Thursday, September 20, 2012

Is Nicaea Enough?

The How and the What

Every Sunday across the world millions of Christians confess the faith using the Nicene Creed. Presbyterians - not so much. If they confess the faith at all, they use the Apostles’ Creed, and that not as a regular part of worship. I remember a seminary professor from California speaking in a church where I served as an associate and during his lecture mentioning the Nicene Creed and, as an aside, asking the senior if the church ever used the Nicene Creed. The answer was “no.”  Nor did we use the Apostles’ Creed.  I began to pay more attention to the older, fuller Creed then and have come to appreciate it more and more as the confession of universal Christianity.

I have an interest in two particular statements of the Nicene Creed, statements of the “what” without addressing the “how.” They address the most basic truths of Christianity - creation and redemption.

These statements challenge us to address a question: Is Nicea enough? Not necessarily to be admitted to membership or approved for ordination in a particular communion. But is Nicea enough for an individual to be considered a true Christian and a church to be recognized as a true church?

Concerning creation: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” Then: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ…Through him all things were made.” Is it enough to confess this truth as it stands? Or does orthodoxy require more? The Creed confesses God the Father through Christ to be the Creator of everything visible and invisible that is not himself, but it does not say how or when God created all things through Christ. For most of worldwide Christianity this confession of God the Creator is sufficient, but not so in the little corner of it in which I live.

The “scientific creationists” or “creation scientists” believe more is required. One must  believe the days of Genesis 1 are 6 24 hour solar days. In my presbytery not to affirm that is considered as taking an exception our confessional standards. I have said this before, and I freely acknowledge it sticks in my craw, but I was a minister for well over 30 years, and in the Presbyterian Church in America for all but 13 months of that time, before any presbytery found my views to be an exception and ordered me not to teach my views. I also irritates me in the extreme that those who are not worthy to carry Warfield’s jocks strap to the field house condemn his views and would not receive him into membership in my presbytery.

For the majority of those who take such a view of the creation days, the doctrine of creation also requires belief that the earth is young (probably 6,000 – 10,000 years old). Geology, astronomy, and biology say the data do not support this. But the young earth creationists press on by arguing such things as that a universal flood accounts for the geological strata or that the universe gives only the appearance of being old, and that one must be suspicious of the science because the scientists are blinded in their understanding and are suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. In my view science, as an attempt to understand God’s creation, is never fixed as are the Creeds of the church, but I am just not convinced that that the science as a whole is that wrong or corrupt.

I think that we need to see what a great thing it is to confess that God the Father is the creator through his Son of all that exists. Regarding the natural world, this is what sets Christian faith apart from unbelief and false religion.

Concerning redemption: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally  begotten of Father…For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end.”

This, too, is a great confession. There is one Lord, Jesus Christ, the eternally begotten Son, who in time, to accomplish our salvation, became incarnate by the Holy Spirit through virgin conception of Mary. He was crucified at a particular time in history, died, and was buried. He rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, reigns at the right hand of the Father, will come again to judge, and has a kingdom that is everlasting.

I am not asking if there any more that can be said or even needs to be said about our redemption. I am observing that the Creed says nothing more about the “how” of the accomplishment of redemption than these things. It does not speak of the active or passive obedience of Christ, of substitutionary penal sacrifice, of the imputation of righteousness, of justification by faith alone, or of the relation of faith and good works. These are extremely important doctrines that explain how we are saved by Christ’s coming down from heaven for us. I hold the historic Protestant view of them all. My hope of heaven is based on Christ’s obedience not mine, his paying sin’s penalty for me, that my righteousness is his counted to me, that I am right with God by faith in Christ and his work apart from anything I am or do, that good works flow from faith. I don’t see any possibility of eternal blessedness for me unless that blessedness will come because of Christ, not what he does to me or in me but what he did for me.

But, at the time the Creed was constructed, its statement defined what Christian belief was. It said what one must believe about Christ. Those who confessed this faith were Christians. This was what the universal church believed which set it apart from heresy and sects. Were those who believed this those whom this Christ saved? Was the church that believed this the true church? I understand that it will be said by some that the issues I describe as explications of the saving work of Christ were not being raised. But for that very reason people could not affirm them, could not reflect on them, could not take a position on them, could not affirm them on their death beds. So, for instance: Did confession of justification by faith alone become necessary for salvation only when the doctrine was clearly stated and taught? I understand also that we are saved not by the doctrines of salvation but by Christ. But, is the Christ of the Nicene Creed the Christ in whom we believe unto salvation? (I would observe, too, that with regard to the Person of Christ, the person who affirms the Creed every Sunday confesses more about the Person of Christ than the average conservative evangelical.)

These are sincere and substantial questions. But I can’t go to Paris looking for answers to questions that bother me so. I never was impressive; I am no longer young; I may sometimes still be aggressive.  So I am left to ask: Is confessing that the Father through Christ is the Creator of everything sufficient to be a creationist? Is confessing the Christ who came down from heaven for us and our salvation sufficient to be saved?


mozart said...

I was similarly required to take an exception by my pastor before I could be a ruling elder because I don't believe that Scripture requires belief in 24 hr creation. What gives? I was tempted to press the point with him, but I gave in and took the exception. And we don't require theonomists to take exceptions? Something is bass ackwards here.

Tony said...

YES. To believe that God the Father is the Creator whom made us and to whom we must answer, and that He sent His Son "for us and for our salvation," and that the Holy Spirit is likewise "the Lord" - genuine faith in the Triune God of creation and redemption - is sufficient for salvation. Catechetical discipleship, instruction in the faith, is life long - but should not be made a standard by which to judge one's conversion.