Editor’s Note: Following the outline established by the 2005 Jesus Still Lead On study guide, we are sharing different aspects of The Ground of the Unity, one of the worldwide Moravian Church’s key doctrinal statement, in each 2016 issue of The Moravian. This month, we’ll discuss The Belief of the Church; Salvation; and Word, Sacrament and Service.
Both the Ground of the Unity and The Moravian Covenant for Christian Living are available on www.moravian.org. We covered the Covenant throughout 2015.
Thanks to Dr. Craig Atwood and the editors of Jesus Still Lead 0n for this material. If you are interested in obtaining the entirety of Jesus Still Lead On, please contact the IBOC or visit store.moravian.org. —Mike Riess, editor, The Moravian Magazine
The Belief of the Church
With the whole of Christendom we share faith in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The Moravian Church does not have a different understanding of God than other churches, but stresses what we have in common with all of the world’s Christians. “Christendom” here simply means Christianity. We see here not only the influence of the ecumenical movement on the Ground of the Unity but also our historical perspective that we are part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church. We are a Trinitarian church that proclaims that we experience God in three manifestations or “persons.” We do not attempt to explain this mystery, but celebrate the belief of the whole Church, singing praise to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Sometimes we use the words Creator, Redeemer, and Comforter as another way to express this Trinitarian faith. The Moravian Church does stress certain aspects of Christian doctrine and emphasize certain aspects of the Christian mission, but we make it a point not to be divided from our brothers and sisters in other Christian churches because of beliefs. It is important that the Ground refers to “faith” in God rather than belief in God. Faith is related to the word “trust.”
- Why is it important that our doctrinal statement includes what we have in common with all of Christianity?
- What is the difference between believing in God and having faith in God? Is it important that the Ground of the Unity says that we share faith in God rather than believe in God?
- How do you understand the idea of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit?
We believe and confess that God has revealed Himself once and for all in His Son Jesus Christ; that our Lord has redeemed us with the whole of humanity by His death and His resurrection; and that there is no salvation apart from Him.
This may be the most discussed sentence in the entire Ground of the Unity in recent years because it deals with a vital and easily misunderstood point of our doctrine. The Moravian Church is a Christian Church, which means that we understand God through the person of Jesus Christ. Historically we have avoided getting entangled in defining the precise nature of Jesus Christ as divine and human, and instead simply affirm that God is revealed in Christ. Therefore the portrayal of Jesus and the teachings of Jesus in the four gospels are at the heart of Moravian devotion. This is what we mean by “Christocentric.”
The phrase “once and for all” was an attempt to translate a German phrase (einmal und endgültig) which means one ultimate time or once definitively. The writer probably had in mind Hebrews 9:26 which speaks of the sacrifice of Christ “once – for all.” This does not mean that God was revealed only one time. We teach that God was also revealed in creation and through the prophets, but the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth was a unique, historical revelation that most clearly expressed the divine nature in a way that humans can understand. We could change this phrase to say that God revealed himself ultimately in Jesus Christ, the Son. What is most important here is not the “finality” of Christ, but the “centrality” of Christ for Moravians. If we want to know who God is, we simply have to look at the actions and teachings of Jesus in all four gospels.
Once we understand that God is revealed in Christ, the rest of the sentence makes more sense. This is the Moravian way of restating Paul’s proclamation that God is reconciling the world to Himself through Christ (2 Corinthians 5:19). It is through God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ that the world can experience reconciliation with the Creator. Redemption is the divine reaffirmation of the blessing given in creation. Notice that we teach that our personal redemption is part of the redemption of all humankind. Moravian missions are based on the understanding that all people have been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We go bearing the good news of redemption: of God’s sacrificial action in reaching out in love to all people. Traditionally we have taken this message especially to those whom the world has despised and declared less than human.
It is important to note that the Ground asserts that there is no salvation apart from Christ. It does not say that there is no salvation apart from a profession of faith in Christ or even apart from belief in Christ. The Moravian Church has always promoted missions and evangelism so that people may have the joyful opportunity of responding to the love of God in Christ by having faith in Christ. We believe that those who profess faith in Christ have an assurance and an experience of salvation, but we have traditionally rejected the idea that Christ cannot save those who do not profess belief. In particular, the great Moravian theologian and teacher August Spangenberg taught that all children who die before they are old enough to profess faith are still saved by Christ (Idea Fidei Fratrum ¶123).
There is another point being made in this simple statement that there is no salvation apart from Christ. It is important to keep in mind here the situation in 1957 when the Ground of the Unity was written. Millions of people had been seduced by would-be messiahs such as Hitler, Musolini, Stalin, and Tojo into committing unspeakable acts of horror and evil. To say that there is no salvation apart from Christ is to reassert that Christ is our Messiah and Lord. Any effort at achieving a sense of salvation that would separate us from Christ, including obsessive consumerism and self-righteousness, is a false salvation.
- What do you think of the idea that we have been redeemed with the whole of humanity by the death and resurrection of Christ?
- How does this affect our view of other people?
- What does it mean to you that there is no salvation apart from Christ? Why doesn’t the Ground of the Unity say “apart from belief in Christ?”
- Do you think that those who have not professed faith in Jesus are condemned or is there a possibility that Christ’s saving action extends beyond the Christian Church?
- In what ways do people seek salvation apart from Christ?
Word, Sacrament, and Service
We believe that He is present with us in the Word and the Sacrament; that He directs and unites us through His Spirit and thus forms us into a Church. We hear Him summoning us to follow Him, and pray Him to use us in His service. He joins us together mutually, so that knowing ourselves to be members of His body we become willing to serve each other.
True to the Moravian tradition, our statement of faith moves us quickly from theology to practice. It is not enough that we form an intellectual understanding of Christ and salvation; we also need to focus on the day to day reality of following Christ. We experience the on-going presence of Christ in the reading and proclamation of the Word. This Word includes the Scripture, especially the four gospels, and the preaching of the Word. Moravians have always understood that words on a page are lifeless until they are taken into one’s own heart and mind and applied to one’s own life. The “living voice” in preaching is part of that process of making God’s Word come alive in the community of faith.
We also believe that Christ is truly present with us in the act of Holy Communion. This is not just an “audio-visual” aid illustrating a biblical truth; it is an important ritual through which we experience the living Christ within and among us. Moravians have often referred to a “sacramental” presence of Christ in Holy Communion to distinguish our view from that of the Catholic Church. The important thing, though, is to recognize that Communion is a vital aspect of the Christian life and is an opportunity for deeper spiritual experience and blessing.
Worship and the reading of Scripture are not ends in themselves. Notice that they are connected to the idea that the Holy Spirit is a living presence in our lives. It is through the presence of the Holy Spirit in the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the Sacrament that we are formed into a church of Jesus Christ rather than being a social club. We are not made into a church just for our own benefit, we are called into service. Notice that this service is both to our brothers and sisters in the Church and to the world at large. We are united by the Holy Spirit so that we may serve in the world.
- What does the “Word of God” mean to you?
- How do you hear God’s Word in your life?
- What relationship do you see between taking part in Holy Communion and being united as a church?
- How can we be united as a church if we have different understandings of Scripture and Communion? Is there more to unity than uniformity?
- How does the Word and the Sacrament call you into service in the world and in the church?
From the April/May 2016 Moravian Magazine