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The Problem with Paleo-Orthodoxy

I’m taking a break from my usual “Law” columns to write about something that’s been bothering me a bit.  We have been talking here on Jesus Creed about the value and importance of the early Christian Creeds.  It’s been suggested, for example in the recent book “Deep Church” by Jim Belcher,  that the ecumenical Creeds provide a basis for marking the boundaries of Christian theology.  This approach is often referred to as “paleo-orthodoxy.”  The problem, in my view, is that it doesn’t work. In fact, I think the paleo-orthodoxy approach is opposed in significant ways to the “post-conservative” ethos that originally drew me to the emerging church conversation and that subsequently led me to participate in the Jesus Creed community.

Do the ecumenical Creeds establish firm boundaries for Christian theology?   Is pale-orthodoxy consistent with or opposed to the emerging / post-conservative / “third way” ethos?


I should note clearly hear that I will
happily recite the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds.  I agree with paleo-orthodoxy that these Creeds reflect
important, basic truths about God and Christ.  I also agree that these Creeds establish a pattern for the
Church’s proclamation of the Gospel.   The Creeds emphasize the basic Biblical themes of
creation, Trinity, incarnation, resurrection and redemption, and proclaim in
particular the events of the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of
Christ.  This is the Gospel that
the Church has always proclaimed and always must proclaim, for the Gospel
fundamentally is rooted in God’s Trinitarian person and in these kerygmatic
events.  The Gospel is the “faith
that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 1:3), which does not
change.

But paleo-orthodoxy, it seems to me, understands the Creeds
to have a greater authority than that of faithfully reflecting a pattern for
Gospel proclamation.    For paleo-orthodoxy, the
ecumenical Creeds are authoritative
for doctrine and theology because they are part of the “history of the Holy
Spirit.”  To be sure, the Creeds
for the paleo-orthodox are subsidiary authorities to scripture, but
nevertheless they are in some sense binding authorities.  In principle, for the paleo-orthodox,
the Creeds are reformable in accordance with scripture.  In practice, however, the Creeds for
them are functionally infallible (or so it seems to me, and to some other
observers such as Roger Olson, who writes to this effect in his book Reformed
and Always Reforming).

I find this notion troubling, for several reasons:  (1) it functionally compromises the
Reformational principles of sola
scriptura
(though it formally maintains that principle) and of the
priesthood of all believers; (2) it is highly selective – indeed arbitrary –
about which parts of the “history of the Holy Spirit” are authoritative; and
(3) it leaves unmanageable ambiguities about the status of some creedal
statements.

As to point (1), paleo-orthodoxy places tremendous emphasis
on the consensus of the councils that produced some of the ecumenical creeds,
particularly the Nicene Creed.  As
a historical and doctrinal matter, I think the Council of Nicea reached the
correct result in condemning Arianism. 
I believe the Holy Spirit was indeed at work in that process.  However, I don’t want to imagine the
Council’s vote as somehow bearing God’s own final
authority
.  There is a
significant difference between discerning that God was active in guiding a set
of contingent circumstances and taking that contingent guidance to represent a
binding judgment for all places and times.  Sola scriptura
argues that scripture alone enjoys ultimately binding status.  The priesthood of all believers
suggests that each Christian is both free and responsible to respond to God’s
revelation in scripture, without intermediation by any conciliar authority.

As to point (2), no one has ever been able to explain to me
why the Canons of the Council of Nicea can be rejected and ignored if the
Nicene Creed is a binding authority. 
The Council understood the Canons to be just as binding as the
Creed.  In fact, the Roman Church
eventually developed an elaborate system of Canon Law based on the historical
series of Creeds, Canons, and other rulings of which the Nicene Creed is but
one part.  Many of the Canons
relate to questions of Church authority and governance that fundamentally are
rejected by all Protestants.  The
Canons reflect and encode the universal belief of the Council that there was
one holy, apostolic, visible
Church.  I cannot discern from
paleo-orthodoxy any rational, Biblical or theological principle by which the
Creed can be surgically extracted from its historical context of Canons and
Church.

Finally, as to point (3), a prime example is what is sometimes
called the third ecumenical creed, the Athanasian Creed.  Jim Belcher lists the Athanasian Creed
along with the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds as one of the basic statements of
the historic Christian faith.  It
was listed in the Lutheran Book of Concord in 1580, and is still recited in the
Lutheran Church on Trinity Sunday. 

But some parts of the Athanasian Creed should
give most Protestants, and indeed all contemporary Christians, pause.  I’m referring here not to the
Athanasian Creed’s Trinitarian and Christological statements, which essentially
amplify the earlier Chalcedonian definition, but to its statements about
soteriology and its so-called “damnatory clauses.”  In relevant part, it states: 

“And
they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have
done evil, into everlasting fire.

This
is the catholic faith; which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he
cannot be saved.”

These statements seem to contradict some
basic Reformational principles about justification by faith, including Article
IV of the Augsburg Confession, which also is part of the Book of Concord: 

“men
cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are
freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when
they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are
forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our
sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His
sight.”

How can it be that, according to the
Athanasian Creed, those who have “done good” merit everlasting life, while
according to Reformed theology as expressed in the same Book of Concord, no one
“does good” and those who are saved only gain that benefit through God’s
grace?  The usual answer is that
the Athanasian Creed is referring to good works as the fruits of faith, in other words to the process of
sanctification.  That explanation seems
to represent an eisegetical move, however:  it is a uniquely fifteenth-century Reformed gloss on  the sixth-century soteriology reflected
in the creedal statement.

And what of the apparent requirement in the
Athanasian Creed that only those who consciously confess a properly Trinitarian
and Christocentric faith are saved? 
For example, what about the problem of people who die in infancy, or the
mentally disabled, or those who have never heard the gospel? 

Reformed theology early on developed a
response to at least some such problems through the mystery of election.  For example, the Westminster Confession
states that “[e]lect infants, dying in
infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh
when, and where, and how he pleaseth. So also are all other elect persons who
are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” 
In part because of concerns about
these damnatory clauses, the Anglican Church in the 19th Century
removed the reference to the Athanasian Creed from its Thirty-Nine
Articles.  Notables such as John
Wesley and C.S. Lewis have also balked at these clauses and interpreted them to
apply only to willful unbelief. 
Even contemporary Roman Catholic theology, after Vatican II, allows for
the possibility of the salvation of unbaptized infants and the unevangelized.  Partly in that spirit, the Athanasian
Creed is rarely recited today in Catholic worship.

Is the point of this discussion to bash the
Athanasian Creed?  No.  It is a beautiful Trinitarian and
Christological statement.  The
point is that even a document considered an “ecumenical Creed” has been subject
to repeated reinterpretation by the Church as other aspects of theology
developed.  It’s fair to say, I
think, that none of the churches that
today include the Athanasian Creed as part of their official documents take all
of that Creed’s soteriological statements at face value. 

This suggests to me that the Creeds simply
cannot bear the weight paleo-orthodoxy seems to want to place upon them.  They do not in themselves provide a
sure foundation for theology and doctrine because they stand in conversational
relationship with scripture and with the ongoing historical construction of
doctrine.  They are invaluable
conversation partners for us today as we seek to participate in the Holy
Spirit’s ongoing work.  We cannot
ignore them, and we should not expect the shape of our theology to vary
significantly from the patterns they have set for the Tradition.  At the same time, theology is an
ongoing constructive project, semper
reformanda
.

Is
this a fair discussion of the problems with paleo-orthodoxy?  Can a paleo-orthodox sensibility
coexist with a post-conservative impulse? 
Can a post-conservative ( or post-liberal) impulse effectively pass
along “faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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