Median Christianity vs. Mediocre Christianity, pt. 4: Conclusions

Note: This is the final part of my discussion of Median Christianity vs. Mediocre Christianity. For context, see parts 12, and 3. I apologize that this post is long, but I wanted to be precise in my treatment of the subject and in my conclusions.

The Task at Hand

My goal in this discussion has been to find a creed/confession that all true Christians can wholeheartedly give assent to. I am not interested in finding a formula that non-Christians cannot affirm, because such a creed will, I believe, be used by some Christians to exclude other Christians who simply believe differently in certain inessential areas. In the same way, I am not interested in constructing a rule of faith, but rather in formulating universal Christian beliefs; think of this task more as descriptive theology than prescriptive theology. My goal is to have a formula that every Christian can say without reservation, thus providing a tool to unify the Church. To that end, I will survey the confessions of the first 350 or so years of the Church, establish some criteria by which to judge them, and come to a conclusion about what I think should be the universal Christian Creed.

Survey of Ancient Confessions Through the Fourth Century CE

I begin my survey of ancient Christian confessions with what is, according to Oscar Cullmann, the oldest Christian confession: [1]

“Christ is Lord.”

Second, a sample of confessional material from the 50’s and 60’s CE, as collected from Paul. (For the complete list of Paul’s — and others’ — citations, see part 3 of this series.)

“Who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 1:3b-4)

“[We] are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom 3:24-26)

“That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (1 Cor 15:3b-5)

“In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor 5:19)

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” (Gal 3:13)

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:27-28)

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Gal 4:4-5)

The confessions that Paul cites, it is worth noting, originally come from a devotional/liturgical setting and have Jesus, rather than the Father, as their primary focus. They were not meant to convey precise truths about Jesus, but instead were meant to inspire devotion to him. Two prime examples of this phenomenon are Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 1:15-20, both of which are quite florid but imprecise. [2]

By the late second century CE, the Apostles’ Creed was formulated:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.

Whereas Paul’s confessions were pre-biblical, the Apostles’ Creed is (obviously enough) post-Biblical. That is to say, while the confessions that Paul cites had their basis in the earliest Christian tradition, the Apostles’ Creed has its basis in what is now known as the NT canon. For instance, it incorporates “who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate” from the Gospels and “he descended into hell” from Paul.

In 325 CE, the Nicene Creed was written…

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father; the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made, both in heaven and on earth; Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

And in the Holy Ghost.

…followed shortly thereafter, in 381, by the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (what the Book of Common Prayer and the Lutheran Book of Worshiphave listed as “the Nicene Creed”).

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Notice how much more theological flourish is in the latter creed when compared with the former. [3] Most interestingly, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed goes into much more detail about the nature of the Holy Spirit than any of the other creeds, and it includes an affirmation of Christ’s eternal generation. It is also interesting that, while the teaching about the Spirit is expanded quite significantly through the Apostles’, Nicene, and Niceno-Constantinopolitan creeds, the teaching about the Father remains more or less identical through them.

Having surveyed the development of the first few creeds of ancient Christendom, I will now make an assessment of the validity of each of them for assessing true Christianity today.

Assessment of the Ancient Confessions

I propose three different criteria for assessing these ancient confessions for use today. First, I give priority to the older formulations, because the older confessions are not as tainted by theological struggle. Second, non-devotional creeds are better than devotional ones, because a non-devotional creed will be more precise in its wording (cf. my discussion of the Pauline confessions above). Finally, the better creeds are those that are accurate in their treatment of the whole Bible and that do not include inessential doctrine. [4]

To begin, let’s examine the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed according to these criteria. While it is certainly very specific in its language, gaining it points under criterion (2), that precision comes from it being written during a profound ecclesiastical struggle, which inherently mars its ability to unify the Church. It also includes inaccuracies like the Virgin Birth (see Andrew T. Lincoln, “Contested Paternity and Contested Readings: Jesus’ Conception in Matthew 1.18-25,” JSNT 34: 211-231) and inessentials like the homoousion, the eternal generation of the Son, and the procession of the Spirit. It was, to say it simply, written as a wedge to cleave off “false” believers from the true Church; it was designed as a weapon. Thus, as it stands, this creed is not useful for the task of unifying the Church.

The Nicene Creed is slightly older than  the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, and the Apostles’ Creed is older still. However, they, like the Niceno-Constantinopolitan, declare inaccurate and non-essential doctrine to be essential for true Christianity. Namely, the Nicene Creed includes the homoousion, and the Apostles’ Creed includes Jesus’ being divinely conceived and the Virgin Birth. Thus, it too must be rejected in their traditional form; however, I will re-visit these two creeds shortly to see if they can be salvaged.

