Creeds, Tradition, and Change

June 15, 2007

Christ of the AbyssI’ve been thinking a lot lately about the tradition.

Something somebody I met a few months ago said something to me that went something like this:  “The church has always done what works.  It has never made decisions based on preservation of a tradition, or on theology, or rationalizing its behavior.  It has done what it had to in order to survive.  The rationalization, the theology, always comes later- 50 or 100 years later when people are looking backwards on the events and trying to make sense of them.”

That makes a lot of sense to me.  Actually, it may be even a little left of me– for I think we have to have some standards that govern our behavior– but I do think that those standards come from a lot more places than “Tradition”, or rather I think we need to examine the way we define Tradition.

The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, for example, appears to have taken on more significance than may have originally been intended (at least from some perspectives).  And of course one component of the Quadrilateral is the Creeds.

The Nicene Creed has probably taken on the same character.  As I’ve learned, most doctrinal statements throughout the ages were written to stamp something out, not to specifically put limits around Christianity.  I am not so sure that is how the creeds are looked at today, particularly with the Quadrilateral’s definition of the creeds as a “sufficient statement of Christian faith.”  The Episcopal catechism calls the creeds “statements about our basic beliefs about God.”  That may be technially true, but I’m just not so sure it is fully true.  It isn’t the same thing as “sufficient.”  The creed talks about historicity instead of the character of God; it talks about events instead of virtues; it places emphasis on believing in the past instead of hope for the future.  I don’t negate the importance of the past, but relative to the action that we take for the future I do think it is less important.

No, the Nicene Creed was written for a different purpose.  It was written at a time when two different factions were fighting in Christianity.  Arius, a bishop from Egypt, and his followers, believed that the Son proceeded from the Father and thus was not equal to the Father (not full Trinitarianism).  It was at the Council of Nicea in 321 that the word “homoousious”– a word NOT FOUND IN THE BIBLE– was agreed upon by the bishops to eliminate Arian and his followers from mainstream thought.  Homoousious means “of one being”.  The term was given much scrutiny because it did not have scriptural authority– there was nothing in the Bible to support use of the word “homoousious”- of one being.  Yet the Council of Nicea used it, and the Arians became heretics.  As a result of that Council and the Second Council of Nicea, we got our doctrine of the Trinity and what became the orthodox definition of the divinity of Jesus.

How often do we hear about the original intent of Nicea?  It’s a little like this post, where I wrote about the original intent of Deuteronomy.  “The Tradition” seems to, for some, have become like the elementary school game “telephone”– you know the one– where you sit in a circle and the first person whispers something in the next person’s ear, that person whispers it in the next person’s ear, and so on until you get to the end– then at the very end you see how the story changed.  The tradition has been changed through the years.  Do we accept the tradition as it was meant, in context, or the tradition as it has been interpreted, through the years?  In other words, do we look at the Nicene Creed for what it means today, or for what it meant in 321 when it was written?  These are the two different definitions I think which need clarification.

If we take the tradition in context it is easy to see how a council today can take a position which takes what appears to be anti-gay passages in the Bible, analyzes them in context and deduces that they have deeper meaning then their surface meaning and are neutral on homosexuality (+++Rowan has said as much).  Take that, then, and puts it in conversation with the social justice and inclusive themes of the text, and we come up with a pro-gay position which is not explicitly outlined in the text (just as homoousious, from the creed, is not explicitly outlined in the text).

If we take the other position, tradition as interpreted, there is no need to try because everyone before us has already got it down correctly.  I fail to see how the atrocities of the church are explained in this theology (the slaughter and imprisonment of dissenters over liturgical practices, the conquest and colonialization of other lands in the name of mission, the execution of witches, the torture of those in league with the devil, and so on), but I do see how attractive it would be for those who are more comfortable with firm answers than with fluid questions.

Not that I have huge problems with the creeds, mind you.  I’ll say them along with everyone else (although I do wince at “For our sake he was crucified”- I think the Council should have taken Mark’s theology of crucifixion rather than Paul’s).  They do represent a connection with our historic tradition for me.  But my problem with them is not so much what they do say as what they don’t say.

They don’t say anything about Jesus’ life, nor about the life he called us to live.

About 3/4 of each Gospel is devoted to Jesus’ life, yet they are summarized in the Nicene Creed with the period between “he was made man” and “for our sake he was crucified.”  What about all that good stuff he did in the middle?  That’s the stuff I live for.  Yes, Holy Week is important, and Easter is certainly the highlight of our Christian year.  But for daily living and guidance I need something more.  I need to be able to extract something else.  And apparently so did the people of Jesus’ day.  So he gave them parables, stories, miracles.  Where are these in the creeds?  What do the creeds say about how we are to live our lives in response to such stories of generosity, of such paradoxical response to power and greed and oppression?  Of hope and love and charity in the face of destruction?  I see not a word in the creeds.  And that’s unChristian to me.  Its not a “sufficient description of my belief about God.”  Doesn’t even come close.

So I say again, as I frequently do, that this larger discussion going on isn’t really about gay and lesbian inclusion in the church.  It is a symptom of a much larger issue.  It is an underlying symbol of the theological struggle that we are going through to redefine Christian identity.  Are we based on the identity that we understand based on the end of the line in the telephone game?  Or are are we based on the identity that is the sum of all the parts in their context, examined thoughtfully with reason for what they are and why they happened?

I hope it is the latter.



One Response to “Creeds, Tradition, and Change”

  1. Jeff Says:

    One footnote– the doctrinal statement of the Nicene Creed certainly did not end Arianism. Arianism lasted well into the 8th century, five hundred years after the doctrinal forces designed to expel it. In fact, when Rome fell at the end of the fourth century, who marched in to the city to overtake the Nicene Roman forces? Germanic Arian Christians, of course. It just goes to show that making a doctrinal statement to “stomp out” those who disagree with you doesn’t really work.

    And who is revisionist?


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