Today’s guest blogger is Dr. Brian Mattson, Senior Scholar of Public Theology for the Center For Cultural Leadership. You can fan his Facebook page (Dr. Brian G. Mattson), follow him on Twitter (@BrianGMattson), and read his blog (www.brianmattson.squarespace.com).
A few summers ago I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Rome. It was an amazing trip, including an after-hours private tour of the Vatican museums. I stood in the normally quiet Sistine Chapel and listened to an art historian explain in great detail (with no apparent axe to grind) how Michaelangelo’s masterpiece, “The Final Judgment” indicates that the great artist was heavily influenced by Luther and Calvin and was likely himself a Protestant. Not the kind of thing you hear every day!
Another odd thing about this trip is that the travel agent responsible for my trip rather monumentally fouled up the arrangements for the trip. I got to the airport and wasn’t a ticketed passenger! I had the remarkable experience of walking up to a ticket counter and saying, “Round trip to Rome, leaving today, please.” Thankfully, the plastic that I whipped out had enough to cover it while awaiting reimbursement!
When I got to Rome I had, of course, a map. It was one of those maps designed for tourists, with all the major sights blown-up and arranged for easy finding. One evening I and my companions set out to find a particular restaurant located on a small side street somewhere in the hustling and bustling city. I knew of the restaurant because my sister had eaten there only a few short months earlier and highly recommended it. However…
The restaurant was not there. In fact, the street itself was not there. I stood at an intersection, map unfolded, getting my bearings. Yes, I was oriented. The street should be right… there! Alas, no street. The reality of what stood before me made a liar of my map. Either the cobblestones and mortar had shifted and moved in the intervening months, or my map was wrong. Those were my two explanatory options.
Now, the conclusion I must reach is obvious, isn’t it? Maps can be wrong. They might not accurately or fully depict the cobblestones and mortar that are actually there. So I resolved that never again would I allow myself to be deceived by a fallible document like a map. They are clearly worthless. They cannot be trusted. People who trust in maps are gullible. Far better to forego the use of a map and just wander out and find things yourself, with only cold, hard, reality to guide you. Better to not use all the sorts of aids and guides people use when preparing for a trip. Not just maps, but language helps like Rosetta Stone or common phrase dictionaries. Better to just get on the plane, arrive, flag a cab, get dropped off on a street corner and make a go of it. That’s the only way to make sure you won’t be deceived. Right?
Rather silly conclusion, isn’t it? Yet that is exactly the conclusion many people reach when they discover that ancient Christian traditions, particularly the great creeds of the church, can be wrong. Upon learning that tradition is not infallible, they decide that tradition is worthless. Having rejected Roman Catholicism’s hyper-trust in tradition, they decide, with the Anabaptists, that creeds are of no use at all. “No Creed but Christ!” they cry. One might as well decide that all maps are worthless. After all, they might mislead you.
Maps are wonderful, yet fallible things. They are incredibly useful. They give you the birds-eye view of an intensely complicated city like Rome. So are other helps, as I mentioned. Getting some sense of things before you get there, learning something of the language, even if it is just “yes, please,” and “no, thank you,” is not really optional. Yes, you could make a go of it with no prior knowledge and no map, just a cab dropping you off on the street corner. You might have an okay trip and stumble upon some of the things one would want to see in a city like Rome, but there is no way you will get the most out of your trip. You’ll likely miss dozens of sights worth seeing.
So it is with Christian creeds. They give a birds-eye view of the sweep of God’s revelation. They tell us something of the language of Christianity, the norms, the customs, and the expectations. Like the map of Rome that has all the great sights “blown up” for easy viewing, so the Creed hits the high points for us and slides over lots of details. A map doesn’t tell you everything there is to know about a city (It is certainly not going to tell you the Protestant influences on Michaelangelo, for instance). For that would (absurdly) make it a substitute for actually visiting the city. Who looks at a map as a substitute for actually visiting a place?
And that is the best part. Maps can be wrong, but they can also be corrected. Just as I stood on that street corner, double and triple-checking the accuracy of that map against the cold cobblestones and mortar themselves, so also I can compare a creed or statement of Christian tradition against the hard reality of the Bible itself. And just because they may not line up with perfect accuracy is no argument that creeds are worthless. Or maps, for that matter.
Notice how these two approaches, blind devotion to maps and complete cynicism about maps, stem from the “Tale of Two Fictions” I explored in my last post. Blind devotion to the maps of Christian tradition is the “pious fiction,” pretending that all later developed Christian dogmas exactly mirror the teaching of the Apostles. Cynicism about the maps of Christian tradition, throwing them out because they are inaccurate, have messy developmental histories, are the products of authoritarian church councils, etc., is the “impious fiction,” or “The Man” theory of church history.
What we are really talking about here is the issue of authority. What kind of authority do maps have? And, analogously, what kind of authority do Christian traditions have? We must reject the all-or-nothing kind of reasoning offered to us by the Tale of Two Fictions. A map is a subordinate authority. It is not a substitute, as I discovered, for the actual cobblestones and mortar. A creed is, likewise, a subordinate authority. It is not a substitute for God’s revelation in Holy Scripture. And yet, both maps and creeds are incredibly valuable.
The concept of a subordinate authority is something everyone understands. And I mean EVERYONE. Nobody mistakes the authority structure when it comes to parenting, for example. Are parents always to be obeyed by their children? You might think so, but on further reflection you will see that this is not the case. A parent cannot command their child to sin. There is a higher authority to which children owe their allegiance: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right,” says Paul. Now, just because parents are fallible, just because they can be wrong, do we conclude that children owe no obedience to them? Of course not! Again, nobody misunderstands this.
Yet somehow when it comes to Christian tradition, people take leave of their senses and argue that because it is fallible, we owe it no obedience at all. Just because the map can be wrong, we must renounce all allegiance to it and dependence on it. This is completely absurd.
I chose the analogy of parenting to illustrate the concept of subordinate authority because it is actually an analogy that fits the issue of tradition perfectly. The Church is the household of God, the family created by the Last Adam. What is tradition but the received wisdom and instruction of our fathers and mothers in the faith? Do we owe them blind allegiance? No more than we owe our biological parents blind obedience. Just because they can be wrong, do we owe them nothing? No more than our biological parents’ fallibility leaves us completely free from obligation to the 5th commandment to honor our fathers and mothers.
The creeds of the church are essentially the words and instruction of our spiritual parents trying to raise us up in the nuture and admonition of the Lord. And just as we must subordinate our obedience to our biological parents to the absolute authority of God’s Word, so also we must subordinate our obedience to our spiritual parents to the absolute authority of God’s Word. But far from making this guidance unnecessary, it puts this guidance precisely in its proper context. It is not God’s Word itself; it is not the cobblestones and mortar. Tradition is the fallible, yet indispensable map and guide, the birds-eye view of Christian belief.
Yes, you could get quite a lot out of just packing up and heading off to Rome without a map. You won’t get the most out of your trip. You could also get quite a lot out of just diving into the Bible at Genesis 1:1 and having a go at it with no prior knowledge whatsoever. You won’t get the most out of your reading.
To get the most out of a trip into the world of Christian orthodoxy, it is best to use a map. And that map has been given to us by our fathers and mothers in the faith in the form of tradition.
I will now proceed with thirteen meditations on one of the oldest maps we have: the Apostles’ Creed.