I need to say thank you to my good friends Dr. Steve Lewis and Joe Anderson, whose discussion and friendly disagreement over the use and meaning of the creeds inspired me to think more deeply and more clearly about these issues than I ever had in the past. I’m grateful to you both.
In our theological community, nitpicking is considered the acme of theological skill. I honed the skill from a very early age; I’m one of the heirs of a particular strain of southern fundamentalism, so I was raised to it. I can, in all modesty, nitpick with the best of ’em. To be honest, the skill has served me very well in certain contexts. It’s important at times to be exact, say what you mean to say, no more and no less, and to hear everything that others are saying — or, even more importantly, to hear what they’re not saying.
But there are other times when it’s a weakness. It can be a real problem when we’re trying to obey Ephesians 4:3 with living people, and I’ll save that discussion for another time. But the trouble it causes the living doesn’t even hold a candle to the trouble it causes us when we’re dealing with the dead. We read every historical formulation as though it were written yesterday, and criticize it for all the things it doesn’t say, all the things it says differently than we would say them. We do not pay attention to the vital historical context in which the creeds were written, and therefore we do not notice the victories our fathers achieved.
What we ought to do is ask a different question. Not, “Would I say it like this?” but “Did they succeed at addressing the problem before them in their day (not, notice, the problem before me, now)?”
For example, “Eternally begotten of the Father” in the Nicene Creed is hard to prove. In Scripture, begetting seems to be discussed in the context of the Incarnation, and it’s not exegetically clear that it applies to the preincarnate Christ. But what was the context? The Nicene fathers were at war with the heresy of Arius, who said that Christ was not eternal, but “There was a time when He was not.” “Eternally begotten of the Father” was the Nicene fathers’ way of clearly, unequivocally saying that the Arian claim was a lie. For the need of the hour, it was a most effective tactic, imperfect as it may seem to us from our present vantage. (Do you think you have a better solution to the problem? Let’s say you’re right — so what? Who couldn’t come up with a better answer, given a millennium and a half to think about it? But the Nicene fathers didn’t have a millennium and a half. Arius had to be refuted then; the sheep God committed to their care needed a solution then.)
Why did it matter? As with all the early Christological controversies, what was at stake was nothing less than the very essence of the Christian faith: the promise that human beings can be partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). Jesus is the paradigm case: He shows that it is possible for full deity to really meet full humanity. If His deity is diminished (as Arius would have had it) then what we struggling, sinful men partake of is not really the divine nature, but something less. And if His humanity is diminished, then it is not possible for real human beings to partake of the divine nature — which is to say that we go over the same cliff by a different path.
Believe it or not, we get “mother of God” (Theotokos if you prefer the Greek) in the Definition of Chalcedon in similar fashion, as a refutation of Nestorius, who was perfectly happy to say that Mary was the mother of Jesus, but would not say that she was the mother of Christ. For Nestorius, “Christ” meant both the man Jesus and the divine Word, come together in one, and he would not affirm that the divine Word had a mother. The fathers took this (correctly, I might add) as a flat denial of John 1:14, and a serious threat to the theological underpinnings of the promise of 2 Pet. 1:4. As a result, they adopted the verbiage “mother of God” to unequivocally deny the errors of Nestorius — and it worked, beautifully. They were defending the truth that Jesus is undiminished deity and undiminished humanity. They succeeded; we reap the benefits of their success–and make no mistake, “mother of God” was the instrument of their success.
Can we improve upon the wording of the Nicene Creed, or the Definition of Chalcedon? Perhaps so. Ought we to evaluate them as though it were written last Tuesday by some evangelical pastor in Tucson? Of course not. What we ought to do is read them as a stunning and hard-won refutation of a pernicious heresy. We ought to say them as celebrations of victory — they are the particular formulations by which, once upon a time, the core truths of the faith once delivered to all the saints were preserved so that we might hear them now. The men who wrote them are our people, members of Christ’s church and part of the same Body in which we now find salvation; we are their brothers-in-arms, their spiritual children and heirs.
We ought to be generous enough with them not to subject their words to tests they weren’t designed to meet. Nor should we Monday-morning quarterback them, as if they ought to have been omniscient and foreseen the loopholes that later generations found in their words, or the abuses to which their words were later put. It is enough to ask of them that they handled — often heroically — the problems of their own day. It is far too much to ask that they would also have anticipated ours; that’s our job, not theirs. “Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.”