Nothing but the Creed?

A friend’s recent musings on just how useless the Ten Commandments were as a summary of Christian ethical teaching (aside from the first commandment, it’s hard to think of a single one of which even the definition, much less the application, commands anything like universal assent) got me to wondering whether the case with dogmatic theology was in fact any better than with moral theology.  

I do think there are solutions, of course, to this chaos of disagreement, ways of sorting out the wheat of legitimate disagreement from the chaff of heterodoxy and spurious interpretation, so to speak, but it’s worth dwelling for a sobering moment or two on the full extent of doctrinal diversity that can be found within those professing faith in Christ.  This can be done by a line-by-line consideration of the Nicene Creed:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

Should we really call God “the Father”?  Isn’t God also a “Mother”?  Shouldn’t (S)he be genderless?
What do we mean by saying that God is “Almighty”?  Open theists would say that it does not mean he has any power over the future, or over the wills of free creatures.
What does it mean that he made heaven and earth?  As in, created each creature in its particularity?  Or simply the raw material for the Big Bang?  Or something in between?  And that’s just about the “earth” and the “visible” side of things.  What falls under the “heaven” and “invisible” side?  For medievals, far more entities fell under this heading than do for most modern Christians.  What are we to think of angels and all that?

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Insert all the disputes that led to this credal formulation here.  Of course, perhaps we might accept that subsequently, to be “Christian” is to be bound by this decision, and all earlier opinions are excluded from Christianity.  But what does it mean for the Son to be “begotten of the Father before all worlds . . . begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father”?  There’s some complicated metaphysics here, and there’s a massive difference of opinion among theologians today (and at the level of popular piety) on the metaphysical makeup of the Trinity; many of these opinions fall into what would classically have been condemned as modalism or tritheism.

Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man;

Insert all the disputes leading up to the Council of Ephesus and the Council of Chalcedon here.  Important as those later conciliar formulations may be, they do not seem to be definitive of “Christianity” since both the Nestorian Church and the Monophysite churches continued for many centuries thereafter.  Even within Chalcedonian orthodoxy, monothelitism and monoenergism were widely asserted in the following centuries.  Even among those who formally reject these two, significant disputes about the relation between the two natures, the relation between the natures and the one person, the communication of attributes, the role of Mary in the incarnation, etc., continue to vex theologians.  And never mind at the level of popular piety, where all kinds of deviant understandings of what it means for Jesus to be God and man proliferate—I expect that the majority of evangelical Christians, if subjected to a test on their Christology, would come out as Docetists, Apollinarians, Nestorians, or some curious blend of the above.  Among modern theologians, there is considerable restlessness, if not outright rejection, of the Chalcedonian formula, and a desire to articulate Christ’s human identity in much more robust terms than those typical of earlier Christianity.

On a totally different note, what do we mean by saying he came “for us men and for our salvation”?  Was the incarnation strictly oriented toward the atonement?  Or was it oriented toward the divinization of the race?  Was it necessitated by the Fall, or intrinsic in the logic of creation?  Theological disagreements with wide-ranging implications on these questions date back to the beginning of Christian theology and still rage today.

and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried;

Who suffered?  Just the human Christ?  The divine person according to his human nature?  The divine person without qualification?  The whole Trinity?  Modern theology has been torn with such disputes for decades, and they have their analogues in earlier theological debates.  (Note that the Nicene Creed conveniently leaves out the contentious “descended into hell” clause of the Apostles’ Creed.)  The mention of “Pontius Pilate,” while perhaps not controversial in itself, raises a whole set of issues about the historical particularity and historical reliability of the Scriptural accounts.  To what extent does our faith depend upon the reliability of the specific historical claims made in the Bible.

and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father;

Let’s assume we can all agree on the first clause (though there are certainly plenty of liberal Christians who don’t, and don’t think it matters too much), but what do the latter two clauses mean?  Clearly these are somewhat metaphorical.  Heaven isn’t actually a place lying vertically above the earth; God doesn’t really have a right hand.  So concealed under these metaphorical spatial descriptions are actually descriptions of activity—we are trying to describe just what it is that Jesus Christ is now doing in the time between his resurrection and return.  Traditionally, these activities have been described primarily as intercession and reigning.  But in what exactly does his intercession consist?  Is it an ongoing intercession, a pleading to the Father on our behalf?  Or is it simply the ongoing intercessory value of his once-for-all sacrifice?  Theologians disagree.  And can it be described in terms of a “treasury of merit” that can be dispensed by the Church, as in medieval Catholic theology?  For that matter, is Christ the sole intercessor before the throne of God, or do other saints and particularly Mary play this role?
When we come to the question of reigning, the disagreements become even more wide-ranging.  The recent disputes over “Reformed two-kingdoms theology” have thrown again into sharp relief how much depends on how one understands the ongoing reign of the ascended Christ.  Is it an inward reign over hearts, or an outward reign over institutions?  Is it a reign just over his Church, and what does that mean?  Or is it a reign over all creation?  To what end?  The preservation of the created order, or its renewal?  To what extent is his reign exercised through creaturely agents, whether in the Church (pope, priest, presbyter), or in the State?

