Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed


Voting about God

posted by Scot McKnight

NiceaStSophia.jpgHow odd to post this brief report after our first post today (see below this one). Ramsay Macmullen is probably the finest social historian of earliest Christianity, and in a book just a couple years old he sketches how the whole “council” approach to developing a consensus orthodox theology developed. His book is called, rather provocatively, Voting About God in Early Church Councils
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The story is not pretty; but it’s real and Macmullen’s sketch will be the standard perception of how those councils actually came about. St Sophia of Nicea is pictured above, but the original site of the First Nicene council is now under water; St Sophia was the site for the Second Council of Nicea (787).
This book is an absolute must-read for theologians, especially anyone who wants to speak intelligently about Nicea and the Creeds.

I’m not sure about the best question, but this seems to be lurking: What do you think of this process? What does it do for you about our orthodox faith? 
Macmullen traces four themes that shape how the councils worked, but before I say that, on pp. 2-4 he lists all the councils about which we know: there were over 15,000 councils (most quite minor and perfunctory). Orthodox theology resulted from majority vote, of group leaders (mostly bishops), in occasional assemblies.
Now the four themes:

1. Democratic vote: my voice, aloud, in public assemblies, sometimes chanting, sometimes and often boisterous voices, often shouting down the alternative sides.
2. Cognitive element: there was serious thought; prepared statements; careful exegesis; technical discussion of special terms (homoousios); the inability for many — even bishops — to follow the intricate discussions and philosophical terms, let alone the inability of many lay folks.
3. Supernaturalist element: when it was by major consensus, the credit was given to God. God was seen in the process; the results were God-directed. Thus, many means good; the more means the better. In fact, many and the majority is God’s voice.
4. Violence: Macmullen says that the 225 yrs after Nicea led to 25,000 deaths because of disagreement over the orthodox lines of thinking. Sick.
Macmullen then, and you’ll have to read it because it’s impossible to summarize on a blog, sketches what it was like when all of these factors, to one degree or another, came into play for a council.


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Rick

posted May 17, 2010 at 7:52 am


“The story is not pretty; but it’s real…”
The same could be said about the Patriarchs, the history of Israel, and the disciples. Isn’t that how God has, and does, like to work?



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Kyle

posted May 17, 2010 at 8:17 am


I wasn’t impressed by this book as with some of his other work. He seemed to let his bias against the “Christian sabotage” or the Empire overtake him at times. I also am at a loss as to the data behind his 25,000 number. I tried to follow the references in the footnotes, but they didn’t make this claim. Surely many died, and whether or not it was 25,000, any should be enough to make us “sick” as you say. It should also be noted that the violence came from both those who won and those who lost and wanted to “retake” the vote in a latter council.
Surely, the process of defining orthodoxy was messy. I thank God for the mess though. The mess means that the leadership allowed the minority positions to have a say. Many of these issues were discussed in great depth, both from a desire to find the truth as from a desire to truly give each side a voice. As for the supernaturalist element, I find it fascinating that often the losing party agreed…not always of course, but on occasion. Sometimes, they were willing to admit that God was leading the church (and thus them) away from a position. That’s cool and in our world of hyper-individualization, I can hardly imagine that happening anymore.
I’m torn in some of this…the Baptist in me wants to glory in the early forms of democratic representation. At the same time, the violence associated with this period (undoubtedly partially motivated for non-theological reasons) makes me sick.



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Scot McKnight

posted May 17, 2010 at 8:23 am


Kyle,
I’m no expert on the period of the ecumenical councils, but perhaps the biggest surprise for me was the number of councils. Macmullen sketches the numbers of bishops and their locations and how often they met and that led to an enormous number of get-togethers. In some ways, these smaller councils were the small groups for the large gatherings of the ecumenical councils.
Do you know if anyone has criticized his 25,000 deaths number?



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norm

posted May 17, 2010 at 8:48 am


Coming from the American Restoration movement I?m not surprised that the creedal establishments in religion were fraught with severe problems. The American Independent Restoration movement is not as creedal friendly as older traditional church movements are and have historically placed a premium of by passing those establishments by looking to the first century period of organization for our models. There is a mindset to determine issues from the original scriptures instead of having to filter them through manmade proclamations. It?s not going to happen any time soon but the allegiance to creeds probably needs a healthy dose of reexamination to set it in its proper context.
The church is the monolithic body of believers and its modern manifestation will continue evolving and changing dynamically. The creeds will probably become less important over time as we drift further from those days of men exerting their wills in a manner not exonerated by Christ and His message of freedom.



