Friday, August 19, 2011

Creed and Mystery

O inexpressible mystery and unheard paradox: the Invisible is seen, the Intangible is touched, the Eternal Word becomes accessible to our speech, the Timeless steps into time, the Son of God becomes the Son of Man. – Gregory of Nyssa

No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the One. When I think of any One of the Three I think of him as the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me. – Gregory of Nazianzuz

Radical Centrist Manifesto VIII
III. Centered in the Body of Christ,
Part 2: Centered in the Creed, iii

I suspect some folk have difficulty with the Creed because it feels too definite and thus intrudes on a sense of mystery. But, I suggest the Creeds actually “preserve” the mystery from domestication while focusing our attention on the mystery within the context of revelation.

It is true that the Creed is the outline of a story which, as I've pointed out before, calls other stories into question - while not closing off the very real possibility of God's being present in those stories. As we’ve seen before, whether it is this story or another, whether or not we are conscious of the story that shapes us, there is no escaping this.

It is also true that the Creed serves as our Pledge of Allegiance – to the faith of the Church, to the Church’s Lord, and its members one to another. And this declaration of loyalty/faithfulness will call into question all other loyalties.

Both of these will be stumbling blocks to those of us shaped by certain modern assumptions.

But, that is not because the Creed reduces mystery. The Creeds focus us on mystery within the context of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. There is plenty of mystery and much escapes our understanding. But, we are not left with nothing but guessing about God. The Creeds began as baptismal formulae and through baptism we are invited into the mystery of a God who is One, yet Threefold. We are invited into the mystery of a God who does not remain aloof, but became one with humanity and the dusty world through the Incarnation - for us and for our salvation. We are invited into the mystery of Jesus Christ who is, in a mystery beyond our comprehending, both human and divine. We are invited into the mystery of the forgiveness of sin. And so on.

Rather than constraining mystery, the Creeds, particularly the Nicene Creed, were conceived as means to preserve that mystery from the tendency to domesticate Christian faith in one way or another to make it less paradoxical or more intellectually comfortable. That is one way to understand the various heresies rejected by the Church. It was the heretics who in fact presumed to know more about the mystery of God than is prudent, not those who defended what came to be known as the “catholic” faith summarized in the Creeds. It was the heretics, not the orthodox, who insisted on resolving paradoxes like the Incarnation and the Triune character of the Godhead. The Creed is the Christian way into the the mystery of God.

Believing the Creed doesn’t mean that now we fully understand God - not by a long shot. It’s just that, as Rowan Williams has said, given what we know through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, this is the least silly language for God we have. So, while we can say it with some confidence, it is good, even at our most confident, to say it with humility, maybe even trepidation. And we do well to take care in claiming we know too well what we mean when we say we believe it or what the implications are. God remains an awesome mystery even given God's gift of revealing something of the mystery through Jesus Christ and his Holy Spirit.

Previous - Next


Bryan Owen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bryan Owen said...


I really like your postings on the Creed, Matt. Perhaps you should pull all of this together into a short book. That would be a gift to the Church and to the world.

Anonymous said...

The difference between Mystery and mystification is that Mystery, while itself remaining largely ineffable and richly dark, illuminates understanding of ourselves and the world; also, Mystery provides us with an account of existence that not only illuminates what we experience of the present and know of the past but is predictive of what we can expect to see in the future. The Creeds, while mysterious themselves, and in concert with the Bible and Tradition, provide understanding of what we see, what we remember and what we can expect and hope. In other words, the Creeds, along with the rest of authentic Christian tradition, are prophetic.
Thank you Matt for providing this forum for Episcopalians like me who, though alarmed by the theological direction of the ECUSA, are unable to either swim the Tiber to Rome or move into the Protestant ghettos of endless personal preferences.

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, Bryan.


Thanks for the comment. The distinction between mystery and mystification is a good one. Nor is mystery the same as a fog of ambiguity or a religious word for agnosticism.

Hang in there. for all our imperfections, the Episcopal Church still has much to commend it. As you suggest vis a vis other traditions, a lot comes down to what imperfections we choose to live with.