Saturday, August 9, 2008

"The Creeds Are Defective"

That's what the Rev. John Beverly Butcher of Pescadero, CA says in a letter published in the August 2008 issue of Episcopal Life.

Fr. Butcher first made a splash in the pages of Episcopal Life back in June 2008 when he argued that Episcopalians should drop the Nicene Creed from services because it impedes the “natural flow from the ministry of the word into prayer.” He also said that the Creed "is not an essential part of the shape of the liturgy.” I responded to Fr. Butcher on this blog by noting several ways in which the Creed is, indeed, a crucial part of the shape of the liturgy. And I concluded as follows:

We clergy have promised to be conformists. We have voluntarily relinquished all rights to ecclesial (and thus liturgical) disobedience. And when we willfully break that solemn vow, we should be held accountable by the Church. If there was accountability in our Church with this sort of thing, then priests who drop the Creed from the Sunday liturgy and commend doing so to others would be disciplined.

Now Fr. Butcher is making an even stronger negative statement about the Creeds. Here's his recent Episcopal Life letter:

Perhaps you have noticed that the creeds speak of the birth of Jesus and then of his death. There is no mention of the life of Jesus, no mention of the teachings of Jesus, no mention of the healing power of Jesus

The heart of the gospel is missing. The creeds are defective and need to be taken out of service. Instead, let us proclaim clearly the gospel of the Resurrected Jesus, "The seed of true humanity is within you. Follow it!" Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) 4:5

I'll begin by simply noting that the Church Fathers and other early Christians would be surprised to learn that "the heart of the gospel is missing" in the Creeds. Perhaps even earlier than the second half of the second century - well before what we in the West now call the Apostles' Creed took the form in which we know it today, much less the final version of the Nicene Creed - various "rules of faith" which look a lot like the Apostles' Creed were widely used in preparing persons to receive the sacrament of Holy Baptism. It's an understatement to say that these creedal formulas were regarded by the early Church as an indispensable means for the formation of new Christians and for the reaffirmation of the Church's faith by the baptized. From the beginning, "rules of faith" - and later, the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds - were regarded by the Church as succinct, memorable formulations of what is, indeed, the heart of the Gospel. This carries over into late 19th and 20th Century Anglicanism with the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral's affirmation (repeatedly reaffirmed by successive Lambeth Conferences and General Conventions of The Episcopal Church) of "The Apostles' Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol" and "the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith."

In short, the Anglican tradition embraces the historic Creeds as indispensable means by which we know what is at the heart of the Gospel. So while we do, indeed, affirm (echoing the language of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral) that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary to salvation and serve as the rule and ultimate standard of faith, the Creeds help us discern what exactly in Scripture is necessary to salvation, and what exactly in Scripture serves as the rule and ultimate standard of faith. As I have written before about the Nicene Creed: " ... 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."

Fr. Butcher is, of course, correct to note that the Creeds do not include articles about Jesus' life, teachings, and healing power. He regards that omission as proof positive that the Creeds are "defective." However, he goes off track in drawing the conclusion that we should therefore jettison them. For the truth is that the Creeds were never intended to say everything important about Jesus. (I note that even the Gospel according to John says that about itself in chapter 21, verse 25. Should we therefore throw it out of the canon of Holy Scripture?)

The Apostles' Creed was not accepted for use in the Church, nor was the Nicene Creed hammered out over the course of the 4th Century, in order to displace the content of the Gospels concerning our Lord's life, teachings, and healing power. On the contrary, the Creeds and the Gospels are meant to supplement each other. They are not in competition. So Fr. Butcher's conclusion constitutes a "throw out the baby with the bathwater" argument.

And finally, I cannot help but note the significance of the fact that in his letter, Fr. Butcher's example of "clearly" proclaiming the Gospel takes a most interesting form: quoting the Gnostic Gospel of Mary (Magdalene).

