Monday, August 24, 2009

What about Creeds?

As a "born and bred" Bible-believing Baptist, I never had much use for the Christian creeds--and in many ways I still don't. I have never been the member of a church that regularly, or even occasionally, used one of the Christian creeds as a part of worship.

Actually, my problem with the creeds has been not in what they say but in the way they have been used. When creeds are used as summaries of vital Christian doctrine and expressions of common faith, they are not only acceptable but also valuable. But when creeds are used to enforce conformity and to eliminate diverse views they become problematical.

The Apostles' Creed is widely used in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and many Protestant Churches. The longest part of that creed is about Jesus:

I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

That statement, as well as its amplification in the Nicene Creed, expresses the heart of the Christian Story--and it is hard to see how people could really be considered "believing" Christians if they do not affirm this central part of the creed. But does that mean we all have to interpret each part of it in the same manner--in a literal, factual manner? I think not.

How many of us today could possibly affirm, for example, that Jesus ascended in a physical body from this earth to a physical heaven in some sort of "three-story" universe? But does that mean that we should remove that phrase from the creed? Again, I think not. While we now will need to interpret it in a metaphorical rather than a literal manner, the assertion of Jesus' ascension is not without significant theological content.

So, the creeds are good as summaries; they are dangerous as weapons. The use of the creeds must allow room for diverse interpretations, but they are to be affirmed as valuable expressions of the core of the central Christian Story.


  1. Your reflection on creeds is fascinating, indeed. When I first read the piece, I immediately thought of old Von Rad's insistance that there are short "historical credos" in scripture that functioned in ways similar to creeds in traditional Christianity (e.g., Deut. 26:1-10). The short credos became the foundations of the longer narratives, he argued. And, I have benefitted from this idea and thought that the retelling of ancient Israel's story in summaries (e.g., 1 Sam 8:8ff; Psalm 78, 105, etc.; Neh 9:6-37; Sirach 44-50) might be a useful way to master the larger narratives, serving not a creedal but an instructional, perhaps catechetical, purpose.

    But credos in the Bible probably did not exist in fact, because it cannot be demonstrated that they were expressions of traditions (doctrines or otherwise) in their incipient forms. More likely they were reductions; abbreviations selected and pared down based upon current need in certain contexts. As such they would have been expressions, not of either antiquity or permanency, but of expeditious and imaginative adaptation of the "story" to contemporaneous needs. It's rather an oddity of historical need, I think, that those summaries got preserved alongside and even within the larger story itself. (The Bible itself seems to be such an historical oddity to me, too.) But they did, nevertheless.

    If you can accept that hypothesis of origins for credos on the analogy with such biblical summaries, which may have functioned like credos function--as brief statements of what's most doctrinally important at a particular moment and place--then it would be very difficult to argue that they have any kind of perpetually binding doctrinal significance. Their significance is first and foremost bound to the context out of which they came, no? Only secondarily do they give expression to ideas that must be perpetually binding upon all successive communities of faith.

    Now, that's kind of the way I feel about both the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed. Basically, they served their purpose in a certain context, but, were it not for external power of the Magisterium to attach perpetual validity to them, they would go the way of other such summaries functioning as credos. They would do so precisely for the same reasons you said that they needn't be interpreted either the same way by everyone, or taken literally. In fact, your willingness to interpret them metaphorically implies that apart from such metaphorical interpretation, they simply cannot speak as fully as they once did. The simple truth is, the world they depict no longer exists in reality. Only in metaphor.

    The Process thinkers talk about creative transformation on the assumption that creative and imaginative change is evidence of God's presence. It may well be time that we grow more radically open to such creative transformation and change, especially with reference to the ways we hold to the meta-story of faith and its many expressions in liturgy, creed, doctrinal affirmations, hymnody, and sermon. In a word, I agree with your openness to take the creeds metaphorically. But, then, I am also open to that with reference to the story itself. Indeed, the story is too much a part of me simply to leave it aside. I must read it; but is it the only story I must read? No, I think not. Are the traditional creeds the only meaningful summaries of Christian faith? As beautiful as they are, even they must bow to the creative transformation of the creator.

  2. I have just added you to my feeds list (I came via Michael's Levellers site)

    I am currently reading Mast and Weaver's little book "Defenceless Christianity" which in many ways is an argument against the significance of the creeds for believers church ecclesiology as it represents not so much the core of the gospel story but a subversion of it - I am not convinced so far.

    Should you be interested I will probably post a review in the next few days on my blog.