Evading the Creed
The Various Attacks on the Faith of the Church & Why They Fail
by David Mills
Not only the various claims in the Christian Creed, but also the authority of the Creed is under attack, and at high levels. The direct assaults upon orthodox Christianity by would-be heresiarchs receive all the attention, but a greater threat to the faith has gone more or less unnoticed. This threat is the popular attempt to keep the Creed in a place of authority while draining its meaning and drastically reducing its effect on the life of the Church. It dissolves the hold of the Creed upon the minds and allegiance of the faithful by reinterpreting its plain and obvious and hitherto accepted meaning and by changing its place in the Church’s life. It does not discard the Creed but evades it.
I will take examples only from my own church, the Anglican Communion, but the phenomenon is one with which any member of a major church, with the temporary exception of Orthodoxy, will be familiar. By “Creed,” I mean not only the authoritative creeds established by church councils and the dependent doctrines that follow from the creeds and are usually included in the fundamentals or essentials of the faith, but also the creedal or dogmatic mind that knows doctrinal precision to be necessary to the faithful Christian life. In this sense, a fundamentalist who does not even know the Apostles’ Creed may be a creedal Christian, and an Anglican archbishop or a Roman cardinal deeply learned in the subtleties of theology may not be. By “the Creed” I mean the historic creeds themselves.
In the major churches of Western society, belief in the Creed is, speaking precisely, uncharacteristic. It does not characterize them, it is no longer a mark of their lives. This odd attitude to the Creed is not something found in the growing churches of Africa or in the churches that have heroically resisted Communist regimes. They understand that the power of the gospel to convert and sustain rests upon the truth of its doctrines. Christians faced with vigorous Islamic movements have complained that the writings of modernist Anglicans like the bishop of Durham are used by Muslim evangelists to devastating effect. They know what heresy does, and are not inclined to dilute the Creed of their salvation.
The Creed is evaded commonly or typically in four ways. The most popular and subtlest attempts to transcend the creeds, to go beyond and behind them to find their real meaning. The second puts the Church’s institutional interests over the truths of the Creed, by treating the historic creeds as temporary expressions of the community’s self-understanding. The third claims that we simply don’t know enough to have an authoritative creed or, alternatively, that the truth is ever beyond our grasp. And the fourth claims that the Creed is all right as far as it goes, but that it needs enriching or expanding to satisfy new needs or conform with new insights.
These methods complement one another and are frequently combined, and anyone who holds one is likely to hold them all. Someone who believes that we do not know enough to have an authoritative creed (the third method) will almost certainly want to reinterpret the Creed as it stands (the first method), while adding new and more congenial teachings (the fourth method), and while retaining some sort of continuity with his tradition by stressing his primary commitment to his Church (the second method).
The “Real Meaning” of the Creed
Perhaps the best example of the first method of evasion in Anglicanism is the influential theology of the Reverend Dr. John Macquarrie, until recently the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford University. His Principles of Christian Theology, written in the 1960s when he was a Presbyterian disciple of Heidegger and slightly revised after he became an Anglican, is the standard theological text in many if not most Episcopal seminaries.
Of the creeds themselves, he seems to have a high opinion. Rejecting them “cannot take place in Christian theology,” he writes at one point, and later that “they set forth the authentic faith.” He uses them as an authority against any attempt to remove Jesus entirely from history. But though he asserts their authority, he refuses to grant such authority to their historic meaning. Though “the modern theologian cannot turn his back on creedal symbols that have become elements in the community’s identity,” he could not
In other words, the words of the Creed have authority because they help define the community and declare its common mind. What those words meant when they were written, however, is only authoritative insofar as it expresses the doctrine’s “essential insight” in “our own language”—as judged, presumedly, by a higher authority, whom Dr. Macquarrie does not specify. Here lies the problem.
