On the Nicene Marks of the Church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic

The Nicene formulation of the church as One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic comes as a reminder especially at a time when major denominations have split or are at the verge of splitting over some very hard and contentious moral questions before the church. Hard as it is, the Nicene marks of the church is a call for the Church to stay committed to each of those four formulations.

What does it mean to be One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church?

  • Apostolic: [Sent commissioned with a task— rather than a genealogical understanding of papacy]. Every Christian is an apostle rather than someone ‘more formed.’
    • To be apostolic is our ultimate invitation to mimesis, to be imitators, to be in the likeness of Christ who was sent. He left for us the incarnational model of being in the world.
  • Catholic [Kataccording to;  Holonentire /whole] —  The gathering of the whole towards the love of the Father through Christ’s work of redemption.
    • To be Catholic is an invitation to move towards the core, which is the love of the Father to whom both the Spirit and the Son point us.
  • Holy: [Set apart for God’s purpose—despite our ordinariness]; signifying availability /usefulness to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit for training to be in the likeness of the nature of the Lord.
    • To be Holy is the invitation to become useful to the Holy Spirit whose transformative presence within the Christian community orients us to be a communion.

which brings us to the term “ONE”,

  • One: [United /unfragmented]; signifying the need to practice the art of Christian arguing where we learn to disagree while staying united.
    • To be One is a call to reflect the perichoretic unity within the community of the Trinity in the Church in a manner where the many can be One.

Without sounding obsessive (which I am) about formalization, let me explicate this within a Trinitarian framework. Each of the marks– One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic–may be aligned to function in the likeness of a particular member of the Trinity. Let me summarise: Invited to imitate the ONEness exemplified in the perichoretic unity of the Trinitarian community, each believer is drawn to the CATHOLIC core held together by the love of God the Father, made HOLY by the transformative and indwelling fellowship of God the Holy Spirit within each individual as well as the Church corpus making it a communion, we are empowered to imitate God the Son in His APOSTOLIC mission in the world.

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“Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:”
How so great a potential
is flattened by so grave a fall.
How so grandeur an honor
is humbled by disgrace.
How old moral laws about behavior
are replaced with stranger ecological ones.
How it eludes those who discard ‘original sin’
that we’re still left with the evil within.

“Under three things the earth trembles;
under four it cannot bear up:”
How pro-lifers endorse the death penalty
and guardians of guns are pro-life.
How the compassion of the intelligent
stops short of the unborn.
How concern for the oppressed
is but wrath against the out-group.
How defenders of freedom
deny it to their rivals.

Oh, how absolute despotism follows absolute freedom;
Oh, how alike are those on the right and the left!

Belong, Believe and Become: Re-ordering the Church in the Image of the Trinity

In a CT article published last year, the author invites churches to move from a “believe, become, belong” sequence to one where people can “belong, believe, become.” Churches ought to be a place where people can first belong, and in so doing, help them believe, and eventually become. While it is understandable that full membership in our churches is reserved to those who believe the foundational Christian beliefs and are committed to character formation, churches ought to be open for everyone to walk in, experience generous hospitality, warmth, and fellowship.

This approach shifts from seeing the church as the gatekeepers of true belief and guardians of good Christian character to it as being a place where those who eventually will have true beliefs and good Christian character can first belong. In short, the church ought to be less of an exclusive club that makes those still with wrong beliefs or wrong behavior unwelcome.

Yet, just as it is a problem on the conservative end of the spectrum where people find it hard to belong, we have on the liberal end, a problem where belief and discipleship are insignificant. As we rearrange the sequence to facilitate “easy belonging”, we ought to also see all the three– belong, believe & become– as equally important parts of the Christian faith and church practice. Let me illustrate the Trinitarian basis for these three facets that are so interconnected that to neglect any one facet would compromise the other facets as well.

The three facets– belong, believe & become– are functions that correspond to the three persons of the Trinity. Given that we are prone to prioritizing and arranging these functions into an order of importance, it is pivotal that we recognize the equality of those functions as evident from the equality of persons within the Trinity. After all, the tasks undertaken by each person of the Trinity are done together, and yet, they are– to use John McIntyre’s term– “terminatively” carried out by a specific member of the Trinity. Care ought to be taken to not collapse the function of one member to another as though we have an undifferentiated unity. Likewise, care ought to be taken to not make their functions separate so as to affirm only diversity. As McIntyre writes,

Thus the creation of the world is the work of the whole Trinity, with the fiat of the Father, the creation being ‘by the Word’ and the Spirit as a brooding presence, but it terminates or has its completion through the Father. In the case of the incarnation, it is a work common to the whole of the Trinity, having its source in the will of the Father, with the Holy Spirit appearing at the conception, and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but in its goal and ultimate issue it is the work of the Son. The presence of God in believers, in the Church, in history, and in the world is the work of the entire Trinity, but in its implementation, it is fulfilled by the Spirit. [The Shape of Pneumatology, 82].

