The Creeds I

This post and the subsequent post that follows it flow from a discussion that I was having with The Anglican Scotist over at his site. I thought that I would write it up as a sustained argument to see how well this particular synthesis works. This is a work in progress, so if you think I’ve missed something or misstated it, help me change my mind! This portion deals with what the creed is from a historical and exegetical perspective. The next post—not yet drafted—deals with what we do with the creeds today.

The creeds are considered by some to be a laundry list of doctrines that must be believed. Many on the liberal/progressive side have problems with certain aspects of the creeds or certain beliefs stated in them. Other people from various points on the spectrum just aren’t real sure what to do with them. My reflection on the creeds starts from the perspective of a biblical scholar and demands that they be read and understood within their original context. Sussing out the original intention of the author is an excellent starting place. Now, I don’t believe that the original intention of the author is the only or definitive meaning of a text—especially with religious texts—but it’s a reliable beginning.

The creeds were originally baptismal statements that demonstrated that those being baptized knew what they were getting into. The Apostles’ Creed does not go back to the apostles but certainly arose in the early days of the church and we know of it first as a Roman baptismal tradition. This is the origin of the creeds—they began as liturgical declarations clarifying that the one (adult) being baptized knew the beliefs of the group that they were joining. (Note too that in the original languages the creeds are in the singular—not the plural. That is, they all begin “I believe…” I’ve heard a lot of hay made out of the fact that the [English] creeds start with “we.” If you’re inclined this way, remember that it’s a recent change in the reception of the tradition.)

These creeds developed in response to different beliefs about religion and in particular about different ways of reading the Scriptures. Relatively early in their existence the creeds became boundary-making devices—not entirely inappropriate for a key component of an initiation ritual. Irenaeus certainly uses them as such considering the three bulwarks of the Church to be the Canon, the Creed, and the Apostolic Succession (the teaching handed on from the apostles and the ministry that certified it). By the time of the Nicene Creed and its Chalcedonian additions, the creeds were understood to be a brief and inclusive summary of the faith but particularly functioned in relation to the reading of Scripture.

The “problem” with Scripture is that much of it is poetic and metaphorical. This is not a problem if you are reading a text for enjoyment or even spiritual edification. When trying to build an entire world and way of being around it, however, some of the more flexible things need to be nailed down. To put a finer point on it, how is “Go, sell all that you own and follow me” to be properly understood—literally or metaphorically? Is this hyperbole or a direct command? If a command was it a command for the individual addressed by Jesus or should it apply to us all? The way that you answer these questions will have profound implications for how you lead your life.

Scripture reading in the early days of the Church was not like Scripture reading today. This is fundamental and not well understood. In essence, a learned early Christian reader’s assumptions about the text are quite contrary to our own. The earliest written treatise on the interpretation of Scripture is Origen’s De Principiis written in the first half of the third century but reflects principles clearly discernable in writings of Clement of Alexandria and the Apostolic Fathers, especially the Epistle of Barnabas. The key here is Origen’s explanation of the nature of Scripture and the defects or problems in the literal sense:

For as man consists of body, and soul, and spirit, so in the same way does Scripture, which has been arranged to be given by God for the salvation of men. … But as there are certain passages of Scripture which do not at all contain the “corporeal” sense, as we shall show in the following (paragraphs), there are also places where we must seek only for the “soul,” as it were, and “spirit” of Scripture. … But since, if the usefulness of the legislation, and the sequence and beauty of the history, were universally evident of itself, we should not believe that any other thing could be understood in the Scriptures save what was obvious, the word of God has arranged that certain stumbling-blocks, as it were, and offences, and impossibilities, should be introduced into the midst of the law and the history, in order that we may not, through being drawn away in all directions by the merely attractive nature of the language, either altogether fall away from the (true) doctrines, as learning nothing worthy of God, or, by not departing from the letter, come to the knowledge of nothing more divine. And this also we must know, that the principal aim being to announce the “spiritual” connection in those things that are done, and that ought to be done, where the Word found that things done according to the history could be adapted to these mystical senses, He made use of them, concealing from the multitude the deeper meaning; but where, in the narrative of the development of super-sensual things, there did not follow the performance of those certain events, which was already indicated by the mystical meaning, the Scripture interwove in the history (the account of) some event that did not take place, sometimes what could not have happened; sometimes what could, but did not. And sometimes a few words are interpolated which are not true in their literal acceptation, and sometimes a larger number. And a similar practice also is to be noticed with regard to the legislation, in which is often to be found what is useful in itself, and appropriate to the times of the legislation; and sometimes also what does not appear to be of utility; and at other times impossibilities are recorded for the sake of the more skilful and inquisitive, in order that they may give themselves to the toil of investigating what is written, and thus attain to a becoming conviction of the manner in which a meaning worthy of God must be sought out in such subjects (De Principiis, 5.11, 12, 15).

Essentially, Origin is saying that Scriptural anthropology is like human anthropology with body, mind, and soul corresponding to the literal, moral, and spiritual senses. Furthermore, there are defects in the literal sense that signal a deeper meaning—the spiritual sense. As far as Origen and later exegetes were concerned, everything in Scripture has a spiritual sense but not everything has a literal sense. (We moderns, of course, conditioned by Reformation sensibilities which reacted against the abuses of the allegorical method, believe that everything has a literal sense and we get suspicious when people start talking about a spiritual meaning that seems to take liberties with the text.)

Again, thinking as a framer of the creeds, thinking like an educated (i.e., literate) person of the 1st through 5th century, we must determine through the science of grammar what is being said and in what senses it is true. As an educated Christian we would be well aware of Origen’s rule that there are factual and conceptual defects in the literal sense; it is not to be seen as the primary sense of Scripture. Therefore we must decide how far the poetic devices–broken down into schemes and tropes–are to be understood. Thus, we must decide where the metaphor or analogy or whatever begins and ends both literarily and conceptually. The framers of the creeds were reasserting what they saw the Scriptures to say and were clarifying in philosophical terms what the Scriptures and their authors already said in a poetic or intuitive way about the interrelation between the members of the Trinity.

The creeds nail down the literal sense of several contentious points of interpretation and affirm that if one is to be accepted as a Christian, they must hold these particular things to be literally true in the reading of their Bibles. The problem was that while most groups calling themselves Christians considered the Scriptures authoritative, they had different core beliefs that emerging orthodoxy considered to go against the apostolic teachings. Thus, the Gnostics, the Adoptionists, the Arians all read the same Bible but their understanding of what was literal, metaphorical, and spiritual were different resulting in wildly different theologies. A Gnostic reading was prevented with the assertion that the god of creation is the God and Father of Jesus Christ—not a lesser, evil god. An Adoptionist reading was prevented with the assertion that Jesus was the only-begotten Son of God—God from his birth, not his baptism. An Arian reading was prevented with the assertion that Jesus was co-eternal with the Father. And so forth…

Once a host of biblical passages and poetic devices have been parsed as literally or metaphorical, a synthesis must be deployed, a metanarrative that identifies and grounds the most pertinent points of the salvific theo-history defining how these various passages relate to one another and identifiying the most crucial. That’s the creed. These are the parts of the synthesis that must be accepted and held as absolutes. You can think and read any other way you want as long as you don’t transgress these particular points. The creeds emphasize points of the story already in the Scripture although they use metaphysical language not found in Scripture.

8 thoughts on “The Creeds I

  1. *Christopher


    Sounds good so far…can we speak of the same Scripture as authoritative at this for all of these groups? My understanding is that there are discrepencies in which books were accepted by say Athanasius and Jerome and the Gnostics had their own collections by the 2nd or third century?

    I appreciate that you put the creeds in context–baptism, as statements of what one was getting into…and the parsing out of what must be accepted literally and as crucial–the metanarrative that is the grounding of our dogmatic thinking…

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    Well, the core of the canon had solidified by the time of Irenaeus arguments over certain of the Pastoral epistles and the place of Revelation, the Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle of Barnabas and the Didache continued for a while. Athanasius’ festal letter of 357 (I think) was the first collection that corresponds exactly with our current canon. Of course, the Roman Church did not have an “official” magesterially defined canon until Trent but the Pseudo-Gelasian Decretal lines it out pretty well in terms of what’s in and what’s out at a far earlier point.

    There were gnostic texts like what we find from the Nag Hammadi library and other questionable documents like the quite spurious and heavily Encratite but wildly popular Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles (think Greco-Roman pot-boilers but with people pledging eternal chastity rather than torrid sex scenes). In some ways the situation with the Gnostics would be comparable (in many ways actually…) with arguing Scripture with a Mormon. Yes, they read what we read–but other stuff too and they sure don’t read what we read the same way that we read it… (And yes, they fail mightily on all three of Irenaeus’ criteria.)

  3. *Christopher

    Thanks for fleshing that out. G-d bless Irenaeus. He’s one of my favorite of the early Fathers.

    The Encratite movement fascinates me (though no such pledge will be coming from me anytime soon) because much of their apocryphal literature like the Acts of Thomas actually influences much of East Syrian liturgical works on baptism and Eucharist as in the Anaphora of Addai and Mari. And they seem to have influenced Origen as well. Thoughts?

  4. Derek the Ænglican

    I did a paper for my director once on eucharistic imagery in the apocryphal acts. I imagine its on my hard-drive at home–let me know if you’re interested and I’ll see if it’s any good. :-) The question is still which way the influence was going…are we sure that the Apocryphal works shaped the orthodox liturgies or that the orthodox liturgies shaped the Apocryphal acts? I’ll have to ask my wife, though–she’s the Syriac expert in the house…
    Like so many of the heretical groups they were more or less thinking the same things as everyone else, they just exaggerated it to a point beyond where every one else was willing to go. For my money I’d be hard-pressed to say that Origen had Encratite connections. Instead, I’d say the same Scriptures and theologies that motivated and excited him were the same ones taken to an extreme by them.

  5. *Christopher

    Yeah…that exaggeration thing…like be celibate or else…(though I think until the Reformation, we lived with a watered down version of this, that’s why I always include Cranmer and Luther amongst the litany of queer saints even though they loved members of the opposite sex…for godssake, Cranmer had to transport Margaret Osiander around in a coffin when Henry reinforced clerical celibacy)…but isn’t that where heresy always goes, exaggerating one truth at the expense of another?

    Some of the works I read for my comps, like Peter Brown and Simone Petrement, seem to suggest connections with Origen, if not direct. We will probably never know the direction of the influence from liturgy to text and vice versa given the actual messiness of it all…still fascinating, especially the baptismal rite when compared to the Roman/North African version.

  6. Derek the Ænglican

    You’re out of my league now… I know *of* the eastern stuff but but have never really studied it in depth–especially not the secondary lit. Always been more of a Western guy…

  7. Annie


    (I’m so glad you posted the excerpt from Origen. I’d confused that with something written by Clement and so I had lost it, if you will. I’ve wanted to refer to it.)


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