Macquarrie’s method of penetrating and appropriating is to explain what every doctrine really means by turning it into a metaphor for a statement of existentialist philosophy. We can, he tells us, no longer transpose “the history of Jesus into a mythological framework where he is seen as a supernatural pre-existent being who had come down from heaven.” The Incarnation “is to be understood as the union of a being with Being in the fullest and most intimate way possible.” In other words, the creedal declaration that God loved us so much that he took a human body and let himself die in agony means only that Jesus showed us how to be authentically human—“to be all that you can be,” as the army has advertised its own form of salvation. The biblical story of the Incarnation is only a poetic way of putting it.
The present bishop of Durham, in his straightforward way, has put this more bluntly. “The older I get,” he said in a videotape he produced for his diocese, “. . . I find I am not really interested much either way in the Virgin Birth—is it true, is it literal—but only what does it stand for.” He added, perhaps in mitigation: “As I get older I seem to believe less and less, and yet to believe what I do believe more and more.”
Another, less philosophically sophisticated version of going behind the Creed is the attempt to go beyond and behind it, not to its alleged meaning, but to Jesus himself. A recent article in The Living Church (a popular Episcopal weekly) said that “doctrines, by their very nature, set us apart. If we ever hope to unify Christ’s church on earth, we must turn away from unifying doctrines, and turn toward the unifying love of Christ.”
Community over the Creed
The second method of evading the Creed elevates the Church’s existence and institutional processes over any creed it may have inherited. In 1976, the Church of England’s doctrine commission could not reach sufficient agreement to make a common declaration (unlike the first Council of Nicaea, which had 33 times as many members). They decided to issue a collection of essays instead of a definitive statement. The collection’s title, Believing in the Church, cleverly communicated the commission’s emphasis on the institution; for some members, the Church was almost all they could be said to believe in. It was for many the only thing they were unwilling to bargain away.
In one essay, the then Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, G. W. H. Lampe, declared that “unity in the future will be a unity in asking questions rather than agreeing to answers” (a claim criticized by Dr. Macquarrie, of all people). The chairman of the commission, the bishop of Winchester, John V. Taylor, added that “believing is mainly belonging.” The archbishop of Canterbury, knowing the beginning of an unending controversy when he saw it, dissolved the commission.
The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church (U.S.A.), in his opening sermon to the 1988 General Convention, announced that “the process of our decision making has taught us that we often arrive not at the ultimate solution but at a new understanding of being in community”—a statement at odds with other parts of the sermon in which he read the obstinately orthodox out of the church. Later in the sermon he added that the convention’s task was not to “solve forever” the questions of women’s ordination, sexual morality, and political involvement, but “to discern God’s mission for the Church.” One was left to believe that being in community and the church’s mission had nothing to do with discerning truth— solving a question “forever,” in his characteristically prejudicial way of putting it. The Holy Spirit is not leading us into all truth, as our Lord promised, but into a different form of fellowship.
Too Humble for a Creed
The third method of evading the Creed is quite attractive in its assumption of humility. It claims either that we do not know enough to have authoritative doctrines or that truth is something we may pursue but not grasp.
In some formulations, it seems—modernists are often startlingly vague—that the creeds are not authoritative because definitive truths are unattainable. The presiding bishop recently wrote to the clergy of the church of “the progressive revelation of God in human history.” The “traditions and teaching of the Church,” he wrote,
(A cruder version, characteristic of the 1960s, was the claim that “you can’t put God in a box,” invariably thought a rebuttal to God’s self-revelation. Today feminist liturgies are defended by the similar observation that “God is greater than our categories.”) There are, in other words, no settled, authoritative doctrines. The Church has not taught truth but only the inevitability of change. The only eternal truth is that there are no eternal truths.
In other formulations, it seems that the creeds are not authoritative because we are being led into ever deeper truths that somehow so supersede those before them as to invalidate them. We are said to be on a journey or pilgrimage, though apparently without a compass or a map or even a known destination. The most radical implications of this idea were drawn, predictably enough, by the bishop of Newark, John Spong, in his recent declaration that doctrines were merely “images that bind and blind us all” and that one religion was as good as another. “The challenge before Christians today,” he wrote,
In a more restrained way, the managing editor of The Episcopalian, then the church’s semi-official newspaper, wrote that he was “alternately frightened and bored” by a group who “held the same point of view on every question.” (Revealingly unlike the psalmist who, one remembers, spoke of “how good and how pleasant it is for the brethren to dwell together in unity,” but then the psalmist was not a relativist.) He preferred “to think of the Church as on a pilgrimage,” as of necessity do most who are agnostic about the Creed, because it seems to free them from the need to be anywhere in particular.
