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How to Read the Creeds
If an N. T. Wright book ever disappoints me, it is in the last chapter. In this case, Wright turns his attention back to the subject with which he introduced this material; the ancient creeds of the church. As a foil for his opening salvo on the “missing middle” the material on the creeds was well-chosen. As an illustration for how Christians from fairly early on had failed to focus on the critical message of the kingdom, noticing that the creeds covered only chapters 2 and 27-28 of Matthew was a masterful stroke. Now, however, Wright returns to the creeds to teach us how to read them, anyway.
For Wright, as a leader of a liturgical church which actually recites one or another ancient creed during its worship services, I am sure this is important. It is not so for most of us. When I was a child in a Presbyterian church, we did recite the so-called Apostles Creed during the service. By the time I was a grown man we had ceased to do so. Among evangelical churches in the U. S., I do not know if one tenth of one percent of churches recite a creed and call doing it worship. One could charge us with a dumbing down of worship – we would likely all be found guilty – but the removal of the creed from weekly corporate worship had, I believe, more to do eliminating the impression that mental assent to such partial statements of Christian doctrine could be in any way equated with living faith, a very good point to make. And in fact, as Wright takes us through the clauses of the Apostles Creed, he does an excellent job of showing us how misleading the creed is, if left to stand on its own.
Wright could have used this chapter to discuss the implications, the “so what?” and the “now what?” of: God has been the king of all the nations now for some nineteen hundred-plus years and God is still patiently waiting for his sometime people to realize this central fact and to begin to act accordingly. He does not.
Instead, since he does not believe we should get about the business of writing a new creed, one that reflects the central story of God, Old Testament and New, Wright tries to teach us how to festoon – a word he borrows from C. S. Lewis – the old creeds with new meanings, new clauses which we are to form in our heads while we form the phrases of the creed with our lips. Perhaps, for those few Christians who actually recite a creed regularly, this exercise might help with the truly difficult task of avoiding the “mindless parroting” of phrases. For the rest of us, Wright wastes the chapter.
A Personal Recollection
As a young father, I went to a local garden center with my two young sons to find a tree. What we discovered made my heart sink. The trees were too expensive at least twice over. Yet with those two hopeful boys in tow, I persevered, searched further and found, way back in a dark corner, the “seconds,” the odd-shaped trees nobody wanted. My boys and I sorted through sad specimens until we found a tree which had one good side. The best two things about that tree were its bargain price and its height. It was a short tree, less than five feet tall, a very good thing because we had only two strands of lights and two boxes of glass globes. Besides the tree I bought some icicles, the sort of glittery strands that cover gaps in a tree just fine. We put the tree in a corner of the front room, decorated it, turned on the lights, and… If you squinted, that little tree looked fantastic.
It was a fine Christmas.
Is Christianity So Close to Being Penniless?
My point is, it appears Wright would rather do with the creeds as I did with that tree: turn them just so, decorate them with mental glitter to hide the massive gaps. This supposes we lack the resources to do any better! He deeply resists writing a new and proper creed. Really? His reason:
I have seen various attempts to do so over the years and, frankly, they quickly become banal. Contemporary agendas shoved in between ancient and venerable phrases donʼt cut the mustard. Part of the point of creeds, in any case, is precisely that we receive them humbly from our elders and betters in the faith, men and women whose shoes we are not worthy to untie.
Does the result have to be banal? We need not shove “contemporary agendas” in between “venerable phrases,” at least no more than the early creed writers did so themselves. And as for the creeds being humbly received “from our elders…” I thought the point of creeds was a group of people, at least as grumpy and ordinary as Tom Wright or I can be, loving God and coming together to hammer out the essentials of the faith again, as best we know how, during a period of controversy and crisis associated with deep change.
And “…elders and betters?” Seriously? Surely Wright has read a thing or two about what went on at Nicaea and Chalcedon? Those folks are hardly our betters. What is more, we also have the Holy Spirit of God.
