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Decoding the Bible

How much do you have to believe to be a Christian?

By Ken Gallinger

It was a dark and stormy night, and Lanny and I were huddled in a coffee shop dissecting cinnamon buns and Christian theology. After we’d pored over doctrines of eschatology, incarnation and sundry other polysyllabic wonders, Lanny said, “You know, sometimes when I recite the Apostles’ Creed, the only word I feel absolutely certain about is ‘and.’ I don’t know if I believe enough to be a Christian — never mind a minister.”

That was 35 years or so ago, and we were best buddies at Queen’s Theological College. Lanny Dean went on to become one of the finest, kindest, most beloved ministers in The United Church of Canada. Lanny and Donna, the love of his life, were killed in a bus accident 15 years ago. Although he became a tad more orthodox with the passage of time, I’m not sure he met St. Pete any more confident about the words between the “ands” than back at Queen’s.

How much do you have to believe to be a Christian? The question was first asked pretty early in the game. Luke tells us that when the women came back from the tomb claiming resurrection, the apostles blew them off, dismissing their claims as “pure nonsense” (24:11). John’s version of the same time frame (20:25) tells us that Thomas, upon hearing that his friend was alive, retorted, “I refuse to believe” — a position he held until he stuck his finger in Jesus’ suppurating side, an option, for better or for worse, not available to most of us.

Early in the fourth century, a group of bishops and other episco-pros gathered at Nicaea to define, once and for all, the baseline of Christian faith. The document that resulted is the Nicene Creed; you can read it on page 920 of Voices United.

In the writings of Paul, we find several suggestions that for the earliest Christians the baseline of belief was captured by the three-word phrase “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9, 1 Corinthians 12:3). In its simplest form, the Greek word kurios, translated “lord,” was a relational term. It meant “someone in charge,” and could be used as a term of address meaning little more than “sir.”

In the Gospels, the word is used to address or refer to a father, a guard at Jesus’ tomb, an angel, a rabbi and other persons of authority. In the secular world, it was used to refer to Caesar and his various toadies. To call someone “Lord” was to say, “He has power over my life.”

Today, when we see the word “Lord,” we tend (in church at least) to equate it with God. There are occasions, even in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, in which the word is, in fact, used to refer to God. The Jews were reluctant to speak the name of Yahweh, and so to speak of “the Lord” was a respectful way to say “the One who has power over my life.” However, when early Christians said, “Jesus is Lord,” they were not saying, “Jesus is God.” They were saying, “Jesus is in charge.”

The doctrine that Jesus was God would come later, between John’s Gospel at the start of the second century and the Council of Nicaea at the start of the fourth. But Jesus clearly did not believe himself to be God. His favourite name for himself seems to have been “the Son of Man.” Theologian Alan Richardson claims Jesus used this description 81 times. The phrase is rich with biblical meaning, but in its simplest form means “an ordinary guy, chosen by God, who suffers for the sake of his people and by doing so shows them the way to salvation.” I suspect that had Jesus read either John’s Gospel or the Nicene Creed, with their extravagant claims for his divinity, he would have said, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

So, “Jesus is Lord.” That is, Jesus is the one who is in charge of my life. My ethics, my faith, my decisions, my stewardship of resources, my relationships, my dreams and my hopes  — all these and more are shaped and sorted and lived out in the light of his life and his love.

I suspect Lanny was right. In the end, it’s not about what words you stick between the “ands” of the ancient creeds. It’s about how you choose to live between getting up and going to bed, between birth and bus crash. Not a
single tear was shed at Lanny’s funeral because of his doctrinal decisions. The tears shed were for a good man, through whose life of kindness the love of Christ came alive everywhere he went. And maybe that’s the baseline. Maybe “Jesus is Lord” is not, finally, something a Christian must say. It’s the way a Christian must live.
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