In their 1987 Pastoral Letter—ghost-written, I am told, by the bishop of Newark— the Episcopal bishops announced that God
To the extent this phrase has any discernible meaning, it indicates that such doctrinal certainty as has usually been expected of Christians is in fact resistance to God’s leading and therefore, though they do not say so, a sin.
The fourth method of evading the Creed assumes that the Creed is too limited by its origins in a primitive, hierarchical, patriarchal culture and (in the case of the Nicene Creed) by its use of Greek philosophy to be accepted as it stands. The method therefore adds truths in response to new needs, insights, and discoveries. At best the Creed is thought to be inadequate to the needs of the day, written as it was so long ago, by men who knew rather less about some things than we do. At worst it is an instrument of oppression and exploitation, serving the interests and power of those who composed it and of their descendants.
In the Episcopal Church, such an evasion supports the “inclusive language” liturgies, which assert that the fatherhood of God is a partial and by itself a misleading understanding of God, and that feminine images must be introduced to give a better picture, though these images have no basis in the Creed.
The official explanation of the new liturgies suggested that
Masculine “images” of God, like Father and Son, it continues, “have been historically conditioned by the patriarchal nature, not only of Jewish but also of much of Christian society.” And so the names used in the Creed must be joined by others more reflective of modern realities and modern needs.
The Appeal of Evasion
These are the characteristic methods by which Episcopalians try to dissolve the authority of the Creed while keeping it in a place of authority. In one, the “real meaning” behind the metaphor of our doctrines is sought. In another, the existence of the community is made more important than its inherited beliefs. In the third, the mystery of God is held to be too great to be put into words. In the last, new and deeper truths than the Creed contains are held to be necessary for modern belief.
It is a question why these methods are so attractive. The Creed declares, after all, that the Creator of the universe is not just “Deity” or “The Force” or “the ground of our being” but our Father. And further, that when we spat in his face, our Father loved us enough to send his Son to become a man just like us, and the Son willingly died for us to save us from the inevitable and deserved results of our own rebellion. And further (blessing piled on blessing), that the Son will someday come back to bring us to be with him forever, but while we are waiting, he has left us the Holy Spirit and the Church to sustain and comfort us.
I find it hard, as have most Christians throughout the ages, to understand why this vision does not satisfy, why it does not thrill and hearten, why it is not sung as the anthem of a conquering army. Next to the Creed, the evasions do not satisfy. I do not know why anyone would ever want to replace it with philosophical abstractions, or ignore it to stay close to those who reject it, or presume to revise it as if we knew better than God what we need.
For some, these methods allow them to give proper respect to the institution that employs them and to care for their people, while preaching and teaching what they think to be the truth. In a crasser form, such as that proposed for the reinterpretation of Scripture by the feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, the Church is too useful for political and social change to be abandoned, and so some way is needed to adapt its foundational documents to that end.
Others believe that the “real” truths of Christianity must still be promoted by changing the meanings of now misleading formulations too deeply ingrained in the Church to reject. They do not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, but they still believe that he was a very good, perhaps even unique, example of what God wants every man to become. Yet others, more radical, agree that Christianity is unique, but only for those in a particular situation. For them, Christianity is the only way Westerners raised in the Church can apprehend universal truths. Thus, an explicit rejection of Christian institutions, though perhaps logically justified, would be spiritually suicidal.
Others have effectively lost their faith but not their attachment to the ethos of Christianity. For them, something in Christianity is true, or at least very helpful, which would be lost entirely by a direct denial. Evading the Creed provides a way to be in the Church but not of the Church.