Finally, the Pauline confessions and the earliest confession, “Christ is Lord,” though they are old and though they are accurate in their treatment of the whole of Scripture, are not precise enough to function in themselves as true markers of Christianity today. Even when synthesized into a single confession, it still leaves much to be desired, especially in teaching about the Father and the Spirit. Thus, they must be rejected as possibilities for establishing a universal Christian creed, too.

Conclusion: My Proposal

After thinking through this idea for a while, I have decided to abandon my original proposal for a creed (“Christ, the Lord, is risen”) for the reasons I have just rejected the original confession and the Pauline confessions: it is not precise enough. It is more suited for a devotional setting rather than as a statement of beliefs. In its place, I propose a modified version of the Apostles’ Creed, with inessential doctrine removed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of a woman, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; on the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, and the forgiveness of sins. Amen.

I have change the line “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” to the Pauline “born of a woman,” and I have removed the references to the descent into Hell, to bodily resurrection, and to “life everlasting.” [5] I have also made the section about Jesus into its own paragraph, for the sake of style and formatting, but that does not impact any content.

A disclaimer on this proposal: I must make it very clear that this creed is only a means of describing Christianity, not a means of prescribing things to be believed. Accepting the doctrines in this creed is not the same as faith. As Rudolf Bultmann, discussing one of his teachers, warns, “He thought that the old Apostles’ Creed should continue to be confessed serenely in the worship service, because scarcely anyone considers it obligatory to take all its assertions as literally true. But if a new confession were to be formulated, it would consist of sentences that the listeners — or speakers — would think were sentences that they must accept as true, and therefore faith would once again be confused with accepting sentences as true.” [6] That is a pitfall which must be avoided at all costs.

All things considered, I think this confession, or something along the same lines, is the happiest medium between something as inclusive as “Christ is Lord” and as exclusive as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. It has all the essentials for basic Christian belief, it allows room for one to be captive to his/her conscience, and it isn’t unnecessarily exclusive. Moreover — and this is the important part — it provides a core of teaching that would allow Christians from different traditions and backgrounds to recognize each other for what they both really are: members of the body of Christ. It is, in sum, a tool for unity, rather than division.

——————————

1. Oscar Cullmann, Les premières confessions de foi chrétiennes (1943). Cited in Richard N. Longenecker, New Wine into Fresh Wineskins: Contextualizing the Early Christian Confessions (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1999), 14.

2. Longenecker, New Wine, 28-29. Longenecker notes nine major, interdependent themes of the confessions cited by the NT authors (New Wine, 34-44):

  1. “God is the initiator, sustainer, and ultimate agent of redemption.”
  2. “Jesus is Israel’s Messiah (the Christ)”
  3. “The eschatological age of redemption has been inaugurated.”
  4. “Jesus is God’s obedient son.”
  5. “Jesus is humanity’s redemptive Lord.”
  6. “The true humanity of Jesus.”
  7. “Christ’s redemptive death on a cross.”
  8. “Christ’s resurrection/exaltation to new life.”
  9. “New relationships established through the work of Christ.”

3. According to Wikipedia, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed was originally a separate creed, perhaps a confession a candidate for baptism would have to recite before being baptized, that was modified to look like the original Nicene Creed. It seems to be that this unnamed baptismal creed looks an awful lot like the Apostles’ Creed.

4. This third point is inspired by the Church’s treatment of Galileo. Galileo, of course, was found by the Inquisition to be “vehemently suspect of heresy” and lived the rest of his life in house arrest. The reason? He dared to suggest, contrary to a plain reading of 1 Chronicles 16:30, Psalms 93:1, 96:10, 104:5, and Ecclesiastes 1:5, that the Earth revolved around the Sun, rather than vice versa. The Catholic Church did not formally apologize until 2000.

5. Note very well: my deletion of any phrase (except for references to the Virgin Birth) does not therefore imply that I do not believe that phrase to be true. Remember, I’m making a universal Christian creed, and not all Christians believe in, say, a literal bodily resurrection or eternal life post mortem.

6. Walter Harenberg, Der Spiegel on the New Testament (trans. James H. Burtness; London, Macmillan, 1970), 238. Emphasis added.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Median Christianity vs. Mediocre Christianity, pt. 4: Conclusions

  1. Shep Shepherd

    Cory, I’m going to try to give as thorough a response as the space and medium allow here. Unfortunately some other obligations will prevent me from taking part in any sustained discussion beyond the next few days – April has quite a few deadlines for me.