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nick gill

posted May 17, 2010 at 8:50 am


Considering the historical record for creational monotheism and violence, I’m happily surprised that the number of deaths is so low. Christianity hadn’t become a Western religion, a “one-option-among-many and nobody can really be *wrong* about religion, can they?” religion yet. And the deep power of cross and resurrection hadn’t gotten as far with its work to reshape how we view enemies.



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Robin

posted May 17, 2010 at 8:52 am


If you had 15,000 councils and the author only points to 25,000 deaths in the 225 years following Nicea, this suggests to me that the problem wasn’t the councils, but the marriage of the church and the state.
There were no councils in the early church of England, just Henry VIII and his doctrinal whims, but I would dare to guess that the atrocities carried out under his reformation easily top 25K (and if they don’t top it in numbers they would probably top it once you consider the torture administered by the bishops)
All this is to say I think it is problematic to blame the councils when the church clearly had a myriad of other problems from 300-500 A.D. and really I don’t know what other forms there are that would be better for determining orthodoxy within a group of people. When the Presbyterians wanted to come together they had Westminster, the Baptists got together and formed the 1689 COnfession, even in the past year when the together for the gospel guys wanted to rally around a central message they put together the Manhattan Declaration. Would it really have been better if the Pope or John Knox or Spurgeon or John Piper just wrote something themselves and delcared it orthodoxy?
What other methods are seriously being proposed besides councils? I think it would be helpful if we were able to compare alternatives.



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don bryant

posted May 17, 2010 at 9:02 am


Thanks for the book recommendation. I just downloaded a sample to preview on my Kindle. In reviewing the development of doctrine through the Third Council of Constantinople I am impressed by the contribution of the Eastern Church to our faith, particularly their willingness to grapple with mystery and keep it mysterious while fencing off language that is unhelpful and descends into a binary rationalism of a barren kind. While it is messy it seems to take time for the church to finally reach a place where the mystery is protected and yet the church does not descend into irrationalism. I am thinking here of Cyril of Alexandria and his proposal of the hypostatic union. As speculative as that might appear to be, it finally satisfied both the conscience and the Scriptures as a way to speak of Jesus as the Son of God.



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Robin

posted May 17, 2010 at 9:08 am


Re: Henry VIII
Hollinshed places the political and religious martyrs under Henry VIII at 72,000. So, 15,000 councils determining doctrine = 25,000 martyrs; 1 profligate reformer = 72,000 martyrs. And I know a lot of Henry’s were political executions, but I guarantee a lot of the 25,000 were as well given the turmoil surrounding Constantine’s rule and the rule of his heirs.



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chaplain mike

posted May 17, 2010 at 9:15 am


Norm (#4): the problem with your position and with all “let’s go back to the NT” forms of restorationism is that, at the times of most of the councils and creeds, we did not have an approved NT canon of Scripture! And the NT canon itself is a product of those selfsame councils you criticize. We simply cannot “go back to the NT” without a large measure of respect for apostolic, post-apostolic, and ecclesiastical tradition in the early centuries of the church.



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Kyle

posted May 17, 2010 at 9:20 am


Scot,
I’m not sure. I know that the reviews were mixed. I think Wilken was rather critical, but I can’t remember if he went after that number. I just remember it because it shocked me, but I couldn’t find any numerical data in the references to support it. 2,500 or 25,000 doesn’t change the fact that they are equally sickening numbers.
I was surprised on the number of councils as well and wondered about his definition of a “council.”



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norm

posted May 17, 2010 at 9:36 am


Chaplin mike #9
I?m not advocating that the American Restoration movement is a perfect response but simply illustrate that Creeds have a nuanced importance and implications that bears scrutiny. At the end of the day people of faith may decide that some are more beneficial than others. If we hold to a strict application of what you?re possibly implying then maybe all of us Protestants should move back under the umbrella of the Catholic Church. It never hurts to look objectively at how we have gotten to where we are today and put things in their proper historical perspective. Under the freedom of Grace as Paul defines it we should be able to live within the boundaries of various modes of religious existence recognizing the imperfections of all.
1Co 9:19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, ?
Rom 14:4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.



