In my Church History class, we have recently moved from the early era of the persecuted church into the era of the church-in-bed-with-the-empire.  This also happens to be the era of creeds.  I get the sense that for many, this represents merely a bunch of names, dates, and outcomes to memorize.  Ancient History.  But for me, this chunk of history has been particularly agonizing, highly relevant, and a poignant reminder that in a few short years, I have to stand in front of my presbytery and affirm that I “sincerely receive and adopt” these creeds as “authentic and reliable expositions of what scripture leads us to believe and do.”

First and foremost among these ecumenical shin-digs is the Council of Nicaea (CE 325).  Seems the whole thing started from an argument between a priest, Arius, and a bishop, Alexander.  Among the things that Arius believed:

  • “The Word” (aka Jesus, aka the Son, aka logos) wasn’t around from the beginning of time (whatever one construes “time” to be, of course) but was “created” by God (aka Jehovah, aka the Father, Creator, etc.).
  • Therefore, God outranks Jesus in the heavenly hierarchy, conveniently preserving the monotheism argument.  But complicating the logical one…
  • God and Jesus are made of different stuff.  Similar stuff, unidentifiable stuff, but decidedly different stuff.
  • God is constant, but word/son/Jesus is subject to change (including suffering).

Apply the converse to most of these arguments, and you have Alexander’s POV.  Arius gathered a following, wrote some texts and even some hymns (maybe something like “Of the Father’s love begotten / ere the worlds began to be after being baptized in Galilee…”) and then everyone got their panties all in a wad.

I know that I’m supposed to agree with Alexander, and most people I’ve encountered seem to do that pretty readily, sometimes without much thought.  The two main arguments (at least from what I could find online and in talking to other students) go something like this:

  • The argument of Alexander was the stronger of the two theologically and logically, and thus prevailed.

From what I can tell, there were intelligent arguments by intelligent men on both sides of the issue, and both firmly supported by different scripture passages.  I guess we could assume that [sarcasm on] Arius was just an idiot who couldn’t read, in which case it *really* baffles me that the best theological minds of the time spent half a century going back and forth before finally resolving the dispute.  Maybe we’re just a lot smarter than they were. [sarcasm off]

  • Alexander’s side eventually DID prevail.  This proves God was somehow guiding the process and wouldn’t have allowed the church to wander down a heretical path.

Except that it did.  For at least fifty years after the council of Nicaea, until the next big council in 381, the church and its leaders continued to go back and forth on the issue.  And unless Arius was just some highly original genius, who’s to say that generations of Christians in the 300 years before the Nicene Creed hadn’t come to similar conclusions? (my history text indicates that Arius’ views reflected the historical tradition held by a large number of Eastern Christians).  Does that mean that God allows the church to remain in heresy, but only for 50 years?  Or is it 300?  Or…well, maybe we’re in a heresy phase right now?

I don’t know that I actually agree with Arius.  Or Alexander.  Actually, the voice that most resonates most with me in this debate is that of the Roman Emporor at the time, the famed Constantine.  He wrote a letter to both knuckleheads, saying (among other things):

It was wrong in the first instance to propose such questions as these, or to reply to them when propounded.  For those points of discussion which are enjoined by the authority of no law, but rather suggested by the contentious spirit which is fostered by misused leisure, even though they may be intended merely as an intellectual exercise, ought certainly to be confined to the region of our own thoughts, and not hastily produced in the popular assemblies, nor unadvisedly entrusted to the general ear.  For how very few are there able either accurately to explain subjects so sublime and abstruse in their nature?

Translation:  You both have waaaaay too much time on your hands.  You should try farming, or fighting barbarians sometime.  Then see how important your consubstantiation is.  Constantine continues (and I add some emphasis)…

The cause of your difference has not been any of the leading doctrines or precepts of the divine law, nor has any new heresy respecting the worship of God arisen among you.  You are in truth of one and the same judgment: you may therefore well join in communion and fellowship.  For as long as you continue to contend about these small and very insignificant questions, it is not fitting that so large a portion of God’s people should be under the direction of your judgment, since you are thus divided between yourselves…(Eusebius, Life of Constantine, II, 69-71)

But Constantine was just an emperor.  What could he know? He wasn’t even baptized until he was on his deathbed, the heathen.  So, they ignored him of course, not because he didn’t make sense, but (my opinion here) because they each wanted to be RIGHT! And we still do.  Unfortunately for Arius, democracy can be a real bitch, so he got outvoted at the council.  And excommunicated.  And then he was reinstated, and Alexander was excommunicated.  And then Arius was excommunicated again.  You get the idea…

Meanwhile, the church kept having councils, and kept on saying to those with whom they disagreed, “we’re taking our toys and going home.  You can’t play with us anymore.  Nanny, nanny, boo, boo.”  Unity and uniformity gained, diversity and freedom lost.

