Friday, September 22, 2006

The Nicene Creed and Christianity:

Those labels and boxes. Sometimes coming forth with proper criteria for "line-drawing" can be difficult. Indeed, the "deconstructionist" left specializes in using that difficulty to argue that all categories and consequently all Truth are simply social constructs, decided by those in power. The following is an email I received from a Mormon reader. We discussed the criteria for "what is a Christian?" The discussion started because of my labeling the key Founders as "not Christian" (even though many of them like Adams and Jefferson claimed to be) because they rejected creeds central to orthodox Christianity, most notably the Nicene Creed, which Jefferson and Adams bitterly ridiculed as the ultimate "corruption" of Christianity. An interesting parallel thus can be drawn between our "Unitarian" Founders and Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses who likewise reject the Nicene Creed (and therefore some would say reject Christianity even though they call themselves "Christian").

I gave the reader, as examples of orthodox Christian bloggers defining Christianity according to the Nicene creed one of Clayton Cramer's posts (I also mentioned a few of Joe Carter's). The reader's email responds to Clayton Cramer.

In Mr. Cramer's blog, he sets out to show that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a Christian religion. That's interesting given the name of the church. Bit I digress. During a meeting Mr. Cramer explained that all faiths are defined by core values.

"I explained that are certain core values that define various faiths, and trying to gloss over those differences is silly. I gave as an example of a core value of Christianity--really, a lowest common denominator definition-- the Nicene Creed."

I think what Mr. Cramer meant was faiths have core tenets not values. A tenet is "the fundamental tenet of Marxism principle, belief, doctrine, precept, creed, credo, article of faith, axiom, dogma, canon; theory, thesis, premise, conviction, idea, view, opinion, position; (tenets) ideology, code of belief, teaching(s)." (Oxford American Dictionary)

It is interesting that he chose the Nicene Creed as the basic tenet of Christianity. The Creed wasn't created until 325 when Constantine, Emperor of Rome, told the Christians church leaders to get their act together and settle the issue of the nature of God. There were several groups all proclaiming their understanding of the nature of God. Each claimed their understanding correct. The upshot was dissentions within Christian community. This was unsettling for the Empire and the emperor wanted it to stop. The problem facing Christian leaders was trying to reconcile the Old Testament doctrine of one God with the New Testament's Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. For quite some time there was no universally accepted way of reconciling these two statements about God. The issue revolved around two questions: Was Jesus subordinate to the Father and if not how do you describe such a union.

The councils who decided the issue were packed with those who rejected the subordination of Jesus. For them, the challenge was how to describe the nature of such a union. People had tried for a very long time to come up with a formula but all failed. Finally through the use of Greek philosophical terms hypostases and ousia a formula was created to describe the Trinity. They had to turn to Greek philosophy because the concepts did not exist in either the Old Testament or the New Testament. So, under the direction of the Roman Emperor and using Greek concepts rather than Christian these councils were able to hammer out a definition of the Trinity the Emperor could enforce. And the rest, they say, is history.

Now proponents of the Nicene Creed say the creed only formalized what had been taught in the Bible. If that is so, why couldn't the councils simply take these concepts rather than importing Greek philosophical concepts? Take out the Greek terms and the whole thing falls apart. There is another problem with using the creed as a benchmark of orthodoxy. If you claim that all those who don't believe in the Nicene Creed are not Christians, what of those members of the Church which lived prior to the creation of the Nicene Creed? They couldn't have believed in the creed because it hadn't been created yet. So do you stamp all the early Church fathers living before 300 AD non-Christians because this creed wasn't around to be accepted?