Finally, these methods have a strong moral attraction. To look behind the creeds is to claim a depth of insight beyond one’s literalistically minded fellows. To found the Church on the community rather than its doctrines is to claim a concern for peace and brotherhood beyond one’s dogmatic fellows. To stop speechless before the mystery of God is to claim a humility beyond one’s presumptuous fellows. To add new doctrines is to claim a sensitivity to history and present needs beyond one’s reactionary fellows. We should not minimize the attraction of such easily acquired sanctity.
Though each attempt to maintain the authority of the creeds while rejecting their historic meaning fails logically rather badly (about which, more below), the methods can be applied successfully and with an orthodox intent. It is true that a change of vocabulary or emphasis or philosophy (the first method) can illuminate doctrines. It is true that belonging to a community (the second method) is in some ways prior to accepting its beliefs, and that controversies are resolved more successfully within the community than without. It is true that we see in a glass darkly (the third method) and that our limitations and sinfulness need to be remembered when we speak of things eternal. It is true that the Creed does not contain every truth necessary to the faithful Christian life (the fourth method). But in practice, the popular methods of evading the authority of the Creed push things too far. They apply these truths as governing principles—if not as final judgments upon the Creed—and not as limited insights which may aid our understanding.
Most importantly, their advocates lack that respect for the Tradition and for inherited wisdom required of Christians. They too quickly reject the possibility that, unlikely as it may seem to them, the original meanings of the Christian doctrines and Creed may be true and irreplaceable. They do not consider that something essential may be lost by reducing the authority of their rather straightforward and plain intent. As Chesterton said somewhere, a Catholic is someone who knows that something else is smarter than he is. Beyond the lack of a proper Christian humility toward the inherited wisdom, however, each alternative to creedal orthodoxy proves unsatisfactory on logical grounds.
The Failure of the Attack
The first evasion of creedal authority, the attempt to find its alleged meaning, fails in a number of ways. First, it leaves unanswered the crucial question of what gives authority to any particular proposal for its real meaning. The original meaning was at least defined by an authoritative church council and supported by a consensus of the faithful and intelligent since then. The proposed real meaning has only the authority of a clever theologian, or at most the general assent of a large number of educated Christians in one culture at one time. Macquarrie’s vocabulary of “Being” is of limited popular appeal, as tested by the difficulty one would have in preaching from it.
A second problem is that a historical event proclaimed in the creeds does not “stand for” anything, as the bishop of Durham supposes. If it actually happened, it “stands for” itself, and any further meaning is dependent upon its reality. As a New Testament scholar, Bishop Donald Parsons, said to me: “The trouble with Bultmann is that he thought Jesus carried a message, when the New Testament tells us he was the message.” The bishop of Durham presumably means by “What does it stand for?”—“What does it tell us about God?” But it only reliably tells us anything about God if it is true and “literal.”
A third problem is most apparent in the less sophisticated version, which calls us to go behind the creeds to our Lord himself. One can’t go to Jesus without having some substantive idea of who he is. “The unifying love of Christ” that the writer I quoted demands supposes a developed doctrine of Christ, which, to be effective, must be the unifying doctrine the author was trying to avoid. Once one has a doctrine of Christ, a host of other doctrines support and follow from the central doctrine, at which point controversy becomes inevitable.
Finally, it is questionable whether such reinterpretation is even needed. Very little of the Nicene Creed can plausibly be said to be in “alien language.” Even a phrase such as “of one substance with the Father” is not all that difficult to explain. The heart of the Creed declares realities—some supernatural realities, certainly, but realities nevertheless—that are either true or false. They can be adequately understood by the least educated believer.
The “average man,” who is, after all, the intended beneficiary of this reinterpretation, doesn’t find the Virgin Birth incomprehensible even when he does not believe it. He knows that if God created the universe, he could cause a woman to become pregnant without a human father. Of the entire project of reinterpretation, one has to ask: Was it really necessary? Did it help anyone to believe? The evidence suggests that, in its radical form, as with Macquarrie and Bultmann, it did not. Quite to the contrary.
