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Fall 1992 · Vol. 21 No. 2 · pp. 81–86 

Book Review

Faith to Creed: Ecumenical Perspectives on the Affirmation of the Apostolic Faith in the Fourth Century

ed. S. Mark Heim. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991. xxiii + 206 pages.

Reviewed by Stephen Varvis


Some of us, no doubt, have wondered whether anything good can come out of the National Council of Churches with all of its political posturing and pontificating. In the instance of this collection, many of us will be moved from doubt to hope, if not belief. The papers represent the work of some of the best known historians and theologians working today, with a (seemingly) purposeful inclusion of Baptist, Mennonite, and Free Church thinkers from Europe, North and South America, employing a variety of theological and historical approaches. Despite this inclusiveness, the direction of the text, as much as can be discerned from a collection, is toward ecumenical acceptance of the creedal affirmations of the fourth century (Nicaea and Constantinople, with some reference to Ephesus and Chalcedon in the fifth). The essays add a healthy dose of {82} qualifications about how, why, and to what extent formal acceptance ought to proceed. Paradoxically (and this might be a comfort to “ana-“ and “baptise”- oriented readers), representatives of older, traditional, “creedal” churches offer the qualifications, and those representing the “confessional” churches argue in some measure for the authority of the creedal formulae as preserving the integrity of the witness of Christ and Scripture. This is just the pattern that traditional spiritual guides have advocated as the way and evidence of spiritual health—each defending the concerns and strengths of the other (see, for example, Dante’s Paradise, XI-XII).

Among the treats of the collection, as one might expect, are the analyses of historians such as John Meyendorff of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Andre de Halleux of Louvain, and Roberta Bondi of Candler School of Theology. Meyerdorff offers a brief outline as astute and sensitive as any that exist on the host of issues that surround the making of the creed--the origins and use in baptismal rites and broader context of worship; their relationship to soteriological issues and Biblical narrative; the use and indeed development of Greek philosophical terms and their relationship to some of the same patterns in John and Paul. We confirmed Neoplatonists might have hoped for more of an apologia of the benefits of the Greek philosophical language and its harmony with and extension of Biblical terminology, but we will have to settle for the subtle explanation of the whole development, which indeed makes it hard to deny the ecumenical centrality, and even authority to the conciliar work of the fourth century! Halleux’s analysis extends this outline with a rather detailed portrayal of the varied uses of the creedal formulae to illustrate the kind of authority they were presumed to have, which in his account (and correctly so) comes out as more intentional than precisely definitive, as sufficient, preserving the Church from error, allowing for variations and expansion, and declining to probe the “mystery of the divine unitrinity.”

The further historical treatment of Bondi and Rosemary Jerman, however, give us a sense of the mystery felt, protected, and encouraged. Bondi’s portrayal of the desert ascetic understanding of the meaning of the creedal outline, which in large measure preserves the narrative form of the gospels (against Arian logicians)--the combination of full divinity and humanity in the Son confirming the humility of God himself in meeting us, his life and death as the pattern of divine life itself, not a lesser example, to be imitated and appropriated in the life of the Christian--lends further depth to the part the creeds have played through worship and exhortation in the life of the Church through the centuries. Jerman’s explanation of the Cappadocian Fathers gives us something of the spiritual sense, both mystical and practical, of these philosophers and theologians (these titles {83} go together in the fourth century and beyond) of the Spirit, who develop the reconciling terminology that has allowed speculative theologians to penetrate more deeply into the mystery of the kenotic incantation. I was somewhat disappointed by Jerman’s presentation—outline does not always convey the living process of spiritual participation—though there is much to contemplate, and a good dose of eye-opening quotation.

There are some disappointments in the volume, though they too are instructive. Brazilian Baptist theologian Paulo D. Siepierski’s reflections on Basil of Caesarea degenerate into an almost entirely reductive construction and defence of liberation theology and its now-standard claims and indictments, and is useful neither as methodological treatise nor theological analysis. However, Eduardo Hoornaert, whom Siepiersky attempts to rely upon, offers a useful analysis of the problems of power and authority associated with the establishment of the creeds in the context of Constantinople and the Empire. While he points clearly to both what is proclaimed and what is neglected, and so encourages us to read between the lines to discern who wanted what said and not said, and for what reasons, he fails to take into account fully (as other contributors do) the complexity of political purposes and actions--successive and rival banishments, emperors, and agendas, etc. Nonetheless, even if history, and the Church’s history, is too complex to be treated under the rather simplistic formula of “who wanted to oppress or liberate whom,” Hoornaert’s reading of the creeds themselves and his relating of them to current movements in Central and South America are instructive and merit consideration.

