Several years ago I received a brochure promoting a very conservative Lutheran seminary. Among its boasts: “This seminary is founded on an inerrant interpretation of the Bible.”
Was that simply a syntactical slip? Do these people rely on God’s inerrancy or their own? As long as the Christ has been around, he has been “a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” It has proven impossible to have faith in Jesus and in one’s own religious accuracy at the same time (Lk 2:34-35; Phil 3:4-9)
But in how many other ways does an unintended message of institutional inerrancy creep into our witness to Christ? Preparing for this article I used those ultimate tools of the modern religious searcher: Yahoo, Infoseek, Excite and Ebig. I was looking for academic research about the Athanasian Creed and it was instructive that most of the “hits” were on those World-Wide-Web sites where congregations, denominations, theological publications, and Christian movements provide hyper-links to files of information intended to define themselves by telling of their activities and their values. I wondered if we really want the world’s first impression of the ELCA or of our congregation to be these words:
Whoever wishes to be saved should above all cling to the catholic faith. Whoever does not guard it whole and inviolable will doubtless perish eternally.
Does this reveal the inner thoughts of the ELCA? Of those who have the Athanasian Creed, or Quicunque Vult on page 54 in our Lutheran Book of Worship and in the front of our Book of Concord? Does this creed convey what we believe to be the nature of saving faith when it equates it with guarding inviolable an extremely complex set of Greco-Roman philosophical propositions regarding the nature of the godhead?
This issue of Let’s Talk focuses on the “9.5 Theses Concerning the Confession of the Faith,” a statement by serious pastor-theologians that raises a most urgent question for the continuing tradition of Christian orthodoxy: How do we remain “centered in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.”
I wish to offer a critique of the “9.5 Theses,” but I want to make clear at the outset that I have no argument with their basic concern for faithfulness, or with their contention that to champion orthodoxy it is sometimes necessary to publicly condemn false teaching. My observation is that a crystal clear understanding of sola gratia must be the center-piece of all evangelical confessionalism, and that every witness to faith that does not demonstrate intellectual humility is deeply flawed and tends toward the abandonment of sola gratia
In this article I attempt to critique the “9.5 Theses” and demonstrate a fallible confessionalism with reference to The Athanasian Creed.
In Favor of Fallibilism
The framers of the “9.5 Theses” are not alone. There are many voices today crying out for more direction from our bishops and more respect for the authority of pastors, the Church, the Creeds and Scripture. Authority is the watchword.
There are some who fear the apostasy of absolute relativism. The relativist says, “There is no absolute truth. If there are no claims to truth that can be said to be more valid than any other, then there is no value in inquiry-no sense in discourse.” Thomas C. Oden, professor of theology and ethics at Drew University and author of Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements, wrote in the March, 1996 issue of Christianity Today, “Today, the arch-heretic is the one who hints that some distinction might be needed between truth and falsehood, right and wrong. This is often treated incredulously by a relativist majority.”
What we must not forget in our reaction against relativism is the horrendous destructive power of absolutism. The absolutist claims, “Ah yes, there is absolute truth, and I know it.” (And we can grin with recognition at that splendid definition of a fanatic as the one who does what God would do if only God had all the facts.) Absolutism naturally wants to usurp the authority of office, law and force, because when one is fighting for ultimate causes, the end always justifies the means. Yesterday defenders of the faith killed the Anabaptists of Europe, today they kill babies in Algerian villages, and tomorrow they may come for you or me.
There is an alternative to both relativism and absolutism. It is fallibilist confessionalism-the belief that there is-that there must be-absolute truth; but I do not possess it. I can trust in it. I can search for it. I can put myself at its service. I can commit my life to it and thereby bear witness (the Greek marturia). I can thus have very strong feelings about it; but I can never possess it (Walter Bruegemann’s Texts Under Negotiation, Minneapolis:Fortress, 1993, calls for testimony or witness instead of claims of objective certainty as the appropriate faith response in a post-modern world.).
As evangelicals, we confess a Truth that is a Divine Person, and a faith that is not assent to propositions, but trust in God who is ever calling us out of darkness into light. Therefore we must be the preeminent fallibilists who confess that the Truth possesses us.
The “9.5 Theses”: Not Absolutist, but Not Fallibilist Either
I hope that all the people of God in the Metro Chicago Synod will affirm the call of the “9.5 Theses” for a serious re-commitment to the creeds and confessions of our Church. A compelling statement comes in the second paragraph of the statement which speaks of a struggle between right-wing enthusiasm, fundamentalism, nationalism and pietism” vs. left-wing “activism, feminism, [and] advocacy.” The paragraph concludes:
The real struggle is for faithful adherence to the Scriptures, creeds and confessions over against their subordination to these social or religious ideologies.
The “9.5 Theses” claim that we are caught in a crisis of faith, and I agree. You can tell you are in such a crisis when the key figures of a religious community begin, in subtle but significant ways, to structure their existence around values and images which are irrelevant or even quite alien to those that gave their religion its birth.
It is now all too difficult to find conversation with colleagues in the faith that is focused on theology-rarer still to find a group of pastors who dedicate themselves to that “mutual conversation and consolation” that comes only from honest, passionate, and prayerful study of Scripture and doctrine. Instead we find colleagues animated by discussions of the merits of the latest marketing strategies and pseudo-social science promoted by the hoard of church growth gurus.
But it is important to note that ideas become ideologies-become bona fide competitors for religion-when they mature into systems of life-shaping thought. They can do this only with myths and images. Theologian Sallie McFague has pointed out that all our god-talk must be analogical or metaphorical and that these multi-valent images precede and “fund” all more conceptual or propositional language.
Bad ideas are dangerous; but it is bad images that float a myriad of bad ideas. Don Browning has pointed out in works such as Religious Thought and the Modern Psychologies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1987), and A Fundamental Practical Theology (Fortress, 1991), that at the base of our moral thinking is a “horizon of meaning.” That is, fundamental to our thinking about rules and roles, the needs and obligations of the human animal, there must be a fundamental picture of the way the world works. Browning examines how modern psychological systems are quasi religious because their creation flows out of a metaphorical horizon of meaning or picture of the world, and adoption of their methods inevitably presents challenges to the world-view of Christianity or of any religion.
There are, of course, many competing horizons of meaning other than those of the psychologies. We find it hard to accept that it takes a village to raise a child because we have so much mythical investment in the cowboy who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps in a capitalistic jungle where only the fit survive. And the variety of new age spiritualisms appeal to our ancient gnostic/dualistic desire for the secret knowledge that will enable us effortlessly to fly off from our carnal limitations on the wings of a snow-white dove.
Bad ideas are dangerous, but bad images are worse. And it is only through confident and robust dialog that we can work through ideas and discern their worth or their danger. The “9.5 Theses” fail us when they do not help us differentiate between helpful critiques and the dangerous forms these critiques take when they harden into ideologies that compete with the Christian world-view.
Instructive is the passage in thesis number one:
We reject the false teaching that the naming of God as Father is a human construct to be understood on the analogy of human fatherhood; that it designates Israel’s God as male; that the trinitarian Name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is inherently oppressive to human beings in general or women in particular; or that substituting triadic terms is adequate.
First of all, as a fallibilist, I am constrained to confess that all naming of God is a human construct, and is done by analogy. It may be inspired and revealed, and still be a human construct. Like Christ-both human and divine. It may be true, but always in a way that must be limited by being in the form of human language which has meaning that is always contingent and depends on the vagaries of convention.
Second, I believe that most feminist theologians are not saying that male language about the godhead is “inherently oppressive.” Words are never oppressive by themselves. It is the ways humans use them that is subject to misuse and oppression. And indeed there continues to be much oppressive misinterpretation and misuse of god-talk at the service of privileging certain groups of people over others. The entire history of the Church is marked by a tension between priestly/ecclesiastical authority and charismatic/prophetic power (see Max Weber’s The Sociology of Religion, [Boston: Beacon Press, 1963, first published in German in 1922]; Hans Freiherr von Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries [London: Adam & Charles Black, 1969], and Walter Bruegemann’s The Creative Word, [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982). It is the proper function of the prophetic to disturb our theology-to force the Church to listen to the voices of the disenfranchised and consider the ways that our interpretation of revelation is becoming captive to the privileged perspectives of our culture and our institutions.
