Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Does the Athanasian Creed Contain a Mistake?

[T]heology -- an enterprise that, despite the oftentimes homicidal urgency Christians attach to it, has yet to save anybody. What saves us is Jesus. -- R.F. Capon, sometime blacksheep of Christian pastoring and publishing, in The Parables of the Kingdom

Does the Athanasian Creed Contain A Mistake?
Depending on your background, your answer could range from "the what?" or "who cares?" to "just the filioque clause" or "if you claim there's a mistake in that, you're anathema." After all, there's a part of the Athanasian Creed which says plainly at the beginning, "Whoever does not keep this faith pure in all points will certainly perish forever." Then there's the part at the end which says "This [what it says] is the true Christian faith. Whoever does not faithfully and firmly believe this cannot be saved." In between are a series of comments on the Father, Son, and Spirit, and on the nature of Christ.

I have comparatively few objections to the filling inside the Creed -- the stuff between the beginning and the end of the creed may be a bit plodding but it doesn't go off the deep end. I think the Creed's biggest mistake is this: saying that whoever does not subscribe to every bullet will certainly perish forever and cannot be saved. My first reaction is, "Where does someone get off saying that?" Can we be plain that I'm not advocating bad theology, opposing formal confessions of faith, or encouraging complacency about whether we understand our faith? But encouraging diligence in learning has gone too far if we threaten non-salvation to those who just don't get it. Historically, I would be surprised if even a small portion of the original audiences of Paul's letters would have understood what was being said in that creed. But more importantly, Jesus and the authors of the books of the Bible do not speak as if we are saved by the doctrinal purity of our Trinitarian views and Christology, but by Christ. Christology is an attempt to understand Christ, but it has often been dominated by philosophical questions about his nature. If someone can explain dual natures and hypostatic unions but does not include "Lord and Savior", he has missed everything. If someone knows Jesus as "Lord and Savior" but has never heard the phrase "hypostatic union", they have the better understanding.

People are slow to criticize the Athanasian Creed, first because it has much valuable content, and second because of the grim and dire pronouncements it contains against anyone who criticizes it. But it mistakes head-knowledge for faith. For all the valuable exposition of doctrines it contains, does anyone here truly think that head-knowledge of perfect purity is the true Christian faith?

If you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, "Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame." (Romans 11:9-11)

It may not be too hard to reconcile with Scripture the Athanasian Creed's statements about God, but it is difficult to reconcile with Scripture the Athanasian Creed's claims about itself and about the role of doctrinal purity in salvation.

No comments: