It’s not carved in stone that we must read the Apostles' Creed, or for that matter the Nicene Creed, as a fixed, final, immutable statement of ultimate truth.
Instead, we might view either Creed as representing the best the Church Fathers could do to summarize their understanding, at that time, of the God in whom they placed their trust.
The Church Fathers were not infallible deities. True, the church believes they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. But it’s a safe bet that their understanding of that inspiration might have been incomplete. It might even have be mistaken (just as ours could be). That doesn't mean the Fathers are any less deserving of our respect and gratitude, and our admiration for their willingness to put their trust in God.
Consider an analogy: Suppose the astronomer Ptolemy were to materialize before us, along with his almanacs and astronomical instruments. Over the next few hours, he goes outside, shoots some sun sights, and announces that the sun will rise tomorrow morning at approximately 6:21 a.m. Our own, modern almanac confirms that this will indeed be the time of sunrise.
In getting to know our "new" friend, we learn he thinks the sun will literally rise in the sky tomorrow morning. That's because in his mental model of the universe, the earth is at the center, with the sun (and stars and planets) revolving around it. We, on the other hand, have a different mental model; we are pretty confident that tomorrow morning the sun will do nothing of the sort.
Few would scorn our visitor just because we have a different explanation of what we (still) call "sunrise." True, our explanation indisputably works better: it accounts for more of the available evidence, and it generates better predictions. But we still would acknowledge our debt, and our gratitude, to Ptolemy and the other astronomers of old. Like us, they sought the truth. Like us, they didn’t have all the answers. Like us, some of their understandings were wrong. We’ve traveled farther on the path than they, but only because of the preparatory work they did before us.
We can consider the beliefs of the Church Fathers in a similar light. When we reassess their creedal assertions, we don’t reject them as brothers and sisters. Neither do we disparage their faith. Quite the contrary, we’re trying to build on the “prep work” they did. Our purpose, like theirs, is to learn what we can of God, his works, and his will, and to enhance our trust in him. To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton, we’re standing on the shoulders of giants, in the hope of seeing a bit farther than they could.
Today we still speak in the language of sunrise and sunset, even though that language is technically wrong. Likewise, we can still speak in the language of the Creed, regardless whether we doubt its technical accuracy.
And no matter whose language we use, we must remember something important: However we choose to describe God, he is what he is. When we describe God as being X or Y or Z, that doesn’t make him so.
(Harvested from this earlier posting.)
A point of curiosity: have you by any chance read Owen Barfield's Saving the Appearances? Based on this post, my money is tentatively on "yes"...
At any rate, if you can stomach a little more ATB, you might try the comments section on Alexandra's Holy Trinity thread. Based on this post of yours (which I should say I enjoyed) you're likely to find that whole conversation interesting.
Posted by: Ken Pierce | January 03, 2006 at 02:05 PM
Just as we regard the Scripture as "sufficient" so too we regard the Creed. As the Lambeth Quad puts it, the Nicene Creed is "the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith." It doesn't tell us everything about the church, much less about God; but it tells us enough. Isn't it interesting that God appears only to want to give us enough to keep us hungry for the eventual enjoyment of the parousia --- our daily bread until we reach the heavenly banquet?
Posted by: Tobias S Haller BSG | January 05, 2006 at 04:51 PM
I discuss the Nicene Creed on my weblog -- look up "Questioning Back" 5.
Posted by: Joseph O'Leary | April 17, 2007 at 02:40 AM