Monday, June 11, 2007

But What If You're an Idiot?

Years ago, in my previous incarnation on the periphery of signals intelligence, I attended a week-long course on cryptologic methods and policy by a man whose name I'm pretty sure was Oscar Boykin. (Oscar: if I've gotten you confused with someone else, please accept my apologies.) Oscar, actually, was a PhD candidate at the time, travelling to, um, central Maryland with his advisor at UCLA, probably Vwani P. Roychowdhury, to present this course. Dr. Roychowdury, with his impenetrable accent, gave us the lectures on things like quantum mechanics . But Oscar covered the policy end, and in the process taught me everything I pretend to know on the subject.

One of the matters Oscar emphasized was the importance of peer review in the creation of ciphering methods. He said that when you think you have developed a secure cipher, you should publish the cipher so that it can be examined and tested by the experts. Many people might try to do the exact opposite: conceal their ciphering method in hopes of making the method more secure, ie. "security through obscurity." This is the worst possible policy. Because . . . what if you're an idiot? What if you are not as smart as you think you are, and your ciphering method has weaknesses you didn't know about? The security of the method must be in the secrecty of the key, not the method itself. The peer-review tested methods--RSA, DES, etc.--are known to be secure* precisely because they have survived this testing process.

Spoiler alert: this post isn't really about cryptography.

I reflected on Oscar recently in the context of tradition. We shouldn't randomly monkey around with the received wisdom of our ancestors (ie. tradition) for the same reason we shouldn't try to home-bake our cryptologic algorithms: what if we're idiots? What if we aren't as smart as we think we are. We might think we've come to a new theological or social realization that escaped the perception of those that went before us. But we might be wrong, and wrong in unexpected ways and with unexpected consequences. So: proceed slowly, carefully, and with lots of peer review.

Given that this is my approach to tradition, you can imagine my dismay when I received the following email from the secretary of my church:

The Session [local governing body] of [name of local church], after careful study, prayer and discussion, has decided to use the version of the Apostles’ Creed printed in the bulletin, which differs from that printed in the Trinity Hymnal. This version is also used by many other protestant, Presbyterian and Reformed bodies. Our decision was influenced by the following considerations:

1. The earliest Greek manuscripts of the Apostles’ Creed (336-341 AD) do not contain the phrase “he descended into hell.”, nor does the similar Nicene Creed (325 AD). This phrase first appeared in Latin versions of the Creed in 390 AD. When the phrase did occur in later Greek versions, it used the word “Hades”, meaning “the abode of the dead” or “the grave” (Acts 2:27 – 31), not “Tartarus”, meaning “the place of darkness and punishment” (II Pet. 2:4). This phrase has also caused considerable discussion over the centuries, and what it really means is definitely controversial, and so it does not seem to be a “fundamental” doctrine that is either drawn by “clear and necessary implication” from the Scripture, nor is it fully agreed with by many believers. (see also I Cor. 15:1-5)

2. There may be a figurative sense in which Christ “went through hell” in the garden, actually experiencing the penalty of hell in our place on the cross before He died, and He remained under the “power of death” for three days (Lk. 22:42-44; Mk.15:33-35, 37). However, most Reformed expositors seem to agree that none of the Scriptural references that have sometimes been suggested as support for this phrase actually refer to Christ literally going into Hell after His death and burial, as this English phrase clearly implies. (See I Pet. 3:18-20; 4:6; Eph. 4:9-10; Rom. 10:6, 7.) And, by contrast, Lk. 23:43, and Jn.14:1-4, 28; 16:5, 28 all strongly imply that Jesus did not go into Hell after His death, but, instead, went directly to His Father in “paradise”.

3. Changing the words “catholic church” to the synonymous words “universal church” is simply so that those who hear our public confession might avoid any possible confusion between “catholic” and “Roman Catholic”. This change will likewise be reflected in the Nicene Creed.

If you have any questions, please talk with one of your Elders.

Okay, but what if you're an idiot?

Let me be more specific. It turns out that the story of Christ's decent into hell, or "limbo" as described in Dante's Inferno, to liberate the souls of the Patriarchs, has never been accepted by most Calvinists. In my igorance, I had always taken the phrase at face value, never realizing that it was a point of contention (of which we have no shortage, and in any case the view seems to have fallen into disfavor among Catholics as well).

But here are a couple of points:

1. During a lifetime of reciting the Apostle's Creed, up until last Sunday I had heard exactly one theologian challenge this view . . . and he happens to be a ruling Elder at the church I attend.

2. Here is what the great man himself had to say on the issue:

But we ought not to omit his descent into hell, a matter of no small moment in bringing about redemption. Now it appears from the ancient writers that this phrase which we read in the Creed was once not so much used in the churches. f431 Nevertheless, in setting forth a summary of doctrine a place must be given to it, as it contains the useful and not-to-be-despised mystery of a most important matter, at least some of the old writers do not leave it out. . . .

If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No — it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment. For this reason, he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death. . . .

The point is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man.

I can't really improve on this, the point of which is that, yes, the phrase does not appear in the earliest versions of the Creed, and yes, the "hell" described is a metaphor for Christ's spiritual suffering, but it is still a vital component of our understanding of Christian theology, and therefore merits inclusion.

3. Shouldn't the right and proper way of handling this problem be through proper teaching and preaching? No conservative would ever say, "The Bible means thus-and-so, so let's edit it to say thus-and-so." Why should we approach the Creed this way?

4. Is there no one else for whom changing the Creed, a more or less constant fixture of Christianity for 1600 years, is rather jarring?

5. The bit about the "holy catholic church" is absurd. I did learn that it means the universal church in catechism class as a child when the subject was introduced, and was never confused about its meaning in a Protestant context.

6. Let me conceed, for the sake of argument, that the Creed needs revision. Is it really appropriate for one local church to go changing it unilaterally? The email asserts that "this version is also used by many other protestant, Presbyterian and Reformed bodies;" if so, I missed it, and I've recited the Creed in a lot of churches. This matter should be taken up by an interdenominational meeting of Reformed churches, and debated for more than a single session meeting.

    *Okay, so DES is no longer secure, but not because of a weakness in the algorithm. DES isn't secure because computers today can fairly quickly exhaust the solution space of its 64 bit key, crib drag the plaintext candidates, and recover the correct key.

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