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kevin s.

posted May 17, 2010 at 9:59 am


To me, serious inquiry into the councils dispels much of my uncertainty as to whether man has faithfully presented God’s word intact. A seamless process would result from one of the following:
a) Scripture by decree. Almost certainly that of an influential leader or, worse(?), a tyrannical ruler.
b) A sort of gerrymandering by which scriptures are constructed to appeal to a broad majority stakeholders, thereby watering down the truth.
c) An undefined “starting point”, subject to change and, therefore, always changing.
I’ll be in the minority on this, I assume, but I think the number of deaths does matter. Let me explain.
If the goal was to resolve, for once and for all, the absolute word of God, we should expect serious conflict. I would rather have an orthodoxy people are willing to die for than one about which followers are largely apathetic.
Of course, the ideal is the willingness to die for scriptural truth, but the humility not to kill over it. Alas, our sinful flesh abhors ideals, so if there were literally no physical violence. Further, we could certainly expect those who substantially opposed truth to engage in violence, particularly if their heretical vision inured to their personal benefit. Were there no violence at all, I would be left to wonder how final the resolution of scripture really was.
Differences in death toll, especially those on order of magnitude would be significant in this regard. Were the deaths the inevitable, aggregated result of conflict between sinful and righteous pursuit of truth, or was something more sickening on display?
Is any death toll sick? Perhaps, but consider the example of America. The Revolutionary War aside, America’s founding was fraught with internal struggle, and violence (think duels). Regrettable? Certainly.
Sickening? Not compared to the Civil War. Inevitable violent outbursts emanating from tensions over fundamental governing principles could not hold a candle to wholly unnecessary slaughter on a grand scale. Hamilton’s death was vulgar. The Civil War was a tragedy.



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norm

posted May 17, 2010 at 11:10 am


Kevin s.#12
I?m wondering whether you are saying that those who killed or murdered in the name of righteousness are somehow vindicated. From what I can gather the early church reverted to the sorry state of killing the opposition taking on the manner of those in the early beginnings of the church who rejected the Christ and killed their brethren which John rejected.
1Jn 3:12-15 KJV Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous. ? He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. (15) Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.
This self proclamation of being right has led to untold numbers of people killed in that name including wars that decimated Europe due to the reformation coming about. Let?s not even consider the mindset of the Inquisition against those perceived to be outside of orthodoxy and thus heretics.



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Scott Eaton

posted May 17, 2010 at 11:28 am


With these insights is it really surprising then that a guy like Bart Ehrman believes that the shape of the church’s faith today is really only the result of one side’s ability to shout down the other side? How do we respond to him?
And if the majority seems to speak for God then shouldn’t we become advocates for congregational polity?
I know this is the way things happened, but I think the average laymen would find these things disturbing to their faith.
Just some random thoughts.



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Richard

posted May 17, 2010 at 11:32 am


So I’ve been mulling over the implications of this most the morning at this point. I’ve studied and read on much of this in church history classes but for it must have struck a raw nerve this morning. Some of my questions:
Is anyone else a little unsettled that the boundaries we use for orthodoxy are this democratic, especially in light of the canon being determined and assembled this way as opposed to divine fiat a la Mohammed’s claims with the Quran?
Shouldn’t this lead us to an ever-increasing level of humility regarding who is orthodox and who is not?
On a lesser note, does this add credence to McLaren’s point of reading Scripture as an inspired library rather than constitution?



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Scot McKnight

posted May 17, 2010 at 11:50 am


Scott and Richard, two comments touching the same subject:
When I read about this stuff, and I first heard of it from HOJ Brown in my student days, it discourages and puts a broad swath of honesty and humility in our confession. And I ponder Abraham and David and Paul and Peter and realize that God’s most used saints were not remotely perfect.
Israel, itself, was a mess often.
The Church, itself, is a mess often.
So, why would I expect the process of getting theologians together to be immune from the mess?
And, yet, that Creed was a consensus. Yes, it stifled alternative voices which, in the minds of the Church theologians, were wrongheaded. The best theologians since more or less have continued to affirm and not really even improve those insights.



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Rick

posted May 17, 2010 at 12:06 pm


Although the focus here is mainly on the “how” they decided, we should not overlook the “why” they came to certain conclusions.
When one looks at the Regula Fidei, the recognition and canonization of scripture, and the baptismal and catechumen processes (paralleling one another in many ways), one can see a strong emphasis on a core apostolic faith being passed along in the early church.



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kevin s.

posted May 17, 2010 at 1:14 pm


“Is anyone else a little unsettled that the boundaries we use for orthodoxy are this democratic, especially in light of the canon being determined and assembled this way as opposed to divine fiat a la Mohammed’s claims with the Quran?”
I much prefer the process of consensus and faithful study over singular “divine” revelation. Mohammed rather famously used his supposed revelations to justify all manner of ill deeds.
“Shouldn’t this lead us to an ever-increasing level of humility regarding who is orthodox and who is not?”
Not any more so than we already should be. The only impact this would have on our perception of orthodoxy would be to call into question the authenticity of scriptures and, by extension, our salvation. But Scot makes an apt point that serious theologians have failed to substantially improve upon the result.
“On a lesser note, does this add credence to McLaren’s point of reading Scripture as an inspired library rather than constitution?”
If anything, it would add credence to the view that we should read it as a constitution, given the process. But, really, McLaren presents a false choice. The bible is to be read as neither a constitution, nor a collection of religious serials, poems and op-eds. So I really don’t see one having to do with the other.
You are jumping to a conclusion that “muddled process” equals “muddled results”. If you trust God to inspire scripture, I see no reason not to trust him with the process of divining what is scripture.