The call to belong to the family of faith flows from the person and work of God the Father. By virtue of both his function (as the creator) and title (Father–paternitās), the entire creation belongs to Him. As the Psalmist illustrates it, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (24:1), which includes the good, the bad, and the ugly. All things belong to Him and there is nothing in the world that is outside the purview of God’s sovereignty. Although the complete appropriation of our identity as God’s children is for the redeemed– “Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us– that we should be called the children of God” (1 Jn 3:1), Romans 5:8 propels the church to love every sinner because “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.”

Similarly, the call to believe flows from the person and work of Jesus Christ. He is the one who invites us to believe and the One in whom we believe; He is the messenger and the message; He is the chief priest and the sacrifice. True belonging to the family of God in this new covenant rests on the redemptive work of Christ on the cross and is appropriated by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Finally, Christian becoming is by the enabling work of the Holy Spirit. As the indwelling Spirit, He is both the counselor and the advocate who sanctifies individuals caught within their distinct needs and oddities. In this sense, the Spirit’s “incarnation”, if you will, is not as a generic human teacher but as a personal trainer of individuals situated in unique conditions. As the Spirit of Truth, He forms our inner being, both as individuals and as communities, by leading us into truth and freedom.

To belong, believe, and become is a useful rearrangement of sequence– a corrective to the overprotective tendencies within the church that hinder the mission of God. Yet, it is pivotal to understand that the rearrangement is not an order that illustrates an “essential” priority or a hierarchy of importance. Rather, the sequence illustrates a “functional” priority in the Trinitarian order that begins with the love of the Father (to whom we belong), that issues the Son (in whom we believe), who together issue the Spirit (by whom we become).

A Lament for Unnao and Kathua

“Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why have you become disturbed within me?”

Around this time last year
a teenage girl lured by the promise of employment,
imprisoned, gang-raped and sold.

“Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.”

Lord of the nations, are you not the Lord of mine too?
How long will you be silent?
Her despairing soul, utterly hopeless,
her plight unnoticed, compelled her to self-immolate,
Nameless and invisible, she cried:

“Why have You forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?
As a shattering of my bones, my adversaries revile me,
While they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”

While awaiting justice, she receives a report
not of reparations and relief
but one that escalates her grief
the news of her father’s death
caused not by old age, accident or sickness
but by the merciless beatings with blunt sticks and clubs.
Fourteen injuries in all said the postmortem
in the custody of them who’s sworn duty was to protect.

Where is your justice, O Lord?
“Is your loyal love told in the grave,
or your faithfulness in the underworld?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?”

Then the 8-year old little Bakherwal nomadic girl
who’s poverty perhaps helped her survive
a possible sex-selective abortion
held hostage ironically in a temple
raped repeatedly by eight men
one for each year of her life
strangled with her own scarf and then bludgeoned.

O Lord of the poor, friend of the weak
defender of the Orphan, protector of the widow
deliverer of the wanderer, lover of the child
didn’t she qualify as the one you should rescue?

“O LORD, the God of vengeance,
O God of vengeance, let your glorious justice shine forth!
Arise, O judge of the earth.
Give the proud what they deserve.
How long, O LORD?
How long will the wicked be allowed to gloat?
How long will they speak with arrogance?
How long will these evil people boast?
They crush your people, LORD,
hurting those you claim as your own.
They kill widows and foreigners
and murder orphans.
“The LORD isn’t looking,” they say,
“and besides, the God of Israel doesn’t care”.”

With a sunken heart, folded hands, and teary eyes
as one with no strength and little hope, I pray,
Give heed to the cries of your people–
abused, mocked and sent to their graves
from where their feeble voice rise unto You, crying
How long, O Lord? How long?

Does the Church need Cultural Exegetes?

An evangelical theologian is called to be both a faithful exegete of God’s Word for the world and a faithful exegete of the world in the light of God’s Word. In pursuit of the former, many have spent years in painstaking study of the biblical languages as well as the discipline of hermeneutics. By way of contrast, relatively few have engaged in serious cultural exegesis in pursuit of the latter.

In a piece titled, “Cultural Exegesis as the Calling of an Asian Theologian: Looking through Secularity as a Condition” published in the Journal of Asia Evangelical Theology (JAET Vol. 21 Nos. 1-2 (March-September 2017): 5-29), I urge Asian evangelical theologians to consider their calling as cultural exegetes. I begin by proposing a framework for the task of cultural exegesis and follow that with my own attempt at the task with a focus on secularization as a point of reference.

