Friday, June 22, 2007

The Radical Creed

To this day, I can still remember returning to worship in the Church after many years on "sabbatical." At that time, the most difficult parts of Episcopal worship for me were singing the hymns (the words are so specific about belief, and that made me feel uncomfortable) and reciting the Nicene Creed.

I especially found it difficult to say that Jesus Christ is "the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father." When we got to those words, I would typically remain silent, letting the rest of the gathered assembly say those words for me and carry me through the remainder of the Creed to the Prayers of the People.

It took me probably at least a year of regular worship before my Arian and Gnostic tendencies were shaped in accordance with the faith of the Church, and I was able to not only say these words, but see in them core truths of the Gospel. Such can be the power of liturgy for shaping believing.

Since that time, I have increasingly come to see the Nicene Creed less and less as a straight jacket that stifles critical thinking and kills the spirit and more and more as an opening into a whole world of meaning and purpose, and an invitation into the life of God.

As coldly analytic and rational as it may sound, the Creed is actually a mystical opening into transforming relationship with the triune God.

The articles of the Creed touch on the mysteries at the heart of Christian faith. Putting mystery into words is, of course, awkward at best. Hence, I think it's a good idea for there to be a moment of silence between the recitation of the Creed and the Prayers of the People. The silence acknowledges the mystery of what we've said in the words of the Creed.

The mysteries of God cannot be contained by rational explanations. But like a compass that always points north, the Nicene Creed points us in the right direction. The compass is not the destination just as the Creed is not God. But it would be much easier to get lost as to what is truly essential for reaching the goal of the Christian journey without it.Anglicanism agrees. Beginning with the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral in the late 19th Century and reaffirmed by subsequent Lambeth Conferences and General Conventions of the Episcopal Church during the 20th Century, Anglicanism maintains that the Nicene Creed is "the sufficient statement of the Christian faith" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 877).

It's worth pausing for a moment over that word "sufficient."The Nicene Creed is "enough." We don't need anything more to express the core of the Christian faith. But at the same time, we can make do with no less.This is why Anglicanism - unlike the Reformed tradition - is a creedal rather than a confessional tradition.The Anglican bishop Charles Harris put it well when he said:

"The Nicene Creed aims at promoting unity, the later confessions at justifying division; the former states only what is essential, the latter descend into detail and include a large number of disputable and highly contentious propositions" [from Creeds or No Creeds (1927), quoted by Frank E. Wilson in Faith and Practice Revised Edition (Morehouse-Barlow, 1967), p. 71].

Given the rampant subjectivism and relativism of our hypermodern culture - tendencies which reinforce conceptions of "spirituality" that entail a "drive-thru window" or "cafeteria pick-and-choose" mentality - I think that one of the most odd and countercultural things we Christians do is stand every Sunday and recite the words of a creed hammered out by two ecumenical councils in the 4th Century. It is a radical and even subversive act to not only recite the words of the Nicene Creed, but to also mean what we say.

Here, for example, is what Luke Timothy Johnson writes in an essay entitled "The Countercultural Creed":

Every Sunday millions of Christians recite the creed. Some sleepwalk through it thinking of other things, some puzzle over the strange language, some find offense in what it seems to say. Perhaps few of them fully appreciate what a remarkable thing they are doing. Would they keep on doing it if they grasped how different it made them in today's world? Would they keep on saying these words if they really knew what they implied?

In a world that celebrates individuality, they are actually doing something together. In an age that avoids commitment, they pledge themselves to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, they use words written by others long ago. In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, they claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, they accept, preserve, and continue tradition. Reciting the creed at worship is thus a countercultural act.

He continues this train of thought in an essay entitled "The (Politically Incorrect) Nicene Creed":

For Modernity, belief in a creed is a sign of intellectual failure. Creeds involve faith, and faith makes statements about reality that can't be tested. Everyone knows that statements can be true only when they don't really say anything about the world or when they have been empirically tested. Creeds are therefore structures of fantasy. One cannot be both a believer and a critical thinker. Creeds also express convictions held by a group of people, and for intellectual elitists, the many is always a herd, and a herd will always believe what it is told. A creed negates the need for individuals to seek truth as a quest for authenticity. To be authentic, people must own each statement they make passionately and personally, and must accept nothing on the basis of outside authority. Better to stay silent than to speak a single word that is not a personal testimony. ...

I think that the Christian creed enunciates a powerful and provocative understanding of the world, one that ought to scandalize a world that runs on the accepted truths of Modernity. There is something in the creed to offend virtually every contemporary sensibility. At the same time, it communicates a compelling vision of the world's destiny and humanity's role that challenges the accustomed idolatries and the weary platitudes of current worldly wisdom. Christians who say these words should know what they are doing when they say them and what they are saying when they mean them. This is the precondition to their celebrating a specifically Christian conception of reality, and the presupposition for their challenging the dominant conceptions of the world.