    “Think of this task more as descriptive theology than prescriptive theology.” This is a false dichotomy. Theology is never simply either / or. Any description eventually becomes a prescription. In this case you seem to be deciding on the basis of what beliefs are held by majority in the Church catholic, but this assumes your own theological definition of what it means to be Christian, and then through that establishes faith-boundaries (whether that is your “goal” or not isn’t the issue, the fact remains that it is an effect). Secondly, a creed that was simply descriptive (if there were such a thing) does nothing to bring about unity. It is descriptive, making note of a perceived unity or common ground that already preexists. This is unity sourced in a presuppositional minimalism rather than an understanding of the objective ontological reality of the Church.

    “My goal is to have a formula that every Christian can say without reservation, thus providing a tool to unify the Church.” The Church already has that, it is called the Nicene Creed. In that sense the creed accomplishes exactly what you desire – a thread of unity throughout the denominations, that accounts for some theological consistency amidst a multiplicity of construals. You, of course, don’t want to use the Nicene Creed because of some theological opinions about a) what it means to be a Christian and b) what is and is not essential. Unfortunately you haven’t established a reason why you believe this way, or why anyone should agree with you. I wanted to see a theological foundation here.

    “I will survey the confessions of the first 350 or so years of the Church, establish some criteria by which to judge them, and come to a conclusion about what I think should be the universal Christian Creed.” You are doing this all on your lonesome, which means you are throwing out the conclusions of ecumenical theologians, established through debate, discussion, and interpretation, stretching across over a thousand years of history. You have yet to establish what fundamental presupposition they were wrong about. Furthermore, you have yet to establish why I should trust you more than them, or why your theological framework is somehow more valid than theirs.

    “They were not meant to convey precise truths about Jesus, but instead were meant to inspire devotion to him. Two prime examples of this phenomenon are Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 1:15-20, both of which are quite florid but imprecise.” Again you make some quite fallacious false dichotomies to establish your understanding of essentials. Theological precision cannot produce devotion? Why? This conclusion comes from an oversimplification of the characteristics of the liturgical / devotional genre, which in itself seems to me to stem from a prior theological commitment that this text must be forced out of the way of.

    “First, I give priority to the older formulations, because the older confessions are not as tainted by theological struggle.” This simply is not the case. Theological struggle is painted all over the walls of Scripture – between Jew and Gentile, proto-Gnostics and Paul, class warfare, clear differences of theological emphasis and opinion between the Churches – the theological struggle was young because the Church was in its infancy, but make no mistake, it was present because throughout history human beings have always been sinful, fallible, and hateful. The Ancient Church was not more pristine than the Church today.

    “Second, non-devotional creeds are better than devotional ones, because a non-devotional creed will be more precise in its wording.” This is based in the assumption of a false dichotomy that has not been proven. This should seem even more strange in light of the fact that Paul, as a Pharisee, would have heavily valued precision in all things.

    “Finally, the better creeds are those that are accurate in their treatment of the whole Bible and that do not include inessential doctrine.” What does this mean? This provides no clarification as to what “essential” or “inessential” delineates in regards to doctrine. Are inessential doctrines “inaccurate?” If so, how are they doctrines at all? Or do they not treat “the whole Bible”? What does it mean to treat the whole Bible? A Biblical theology? A systematic theology? A concept should appear once in each book? The concept should be always unambiguous?

    “That precision comes from it being written during a profound ecclesiastical struggle, which inherently mars its ability to unify the Church.” Nicean history is a bit of a mess indeed, but the second part of this sentence does not logically follow from the first, although you treat it as if it does. I could turn around and note that, historically, the Church was already splintering for cultural / political reasons, and the Nicene Council was called not to exacerbate this division but as an effort to bring together unity through ecumenical doctrinal clarity, “which inherently establishes its ability to unify the Church.” Not that this statement would be any more logically legitimate (unity should be found in the ontological reality of the ekklesia as the body of Christ and only in statements insofar as they are faithful apostolic witnesses to that reality), but hopefully it illustrates the over-simplification and non-sequitur present in this statement.

    You cite Lincoln’s article in reference to the Virgin Birth, but that article does not establish what you think it does. It establishes an ambiguity at best (and, I think, less than that, but I don’t have the space to go over each point here). This is by self-admittance in the article’s conclusion. At best you can use this sort of interpretation to argue that the Virgin Birth translation is not as explicit as the tradition supposes (a position that would be incorrect, I think) but not that the tradition is necessarily wrong. But underneath this argument is your apparent supposition that something must be explicit in Scripture in order to be included in the confession, a criteria for which you have provided no cogent argument.

    “It is more suited for a devotional setting rather than as a statement of beliefs.” This is just. . . silly. Throughout the history of the Church statements of beliefs and devotional recitations have been one and the same. You are striking a dichotomy between the two for no justifiable reason. This is a misunderstanding about how both Old and New Testament liturgy functioned.

