We tend to forget that the early church, which formulated Canon with the help of the Holy Spirit, was also the church that created Creed. American theologian Robert Jenson speaks of Creed as involving the regula fidei, the rule of faith, which he refers to variously as the “communal linguistic awareness” or the “communal self-consciousness” of the early church. Though Jenson speaks of Creed as involving the regula fidei, I want to think of Creed here not only as involving the regula fidei, but also actually as the regula fidei. While certainly not the only way to think of Creed, I think that this concept is helpful.
In the first part of this series, Matthew Burdette argued that Canon should be thought of as that which authorizes us to announce the gospel to the world. If that is so, then Creed can be thought of as the thought process by which the church, charged by Canon to announce the gospel, conceives of the gospel which it is called to announce.
In a word, Creed can be defined as the consciousness of the church.
Creed, like any consciousness, is not a static thought process but is precisely a thought process, always growing and discovering things about and around itself. We might even speak of Creed as having a subconscious; that is, a realm within itself which it does not understand or perceive. Creed as the consciousness of the church is not only free to grow but actually must grow to maintain itself as Creed.
As the consciousness of the church, Creed is also profoundly unified. Jenson, in his discussion of the regula fidei, quotes the early church father, Irenaeus of Lyons, who attested that the church held the regula fidei “as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart.” The framing of Creed as the thought-process of the church implies a confidence in the essential unity of Creed, despite its necessary growth.
This belief in the unity of Creed is, from Jenson’s perspective, grounded in “a confidence in the guiding presence of the Spirit.” That Creed may be both growing and unified is undoubtedly a mystery, one of the mysteries implied by any consciousness. Like all mysteries, this mystery requires faith to grasp. We trust the Spirit to ensure both the unity and the change of the church’s consciousness understood as Creed.
Creed understood as the consciousness of the church is a mystery.
The Language of the Church
The reality that Creed, as the consciousness of the church, is a mystery, implies that it can never be fully grasped, much less fully articulated. Yet, to have a conscious thought process at all requires articulation. And the articulation of a thought process requires language. Just as thoughts cannot exist apart from language, Creed cannot be separated from its linguistic articulations as expressed and embodied in the language of the church. Creedal statements—whether creeds and confessions—are no doubt part of this language, but so are hymns, liturgy, and sacraments insofar as they encompass the expression of Creed.
The expression of Creed is the language of the church.
What am I trying to get at here? Creed, as the consciousness of the church, has speakers. When I speak of Creed as the consciousness of the church, I am not speaking of the consciousness of some abstract entity called “the church,” because I understand the church as the body of believers. As the church, believers become the ‘I’ whose consciousness is Creed. Believers speak the language of the church. And as speakers of this language, they come and go, live and die. Because new generations of speakers make their mark on language, language evolves: which is why scholars can speak of “Old English,” “Middle English,” and “Modern English.” In the same way, as new people live as the church, they change the way it speaks.
As the language of the church grows due to the influx of new generations of believers, Creed grows with it. Language is not external to Creed but, Creed, if it is to be understood at all, is inextricably tied to language. Creed changes with the language of the church; the church’s thinking about the gospel changes with the language it employs. As the Church uses language to think, varying its articulations, its consciousness also changes.
In the past century or so, and even in my own generation (I am just beginning my undergraduate studies), the church has and continues to pursue new ways of speaking about the question of women in ministry. And as the church has spoken its thoughts in new ways through new generations of believers, its thoughts are changing. Creed—the consciousness of the church, has been altered by the changing language.
Creed as the thought process of the church has been altered in regard to the question of women in ministry, for the language has changed. But there are some who continue to insist on using old language to describe a new and ever new Creed. Simply, such language, which articulates the state of Creed in the past, is a dead language. It is language that at one time may have described Creed but now merely misconstrues it. Employing such outdated language is like trying to speak of twenty-first century America in seventeenth century words: it is at best an approximation and an absurdity. Such language is interesting for scholarly purposes and nothing further.
Struggling to Speak
In every age and to every people, the church is called to express Creed in language that most accurately conveys the mystery of Creed as it understands Creed in the present. And frankly, an expression of Creed which speaks of women as unequal to men in ministry, whatever it may have meant in the past, is to this day and age incomprehensible when spoken of in tandem with contemporary Creed, the church’s consciousness in the now.
I believe that under the guidance of the Spirit, we as the church can find a way to articulate today’s Creed in today’s language while still maintaining the unity of the church implied by Creed. This may take a miracle, and even if it can be accomplished, some will mock the attempts the church makes to speak contemporary Creed in a language that can be understood by the hearers of the now, as they mocked the apostles in Acts 2. But some hearers will look at each other in perplexity and begin to ask questions. If we trust the Spirit to help us speak Creed in the language of today, we may yet see the outpouring of the Spirit in powerful ways.
—Daniel Peverini is studying theology at Walla Walla University.
Image: William Blake, A New Heaven Is Begun, c. 1790