Friday, September 9, 2011

Creedal Minimalism

No reference is made to the Devil or devils is included in any Christian Creeds, and it is quite possible to be a Christian without believing in them. I do believe such things exist, but that is my own affair. C. S. Lewis, Answers to Questions on Christianity in God in the Dock, p. 56

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

Given what has come before in this series, it should be clear that I take being centered in the Creeds to be essential. I am wary of those who would replace the Creed with their own “vague, indefinite religious apprehensions” or their own not-so-vague religious apprehensions. I agree with the great Anglican bishop, Charles Gore (1852-1932), that we should be “conspicuously orthodox on the great fundamentals of the Trinity and the Incarnation” and “accept the ecumenical councils as criteria of heresy" (Roman Catholic Claims).

But, I am also wary of over-definition beyond that. If the Creed is the fundamental and central summary of the faith, then other things are less fundamental and less central. I am suspicious of the tendency among some to elevate almost their every conviction and pious opinion to “creedal” status. We want to avoid an "unrestrained development of the individual judgment which becomes eccentric and lawless just because it is unrestrained." But we should also avoid "a dogmatism that crushes instead of quickening the reason of the individual, making it purely passive and acquiescent." (Gore, Roman Catholic Claims).

In fact, I am something of a creedal minimalist.

One cannot reduce Christian faithfulness to just believing and living the Creed with integrity. Gore also said, “There are, indeed, features in the common faith, such as the belief in atonement, in sacramental grace, in the inspiration of Scripture, which are only slightly or by implication touched on in these formulas of faith; but at least in what they contain they represent what has been universal Christianity” (The Permanent Creed and the Christian Idea of Sin). Still, it becomes problematic when we try to make one or another understanding of atonement or sacramental grace or inspiration of scripture, etc., definitive. The Church of the ecumenical councils did not presume to define such things with exactness and neither should we. Which is not the same thing as saying they do not matter.

The Creedal outline is at the center. Other Church teaching and discipline radiate out from that center in concentric circles of importance. We will have disagreements about how near the center this or that might be. But, let us debate with passionate patience and humility, taking into account that we all only see as though through a glass darkly.

This does not mean that all disagreements are equal or that all beliefs on matters beyond the Creed are acceptable. I am not shy about weighing in on such things and others. Still, questions, new interpretations of scripture or tradition, and proposed rethinking of various matters of faith will arise among the Church's members. More than we like to believe, much of our interpretations of scripture and tradition can only be provisional. This side of the kingdom they will be incompletely understood, let alone lived. It is part of the Church's vocation in every generation to wrestle reasonably, in the light of scripture and tradition, with whatever questions arise and discern the range of faithful disagreement.

The church - every church - has always had to balance unity and plurality. Perhaps it goes back to a more basic challenge to be both catholic and one while also seeking to be apostolic and holy. In any event, any community has to find its balance while seeking to honor each. While easy appeals to diversity and inclusivity can be cheap and even deceptive, it is also true that the Anglican tradition has typically chosen to error, if it does, on the side of plurality. It is one of the things I find appealing - if sometimes frustrating as well - about the Anglican way.

On any number of issues, I would love to have all Christians (or all Anglicans, or all Episcopalians, or all members of St. Barnabas) agree with my conclusions about what is and is not most faithful. I am inclined for example to agree with Lewis in the quote above. But, as a radical centrist, I am willing to live, even if uncomfortably, with considerable disagreement – and disagreement is inevitable – even on things that I think are fairly near the center as long the disagreement is anchored in the Creed and an honest engagement with scripture and tradition.

No doubt there are problems with such an approach (and I would truly appreciate folk pointing them out). It makes for less clarity and means that fewer things are settled. But the history of division in the body of Christ is also problematic and compromises our witness to the gospel as much as any lack of clarity on theological and moral particulars does.

