ADVENTURES IN ORTHODOXY:
The Marvels of the Christian Creed and the Audacity of Belief
by Dwight Longenecker
(Gracewing, 2003, 170pp, $24.95. Available from AD Books)
Longenecker, a former Anglican priest, now a Catholic writer, presents us with a refreshing and insightful look at the articles of the Apostles Creed. The title is a reference to Chesterton's classic, Orthodoxy and the author's style and approach reflect a Chestertonian disposition and outlook. His aim is not to give a detailed theological exposition of the Creed but to invite us, as Chesterton suggested, to stand on our heads in order to see things "more clearly and freshly".
In his chapter on Christ as true God and true man, titled "Arians, Apollinarians and One-Eyed Pirates", Longenecker succinctly summarises the whole complex history of Christology. He demonstrates how the orthodox understanding of Jesus Christ has not only avoided the "one-eyed" heresies which have sought to minimise or deny either his true humanity or his true divinity but has made possible a philosophy which reconciles the Platonic emphasis on heavenly universals with Aristotle's insistence on the priority of earthly realities.
In discussing the article of the Creed, "born of the Virgin Mary", Longenecker highlights the revolutionary nature of Mary's humility: "Day by day and moment by moment our instinct is to live for ourselves and to do our own will. This drives everything and creates all the misery and suffering in the world. But what if there were a world where people didn't live for themselves ... ? In that simple girl of Nazareth, a new way explodes into possibility. Not only was she humble, but a natural component of her humility was submissiveness. She said to God 'Let it be done to me as you say'. This is the fixed point of the fulcrum on which the world can be flipped over."
Similarly, the Christian who confesses in the Creed his need for the "forgiveness of sins" is not a pessimist, stuck in a "doom-and-gloom religion", but is a liberated realist who "affirms the fundamental condition of the human race and declares with dignity, clarity, and joy what it means to be human: I need help. I cannot climb alone."
Longenecker is not afraid to tackle the hard issues. His discussion on the reality of Hell is toughminded and ruthless in exposing our readiness to believe that a good God wouldn't send anyone to Hell as rooted in sentimentalism and a thin cover for our desperate or perhaps complacent hope that "God wouldn't send an ordinary, decent fellow like me to Hell".
In dealing with the last judgement, Longenecker describes with chilling realism the experience of the damned who "through gritted teeth" will bow the knee at last to Christ "with terror in their hearts until the end", rejecting "the mercy with fury". Then "the worst surprise will be that they were surprised at all, for their whole lives will then have been revealed to be one long, sordid decision to turn away from God to serve only themselves."
The author is surgically ruthless is exposing modernist clergy who disbelieve in the bodily resurrection, but continue to profess with the Creed, "on the third day He rose again", as dissemblers and deceivers, a new breed of Manichees who find physical miracles of any sort distasteful.
Occasionally Longenecker engages in some speculative theology and uses expressions which may raise an eyebrow such as his suggestion that there might be a "physical dimension to God". Like Chesterton he also enjoys playing with words. Occasionally this irritates rather than illustrates, for example when playfully considering inventing a religion based on Star Wars he suggest that "for special music, Han could sing a solo".
Despite these minor shortcomings, reading this book is highly recommended. Praying the Creed will be a richer and livelier adventure after doing so.
Richard Egan is the WA State President of the NCC.