How sacred is the Creed?

Signpost for Sunday 22 May, 2016, Trinity Sunday: Prov 8:1-4,22-31; Ps 8; Rom 5:1-5; John 16:12-15.

When I was a third-year student at the Theological Hall, at Knox College, fifty years ago, I had to prepare two “exercises”. My predecessors had been required to prepare three – Old Testament, New Testament, and Theology, but Church History had assumed an equal status by my time, and rather than make us prepare four, we were reduced to two. Whew! I was fortunate to do Theology for Dr Nichol and New Testament for Dr Pollard. My Theology exercise was on “The Nature and Origin of Sin in the Theology of Emil Brunner”, and I have forgotten everything about it except the title. I still have my expensively typed and bound copy, and there is probably one in the Hewitson Library.

New Testament was a different kettle of fish. As a student, I was already an experienced lay preacher, and I saw no point on doing an extensive piece of exegesis if no sermon resulted. So that exercise has an appendix. I used that sermon in another exam requirement later that year, and have preached (and revised) it on a number of occasions since. It was on 1 Peter 3; 17 to 4; 6 and the Descent into Hell. I last used it on Easter Six, two years ago.

For the past three Trinity Sundays, Brye and Paul have tried to make a satisfying meal out of the Doctrine of the Trinity. At the same time they have questioned the purpose of the Classic Creeds. My experience of the Descent into Hell is leading me towards two conclusions about the Creeds. One is that we can do what I did in that sermon – find what can be rescued from the language of the three-decker universe and the other mythical accretions that cling to our historic presentations of the faith.

The other is a growing conviction that the main purpose of a Creed is discipline, or in many cases, the exercise of the power of exclusion. Adoptionism, Sabellianism, and Arianism are the doctrines that Paul told us last year were excluded by the earliest Creeds. These were largely found in the Patriarchy of Antioch, and the Antiochene Church took the Gospel to China and perhaps as far as Indonesia before the rise of Islam. There were Antiochene Patriarchs in Beijing and in Lhasa. The Patriarch of Beijing helped the Bhuddist missionaries in China translate their scriptures into Mandarin. Perhaps the Antiochene Church was not as amenable to discipline as the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Rome might have preferred. And they were heretics, so the Western Church wrote them out of the Western version of Church History. They are still around today. Twenty-five years ago I met the Antiochene Archbishop of Baghdad, for example.

The modern Anglican Church tried to draw up a new Creed to solve the modern problems it faces, but in spite of having a disproportionate number of New Zealanders on the committee, they failed; and the Windsor Declaration sank with little trace. It might prove a weapon in a future war within the church.

So my plea this Trinity Sunday is; please do not take the Creeds too seriously.   They are only historic events. They are not sacred documents.

Andrew

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