Of a troublesome comma in the Creed

The morning office I presently use to structure the first part of my prayers invites me to recite the Apostles’ Creed each day. Famously, the Christological clauses of that Creed begin: I believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried… The comma at the end of the second line has become rather notorious; it is apparently sufficient to summarise the entire earthy ministry of Jesus, and that is regularly held up as an indication of  the weakness of the Creed as a summary of the Christian faith (focused as it is on Jesus); sometimes it is held up as an indication that the traditional formulations of Christian faith, which centred on the Creed, are lacking in a crucial area. I first heard this sort of argument, and began to be suspicious of this troublesome comma, something like twenty years ago from anabaptist friends. These days I hear it more from people interested in what gets called ‘Kingdom theology’: the true Biblical gospel is the claim that Jesus is God’s final culmination of the story of Israel. The creed offers us nothing of Israel, and nothing of the life of Jesus; it is seriously deficient as an expression of the gospel. An an innocent comma is the symbol of that. Twenty years ago I was not in the custom of using an office to structure my prayers, and when I started I used Celtic Daily Prayer, the office of the Northumbria Community, or Celebrating Common Prayer from the Society of St Francis. Neither of these includes a daily recitation of the Creed. It was when, a couple of years back, I switched to wanting an office on my phone (I use ‘The Daily Office’ from Mission St Clare; the iPhone app is free, here) that I began to trip over that comma each day. I began to wonder about the criticisms more seriously, and whether I really wanted to recite these words as part of my daily devotion… (I’m a Baptist. Creeds are optional!) I have come to the conclusion that the Office itself is the justification for the shape of the Creed. Morning Prayer begins with confession and some psalmody, and then proceeds as follows: Old Testament Lesson Canticle (generally from Old Testament) followed by the Gloria Patri New Testament Lesson Canticle (sometimes from New Testament; sometimes from church history) Gospel reading Apostles’ Creed The Lord’s Prayer, petition, intercession, and closing sentences follow. The Creed here is located in the context of participation in Israel’s worship (psalmody and the OT canticle); a hearing of an excerpt from Israel’s story (the OT lesson); and a hearing of events from the life of Jesus (the Gospel reading) – and also of a hearing of the Church’s story and participation in the Church’s worship (NT lesson & canticle); it offers a framing narrative for these stories and for this worship. Its recitation can be understood to be the liturgical claim/explanation ‘You have joined in the worship of Israel and the Church, and heard of their stories; now be reminded that the God to whom Israel and the Church offer worship is properly named as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that the stories you have heard are brief chapters in a larger story that runs from creation to “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”; You have heard a brief tale of the winsome wonder of Jesus; know that this tale is part of a larger story that runs from birth of a Virgin by the Spirit’s power, through cross, grave, resurrection, and ascension, to a return to judge the living and the dead.’ Of course, if the Creed is abstracted from its proper liturgical context, then it does not serve this framing function, and the criticisms that are made are fair – but it should not be. (Particularly not the Apostles’ Creed, which is not the polemical product of a Council, but – as far as we can tell – a concretisation of the creed used in the liturgy of the Roman church from at least as early as the second century.) So, I continue recite the Creed, in its proper liturgical context, morning by morning with some cheerfulness, and without stumbling over a troublesome...

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More on being confessional

It seems to me that most people who claim to subscribe to the Reformed symbols today fail in both excess and defect. There is an excess in that the symbols are elevated to some sort of timelessly normative standard which appears to rival Scripture. It is not difficult to find language of the symbols as ‘defining’ the Reformed faith. This is, bluntly, rubbish. Scripture alone defines faith for anyone who can hope to pretend to the title ‘Reformed’. Certain symbols may be welcomed insofar as they are judged to express the true teaching of Scripture. They are, to repeat myself, norma normata, not norma normans. This is not an abstruse or difficult distinction, but it is a vital, and routinely forgotten, one. (An illustration might help: my university has various policies to which I am required to adhere, on such matters as health and safety of employees and students, a refusal to discriminate on ethnic or gender lines, &c. These policies exist largely as interpretations of certain legislative acts of the Westminster, Brussels, and Holyrood parliaments. If at any point the policy could be demonstrated to contradict the legislation, it would be the (legal) duty of any employee of the university to disregard the policy and to obey the legislation. The policies are thus rather precisely norma normata, subordinate to the norma normans which are the laws of Scotland, the United Kingdom, and the European Community. Just so, the symbols have real, but subordinate and potentially revocable, authority over those churches which have adopted them as helpful interpretations of Scripture.) There is also a defect, in that no-one seems prepared simply to grant the symbols authority. This was the point of my previous post. Finally, a perhaps interesting historical side-note: in the discussion over the Enns affair, everybody has been throwing around the term ‘The Westminster Confession’. As far as I can see, though, no-one has paused to specify which document they are referring to. Westminster Seminary California, according to its own website, does not hold to the 17th century Westminster Confession; it holds to the 1787 Philadelphia revision (it doesn’t tell you this; it just publishes the 1787 version under the heading ‘Westminster Confession’) the main WTS website links to an outside site which publishes the text that is usually referred to as ‘The Westminster Confession,’ a text that has no ecclesial validity at all that I can determine, in that it adopts parts (mainly the Scripture proofs) of the 1648 edition (the one edited at the request of the English parliament), whilst ignoring other parts of that edition (the Erastian ammendments of articles XX, XXIV, XXX and XXXI). The Scots parliament received the original edition in 1648; after Cromwell’s death, the English parliament chose in 1659 to accept the original articles XX and XXIV, but still refused XXX and XXXI. And so on. Various other American Presbyterian groups hold to the 1799 revision, the Cumberland revision, the 1858 revision, &c. In most cases the differences relate to the role of the civil magistrate as governor and protector of the church; the Westminster standards teach unambiguously the unity of church and state (there are other changes: in some of the later American editions the pope is not identified as the antichrist; in others all who die in infancy are saved, rather than just ‘elect infants’). There are a couple of small American denominations that hold to the original Westminster Standards, which are interesting case-studies in what it is to be confessional. The Reformed Presbyterian Church held to the original standards, and so maintained a principled political dissent, refusing to participate in the US political process, into the nineteenth century (they seem now to have weakened this witness). Other groups, believing (arguably rightly) that they have no right to edit the work of a synod, receive the confession as written, but then add riders to the effect that they have chosen to demur on certain points–in our Baptist language, the Lord has been pleased to grant more light and truth, and so the confession needs amending. So what? Well, perhaps four comments. First, none of the revisions affect Article I, which is what the Enns affair is allegedly about, so all this confusion might not matter. But, second, the confusion is perhaps slightly worrying. Do WSC and WTS really hold to different confessions (1787 and 1647-ish)? If not, which one has been sufficiently sloppy on its website to publish the wrong confession? If WTS really holds to the confession it links to, how do its faculty and students deal with the unambiguous teaching of the unity of church and state? (The RPC was right,...