Since bishops are called "to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church," I think it's very significant that, in the ordination rite for bishops, it is the bishop-elect who leads the congregation in reciting the Nicene Creed (The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 517 & 519). It is the faith expressed by the Nicene Creed which bishops are ordained to guard.

Speaking of bishops, here's a magnificent passage from Bishop Frank Wilson's Faith and Practice [Revised Edition (Morehouse-Barlowe, 1967), pp. 72-73]:

The public recitation of the Creeds often raises a question which in some instances is a matter of conscience and in other cases an alibi. How can one stand in a congregation and go on record as believing these articles of faith when some of them are beyond one's ability to understand and about which one's belief is certainly dubious? How can I say, 'I believe' when I am not sure whether I do or not?

The difficulty here lies in a misconception of the purpose of the Creed. It is not a contract especially drawn up for each individual worshiper. It is a statement of the Church's faith in which the individual shares as a member of the Body of Christ. To hesitate over it is like a man questioning his family relationship because he cannot understand some of his father's peculiarities. No one can say he completely understands every item mentioned in the Creed, but that need not prevent him from reciting it in unison with his fellow-worshippers.


There are plenty of things about the human body which a physician does not understand. Yet he does not wait until he is sure about everything before treating his patient. He must treat his patient as a whole person even though some parts of him he may not understand. Those unanswered questions he holds in suspension while he goes about his healing business.

So the individual Christian may have questions in his mind which he cannot resolve, but he holds them in suspension while he says the Creed with the rest of the Church. He is not announcing to the wide world that he knows all about it. He is pledging his allegiance to Christ and stating his adherence to the Church which teaches that faith.

And here are a few concluding thoughts of my own about the Nicene Creed:
  • As "the sufficient statement of the Christian faith," the Nicene Creed underscores that there are boundaries and norms that define the Christian faith and that differentiate it from other possible faiths. Christianity is not a recipe for relativism, nor does it affirm subjectivism. It's interesting in this regard to note that the English word "heresy" derives from the Greek hairein, meaning "to choose." The Creed reminds us that Christianity is not an individualistic, "pick and choose what you like and discard the rest" faith.
  • Christian faith entails certain non-negotiable truths that make a claim on our loyalties and our lives.
  • Contra the gnostic elitism cooked up by the Dan Brown school of theology and Church history, the essentials of the Christian faith are not hidden away and accessible only to the intellectually elite. They are publicly available for all to inspect and explore.
  • The faith of the Church as expressed in the Nicene Creed is the norm against which individual opinions and judgments are measured and found more or less adequate, or wrong.
  • The Nicene Creed does not provide answers to every theological or ethical question. You cannot resolve a moral dilemma by consulting it, and it doesn’t prescribe a particular theory of the atonement as the correct one. But the Creed does provide content and boundaries for ongoing inquiry that stays connected to the faith of the Church. And it allows for a diversity of views on matters it does not address.
  • Reciting the Nicene Creed in the context of the liturgy invites us to live more deeply - with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength - into the mystery of a God whose being and willing we mere mortals can never fully fathom.

1 comment:

George said...

".. At that time, the most difficult parts of Episcopal worship for me were singing the hymns (the words are so specific about belief, and that made me feel uncomfortable).."

Ah Byran you (God) sent me here just to read this sentence so that I would not feel 'alone', for strange as it may seem to some this is probably a reason I don't go to church - I just cant sing the words I don't feel. Who would know but me if I did sing them without them coming from my heart, well God would and as strained as my relationship is at times with Him I cannot do it (repetitive modern gushy choruses drive me out wailing or sitting in misery)

This brings us to the Creed, and here we differ in that I have not had to many problems with it (except for a judgmental streak in me that often wonders how may of those around me have even thought about what they are saying, Lord have mercy on me) I did try to speak to the local Anglican minister where I sometimes have attended about 'his' particular position on 'one Holy catholic and Apostolic church' but felt I received an almost token reply (maybe I was just being negative) when I was looking for so much more when I was looking for some confirmation that the faith tradition I was worshiping in actually had a position/stance so that I could 'feel' joined with others in the congregation. (I had been reading a fair bit about Orthodoxy and they sure dont leave any gaps) .... but enough of that as I am judging others when I have no right.
Suffice to say that reciting the Creed for me was easier than singing a 'worship' song because the Creed was a 'statement' of fact yes immersed in mystery but it was something I could relate to, but words of Love and Praise are still something I struggle with. That would be a shock to some, but when I committed my life to Jesus strange as it may seem to some, I did not instantly fall in love with God . . . whew thats enough, thanks for listening and THANKS for sharing.

Grace and peace to you

ps maybe I to need to give the Liturgy its time to work in me, putting aside emotions and others and letting words steeped in the faith of centurys work in me by Gods grace?