However, Mr. Cramers assertion that the Nicene Creed is the lowest common denominator definition of what it meant to be a Christian runs into a far more serious problem. If Mr. Cramer's assertion was true, then we should be called Trinitarians rather than Christians. Christians are not termed Christians because they accept the Nicene Creed. They are defined as Christians because of their faith in Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah. The common denominator which defines what it means to be a Christian is the belief that Jesus is the promised messiah and redeemer of the world. This was the good news of the New Testament. It was this that the Apostles preached to the world after His death and resurrection. It seems to me that those who have accepted Christ as their messiah and their redeemer and follow his example should properly be called Christians, even if they believe in the Nicene Creed. :)

As for my thoughts, as an outsider to the label "Christian," on the matter....When I "literally" read the Bible I see it as an "open-ended" text full of potential contradictions and alternate interpretations. I would agree that the Bible absolutely supports theological unitarianism as much as it supports trinitarianism. There are some passages which clearly seem to say that Jesus is inferior to God the Father (Proverbs 8:22, Colossians 1:15, and John 14:28), and others which support the concept of the Trinity (2 Corinthians 13:13, Jude 20-21, and Matthew 28:19). See David Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, pp. 74-5. Likewise, I see as much Biblical support for the concept of theological universalism (that all will eventually be saved) as for eternal damnation. (See this website by a Princeton theological seminary student making the Biblical case for universalism).

And theological unitarianism and universalism were central tenets to our key Founders' (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and a few others) theistic rationalist creed. These founders were influenced by unitarian and universalist ministers (many of them from the Congregational Church, some Episcopalian though) who made Biblical arguments for these doctrines. See for instance, Samuel Clarke, an Anglican unitarian who was nearly defrocked for peddling his unitarianism within the Church, and whom James Madison lauded. Founding era universalist ministers were so numerous and influential in making Biblical arguments for universalism that they converted Benjamin Rush, an other-wise orthodox Trinitarian, to the doctrine.

Rush claimed:

I then read for the first time Fletcher’s controversy with the Calvinists in favor of the Universality of the atonement. This prepared my mind to admit the doctrine of Universal salvation, which was then preached in our city by the Revd. Mr. Winchester. It embraced and reconciled my ancient calvinistical, and newly adopted Armenian principles. From that time I have never doubted upon the subject of the salvation of all men. My conviction of the truth of this doctrine was derived from reading the works of Stonehouse, Seigvolk, White,Chauncey, and Winchester, and afterwards from an attentive perusal of the Scriptures. I always admitted with each of these authors future punishment, and of long, long duration.

But whatever the Biblical support for unitarianism and universalism, our key Founders made it clear that man's reason superseded biblical revelation, that man's reason ultimately determined that Jesus was not God and that people don't burn in Hell forever, and therefore they could "cut out" those passages of the Bible which contradicted unitarianism and universalism, and focus on those passages which support their unitarian-universalist doctrines. Revelation was designed to support Reason, not the other way around.

Now, after reminding of all this, we ask the question: Were they Christians? They were members of Christian Churches. Many of them (Jefferson and Adams) claimed to be Christians. And perhaps unitarianism and universalism have as much "right" to the name "Christian" as trinitarianism and eternal damnation. David Holmes's comments, I think, help: "Since the late fourth century, the doctrine of the Trinity has been synonymous with orthodox Christianity." Like it or not, that's the way it is.

Look, we can define these labels like "Christian" however we want to. The problem is, we need some definite criteria or else a label like "Christian" defines so broadly that it loses much of its meaning. In its broadest sense, the term "Christian" can mean anyone with any kind of connection to a Christian Church. In that sense, virtually all of our Founders were Christians. And, as Catholic who never went beyond baptism and doesn't go to Church and rejects Catholic dogma, I could too. I don't call myself "Christian." So what about any person who calls himself a "Christian"? That would include not only Founders like Jefferson and Adams, but also present day figures, gays like Andrew Sullivan and Gene Robinson, and liberals like Howard Dean, Gary Wills, and Phil Donahue -- cafeteria Christians who believed God created gays as gays and would like to see them married in Christian Churches. Certainly, those who thunder we are a "Christian Nation" don't want the word "Christian" defined that broadly.

