To creed or not to creed?

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Luke Timothy Johnson, in his book The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (Doubleday, 2003), deals concisely with objections to the “novelties” presented by the Nicene Council and its creed, and answers anti-creedalists on the importance of creeds:

The creed formulated at Nicea was an innovation in at least three ways

  1. “It clearly brought the church into a position of cooperation—it could even be argued cooptation—with the state”
  2. “It imposed a universal creed to take precedence over treasured local versions” (though note this creed was not actually made universal until the later Council of Constantinople)
  3. “It used philosophical language within a profession of faith that was supposed to articulate the Christian story in the language of Scripture.”

“For these three reasons many Christians regard the Nicene Creed (and its developed version we use today) as an instrument of:

  1. politics more than piety
  2. coercion more than freedom, and
  3. philosophy more than the gospel.

Three responses can be made to these objections:

  1. The version of the creed enunciated at Nicea had very much in common with the creeds that had developed in a natural and organic way over time. More on that in a moment. [Wilken: “ex corde ecclesia” – “out of the heart of the church”; bishops-as-pastors, etc.]
  2. The schisms within Christianity had reached such a point that some unifying instrument was needed—the church was now catholic, after all, in the sense of being universal. It was more than a federation of local congregations, and needed a measure that could apply to all.
  3. The traditional belief had been challenged in philosophical terms, and required a philosophical defense—though even now, philosophical language was placed within the context of traditional scriptural language.

There are quite a few free-church Protestants who assume that any creed is coercive, overly detailed in unhelpful philosophical ways, and generally bad news, and that all we need is Scripture. I [that is, Chris Armstrong, not Johnson; don’t know about him] respect that view and those who hold it, but I disagree with it. A number of responses can be made to this view:

  1. First, Jesus himself, as a Jew of the first century, undoubtedly joined his community in the creedal expression of the Shema (‘Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is One,’ Deut 6:4; see Matt 22:33-40).
  2. Second, within the earliest church, the formation of brief creeds undoubtedly preceded the writing of epistles and Gospels and their eventual inclusion in Scripture. So, for example, 1 Cor 12:3: “Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”  This is a brief creedal test of whether someone is a Christian or not.
  3. Third, the early church never treated the creed as a replacement of Scripture. Rather, creeds stood (and still stand) in creative tension and living conversation with the other elements of Christian identity and tradition. Among other things, the creed is a guide for a reading of Scripture; that is, it is a special case of “tradition,” which I defined at the outset of this lecture.
  4. Finally, the anti-creedalists do not usually acknowledge, but it is nonetheless true, that they themselves rely on the substance of the creeds implicitly even as they dismiss the creeds explicitly. They share, for example, the Trinitarian and two-natures understandings of Christ that were hammered out in the development of councils and creeds, and thus they enjoy the fruits of those processes and documents.

What do the critics have right?

  1. A creed can be accepted uncritically and unthinkingly.
  2. Use of a creed can foster intellectual laziness.
  3. A creed can be used as a theological stick with which to beat one’s opponents.
  4. Use of a creed can replace the reading of Scripture

2 responses to “To creed or not to creed?

  1. thanks for that, some pertinent thoughts.

  2. Pingback: Flotsam and jetsam (10/19) « scientia et sapientia

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