When I go before my Committee for Preparation for ministry, I wonder if I can take a third option?  Can I say, in reference to the creeds, I don’t care?  Affirm, not affirm, it doesn’t matter to me one way or another.  Let me simply do the things that Jesus did, rather than say the things his followers said, 300 years later.

The illegal immigrant wandering through the desert without water doesn’t really give a rip whether God and Jesus are made out of the same substance.  But Jesus tells me to give him something to drink.  To the teenager whose father died in a car accident, it is utterly insignificant whether Jesus was created by God or always existed.  But Jesus tells me to comfort him. What is ministry?  What is a minister?

Perhaps we have too long supposed that what we believe informs who we are and what we do.  Maybe it’s the other way around.  Maybe what we do informs who we are and what we believe.  Perhaps what ties me to my Presbyterian brothers and sisters is not the historic creeds we all profess nearly as much as it is the shared relationships and shared ministry I have found among them.

I hope they’ll still let me in…

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15 Responses to Increedulous

  1. Stushie says:

    Affirming the creeds means that you are recognizing their relevant place in the history of the church…

  2. Joe says:

    You are a Quaker! However, most of them don’t ordain or have a preacher as such.

  3. Mr. Sir says:

    Aye! Sounds like ye be post-creedal, an’ that after one tides o’ church history ye can reject perhaps th’ most important Christian creed, one that that be a bond shared by almost ever’ Christian community in th’ seven seas an’ be part o’ th’ the liturgy fer 1600 voyages.

    Thar be an anti-theological an’ anti-intellectual tone t’ this post. Ye present a false dichotomy between “orthodoxy” an’ “orthopraxis.” Ye canna be havin’ one without th’ other, an’ high order theological discussion dasn’t make ‘t impossible fer th’ church t’ “pass ou’ grub from th’ local grub pantry.” Thar be nay need t’ drive a wedge between theology an’ service.

    But all this ignores perhaps th’ more glarin’ question, why do ye want t’ be a member o’ a denomination that makes ye accept these creeds as reliable expositions o’ Scripture? T’ be a Presbyterian be t’ stand within th’ Nicene-Chalcedonian tradition. Thar be churches that stand abroadside o’ this tradition, or others that be non-confessional. Why Presbyterianism, an’ why th’ PC(USA)? Why a confessional denomination at all? Gar, Where can I find a bottle o’rum?

  4. I'm gonna read this when I have more time!

  5. Joe says:

    Um, I was just kidding about the Quaker thing. Actually, I took a few online test a while back when I couldn’t decide what to put as my religious beliefs on fb. Religious or spiritual humanism nor agnostic christian were cutting it. The test rated my beliefs closest to the Quakers. The test was limited because sometimes I what I believed didn’t fit their options, but I did some reading on the Quakers and thought that it might not be too far off. Anyway. Great post. I enjoyed the same challenging of my faith when I read History of Christian Thought by Jonathan Hill. I believe that my faith was stronger in the end because I saw just how living and evolving our doctrines were. You may have to look back a few hundred years to see it. Still not as bad as human evolution, I guess.

  6. Neal Locke says:

    @Stushie — yeah, thanks for the reminder. I guess there are different ways to interpret “affirm” so I can appreciate your way of seeing it.

    @Joe — Like you, there are things about Quakers I like, and then some I don’t. Actually, I do like the “Agnostic Christian” label. Maybe I’m an agnostic Presbyterian, to be more specific.

    @Mr. Sir — Once again, you raise some great questions which I’d love to answer, but you’re still a nameless, faceless person hiding behind the cloak of anonymity, so I won’t take the time. Now, if anyone else out there (who’s brave enough to put a name to a comment) wants to know why after all this I still want to be a Presbyterian, I’d be happy to answer that…

    @Everyone — I should probably clarify something here. I *don’t* think Creeds are unimportant and useless. Just that they are probably less important and less useful than we often make them out to be.

