Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Creeds and Catholicity

Textualism or Evolving Standard?
In reciting the Apostles' Creed last night with my son, I stumbled over the old "holy catholic church" line. I learned at a young age what was meant in the Reformed circle by this line: the true invisible church in all places throughout time.

The Apostles' Creed's origin is variously dated, but certainly no later than the 4th Century. See Christian Reformed Church Beliefs: The Apostles' Creed.; Catholic Encyclopedia: Apostles' Creed. The Orthodox "Symbol of Faith" is the Nicene(-Constantinopolitan) Creed, formally drawn up (though no doubt of earlier roots) at the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea in 325AD. The Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople added the second portion of the creed, including the "one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church" phrase. The Orthodox Faith: Nicene Creed.

Without delving too much into a history lesson, my inquiry is this: when ancient believers recited the "one church" line of either creed, what did they mean by it? Did they have some notion in the second or fourth century of an invisible church consisting of all 'true' believers throughout time? Or did the one 'Apostolic' church mean to them something more visible, something more concrete in which they had placed their faith (and under whose authority they were submitted)?

It is this interpretive trap that caught my attention. Christians state the creed together because it is unifying horizontally (with other Christians in spite of differences) and vertically (with the Church down through the ages). Is it proper to use its words in a way different from their "original intent"? If ancient Christians, our ancestors, meant VISIBLE Church, can we now claim the phrase for ourselves, but with an evolved (different) meaning?

The Reformers saw a church that had become so apostate as to be no church at all. Perhaps the Protestant circle should use a different phrase, or drop the phrase altogether. To claim that the phrase only came to its proper meaning (i.e., invisible vice visible church) since the Reformation would seem contrived. To ignore the meaning that ancient believers gave it seems unfair.

Credal language ought not to evolve, and should only be changed where competent authority has determined that the previous language was in error or needs to be clarified to address some heresy. Protestant authority rests solely in Scripture (sola scriptura). When Protestants become convinced that Scripture calls for a change to an ancient creed, it should be changed and not 'evolved', as happened with the 'one holy Church' lines in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds.

I hope that the ancient creeds can be a source of ecumenicity for Christ's Church in the future.

No comments: