Why the Church has Creeds
by Mark Shea
My friend (we'll call him Bob) has a problem with the Church's "authoritarianism." In particular, he suspects the Church's creeds. For Bob, they are secret passwords which, if you say them while stupidly bobbing your head "yes," allow you into the Church. He complains creeds keep people from thinking. He argues they lead to persecution and cause well-meaning believers to be excluded from the Kingdom by rule-bound bigots.
Bob, of course, is not alone. I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard someone complain against "complicated theologies of men" and sigh that "all we really need is to love one another and believe the simple teachings of Jesus." Who can fault such a desire? For indeed, in the end, loving God and each other and obeying Jesus is all we need to do. But in the world as it actually is, this very quickly gets complicated.
The first complication is a little question Jesus asked his disciples one day near Caesarea Philippi. "Who do people say I am?" he asked. They told him the latest rumors. "Some say Elijah or one of the prophets. Some say this. Some say that." Finally, when the conversation paused, He looked at them and asked, "And what about you? Who do you say I am?"
There was a long silence till Simon spoke. With a Spirit-led intuition that cut right to the heart of things, he said, "You are the Christ. The Son of the Living God." And Jesus replied "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in Heaven." Then he did a strange thing. He started giving Simon things and making a number of peculiar promises. First he gave Simon the name "Kefa" or "Rock" (a name hitherto reserved only for God). He promised to build his Church upon this Rock. He gave him the keys to the kingdom of heaven and the power to bind and loose. In short, he gave him some sort of authority.
But why? Well, the answer of history is that, even though Kefa (also known as Peter) got the answer to Jesus' question right, not everyone else would. As time went on, the Church found in her midst any number of Bright Young Things, visionaries, wise guys, wonderers, thinkers, sages, seers and suckers who continued to ponder the question Jesus put to his disciples that day. And as they did so, they came up with lots of different answers, which they often magnanimously offered as an "improvement" on Peter's confession like a "helpful" mother-in-law rearranging the furniture without so much as a by your leave. Such attempts to "improve" the gospel had real (and disastrous) effects on Peter's flock.
For instance, some people "improved" Peter's answer by affirming that Jesus is God but denying he is human. "He was," they confidently asserted, "a spirit in human form" (sort of like a holy hallucination). Others affirmed that Jesus was human and not God. Rather (they improvingly said) Jesus was only a man whom God temporarily inhabited. And these are but two of the dozens of "improvements" which challenged the Church over time. Such notions (whether springing from good intentions or bad) really affected how ordinary people like you and me understand and relate to Jesus himself.
For if Jesus is God but not man, then he has not really died for our sins and we are still unredeemed. On the other hand, if he is man but not God, then his death means nothing for us. He was just another nice but dead man. He cannot give eternal life, for it belongs only to God. This sort of thing gave Christians of the first five centuries after Christ many headaches, especially since "improvements" were being suggested on what seemed a weekly basis and were often proposed using the Very Latest Ideas from the various schools of philosophy.
So what was Mother Church to do? In essence, she trusted the promises Christ had given Peter to bind and loose and stuck like a limpet to what Peter and the Apostles taught. At the same time, bit by bit, she built up a sophisticated philosophical vocabulary to defend those teachings against self-appointed "improvers." As the years rolled on, Peter's successors were called upon again and again (in union with the other bishops) to say to improvers "You're right that Jesus is human, but wrong to deny he's God. You've got a point when you say Jesus died, but it's not true that the Father and the Holy Spirit died too." All of this sort of thing was "negative definition." That is, it said what the Church did not believe when someone on the cutting edge of fashionable theology decided that this or that bit of the apostolic teaching was disposable. But eventually the Church, having parsed through five centuries of minute philosophical objections to the apostolic teaching, felt competent and ready to voice in great philosophical detail the same thing Peter had said back in Caesarea Philippi and the same thing Paul had said about the Church.
And that is where the creeds came from. Whereas the New Testament Church made the broad statement "Jesus is Lord," to express the apostolic teaching, the creedal formulas of the later Church were written to answer the million and one questions of people who said "How is Jesus Lord? What does that mean? Is he God? Or a godlet? Or is God living in him like gas in a balloon? Did God the Father become God the Son?" etc., etc. etc. To all this the apostolic teaching had answers, but it was frequently not self-evident from Scripture alone. Thus, it took an apostolic authority (that is, someone with the power to bind and loose, someone with "the keys of the kingdom") to definitively say "We believe this, not that." Hence, Peter's odd gifts which he passed on to his successor, the bishop of Rome. Jesus knew we would need them.
What then is the point of creeds? Ironically, the point is to do exactly what Bob wants all Christians to do: think about their faith. For the creeds are the product of five centuries of thought about the Faith--thought which led to some hard and fast definitions.
Which, of course, brings us to a standard complaint against Catholic theology. "The Church," I once complained, "is rigid. All this organized religion leads to a cramped lack of spiritual freedom and hampers the living flow of the spirit."
However, an examination of the incredible things that have been proposed as "improvements" in both ancient and modern Christendom prompted me to reassess this notion. From the 2nd Century Phibionites (gnostic "Christians" who practiced ritual abortion and cannibalism) to the German Christian Movement (which claimed to reconcile Nazism and Christianity) to David Koresh and Jim Jones, Christendom has seen lots of disorganized religion flowing with what some spirit or other was telling them.
In light of this I found myself coming to regard the demand for a formless, disorganized Body of Christ (and body of teaching) exactly like the demand for a formless disorganized human body. The human body, like the Body of Christ, has a certain rigidity to it, particularly in its skeleton and skull. Yet it is precisely this rigidity which gives it true freedom of movement. A person whose bones are being continually splintered into smaller and smaller bits experiences a considerably limited range of motion. Our bones, to do their jobs well, must be hard and resistant to change.
Now creeds are the doctrinal bones of the Faith. It is because they are rigid that those who believe them have freedom of movement. It is because they are not perpetually trying to re-invent the wheel and start defining their faith from scratch that they can get on with further growth. Thus creeds are not the exclusion of thought, but are, as G.K. Chesterton observes, the conclusion of thought. They are what you get when you have finished thinking a thing through. They are something solid, something you can build on.
When I was a non-denominational Protestant, my church sat down (in preparation for an evangelistic outreach) and tried to map out the "simple gospel" teaching about the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Many hours and many full blackboards later, we were still at it. Result: we wound up with a set of propositions which (as I discovered later) faintly resembled the creeds but left a lot out and got a number of things muddled. We meant well, but by starting from scratch we were at a radical disadvantage since we did not avail ourselves of the spiritual giants who had already done this work far better than we centuries ago. Thus, when we could have gotten on with the job of evangelism, we remained cocooned in chaos, unable to satisfactorily deal with questions like "Just who is Jesus anyway? What is his relationship to God? What is the way of salvation? How is that related to good works?" Hampered by our lack of the creeds, we were hampered from doing exactly what Bob is begging Christians to do: understand and share their faith.
But doesn't all this pigeonholing and definition lead to heresy hunting? This brings us to Bob's final lament. Namely, his assertion that creeds are written to exclude.
Now I agree that they are indeed written to exclude. For creeds are definitions and all definitions exclude (and include) certain things. After all, a definition is a shape, a boundary. But creeds aim to exclude false ideas, not persons. Indeed, the reason the Church has spoken with such force against false ideas is that they have real, eternal consequences for persons whom Christ came to save. The Church in making such hard headed definitions does so out of a very soft-hearted concern for what false teaching will do to the one who builds his or her life on it.
Thus, for example, the Church forbids with anathemas the notion you have to work to earn God's love. Does she want teachers who say otherwise to go to hell? No, she fears such teachers (and anyone who believes them) will be profoundly crippled in (and perhaps cut off from) a relationship with God just as surely as a workaholic dad is crippled in (and even cut off from) a relationship with his loving family by his own delusions. Thus, the Church's anathemas (like Paul's curse against the circumcision heretics in Galatian 1:8) is spoken out of a hard head and a soft heart.
"But this leads directly to the Inquisition!" says the modern mind. "It's what comes of having defined beliefs instead simply affirming a person's spirituality as unique and valid for them." In reply, I note that Hindus have no creed, nor do Jews or Muslims. Neither did Aztecs, or Moloch worshippers, or the Assyrians. Yet all have butchered with abandon. This is not, of course, to deny that Catholics and other creedal Christians have committed heinous crimes in the name of the Faith. They have. But it is to say the creeds don't kill people. People kill people.
And that is at the heart of Bob's confusion. For in fact the desire to pigeonhole and condemn comes not from hard Christian heads but from hard human hearts. It is rooted, not in creeds but in sin. Christianity, with its hard-headed and soft-hearted demand for mercy and its offer of the Holy Spirit's help (so often neglected), offers hope of mitigating this universal Moloch tendency in human beings. But, so far from leading to peace, nothing is gained by abolishing clear thinking and definition (which is all the creeds are). Rather clear thinking and definition must be united to love. The modern world is heir to the failure of our ancestors to achieve that union, yet instead of trying again (which would be sensible) we have quite irrationally opted to add clear thinking and definition to the rubbish heap along with love. The result will be, not peace and tolerance, but a return of Moloch in short order.
Thus, Catholics don't for a moment think creedal Christians are somehow spiritually superior to other religionists. The very creeds forbid such hubris since they teach that we are all capable of radical evil. But they do think being murky and confused about the salvation God offers in Christ is not exactly a sure way of preventing bloodshed. Lack of charity is not mended by lack of clarity.
This is why the Church always has and always will retain the creeds. Having struggled so long to overcome the dimness and confusion of "improvers" like Arius, Catholic Christians are not easily persuaded to start from scratch. Having watched the horror of this most bloody of all centuries unfold at the hands of people who often acted in obedience to the most muddled nonsense about racial theory or the victory of the proletariat, the Church is less than convinced that murkiness in thought leads to virtue in deed. But most of all she clings to the creeds out of love. For it was love that put Peter's confession in his heart and love that drew it out of him. It was love that fought to preserve that confession against all the assaults on the Faith the human mind could conceive. And it was love that has ever held the Lord of the creeds up before the eyes of humanity that we might be saved. That is why the Church, stubbornly loving her Lord despite all the sins of her members, stubbornly clings to his even more stubborn grace and continues to sharply divide between loving persons and hating false ideas. For she, like her Master, has a hard head and a soft heart.
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'Sheavings' reproduced with permission from Mark Shea
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