediate parozisia, rather that He intended an interval in which the new people of God were to live as Church in the world. Thus it was not the disciples that formed the Church. She was there from the start. She was the true people of God that had now recognized its Alcssiah and had been gathered and was led by Him. A further point: As this Church was founded by God, so she was also ordered by God. She was not left simply to fortuitousness, not to lllerc human intelligence and ability. The apostles were sub- jects of their Lord's promise that the Holy Ghost ~ould lead them, lead them "into all truth" (or perhaps more accurately translated, "to the full truth", John 16: 13). iipostolic times required that regarding the death and resurrection of Christ there be foundational thinking, preaching and teaching. The Christian faith holds that this elaboration of the Christian faith was not a distortion but an objecti\ e presentation. "Believing in Christ" also means to believe in the work of the Risen One in the Church. Here I should say a n-ord about historical criticism. After all, the critics claim that the history of the early Christian con~munit\. jL'rgemeinc2e) is real history and therefore subject to historical ei- amination. They would like to examine, for instance, whether the c;irly cornmunit;. really understood Jesus correctly and objectively handed down is concerns. They will admit that by means of hi& torical investigation we can go back no farther than the earliest laver of the faith and the preaching of that community. This was admittedly the preachin! of the cruc~fied and risen Lord. Yet they will insist that they arc in a position to find out that Jesus never re- ferred to Himself as the Son of Alan and that Hc did nnt want to be the Slessiah. This is of coursc a problem that can definitely bc treated scientificallv insofar the sources permit. IVho Jesus was \Ire can certainly not determine scientifically, but we can irrefutably deter- mine who he claimed to be. If it could be proven that Jesus really did not want to be Messiah, Son of Man, God's only Son, in the sense in which the Gospels claim, then one, in my opinion, would have to cease being a Christian. Then all of early Christianity and its preaching would then be an immense error, and it should be admitted. It is difficult for me to understand how one can speak so fervently of "in- tellectual integrity" and at the same time represent Christianity with such opinions. Such "integrity" I do not understand. The scientific conclusions on which people depend and which are held up as ex- tremely important are quite disputed. But scientifically it cannot be disputed that an understanding of Jesus that denies His stature as hies- siah and Son of God is something fundamentally at odds with the religion known by the name of Christianity. We must say this: We should not hold anyone back from engaging in historical criticism. God has acted in the world, has intervened, has made history. We cannot on the one hand claim that something has happened in his- tory and on the other forbid the studying of this history. If our faith is correct then ultimately it must always show that criticism is in error. One Holy Christian Church 185 -- ---- - ~~ pppp - Now we must be very clear about how utterlv difficult it is to come to scientifically reliable conclusions in this field-and we ought to tell this to our congregations again and again. The possi- bility of testing thc New Testament by means of other sources is very small. And with internal criticism, in which the New Testa- ment writings are compared and analyzed, the results are alwqs problematic and very often depend on the preconceived notions of the investigator. That is why the different schools in the history of Biblical criticism have always been very dependent on the culture of their time. Therefore the results must in their turn be critically examined. There are but few universally recognized and established results. It sometinles seems as if such results had been established. But that is frequently a result of the fact that research has not ad- vanced in a country. An instance of this is when the congregations are told that the Gospel of John has nothing to do with the real Jesus and that this is a universally recognized truth. This is simply not true. iVhether this is actually true in Germany others may say. It certainly is not true for Scandinavia. We, too, have a school of exegesis and we are proud of it-justifiablv, to my mind. But in our midst eminent scholars think quite differently about the Gospel of John. \Ye need not even speak of the problem whether Jesus himself claimed to be the Messiah and the Son of Man. That fact is universally admitted in our circles. Now if the Christian faith shows itself in this, that we admit the Lord Christ is right and recognize Him to be the Son of God, then the Christian faith also consists in this, that we trust Him to have led His apostles and His Church into all truth. That means we accept as true-as long as the contrary has not been unequivocally and con- vincingly proven-that the apostles did not falsifv His reflection but rather portrayed the events just as they took place in order to make clear to us who He is and what He wants. 2. I believe in an apostolic Church. That is the way the Nicene Creed speaks, that confession of faith used in the worship service of both the Eastern and the West- ern Churches. That the Church is apostolic has not only reference to the fact that she was guided by the apostles, that the apostolic message was normative for the Church and that the apostles were considered to be her foundation. All that can be historically established. One does not need faith to apprehend this fact. Faith means here to accept these facts as established by God and pleasing to Him. Thus I be- lieve that the apostles had a commission from God, were equipped by the Holy Ghost for this commission and were granted divine guidance in the difficulties of these initial times. Frequently Biblical criticism claims that many ideas first appeared in the early Christian community (Urgemeinde) or at least were formulated there first. That is true. The New Testament itself says just that. "There is stiII much that I could say to you, but the burclcl~ ivould he too great for you now. However, when He comes iv11o is the Spirit of truth, He wilI guide you into all the truth." (John 16 : 12- 1 3 NEB). Our faith therefore hoIds that the ancient Church was shaped and guided by God. Like faithful stewards the