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The Creeds

October 27, 2016

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The Creeds, in their diversities, have always been a source of debate and inquiry. It isn’t just their differences or the ancient language that causes questions, but it’s their theology, the implied metaphysics and cosmology as well. All of them, from the Old Roman to the Nicaean, Athanasian or Apostolic, were written sometime between the third and fifth century. Whatever the question, it takes the proper tools to make sense of ancient texts, but even if we learned all about the cultures, conditions and languages of that period, it would only be half the work. In any case, I did come across a fairly lucid and concise answer to a fairly basic question, and I’d like to share it with you. As you know, there was an evolution of the various creeds, going through various redaction, additions, corrections and so forth. Even more recently people have asked how the creeds could be further updated, and here is an fitting answer:

Question & Answer

Toby of Burnsville, Minnesota writes:


Question:

What would an expurgated version of the Nicene Creed look like when its archaic imagery has been replaced?

Answer:

Dear Toby,

That is not the way to relate to the creeds. Creeds are historic documents that attempt to place into the words of the time in which they were framed, the faith those people professed.

Creeds are therefore human creations, written by human beings trying to make sense in their day, of their God experience. That is always what a statement of faith is. The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed are fourth century Christian creations. Inevitably they assume a fourth century worldview. It is not my duty or yours to purge those aspects of fourth century material, which has become unbelievable. It is rather our responsibility to discern the experience they were trying to articulate and to find 21st century words which can convey the same truth for our time that the creeds conveyed in theirs.

If we relate to the creeds as documents divinely inspired, which were meant to control our faith and to keep us “orthodox”, then we have become creedal idolaters! Creeds are not like girdles into which we have to fit our minds.

Let me be specific. The creeds of the church were hammered out in ecclesiastical conventions in a very political way. They represent compromise and political bargaining. They were not dictated by God. They do not thus capture divine truth. One hopes that they point to divine truth. As such we honor them but we do not worship them. So I am neither interested in purging them nor in liberalizing them. I only want to seek to live inside the experience they were designed to communicate.

John Shelby Spong

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