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Tim

posted May 17, 2010 at 3:14 pm


I both welcome/affirm the creeds (Nicene, Apostles, Athanasian) and am sickened by the sin/violence that accompanied their formation. And what do we learn from church history?
*God works despite our mess
*Good results do not always mean the process was godly
*Humility, humility, humility
*Creed based traditions and restoration based traditions might come together around a “growing to look more like Jesus” agenda
*Being right can be dangerous when it leads us to write people off
*Don’t demonize your enemies because you might come off looking like a demon
I also wonder: What might a Gospel-Christ centered contemporary creed look like?
Note: the captcha system for this post is “subhuman $2.86″ so maybe you might want to completely disregard this post.



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Richard

posted May 17, 2010 at 3:24 pm


“And, yet, that Creed was a consensus. Yes, it stifled alternative voices which, in the minds of the Church theologians, were wrongheaded. The best theologians since more or less have continued to affirm and not really even improve those insights”
That’s the framework I’ve operated from and continue to operate from. The consensus in some ways makes it more remarkable (much to Kevin S’s point). Like I mentioned, it just seemed to strike a raw nerve this time around.
One more question then, if canon was decided by spirit-filled consensus and creeds were decided by spirit-filled consensus, is there any strong reason for not elevating the creeds to the level of authority that we give the Scriptures?



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Wyatt Roberts

posted May 17, 2010 at 5:05 pm


I suspect the majority of American Christians would not be bothered by this, but would actually strongly approve of this approach. Might=right. There are no cities named after Pelagius :)



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Paul Maurice Martin

posted May 17, 2010 at 7:35 pm


I always wonder what people mean by “God.” I don’t think many folks think very deeply about the most basic terms in religion and spirituality.



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Ann F-R

posted May 18, 2010 at 1:24 am


@Kevin S #19, & Richard #20
Kevin, you said, You are jumping to a conclusion that “muddled process” equals “muddled results”. If you trust God to inspire scripture, I see no reason not to trust him with the process of divining what is scripture.
Actually, it does. The muddled results are the deaths, injuries (physical, psychological, spiritual) that result from handling our differences so poorly. The muddled process constitute the [rotten] testimony of the church to the people among whom her members lived.
What is amazing is that God’s testimony to Godself over millenia can shine through even these sickeningly human conflicts caused the human hubris of thinking to win “spiritually” or “theologically” using fleshly weapons. Perhaps the lives of the ones who died were the testaments more profoundly used by the Lord to clarify love and crucifixion and resurrection, than the lives of their killers? Wouldn’t that be just like the Lord Jesus whom we follow with our crosses?



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nathan

posted May 19, 2010 at 12:29 pm


It’s very hard for me to take seriously any position that doesn’t value the Creeds. They are not Scripture, but they are products of a unique time in the Church.
Now we no longer have a conciliar mechanism that can capture/express consensus and so, as the baseline articulation of essential faith, the Creeds represent something incredibly important for our theology.
Any “get back to the good ‘ol days” theology and ecclesiology is, while motivated from sincere and good desires, essentially wrong-headed.
Many “restorationists” i know see the doctrine of Trinity as optional or an “open question”. When you valorize an a-historical or minimally historical construction of theology you lose critical resources for your theology. When you valorize the “discernment” of the contemporary individual in a local congregation, you disconnect from the massive body of discernment over 2000 years. And, specifically, if you lose the Trinitarian character of that 2000 years of discernment, you lose essential Christian identity and are no longer part of the faith. (I know that sounds harsh, but you’re no longer Christian if you’re no longer Trinitarian.)



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nathan

posted May 19, 2010 at 12:32 pm


I remember someone objecting the Creeds to me one time with the statement:
“How could you make anyone say something or affirm something that they actually might not believe in?”
My answer was:
First, no one is being “made” to say something.
Second, why do you privilege the opinion of an individual over the voice of millions of the Church over 2000 years?



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ID Cards

posted July 29, 2014 at 10:08 pm


Thanks for the share



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