Saturday, December 16, 2006

Roundtable 2: The Historic Creeds and the Lutheran Confessions

The Book of Concord, the authoritative collection of the Lutheran Confessions, begins by including the Creeds. Comment and discuss the implication of this decision and what the act of putting in the three historic/ancient creeds of the Western Church itself confesses? Talk about the way Creeds are perceived by rank and file general Protestantism in this country and elsewhere. Note the cartoon provided at the top of this post and the web site that declares all creeds to be dangerous. Consider how best for us to help the faithful understand the role and function of Creeds in relationship to the Word of God. In your experience, how have the historic creeds been a help and aid in your ministry and teaching of God's Word. Proper use? Improper use? What is the connection between the principle of sola scriptura and "human Creeds"? The floor is open for discussion. Let the roundtable begin!


Holger Sonntag said...

I just want to say two things. First, why were the Creeds included? Simply put, because the Lutherans believed them to be accurate summaries of God's word mainly on Christ's and the Trinity's nature and work. This is why the Apostles' Creed, which Luther believed to be inspired by the Spirit, and not a collection of bible verses takes the place of the gospel in the Small Catechism.

This inclusion also prevented the Lutherans from being considered heretics from the outset. This, at the time, had tremendous legal ramifications (since sometime in the 4th / 5th century, denial of the Trinity was a punishable "civil" offense).

It also had the clear benefit of making clear the Lutheran position in continuity with the early church over against the emerging anti-trinitarian groups and movements (see FC XII).

It is important to note in this context that Luther begins the Smalcald Articles likewise with a few propostitions on the Trinity and Christ -- after all, it's the creed (the doctrines confessed therein) that makes Christians Christians, LC II, 66, outwardly by confession, inwardly by faith.

What are the creeds, what are the confessions in relation to Scripture? Are they "human" additions to God's word, as non-creedal churches claim? I don't know how Catholics or (conservative) Anglicans would see it, but here's the Lutheran scoop: "We regard [the Augsburg Confession] as a pure, Christian *creed*, which (after the Word of God) should guide true Christians in this time, just as in earlier times Christian creeds and confessions were formulated in God's church when major controversies broke out. To these documents the faithful teachers and their hearers confessed their adherence at those times with heart and mouth." (Pref. of SD 4)

And: "Since in ancient times the true Christian teaching as it was correctly and soundly understood was summarized on the basis of God's Word in short articles of chief parts against the adulterations of heretics, we confess our adherence ... to the three ecumenical creeds ... as the glorious confessions of the faith -- succinct, Christian, based upon God's word, in which all the heresies that had at that time arisen within the Christian churches were clearly and thoroughly refuted" (SD RN 4).

From this we learn a couple of things: First, for the Lutheran confessors of 1577/80 there is really no qualitative difference between, say, the Augsburg Confession, which is explicitly called a "creed", and the Athanasian or Nicene Creed. They were all considered valid Christian creeds because they were "based on" God's word.

Second, the purpose of creeds and confession is the affirmation of the biblical truth and the defense against false doctrine. This is accomplished by correctly summarizing the teachings of Scriputre on certain controversial items, which may be spread all over the bible, in succinct articles.

This means, we'll have to ask those who reject the creeds (or the other Lutheran confessions): why do you reject them? Do you reject the teachings confessed therein, whose thoroughly biblical nature we're prepared to demonstrate to you? Or do you not believe that men can speak God's word without error?

It probably really depends on the individual case whether it's one or the other. Sometimes it might be both, with an emphasis on the latter: Man can't repeat God's word truthfully in his own words. I hope we understand that this not only undermines the creeds; this undermines every sermon: Is it God's word or man's word? If it can, in principle, be no more than man's word, then we, obviously, have to seek God's word, salvation, assurance, elsewhere. Then we become theologians of glory who leave the outward word behind and search for God either in nature or in the depth of our souls and emotions. At best, we become biblicists in the sense that we prohibit any word in the church that is not found in the bible. They were around already at Luther's time. (Remember, they rejected words like Trinity, homousios (being of one substance), etc.)

In other words, here the principle sola scriptura is narrowed in the sense that not only do we say that Scripture is the only source and norm of faith and life in the church. We now also have to say: the Scripture is all we can say in church. There is then no word of God outside of Scripture, not just in a normative sense. Sermons, creeds, etc. might contain God's word but they can never get it all right.