And, “…shoes we are not worthy to untie?” John the Baptizer used that phrase to describe the one upon whom a visible, dove-like expression of the spirit of God descended and stayed. Hardly a description of gruff old Bishop Athanasius or any of his lot. Those folks framed their understanding of Jesusʼ divinity in contemporary pagan philosophical terms. And when the philosophy of their times underwent a major paradigm shift, they had to change the terms in the creed to match the philosophy!
Methinks the former Anglican bishop has confused creeds and the purposes of and for creeds with that of Scripture, at least in this instance. Again, creeds are written in times of confusion and crisis. Times like ours.
So, on the writing of creeds, I think our time, when everything is up in the air and we have no clear idea what the Christianity of another forty years will look like, the writing of a new creed which tells the whole powerful story of God as we presently understand it could give shape and clarity where it is now sorely lacking. If creeds are not utterly irrelevant in this post-post-modern age, then at least we need to write a new one, not just charitably squint at the old ones.
Lighting Candles for Part Four
Let me see what good things I can find to say about this disappointing final chapter of this otherwise groundbreaking, solid book.
- On modern biblical studies and actually reading the Bible:
Wright tells a story: A man takes his antique car to a mechanic with the sense that it does not run as quite as well as it used to do. When he comes back to the shop days later he finds the car “dismantled into a thousand parts, each one carefully labeled and laid out beautifully, artistically even, all over the workroom floor. The owner stares in dismay.”
ʻMy car!ʼ he shouts, ʻWhat have you done to my car?ʼ
ʻHey, take it easy, man,ʼ replies the head mechanic. ʻJust look at this. What a great machine. People must have enjoyed this old thing all those years ago. These parts–we’ve all been admiring them. Sure, we’ve cleaned some of them up and we’ll probably replace some of the others. Enjoy the view! You should be proud.ʼ
And the owner, lost for words, shakes his head and walks away.
- How modern “creedal” Christians miss the story of God. They, in affirming:
…the Trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection, the Holy Spirit, and the second coming, have never imagined for one moment that the gospels are telling the story of how God became king or that the rescuing sovereignty of God is already a reality in the world through the public career, death, and resurrection of Jesus. There is a kingdom-shaped gap at the heart of their implicit story. And the problem with leaving that gap unfilled is that everything else in the story changes its meaning, ever so slightly but significantly… By themselves, the creeds are fine–excellent, solid, evocative, upbuilding. But if their enthusiasts claim that they teach exactly the same things as the canon, they have deceived themselves, and the truth is not in them.
- How some evangelicals miss the point when the creed confesses God to be the “maker of heaven and earth.”
The anti-evolutionary belief can quite easily accompany a belief that the early Christians strenuously resisted, that “this world is not my home, Iʼm just a-passing through.” Indeed, the picture of God “intervening” from outside, as it were, to “create,” can all too easily accompany the picture of Jesus as a kind of superman or spaceman, coming to earth to snatch saved souls from their dark prison. And that is classic Gnosticism, not Christianity.
- In conclusion, how we all, liberals and conservatives and all others, have read the Bible wrong:
We have either followed the apparent implication of the great creeds and allowed ourselves to tell a pseudo-Christian story from which the story of Israel, on the one hand, and the story of Godʼs kingdom, on the other, have been quietly removed. Or we have formulated a concept of the kingdom that did in fact grasp Godʼs passion to put the world to rights, but we were then unable to integrate that with the incarnation and death of Godʼs own son.
The answer, says Wright, is not to stitch conservatism and liberalism together; even together they both fall short. The answer is to go back and read, really read, the gospels, afresh!
Next: On How God Became King, Wright’s suggestions for celebration, going forward.
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1 Back to Post Wright, N. T., How God Became King, The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (Harper Collins, New York, 2012) p. 258-9
2 Back to Post Ibid., p. 253-4
3 Back to Post Ibid., p. 257
4 Back to Post Ibid., p. 260
5 Back to Post Ibid., p. 273