On Creeds and Intellectual Integrity

Ecclesiology Theology / Biblical Studies

This is the Nicene Creed:

  1. We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
  2. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.
  3. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
  4. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.
  5. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
  6. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
  7. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.*
  8. With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.
  9. He has spoken through the Prophets.
  10. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
  11. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
  12. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

Amen.

Word count: 223
Points: 12 (although I guess that depends on how you divide it up)

Bear in mind that this statement was written in a time when Christian orthodoxy was taking considerable pains to define itself in such a way as to avoid heresy. A lot of thought and planning went into this creed, and yet there it is; elegant, simple, clear and above all, succinct. If the above describes your faith, and you’re not being sneaky with any of your words, using hidden meanings or anything like that, you simply mean what you say, then as far as your beliefs go, you’re a Christian. That’s what this Creed was designed to determine. Simple.

Now consider another statement of faith, the Westminster Confession of Faith. I won’t reproduce it here because of its size. Speaking of size, that’s really what this blog post is about. Here are a few stats on the Westminster Confession.

Word count: 18,279 (but admittedly, this number includes the biblical references)
Chapters (yes, chapters): 33
Points: Way too many to count in a short space of time

When a person (an adult, at least) becomes a member of a Presbyterian or Reformed Church, they affirm that they accept the teaching of the church, which is set out in the Westminster confession. Would anyone at all seriously tell me that members of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches have studied the Bible and have all, amazingly, come to the exact same precise tightly defined position on every one of the hundreds of points contained in the Westminster Confession? Pull the other one. Why on earth do some people have the need to paint themselves into a tiny, tiny corner of intersecting beliefs? Not for the sake of drawing the boundaries of Christian thought, surely! Not even for the sake of establishing Christian orthodoxy (the Nicene Creed does a fine job of this), and not even for the sake of distinguishing these churches from Roman Catholicism, for it goes far beyond this.

As a result of this leviathan statement of faith, bigger than many books of the Bible itself, many Christians who are members of the churches that hold this confession state that they affirm a collection of doctrine that they either aren’t even aware of, don’t understand, don’t actually agree with, or accept purely on ecclesiastical authority.

Now look, if you have honestly studied all the doctrinal issues covered by the Westminster Confession, and you have concluded that the Bible teaches exactly what this confession states at every point, fine. Go ahead and affirm the confession. But do you really want to say that those who don’t agree at every point – and there is a huge number of them – shouldn’t be allowed to be an elder, or (depending on the congregation) a full member? Or to share communion with you? Why attempt to bind the consciences of the church membership so tightly, in such minute detail? Even if your desire is to have a Calvinist church, still, one page will easily cover all that is required. The level of intellectual control exercised when statements of faith balloon out of control like this is simply unnecessary, and in my view it is simply wrong. What’s more, if the church wants to attract intellectually serious members (and experience suggests to me that Presbyterian and Reformed churches are more likely than most to do this), then it creates an awkward situation. On the one hand you want thinkers, and on the other hand you tell them what to think on the type of fine points that they are more likely than most to disagree with you over because of their inquiring nature. This is the main reason that I consider myself an outsider to Reformed Christianity.

I’m all in favour of statements of faith. But just ask yourself: What exactly are you trying to achieve with it?

*Bear in mind, this is the Nicene Creed, formulated at the Council of Nicea (AD 381 [EDIT: Actually what I have given here is the date the creed was written at the later council of Constantinople. The Council of Nicea was in 325]). Readers may be familiar with the additional phrase “and the son” at this point. This phrase, whether correct or not, was not part of the Nicene Creed, but was added by the Western Church two centuries later at the Council of Toledo (AD 589).

Glenn Peoples

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{ 11 comments… add one }

  • David Pulliam March 5, 2010, 2:29 am

    I am a member of the Reformed Presbyterian Church and our constitution is based off the Westminster Confession. As a member, I do affirm our constitution, and I don’t agree with all of it. (They are mostly minor things)

    I am not going to leave my church over my disagreements, nor is my church going to kick me out. In fact, if I wanted to, there is a process I could follow to try to change what those sections say.

    You are making a poor comparison. The Nicene Creed came out of the first attempt to develop a census of the church and develop orthodox belief for all Christians. The Westminster Confession is not that. Rather, it is an attempt to define what it means to be reformed. (More precisely, the Constitution of the Reformed Presbyterian Church is an explanation of Reformed Presbyterians beliefs.) Of course there are parts that will be changed. There are parts in my church’s constitution that differ from the confession. Furthermore, our constitution is actually quite helpful because you have a number of our congregations that need/seek guidance and a methodology to interpret the scriptures, how to carry out church functions (worship, communion) and more importantly (sadly so!), divorce. The Nicene Creed was not intended to give guidance to the church on divorce or communion.

    Your comparison of the two is unwarranted because their purposes are different.

    I have a question for you: Have you tried to worship and live in a reformed community before? I’m curious to see what your experience was, if you did. If not, I don’t think you’re being helpful by “labeling” yourself as an “outsider.” If you claim the blood of Christ, you’re my brother, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ and nothing should separate us from loving each other.

    Sure, in our day in age, having a confession as big of ours isn’t very practical. Right now, though, their is a Sunday School class, in my church, going through the confession, and when new churches are started, one of the first things they do, is go through the constitution. (And not on one Sunday.) – the problems you cite, though very legitimate issues, can be avoided by people being dedicated to their churches and learning about what they have committed to.