This dual difficulty is characteristic of the entire contents of the “9.5 Theses.” On the one hand, they fail to demonstrate the spirit of intellectual humility-the recognition that all language about God (including the language of Scripture and creed) is vulnerable to cultural bias and must be critiqued. On the other, they fail to distinguish between healthy critiques of dogma, some of which may be the prophetic Spirit at work, and critique which has hardened into a world view alien to orthodoxy’s-a true heresy.
The Athanasian Creed-Its History and Use in the Church
The Athanasian Creed, also known as the Quicunque Vult (for the first two words in its original language of Latin, meaning “Whoever wishes [to be saved]”) most probably originated in southern France sometime between the Council of Constantinople in 381 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 (for most of my historical information I rely on the premier study, The Athanasian Creed by J.N.D. Kelly (New York: Harper & Row, 1964). The traditional attribution to Athanasius cannot be correct because it was originally written in Latin and all early references and its theology are Western. Whoever did compose the creed it seems to be related to the works of Vincent of Lérins (d. ca. 450), a monk, priest and scholar who wrote, under the pseudonym of Peregrinus, tractates against the Nestorians. It also reflects the thought of Caesarius of Arles (d. 542), an archbishop whose early draft of a sermon contains the earliest known text of the Quicunque. It is interesting to note that Vincent was a proponent of the Semi-Pelagianism that Caesarius later condemned. Adolph Harnack wondered whether the creed itself seems to lean toward a Semi-Pelagian way of thinking with its emphasis on human volition as determinative of salvation. But while Vincent and Caesarius may have had different approaches to Augustine’s teachings on grace and freedom of the will, they both admired Augustinian Trinitarian and Christological doctrine.
The Quicunque does not conform to the baptism-based creedal type of the Apostle’s and Nicene Creed, nor is it called a symbolum as they were (Thomas Aquinas called it “a doctrinal exposition”). It is likely that it was used primarily for the instruction of clergy. In Germany it was recited in the liturgy after the sermon and by the ninth century was being chanted throughout the Western Church. It was in the 13th century that it was elevated to the same stature as the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds and was traditionally used in the liturgy of the Solemnity of the Holy Trinity.
The Quiqunque was recognized in the Eastern Church by the 12th century, but not translated into Greek or used extensively until the 14th. Since ca. 1780 it has been included in the Greek Horologium, a liturgical book; though without the Filioque clause.
Still accepting the notion of its composition by Athanasius, and wanting to demonstrate their continuity with the One Holy Catholic Church, several major Protestant movements of the Reformation received the Athanasian Creed with respect. Lutherans included it as a Catholic and ecumenical symbol in their Book of Concord of 1580. Zwingli and Calvin and their followers accepted its theology. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer ordered its recitation at matins on 13 holy days dispersed throughout the church year calendar. A notable exception is that the Scottish Presbyterians and the churches of the Westminster Confession do not formally recognize it.
While the Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans have used the Quicunque in their liturgy, in all communions there has been a significant reduction in its use in recent years. Roman Catholics now use it only on Trinity Sunday if at all. The Church of England permits, but has, in practice, abandoned its use. And the Protestant Episcopal Church of America, despite a protest to the contrary by founding bishop Samuel Seabury, has abandoned its use in worship.
The Missouri Synod’s The Lutheran Hymnal permitted the use of the Athanasian Creed instead of the Psalmody at Matins on Trinity Sunday. The Lutheran Book of Worship includes the text of the Quicunque, but includes no instruction for its use, even in the pages of the LBW companion book, the Manual on the Liturgy.
A Valuable Doctrinal Exposition-A Dangerous Statement of Faith
As was noted above, Thomas Aquinas (Summa II, ii, I, 10, 3) referred to the Quicunque as a “doctrinal exposition.” As such it is of great value to the Church in this age. It serves as a clear and careful summation of centuries of development of orthodox doctrine on the Trinity and Christology.
