Creeds: Description, Prescription, and the Role of Gratitude

In a preceding post I mentioned gratitude as a factor in my use of the creeds, and in discussions with friends and colleagues it has become clear to me that this requires a little elaboration.

First of all, a couple of thoughts about the nature of gratitude in general.  Gratitude is not just about warm feelings in your chest.  Gratitude is about what you do.  If your parents raised you, fed you, clothed you, loved you, and you always felt warmly toward them for these things, but you treated them badly and never once gave any indication that you were aware of how much they’d done for you, are you grateful?  No, not really.  Suppose a friend rebukes you for your ingratitude, and you protest that of course you feel warmly about all your parents have done for you.  Wouldn’t your friend be perfectly right to say “So what?”

Of course he would.  That warm feeling is not an all-purpose moral solvent that cleanses whatever you decide to to.  If you take for granted all your parents have given you, and then protest that of course you’re grateful — by which you mean that you have warm feelings toward them — this is just to say that you are only grateful where it doesn’t matter.  Gratitude that is not meaningfully incarnated is not gratitude at all; it’s just cheap sentimentality.

With reference to the early creeds,  I am grateful to those men who went before me, for their many sacrifices and their great struggle.  Even more, I am grateful to Christ for giving such evangelists, pastors and teachers to His Church.  But if this is to be more than a sticky sentiment, a warm feeling in my chest when someone says “Nicea” or “Chalcedon,” then I need to incarnate this gratitude in a way that matters.

These creeds are the weapons our fathers used in their war against heresy.  This is simply a matter of history; it is as God Providentially arranged for it to be, and we must show gratitude for the way God actually preserved His church, not the way we wish He’d done it. So we must celebrate these key aspects of the faith which our fathers so ably defended, and do so in a manner respectful of God’s design in history — which is to say, respectful of what actually happened and what they actually said.  Therefore, an aspect of this celebration will inevitably be the public reading, or the corporate saying, of the creeds.  And so we find once again that “descriptive vs. prescriptive” fails us as a useful way of categorizing.  The creeds are not just descriptions of what the church believed at one point in her history; they are also — in the fashion just described — prescriptions that govern aspects of our present practice.

But how?  How will it work in practice?  We don’t have to say the Creeds weekly, but we can’t just ignore them, either.  Some churches may simply integrate the Creeds into their weekly worship.  Others may choose to do something quarterly, or integrate the Creeds into their doctrinal statements and new members’ classes.  Others still may designate one Sunday a year to celebrate these things.  After all, if we can manage to observe Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day to celebrate the warriors who have defended our country, why can’t we find room in the schedule for a day to celebrate the warriors of the Church, who defended our faith?  (And may I suggest the Feast of All Saints as a convenient time?)  There is no One Perfect Way to do this, but do it we must, somehow.

Now, am I saying that a man is in sin if he doesn’t say the Nicene Creed at least occasionally?  Not as such.  Saying the Creed is not directly required by Scripture, and so a man can walk with God and not say the Creed — at least in theory.  However, in actual practice, I find that among American evangelicals, our particular refusal to say the creed is the result of a sinful attitude on our part:  ingratitude, sectarianism and father-hatred that ill becomes Christians.

The wage of that particular sin is a particular sort of death.  If you insist on isolating yourself from other members of the Body in defiance of Eph. 4:3, God may give you your desire, but send leanness to your soul.  Cut off from the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit in past generations, cut off from the wisdom of your fathers, you will be reduced to whatever formulations you can dream up yourself, and you get only the counsel of your living friends — which is to say that you will be low-hanging fruit for the fads of the age, and your churches, your schools, your daily practice will fall victim to a pervasive silliness.  (Oh, wait — I just described modern evangelicalism, didn’t I?)

We are ungrateful, and God has given us over to our folly.  You want to know why, when you walk into a Christian “bookstore,” you can’t hardly find a Greek New Testament or even a decent devotional book, but there are crucifix pencil toppers and “God’s Gym” t-shirts in every size you can think of, including a little onesie for your newborn Christian soldier?  This is why.  Could it be any clearer that we need to repent?


2 Responses to Creeds: Description, Prescription, and the Role of Gratitude

  1. Jim Reitman says:

    I’m not sure where I stand on the issue of prescription for Creeds because I simply haven’t given it much thought. You did get my attention with “father hatred,” however. I can’t honestly say that that sentiment has ever percolated in the recesses of my conscious or subconscious reflection as an evangelical. What follows is some inchoate reflection on your thoughts.

    Not surprisingly, I am wont to look at questions like this through hermeneutic lenses. As I think about the people of God throughout salvation history and how progressive revelation “moved” with His people, I have to ask where creeds “fit” along the way. One thing John Sailhamer and Kevin Vanhoozer have really helped me with is a better understanding of how God has always responded to His people as a “work in progress.” Vanhoozer (Is There a Meaning in This Text?; Drama of Doctrine) contributes the important thought that the people of God never fully understand—and thus never fully instantiate in creeds a “complete” or “perfect” doctrine—the meaning of God’s revelation. This will not happen until the consummation of His Kingdom. Much creedal formulation thus depends on the contemporary prevailing threats for the people of God, as I believe you touched on briefly in your “descended into hell” discussion. Our charge is therefore to “perform” the text as faithfully as we can until he comes.

    Sailhamer (The Meaning of the Pentateuch) argues a compelling case for the thesis that the poems “inserted” in the later version of the Torah (the “final” form of the text that we have in the LXX and MT) were inserted as creedal synopses of “the main point” of the most important theology to be distilled by and for the people of God from predominantly narrative literature. I therefore wonder if creeds are meant to be more “orienting” than “prescriptive” per se for a people with such a historically short memory.

    As threats to doctrine morph into newer and more creative ways for the people of God to “sin more intelligently,” I wonder if creeds weren’t meant to also morph along with them in context to reflect the unchanging theology of a sovereign and redemptive God? Are the present-day prophets of the people of God also being charged to be faithful in formulating creeds in order to “answer” more decisively the counterfeit “doctrines of demons” for our day?

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Sure, the creeds are never perfect; if they were they’d be Scripture. And yes again, Christ has been pleased to build his church in a highly occasional manner; seems we’re always formulating our doctrine in response to some specific problem or heresy. But then, this is a trend that starts with the Torah and continues right on through the NT, so I’m not much disturbed that the trend shows in the subsequent history of our people as well.

    So of course the creeds will change to some extent — which is why Our People have kept writing creeds. We didn’t stop with the NT letters; we didn’t stop with Nicea or Chalcedon or Heidelberg or Westminster. (Okay, some of us did, at various points along the way, and they were wrong, but that’s another discussion.) My issue is not with people who keep writing creeds, but with people who think it’s okay to write creeds with no reference to what’s gone before. We’ve made a virtue of ignorance, dismissed the Fathers without bothering to learn what they said, and baptized the whole mess with “No creed but Christ,” which is nothing but an alliterative spin on “I am of Christ.” To which there can be only one answer: “Is Christ divided?”

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