Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Reply to David Mills” first appeared in the Fall 1996 issue of Touchstone.
Reply to David Mills
David Mills is too modest in his editorial. Were someone to question my concern about the wording of the Creed, I would shout “Stop the Music!” (a la Jimmy Durante) and demand answers to two questions. Why is the expressed identity of the Church a “trifle”; and why was a change imposed, if the matter is so unimportant? Moreover, Mr. Mills’s warning against our feelings of individualistic superiority to sacred Tradition is a needed one. No sane man would take the same attitude towards the times-tables, or anything else that people take seriously, and no sane person would treat such an attitude as reasonable or acceptable. But sometimes the clergy act as if they have God on retainer. Or perhaps they don’t take Tradition as seriously as they take 2 x 2 = 4.
The difference between using “I” and using “we” to begin the Creed revolves around two basic issues: history and voice. Historically, “we” is the voice of a council acting for the entire Church. The apostolic council of Jerusalem used it in their decision about the Gentiles: “Forasmuch as we have heard . . . .” (Acts 15:24) and “For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us . . . .” (15:28). The Fathers gathered at the general councils continued to speak with the voice that the Holy Ghost had given to the apostles, as in the Chalcedonian Definition: “Therefore, following the holy Father, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge, etc.” Thus, it is no surprise that the conciliar text of the Nicene Creed should begin with “we.”
But the Fathers’ use of “we” was not just a matter of following historical precedent: the usage itself conveys something about our relationship to doctrine and to the God who gave us that doctrine. In Scripture, “we” is the voice of authority, and especially authoritative teaching. Think of God’s use of the first person plural: “Let us make man in our image,” or Isaiah’s “Whom shall we send?” “I” is the voice of personal revelation and confession: “I am the Lord thy God,” “The Father and I are one,” and “. . . in whom I am well pleased.”
The natural liturgical use, then, is “I,” the voice of personal revelation and confession, and not the magisterial voice of authority conveyed by “we.” We do not go to the liturgy to express our authority, but to submit to God’s authority; we go to be taught, not to teach. When we say “I believe,” we declare our submission to the Truth that follows, and we reveal our personal, but subordinate, part in it.
Thus follows, even, the difference between preaching and lecturing, since the authority of the sermon, the kerygma, begins (or should begin) with God and not the preacher. The lecturer lays before us something he has learned, and gives it on hi own authority. The preacher delivers to us something that God has given in the Scriptures, and he speaks with authority only to the extent that he faithfully coveys God’s Word.
The Fathers understood this. Everyone understood this until the International Consultation on English Texts (ICET). In the scales we have all Roman, Anglican, Orthodox, and Protestant witnesses up to the 1960s on one side, and on the other the joyful self-delusion of the modern voice.
The “we” in ICET is not the “we” of councils and of Scripture. It is the “we” of modern, socialized man, whose “unities” are self-made and not imposed by God. One of the reasons that we do not have general councils these days is our inability to speak with the same “we” as the Fathers. The modern “we” means this: our “we” versus some other “we.” Our “we” believes this; the Buddhist “we” believes something else. The faith of such a “we” is self-chosen, or perhaps an accident of history or environment, but not a sovereign gift from God. The Creed becomes, then, our possession, and not the Truth that possesses us.
This debate over “I” and “we” is a continuation of the old philosophical argument about “the one and the many.” What is the relationship of the part to the whole, between unity and individuality?
The materialist philosopher George Santayana cites with approval this maxim of Lucretius: “Nothing arises in the body in order that we may use it, but what arises brings forth its use.” He adds on his own account, “This is that discarding of final causes on which all progress in science depends” (Three Philosophical Poets). The ancient and the modern pagan deny together that unity come from outside of man, from a final, supernatural cause. Their “we” creates itself, as a community gathers for some purpose. The modern Christian, with his revised Creed, falls into the same trap, even if his purposes are as noble as worship or salvation.
When the Trinity speaks, “I” plus “I” plus “I” equals One. This is the “I” of supernatural unity, and it is by God’s grace the liturgical “I” as well. The Church’s unity has its first and moral cause in God himself, and the Church enjoys, expresses, and uses her unity in the imitation of God as her members are his beloved children. When the Fathers spoke in council, their “we” equaled the many, gathered by God and given a voice through their service: the members of the whole Body seamlessly united by divine intervention, beyond which there is nothing. With their work done, the Body of Christ is not a “we,” but an “I,” in worship, adoration, and praise: the voice of the Son raised to the Father by the Holy Ghost.
On a foundation of bad history and worse grammar are false ecclesiologies built.
Louis R. Tarsitano (d. 2005), a former associate editor of Touchstone, was a priest of the Anglican Church in America and rector of St. Andrew?s Church in Savannah, Georgia. He also was the co-author, with Peter Toon, of Neither Archaic Nor Obsolete: The Language of Common Prayer & Public Worship (Brynmill Press, Ltd., 2003).
“Reply to David Mills” first appeared in the Fall 1996 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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