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About those Creeds

Scot McKnight has a nice piece about the ancient ecumenical Creeds and their place in (Protestant, evangelical, paleo-orthodox and/or emerging) Christianity. He takes a middle road—which obviously gets bonus points from me—between those who would dismiss the Creeds as irrelevant and those who would invest them with the same degree of authority as the Bible. To the first point, Scot writes,

I should note clearly hear that I will happily recite the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds.  I agree with paleo-orthodoxy that these Creeds reflect important, basic truths about God and Christ.  I also agree that these Creeds establish a pattern for the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel.   The Creeds emphasize the basic Biblical themes of creation, Trinity, incarnation, resurrection and redemption, and proclaim in particular the events of the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.  This is the Gospel that the Church has always proclaimed and always must proclaim, for the Gospel fundamentally is rooted in God’s Trinitarian person and in these kerygmatic events.  The Gospel is the “faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 1:3), which does not change.

He then, however, notes three areas of concern with the ways some believers handle the Creeds:

But paleo-orthodoxy, it seems to me, understands the Creeds to have a greater authority than that of faithfully reflecting a pattern for Gospel proclamation.    For paleo-orthodoxy, the ecumenical Creeds are authoritative for doctrine and theology because they are part of the “history of the Holy Spirit.”  To be sure, the Creeds for the paleo-orthodox are subsidiary authorities to scripture, but nevertheless they are in some sense binding authorities.  In principle, for the paleo-orthodox, the Creeds are reformable in accordance with scripture.  In practice, however, the Creeds for them are functionally infallible (or so it seems to me, and to some other observers such as Roger Olson, who writes to this effect in his book Reformed and Always Reforming).

I find this notion troubling, for several reasons:  (1) it functionally compromises the Reformational principles of sola scriptura (though it formally maintains that principle) and of the priesthood of all believers; (2) it is highly selective – indeed arbitrary – about which parts of the “history of the Holy Spirit” are authoritative; and (3) it leaves unmanageable ambiguities about the status of some creedal statements.

The remainder of the post provides examples of Scot ‘s reasons.

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4 Comments

  1. That seems very reasonable to this Baptist. I constantly say that I find the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds to be good (not perfect) summaries of basic Christian doctrine. But I share the historic Baptist wariness about creeds. (We have confessions, but they are never repeated in church and few even read them. We give them elaborate preambles stressing that they are merely guides for interpreting Scripture.)

    I think this is not just a problem for the paleo-orthodox (e.g. Tom Oden, Stanley Hauerwas, McGrath, etc.) but for the super Calvinist among white Baptists in the South (especially Timothy George and Al Mohler). I don’t think they have any “mental footnotes” when saying the Creeds (or, for George and Mohler, the Second London Confession of Faith). I always have mental footnotes: that “Father,” does not mean ontological sex in the Godhead, for instance.

    My bigger problem with both the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds is that the entire life and teachings of Jesus are omitted–hidden behind a comma. We go straight from the Virgin Birth to the Passion and leave out everything in between (and then wonder why the Sermon on the Mount is not followed). “Born of the Virgin Mary, COMMA, suffered under Pontius Pilate” or “And was made man, COMMA, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate.”

    As Juergan Moltmann says, we need, AT LEAST MENTALLY, to pull out Jesus life and teachings from under that comma and give them equal authority.

    Of course, then there’s the problem that the Creeds don’t require discipleship–don’t require that Christians DO anything, just BELIEVE certain things. The result has been the disaster that is post-Constantinian imperialist Christianity.

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  2. Sometimes I fantasize about putting together some sort of Christian discipleship resource that synthesizes all of the approaches known from the early centuries: the credal/systematic theology approach of Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures, the biblical/exegetal approach of Irenaeus’s Apostolic Preaching, and the ethical/practical approach of the Didache. We really need to have them all, and in the proper proportions.

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  3. SingingOwl says:

    DP, I wish there were more people like you in this world.

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  4. Craig says:

    These are all great points! Excellent post!

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