I find it puzzling that after Fr. Butcher expresses the concern that the Creeds omit Jesus' life, teachings, and healing power, he chooses to quote a Gnostic rather than a canonical Gospel. Coupled with a call to jettison the historic Creeds, this choice takes on added significance in light of the fact that part of the purpose of codifying the "rules of faith" in the form we call the Apostles' Creed was to combat the heresy of Gnosticism (and the Nicene Creed builds upon that rejection of Gnosticism in addition to its rejection of other heresies). Plus, the Gnostic Gospels do not affirm what the Church means by (in Fr. Butcher's words) "the gospel of the Resurrected Jesus." On the contrary, they deny the full humanity of Jesus, his death by crucifixion, his bodily resurrection, and the Christian hope that our bodies (and all of God's good creation) will also be redeemed and transformed by resurrection.

In conclusion, I cite what I've written before 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. ...

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.

My concern is that the call to jettison the Creeds while quoting a Gnostic Gospel as a warrant for such an action constitutes a rejection of the boundaries and norms that define the Christian faith from other possible faiths. In its appeal to Jesus' life, teachings, and healing power, such a move may appear like a good one to Christians who are committed to the this-worldly implications of the Gospel. But besides the fact that such a move opens the door for the private judgment of individual opinions to supplant the faith of the Church, it also sets up a false dichotomy - as though this-worldly and other-worldly hope do not constitute one hope. A thorough reading of N. T. Wright's Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008) provides a nice counterbalance to this error.


thomas bushnell, bsg said...

Grr indeed.

BillyD said...

Oddly, the Rev. Mr. Butcher does not serve an Episcopal parish; he is a minister at something called the Pescadero Community Church where he is described as "A student of Jesus of Nazareth, Mary of Magdala, and Lao Tzu of China."

Joe Rawls said...

This guy has all the courage of someone who's fully vested in the Church Pension Fund. If he's serving a non-Anglican church, why would Episcopal Life pay any attention to him?

Bryan Owen said...

I'm not sure how much more bizarre this can get. I've just gone to the website link you've offered us, BillyD, and the photo of John Beverly Butcher there looks nothing like the photo that accompanies his Episcopal Life letter. In Episcopal Life, the Rev. Butcher is a bearded African American - not at all what we see at the Pescadero Community Church website.

And Joe, as to your question about why Episcopal Life would pay any attention to someone serving a non-Anglican church - what about their willingness to run an ad back in the April 2008 issue from an official Roman Catholic organization called The Anglican Use Society invitating Episcopal congregations to defect from TEC and become Roman Catholic? I've seen no letters published in Episcopal Life since then protesting this outrageous act on their part. The whole thing diminishes my trust for this publication exponentially.

Bryan Owen said...

And BTW, the website says that the Pescadero Community Church is "a member of the United Church of Christ."

So, has the Rev. Butcher ever been an Episcopalian (much less an ordained Episcoplian)? If not, why in the world would Episcopal Life care one way or the other what the man has to say about anything pertaining to the liturgies in The Book of Common Prayer?

Bryan Owen said...

A sermon by the Rev. Butcher puts an interesting twist on all of this. It's entitled "Getting All the Evidence: The 'Gnostic Gospels'". Among other interesting things, he opens the sermon by saying, "We Unitarian Univeralists do not have a Creed ..." He then goes on to say this about his religious and ecclesial identity: "So what about this problematic word, 'Christian'? I can easily say, 'I am a Unitarian-Universalist,' and 'I am an Episcopal Priest' because I happen to be Bi-ecclesial. But can I say, 'I am a Christian?' That is very, very difficult for me ..."

Anonymous said...


Our rector is planning to substitute the Apostles Creed for the Nicene Creed in Holy Eucharist beginning with the 1st Sunday of Advent this year. There may be a host of reasons why some would want to make this substitution. My question is: does a rector/priest have the authority to do this? Does even a bishop have the authority to to this?

Thank you.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for your questions, Anonymous. (BTW, I do ask that folks who choose to comment anonymously provide a pen name for the sake of disambiguation.)

I think the answer to both of your questions is "no." Neither priests nor bishops have the authority to set aside the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church. And, in fact, all clergy have promised just the opposite in their ordination vows when we solemnly vow to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.

