Here we discuss the idea of whether or not the Apostles and Nicene Creeds are a sufficient basis of doctrinal agreement for the Church today. This view, called “Paleo-Orthodoxy,” has been espoused by theologians like Thomas Oden, who argues that the creeds embody the consensual doctrinal affirmations of the early church fathers. This idea is also proposed by Jim Belcher in Deep Church which we reviewed at DrIBEX Ideas (you can find those reviews by searching the blog for “Belcher”).
Before we think through this proposal, perhaps it would be good to post those creeds so we can better understand what we are discussing. This will also be helpful for readers who do not affirm the creeds as part of their weekly liturgical worship. I will list the creeds as they are recited today although the clause, “He descend into hell,” was not in the earliest form of the Apostles Creed (see my earlier post on that subject).
The Apostles Creed (late second century)
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary,suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
The Nicene Creed (fourth century)
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end. And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets. And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
I happily recite both the Apostles and Nicene Creeds and commend them to others, recognizing that evangelical believers will need clarification on the historical meaning of words like “catholic.” The Creeds emphasize the basic biblical themes of creation, Trinity, incarnation, resurrection and redemption, and proclaim the events of the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. This is the gospel that the Church has always proclaimed and must always must proclaim—a gospel rooted in God’s Trinitarian person and in these salvific events. The gospel is the “faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 1:3), which does not change.
On the other hand, the Creeds simply cannot bear the weight paleo-orthodoxy wants to place upon them. They are invaluable conversation partners for us today as we seek to participate in the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work. We cannot ignore them, and we should not expect the shape of our theology to vary significantly from the patterns they have set for the Tradition. At the same time, however, theology is an ongoing constructive project, semper reformanda (always reforming). Then how can these statements be reformed?
The early creeds were conditioned by their time frame, and that time frame was prior to the Middle Ages with its layers of superstitious accretions by the church of Rome. Are we to look back to the fourth century and leap frog over the events of the Reformation as if they never occurred? Just as Nicea dealt with a Christological aberration of its day, Arianism, so the Reformation creeds dealt with the soteriological aberration of its day, Roman Catholicism. And both those aberrations are still with us! Thus we need more than just the Nicene Creed because we need to respond to the theological errors that have developed since Nicea! It is in the area of soteriology where the early creeds are lacking in clear articulation. Perhaps they cannot be faulted in that regard. But they need to be supplemented by the soteriological insights gained from the Reformers.
I am resisting a strong desire to state that greater clarity in the area of eschatology is also a need. But I know that Christians who agree on every other statement in the creed, even with the needed soteriological supplements of salvation by grace through faith, still differ greatly in the area of eschatology. Personally, I desire greater eschatological definition for my own church. Practically, I realize that a basis for unity among all Christians may need to retain the basic eschatological statements of the old creeds, to which we all assent.
Every age will face new doctrinal challenges. Can we respect what the ancient creeds performed in combating the wrong ideas of their day and still recognize that we will need to supplement these statements in light of the wrong ideas that have developed in the centuries since?
More should be said, and I welcome any informed responses.