apostles passed on the gifts en- trusted to them. And not only that: Through the Holy Ghost they \irere enabled to make the right decisions; they found the right words to give expression to the mystery of Christ. It is correct to say that the New Testament contains a number of interpretations which do not fulIy express what happened through Jesus. But it is quitc incorrect to infer from this that these interpretations are not binding, rather that we ourselves are today entitled to put forth equally good or even better ones. \Vhoever makes these inferences has abandoned faith in the apostolic Church. The Church being apostolic is therefore of ?eat significance. This faith says that the apostoIic age possesses a unlque significance. That age was chosen to lay the apostolic basis for the future. It was done under God's guidance. We can only guess why God wanted it this uray. But we confess in the creed that He wanted it this way. This is important also for the formation of the canon. The critics claim that the canon was established by means of an ecclesi- astical decision. HistoricaIIy and humanly speaking this may be true. But faith sees something more than that in this external event. It is not as if ecclesiastical tradition had decided here. From the very beginning the Word was in the Church. It was there as the Holy Scriptures of the Old Covenant, the Bible of Jesus and of the apostles. It was there as the yaradosis of Jesus, as the teaching en- trusted to His apostles. It was there also in the apostolic kerygma, that is the apostolic preaching of the death and resurrection of Christ. The Word was there in the worship service, in the ever recurring pericopes of apostolic origin. Added to this were the apostolic writ- ings which were read in the services over and over again. The Swedish New Testament scholar Odeberg-intimately familiar with ancient Judaism-has repeatedly pointed out that for canonical recognition of a writing the decisive factor was whether it had al- ready been read as an apostolic writing in the worship service. In this the Church was never at liberty to accept or to reject as she deemed proper. The apostolic Word was put down in the apostolic writings. To them the Church was bound. The apostolic Word was greater than the Church, not as a Word of man, but as the Word of the apostles chosen by Christ and guided by the Holy Ghost. When at a later date the Church in a few cases had to de- cide whether a certain writing not read in all areas of the Church was canonical or not, she was still subject to apostolic authority. The writing had to be apostoIic, if not directly from apostolic hand, at least written in the apostolic spirit. Only writings were considered that from earliest times had enjoyed apostolic esteem in the wor- ship service. This whole chain of events we Christians recognize as divinelv guided. That is part of faith in the apostolic Church. $17, do not need to determine in detail the so-called principles for the fornlation of the canon. They are not principles that could be used for an expansion or a revision of the canon. The apostolic age is unique and foundational. Admittedly the canon had not yet been fixed in every detail when the age of the apostles and their pupils drew to a close. But the main components were there, the essential content had been established as norm and with its au- thority acted determinatively towards its final definition. The apos- tolic basis cannot be altered, re-examined or through ecclesiastical decisions be revised. This should be considered also when dealing with the problem of women pastors. 117e believe in the apostolic Church. 3. I believe in one Christian Church. The word "Christian" stands for "catholic". It is Greek and means: universal, all-embracing, enclosing the whole. If we were to express this Biblically one could perhaps say, as the Letter to the Colossians does, that in Christ "the complete being of God, by God's own choice, came to dwellv (Col. 1: 19), and God has made Him to be the Head of the body, that is, the Church. Through Him the Church partakes of this divine fullness. It was God's intention "to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, through Christ alone" (Col. 1 : 20). Therefore the Church must possess within her this fullness in order to be able to receive within her all peoples and races. The Catechism of Cyril of Jerusalem treats of this in the fol- lowing way: The Church is called catholic (all-embracing) be- cause she encloses the whole earth, because she embraces all doc- trines necessarv for salvation and proclaims them forever, further because she leads men of every kind into the true Christian faith, and finally because for all sins she is in possession of the means of salvation and of all virtues and all spiritual gifts. What does that mean today? First of all this confession ought to be a mighty call for re- pentance. But the Church in which we live really does not look like that. I hardly need to mention the unity that is lacking. Worse than that is the lack of this all-embracing love, this spiritual ability to pervade everything and fashion it. Every local congregation ought to be a mirror image of the Universal Church. In every parish the means of curing all sins, the full number of spiritual gifts and vir- tues, ought to be employed. Is that being done? But this confession is also a promise. Thus we believe because God has promised it to us. He has granted His Church the whole fullness of divine truth, everything we need, including everything for this life. We need not ask anxiously how we are to inject life into a message that is two thousand years old. It is not correct to claim that before anything else the BibIc rnust be read historicallv since none of its ivriiings rras directed to us. Paul knrrv better than that. He knen- that the Scriptures-the Old Testament-were given not onlv to the old people of Israel. "For all the ancient scriptures were &itten for our own instruction, in order that through the en- couragement they give us we ]nap maintain our hope with fortitude" (Rum. 1 5 : 1 NEB j. "These events happened as symbols to warn us" (I Cor. 10:6). "Does He not speak entireIy for our sake? It was written for our sake" (I Cor. 9 : 10 RSV). The Christian faith holds that the Bible rvas given for all peoples and for all times. Obviously me must note to whom a word of the Scriptures is directed, or we could not understand it prop- erly at all. But we must alma)s keep in mind that God, in send- ing just this li'ord into the m-orl