This Lent has me digging through the Apostle’s Creed. Viewed in a certain direction, it not only says what we believe; it lets us in on what we do not believe.
The first article of the Creed, my last column, says Christians believe in one God and this one God is the Father who made both heaven and earth and, very deliberately, included you in the deal. In saying that, we also say we do not believe in two gods, as certain Gnostics taught, and we do not believe you are an accident. The God who is Father is pro vos. That is what we believe.
The second article of the Creed is Jesus Christ. It says many things, but above all else it says we do not believe history is pointless or unreliable. The life of Christ, his death, and his resurrection are our history and it is real. That’s what the Creed says we believe, because the Creed stakes out boundaries to exclude what the Church does not believe. Looking at what we do not believe helps explain what it is we do in fact believe.
We do not believe the fancies of Gnosticism: Jesus did not suffer under Pontius Pilate; he was not crucified and was not raised on the third day. If these things really did happen, Gnostics think, it would mean Jesus of Nazareth was human, too human, and stank of history. Gnostic theology proposed a Jesus detached from his humanity; there was just this distasteful something about being human.
When Peter protests against Jesus’s prediction of suffering and death, “God forbid, Lord, this should happen to you,” the Gnostic Jesus agrees with Peter’s assessment. Did he suffer under Pontius Pilate? Nope. Was he crucified? Naw. He died? Not on your life. He was raised? No, because Jesus would do the smart thing and skip the whole crucifixion scene in the first place.
The Gnostic Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” and in return gets gooey answers like these, taken from active websites:
“Jesus is someone who epitomized the true principle of the Christ Consciousness which indwells us all.”
“Jesus did not really die on the cross. He was not God in flesh. He made no atonement in shedding His blood.”
“Jesus discovered his Christhood and wants his followers to seek their own enlightenment.”
The ancient heresies all have their contemporary counterparts. Counting them in all their varied manifestations is as frustrating as whack-a-mole; they keep popping up. But the general claim always is that you can tap into the power “principle” of “the Christ Consciousness” and thereby you, too, can escape history.
Gnosticism has never liked a historical Jesus rooted to a dusty land, who had to wash his own feet. It is embarrassed by the scandal of the particularity of Jesus, by his sheer Jewishness. It is embarrassed by suffering, by death. It is embarrassed by all the physical stuff it takes to live. It does not believe that divinity would ever mix it up with flesh and blood, even if it could.
If what we do not believe is true, then Jesus is not a true human, nor has he purchased my ransom, freeing me from sin, from death, and from the power of the devil; he is not raised from death because he was never dead in the first place.
This sounds silly to us, we who have been steeped in crucifixion/resurrection doctrine. For us, the two events—crucifixion and resurrection—are the hinges upon which our religious gate swings.
Or does it really? Why is attendance always higher on Resurrection Sunday than on Good Friday?
I know it’s a Friday; timing may account for it to some extent. But maybe, like Gnostics, we’ll run to the glory, not to the death; to the divinity and not to the flesh; to the God and not to the man.
The Apostle’s Creed insists on the “then” and “there” and “now” of God acting in history through Jesus Christ. The earliest Christians—living in that history—quickly came to believe:
―God was “in” Jesus
―God was reconciling the world to himself through Jesus
―the death of Jesus is an appeal to the Father not to abandon his creation
―that creation itself senses an aching longing for redemption
―the resurrection of Jesus is the witness that the Father’s true bias is for humanity, here, now, and in the fulfillment of time
―and it was all, every bit of it, pro nobis.
Russell E. Saltzman, who writes from Kansas City, Missouri, is also a contributor at Aleteia. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @RESaltzman. His previous First Things contributions are here.