Friday, July 22, 2011

How Can Anyone Say "Credo"?

One should not be surprised to find over at the Episcopal Cafe this sort of routine liberal paean to unorthodoxy, I suppose. Personally I think that someone who is expressing these sentiments ought not to be a candidate for ordination.

Meanwhile (courtesy of Bryan Owen) we have a superb essay from Matt Gunter on the centrality of the creeds and their importance as a focus for Christian belief. I would like to elaborate on two points he raises, and then address one of my own.

First, in answer to the question, But, isn't one's faith about one's relationship with the living God and with God's children. Can’t we just say Love God and love your neighbor and leave it at that? , he writes in part:
It is inadequate to appeal to a simplistic pietism, whether in its more conservative or more liberal versions, that says "Don't bother me with doctrine, just give me Jesus". We have no access to Jesus other than the Gospels which are soaked in interpretation (doctrine) of who Jesus is and why it matters. And the creeds are the Christian guide to understanding God in light of Jesus.
To this I would add two things. The word "relationship" is (as this mathematician constantly finds himself pointing out) only the context of the issue; the need is of course to put oneself into right relationship with God. And if you take John 3:16 seriously, an important, perhaps crucial component of that relationship is beliecing the right thing about Jesus. A Christian needs to be able to answer the challenge "who do you say that I am?" correctly.

And where do we get the answers to that question? Well, the church remembers them. I seemingly cannot emphasize the centrality of anamnesis enough in this: the church is our conduit back the the historical truth of Jesus. The creed, besides its own content, stands as a synecdoche for the recollected truth of the Church. The all-too-obvious problem with a lot of the doubting is that it reflects listening to what the World says about Jesus. And not just the World, but a world which has turned away from Jesus and rejects Him, that is, the world of modernist, Enlightenment-driven skepticism. It doesn't seem reasonable to me to prefer a voice which has rejected Jesus over that which is specifically commissioned to recollect Him.

Second, he raises the question, "But isn’t the language of the Creed poetic, rich in metaphors?" I would like to rephrase his answer more forcefully. Some of it is metaphorical, but some of it is not. He says:
To say that all language about God acting in history, e.g., the virginal conception, the incarnation, and the bodily resurrection as historical, physical events, is metaphorical and only true in some spiritual sense is to try to be more spiritual than the God we know though Jesus has deigned to be.
I would put this more strongly. Those who first said the creed did not mean anything in the least bit metaphorical when they said that "Jesus[...] was crucified, died, and was buried." If a person says otherwise, they are not telling the truth. So if we say those same words, but mean them "poetically", we deny that Jesus was so executed; we essentially falsify them. So we move to the surrounding words. Nobody at Nicea held that the statements in Matthew and Luke concerning the Virgin Birth to be metaphorical in the sense that they accepted the assertion that Jesus was born through the normal biological processes in which some actual human male fathered him. Nobody then understood the phrase "rose from the dead" as implying that the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the gospels didn't relate an encounter that was physical in the only sense that matters. (Indeed, the passages in John seem specifically intended to argue against any such interpretation.)

Metaphor is not a "get out of meaning free" card in any case. The utility of figures of speech presupposes that some figure conveys the meaning adequately, and that others do not. But the intent, after all, belongs to the speaker. Gnosticism may have been fading by the 400s, but there is not any doubt that the bishops were intent on excluding gnostic readings of scripture. No bishop at Nicea, not even Arius, wanted to leave open the possibility that Jesus remained dead or that he had an ordinary, earthly, biological father. Saying the creed "metaphorically" so as to assert those things is an act of intellectual dishonesty: it proclaims a unity of belief which the creed's formulators absolutely rejected. Not only that, but the need for metaphor is entirely lacking. One does not need figures of speech to relate the heterodox theories about Jesus, so one might as well speak what one believes in a manner which does not invite the false interpretation that one accepts the orthodox interpretation.

Finally, my own point: there isn't anything unreasonable about the expectation that people who cannot say the words ought either to find another job (if they are clerics) or another church (if they are not), or they should allow themselves to be instructed by the church and fix the defects in their theology. All of this is very much about the church as an institution, and it seems inevitably to trace back to power, and thence to politics. In my own church the creeds are connected directly to sacramental participation (as the Apostle's Creed is prerequisite to baptism) and to sacramental order (as the Nicene Creed appears in the order for consecration of a bishop). They are what we, individually and corporately, believe. Liberals within the church have long looked to the institution as a source of moral authority to push moral causes; but regardless of the other reasons why that authority has been eroded, the fundamental hypocrisy of clerics standing up and saying, "we believe, but I do not believe," also weakens the church's authority. A reasonable person, a not especially sophisticated reasonable person can see that the emperor lacks clothing: such a cleric does not teach with the church's authority, but only with his own. One can readily progress to the inferred teaching that the church has no real authority in the first place.

2 comments:

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for a very interesting blog posting that makes many important points.

One correction: it's Matt Gunter, not Matt Gruner, who wrote the wonderful piece "Centered in the Creed."

C. Wingate said...

Whoops! Thanks for catching that.