Handling Gaps in the Creeds

Professor N. T. Wright spoke at our Cathedral a couple of weeks back. He was very good and along the way he made a generally valid observation about the creeds (by which I mean the ecumenical Creed — i.e., Nicene—and the two other major Western creeds — Apostles and Athanasian): they contain big gaps. NTW had no objections to what they contained but was worried about the holes in them. If all we teach is the content of the creeds we'll have a misshapen faith.

To illustrate what he means, observe that the creeds all skip from creation to Jesus (missing out the story of Israel, i.e., most of the Bible); they jump from Jesus' birth to his death (missing out his teaching and ministry, i.e., most of the Gospels); they leap from creation to redemption with no account of sin.

I have a few reflections on this gap-problem.

First, of course the creeds could say more. They are not seeking to say everything that Christians have to say; they are, rather, laying out the fundamental contours of the Christian belief in the triune God revealed in Jesus. They are not the final word about Christian beliefs and practices but they are an essential dogmatic statement about the divinity of the Spirit and the Son with the Father and of the humanity of Jesus.

Second, what the creeds do say is intended to provide the normative theological framework within which everything else should be understood. As such they provide us with the context within which we understand the story of Israel or the ministry of Jesus or the doctrine of sin or the theology of humanity or whatever else we care to consider.

Finally, and importantly, the creeds are the tip of a theological iceberg with implicit links to all sorts of theological themes not overtly discussed. Take as an example the missing story of Israel and the Nicene Creed. The Creed does not tell the story but it does allude to it.

Consider first an indirect reference to the central prayer of Israel, the shema, in the following words: “We believe in one God . . . maker of heaven and earth. . . . We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all things were made.” Behind this part of the Creed lie Paul’s words in 1 Cor 8:6, “for us there is one God . . . from whom all things come . . . and one Lord, Jesus Christ through whom all things exist.” And 1 Cor 8:6, as numerous NT scholars have pointed out (N. T. Wright among them), is an interpretation of the shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, YHWH is one” (Deut 6:4). For Paul, Jesus is included within the identity of the one God of Israel, hence his radical take on the shema. The Creed preserves this Pauline interpretation of Israel’s prayer thereby implying the bigger story of Israel.

That bigger story can also be seen in the words “Lord Jesus Christ,” for the title Christos (Heb. Messiah) refers to the promised ruler of Israel and the world spoken of by Israel’s prophets. To unpack this title requires that bigger story. (Arguably, the title “Lord” also alludes to the name of the God of Israel, YHWH. Jews in this period—including Jesus and the authors of the NT—would never speak the name YHWH but would substitute the word kyrios, Lord. The use of the title “Lord” for Jesus in the early church did draw on this connection with the divine name.)

Again, little phrases such as “he rose again, according to the Scriptures” refer to the holy texts of ancient Israel (what Christians call the Old Testament) and thereby gesture at the story of Israel contained in those texts and also at the christological interpretation of them taught to the church by Jesus (Luke 24:25–27).

My point is that the Creed does not explicitly tell the story of Israel but it does gesture to it and require its telling. Thus the church does indeed need to give a good account of God’s way with Israel (as Tom Wright correctly notes) but we should not mistake the lack of that account in the Creed as indicating otherwise.


Martin Downes said…
Hi Robin

Is there a recording of the talk available?
Robin Parry said…

I have no idea.

His comment on the creeds was only made in passing. It was not the substance of his talk.

The talk was about recovering the sections in the Gospels between Jesus' birth and passion. It was very good.


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