In a rather curious essay, E. Glenn Hinson, patristic scholar at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argues that Baptists might appreciate the creeds through the category of “mission.” He speaks from the experience of teaching and is both positive about our need to appropriate the creeds, and negative about whether we will be able to gain the objectivity and sympathy to appropriate creeds which the Baptist tradition has associated with hierarchy and Rome. Throughout, however, Hinson has to stretch and twist a now common understanding of the creedal development in the worshiping and disciplining community of the Church (very ably outlined by Lutheran historian William G. Rusch earlier in the volume) to bend it to Baptist concerns. One wonders why he didn’t suggest that Baptists, and Mennonites and Evangelicals of all stripes for that matter, simply consider Athanasius’ On the Incarnation,which focuses on the issue of salvation as the central problem to be confronted and protected by the creeds—that is, salvation through Christ alone. This is,after all, the central event behind the Great Commission, and lies at the heart of Evangelical spirituality. {84}

All of this might be considered background, however, for Mennonite Brethren concerns, which are directly addressed by A. James Reimer of Conrad Grebel College, and Max Stackhouse of Andover Newton. Reimer directly raises the issue that is at the heart of some Anabaptist theology, and has been central to the Anabaptist understanding of the Church, namely, the Constantinian Fall, and the relationship of Anabaptist “confessions” to the creeds produced under the influence of Constantine. He presents a thorough and badly needed critique and corrective to the thesis of John Howard Yoder, more recently elaborated by J. Denny Weaver, which holds that in essence the process of creedal formation was a political process desired by the Emperor for the stability of the Empire. Reimer’s claim is made more powerful by his use of their own argument and admissions to argue against their conclusions. The Emperors, he points out, would have been better served by Arianism, and indeed were for a time.

Reimer also challenges John E. Toews, Mennonite Brethren scholar and churchman, arguing that in recent writings Toews unnecessarily devalues the creeds, their language, purpose, process of formation, and relation to the Biblical witness. Consequently, Toews overstresses the Mennonite distinctiveness. Broader debate of these issues might well make for rethinking Mennonite Brethren unity and particularity which have been central, as it has been explained to me, in denominational discussions. By implication Reimer also raises a question for readers of Howard Loewen’s discussion in the introduction to One Lord, One Church, One Hope, and one God where Loewen argues that Mennonites have been a confessional rather than a creedal community of faith. While this is surely true as far as it goes, Reimer’s contention, and indeed the burden of the majority of the writers of this volume, is to demonstrate that the creedal development of the fourth century was in continuity with scripture, a necessary development given the challenges of the time, and properly understood gave symbolic structure to an ethical consciousness and particular ways of life as found principally in the life and death of Jesus. This is in essence to argue that while there is a useful distinction to be made and retained between “creedal” and “confessional” churches, the creeds entailed and indeed embodied a confession of a way of life and faith which was necessary much more than mere belief (credo—I believe) or assent to theological categories. At the same time the confessions of the modern churches take up over and over the creedal inheritances and build with them their necessarily more elaborate confessions as they distinguish themselves one from another.

To recognize this mutual engagement, it seems to me, is to gain for the {85} Mennonite Brethren the possibility of a strong ecumenical tie to orthodox believers throughout the world, those who recognize the centrality of the incarnational life and redemptive death and resurrection of Christ, without the encumbering and disturbing divisions and claims to authority and distinctiveness from either ecclesial hierarchy or sectarian community. Our differences will perhaps always be with us, for such is the condition of this life of faith and hope in this world before perfection. Still, might we not reconsider affirming especially the Nicene creed as that authoritive symbol of Christian experience and revelation which points not to confessional distinctiveness, but to ecumenical commonality with our brothers and sisters who go by other churchly names? If the development of the fourth and fifth centuries is accurately reflected by the contributors of this volume, and in some measure outlined and discussed here, what Church wants to stand outside of this common Christian attempt to describe the nature of the event and person in whom we believe and live? And even if we grant that the final defense of the truth of our faith is the fruits that we bear, do we want to add to those “fruits” the formal exclusion of others because they say it a different way? On a more personal note, I might add that as an historian of theology, it is my deeply felt calling to attempt to muck up a bit whenever possible, whatever pronouncement theologians have attempted to make. They are sometimes so categorically imperative, present company excepted. John Toews and Howard Loewen are singled out by Reimer as worthy of consideration, and are worth mucking around with. If what I have argued here sparks some flame of discussion, my life will feel more complete, at least for a while.

Finally, Slackhouse, widely known for writing on social and ethical issues, linked both to social concerns of the Christian left, and the neoconservative movement centered now around Richard John Neuhaus and the journal First Things, elaborates a social ethic based on the trinitarian formula as representing a mutual society of love amongst persons, which in turn becomes the pattern for Christian social relations and hence a distinguishing symbol of the Kingdom of God. Slackhouse here develops, perhaps unknowingly, at least without indicating so, the tradition of trinitarian speculation developed after the Nicene formulation of A.D. 381 at Constantinople with its recognition of the three-personed one God, creator, redeemer, and life-giver, and elaborated in the high Middle Ages, especially by Richard of St. Victor—a stunning achievement, and something to consider by those who would derive an ethic from a community of faith alone, without doctrinal guidance. All readers of the volume will want to consider the summary statement of the consultation included at the close of the volume. We may well be able to say with the {86} writers: “Even in our disagreements we experience the capacity of the creed to unify us by directing our attention to the faith we share.” ’ A volume so diverse, inclusive, and at the same time cohesive is a theological and editorial achievement in its own right, as well as a source of theological and ecclesiological hope for continued explorations and understandings of the things that divide and unite us in one Lord.

Stephen Varvis
Department of History
Fresno Pacific College
Fresno, California

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