Herewith some musings in response to Derek's challenge: to explain how we view our Christian identity in five specific categories. It's a great idea; he's summarized some interesting responses.
1.1 The scriptural canon should be treated pretty much like any other literary canon, and that is (drum roll) as a recommended-reading list. Educated people in Western culture should be familiar with the scriptural texts. Those texts provide us with a common language for discourse and with a conceptual framework to support further study.
1.2 In matters of faith and morals, we can properly use the scriptural writings much as we might use Captain Cook's shipboard logs. They can provide useful "sailing directions," but you can't just blindly follow them; if you run yourself aground — or if you collide with another ship and send it to the bottom — it's no excuse that you were "only following Scripture."
1.3 Individual scriptural writings may well reflect the authors' encounters with the divine. So does just about every published scientific paper.
1.4 The scriptural canon should never be closed — there's no reason to assume the existing canon is a complete record of everything God might ever want us to know about faith or morals.
1.5 There's every reason to suppose that the various scriptural writings might be wrong here and there. After all, its authors, copyists, translators, and canonizers were fallible humans. There's no formulaic, plug-and-chug way to determine, for particular circumstances, which parts are "right" and which aren't; we have to use our judgment, supported by as much information as we can collect.
1.6 Suppose we were to accept Scripture as being preemptively authoritative in matters of faith and morals: On what principle could we refuse to accord similar authority to the Qur'an, or the Book of Mormon, or any other holy book?
1.7 Treating Scripture like a golden calf, elevating it to the status of infallible oracle, is a form of idolatry (sometimes called "bibliolatry").
1.8 Arguably the most important single passage in all of Scripture is found in Deut. 18.20-21:
You may say to yourselves, "How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?" If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him."
1.9 The second-most important passage is Jesus's stress on the Great Commandment and Summary of the Law: Make God your highest priority, and seek the best for everyone who crosses your path as you would for yourself. Jesus seems to have hit the nail on the head when he said "do this and you will live."
1.10 Following right behind those passages are Jesus's teachings about the need to face the facts; to change your life when that seems to be called for; to work to be ready to meet God at any time, because you never know when you're going to. Words to live by.
2.1(a) Creeds can be useful shorthand summaries of what our tentative thinking happens to be. (I say "tentative" thinking because all knowledge is provisional, subject to later revision as we learn more.)
2.1(b) Creeds can sometimes helpfully use familiar figures
of speech. That doesn't mean the figures of speech are literally true. If a weather forecaster says that the sun will set at
such-and-such a time this evening, we understand that technically
he is speaking an untruth, because the sun doesn't set: the earth rotates. That's OK; we all understand full well what he is
really saying, so the figure of speech does no harm. We'd be better off if we took the same attitude about the language of the traditional Christian creeds.
2.2 Content-wise, the Apostles' Creed is pretty much inoffensive, but it misses the point of what really seems to be going on.
2.3 The Nicene Creed makes too many untestable, ipse dixit
assertions about Jesus and the Holy Spirit. These assertions rely entirely on human imaginings, unconfirmed and unconfirmable by any evidence from the world that God has actually wrought (cf. Deut. 18.20-21, cited above). Traditionalist Christians proclaim that, for example, God consists of exactly three Persons; how do they know that? Why not four, or two? We have no more reason to take the trads' word for these things, nor the word of their predecessors, including the scriptural authors, than if they were proclaiming that the Alpha Centauri star system is ruled by
space-traveling housecats. Too many trads insist that, if you can't give 100% assent to the Nicene Creed, then (according to them) you cannot claim the title of Christian; and then we wonder why so many thoughtful, educated people don't go to church . . . .
2.4 The Athanasian Creed is incoherent gibberish.
2.5 Unfortunately, the English-language phrasing, "I believe in X" too often is taken to mean, "I think X is factually the way things are" instead of "I put my trust in X, that is, I've decided to live as though X were true."
3. APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION
3.1 All who proclaim the gospel, and all who seek the truth, are apostolic successors. It's not just certain bishops.
3.2 Some bishops claim to stand in an unbroken line of succession, supposedly going all the way back to Jesus himself. It's a charming conceit. Plenty of Christian denominations have done just fine without making such claims.
4. CATHOLICITY (small c)
4.1 Hospitality is just one of several things of greater importance than catholicity.
5. REFORMATION (small r)
4.1 If reformation is understood to be a cautious willingness to change our lives as more information about God's creation is revealed to us, then reformation ought to be an everyday process.