We remember that Luther thought the opposite: Christ does have a voice in the church also through his pastors who represent him if and when they speak God's word, not by slavishly quoting it, but by setting forth the doctrines taught by the prophets and apostles and applying them to their people in law and gospel. After a sermon, Luther said, it shouldn't be necessary for the pastor to pray for forgiveness.

I vaguely remember that Karl Barth was deeply offended by this "boldness" of Luther -- the Reformed do indeed have a different understanding of the creeds, much more time-bound and thus much less catholic, universal (more "sectarian"?). They seem to see this as an encroachment on God's glory which he will not give to another (if that's understood real narrowly, Nestorianism is then difficult to avoid, as we know) -- so, we got a kind of creedal Nestorianism here that keeps what is God's and what is man's neatly divided up like two boards that can never really communicate with each other.

Everybody understands that this kind of Nestorianism, taken to its logical conclusion, means ecclesiological relativism aka "denominationalism" where, beyond a few common "fundamental" beliefs, everybody is free to disagree and where the differences have to be accomodated in Christian charity. "Creeds" are considered sectarian from the outset, due to the reasons given above.

That's the food for thought I wanted to offer.

William Weedon said...

As Holger said, the key to us is that the Creeds are not setting forth anything other than the Biblical faith. They are not set along side of the Scripture as a separate entity; they rather express the correct understanding of the Sacred Scriptures. To reject them is, in essence, to reject the truth of God's Word, because that's all they proclaim, albeit in a summary fashion.

Their inclusion in the Book of Concord is simply the natural outgrowth of our claim and belief that we, as Lutheran Christians, are not offering a "new faith" but the same old catholic and apostolic faith by which the Church has lived for these many centuries.

It should be noted that the Creeds, unlike the rest of the Book of Concord, are a connecting point with the liturgy - in other words, most Lutherans encounter them not by reading and studying the Book of Concord, but by praying them in Church. We pray them there in response to the Word proclaimed as our confession that this is our faith, the faith of the whole Church, which is the correct understanding of the Scriptures - how the Scriptures are to be read through and with a Christological lens.

Holger Sonntag said...

Just for clarification, in the Pref. to the SD, para. 4, quoted in my earlier post, the English word "creed" is a translation of "symbolum" which is a technical term for ecclesiastical creed, as in Symbolum Nicaenum.

The Augsburg Confession itself relates to the ecumenical consensus expressed in the Nicene Creed in AC I,1.

BTW, "ecumenical" is again a theological assertion, not a statistical observation: the Athanasian Creed is not confessed as "ecumenical" in the East; the Nicene Creed contained in our Book of Concord likewise is not confessed in the East (filioque!). The Apostles' Creed also has its historical roots in the West (Rome); it did not constitute the basis for the Nicene Creed which was based, according to the Introduction in the Bekenntnisschriften Ed. (p. XIII), on a Jerusalem symbol.

We clearly see: the question is not: how many Greek-speaking bishops voted when for text X? But rather: is the doctrine confessed in it apostolic? This levels the playing field a bit between the "ecumenical" creeds and the (seemingly) particular Lutheran creeds.

Ryan said...

Interestingly enough, the confession of the "catholicity" of our symbols is as a thread that runs throughout. Even the Formula of Concord, which wasn't given the title "Formula of Concord" until well after its publication (I think it starts to stick around 1583 - before that the Formula was either called the "Bergen Book" or simply "Book of Concord" until the publication of the Book itself required differentiation), was originally titled, "“A General, Clear, Correct, and Definitive Repetition and Explanation of Certain Articles of the Augsburg Confession, etc." The Preface to the Book of Concord, composed by AndreƤ, similarly emphasizes the point that nothing contained therein confesses any differently that the faith confessed at Augsburg. The point is repeted a number of times throughout the Preface in order that this point would be driven home (the terms of the Peace of Augsburg are also largely to account for this).

Even the way that the Formula is structured, at Chemnitz' reccomendation, (I went to some detail in a seminar paper on this subject) is intended to parallel the Augsburg Confession.