The great Anglican bishop, Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) – one who saw the devastation over-certainty and over-definition can do to the church and its witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ – wrote a treatise, (Discourse of the Liberty of Prophesying) in which he pointed out the difficulty of perfect consensus on interpretation of scripture and tradition and argued for the legitimacy of any church that subscribed to the Creed. He was arguing for such liberty within the context of what should be allowed to be legal within the boundaries of the state rather than within the particular body of the Church of England. But, I think it is consistent with the Anglican tradition to expect a basic creedal fidelity while allowing considerable liberty beyond that.

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Jim said...

I absolutely accept every word of the Nicene and Apostolic creeds. I also am willing to claim the "baptismal covenant" of our shared prayerbook and the Quadrilaters as near, indeed nearly touching the center you describe.

Here in a problem, you write for the Covenant. I think it would impose potentially, a structure of "instruments," and canon law designed by its authors to create not a place for diversity, but rather an intolerance of it. Or at least that is my conclusion, as a member of the No Anglican Covenant Coalition. I find your essays in favor elegant, indeed brilliant, and wrong.

You most certainly think the same is true absent the elegance and brilliance, of my arguments against the Covenant.

Now we know each other, and I think can meet, discuss, and disagree. But do we think for a moment, that is a picture of a communion tasked with GafCon?


Bryan Owen said...

Another good posting, Matt. I think you make very important points about creedal minimalism. It reminds me of a section of Luke Timothy Johnson's book The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters entitled "The Blessed Simplicity of Profession." I shared an excerpt from it on my blog here.

Doug Baddorf said...

Some thoughts about the creeds. They avoid the need to reinvent the wheel,our new wheels tend to have parts missing. Creeds were responses to heresies. The trinity is a mystery,but certain things are not true about the trinity. Most important to me personally, the trinity is more powerful. It is different to pray to the Father than it is to pray to the son or the Holy Spirit. We get to do all three. How cool is that ?

Matt Gunter said...


If elegance and brilliance won't persuade you, I don't know what else I can do. : )

I am a lot less sure than a lot of people seem to be as to what "the Spirit is saying to God's people" -on any number of things.

As I said, "More than we like to believe, much of our interpretations of scripture and tradition can only be provisional. This side of the kingdom they will be incompletely understood, let alone lived. It is part of the Church's vocation in every generation to wrestle reasonably, in the light of scripture and tradition, with whatever questions arise and discern the range of faithful disagreement." I am persuaded that the more "catholic" that discernement is the better. So I would like to see a robust integrated Anglican Communion with clear guidelines for engagement and mutual discernment, i.e., a Covenant

I think most of the objections are objections to bogie men that don't really exist in terms of any likely actual outcome. And many are based on a particular modern western notion of independence - for the individual and the state/national church. There also is a lot of tendentious reading of character of Anglicanism.

I don't think the Covenant is the be-all-end-all. I do think it is a good idea for lots of reasons that transcend the issues that provoked it. If ir is not adopted, it won't be the end of the world. But we will have missed an opportunity to be something other than parochial or provincial.

As for the first part of your comment. We are in agreement. But it has to be said that some of our leaders have been at best sloppy in this area and some have outright rejected the Creeds and others have so reinterpreted the parts that offend them so as to utterly alter their meaning.

And as for the question of human sexuality, it has not helped the case for rethinking certain things that the arguments have often not even attempted to be rooted in creedal theology.

Thanks for reading and engaging.

Grace and peace,


Matt Gunter said...


Thanks for the link to your post. Good stuff.

It has been several years since I read L. T. Johnson's book on the Creed. It is wonderful. If I had had more time on my hands I might have done actual research to write this series on the Creed. Re-reading that book would have been fruitful. As it is, I only referred to it briefly early on.

Keep up the good work.

Matt Gunter said...

Good points, Doug. I agree that, on part, we can have different emotional reactions depending on which person of the Trinity we are focusing in prayer. Still, that should be balanced with the remembrance that the three are one and any prayer is an engagement the whole Godhead.