Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Blessed Simplicity of Profession

Objections to using the historic creeds take many forms. Some, such as the Rev. John Beverly Butcher, maintain that the creeds are defective because they do not mention the life, teachings, and healing power of Jesus and thus should be “taken out of service.” There are other objections to the creeds, such as these noted by Presbyterian theologian Samuel Miller (1769-1850): “The objection that creeds supersede the Bible as a standard of faith; the objection that creeds interfere with the rights of conscience; the objection that creeds discourage free inquiry; the objection that creeds fail to achieve their purpose; the objection that creeds promote discord and strife.”

It’s not my intent to even begin answering all of these objections in any detail. Rather, I want to offer reflections from Luke Timothy Johnson’s wonderful book The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (Doubleday, 2003) that I think offer ways of entering into possible answers to such objections. The section of the book I’m drawing on is entitled “The Blessed Simplicity of Profession.”

One of the qualities of the creed that most recommends it to contemporary Christians who find themselves confused about essentials and divided by nonessentials is its remarkable simplicity in profession. As with friends, so with beliefs: the fewer the better. The ancient philosophers well understood that in friendship there is an inverse proportion of number and quality. More is demanded of friends in trust, loyalty, and depth of commitment than can be asked from casual acquaintances. So also, faith demands selectivity. People who claim to believe many things equally cannot possibly be deeply committed to them all. They inadvertently identify themselves as superficial acquaintances of faith rather than friends with God (James 4:4).

Now, simply with respect to economy of expression and content, the Apostles’ Creed is considerably superior to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed that has been our text. It says everything that needs to be said, and nothing more, which probably accounts in part for its continuing use and influence. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, however, is far superior to every subsequent creed and confession elaborated by Christians.

It adds to the Apostles’ Creed what is required to clarify the identity and work of the Son of God, and the work of the Spirit and the church. In this elaboration, it has shown itself faithful to the full range of scriptural testimony and the extraordinarily complex character of the Christian story. But it stops there. It retains the virtue of reticence. For this reason, and for its central place in the liturgical life of many Christians, this version of the creed deserves the close attention of the church today.

The simplicity of the creed is notable first in those matters on which it speaks. The creed consistently affirms what without trying to specify how, and thus liberates in two ways: the minds of believers are free to examine and investigate, without constraint, the gaps left within by the creed’s propositions, and their minds are not imprisoned by extraneous and possibly unworthy explanations or elaborations. The creed thus provides a stable confession within which the faithful can find a variety of acceptable standpoints and interpretations. This is part of what I meant by saying earlier that the creed gives boundaries, not barriers (pp. 314-316).

The creed tells us what is absolutely essential: God acts in the world for the sake of humans and to save them. The “how” and any further inquiry into the “why” remain unstated because they are both (ultimately) unknowable and unnecessary (p. 318).

Thus, the creed, far from being a restriction on Christian thinking, actually liberates the Christian mind. The simple and thrifty creed defines a few essential points and opens reasoning faith to many others. In this way it provides a model of establishing boundaries that are not barriers (pp. 320-321).


BillyD said...

Stand Firm (I site I usually disagree with) has a link to a sermon preached at the Palo Alto Unitarian Universalist Church by the Rev. Mr. Butcher. In addition to being one of the clergy at that Community Church mentioned below, he's also a UU - he calls himself "bi-ecclesial." And when it comes to his beliefs about Jesus Christ, it's seems rather obvious that he objects to the use of the creeds not because they don't show due regard for Our Lord's life, or because they interrupt the flow of the liturgy, but because he simply doesn't believe a word of them.

Bryan Owen said...

Yes, I've seen the sermon. I shared it with an Orthodox friend, who said that, ironically, parts of it are compatible with Orthodoxy. But the rest, in his opinion, is an expression of "pure hatred" for Orthodox Tradition.

I note, also, that Butcher identifies himself as an Episcopal priest (in addition to being UU). How embarrassing!

Joe Rawls said...

In my parish (Trinity Santa Barbara, where Bishop Spong was a guest speaker last year) there is, not to anyone's great shock, a lot of grumbling about the Nicene Creed. If it were replaced by the Apostles' Creed I could live with that, but if it were eliminated entirely, it would be line-in-the-sand time for me. Never a dull moment.

BillyD said...

Joe, would the people in your parish who are grumbling about the Nicene Creed accept the Apostle's Creed? What seems to be the sticking point?

Joe Rawls said...

the sticking point is that they just don't accept the parts of the Creeds that would contradict a worldview largely informed by the assumptions of liberal secularism. In other words, God didn't become incarnate in Jesus and Jesus didn't rise from the dead because such things simply don't happen in the real world. This is why they resonate so strongly with people like Borg, Crossan, and Spong. I don't know if they'd be happy with any kind of creed that wasn't spiritual pabulum.

Bryan Owen said...

Joe, sounds like there's real dissonance between not just the creeds, but also the liturgy more broadly and the convictions of many in your congregation.

Personally, I just don't understand why persons who reject the core of what our liturgies and creeds are saying would want to worship in this way. Even if I liked the people at a UU Church and thought that their outreach ministries were exemplary, etc., I still wouldn't want to become a member and then try and turn them in the direction of worshiping as creedal, liturgical, sacramental Christians.

For those who reject the core of who we are, there are plenty of other, "more suitable" options out there.

Given your own commitments, how do you come to terms with what you're describing in your parish?

Joe Rawls said...

Bryan {I tried to respond yesterday but it didn't go through}: One of the saving graces of Trinity is that there are a number of people committed to contemplative prayer, and I feel connected to them. There are only three other parishes in my area; two are definitely unacceptable for various reasons although the third might bear more research. Also, I plan to retire in a couple of years and we might relocate somewhere with a better selection of churches. I know this sounds like weaseling, but sometimes you just have to work with the available material. Your prayers are always welcome.
It strikes me that in many parishes a lot of the people are basically Arians or Unitarians (perhaps without fully realizing it)but they go on reciting the Creed week after week just because it's part of the worship package or because the issue has never come up. Any thoughts on that?

Bryan Owen said...

Hey Joe. Sounds like you're dealing with the situation in a good way. You certainly have the support of my prayers.

I agree with you that we have plenty of folks who are basically Arians or Unitarians who, participating in our liturgies, worship as orthodox Christians. It's another question, however, as to whether or not all of these persons are basically Arians or Unitarians because that's grounded in theological conviction. In some (most?) cases, it could be because they've never had an adequate opportunity to engage the historic, orthodox Christian faith in a critical yet faithful way. It could be a symptom of The Episcopal Church's failure in the area of Christian formation.