August 02, 2004

A few days ago Dash sent me the link to this interesting interview with Christian historian Jaroslav Pelikan. (You need RealPlayer to listen to it.) Pelikan had collected a huge number of Christian creeds for his latest book, and discussed their importance to Christians.

Pelikan acknowledged that creeds aren't the most politically correct concept these days, but he thinks that churches need them. They provide a continuity with the past and an identity. He pointed out that 19th-century Unitarians turned against creeds, but once they formed their own ideas, they had to teach something to their kids, and it came out sounding a lot like new creeds. "The only alternative to tradition," Pelikan concludes, "is bad tradition."

Coincidentally, there have been a few posts lately in the blogosphere wrestling with this question. Here a Unitarian Universalist wonders if his church has lost its sense of the past:

The question of how meaningfully contemporary Unitarian Universalists relate their religion to the tradition from which it emerged preoccupied me all the way through four years of divinity school. Frankly, we need much better narratives about our own evolution. The advanced supercessionism we like — the narrative of smart upstarts throwing off the benighted superstitions of their predecessors — has limited usefulness in eliciting lifelong commitments. It works much better as a myth of heroic exile for those of us who are arriving from other faith traditions.

Joe Guada at beppeblog, where I got the link, thinks that liberal Quakers have the same problem:
Perhaps the phrase “past has a voice, but not a veto” should read “What past? No need to fear a veto!” for us liberal Friends. More and more new comers to Quakerism (and I refer only to the liberal branch here) have less understanding of its traditional beliefs and practices; and its children and youth are left with the impression that as long as they are kind, pacifist, and form their own religious opinions they are Quakers.

Meanwhile, Chris the Journeying Geek has been pondering the meaning of heresy. I don't know if he heard the Pelikan interview, but he echoes Pelikan almost word-for-word here:
Sometimes, our faith makes us say no. No to bad theology, and wrong ideas. No to Satan’s solicitations. No to greed, premarital sex, and poverty; no also to dangerous world views. Faith must be able to say no to something, or we don’t really believe anything.

On the other side, there's an interesting defense of creedlessness in a comment to Philocrates' post, which for some reason I can't copy and paste so you'll have to go there yourself.

I don't know if I'd say, as Doug does, that the sole purpose of a creed is to determine "who's in and who's out." I mean, I always thought of church membership as a little like joining a golf club. It would be a little weird to complain that they play golf in order to keep out non-golfers. Rather, they do what they do, and if you like it you join. Granted, God is more important than golf, but it's not like human beings have the power to decide who's in and who's out of the Kingdom.

It's funny, in the early days of the church they used to put interested parties through a long catechetical process before baptizing them and letting them take communion, and back then the Christian church was hardly the most desirable place to be. You got to join a tiny new church being persecuted by the government, woohoo! Yet join people did. When Christianity had been entrenched in power for a long time, however, the dynamics changed. Excommunication itself came to be a type of persecution. But what position is the church in now?

Posted by Camassia at August 02, 2004 09:55 PM | TrackBack

Creeds attempt to help us understand who God is and are important because seemingly insignificant doctrinal error can, over time, result in a trajectory that leads far off course.

Posted by: TSO on August 3, 2004 07:09 AM

Two quick points:

First, the Church and "who's in and who's out of the Kingdom" may not be equated. God can and will do whatever he wants with those outside the Church: Witness Judaism; I doubt he'll kick them out because they chose not to "join." The Church is the community of those who have in some way been claimed by the Kingdom and have consented(in whatever way) to be its citizens. There are limitations to citizenship, regardless of the liberty -- even license -- that seems to be allowed. Now, I'm not saying that the Church is the Kingdom, at least in any "final" sense, but certainly it is the Kingdom's outpost in time.

Second, creeds are the statements, well-reasoned-over-time consideration by the faithful through time, which set out the fundamentals of citizenship in the Church, the constitution, if you prefer. As it is with the U.S. Constitution, so the creeds are not static (even though there are "original intentists" who would have it be so) -- but rather living and breathing documents that speak fresh to every age's concerns, identities, battles, and the like.

There can be, therefore, no Church with creeds. There can be no "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic" Church without the main creed, the Niceno-constantinopolitan (better knows as the Nicene) creed, because the main arteries of the Christian bloodstream have declared it to be the fundamental constitution for life in the Church.

But I don't think that means that only the ancient creeds have merit. Pelikan, as I recall the broadcast, recites an absolutely beautiful creed developed among Masai Christians. It is not going to fit into a high mass anywhere soon, but it certainly enhances the Church's understanding of itself and its limits. It helps make Church -- which in turn "instantiates" (i.e., makes a reality in this instant) the coming Kingdom.

Incidentally, the references in the interview are a little confusing. CREDO, Pelikan's one-volume book on creeds is not a collection of the creeds, but rather a very long discursus on the nature and development of creeds. To get the collection that he referred to you, must pay about $1,000 for the four-volume set. CREDO is nicely written, but it ain't the whole story.

Dwight P.

Posted by: Dwight P on August 3, 2004 11:00 AM

Dwight, did you mean it as you typed or did you intend to type:

"There can be, therefore, no Church without creeds."

Just clarifying. Thanks!

Posted by: Dash on August 3, 2004 01:36 PM

I must get new reading glasses -- or a secretary. Most sincerely, I made no Freudian slip; I really believe and meant to say: There can be no Church without creeds. That may be nothing more than a descriptive sentence, but I think I mean it to be normative, too.

Thanks for the chance to clear up my error. (I wonder how many other heresies have been raised for want of careful proofreading!)

Posted by: Dwight on August 5, 2004 06:09 AM

Hey, all the best heresies come from typos. That's why the Holy Spirit frees us for sin!

Posted by: Camassia on August 5, 2004 09:59 AM

Thanks for the Pelikan link. I actually hadn't heard the interview before I wrote (and haven't had a chance since), but I'll have to... sounds like he'll meet me where I'm at.

I appreciated the reminder about human beings not having the power to decide who's in or out of the Kingdom. I used to think of creeds as apologetics against nominal Christians: means to separate (here and in this life) the wheat from the chaff, as it were. Maybe there's a sense in which that's true (creeds help us identify what ideas are Christian) but there's a world of difference between saying a particular belief isn't Christian, and saying a particular person is excluded from the Kingdom because of a belief.

This is all the more clear now that I put myself in the "seeker" category.

Posted by: Chris on August 6, 2004 12:43 AM
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