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Why the Global Church Still Needs the Creeds

It can no longer be taken for granted that Christianity’s historic creeds have enduring significance beyond being mere relics of the past. As we walk among the smoldering ruins of Western Christendom, we’re likely to encounter fragments of these creeds, perhaps even in complete form. They are somewhat familiar, but we feel no organic connection with them.

As evangelical Christians, we believe the creeds. We sometimes recite them to remind ourselves we do. But their power is fading. We may feel embarrassed when we collectively recite them, not because we no longer believe them but because we believe them in a different way.

For many, the creeds are no longer self-evident, together with many other religious beliefs that used to hold society together at its seams. People who reject them no longer strike us as irrational or out of the ordinary. We’ve demoted the creeds to the status of hypotheses.

But against the prevailing cultural winds and despite their contextual nature, the creeds must retain a central position in the church’s life.

Outgrowing the Creeds

Charles Taylor explained the subtle change in our rapport with our own beliefs in terms of what he calls “secularity 3”—a change in the mode of believing. In a global world, it’s almost impossible to hold one’s religious opinions as self-evident. The presence of a bewildering diversity of indigenous theologies, particularly in parts of the world where the church is growing quickly, makes the historic creeds seem small indeed.

A double movement has been slowly rendering the creeds irrelevant.

1. Rise of Historical Consciousness

In the West, the past is no longer seen as a depository of eternal truths but as a merely antiquarian interest. Leopold von Ranke’s famous 1824 statement is relevant here: “To history has been assigned the office of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages. To such high office this work does not aspire: it wants only to show what actually happened.” But what actually happened has no direct bearing on eternal and necessary truths of reason, which cannot be supported by history’s contingent truths.

The creeds are no longer self-evident, together with many other religious beliefs that used to hold society together at its seams.

The effect of historicization is captured by Robin G. Collingwood’s comments on Johann Gottfried Herder, the first intellectual to describe historical consciousness: “Herder, as far as I know, was the first thinker to recognize in a systematic way that . . . human nature is not uniform but diversified. Human nature was not a datum but a problem.”

The natural is ultimately temporal—it can only be recognized in time, longitudinally, never just synchronically. Time and history are the photographic developers that reveal natural patterns. Debasing the past leads to questioning one’s sense of what is natural in the same way considering very closely the shape of a word defamiliarizes it, rendering it strange and arbitrary. Slicing time carves out the space in which we discover a huge variety of beliefs. A cross-section of history reveals disparate details without any clear means of relating them.

2. Global Dissipation of Truth

While the longitudinal approach of the historical consciousness detaches nature from the past and makes it a problem instead of a datum, the lateral vision of a globalizing approach relativizes nature to various contexts. Truth becomes local, and while other local truths may be interesting, they’re often of no value outside their original contexts.

This bears directly on the creeds, as African American theologian James Cone indicates: “I respect what happened at Nicea and Chalcedon and the theological input of the Church Fathers on Christology. . . . But the homoousia question is not a black question.”

Cone complains about a uniformizing tendency in Christian theology that’s also recognized by W. A. Dyrness and Oscar Garcia-Johnson: “The inherent problem with ‘Christendom’ was its ability to impose a uniformity that ignored or suppressed alternative points of view. . . . At the very least, it sometimes proposed theological formulations that were difficult to put into other cultural frameworks, where, for example, there had been no previous conversations about ‘persons’ and ‘substance.’”

To the extent creeds operate with so-called metaphysical language—and some creeds are more metaphysical than others (e.g., compare the Apostles’ Creed with Chalcedon or the Athanasian Creed)—they’re less interesting outside their original contexts. Each context, both across history and across the globe, presents unique challenges and questions.

The twin movements of historicism and globalization are making creeds cringey, as if you were to ask kids to enjoy their grandparents’ music and movies or expect a Romanian immigrant to the United States to embrace country music.

Creed and Context

The gospel’s propagation, many now suggest, requires recognizing the fertility of various contexts. Out of the soil of cultures spring questions, intuitions, and religious concepts that already provide fecund ground for the gospel. The creeds, particularly in their metaphysical language, are unnecessary for understanding the gospel in these contexts.

For example, Stephen B. Bevans and Roger Schroeder argue the story of Christianity mustn’t be seen as “the expansion of an institution but as the emergence of a movement, not simply as the propagation of ready-made doctrine but as the constant discovery of the gospel’s ‘infinite translatability’ and missionary intention.” The gospel’s “infinite” meanings are brought out through creative engagement with indigenous concepts, as was the case with the historic creeds and their employment of philosophical (Platonic) categories.

The force of these arguments is undeniable. And yet I’d like to put forward two reasons why the historic creeds are still essential for Christianity’s spread, both in and outside the West. The first argument is historical; the second pertains to theology.