  7. Neal Locke says:

    Ooh, that was fun (translating Mr. Sir’s comment into pirate-speak). A new anonymous comment policy may have just been born 😉 Arrrrrgh!

  8. Dannah says:

    You need to read the Jesus Dynasty. It is speculative but interesting. And not a difficult read, you could get through it fast. I am wondering if were going to do Paul in Disciple’s or not. I haven’t heard anything. Maybe I’ll teach it! Hehe. I don’t care about creeds and I never actually say them. But, I’m not against them either, I just don’t like to lie, especially concerning God.

    PLEASE don’t translate this into pirate speak!! I can’t take it!

  9. PizzaRita says:

    I’m dealing with the place and importance of creeds right now. I have one member of my united methodist church who ‘missed saying the apostle’s creed’ after I chose a different order of worship that did not include it. And I was approached in a most unloveable way by another member who told me to put it back in. In my heart I said, “I’d like to see them LIVE the creed they’re so demanding about. You say you believe in the Holy Spirit… I’d like to SEE it!!” So I recently put it into the service, and I let it go without any fanfare, but I really wanted to preface it by saying,”And now, back by popular DEMAND…” How ironic!

  10. Trait says:

    Neal, I really dig the point you’re making here. Over the course of time, humans have been interested in throwing up walls and laboring over the things that divide us. When God sent His Son, He did it destroy barriers and unite us (neither Jew, nor Greek, nor Gentile, etc.). I find that I am able to cut through a lot of doctrinal differences with this question: Do you believe God sent His Son as a sacrifice on our behalf and that He died as was resurrected for our sins? If yes, then nothing else matters. If you accept that Christ was who He claimed to be then we have much more in common than not.

  11. Mark says:

    @ PizzaRita — I love what you’ve said about living the creeds and not just saying them!

    @ Everyone — I’m disturbed by the “Christian” practice of using the creeds as a litmus test. Each creed is a human construct meant to explain what we think we understand about God at a given moment and place in history. As a step in scriptural interpretation, they are helpful, but they are not the last word!

  12. Marc says:

    On the creeds…
    Sometimes I agree with you, Neal, about these creeds. What do they mean? Why, really, do we sit and argue these things. At the same time, I do find myself believing them, for the most part. So perhaps I’m more comfortable saying them, and therefore have less grief over them.

    Also, I don’t know what your History prof said about these creeds and didn’t say, but I do think that there’s a point about the history of the creeds that has been left out, which bears significance in talking about them (and about the differences between when they were created and our time).

    As far as I understand it, the creeds, and especially the Apostle’s Creed (not nec. the Nicene, although they are very related) started as a baptismal creed. It was recited by the person being baptized as a way of stating: “I understand why I am entering into this community. I believe as you do.” This was in a time when Christians were not a majority, were not considered a “national religion,” and did not have a ruler who supported them. So, to proclaim yourself as Christian was a big deal. You had to know what you were getting in to. Christians were often considered subversive and sometimes killed and persecuted for their faith. The creed was also something people used devotionally, repeated to themselves daily in order to understand and remember what they believed in a world sometimes hostile to those beliefs.

    Now we live in a country that was founded by a ton of Christians (or people who called themselves church-goers) and that has “christianity” largely in its background. At the end of every presidential speech they say: “God Bless America.” So the creeds do not have the same force, or the same meaning as they once did.

    Of course, the Nicene Creed was formulated just as Christianity was becoming a state religion, or at least a religion accepted by the state (among many others). But it was based on earlier creeds. For instance, in a document by Hippolytus of Rome (d.236 CE), he basically has a form of the Apostle’s Creed inserted into a set of baptismal rites:
    “let him give him over to the presbyter who baptizes, and let the candidates stand in the water, naked, a deacon going with them likewise. And when he who is being baptized goes down into the water, he who baptizes him, putting his hand on him, shall say thus:
    Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty?
    And the one who is being baptized shall say:
    I believe.
    Then holding his hand placed on his head, he shall baptize him once. And then he shall say:
    Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was dead and buried, and rose again the third day, alive from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the quick and the dead?
    And when he says: I believe, he is baptized again. And again he shall say:
    Do you believe in the Holy Ghost, and the holy church, and the resurrection of the flesh?
    He who is being baptized shall say accordingly: I believe, and so he is baptized a third time.
    (Readings in World Christian History, ed. John W Coakley, Andrea Sterk Hippolytus of Rome, “APOSTOLIC TRADITION” p19).

