All Theology – All THINGS – Are Prolegomena: On Doctrine And The Creeds
I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen. – The Nicene Creed
A faith and a life unexamined is a faith and a life not worth having, however, many would use such an examination of the faith to decide that suddenly they alone know what we really should be doing and to upend 2000 years of Christianity. I believe the creeds reminds us of our rather temporal nature, that we must examine and must offer reproof, but we are cannot decide the course of Christianity simply because of some new data that may in fact be overturned in the next generation of scholarship. – Joel L. Watts, Facebook comment
You have heard; now see all this;
and will you not declare it?
From this time forward I make you hear new things,
hidden things that you have not known. – Isaiah 48:6
When the Emperor Constantine, following the advice of St. Athanasius, called for a council at the Anatolian city of Nicaea, the issue facing the Church was an important disagreement regarding the teaching of the relationship between what has since become known as the Second and First Person of the Trinity. The more popular understanding, rooted in the (now lost) teachings of Bishop Arius was that Jesus, incarnating the Son of God, was not co-eternal with the Father. According to Athanasius (who is the chief source regarding Arian teaching, and hardly a reliable one considering how much he detested both Arius and the man’s teaching) the chief teaching of the Arians was “There was a time when He was not.” For Arius and those who followed his teachings, God’s sovereignty and primacy prevented any thought that another Being would be equal to God in power, majesty, and primacy. Athanasius, relying upon a particular interpretation of Aristotelean and Platonic understandings of substance, accidents, and being, taught a far more subtle, and High Christology, insisting that Christ was not a creature even if primer inter pares. The Son, being of the same substance – what was understood as defining Divinity as opposed to fallen, human substance, the “stuff” that made God distinct from all Creation – with the Father, was by necessity coeternal with the Father. Only in this way was Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross and resurrection sufficient to achieve salvation.
All the same, as I wrote above, followers of Arius’ teaching were both more numerous and in positions of power in the increasingly senescent Roman Empire. Constantine’s mother was an Arian. The various tribes of Goths that had overrun parts of the western Empire, including Rome, had been Arian Christians. In a move that shows Athanasius to be as cunning a political operative as he was subtle a theologian, he convinced the Emperor to call the council for as soon as possible. It met before Arius, a fellow Bishop, could arrive; those present were predominantly those who believed as Athanasius did. While the Council was being held, discussions became both heated and absurd, spiraling down in attempts to compromise by using precise wording (in the Greek of the time) to accommodate both major parties to the dispute; thus the phrase “not an iota of difference” emerged as the attempted compromise inserted the Greek letter i into the word ousia, creating a new word, iousia, designating the Son to be “of similar subtance” with the Father. The Arians were willing (to a point) to accept this compromise, but being far outnumbered and their leader still in transit, the supporters of Athanasius managed to get “ousia”, proclaiming the Son to be “of the same substance” or “consubstantial” with the Father. Arius, his teachings, followers, and person, were anathematized in the official declaration at the end of the Council. Arius, however, did have the last laugh in a way; on his deathbed, the Emperor Constantine was baptized by an Arian Bishop.
Fast forward 1700 years, and I have to wonder what any of this history – political, ecclesial, and theological – has to do with us. Beyond creating the cornerstone for subsequent orthodox theology (an orthodoxy I hold, by the way), it also demonstrates how very human, limited, and contingent our understanding of the Godhead really is. This fundamental Christian reality – that our doctrines are always limited affirmation, ready and willing and able to be changed as circumstances change – is something we as the whole Body of Christ have always understood. No doctrine lasts forever; no theology captures the entirety of the Body’s experience of and profession of experience with the God who is revealed in the Son, through the Spirit, for the glory of the Father.
To lift up any confession, doctrine, or particular hermeneutic of Scripture or the experience of revelation as final is to ignore the reality that we do not believe the confessions; we do not live out doctrine; and our understanding and appropriation of Scripture must always be prefaced with the understanding that it is we and our lives who are interpreted by Scripture prior to our being able to grasp Scripture as testimony and witness to the revelation of God. For Joel to claim that our faith has been consistent over 2000 years is ahistorical, and violates a central tenet of the Doctrine of Creation: That our Universe and all that is within it is contingent, partial, and sinful. For these reasons, we do not have a creed, or a doctrine, or a particular hermeneutic. We have multiple examples of each and all, and the whole Body of Christ is enriched by them all. To insist that changing understandings of the world through science; changing ways of interpreting existence through philosophy; and changing ways of expressing these understandings and interpretations of existence through the evolution of language are irrelevant to our confession and profession of faith is to ignore reality. We are not 4th century Greeks, or 6th century Romans, or 16th century Saxons or English, or 18th century Oxonian Anglican priests, or even mid-20th century Germans facing the Nazis, or late 20th century Latin Americans facing North American-supported fascist governments. All of these contexts and milieus, with their varying languages, immediate concerns, views of the world, and historical situatedness have contributed to the beautiful mosaic that is the Christian faith. None of them are primary, none of them are our plumb line; rather, they are important expressions of faith, touchstones from which we can gain wisdom, containing much that should be retained while always recognizing historical distance and all that entails will always prevent us from complete appropriation of any of them.
Our faith is in the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Only the Trinity, the loving coexistence of Three Persons in One God, is eternal. When Isaiah reminds the people returning to the Land that God is in the business of doing new things; when Christ announces from the Throne at the end of the Revelation of St. John the Divine that God has made all things new; when we Christians go about the task of living the Gospel in the world; we are always doing a new thing, and that new thing brings new voices, new languages, new understanding, new lives into the manifold chorus of those who praise God. We aren’t in the business of ultimacy. That’s God’s work. All any of us, the wisest, most educated, most holy, can do is add our understanding of our experience of the revelation of Holy Love in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, through the Holy Spirit, to the Glory of the Father.
Anything else, as St. Thomas noted after dropping his Summa because he realized it is “all straw”, is subject to revision, restatement, translation, and perhaps even ditching once we become clearer as a Body on what God has done for us.