Ian Harris Otago Daily Times August 12, 2016
The great creeds of Christian orthodoxy have outlasted their usefulness, writes Ian Harris. So give them a decent burial.
The clue to a modern understanding of Christianity is tucked away in a comma in one of the creeds, perhaps the most pregnant comma in religious history. And because it’s all in the comma, it’s past time the churches gave the standard creeds of their heritage a decent burial. That would allow the comma to expand into a faith for today.
How so? Well, in many churches the congregation stands every Sunday to recite one of two creeds, the Apostles’ or the Nicene. These statements of faith have stood for centuries at the heart of Christian orthodoxy. Nowadays, however, they are seen to be so flawed that some ministers never ask their congregations to recite them.
For one thing, they begin “I believe” or “We believe in God”. But “believe” in the creeds doesn’t mean what it means in everyday life. It’s not “this is what I think”, which, like much that we believe, may be right or wrong, but “this is where I put my whole trust and confidence”. Thus not an opinion, but a commitment.
Further, the creeds belong to an era quite different from ours. They reflect the intellectual and cultural ferment of a time when Roman emperors reigned supreme. The central question which the learned churchmen of the day set out to answer was the same as for Christians today: Who is this Jesus, and why should we take him seriously?
The creeds answer that by making Jesus identical with all the key aspects of the God of Jewish tradition, filtered through Greek philosophy and metaphysics. In this, they were attesting to their own experience of Jesus – and human experience is basic to all religion.
For most westerners today, that throws up an immediate obstacle. Our thought-world has little or no room for metaphysical speculation, and for 21st-century Christians the answer to that pivotal question about Jesus leaves all that behind. They see Jesus rather as a man whose wisdom, healing, compassion and example were steeped in a Godness so real and immediate that people who knew him felt drawn closer to all they understood God to be.
You won’t find a skerrick of that wisdom and ministry in the classic creeds. The Apostles’ Creed, attributed (wrongly) to the apostles of Jesus’ own day, has a lot to say about Jesus, but blots out everything between his birth and execution. It says “born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate” as if everything in between – the bit represented by the comma – was of little or no account.
The Nicene version is more wordy, but similarly leaps straight from Jesus’ birth to his crucifixion. Yet the bit that’s left out is the core of his teaching: what life would be like in a kingdom ruled by a father-like God, and how to make that real. The focus of the creeds is how Jesus, while fully human, related to a supernatural God.
In the 4th century that relationship was fiercely debated. One party insisted Jesus was identical with God from the beginning of time. The other thought of him rather as a human expression of God, but not God’s whole being. Bishops were deposed, exiled, even killed, depending on which faction held the upper hand.
Enter Emperor Constantine. Ending years of persecution, he recognised that a church spanning his diverse and divided empire could be an invaluable unifying force – yet the churches of the eastern and western Mediterranean were at loggerheads over how to proclaim Jesus. So in 325 he called a conference of bishops at Nicaea, in northern Turkey, to sort it out, himself presiding. The arguments flew back and forth, and in the end Constantine declared the party championing “identical” to be the winner. That was quite a step, considering he wasn’t baptised as a Christian till on his deathbed 12 years later.
Even that didn’t settle the matter, with later emperors upholding first this side, then that. But gradually the Nicene formula prevailed in the western church, and in 380 Emperor Theodosius cemented it in as state law.
Today the squabble seems irrelevant. The supernatural and philosophical categories so central to the debate have largely evaporated. Speculation about supernatural “essences” and “substances” cuts no ice. God is increasingly relocated from a heavenly realm to the midst of life, and Jesus’ appeal lies less in holy otherness than in the completeness of his humanity.
Old creedal affirmations are thus of little help in people’s search for meaning and purpose. So bury them, and let the comma blossom.