To ground this discussion, I explore a group of Indians I call “metro-secularists.” As Peter Berger argues,

There exists an international subculture composed of people with Western-type higher education, especially in the humanities and social sciences, that is indeed secularized. This subculture is the principal ‘carrier’ of progressive, enlightened beliefs and values. While its members are relatively thin on the ground, they are very influential, as they control the institutions that provide the ‘official’ definitions of reality, notably the educational system, the media of mass communication, and the higher reaches of the legal system. [See, “The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview,” in The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999), 10.]

As culture makers—artists, writers, and academics, similar to the liberal left of the West—the metro-secular punch above their weight in terms of cultural influence. While by no stretch of imagination has the secular reached its apotheosis in this Indian avatar, it may be argued that metro-secularists envision a goal similar to that of Western progressives. Where once local communities were the exotic “other” defined by strange beliefs, now, increasingly, they are part of a global culture whose beliefs are defined by Hollywood, media outlets, and culture-makers in the West.

I explore three specific challenges posed by the cultural influence of the metro-secular to the church: 1) Individual autonomy and the demise of transcendence, 2) Authenticity and the demise of virtue, and 3) Expressive individualism and the demise of mimesis.

Happy reading! 🙂

 

Tayloring Indian Secularity: What Has Changed Because of Secularism?

Does the principle of secularism, and particularly, the idea of a secular state, presuppose certain doctrines, whether in the form of theological beliefs or as worldviews that define cultural reasoning? Is something more than a mere adoption of a secular Constitution necessary for the ideals of the Constitution to become a reality? If secularism itself presupposes certain doctrines, then conflicts within a pluralistic context could be anticipated not only despite secularism but also because of it.

ChristianInquiryOnPolity

As early as the 1960s, Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde raised the question whether, “the liberal, secularized state lives by prerequisites which it cannot guarantee itself.” [Staat, Gesellschaft, Freiheit/ State, Society and Liberty, (New York: Berf: 1991), original 1976, 60]. If that were the case, then the state would depend on some comprehensive doctrine operating within the culture to provide the foundations for those assumptions rather than function self-referentially. Böckenförde argues,

As a liberal state it can only endure if the freedom it bestows on its citizens takes some regulation from the interior, both from a moral substance of the individuals and a certain homogeneity of society at large. On the other hand, it cannot by itself procure these interior forces of regulation, that is not with its own means such as legal compulsion and authoritative decree. Doing so, it would surrender its liberal character (freiheitlichkeit) and fall back, in a secular manner, into the claim of totality it once led the way out of, back then in the confessional civil wars.

It follows that if the comprehensive doctrine within a culture is compatible with the secular doctrine, then it clearly goes a long way to ensure the relative success of the secular state.

The question of compatibility between secularism and the comprehensive doctrine in the society demands that we locate the ontology of the secular. I have explored the secular as the prodigal child of Christianity (prodigalized through the calculus of disenchantment, individual autonomy, and authenticity) which wanders into various cultures and finds itself a home (not necessarily a happy one) to become a foster child in the Indian sub-continent.

This creates a cross-pressure, a consequence of two opposing moods being felt simultaneously: a sense of belonging and a sense of alienation. For the very first time, one belongs to this independent nation-state and not subject to either a monarchy or a princely state nor is one governed by a foreign power, whether Moghul or British. By virtue of now being larger than any of its former socio-political avatars, India begins to command an incontestable allegiance from its citizenry. However, the cost of assuming this larger identity means having to subscribe to a doctrine that is alien to its culture. Hence the cross-pressure!

I have explored what such cross-pressure means for Hindu orthodoxy in a paper published in the book Christian Inquiry on Polity (IVP India, 2017). Unfortunately, the book’s availability on Amazon is delayed but here’s a print-copy.

PS: I have broadly followed Charles Taylor to provide a framework for my discussion. Hence the title!

Towards Freedom of Conscience: Navigating between the Individual and the Community

A paper that I had earlier presented in Delhi (April 2016) is published as a chapter in this edited volume titled: The Bible in India: Religion and Ethics and is now available on Amazon.

Religion and Ethics

My paper argues that the freedom of conscience is inherent and fundamental to the human noetic structure and thus can be conceived as self-evident. Yet, human rights and freedom of conscience primarily take their shape from within specific background cultures, especially shaped by their vision of a good life.

This paper examines two such visions: Cultures that tend to focus on individual autonomy and those that focus on community. Individual autonomy is a Christian heresy and needs to be critiqued just as much as the communitarian calculus in our culture that tramples on the individual freedom. How may we seek a balance? I argue that the unity in diversity within the community of Trinity provides a prototype for a balance between the individual and the community.