What Would Athanasius Do: Is The Great Tradition Enough?
About every sixth Sunday, my church in Washington confesses our faith using the words of the Apostles’ Creed. The next week, we do the same thing with the Nicene Creed of 325, and then a week later with the Nicene Creed of 381. When we introduce those creeds, we revel in the fact that for nearly two thousand years, Christians have been confessing their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ using the words of these creeds.
When I was at a church in Louisville, Kentucky, we even adopted the Nicene Creed of 381 as part of our church’s statement of faith. Our hope was to show that, far from being a brittle, fractious little church, we were standing in a long and deep tradition of Christian confession and witness. We were not an island, and we wanted the world to know it.
I love the ancient creeds. They are elegant and beautiful in their simplicity, and they state some of the most foundational truths of Christianity with an admirable care and precision of expression. Jesus Christ is «begotten, not made,» Nicaea asserts. He is «light from light» and «true God from true God,» not merely a similar light or a similar God, but «of the same essence with the Father.» Christians can be wonderfully instructed by being led to confess their faith with such time-tested and carefully honed phrases.
THE GREAT TRADITION: A NEW RALLYING POINT FOR UNITY?
In recent years, however, there seems to be an impulse among many evangelicals to try to make these ancient creeds—the «Great Tradition,» as the collection of early creeds are often called—into something more. They have been turned into something of a rallying point for those who would like to see the theological differences that exist between evangelicals and, well, everyone else, narrowed and submerged.
Simply put, the argument is that it is in this Great Tradition—which usually comprises the Apostles’ Creed, the two Nicene Creeds, the Athanasian Creed, and the Definition of Chalcedon—that we find the essence of what it means to be a Christian. These are the ecumenical creeds, the argument goes, the universal creeds adopted by the church in its early years, and therefore they form a necessary and even sufficient ground of unity between Christians. If you can affirm those ancient creeds, it’s said, then you have all that is necessary to be counted and welcomed as a Christian.
As much as I love all those creeds, I’d argue that this way of thinking doesn’t finally hold up. At the end of the day the Great Tradition, at least defined as the words of those creeds, simply isn’t going to be enough to ground Christian unity. Let me give you a few reasons why.
WHY THE GREAT TRADITION IS NOT ENOUGH
First, it’s important to remind ourselves that the Great Tradition is only kind of ancient. As old as those creeds are, they do not stand at the fountainhead of Christian truth. They are neither as old nor as authoritative as the Bible. In fact, the creeds are entirely derivative from and therefore dependent on what the Bible teaches, and they are useful and true only insofar as they accurately summarize what the Bible says. Often the tendency is to think that because the creeds are ancient and revered, everything they say is true. We should not assume that; rather, we should test the creeds by the standard of Scripture.
Second, we must acknowledge that the Great Tradition is itself broken. If we’re going to use the creeds as our standard of unity, we’re going to have to decide which version of each creed we’re going to use. The fact is, there is no perfectly clean «Great Tradition.» All of these creeds were wrangled over, amended, changed, chopped, and redone. They even became the cause of massive splits between churches. So for example, which version of the Apostles’ Creed will we take as being part of our Great Tradition: the one which says that Jesus «descended into Hell,» or the one that leaves that out? Even more, which version of the Nicene Creed will we use, the one that includes the word filioque (asserting that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father but also from the Son) or the one which deliberately rejects it? There may have been a time when people thought the ecumenical creeds were a sufficient basis for unity among all Christians; that time ended, though—and fairly dramatically, too—in 1054.
Third, the great tradition is incomplete. What I mean by that is that all the ancient creeds were written in response to specific heresies. The Nicene Creed, for example, spends such a large amount of time on the fact that Jesus was of the same essence as the Father precisely because that is what was at issue when the creed was written. Thus it simply doesn’t deal with other truths at the same length and with the same level of theological detail. For crying out loud, all the 325 version says about the Holy Spirit is «We believe in him!» Well, good for you!
What this means is that the creeds defined the boundaries of orthodox Christianity only when it came to specific questions. They fortified spans of the wall that were under particular attack. They did not claim and did not intend to lay out the full, sufficient boundaries of orthodoxy. Of course that doesn’t mean that the creeds are not still useful to us. They are. The ancient creeds defined the boundaries around several key truths of the Christian faith very well, and we’d be wrong not to heed them. But we shouldn’t think that they defined the boundaries of every truth, nor should we think that they contain everything we need for defining and defending the faith.
The fact is, there were many truths which are just as near to the heart of the gospel as those dealt with in the creeds, and yet which the creeds did not deal with in any detail. And why not? Because those truths were not challenged strongly until centuries later. A tremendously important example of this is the doctrine of justification by faith alone. As Protestants, we understand that doctrine to lie at the very center of the gospel—salvation is wholly by virtue of Christ’s life and death imputed to us, and not at all by virtue of anything in us. To deny that is, at some level, to put one’s faith in oneself rather than in Christ. And yet that issue did not come to a critically sharp point until the 16th century (or perhaps slightly before).
Fourth, the Great Tradition is open to interpretation. There are people in all kinds of «Christian» traditions who could affirm the words of the ancient creeds, and yet who would mean by those words something very different from what you and I would mean. Of course, if you want to ground unity not on the words themselves, but on a particular interpretation of those words—like the Reformers’ interpretation, for example, over against the Pope’s or the Patriarch’s—well, fine. I could be all for that because then we’d be requiring people to interpret the phrase «one baptism for the remission of sins,» for example, as not meaning baptismal regeneration. And so on. But then again, that would just dump us right back into those unfortunate theological arguments we’re trying to escape by means of the Great Tradition, wouldn’t it?
PAPERING OVER DISTINCTIONS DOES NOT PRESERVE THE GOSPEL
Like it or not, the gospel has always been defended and clarified by making distinctions, not by ignoring them. We as Protestant evangelicals believe things that Roman Catholics do not. They believe things that we do not. And both of us believe things that the Eastern Orthodox church does not, and vice versa. In fact, the Great Tradition itself stands as testimony to the necessity of drawing distinctions in order to safeguard the gospel.
It’s pretty ironic, isn’t it, that the «Great Tradition,» forged in the fires of brutal fights against untruth, is now being used by some as a means of papering over distinctions and minimizing differences! That’s a shame, because the men who wrote and adopted those creeds were not at all in the business of minimizing distinctions. They were in the business of making them, and thereby making the gospel clear against error and challenge. That work has continued long after those men died, and we have now seen 1500 more years of clarification, definition, and distinctions being made in defense of the gospel. So use the creeds and love the creeds. But if we throw away those 1500 years’ worth of distinctions and make our unity rest, not a little arbitrarily, on a few (specific versions of) creeds from the third, fourth, and fifth centuries, we’ll wind up muddying the gospel rather than clarifying it.
And somehow I doubt Athanasius would applaud us for that.