Such a summation can be of immense value as the Church addresses modern heresies. The people of God do need to be alerted to the dangers of dualistic cosmologies, a-historical soteriologies and a host of various theologies of glory. None of these ideologies can abide the ancient, radical insistence that the God incarnate in Jesus Christ indeed suffered as he met and disarmed the powers and principalities of evil and injustice that work on this world’s stage. Nor can these ideologies grasp just how utterly humans are enmeshed in systems that are alienated from this God of grace, and therefore that the death of God’s Messiah should be necessary for salvation.
The theology, philosophy, cosmology, and metaphorical world of meaning of the Athanasian Creed are all therefore valuable as doctrinal exposition. They can and should be used by theologians in their instruction concerning the ancient ecumenical community of faith with which we must be in trustworthy conversation.
But should we include this creed in our hymnals? Should we honor it with hyperlinks on our web pages so that people see it as our test of orthodoxy today? Should we consider the Quicunque a statement of the living faith of the Church or as a viable creed?
J.N.D. Kelly makes a valiant defense of the Quicunque as a creed. He acknowledges that the creed seems to assert that “our eternal destiny is poised on adhesion or non-adhesion to the detail of a highly technical, man-made formulary.” Kelly knows that Mark 16.16 declares that he who does not believe shall be damned. But Mark there speaks of believing the gospel while the Athanasian Creed substitutes for gospel ‘the Catholic faith, and “identifies this with the formulated doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation (The Athanasian Creed, p. 72). He points out that saving faith, to the Quicunque, is not mere intellectual assent but worship of the divine Trinity. Further, he asserts, the damnatory clauses serve as a crucial reminder “of the awful responsibility of making the right decision in matters of fundamental belief (pp. 125-126).”
In the same book Kelly notes that in our modern age we have sharp compunction about “the prevailing tendency in the west, and in the east too after the 3rd century, was to distinguish sharply between orthodox and heretic, and to consign the latter mercilessly to eternal flames (p. 72).” In short, Kelly believes that the benefit of the doctrinal sharpness of the Athanasian Creed far outweigh the negatives. We might worry about denigrating the faith of those whose doctrine deviates from ours, but Kelly thinks we can look past that excess and appreciate the seriousness of theology and the “confident dogmatism” of this creed.
My contention is that, while it is indeed valuable for pastors and other theologians of the Church to study this document, it does tremendous damage to present it to the public as a creed of the Church because of its drastic misrepresentation of faith itself.
The argument from Scripture is overwhelming. In the Bible faith is first and foremost not an act of human will or a product of human deduction, but a reflection of God’s faithfulness, or constant grace. Many passages describe an element of intellectual assent, but trust and confidence in a loving God is always at the heart of the matter.
The Hebrew Bible really has no word for faith, but the root ‘mn, used in the Hiphil forms, points to a firmness and confidence that we interpret as faith. Significant is Gen 15:6, “And [Abraham] believed in Yahweh and He counted it as righteousness in him.” In Isa 7.9 the ideas of “belief in” and firmness of a life commitment or trust is clear in the oracle of Isaiah to Ahaz: “If you do not believe you will not endure.” Yet intellect and faith do belong together as expressed in Isa 43.10-12: “You are my witness, says the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe in me and understand who I am.”
That is the faith that Jesus calls “great” in Matt 15:21-28? The evangelist probably uses the ancient designation “Canaanite” instead of Syro-Phonecian to underscore the fact that she was a pagan. We have no hint that she understands Jesus as a Messiah or Son of God, but only that she desperately wants healing for her child. Jesus on several occasions is reported to have said that such a faith saves. These are cases not of doctrinal correctness but of existential urgency. Just as one man cries out “I believe; help my unbelief (Mk 9:24),” so the disciples do not understand or believe even after the resurrection appearances, and yet they are admitted to the sacred meal, given the Spirit, and changed into bold witnesses to the Truth.
The uniquely Western attempt by the Church to substitute for the full Christian experience of faith a philosophical codification is summarized by the definition of Thomas Aquinas: “Faith is the act of the intellect when it assents to divine truth under the influence of the will moved by God through grace” (Summa Theologica II.II.q2.a.9). Despite the single reference to worshipping the single God in trinity the Athanasian Creed repeatedly refers to faith as clinging, guarding, not confusing, acknowledging, thinking thusly and confessing a formula about God. Thus the Athanasian Creed speaks as Aquinas and purports to be able to reduce (at least for the sake of discerning in one’s self and in others) this inexpressible and holistic experience of biblical faith to a philosophical formula.
