Monday, September 26, 2011

Defending the Historic Creeds: 2

In light of various attacks on the historic or catholic creeds as theologically "defective," "exclusionary," and/or "irrelevant" to the needs of contemporary worshipers, and given the reality that there are now both authorized as well as unauthorized "creeds" used in place of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds in worship (some of which are deeply flawed), I think it's helpful to review why we need the historic or catholic creeds, what things are necessary for an affirmation of faith to be genuinely Christian, and how persons can recite the creeds with integrity.

Bishop Frank E. Wilson addresses these matters in a most helpful way. In Faith and Practice, he writes:

Obviously there must be a recognized framework of Christian teaching if Christianity is to possess any substantial character at all. To become a Christian, or to be a follower of Christ, or to believe in the Gospel means nothing until something explicit is offered to show what such an act of allegiance covers. If I say that I believe in Napolean Bonaparte, what do I mean? Do I mean that I am convinced he was truly an historical person, or that I approve of his military policy, or that I sanction his rather questionable personal life? Such a statement means nothing until something is specified about it. To say that you believe in Christianity but not in creeds is like saying you believe in education but not in schools, or that you believe in justice but not in laws, or that you believe in mathematics but not in the multiplication tables. Christianity is a way of life and it must have a road to travel with directions, landmarks, and recognized points of progress.

Drawing on the historic creeds, Bishop Wilson continues by noting the essential marks of a genuinely Christian affirmation of faith:

Creation Of All Thing by God.
The Incarnation.
The Crucifixion.
The Resurrection.
The Ascension.
The Final Judgment.
The Holy Ghost.
The Church.
Holy Baptism.
Eternal Life.

"Expunge any one of these from the Christian faith," Bishop Wilson writes, "and you have a mutilated Gospel which is not Christianity."

I note that the Apostles' Creed offers no explicit reference to Holy Baptism. However, I think one can argue that affirming belief in the communion of saints and the forgiveness of sins presupposes Baptism. For it is through the waters of Baptism that we receive the forgiveness of sins, are set apart as holy, and thus enter the fellowship of the saints.

In response to the question, "Do we really need the historic creeds?," Wilson writes:

The historic Creeds are a protection to the integrity of the Gospel. They are a unifying bond extending throughout the Christian world. They preserve the continuity of the Christian religion. They maintain a standard by which all developments of Christian doctrine may be tested. They are a compass for Christian travelers and an anchor against spiritual drifting. They serve as a constitution for the Church and a check upon changing by-laws and disciplinary regulations. They make for stability of purpose in the Church as a whole, and the recitation of them is a powerful aid in fortifying the faith of every individual Christian.

But what if I'm not really sure I believe all of this stuff? How can I then recite the Nicene Creed with integrity? Wilson addresses those concerns as well:

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-worshipers. There are plenty of things about the human body which the 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.

Reciting either the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed challenges the individualism that we in the West take for granted. Writing about a completely different topic, Lauren Winner makes an observation in this regard that is directly relevant to the importance of the historic creeds for the Christian faith:

... in the Christian universe, the individual is not the vital unit of ethical meaning. For Christians, the most basic images, metaphors, and signs are corporate, and the basic unit of ethical meaning is the Body, the community. Israel experiences covenantal fidelity as a people, and the People of God is a collective - not merely an aggregate of individual persons, each doing [or believing] his or her own thing, but a body. In the Bible, God elects the People of Israel as a body. He sustains them as a body. And, finally, he redeems them as a body.

And Bishop Wilson adds this clarification:

If we think of ourselves as isolated persons dealing with God separately, we shall always be in intellectual trouble. When we learn to consider ourselves as parts of a corporate society, we shall see how the Creed serves the Body of which we are members. The members come and go, but the Body lives on in order to produce and nourish new members.

Along with the corporate character of the Christian faith, Bishop Wilson reminds us that the faith of the Church is bigger than any one of us. And for that reason the Church's faith transcends our capacity to fully comprehend. So even as the creeds protect the orthodox faith of the Church, they also preserve the mystery of that faith. Jettisoning, revising, or replacing the historic, catholic creeds of the Church risks changing the Christian faith into some other faith, and reducing the mystery of the Christian faith to something more "manageable," politically correct, and sectarian.

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