Skimming through a stack of books recently, I found myself reading a testimonial of sorts from James D. G. Dunn, the great New Testament scholar who coined the phrase “the new perspective on Paul.” Having logged decades of ministry in various Methodist contexts, Dunn tries to explain what it feels like to be worshiping now in a small Anglican church according to the Book of Common Prayer:
As I draw nearer to the next stage of my journey, my faith remains strong, though I find myself often less satisfied that the words used to express that faith are adequate. . . . And saying the Nicene Creed every Sunday, as though the mystery of God can be put satisfactorily into words (including the Filioque!), can be theologically disquieting.
When I read that last sentence, I bristled. The Creed is about trying to contain the mystery of God?! No matter how familiar I am with professional biblical scholarship’s characteristic nervousness about—or, sometimes, its outright disdain for—creedal and confessional theology, I am still occasionally shocked by it.
Lots of people think the way Dunn does, worrying that reciting the Creed week by week can lead to the calcification of vibrant faith, to a simplifying and demystifying of a more admirably numinous religious encounter or experience. Many contemporary believers, and not only their professional theological muses, fear that the goal of the Church’s dogmas is the reduction of mystery. Creeds flatten and deaden the divine plenitude that must always exceed our grasp. They contain and limit, trimming eternity down to “satisfactory” size, whereas the Bible and its polyglot diversity liberate, refusing to narrow the horizons. Or so the thinking goes.
And yet when calcification happens in our churches, we need not blame the Creed. Instead, we must insist on the opposite. The Creed safeguards the mystery and wild freedom of God; it does not box it in and tame it. The point of the Creed isn’t that its words are satisfactory. It’s that those words refuse our inveterate preference for premature theological satisfaction.
“The main concern of theology is not so much to elucidate anything,” Andrew Louth writes, “as to prevent us, the Church, from dissolving the mystery that lies at the heart of the faith—dissolving it, or missing it altogether, by failing truly to engage with it.” To think of the creedal affirmation that Jesus Christ is “true God from true God” as an attempt to explain or demystify the deity is simply a category error. Rather, the point of that confession, as Louth goes on to note, is to ensure that we don’t opt for the Arian shortcut of a rationally explicable Son of God.
This heresy subordinates Jesus to the Father. It is one of the theological dead ends the Creed seeks to warn us away from. True, approaching Jesus as a dispenser of wisdom and compassion, preaching him and identifying with him as a shrewd and good reader of the human condition, or even treating him as a kind of deity or demigod, as did Arius, is to hold a “high” view of him. But it is a comprehensible one that doesn’t require any major rearranging of our metaphysical or moral furniture. God remains God, and Jesus is, like so many prophets before him, an icon or signpost to God’s ineffable life. Jesus, on such a view, is able to be slotted into our usual categories. This account of Jesus is one in which human words are indeed—to use Dunn’s word—satisfactory.
According to the Creed, however, Jesus is both the one who is born of a human mother and the one “through whom all things were made.” Jesus is a man who is mortal just like all his fellows, and, at the same time, he now sits on the right hand—the place of ultimate power and glory—of God the Father. Approaching Jesus in this way turns language back on itself, exposing our poverty. Confessing what is beyond language, the creeds use the words least likely to diminish the mystery while at the same time gesturing at its depths. To say otherwise, to reject the Creed as so much rationalist mystery-refusal, is to get things exactly backward. It is the Creed, not the heresies it proscribes, that dares to confess God in Christ uncontainable, unclassifiable, and incomprehensible.
Were we to cycle through the other heresies the Creed attempts to ward off, we would see each of them as an exercise in defining mystery down. Whatever else they are, heretical theologies can usually be relied on to make some aspect of the faith more intellectually manageable. God as one, and Christ and Spirit as his visible disguises? That’s the heresy of modalism, and it’s much more commonsensical than believing that the three divine persons of Father, Son, and Spirit are one in essence. The Spirit as free and independent, rather than eternally proceeding from Father and Son? That’s the heresy of Montanism, more or less. It’s much easier to believe in a wispy divine presence untethered to the concrete story of Israel’s God and the story of his messiah, Jesus, than it is to believe that the Spirit’s character is indelibly formed by his relation to Father and Son. A recent book of Anglican sermons on various creedal affirmations reaches for words like “radical” and “shocking” to describe Nicene theology. “This puts paid to any idea that orthodox belief is some sort of easy way out of intellectual hard work; heresy is more often the easier option,” the book’s editor, Ben Quash, observes. “Satisfactory words” are what the Creed shoos us away from, not what it commends.
In short, as Rowan Williams says, the Creed “has to do with making it harder to talk about God.” The affirmations of the Creed—that God is the source of all that is (not just a cosmic watchmaker), that the human being Jesus is, in a way beyond our ability to grasp, the presence of this God among us (not just an exalted moralist), and that the Spirit is equally “the Lord,” the bearer of the same divine Name (not just an ethereal sensibility or “force”)—are the Church’s attempt to say what must be said in order to safeguard, rather than dissolve, the transcendent wonder and freedom of God. Although I don’t share Dunn’s understanding of what the Creed does, I do like his word for it: disquieting. When we confess our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed, we dance on the knife-edge of the deepest mysteries of all.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.