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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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Median Christianity vs. Mediocre Christianity, pt. 2

Note: This post continues the discussion I started yesterday on Median Christianity and Mediocre Christianity.

What does someone need to believe in order to be a true Christian? Moreover, what does someone need to be able to confess in order to be considered a true Christian? That’s the question Werner Harenberg is asking here:

Does what Gerhard Ebeling writes about every confession still apply to the Apostles’ Creed: It has “a separatist function. It draws the line between true and false doctrine. A uniting confession in the sense of one that refrained from drawing any distinctions from false doctrine would be a contradiction in terms. For a confession always presupposes a casus confessionis. It is the pronouncement of a decision.” And if this no longer applies to the Apostles’ Creed, how otherwise will the “line between true and false doctrine” be drawn?

In the Apostles’ Creed there is much which many can no longer believe or will no longer believe. Modern theologians teach that a man must not, or perhaps only ought not, believe it. Why not another confession of faith which every believer can speak without qualification? Professor [Ernst] Barnikol has asked this question and has wanted to know whether “the congregations and the servants of the Word today must not have the evangelical courage to do it.” He received no answer.

A church is not credible in which literally everything is, and remains, questionable. But a church is credible in which one may, to be sure, ask everything, but in which one cannot answer everything.

Luther once wrote: “It is not we who preserve the proclamation of the Church; it was not our forefathers; it will not be our descendants. But it was, is still, and will be him who says ‘I am with you always, to the close of the age.'” “It is not we,” Hans Grass also consoles the reader at the end of his book on the resurrection, “who preserve the church in the storms of the time and in the often still more dangerous times of calm when everything seems to go so well and smoothly, when Christianity has become again a self-evident presupposition of the middle-class and when we are in danger of becoming sluggish in the faith and of falling asleep. But is he who preserves the church.”

He = Jesus.

Which Jesus?

(From Werner Harenberg, Der Spiegel on the New Testament (trans. James H. Burtness; London: Macmillan, 1970), 191-192.)

I’m with Ernst Barnikol. The Church Catholic needs a confession that every believer, regardless of tradition, can affirm. And we need the courage to do away with anything that pretends to be essential to faith but should actually hold no pride of place. I’ll develop my thoughts on this later (hopefully tomorrow or Saturday), but for now, I’d like to propose this as the only confession necessary to prove Christian faith:

“Christ, the Lord, is risen.”

Anything more, and the confession would alienate true believers who happen to be modernist/postmodernist in the way they think. Anything less — though I fear it may already be too much “less” for some — and it would alienate true believers who happen to be traditionalist in the way they think.

What do you think? Is this confession, simple as it is, enough to prove that someone is a Christian? Does it say enough to be a good confession of Median Christianity while avoiding the pitfall of Mediocre Christianity?

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