In the case of using the Nicene Creed, I note what the rubric immediately prior to that Creed says in the Eucharistic liturgy:

"On Sundays and other Major Feasts there follows, all standing" (BCP, p. 358)

This is hardly a permissive rubric. On the contrary, it is a directive rubric. IOW, the Prayer Book expects that reciting the Nicene Creed is what shall happen on Sundays and other Major Feasts. If I am being faithful to my vow as a priest to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church, I will move from the sermon into the Nicene Creed on Sundays and other Major Feasts before moving into the Prayers of the People.

The only time the Apostles' Creed is permitted in the context of the Eucharistic liturgy is when there are baptisms, in which case the Baptismal Covenant (which includes the Apostles' Creed) is used.

In addition to the authority issues raised by dropping/replacing the Nicene Creed in the Eucharistic liturgy, there is also the issue of confusion caused by substituting the Apostles' Creed - the Baptismal Symbol - for the Nicene Creed when there are no baptisms. Plus, whether intentionally or not, dropping the Nicene Creed divorces the parish's celebration of the Eucharist from the Universal Church insofar as the Nicene Creed is the most universally accepted statement of the Christian faith (I note that the Eastern Orthodox churches do not accept the Apostles' Creed).

Robert F said...

I came over to this post from the comment section in a current Catholicity and Covenant post where, in a comment you made, you left a link. I am interested in this dialogue about the Creeds and the Tradition because I know it is an important subject, and my own personal understanding of theology, such as it is, is unsettled in this area. A problem with Butcher's position is that he not only rejects the Creeds but also the canon, as evidenced by his quotation of a Gnostic gospel. I understand the importance of the Creeds in the early church, particularly when the NT canon was still in process of formation and there were so many heresies claiming to be Christian, and also when illiteracy was widespread and even those who were able to read did not necessarily possess, or have access to, a vast or adequate library to articulate faith for their edification. The early Creeds formed relatively short and memorable outlines of the basics of Christian faith in precisely those areas where faith was being undermined by popular heresies, some of which employed Scriptural language indistinguishable from orthodoxy to arrive at subtly non-orthodox and heterodox conclusions. I continue to use and acknowledge the Creeds in my personal devotional life. But I do not think the Creeds are as primary to Christian faith as the canon, and I think they derive their authority from the fact that they arise out of a responsible and longstanding, that is primitive, reading of Scripture. I think it would be possible, and legitimate, to be fully Christian without knowledge of the historic Creeds and on a basis of familiarity with the Scriptures alone. As to the statement you have posted in various places that there is no tradition-less reading of Scripture, my own understanding is that Holy Scripture is the first (theologically, not chronologically) and most essential strata of Tradition, and all other developments in tradition must be tested against the primary Tradition of Scripture. So our hermeneutic comes from Scripture itself, and tradition is proved by coherence with Scripture. In those areas where Scripture can be interpreted variously, it is of course sound and necessary to keep to the most ancient and continuous readings that the church has rendered in its encounter with Scripture. But if the Scripture is not allowed to have an independent and critical authority over against tradition, how do we ever arrive at a reformation, recognizing that in some places tradition has gone adrift and cut itself off from the primary tradition of Scripture? How do we not end up with pay-as-you-go purgatories, indulgences, unbalanced cults of the saints, co-redemptrixes, etc. on the one hand, or hyper-Calvinism on the other? Because hyper-Calvinism is also a tradition, however late in church history it may have formed. And that a tradition formed late rather than early does not mean that it is not true, as Timothy Luke Johnson mentions again and again in his The Real Jesus. The NT canon itself did not fully form until a few centuries after Christ, yet I have to believe that it has primacy not only over the heresies that came before it, but also the earlier, and subsequent tradition(s) of the church itself. Also, traditions themselves require interpretation. It's not as if they exist in a vacuum outside of interpretative perspectives. The average layperson is not in a position to have access to the historical tools that would help them judge between authentic and inauthentic traditions and interpretations of traditions, but if they are literate, they can have direct encounter with the Scriptures, and thereby the Lord of the church and traditions. Otherwise, the authenticity of the church remains the province of experts (priests and professional theologians).