I think judging purely by historical standards, the Nicene Creed (as well as some of the lesser creeds) is a "reasonable" place to define the faith. Defining Christianity by these creeds does lead to some odd "categorizing" results though. For instance, because Andrew Sullivan accepts the basic creeds, according to Joe Carter, one of the most influential conservative Christian bloggers, Sullivan gets to be a Christian; but because Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and our key Founding Fathers reject the Trinity, they do not. In all fairness though, I know many evangelicals who would claim that liberal Christians like Sullivan et al. along with the non-Trinitarians aren't real Christians either.


Anonymous said...

The "Christian" appellation is, as acknowledged, difficult to pin down. From my perspective, only Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican Catholics are realistically Christian. That may seem startling, even outrageous, but I insist it is entirely defensible. And what is it about these three bodies that qualifies them uniquely to that appellation? The ontology of the Church, the structure of apostolic succession and tripartite ministries of bishop, presbyter, and deacon, and a fully developed sense of consensus of the faithful. In other words, actual tenets are subordinate to the manifested structure of Ecclesia.

Early believers, well before biblical texts became apparent, followed the principle articulated at Acts 2:42: "They [Christians] continued steadfast in the Apostles' teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers." This single prism delineates what has been, and remains, the ontological primacy of being The Church. And the Church is both the institution and organism through which the Holy Spirit continues to inspire the faithful to belief and obedience. All others who appropriate "Christian" to themselves are the antithesis of Christ-bearers, because they invert the New Tribe of Israel (Church) into a metaphor, when it is meant to be very concrete and real.

As 1 Peter 2:9 proclaims: "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order to proclaim the mighty works of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people."

Being a "Christian" means being God's people, not a believing individual. If the continuity of salvation history is to have any sense, Yahweh works through individuals for the sake of the community. The "new tribe of believers" is the Church, shepherded by bishops (overseers) who are successors to the apostles (Acts 20:28). As many early apologists reiterated: As the Father sent the Son, and as the Son sent the apostles, so the apostles sent the bishops (overseers), who are appointed as the shepherds of the "household of God."

Others who call themselves "Christian" are self-appointed and self-determined. Historical Christians are rooted in the Church which is the "mystical Body of Christ." That mystical Body has physical manifestations on the temporal sphere, which the self-determined choose to ignore hubristically.

I concede I am not a Christian, and I admit I am not invested in this argument in any substantive way. But I also know history cannot be disregarded, just because it no longer comports with one's ideology. But any student of Christianity must surely know that the reformed traditions, while no doubt having legitimate complaints, exercised them outside the legitimate sphere, and without participating in the "household of God" are thus not members of it either.

All religion appeals to Authority. Who do the "Christianists" appeal to? Their own individual interpretation of a book. Every other Christian appeals to the Church, the family of God, the Ark of the Covenant, headed by bishops who have been consecrated in succession from the apostles's day to today. That physical and symbolic linkeage is what connects the present to the past, and makes the Church the Body that Christ came to redeem. Authentic Christianity is grounded in community; aberrant Christianity is grounded in individuals and their particular interpretative take on a book. One has existed since the time Jesus supposedly lived, the other sprung from its loins as a heretical ideology. That most of them have no concert with the historical identity, nor even reflect what the Bible they esteem requires, indicates that any leaf separated from its stem, divorced from its trunk, without any roots, is dead. It is no wonder that the perversity of biblical fundamentalist have scandalized Christianity, since they are the authors of another entity altogether. Calling one's self, and being, a "Christian" are not identical. The "Christianist" mindset is so removed from the Gospel that it deserves to be called the Anti-Christ.

While I do not believe authentic Christianity, I must agree with Andrew Sullivan that what parades around as "Christianist" is about as inverted as any heresy ever.

Jonathan said...

Thanks. Always appreciate your learned comments. Although, your categorization method is interesting. It's one that perhaps the Catholic Church would like. LOL.

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