Wednesday, February 1, 2012

In Praise of Brevity

Anyone who loves theology and Biblical studies will often find that the best treatments of an issue are seldom brief. A verse, a doctrine or an idea must be examined, turned over from multiple angels. While I enjoy clear writing, I enjoy writing that does not leave the loose ends of points undiscussed. My wife will attest that I do not excel in brevity. In blogging I'd often prefer to expand and explain my thought rather than cutting it short and tight. In that light, I find it a bit ironic then that I would find myself writing this post.

For the past six months, I have been leading my children in family devotions by working through the book Training Hearts; Teaching Minds by Star Meade which are devotions on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Each week covers one questions. Each day contains a reading about the length of a the Daily Bread devotional with some accompanying Bible verses.

Here is what I have noticed as I go through a catechism and the short devotions on it: I may enjoy plumbing the depths of Biblical studies and topics but sometimes people need a short crystalized statement that cuts straight to the point. One or two well thought out sentences can sometimes ring truer than a morass of paragraphs or essays.

As a pastor, sometimes on the way out of the sanctuary someone hits you with a question. The parishioner does not want a long winded answer as you ruminate on Augustine's, Calvin's and Luther’s interpretation of the passage--they just want a straight forward bullet point. A tweet. I do not always like it but it is the reality on the ground. After I had memorized my church’s doctrinal statement for my ordination, my mentor instructed me in the value of retaining the knowledge. A doctrinal statement contains the core. It can be used to quickly answer doctrinal questions. “Hey pastor, what does justification mean again?”

Here’s what I would suggest: we must read weighty treatments of doctrine but we don’t necessarily start or stop there. Treatises can enrich our lives but so can brevity. When was the last time you pulled out a Creed, a Confession, a Catechism or your own church doctrinal statement and said: what are the cores of orthodoxy? This blog is after all about orthodoxy. Consider the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. Do you know them? Could you discuss them? They don’t say it all--but in those moments when you need to say enough without a deluge, what better tool?

I have personally been blessed by reading the Westminster Shorter Catechism with my four girls (and I’m not even a paedobaptist). One example of that blessing, it has been exciting to see its movement from Questions 24-30. There is progress: Christ’s three offices (prophet, priest and king) to the linchpins of historia salutis: Christ’s humiliation and exaltation to the application of redemption specifically on the role of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s continuing work in exaltation or the Holy Spirit’s application are often overlooked in pop-evangelicalism somewhat truncated theology. But here a catechism lays a grid. It is brevity. But it is like laying pillars that go deep upon which we hang more complex and thorough explanations of the topic. As I read it I realized how much of my seminary education could be hung around these questions. 

When was the last time you checked the pillars of your theology? Those of us who love theology and the Bible can amass great amounts of knowledge while over time neglecting the continual reassessment of vital cores. Have you looked for cracks your understanding of the basics? Are your fundamentals sound?  Can you state them briefly or do you fumble for words with ever expanding convolutions that covering for your lack of mental clarity? The Trinity? The Deity of Christ? Soteriology? Christ’s death and resurrection and the benefits flowing from both

As I read to my children, who by the way are 2, 4, almost 6 and 8, they do not understand all of the doctrine but they pick up some. I am reminded that the gospel is for children. Any doctrine that is worth anything is something that can be communicated to children--that includes the Trinity.

In parenting and other types of discipleship, we are laying doctrinal bricks upon which we will build a house of faith. As they grow their understanding will, Lord willing, become more sophisticate--like the walls, siding and trim on the house. But the house is only as good as the foundation which must have the cores of the faith. I hasten to aid these are truths about Jesus in whom we trust and teach them to trust, not empty headed ivory tower expositions limited to head knowledge alone. 

Brevity is a necessity. It is not sufficient in doctrine but it is a necessity. Men like Athanasius  or the Cappodocian Fathers demonstrate brevity in Creeds is not sufficient in defending and articulating doctrine--but neither is it dispensable. Brevity of a catechism or creed that has stood the test of time can remind us of our cores. Like steel beams in a house, it may lack sophisticate erudition but it can bear the load. 

In this respect, brevity is to be praised.

So here’s some questions worth discussing in the comments. 
Do you agree or disagree with my point of brevity?

How would you suggest our generation rediscover the value of Creeds and/or Confessions in the twenty first century? 

What tools have you found useful for training in basic doctrine?

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