and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

Insert the myriads of disputes over eschatology here.  When Christ comes again, will he destroy this present earth, or restore it?  Will he physically reign here before destroying this earth?  Will there be a Rapture?  A Great Tribulation?  Will his return and reign simply be a continuation of that renewal begun by his Church already?  When Christ “judges the quick and the dead,” what’s that look like?  Is it on the basis of faith alone, or works too?  Do the righteous get just a “well done, good and faithful servant” or do they have to go through a purgatory, whether physical or psychological?  What about the wicked?  Notice there is no doctrine of hell spelled out here.  Universalists, annihilationists, and those with a “traditional” doctrine of hell can all, in theory, unite under the banner of the Nicene Creed.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life;

Ha, what does this mean?  No branch of theology is so murky as pneumatology, which is mainly just used as a launchpad for speculation on every other branch of theology.  In particular, disagreements about the role of the Holy Ghost are implicated in many questions of ecclesiology and soteriology, as we seek to define the ongoing role of the Spirit in mediating redemption to the Church and individual believers.

who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified;

Again, Trinitarian disputes here.  Of course, notoriously, this is a point of Trinitarian theology at which the two most ancient branches of the Church part ways and cannot even agree on the credal formula, and the renaissance of Trinitarian theology (or shall we say speculation?) over the past century has multiplied the various forms of disagreement on the relation of the Spirit to the Father and the Son.

who spoke by the prophets.

Aha!  Inspiration!  Insert all contemporary disputes about the inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy of the Scriptures here, disputes that increasingly lie not simply between “liberals” and “evangelicals” but within evangelicalism.  And that’s not to mention disagreements about the ongoing role of the Spirit and spiritual gifts.  Does the Spirit continue to speak in prophecy today?  Or just through the magisterium?  Or not at all?

And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Thankfully, everyone agrees on this one, right?  Ha!  Orthodox Christians today do not agree on the meaning of any of the adjectives here—”one” “holy” “catholic” “apostolic”—or even of the noun, “Church”—are we talking about the invisible Church or the visible?  Or is that even a helpful dichotomy?  If we’re talking about the visible, how is it identified?  Wherever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name?  Wherever discipline is rightly administered?  Wherever bishops preserving the apostolic succession are?  Wherever there are bishops in fellowship with the bishop of Rome?

I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;
What does that mean?  Are we talking about baptismal regeneration?  Or is baptism merely a sign of an inner grace that has nothing to do with it?  Or something in between?  All the questions of sacramental efficacy could be inserted here (and notice the Creed makes no mention of the Eucharist, so the whole vast range of opinions on that doctrine can all be accommodated under the banner of the Nicene Creed as well).  Plus, with baptism, you have additional disputes about age (infant or adult) and mode (immersion, sprinkling, etc.—this may seem trivial, but for some Christians, it isn’t!).

and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The disputes about eschatology mentioned above arise again here.  Plus questions like, when our bodies are resurrected, what kind of continuity will they have with our present bodies?  What will our life in “heaven” look like?  Eternal worship?  A never-ending party?  Something kinda like our present lives, only without sin and suffering?

2 thoughts on “Nothing but the Creed?

  1. This is an interesting exercise, though at times you seem to shift between (a) surveying the diversity of opinion amongst those who accept the creed and (b) surveying the even wider diversity amongst those who "profess Christ". The NC does adjudicate at least some of these matters and so is not infinitely waxy-nosed.


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Yes, you're quite right. I wondered if someone would call me on this ambiguity. However, it is primarily confined to the first few lines, I think, where I survey some potential responses to the Creed among Christians that would deny the appropriateness of its language altogether.In any case, both problems—unwillingness of some Christians to accept the formulations of the Creed, *and* vast interpretative differences about how these formulations should be spelled out—pose serious difficulties for the attempt to rally around the Creed as the common touchstone of Christian faith. Of course, on the whole, I think we still have to do so. We just need to be sober about how much work still needs to be done.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s