The response of the average man is to reject either the new interpretation or the Creed itself. To keep the Creed while draining it of meaning is the sort of compromise that would only appeal to people tied personally or financially to the historic institution while harboring grave doubts about its historic beliefs. If the Creed is only a collection of “symbols that have become elements in the community’s identity,” as Dr. Macquarrie believes, then the average man will ignore it. He won’t believe more, he will believe less.
The second method of evading creedal authority, the attempt to elevate the community above its inherited beliefs, also fails. First, if a doctrine is true, it is true, whatever effect it has on the community, as a theological relativist like the bishop of Durham believes when he demands the immediate ordination of women, whatever the effect it will have on the community. “Believing is mainly belonging” is an utterly impractical doctrine. It does not work out that way. On the contrary, men are so created that they put truth before community.
Its advocates confuse community of faith with its institutional expression. The former depends for survival upon a general agreement in belief, the latter does not, or does so to a much smaller degree. The Church of England, and to a slightly lesser extent the Episcopal Church, is not a single institution but a collection of almost completely discrete communities, divided from one another by questions of belief and doctrine. It would be a mistake to base an approach to the Creed upon one of the world’s more eccentric religious bodies.
In his convention sermon, the presiding bishop tried to avoid this problem by announcing that we have discovered “a new understanding of being in community.” But an enduring, stable, healthy community not characterized by agreement in belief is a thing not elsewhere known to anthropologists and historians. A “community” without shared beliefs does not work, however, because it can’t possibly decide what to do—and even if it did in some way work, it would not be a church. Perhaps sensing this problem, the presiding bishop announced that though we couldn’t find reliable answers on fundamental questions, we nevertheless could discern God’s will for us.
The third method, the declaration that we do not have or cannot grasp eternal truths, denies the experience of the truths of the Creed, attested by too many witnesses to be disbelieved so easily. It is a dogmatic atheism, whose advocates do not, as far as I have seen, make an adequate argument for it. If we cannot “put God in a box,” God can certainly box himself—and, of course, it is a fundamental Christian claim that he has done so, in the Incarnate Body of his Son.
It also unfairly stresses one side of the tension in which men live. Christians since St. Paul have understood that God is greater than us yet has given us some necessary truths; we see in a glass darkly, but we still see in a glass darkly. Other than a dogmatic rejection of revelation and a dogmatic acceptance of historical relativism, there is no reason to believe that historic doctrines are only “images that bind and blind us all.” We must choose between dogmas. And one can make a rather stronger argument, simply on the grounds of historical success, for the orthodox dogma.
The fourth method, that new truths must be added to the Creed, is no more successful than the others. Like the third method, it denies truths attested by far more reliable judges than the leadership of several rapidly shrinking mainline churches in the late twentieth century.
Like the first method, it lacks any authority for its additions and any real evidence that they are needed, beyond the cries of a small but effective political lobby, nor has it any evidence that it will heal wounded men and women as well as the Christianity of the Creed. As even some feminists have argued, replacing God the Father with an androgynous or feminine deity or with impersonal titles like “Creator” will not heal women hurt by men, but only leave them trapped in their pain. To be healed, they must be brought to the Father himself, to find what real men are supposed to be like.
The End of Evasion
This concludes a brief tour of the ways in which some modern Christians try to avoid the truth and authority of the Creed that billions of Christians before them have believed and for the truth of which countless martyrs have given their lives.
Whatever the apologetic intentions of their advocates and their temporary success in keeping some within the institutional church, these methods of evasion can work, or seem to work, only for a short time. When the Creed’s meaning is drained and replaced with something more to contemporary tastes, it will inevitably disappear, even as a mere memorial of the community’s history. The methods of evasion are thus only rest stations on the way to a fully acknowledged unbelief— and, therefore (for men cannot live without doctrines and dogmas), to the adoption of a more worldly and less demanding creed. If, as orthodox Christians believe, the Creed proclaims the truths of our salvation from sin and damnation, such evasions are profoundly inhuman and cruel.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“Evading the Creed” first appeared in the Summer 1990 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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