The Creedal Gospel PDF Print E-mail
Written by Toby Sumpter   
Saturday, 12 December 2009 09:18

Frequently the early church is the butt of criticism from the Reformed world. Of course the Trinity and the Incarnation are important, even very important, but where is the doctrine of justification through faith by grace alone? And as the intramural conversation grows among evangelicals over the recent Manhattan Declaration, the point is sometimes raised that while we may agree with Roman Catholics on the ecumenical creeds, this is not sufficient grounds for co-belligerence given their silence on the Five Solas.

But without dismissing the evangelical concerns entirely, I would suggest that this is to miss a great deal of the significance of the early creeds. To check these doctrines off like so many classes needed for a specific major is to get the Trinity wrong and (speaking of Christmas) get the Incarnation wrong.

What the early church fathers understood and what we frequently miss is the fact that the whole question of who God is has everything to do with salvation. You want monergism? Let me introduce you to Athanasius. You want faith alone? Get a load of the Definition of Chalcedon. In many ways this is just classic humanism (in the bad sense). We are so focused on us, on people, on man and how he gets saved that we relegate who God is to the backseat. We talk about sovereign grace and particular redemption and the substitutionary atonement, but I would argue that these are all secondary to the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. And understood rightly, these classical Protestant forms all flow directly from these glorious patristic foundations. Luther and Calvin and Bucer always insisted that they were the faithful catholics, and it was Rome that was departing. In other words, Reformed Protestant orthodoxy is grounded in the ecumenical creeds. The “how” of salvation that we celebrate, the solas and all their glory are the music that the ecumenical creeds play.

As my patristics professor, Don Fairbairn, taught me, the fundamental questions for the early Church did not ignore soteriology rather they asked the questions from a different angle. They asked the questions from Theological and Christological angles. The question went more like this: given sin, given death, given man’s inability to save himself, what must Christ be like? And what must God be like for Him to save us?

When Athanasius endured banishment and persecution and deposition for the sake of homoousios in the Nicene Creed, it was for the sake of the gospel. Who must the Son be in order for us to be saved? Who must the Son be in order for salvation to be completely gracious? Athanasius concluded rightly and wonderfully from the Scriptures that it must be God Himself who saves us and no other. It cannot be an emanation from the one God, it cannot be a slightly lower deity who will help us back to a right relationship with God. No, God Himself must come for us and save us. Salvation is Sola Gratia because salvation is by God alone. He is of “one substance” with the Father. God comes for us and reunites us to Himself. Nothing less will do.

But our Lord Jesus Christ was “begotten of the Father before all worlds… begotten not made.” What was such a great stumbling block for Arius was simple gospel truth to Athanasius. Positing the eternal begetting is the ontological prerequisite to the economic event of the Incarnation. The Son who was begotten before all worlds is begotten again of the Virgin Mary and begotten again in the Resurrection. It is this eternal begetting of the Son by the Father that establishes the very kind of God that we serve. The God who is eternally Father by begetting the Son in the power of the Spirit is the God we can count on to keep doing the same thing in history. In other words, the only possible way for any human in the history of the world to be “begotten again to newness of life” is to come in contact with the Begetting God and the God who was Begotten and the God who eternally empowers that New Birth. The New Birth begins in the very being, in the very essence, in the very nature of God as Trinity. If there is no Trinity, there is no Rebirth. Monads have no children. Unitarians are still dead in their sins.

But there’s more. Chalcedon is all tongue tied about Christ’s person: “truly God and truly man” – “one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood” – “two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation” – “one person and subsistence” – “one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ.” The Definition (as well as the several ecumenical councils and creeds that follow) is essentially a reaffirmation of Nicaea and an expansion of Gregory Nazianzus’ dictum “What has not been assumed has not been healed.” In other words, after the early creeds affirm the absolute deity of Christ, the later ecumenical councils and creeds come along insisting on the absolute humanity of Christ. And this is because we are not “sort of” sinful. We are not “kind of” fallen. No, the patristic fathers knew that dead men cannot live. What kind of God could save a fallen race like ours? Only a God who became a man in every respect apart from sin could save us. God could not become mostly a man because we are not in need of partial salvation. Every part of man has fallen, and therefore God must assume it all, heave into onto the cross, and heal it all. And if Christ has healed it all then our salvation is by Christ alone.

And for the skeptics that remain, I insist that Sola Fide is found in the gloriously repeated refrain, “I believe…” Credo. There is no synergism here. Pelagius only needed an Arian god. But we believe in the God who came for us completely and sovereignly and graciously. And that means that all the glory goes to Him too.


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Last Updated on Saturday, 26 December 2009 16:57