Monday, August 14, 2006

Emerging Creedalism?

Scot McKnight makes an appeal for use of the historic creeds of Christendom as a means of defining the faith. The purpose is ecumenical--to unite behind what the church has always believed and what all Christians can affirm, rather than to make a more narrow sectarian definition that defines other believers out. He compares the Nicene Creed, a fundamentalist church statement of faith, an evangelical church statement of faith, and the statement of faith of the church founded by Brian McLaren.

I applaud the impulse behind this appeal. It is good for us to find something in our history which we can agree on and by which we can identify other Christians, regardless of theological differences. On an individual level, and even in informal community life, this may be positive and even sufficient. Unfortunately, I think Scot ignores the realities of creedal development, of subsequent history, and of the purpose and use of church statements of faith.

Scot puts forward the Nicene Creed as a model of simplicity and a statement of basic orthodoxy. He also acknowledges that it is the earliest of the classical creeds he would choose, others being Chalcedon or Nicean-Constantinopolitan. This implicitly acknowledges that even in the church of that time, the Nicene creed was not felt to be sufficient. Creedal development could and did go on, because the impetus behind all the creeds--theological developments that were felt by some to be outside the bounds of scriptural warrant--continued to occur. The creeds were always about "defining others out," whether those others were Docetists or Arians or Monophysites or whatever. Even the choice of which creed to use is a choice regarding

The attempt to go back to a historic creed also seems to ignore or deny all further theological development. If issues have not yet been raised in the church, then of course they need not be addressed in our statements of faith. Once they have been raised, however, there is a tendency to want to bury our heads in the sand and ignore them. Can't we all just get along? We need to be clear about what we are doing here. If we are saying, "This is the core of the faith. I hold this in common with all other believers," then I am in full agreement. But if we are saying, "This is what I believe and all I believe; everything else is irrelevant," then I can't buy it. We all hold opinions about theological issues that have divided Christians throughout history (even if we hold them unconsciously, having been only exposed to one view). Leaving opinions unarticulated leads to a lack of self-awareness at best and dishonesty at worst.

This also touches on the purpose and use of local church and denominational statements of faith. Most of these statements do not presume to say, "One must believe this in order to be a Christian." Most of them, rather, exist to make clear the position and reason for existence of a particular body of believers. "This is who we are, this is where we are at, this is why we worship the way we worship and teach the way we teach." The splintering of the Church Universal is, of course, a Bad Thing, but it is a fait accompli at this point, and the one positive element in it is allowing Christians of differing points of view to coexist as Christians - albeit with much less unity than one would like - rather than the earlier case of excommunicating one another when we understand scripture differently. So differerent groups should be able to explain what their differences are - in fact, I'd argue, have a duty to do so, so that someone coming into the group can avoid being blindsided by hidden presuppositions.

So, again, the creeds are good to identify how we can accept one another in the Faith, but not good as an expression of full 21st century theological understanding. Some have argued that we shouldn't be wedded to a 16th century theology; it doesn't help to be wedded to a 4th century theology instead.


  1. Keith,
    I would not say that we should not have doctrinal statements today. Our unity, however, should be found in common affirmation of the creeds. I've used Nicea as the starting point not the only one.

  2. 'Most of these statements do not presume to say, "One must believe this in order to be a Christian." Most of them, rather, exist to make clear the position and reason for existence of a particular body of believers.'

    In theory, this statement is true. In practice, however, it seems such doctrinal statements are used to create a Christian caste system. "We'll call you a Christian, but you're not quite as Christian as we are." Calvinists and Pentecostals have historically been particularly guilty of this kind of thing.

    In some ways, it gets back to the purpose of your blog. Can the Christian community find a way to disagree about doctrine without being disagreable and divisive? I think (and hope) what Scot is talking about is finding a way to define orthodoxy so Christians can discuss "debateable issues" without calling each other heretics.

    I guess I'm on both sides of this one. Ecumenicalism has been a curse word in many circles for quite a while. I understand the fear of universalism, but it seems the church could benefit from a better appreciation for diversity. It seems to me, ancient creeds are one starting point that most everyone can agree upon.

    That being said, the idea that them EmChurch will be able to exist with a "minimalist" definition of what they believe is a fantasy. Eventually, Em adherents will separate into like-minded doctrinal "tribes" just as the church always has. It's human nature.

  3. Scot -

    First of all, welcome!

    Second - it appears that all you were saying was all I'd hoped you were saying. On reflection, I rather like the idea of "prefacing" doctrinal statements with an affirmation of one of the ancient creeds (perhaps with the statement, "Together with the whole Body of Christ, we affirm that...."), and then adding clarifications and additions only as necessary.

    Bob -

    The "Christian caste system" you suggest is certainly there, but it appears to me to be more along the lines of worship, practice, and experience than doctrinal statements. The A/G doctrinal statement was written largely to align the A/G with non-Pentecostal Trinitarian denominations (i.e., those that follow the Nicene Creed), as opposed to non-Trinitarian Pentecostals.

    Yes, EmChurch is already fragmented (though they may call it "celebrating diversity), but one has to give them credit for being the ones who are looking for common ground - hopefully without jettisoning the faith, as the older liberal ecumenicism was wont to do. I wonder how McLaren would feel about an unqualified affirmation of Nicea....

  4. I think doctrinal statements, including the A/G's, start with the best of intentions. It's how those doctrinal statements are used later that can become problematic. I regard doctrinal statements in much the same way as I do guns. They're necessary, and I'm glad they exist, but I fear they are wielded improperly more often than not. (That's a bit of an exaggeration, but I liked the metaphor. :-)