1. Historical Argument

The creeds emerged from the gospel’s encounter with a broader cultural context, through missionary expansion. The development of doctrine, as Alister McGrath notes, was “partly on account of the need to interact with a language and a conceptual framework not designed with the specific needs of Christian theology in mind.” Doctrine and creeds arise from the need to explain and defend the gospel message in the face of intellectual and religious challenges, such as polytheism, Gnosticism, or dualism.

The historic creeds are still essential for Christianity’s spread, both in and outside the West.

Donald Fairbairn has recently pointed out the early church’s urgent need to clarify the meaning of its Trinitarian faith in the encounter with polytheistic cultures—something the Bible already asserts in contrast to the ancient world’s religions. He writes, “The church’s call to evangelistic outreach and wide-ranging mission work made this need all the more acute.”

As the church rejected these distortions of the apostolic message, it drew on available philosophical concepts. The terminology was never adopted uncritically, and the metaphysical baggage of the creeds (Nicaea to Chalcedon) is minimal. The debate boils down to the language of substance and persons. As Fairbairn and Ryan M. Reeves note, the creeds entered a standardization process in the fourth century, because of which “the creeds that we are familiar with today have been agreed on by a wide swath of the Christian church. They are universal in character, even though we should not forget their local, contextual origins.”

2. Theological Argument

Truth isn’t a disembodied spiritual reality. The Enlightenment had initially tried to prize eternal truths from positive historical events and figures. Yet we must reject the extremes of both timeless truth and historicism. The incarnation demonstrates that in Christ’s Jewish flesh, “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). The embodied concreteness of the divine revelation, at the fullness of time in Jesus Christ, is the content of the church’s apostolic and missionary teaching.

The church declares the meaning of these revealed mysteries. Just as these mysteries are revealed in an embodied way, so the church—as the body of Christ—proclaims these mysteries in a concrete cultural-linguistic way. Nevertheless, it’s a language drawn into the orbit of the primary language of Scripture and of the head of the body, Christ.

Why Creeds Are Normative

The historic creeds remain normative not because they lack context or are disembodied but because they represent the organic clarification and explanation of the gospel. They are thus norma normans, a normed norm. Depending on one’s confessional interpretation of Scripture, some creeds will be more normative than others.

The historic creeds remain normative not because they lack context or are disembodied but because they represent the organic clarification and explanation of the gospel.

The gospel’s spread takes place organically, through the outward movement of people and groups, and primarily through the growth of the body from the head, Jesus (Col. 2:19). This means the creeds only have value insofar as they explicate the embodied truth of Israel and Christ. They must never be allowed to achieve escape velocity but must stay in the Scriptures’ orbit.

This is a recognition that the gospel propagates in concentric circles, “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). African American theologian J. Kameron Carter rightly stresses that “to be attuned to the divine harmonics is to play Israel’s covenantal song.” To access divine truths, one must go back to the history of the covenant with the Jewish people. But at the same time, it’s a recognition that “the drama of Israel is thus not insular, for it unfolds in such a way as to enfold the nations in its drama.”

Missiologist Andrew Walls has called this the “pilgrim principle,” which is universalizing:

All Christians of whatever nationality, are landed by adoption with several millennia of someone else’s history, with a whole set of ideas, concepts, and assumptions which do not necessarily square with the rest of their cultural inheritance. . . . The adoption into Israel becomes a “universalizing” factor, bringing Christians of all cultures and ages together through a common inheritance . . . bringing into everyone’s society some sort of outside reference.

To summarize, the creeds are universal not because they’re disembodied and atemporal truths—this is the Enlightenment understanding of truth—but because they’re a moment in the organic growth and development of a concrete body of Christ, his church.

Jaroslav Pelikan suggests we can think of these creeds and traditions as parents. Just as life is only available to us in a particular set of parents, so universal truth is, for us humans, only available in a particular embodiment. He writes,

Yet it is to the traditions of Athens and Jerusalem that their spiritual descendants must return, over and over again—not to linger there permanently, but to find there, for each generation of descendants, what we for our part shall not recognize elsewhere (though it certainly is elsewhere, if God is one, as the Shema of Judaism and the Nicene creed of Christian orthodoxy confess) unless we have first seen it there.

The life of the global church, just as much as the life of the Western church, is found only in its Jewish head and its Jewish Scriptures, whose seeds blossom in the creeds.

For a Protestant evangelical, not all creeds will command the same normativity. Some creeds will be like the weird uncle in one’s family tree. The creeds that punctuate the spiritual bloodline of a particular tradition will be more prominent. But the fact that they’re ancient and foreign should take nothing away from their vitality and power here and now.

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