26 September 2011

How do you define a christian? Part 2: Creeds & Confessions

Link to part 1.

One of the major developments in the history of christianity was the development of the various creeds. Probably the most famous of these in the Nicene Creed, which came out of the first council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. There are various other creeds such the Apostles’ Creed, the Athanasean Creed, the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession. These have been used over the years as a statement of faith to affirm what various christians believe. i.e. a christian might be defined as someone who agrees with one or more of these statements of faith. However, I have some reservations about them:

Firstly, they are often taken as foundational, when in fact they are really conclusions. I recently had someone “throw” the Nicene creed at me during a discussion as their way of stating what I believed. I found it quite ironic as the discussion had been started by an atheist who was tired of being told what he believed, and I pointed out that christians were also often “told” what they believed. I think the irony was, unfortunately, lost on my accuser. However, it showed the perception that such creeds have outside of christianity, as being the basis on which on all else rests. As I shall demonstrate later in this post, there are some conclusions in them that I have not yet reached.

If you were to define a christian as someone who believes one or more of the creeds, then what about someone like me who has some reservations about a few points? It strikes me as a little too dogmatic.

Second, there is a dilemma over how long or short they should be. Generally, the shorter they are, the more inclusive they are, and the level of inclusiveness will decrease the more detail is included. I will deal with inclusion/exclusion in a little more detail in the next part. For now, I am not convinced that when Paul wrote to the Corinthians that:
“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”(1 Cor 1:10, NKJV)
that he had in mind a kind of “Stepford church” where everyone absolutely thought the same thing. After all, the same letter has chapter 12 in it (I won’t copy it all here) where he talks about us all being different, yet united in Christ. So it seems to me more reasonable to suppose that in chapter 1, what he had in mind was that all should agree on “the basics.” Of course, here is where we hit the nub of the problem – how do agree a) what the topics that should be foundational are and, b) what the content of those statements should be.

I have had many disagreements over the years with people over what issues are foundational. Admittedly, most of those have been with creationists who argue along the lines that if you don’t believe the literalist interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, then how can you claim to believe any of the bible.

The more interesting debates are on b) where people’s own theologies and prejudices really come to the fore, my own included, though I shan’t delve into them here. I’m sure a browse through this blog (especially anything tagged “apologetics” will reveal something of my worldview)

The third objection I have about creeds is their formalistic structure. The bible is not a book of systematic theology. Nor is it simply a list of “do’s” and “don’ts.” To restrict the books of bible to a short list of normative statements has two effects:

1) It strips the bible of its richness. There is much that is nuanced in the composition of the bible, with the same topics being approached from different viewpoints by different writers, addressed to different audiences.

2) It sets in stone what may already be misunderstood and creates further room for misunderstanding. I would liken this to the codifying of the American constitution, where the supreme court judges have it as their job to interpret the constitution and where, it seems to me, their interpretations can be quite far removed from the intentions of the original authors. It is a case of a text being ripped from its context as a pretext.

Of course, in all this, I have not (yet) denied the actual content of the creeds themselves. I will only state my reservations about one (the Apostles’ Creed), for fear of boring you even further, and of repeating myself. You can then decide whether to burn me at the stake or not.
1. I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
2. And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord:
3. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary:
4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell:
5. The third day he rose again from the dead:
6. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty:
7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead:
8. I believe in the Holy Ghost:
9. I believe in the holy catholic church: the communion of saints:
10. The forgiveness of sins:
1l. The resurrection of the body:
12. And the life everlasting. Amen.
In point 3, I am not convinced of the historicity of the virgin birth. Firstly, the eyewitness evidence “from the beginning” was from the start of Jesus’ ministry as an adult, so I am quite sceptical about the source from which Matthew and Luke obtained the nativity narrative. There is also the potential that Matthew in particular was not originally a Greek composition, and that the word that was translated as virgin (gk: parthenos) may have originally meant “young girl.” This latter theory seems to be falsified though by verse 18 of the first chapter “Now of Iesous Messiah the birth thus was: being betrothed for the mother of Him, Mariam, to Ioseph, before joining of them, she was found in womb, pregnant by Spirit Holy.” (Green’s literal translation).

In point 4, there is a statement that Jesus “descended into hell.” The canonical gospels make no mentioned of where Jesus went (if anywhere at all) during the time of his death. To the best of my knowledge (please correct me if I am mistaken), the idea of Jesus going to hell was a comparatively late idea, and the earliest writings to contain the idea was in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter. The earliest date for this work is the mid-second century, though it was more likely written towards the end of that century. In it, there is “a voice out of the heavens crying, “Hast thou preached to them that sleep [i.e. the dead]?” and from the [talking] cross was heard the answer, “Yes.””

The point that really sticks in my craw is point 9: “I believe in a holy catholic church, the communion of saints.” At the time it was composed, nothing resembling the modern Roman Catholic church had been established. The first use of the term “pope” (I am here using the Anglicisation, if you will forgive both the linguistic sloppiness and the denominational pun!) was used as a descriptive for Damasus the first, some half a century after the first council of Nicaea. The term catholic, therefore, had the contemporary meaning of “worldwide” with none of the connotations that we would associate with Roman Catholicism today. My point here is not so much with the actual statement of this section of the creed, but rather with the wording as used, which I think is misleading to the modern reader. Readers who are likely to misinterpret the term “catholic” are also likely to misunderstand the term “saints” where this is actually a general term for believers, rather than any special subset of holy folk who have been beatified.

So far, I’ve been quite negative, and you have probably tsk’d and tutted your way through this with various disagreements along the way. To try and give some balance to this, I’m not wholly opposed to them. I think they can be a great guide to study where we can ask “how were these conclusions reached?” and “why are these considered the important points?” However, I believer in the idea that christianity is not restricting, it is freeing. And I will choose to exercise my free thought to believe what I think is true, and not to be dictated by some conclusions that others have made for me.

To my understanding, one of the key features of their development was less about asserting what christians believed to those outside the church, but rather to defend against heresies that had developed within the church. So for example, some of the items included in the Athanasian creed were included for the specific purpose of countering Arianism. By this, there was an attempt to make a distinction between who “truly” was a christian and who merely professed to be such. This leads to the sociological problem of “the other” and how that may be used to define a group identity, which I shall look at in the next part.

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