Monday, January 12, 2009

Continuity and change in the Creeds

January 12, 2009

In a continuing search for ‘orthodoxy’, I have been reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s magnificent book Credo (Yale, 2003) who right off the bat points out the difference between the creed of the first council in Nicaea in 325 and what scholars call the Niceno-Constatinopolitan Creed from Constantinople in 381. Significant additions were made to the last sections of the creed (giving us essentially what we say in church) while proclaiming that adherence to the creed of Nicaea was the very definition of orthodoxy. Doctrinal development continued through all seven of the ecumenical councils, all of them claiming to be saying nothing different than the creed of 325. When does development become innovation? Was it when the title God-bearer (theotokos) was approved for Mary or when Marian devotion and doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception came into being? Or was the reformation doctrine of sola scriptura reform or innovation?

Among other things, Pelikan addresses the matter of translating the creeds into new cultures taking the move from Israel’s Shema ( the proclamation held by almost every Christian creed of belief in One God) from Deuteronomy to the Greek (and pagan) homoousios to describe Jesus as ‘of one substance’ with the Father. It is clear that part of the intent of creeds was to ensure that everyone meant the same thing when they said them. (Newman disagreed with this in effect when he discussed the elasticity of Anglican doctrine in Tract 90) How is that identity of meaning to be translated when cultures change over time and the imaginative worlds we inhabit are so different from those of our forebears? It is very hard (if not undesirable and/or impossible) for a child of the Enlightenment or of Modernism to inhabit a pre-Enlightenment or pre-Modern imaginative world with any integrity. Am I being heretical when I say that the creeds function as outlines of the story of our faith, --the story of God’s dealings with creation, --that tells us who we are in relation to God? Am I heretic al when I say that the creeds address the person of Jesus rather than his work and however widely Anselm’s satisfaction theory (and its substitutionary cousins and children) are not implied in the creeds leaving us considerable room to choose not to try and live with in a mediaeval system of ‘honour’?

So it seems that the short answer is that innovation that is consistent in some way with the gospel revealed in ages past is OK. Initial reaction to Essays and Reviews published in March 1860 and not long after Darwin’s origin of the Species was rabid in some quarters. It was not long however before on of its contributors, Frederick Temple, was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. The thrust of the Essays was to find ways to read and understand scripture in light of new science or new knowledge. How is that different that adjusting to the new cosmology of Copernicus and Galileo or the new anthropology which acknowledges the category of homosexual person as part of humanity rather than a perversion. We might want to debate categories (although my jury and that of the majority of the leadership of The Episcopal Church is in after thirty or more years of debate, listening, study and conversation), but to say that such an innovation is heretical or otherwise beyond the pale amounts to little more than name calling.

1 comment:

Della Wells said...

I would love to read Credo -- available on Amazon, I hope? Della