Early Christian Creeds and Their Importance for Apologetics: Part I

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently about the importance of the early Christian creeds. In light of the multifarious challenges facing Christians today, everything ranging from post-modernism, progressive Christianity, liberation and process theologies, the ever-increasing proliferation of cults (e.g. Scientology), heresies (e.g. oneness Pentacostalism), other non-orthodox portrayals of Jesus, or just the seemingly endless battles of biblical interpretation, it seems critical to retrieve a clear understanding of what the early church held to be the most basic, most fundamental, and most central beliefs of the Christian Church- the church founded by the Apostles and eyewitnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Thus, regaining a familiarity with these core beliefs, handed down by the first witnesses, and later consolidated by Christ-followers into formal and definitional statements, can provide a second mooring for understanding what we believe, why we believe it, and why we need to defend it. This task, therefore, can help us to better discern, as the theologian Thomas Oden put it, what is “Classical Christianity” over and against other, non-classical christianities.

Further, knowing the creeds can also help us to better appreciate the rich, intellectual history of our faith, something we probably want to do as loyal defenders of Christ’s church, but are often times unaware of. So, to know the deposit of faith left for us by our spiritual forefathers (and mothers!), can be not only apologetically useful for defending certain indispensable truth claims, but also spiritually formative in putting us in touch with our own past, a past often disparaged not only by those outside the Christian faith but also those within it.

Before we continue with this project, let me state up front: I am not claiming that creeds are on the same authoritative level as the revealed Scriptures themselves. The content of revelation is in the Bible. Creeds, if anything, are nothing more than an extraction and summarization of those parts of the inspired Scriptures that are most clear to us and most weighty for the life of the follower of Jesus. The earliest creeds were baptismal formulas developed in house churches, designed to help neophytes (new believers) express their newfound faith in Christ and enter into His community of faith.

In this series of posts, therefore, I would like to invite everyone into a conversation that, hopefully, will be an ongoing exploration of one of the earliest, and possibly first truly universal, creeds of the apostolic Church, the Nicene Creed (325 AD). I will take each line of the Nicene Creed and discuss it in detail. In doing so, this will raise all kinds of good questions about what are, in our contemporary contexts, the kinds of claims we need to defend in order to remain faithful to a Christianity that is rooted in a historical proclamation, not just in theological musings unanchored from historical events and metaphysical realities.

Moreover, we might also see where we do have some disagreements within the church catholic (Eastern, Orthodox Protestant, and Roman), perhaps not about the creedal claims themselves but about how more precisely to understand each claim. This endeavor should lead to fruitful theological discussion (something the early church Fathers never shied away from), a discussion that has already begun in many scholarly circles. Finally, as we go through this I will be studying and completing our discussion using J.N.D Kelly’s classic work on the topic, shown here:

In going forward, then, what I hope to accomplish is to think about the kinds of apologetic issues that arise as we explore each statement of belief found in the Nicene Creed. So, for example, if the first line of the creed states: “We believe in one God, the Father almighty,” what claims can we draw out of this that apologists would need to defend?

For example, in examining the first line, I see the need to defend the truth claim “that there is one God” not 8, or 12, or zero. Moreover, I should probably also defend the claim that God is called “Father” and not “mother” or “brother.” In first thinking about the kinds of things we would need to defend in order for a core belief to be true, only then can we consider what sources (philosophical, historical, scientific) we should access to get the data we need to defend that claim. Thus, line 1 of the Nicene Creed about belief in “one God” could be defended from Scripture alone (Gen 1:1, Jas 2:19), but, it would seem that natural theology is necessary to make a cogent case for its truthfulness. And then, we might further ask, which disciplines fuel natural theological arguments and who has presented most articulately or powerfully certain natural theological claims.

Finally, it is worth thinking about what audiences we need to defend this claim against (e.g. some theologians might reject the notion that God should be called “Father.” Should we agree with them, or stick with what is clearly stated in both Bible and creed?). Obviously, atheists, and even some who identify as “Christian” believe that there is no God to speak of; that god is just a concept. And so on, and so forth.

In the next post I will look more specifically at the Nicene Creed and its origins. Then, I will begin to extract from each line the propositional content requiring argumentative defense.

Christianity or Atheism – Taking Apologetical Stock

Let’s take stock of the main tensions facing both Christianity and Atheism. Just the essential ones, not contingent issues, like whether or not Hitler was a Christian or an Atheist (FYI, he was a Pantheist), or whether or not all Atheists are also Marxists (FYI, they’re not). Rather, what are the substantive metaphysical, epistemological, moral, and existential problems for each world view? Let’s reckon those costs and see where the chips fall.

Christianity

  1. The Problem of Evil and Suffering: In short, how can an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God allow not only moral evil (e.g. rape, genocide), but the kind of suffering that is caused by purely natural mechanisms (e.g. tsunamis and cancer)? Where did all this evil come from, if evil is actually real? And, if there is a God, is He really good?
  2. The Darwinian Model of the Origin of Life: There are two problems here. First, the Darwinian story of life’s evolution, to include human life, doesn’t seem to match up very well with the biblical story of the origin of life, to include the first human, as told in Genesis 1-3. Genetic & fossil records meet the biblical record, is an awkward introduction, to say the least. Second, even if those two narratives are reconcilable, which some Christians believe they are, then how does one reconcile the presence of death and suffering right from the beginning of creation? How can animal death, predation, and species extinction, to include species, who were apparently human-like, be indicative of a “good creation?” The Darwinian Model of evolutionary biology has thrown the Christian doctrines of Creation and Anthropology, especially the doctrine of Original Sin, into a tailspin (well, sort of).
  3. Bible Difficulties: Third, are all those difficult Bible verses, not only the ones we don’t understand because of cultural and historical distance (e.g. “Wait, where can I slaughter my ox?”), but those that seem to rub against our contemporary moral tastes, that seem historically inaccurate, or even internally inconsistent (e.g. “Who tempted David to take that census?,” or the classic, “How many women were at that tomb again?”).
  4. Hell: Finally, there is the problem of Hell, and I mean Hell as a conscious and eternal torment of all who refuse to accept Jesus as their Messiah, Lord, and as God. Harsh, or so it seems, and with the emerging awareness of religious pluralism since the 16th & 17th centuries, apparently unjust too. I mean, Ghandi, really?

These are not easy problems to solve, and, as I pointed out above, they entail serious metaphysical, epistemological, and moral dilemmas. It is not my focus in this post to begin offering my own apologetic responses, however. Here, I am just taking stock of what a Christian will inevitably face, if she decides to look squarely at her faith.

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Was He right?

 

So, how does Atheism fair in comparison?

Atheism

  1. Moral Values & Obligations: Even if we posit something like abstract objects, which few atheist want to do, to ground moral values in a transcendent reality, whence the obligation to actually fulfill them? Just cause Plato said so? I think not. The Moral Project of the Enlightenment has roundly failed to produce sound answers to the problem of objective moral values and duties. It’s no wonder that moral realism is on the rebound as “do what you feel” has epically failed as an answer to the quest for moral truth. Moreover, that the consistent atheist will also be a Nietzschean ethicist, is always a real and present danger.
  2. Human Consciousness: Attempts have been made to explain it, ranging from Emergentism, Functionalism, Epiphenomenalism, to, well, Pan-psychism. You name it, it’s been tried. It’s a mystery, but, if you are not your brain, then minimally the materialism part of atheism is false (well, unless leptons have agency, but let’s not go there). Further, if you tenaciously hold to materialism at all costs, well, then you just might be hallucinating as you read this…if there even is a real “you” that hallucinates?
  3. Human Freedom: This follows from the problem of consciousness, since if you don’t even exist as a real, let alone rational, self…well then, what is reading this sentence…and why? Oh, and Lift you’re right hand right now! Wait, “Who” did that? Not you!
  4. The Problem of Evil: Following from 1-3, it seems that to call something “evil” is really just a useful fiction. Physical pain, yes, but any kind or instance of human evil would just be reduced to pain, having little or no real moral quality or content. The bodies of those people we call Jews experienced more frequently and with greater intensity the firing of C-fibers in the prison camps than those bodies of the people we call Nazis who made them. But whether or not evil was done to to the one group or by the other is, at best, unclear.
  5. Meaning and Purpose: No transcendental reality, no transcendental story. You came from nothing, you’re going nowhere, no one had you in mind. Do your best to make something up worth living for…and do it fast, because you’ll be dead soon.
  6. Existence, at All: Ex nihilo nihil fit…I guess, ahh maybe, or, I just dunno. After all, the universe really doesn’t seem like it should be here, does it? Oh well, as long as universes can pop into existence, uncaused, out of nothing, why question any further.

 

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Or was he right?

As far as I see it, these are the fundamental problems facing the Christian and the Atheist. Certainly examples could be multiplied, but these seem to underlie the rest. So, which set of problems seems more disconcerting to you?

 

Is Adam’s Naming of the Animals a “Social Construction?”

“So the Lord God formed out of the ground every wild animal and every bird of the sky, and brought each to the man to see what he would call it. And whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the livestock, to the birds of the sky, and to every wild animal; but for the man no helper was found as his complement.” (Gen 2:19-20)

In his book, The Historicity of Nature, Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg says:

“On the basis of the biblical view of spirit and consciousness, we could answer that the possibility of grasping reality external to ourselves with our consciousness is founded in the fact that the Spirit [i.e. Holy Spirit] in which we participate is also the origin of all life external to us, the origin of all the different forms of created reality. Something of the sort may underlie the curious statement in the Yahwist story of Creation that the ‘name’ of every living creature was to be whatever the human being called it (Gen 2:19). If we recall that, for the archaic mind, the name of a thing is not something external to it but contains the nature of the thing itself, it becomes clear that this biblical passage says nothing less then that the human being, because of his participation in the divine Spirit, is capable of grasping the nature of things.”1 Wolfhart Pannenberg, The Historicity of Nature, 2008. 113-114.

Pannenberg’s claim here, or so it seems to me, is that human beings can not only grasp the essence of objects in nature, but through the use of language, actually speak something true about the external world, and this because the Holy Spirit, through whom all natural things have their origin, to include human consciousness, allows us to participate in the rest of His created world. Our language captures the essence of natural things.

If this is true, then it is possible to avoid two errors that have plagued modernism: 1) that all naming is a mere social construct, and necessarily devoid of any inherent truth about external referents in the world, and 2) that we can know everything about the external world, apart from any work of the Spirit of God (i.e. through purely scientific or rational means). Instead, from a Christian perspective, we do construct some thing about external objects in the world, but the things we construct carry some inherent truth about their actual properties, even their essential ones. Hence, we construct partially true statements about reality, which could also mean that we know, in part, something about the world we experience.

Alternatively, due to sin, we do not know the world as it is exhaustively. As finite creatures our language, to include the language of science, is limited and, therefore, there will always be something mysterious about God’s creation because we cannot fully describe or name it. Even if we think, for example, that we have described some aspect of God’s creation exhaustively, history has shown that new, scientific paradigms, paradigms that literally overturn old ones, often lie just around the corner, even if that corner may be a hundred years down the corridor of time. However, that shift in science and its language is perhaps inevitable, and, if so, it lies dormant, waiting to upset the unmovable foundation, or “the assured consensus” of scientific knowledge we thought we had once-and-for-all established.

In sum, because God, through His Spirit, unites us to the rest of His creation, we can know in part something of the world around us, and, more importantly, we can even know God in part through our experience of His world. Therefore, when Adam named the animals, not only did he construct something, i.e. the animals’ names, he also discovered something, namely, Truth. Unfortunately, as sinners, our naming of God’s creation has been debilitated, and with it our access to His Truth.

“For now we see indistinctly, as in a mirror,
but then face to face.
Now I know in part,
but then I will know fully,
as I am fully known.” (1 Cor 13:12)

“The mind of the discerning acquires knowledge,
and the ear of the wise seeks it.” (Proverbs 18:15)

“As He was saying these things, many believed in Him. So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you continue in My word, you really are My disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'” (John 30-32)