One is the Onliest Number

May 21, 2003 05:50 PM EDT

PITTSBURGH - In a religiously diverse world, what does it mean to confess faith in the singular God revealed to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

"We believe in one God" was the topic of a four-day convocation sponsored by the Office of Theology and Worship (OTW) of the Presbyterian Church (USA) - the last of three theological symposiums exploring central tenets of the Nicene Creed.

The meeting opened on April 23 at First Presbyterian Church here.

"A decade ago, our General Assembly - probably more in hope than conviction - declared 'Theology Matters,'" the Rev. Joseph Small, the OTW coordinator, said during opening worship. "We began with 'We Believe in the one Lord, Jesus Christ,' continued with 'We Believe in the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life,' and now conclude with 'We Believe in one God.'

"We are here to ask questions, serious and sustained, about God and God's ways in this world: Who is God, really? Who am I, who are we, honestly? What does God have to do with us, and us with one another?"

A stellar lineup of preachers, theologians, pastors, professors, artists and musicians led the way in reflecting upon these questions. In addition to the plenary sessions, the nearly 200 participants chose from a crowded array of worship sessions, workshops, Bible studies and small-group prayer experiences. The conference was coordinated by the Rev. Dale Jackson of OTW.

In her sermon during opening worship, the Rev. Nancy Lammars Gross, an associate professor of speech communications in ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, tackled the common lament of contemporary Presbyterians: "Why can't we all just get along?"

"Loving Jesus is not a recipe for getting along with your theological adversaries," she said. "No, we can't just all get along."

What we can do, Gross suggested, is focus our attention on how we name God rather than how we label one another.

The Bible is filled with images and names for God, she said, far more than the bare handful we habitually use. This God of ours - the Desire of Nations, the Bright Morning Star - "has established our unity with one another, whether we like it or not. Our infighting cannot divide us. Our attempts at peace cannot unite us. What we can do is look forward to the Pioneer of our Faith."

Small said OTW chose the Nicene Creed as the "centerpiece" of the series "because we want to encourage the church - particularly pastors - in their vocation to pay deep attention to their faith, and to teach it. We framed the whole conference in the context of worship and prayer because we did not want this to be a distanced, abstract theological exercise."

Mission accomplished, one participant said: "This was like trying to cram an entire semester of theology into four days."

Each plenary session featured a dense theological reflection on a facet of Trinitarian theology. The first was by Ellen Charry, an associate professor of systematic theology at Princeton. She couldn't be on hand because of a family emergency, so her address was read by the Rev. Martha Moore-Keish, OTW's associate for worship.

Charry's presentation explored "We Believe in One Triune God," tracing the history of Trinitarian doctrine through the ages and concluding that the central question is how to make sense of the triune God. One helpful way to "get at" the Trinity, she wrote, is through the prism of the beauty, goodness and wisdom of God.

"God is always escaping our grasp, while also carrying us along, alluring and tantalizing, evoking a craving for God," she wrote. "Ambiguity and frustration must be part of approaching God. When the beauty, wisdom and goodness of God emerge in the midst of the evil and pain of the world, they can shape us to the divine character. God's transforming work - salvation - happens in little increments, when we least expect it."

S. Mark Heim, a professor of Christian theology at Andover Newton Theological School, took on the topic "One God in a Religiously Plural Culture," addressing one of the thorniest issues Christianity faces today.

He tackled such questions as: How are Christians to witness to the decisive character of salvation in Christ, while honoring the truth, integrity and character of believers in other religious traditions? Are there valid religious ends apart from Christian salvation? How are we to maintain the authoritative truth of salvation, defined as "communion with God and God's creatures through Christ Jesus?"

The Rev. Marianne Meye Thompson, a professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, defended the non-inclusive affirmation "I believe in God the Father almighty." She said the term "father" for God "does not imply gender," but "the narrative of God's fatherly actions ... is the story of God's faithfulness, mercy, and redemption."

Colin Gunton, the director of the Research Institute in Systematic Theology at Kings College in London, spoke on "The Triune Creator: Creation, Fall, New Creation." He said the "very goodness" of creation means that the fall happened in history, and wondered whether a fallen angel might have been the tempter in the Garden of Eden. He also lamented the division of science from theology, saying he believes all history must be seen as eschatological, aimed at restoring the goodness of creation in the "new creation."

The Rev. Mark Labberton, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, CA, gave the final plenary address on "We Believe: Confessing the Faith Together."

"The Nicene Creed is the exposition of God's 'Yes.'... We confess as a people of the promise. ... It is God who is the subject of our grammar," he said. "To say we believe is an act of trust, letting ourselves settle, announcing what our address is - inside the faithfulness of God."

Workshops explored subjects such as "Suffering in God's World," "Shaping Worship," "Preaching God," "Sabbath Keeping for Pastors" and "Calculating God: Faith & Science."

By Albert H. Lee
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