    “I must make it very clear that this creed is only a means of describing Christianity, not a means of prescribing things to be believed.” Wrong. It is a means of describing your particular construal of Christianity, and prescribing that everyone should consider doing the same. But the majority of Christianity will disagree with you on this very point. Your ecclesiological presuppositions here would not be accepted by most Protestants, Roman Catholics, or Eastern Orthodox believers. You do not seem to realize that you are operating out of ecclesiological assumptions just as they are.

    “Accepting the doctrines in this creed is not the same as faith.” Again a false dichotomy. Saying that “accepting doctrine” and “faith” are not full synonyms is one thing, but faith is never to be detached from assent. Rejecting truth about the Triune God is an indicator that one’s faith is not true faith. Just as unrepentant disobedience is an indicator. Bultmann’s statement doesn’t negate this point.

    Your creed cannot result in unity because the majority of denominations are not going to accept your underlying theological framework (which I wish you had made more explicit anyways, but I think perhaps you fail to recognize it yourself). You haven’t shown that your method here is preferable. You haven’t shown why I should accept the fundamental principles which you seem to simply presume. You’ve oversimplified (I think) Church history, with the result that your criteria makes a nice contrast to “kicking people out of the Church,” as if that was a Nicene criteria. The result is that your argument leaves quite a bit to be desired.

    I probably had more points to add but I’ve forgotten them, and this post is already long. I wish you the best. I hope I haven’t been an annoyance. I’ve tried to be as brief here as I can, but I hope that brevity hasn’t come across as bluntness, rudeness, or hostility in any way.

    Blessings,

  2. Thanks for the pushback, Shep!

    I’ll be the first to acknowledge (though you haven’t brought it up) that my primary motivation is a somewhat naïve zeal for unity. I also acknowledge that I haven’t fully set forth my guiding principles, but that’s mostly due to format; I’m writing blog posts qua explorations into the subject, not a series of articles or a book. If I had 20 pages to devote to each of these blog posts, believe me, I’d take it!

    I do think, though, that in order for this discussion to progress, you must first acknowledge your presupposition; namely, I think you must acknowledge that you consider your position to be the correct position, and I am the aberrant one who needs to be brought back to the fold. Healthy discourse cannot exist under such circumstances; it will only degenerate into an argument where each party talks past each other, and no progress will be made.

  3. Shep Shepherd

    I’m not sure I understand your second paragraph. Is this a “you” in regards to me specifically or a more general “you?” Assuming the former, “you must acknowledge that you consider your position to be the correct position” seems like a waste of breath on my part. . . everyone considers their position to be the correct position. “I am the aberrant one who needs to be brought back into the fold.” Are you saying I think you are apostate or something? There’s a number of ways to interpret this statement (which seems a bit dramatic) but I’m not sure there’s anything to acknowledge at this point beyond the fact that we clearly disagree. “Healthy discourse cannot exist under such circumstances. . .” What circumstances? Me not acknowledging the above? Or what you perceive to be the circumstance?

    Your second paragraph seems oddly exclusive. Cory, you’ve placed such a huge emphasis on being open minded and hearing every opinion from every “Christian.” Then you place limits continually on the discussion because of what you think is my opinion of you (this occurred in the comments of the last post, too). So basically I have to accept your particular theological framing of ecumenical discussion in order for a discussion to continue? That seems self-defeating on your part.

    Re: “guiding principles.” You don’t have to write out a systematic theology here. I just feel like you haven’t presented any inkling of what your concept of “Church” is, or what faith is (you keep saying what it isn’t), or what Scripture is and how it functions in the life of the Church (and ditto for theology), or why the type of unity you want is important, or why we don’t have that unity now, or what fundamentally the Church did wrong. It would be nice to get a sense of your method and compare that with the Church’s method. Instead we simply have a more generic confession compared with a more specific one, and the primary reason behind it all is “well those confessions were born out of disagreement / conflict.” So is your confession, born out of disagreement with how the Church handled it and overemphasized non-essentials. That’s what I’m trying to point out. I’m trying to get at the root of the dilemma here. It doesn’t require a long argument, it just requires looking at foundational principles and methods.

    Anywho, I’ve enjoyed talking with you so far. Hopefully we will catch up more soon. No hard feelings, I hope.

  4. Shep Shepherd

    I should clarify too, that it may seem that my disagreement with you is being judgmental. My aim is not that, however, rather I was trying to apply pressure to your understanding of ecumenism and confessions, just as you are placing pressure on the traditional understanding. This plus brevity makes my statements a bit pointed in places, but I assure you they are not born out of frustration or anger or anything like that.

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