  • JB March 5, 2010, 3:23 am

    “Bear in mind, this is the Nicene Creed, formulated at the Council of Nicea (AD 381).”

    Um, Glenn, there was no “Council of Nicaea (AD 381)”. There was a Council of Nicaea (AD 325), and a Council of Constantinople (AD 381) at which the original Nicene Creed was expanded into the familiar Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed that we all know and love today.

  • Sarah March 5, 2010, 7:07 am

    Thanks for sharing this, Glenn. You write:

    “many Christians who are members of the churches that hold this confession state that they affirm a collection of doctrine that they either aren’t even aware of, don’t understand, don’t actually agree with, or accept purely on ecclesiastical authority.”

    I’ve never even attended a Presbyterian church, so I can’t speak to this issue. But I was intrigued to read this. I was thinking a similar thought this morning as I lay in bed replaying a recent conversation with a friend. And…this is partially why I asked you about Christian Mysticism. There seems to be a current thrust towards Mysticism, and an incredible number of young Christians who are accepting it without really knowing that its Mysticism, without even questioning why it might be dangerous if it IS Mysticism. Et cetera.

    It kind of scares me.

    I need coffee.

    Pax Domini. And thanks for this topic. :)

  • Deane March 5, 2010, 9:01 am

    And the original Westminster Confession is much more entertaining than the Niceno–Constantinopolitan (not Nicaen) Creed. After all, you get to affirm that the Pope is the Antichrist.

  • jonathan robinson March 5, 2010, 9:34 am

    but even with something as “simple” as the Nicene creed, you have issues of translation and interpretation. What does a modern person think “begotten not made” means compared to a 4th century Greek? Or pt 11, is that saying it is baptism that takes away our sin? I can’t “simply mean what I say” to determine if I am Nicene compatible, cos what I am saying could mean lots of things. And what I might think I am saying might well not be what the 4th century theologians were trying to convey. That’s why I am not just not reformed but also positively anabaptist on these sort of things!

    Good post though! :)

  • Glenn March 5, 2010, 1:41 pm

    David, you say that you do not agree with the Westminster Confession, and that it’s not practical for your church to have a confession of faith so large.

    I agree that it is incredibly impractical. I didn’t say, of course, that you should be leaving your church.

    As I indicated, the actual stance taken towards any potential member will differ depending on the congregation in question. Some years ago I was attending a Reformed church where I could not be a member, but I could get special permission to take communion.

    I think it’s fine to have a statement as an historical explanation of what Reformed believers have held over the years – but then, not all of them did. Could really be true, for example, that you must must affirm that the Sabbath day was changed to Sunday in order to be “Reformed”?

  • Glenn March 5, 2010, 1:46 pm

    Thanks JB, quite right. I have added the following errata: “[EDIT: Actually what I have given here is the date the creed was written at the later council of Constantinople. The Council of Nicea was in 325.]

  • Glenn March 5, 2010, 1:55 pm

    Sarah, I think there is a certain “daring” image (but of course it’s so popular it’s no longer daring), a coolness and trendiness about rejecting the West that we live in for something allegedly more “authentic,” with no real reason to think that it’s more authentic. This is why it’s almost cool to embrace Eastern Orthodoxy, and positively brave to run to mysticism.

  • Rob R March 5, 2010, 9:19 pm

    This is a great point you make.

    One instructor I had though mentioned a criticism of of even ancient orthodox creedal faith was that while it articulates much about Jesus, there is little of what Jesus himself taught.

    Technically, some of it is based on what Jesus said or inferred about himself, but there’s little to nothing about what Jesus taught on how we are to live and treat each other.

    How might the history of the west turned out if we at least had the two greatest commandments in the creed, Jesus’ teaching on returning blessings for curses, turning the cheek and going the extra mile or (and I think this may have been from paul) that the defining feature of the church would be love.

    Of course these things have always been the teaching of the church, but what if they had the emphasis that comes in the creed. Might the church have been more consistently succesfuly in accomplishing those things?

    For some fun, though I don’t know that you kiwis have tv stations carry the fella (not that he doesn’t say or do some things that wouldn’t offend a Christian), here’s the Nicene creed as spoken by American Political Satirist Stephen Colbert.

    link

    He does a characature of a political Christian conservative. sometimes it is mockery(in my opinion, to extents both good and bad), some times it is a fun jab. He is a sincere Catholic in real life and the line between the real Colbert and his TV persona is blurry. (course that’s probably more info on him than you’d want to know)

    His second interview of Bart Erhman is also priceless.

  • Glenn March 5, 2010, 11:41 pm

    Ah yes, I did see that Colbert Clip on Youtube. He’s really good.

    And you’re right, Creeds have been about theological claims concerning the identity, nature and acts of God. They haven’t been codes of conduct (although the Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession did include this). That, too, would get rather complicated, but perhaps some very basic statements should be included.

  • Joel Gonzaga March 6, 2010, 6:21 am

    Sarah, I am not exactly sure what the dangers of mysticism are.

    I’ve never read through the Westminster Confession myself, but if it is as thick as described, maybe that explains some of the dogmatic tendencies I’ve seen in reformed types. I was listening to another podcast through a fit over a lectio divina a while back. I’ve also noticed many sometimes read the entire bible as if its all a law book.

    I could be caricaturing though. I freely admit to never being overly enchanted with either Calvinism or reformed theology.

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