    So, the creeds and the belief in their words didn’t just come out of nowhere in the midst of the Nicene debate. People were requiring Christians to say these creeds long before they had the leisure to debate their theological merits. And there is even evidence, though I can’t find it here, that some of the parts of the Apostle’s creed go even back to the 100s CE. Anyway, I don’t know if that helps you with your creedal frustration or not, but I do think that it lends a different part of the story to why creeds are used and how they were used.

    And, now that I’m completely incoherent and grammatically off-task…sleep beckons.

  13. Hi Neal,

    I have to agree with (what I could make out of) Mr. Sir’s comments. There’s a false dichotomy between the importance of believing and doing. The way our Lord said it was “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” (Mt 12:34) Which is a way of saying that what you believe turns into what you say and do.

    In the case of Arianism (and related Christological heresies), what you believe about Jesus dictates your relationship with Him. For instance, if you think he was just another prophet, you can safely regard him (as the Mohammedans do) with respect and ignore pretty much anything he said that you don’t agree with. And if, to take it to an extreme, you think he was insane, you can just go ahead and burn the Bible, put nails in consecrated hosts, etc.

    There is a continuum in terms of how your belief in Christ affects your relationship with/to HIm. If you belief He is God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, then you are bound to worship him in the same way as you do the Father and regard the record of his life and words with utmost reverence.

    Similarly, there is a continuum of callings within the Church. Some are called to lives of corporal service while others are called to teach while others are called to study and contemplate, etc. As St. Paul said it, “there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone…” (I Cor 12:5ff)

    Now back to our Lord, in the context quoted above, he goes on to say “By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Mt 12:37) Interesting thought. He also prayed to the Father that we would be sanctified in truth (Jn 17:17); odd thing to ask if truth isn’t important, eh? And when Martha complained that Mary wasn’t helping out with the corporal works but rather just adoring Christ, Jesus said that Mary picked the better part. (Lk 10:42)

    If you find discussions of theology a waste and feel a stronger sense of urgency for corporal service, perhaps that is your calling. But as St. Paul also said, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you.’” That said, we’re all called upon to both believe and act and, above all, to love (I Cor 13:1ff).

    As for the development of doctrine in the Church, I recommend reading John Henry Cardinal Newman’s essay on the topic. It is the most thorough work on the subject that I know of. The working out of our understanding of the deposit of faith is a natural, human way to develop. Just as we aren’t born with a complete understanding of Truth, neither was the Church.

    The Truth in its fullness always existed in the person of Christ, the Divine Logos, but we humans have to develop our understanding of the Truth with the help of the Holy Spirit. The author of the letter to the Hebrews alludes to this process, mentioning that we should progress from milk to solid food. (Hb 5:11ff)

    There were divisions caused by heresy even in the early Church. Much of the New Testament letters are devoted to dealing with these, setting the record straight based on Apostolic authority. It’s not surprising, then, that if there were divisions caused by heresy in the 1st century that we’d also see them in the 4th century, the 16th, or even now. Thankfully, Christ founded a living Church on St. Peter and promised that the gates of hell would not prevail. (Wink wink.. Nudge nudge..)

    Our human frailty will cause some to not be able to accept the Truth. It will cause some to never move past the “milk” on to solid food. It will cause us all to have to develop our understanding of the Truth. It may even cause bitter divisions because, as our Lord said, he came not to bring peace but a sword. (Mt 10:34) But in the end, the Truth will prevail. The Church will remain as it has since Christ founded it, as he promised.

    The creeds are important precisely because they summarize our faith—everyone is not called to be a theologian. Especially in times and places when the vast majority of people were/are illiterate and/or have no access to Scripture, the creeds are a memorizable summation of the faith that folks can be taught and live by. Even in our society today, I think they are relevant because, although we can and should encourage the study of Scripture (and Tradition), most ordinary folks do well just to profess the faith as expressed in the creeds and try to live by it.

    Whether or not you accept a creed is something, obviously, you have to figure out for yourself. I hope you can come to accept and profess the Nicene creed because of the implications such belief has. In the meantime, I just encourage you to not dismiss them as increedulous. 🙂

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