Why, then, the Creeds? If the Formula (which is really the occasion for publishing the Book of Concord in 1580) is nothing but a "repetition" of the faith confessed at Augsburg, and the Augsburg Confession itself claims to be teaching nothing "new," you can't drive home the point than by preceeding the Augsburg Confession itself with the Creeds. Their inclusion is sort of a "stamp" of catholicity upon the entire collection of our Symbols.

William Weedon said...

Speaking of the Ecumenical Symbols, I was reminded anew of this delightful passage in Luther on the practice of genuflection during the "homo factus est" of the Nicene Creed:

Once upon a time the devil attended Mass in a church were it was customary in either the Lord's Prayer or in the Creed to sing: et homo factus est, that is, God's Son has become a human being. While they were singing this, the people just remained standing and did not kneel down. The devil was so incensed, that he slammed his fist into one man's mouth, saying, You boorish bum, aren't you ashamed to just stand there like post and refuse to kneel for joy? If God had become OUR brother, as he did become YOUR brother, our joy would be so great that we wouldn't know what to do with ourselves.

The story may be pure fiction, but if so, it was invented by someone who was very intelligent and who correctly understood the great honor which was bestowed on us, when God's Son became a human being... (Luther: House Postils I:134 - sermon from 1534)

Carl Beckwith said...

I agree with the other posters that the inclusion of the creeds at the beginning of the BoC underlines the catholicity of the Lutheran faith and its continuity with the orthodox consensus of the Fathers. As Ryan has noted, this theme of continuity runs throughout the BoC and is especially seen in the AC.

There is, however, a serious theological argument being made by including the creeds and deliberately placing them before the Augsburg Confession—a confession that is structured around Art. IV, the article on which the church stands or falls. It is here that the early creeds are so decisive. In the Early Church, the fathers articulated an orthodox Christology from the standpoint of soteriology, e.g., Irenaeus, Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, Gregory of Nazianzus, Cyril of Alexandria, etc. The Christologies and hence Trinitarian theologies that failed in the Early Church proceeded not from soteriology but from prior philosophical commitments to a strict distinction between the Creator and creation (Gnosticism), to the reasonableness of a suffering God (Arianism), or to a false understanding of sin/human will (Nestorianism/Pelagianism). It is, perhaps, uncommon to label Pelagianism as a Christological heresy but this is exactly how such writers as Cyril of Alexandria, Thomas Aquinas, and Luther understood it. The point: when you alter your soteriology, you affect your Christology.

Luther explains this point at length in his great commentary on Galatians. The argument throughout that commentary is if you assert that Christ is true God and true Man, then you must also assert that he alone is our Righteousness, our Propitiation, and our Savior. Luther writes, “As I often warn, therefore, the doctrine of justification must be learned diligently. For in it are included all the other doctrines of our faith; and if it is sound, all the others are sound as well. Therefore, when we teach that men are justified through Christ and that Christ is the Victor over sin, death, and the eternal curse, we are testifying at the same time that He is God by nature (LW 26:283). By implication, Luther suggests that those who deny “the chief doctrine of the Christian faith”, justification by faith alone, attribute divine power to their own works, making themselves “true God by nature” and denying the true divinity of Christ (LW 26:282-83; see also LW 26:31-33). Luther’s argument against Rome in the commentary is this: since we both confess the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian definition of who Christ is, we must also confess that we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone who is the victor over sin, death, and the eternal curse alone. In no other way is sin expiated than on the Cross by Christ, the true God and true man, lest he die for no purpose and his divinity become non-functional. Therefore, Christ did not die to give us an example for imitation (e.g., Pelagianism and the medieval ‘facere quod’). He died in order to become a curse for us, to deliver our consciences from the bondage of the Law, and to win the forgiveness of sins and eternal life for us.

Following Luther, the Concordists turn the Early Church argument around against their opponents. They defend and articulate their soteriology, the work of Christ, against the orthodox consensus on the Person of Christ. That is to say, rather than arguing from soteriology to Christology, they begin with Christology (consensus) and demonstrate the inevitable soteriological conclusion—justification by grace through faith in Christ alone.

As a side note, those of you enamored with theosis should see how compromising justification with sanctification, which, as I explained at the FW symposium a few years ago, is exactly what theosis does, should see how it is only a variation of the argument opposed by Luther and the Concordists and once again comprises the article on which the church stands or falls.