On the Creeds – and Doctrines – of the Church

This is the boldest statement that I have ever read on the Creeds of the Church:

‘We may have ground for believing the Creeds of the Church to be the most perfectly balanced and harmonious expression of the truth whereof our earthly knowledge is, or will be, capable. Yet when we struggle, as in the language of the Athanasian Creed, to express the relations which have been exhibited to us in the eternal Godhead through the use of the words ‘Person’ and ‘Substance,’ or ‘upostasis and ousia; or when we thus profess our belief in the Person of the Holy Ghost, ‘The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding,’ need we fear to own that the instruments which, perforce, we make use of upon earth, even in the Creeds of the Church, are necessarily imperfect instruments; the power of conception imperfect; the power of phrase and imagery imperfect also; and that their sufficiency of truth (though not their correctness meanwhile) is so far temporary that it is limited to earth and to time; and that, in the perfect light and knowledge of the presence of God, the perfectest knowledge represented by them will be superseded and absorbed, while the glosses and materialisms with which, in various ways, we may have been unconsciously clothing them to our own imaginations, will be – not superseded only but corrected, and, it may be, reproved? Moreover, if the truths represented in the Creeds are wider and deeper than our conceptions of them, we can admit that there may possibly be particulars in which, even now, the experience of spiritual life may deepen and enlarge the meaning, to us, of our Creeds; as, for instance, the words heaven and hell may present to us ideas differing, in the direction of more correctness, from those which they presented to some of our forefathers. It is not that the Creeds will be some day corrected. It is not that we shall see hereafter how false they were, but how far the best conceptions which they opened to us, the best, that is, that our earthly faculties were capable of, lagged in their clumsiness behind the perfect apprehension of the truths which they had, nevertheless, not untruly represented; but which we then shall have power to see and know as they are. The truth which is dimly imaged for us in the Creeds, will never belie, but will infinitely transcend, what their words represented on earth’. – Arthur Lyttelton. ‘The Atonement’, in Lux Mundi: A Series of Studies in the Religion of the Incarnation. (Edited by Charles Gore. London: J. Murray, 1890), 256-7.

Now contrast this with a comment recently made by NT Wright at a seminar at the University of St Andrews:

‘The idea that doctrines are portable stories is of course already present in the classic statements of Christian doctrines, that is, the great early Creeds. They are not simply check-lists which could in principle be presented in any order at all. They consciously tell the story – precisely the scriptural story! – from creation to new creation, focussing particularly of course on Jesus and summing up what scripture says about him in a powerful brief narrative (a process we can already see happening within the New Testament itself; not only in the obvious places but also when Luke, for instance, decides to telescope Paul’s defence together as in Acts 26.22f: ‘saying nothing but what Moses and the prophets said would take place, that the Messiah must suffer and that, by being the first to rise again, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.’)’ … You can, in fact, join up all the dots not only in the classic early creeds and most of the later ones (for instance, the post-Reformation Confessions and Articles) and still be many a mile away from affirming what the biblical writers, all through, were wanting people to affirm. You can join all the dots and still produce, shall we say, a thistle instead of a rose, an elephant instead of a donkey. Or whatever. To take a rather different but related example, if I come upon the letters BC written down somewhere, only the larger context, the larger implicit narrative, can tell me whether they mean Bishop’s Council (if it’s a note in my diary), British Columbia (if it’s a note of my cousins’ address), Before Christ (if it’s in a notebook about ancient history), or the two musical notes which bear those names (if it’s about the end of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony). Implicit narrative is all; and if you affirm a doctrine but put it in the wrong implicit narrative, you potentially falsify it as fully and thoroughly as if you simply denied it altogether.’

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