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How to be confessional

Ben, at Faith and Theology, has posted on the documents made public by Westminster Seminary that led to the suspension of Peter Enns, which has already generated a lot of discussion (Ben’s post and the ensuing discussion is here; the documents themselves can be found here). I have not read Enns’s book; nor, I imagine, will I. (I am a devotee of Dr Johnson on such matters: ‘Whenever anyone publishes a new book, you should immediately go out and read an old one.’) I have, I confess, only glanced through the WTS statements. The discussion around the case, however, highlights something that has been of concern to me for a while: I fear that we no longer know how to be confessional. I teach a course from time to time on ‘Christian Symbolics’. The fact that the title needs explanation is symptomatic (‘symbols’ are creeds, confessions, catechisms and other ecclesially-authorised expressions of the faith). In that course I spend quite a lot of time discussing notions of authority, how symbols function as subordinate, but real, authorities (norma normata, as opposed to Scripture, which is the norma normans, in the classic scholastic formulation). I devoted a chapter of a book once to arguing that the real, and irreversible, authority of the ecumenical creeds could be established from a commitment to sola scriptura, and to exploring the particular authority of the confessions of a divided church. These seem to me to be important topics, that we need to understand better than we do. What should we say of the Enns case? First, it seems to me that WTS cannot be criticised for being a confessional institution. It is open and honest about its stance, Enns and everyone else knows about it. Should confessional institutions exist? Seminaries exist to prepare ministers to serve particular church communities, and expecting staff and students to teach and act in accord with the basic decisions of those communities is surely reasonable. John Francke, who gave an interesting paper here yesterday, commented in passing that Princeton (the seminary, of course) has recently refused to admit a student on doctrinal grounds (s/he was non-Trinitarian). Further, WTS has not attempted to re-write its doctrinal standards after the fact in order to exclude (a procedure which is not unknown in recent or ancient church history, and is despicable); it has not invoked shadowy unwritten standards. Enns has been accused of denying Article I of the Westminster Confession. Whether he did or not is a matter of judgement, but the charge is clear and meaningful. But… …glancing through the published material, my overwhelming sense is that the real problem is that WTS was not confessional enough, or at least not secure enough in its own confessional status. What was needed was a paragraph, at most two, saying ‘Peter Enns published the following statements which we judge to contradict such-and-such an article of the Westminster Confession of Faith,’ which could then have been argued over by interested parties. Instead, there are long explanations why Inspiration and Incarnation (Enn’s book, which led to the controversy) is a bad book, a dangerous book, wrong, unclear, &c., and even longer defences of the same points. All these things are, of course, entirely beside the point. It is possible to write an astonishingly bad and dangerous book which is wholly in accord with the Westminster standards (or the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, or Baptist Faith and Message, or whatever); equally, had Enns’s book been universally hailed as the best thing ever written on the subject, it could still have contradicted the Confession. Being confessional means you have chosen not to argue about what is right or wrong in abstract, only about what is in conformity or not in conformity to your confessional basis. When John McLeod Campbell was expelled from his ministry in Row by the General Assembly of the Kirk, it has always seemed to me that both sides were right: I have read (some of) McLeod Campbell’s Row sermons, and it seems clear that he was teaching that the atonement of Christ was universal in its effect: on this point, I think it is theologically necessary to think that he is right (I think limited/definite atonement doctrine can be rescued–indeed, I have a paper half-written making the attempt–but, for reasons I once explored in relation to Jonathan Edwards’s doctrine of reprobation, I cannot accept that there is any portion of the human race for whom Christ’s atoning death is not a decisive event). Equally, and again having read the sermons, the Kirk was right to judge that his teaching contravened the Westminster Standards, and so was right...

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