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?