The Reformation strongly critiqued this scholastic over-intellectualization of faith as is evidenced by the Lutheran Confessions. We confess that we cannot by our own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ or come to him, but the Holy Spirit calls us through the gospel, etc. The central article on justification states that we are not put right with God by works, but:
We receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, when we believe that Christ suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness, as Paul says in Romans 3:21-26 and 4:5. (Augsburg Confession IV).
Also, in the article on repentance, the Augsburg Confession speaks of saving, justifying faith as the trust in the Gospel’s promise of forgiveness through Christ:
Properly speaking, true repentance is nothing else than to have contrition and sorrow, or terror, on account of sin, and yet at the same time to believe the Gospel and absolution (namely, that sin has been forgiven and grace has been obtained through Christ), and this faith will comfort the heart and again set it at rest (AC XII).
One other interesting citation among hundreds in the Confessions:
Actually, true perfection consists alone of proper fear of God and real faith in God, for the Gospel does not teach an outward and temporal but an inward and eternal mode of existence and righteousness of the heart (Augsburg Confession XVI).
We can argue too from the perspective of brain research. The right hemisphere of the brain generally deals with the sensed world tacitly as a whole. It sees patterns. It recognizes what it cannot put into words. The left hemisphere for the most part is linear, sequential and verbal. In fact the brain’s working is complex, with segments of both hemispheres (as well as the inner brain core, associated with primal emotions, and the outer neo-cortex, associated with the intellect) cooperating in most of our functioning, such as language.
What can this teach us about faith and the Quicunque? The age-old question of what is saving faith is one that is wired into our circuits. At its core our faith is emotional and experiential. We experience it as a whole, tacitly. It is like knowing and recognizing a familiar face, but being unable to describe it to others. Yet to be whole-brained and completely human, we must try to describe it. In fact, to be completely open with God and to love the Lord our God with heart, soul and mind (Matt 22:37), we must strive to put our experience into words. This is the way we think and the way we can be in community with others.
This brings us back to the call for a fallibilist confessionalism-it is the only way to be whole-brained Christians. We must strive to express in words that which we know tacitly. We know that there is a truth “out there.” We know we have experienced something in the love of God that has the force of Absolute Truth. To fully respond to it as humans we must worship both with our private emotional honesty, but also in words. We must praise it in the presence of the whole congregation. We must bear our testimony. Of course the Reformers knew this and therefore they wrote and penned their names to the Book of Concord to prove to the world that the faith that had captured their spirits was not an ephemeral thing but had meaning in the realm of human discourse.
To this struggle for words the Athanasian Creed’s trinitarian and christological formulas bring a great blessing.
But the Quicunque is not a living creed because it leads to the conclusion that faith can be distilled into words. It fails to point beyond the words to holistic experience of God’s grace. It does not humbly acknowledge that believers must continually return to the core images of faith for refreshment, and continually reexamine our language in the light of the experiences of the people of God.
hat makes statements like the Athanasian Creed and the “9.5 Theses” so attractive is the emptiness of absolute relativism. We know that when people stop believing in something they don’t then believe in nothing, but in anything. They become ever more vulnerable to “the devil’s empty promises.”
Confronted with this prospect many among us long for a rigorous faith. Something strict. Something with teeth and bite. Something that will strengthen our sense of identity.
But sola gratia is the right place for Christians to dig in their heels and be rigorous. For the sake of this foundation of our faith we can and should confess our faith as fallible, humble Christians. We should always acknowledge that we might be wrong and that we certainly need to listen to the witnesses of others, especially to the voices of the disenfranchised.
Especially in its anathemas the Athanasian Creed breathes an institutional arrogance that is exactly the attitude Jesus warned us against when he said “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains (John 9:41).
A beloved professor of mine, Fred Danker, once quipped, “Sometimes you can be so right you can’t be saved.” Another apt observation: “Damnation is not a means of grace.”
Especially in our liturgy, our creedal statements, and in web sites that introduce our beliefs to the world, we should remember that the grace of God will forever outstrip our conceptions of it.