Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Right Use of the Creeds

Some thoughts on the right use of the Creeds and dogma from Arthur Michael Ramsey's The Gospel and the Catholic Church (1936).

... the Church can never be said to have apprehended the truth. Rather is the Truth the divine action which apprehends the Church. Dimly it understands what it teaches. For the more the Church learns of God, the more it is aware of the incomprehensible mystery of His being, in creation and in transcendence and on the Cross. ... The Church's perilous office of teaching is inseparable from the Church's worship of the mystery whereby it exists.

Ineffable, therefore, is the revelation of God, which creates and which uses the teaching Church. Human language can never express it. Yet the Church, like its Lord, must partly commit it to human speech and thought, and is indeed commissioned to do this in every age and civilization. Hence have appeared the Canon of Scripture and the Creeds; both express and both control the Church's teaching. But, since Truth and life and worship are inseparable, the scriptures and the Creeds are not given for us in isolation. They form, with the ministry and the sacraments, one close-knit structure which points the Christians to the historical facts wherein God is revealed, and to the life and experience of the universal society. The Creeds, therefore, have authority not as scholastic definitions of Christianity, but as a part of the structure which points beyond scholasticism and philosophy to the Messianic works of Jesus. They point away from speculative theories which would swamp the Gospel, and from partial or ephemeral definitions which would distort its proportions. But the Creeds are not in themselves the Christian Faith; Christians do not "believe in the Creeds," but, with the Creeds to help them, they believe in God.

Creeds are dangerous documents. That they are so is no modern discovery, but a fact fully realized in the ancient Church. S. Hilary, one of S. Athanasius' staunchest supporters in the Nicene struggle, wrote, "We are compelled to attempt what is unattainable, to climb where we cannot reach, to speak what we cannot utter. Instead of the bare adoration of faith, we are compelled to entrust the deep things of religion to the perils of human expression." (de Trin. II, 2. 4.) But, for all the dangers which accompany them when they are used apart from the scriptures and the Church's whole evangelical structure, the Creeds none the less proclaim the Gospel. They point to the redemption once wrought and, in the phrases with which they close, to the Christian hopes which spring from that redemption. ...

In the light of early Christian history the character of the Creeds is indeed very striking. Christianity has entered the Hellenic atmosphere, it has used the Greek tongue, its theologians have largely been Greeks - and yet its Creeds show that it has baptized its Greek adherents into a Messianic faith in a God who reveals Himself through acts in history. The Biblical Gospel has overcome the speculative mind. ...

Yet the Creeds can be abused, as the scriptures can be abused. ... Thus the Creeds are misused when they are interpreted apart from the Gospel which is behind them and the whole organism of worship of which they form a part. When thus divorced from their true context - baptismal and eucharistic -in the Church's life, the Creeds can obtain a scholastic use which is alien from the true mind of the Church. ...

This "fossilization" has often taken place, and the meaning of dogma has often been obscured by a neglect of its relation to the Gospel and to worship. Hence there has come - notably in modern liberal Protestantism of the school of Ritschl - a reaction against dogma altogether, and an insistence that Christianity means personal faith in Jesus Christ and moral allegiance to Him, and not assent to metaphysical propositions about Him. This reaction has had salutary results in loosening the rigidities of dogmatism and in recovering the ethical meaning of faith and the figure of Jesus in His human life. Yet this reaction has led easily into the swamping of Christian teaching with subjective and humanistic ideas, and into a presentation of Christ as one who achieves men's values and fosters a man-centred religion rather than one who reveals Truth about God and thus draws men out of themselves in the worship of concrete divine realities. The remedy, both for scholastic fossilization and for the sentimental reaction against it, lies not in belittling of dogma but in a recovery of its right relation to the Gospel and to the Church's whole structure and worship. In relation to the Gospel, dogma will be seen to spring directly from the fact of Christ crucified and of His work for men, and "the Blessed Trinity" means the infinite love which is the ground of the love of Father and Son in the life and death on earth. Used in this right relation, the Creeds bear witness to the Gospel which is before and behind the philosophies of men and to the one historic society, whose orthodoxy is not a series of correct propositions about God, but the living out of the Truth through the building up of the one Body of Christ.


plsdeacon said...

As "Dionysius the Areopagite" wrote (probably 5th century), we cannot comprehend God. We cannot fully know God. Our language about God is inadequate to speak about God. Therefore, we are limited to the language God Himself has choosen to reveal about Himself.

All language about God should conform to scriptural language, not to what a celebrant or theologian things should be used. The Name of the Trinity is not "Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer;" it is "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Ghost)."

The former is a list of three functions (and, thus, modalistic) while the latter is three persons.

When we divorce the Creeds and the Canon of Scripture from the worship of the Church, we get the situation we are in today where everyone's "interpretation" of the creeds is said to be as valid as everyone else's - no matter how divorced that interpretation is from what the Church has always held.

I talk about that some hereYBIC,
Phil Snyder

Phil Snyder

Joe Rawls said...

I really like the insight that we don't believe in the Creeds as an end in itself, but that we believe in them because they help us believe in God.

The reference to Ritschl was right on target. Surprisingly little has changed in liberal Protestantism since the 19th century, except that now they have laptops and the internet.

David Murdoch said...

That's very well stated. The creeds and doctrines need to be understood as coming from the Holy Spirit of God and therefore intepreted as being from the same author who taught Jesus what to say in His ministry. Ths Spirit is alive though today, and therefore it is not from scripture alone that we may discern God's truth.

It is through the papacy that the correct teaching was kept by the power, not of any human being, but of the Holy Spirit who Jesus said us as the advocate to keep His words within us.

God Bless,