Friday, October 8, 2010

On the Status of the Nicene Creed as Dogma of the Church

Forty-five years ago the first formal dialogue occurred between representatives of the U. S. Roman Catholic Bishops' Commission for Ecumenical Affairs and the U. S. A. National Committee of the Lutheran World Federation. While not the first ecumenical dialogue between these two communions--the Jaeger-Staehlin Group in Germany, later called the Ecumenical Working Circle of Lutheran and Catholic Theologians, was the first such dialogue, begun in 1946, and the twice-yearly informal dialogues that occurred in the 1950s between the theology faculties of Valparaiso University (Lutheran) and Notre Dame (Roman Catholic) were the first in the U. S.--the later American series of dialogues that began in 1965 has had the longest run of any in North America and it has borne much fruit over the past 4.5 decades.

This semester I'm teaching a new course that examines these dialogues. Such a course makes sense to me here at Valparaiso University, since about 25% of our students are Catholic and approximately 35% are Lutheran. What better way for these students to explore what they have in common as well as how their respective doctrinal traditions differ. Even those in the class who are not Lutheran or Catholic are finding the discussions helpful for sorting out what they believe and don't believe. After preliminary sessions on the histories of Lutheranism and Catholicism, the Ecumenical Movement, the Lutheran World Federation, and the Second Vatican Council, the students and I have turned our attention to the background papers and common statements of each of the individual dialogues.

I thought that today I'd offer a few observations about the first dialogue, which occurred in the City of Baltimore, the first Catholic diocese in what would come to be the U.S. and which maintains the "prerogative of place" among all U. S. archbishoprics. The theme had been selected by a steering committee of Lutheran and Catholic theologians that had met in the offices of Cardinal Lawrence Shehan (1961-1974), then the archbishop of that city. The focus: the status of the Nicene Creed as dogma of the church. This creed, first formulated at the Council of Nicaea in A. D. 325 and then expanded at the Council of Constantinople in A. D. 381 (technically, then, it is "the Niceano-Constantinopolitan Creed"), is the basic ecumenical creed in Christendom, confessed by both eastern and western Christians as a core summary of their common faith.

According to Paul Empie and William Baum, the two key leaders of the first dialogue, "The Nicene Creed was chosen because it is the basic statement of faith for both traditions, arises out of the post-Apostolic period, and affords some clues to an understanding of the development and position of dogma in the life of the church" (Paul Empie and William Baum, "Foreword," The Status of the Nicene Creed as Dogma of the Church, ed. Paul Empie and T. Austin Murphy [New York, Washington, D.C.: Jointly published by U.S.A. National Committee for the Lutheran World Federation and the Bishops' Commission for Ecumenical Affairs, 1965], 1).                                                                                                                                                                             

The papers that were presented for discussion at the meeting were by Warren Quanbeck (Lutheran professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul), George Lindbeck (Lutheran professor of theology at Yale Divinity School), and John Courtney Murray (Roman Catholic professor of theology at Woodstock College, Woodstock, Maryland).

The Lutheran paper was divided into two parts. Quanbeck presented part one, on basic Lutheran principles for interpreting the creeds and confessions of the church, and Lindbeck part two, which focuses more specifically on critical issues in the interpretation of the N-C Creed.     
Quanbeck's line of thinking went from the authority of the Scriptures, in and through which God speaks, to the creeds and confessions of the church, whose purpose is "to clarify the event of God's saving presence among His people" (ibid., 7), and then to the significance of the creeds and confessions in the life of the church, namely, to praise God, to make clear the identity of the church, and to interpret the gospel in a sound manner. For Quanbeck, "the creed is not an end in itself but an instrument" by which to praise God, to identify the church, and to teach the gospel (p. 9). Both Quanbeck and Lindbeck stress the necessity of proper interpretation, to avoid interpreting the Scriptures or the confessions in "a literalistic, legalistic or atomistic way" (p. 6).                                                                                                  

For his part, Lindbeck raised three types of questions: those about the content of the N-C Creed itself (for example, does not the language of Christ "who came down from heaven" lead us in the direction of Gnosticism?), those about the status of the Catholic creeds in relation to other church dogmas (for example, do the Apostles' and N-C creeds have a higher status than other dogmas in the Roman Catholic Church?), and those about the status of dogma in general (for example, what are the conditions for asserting that "agreement" exists between Lutherans and Catholics on a given dogma?). He was particularly concerned to raise questions about "what" is assented to when one confesses the Niceano-Constantinopolitan. Is it not possible to accept and confess this creed without assenting to an outdated, even heretical (Gnostic) worldview wherein heaven is "above" and earth is "below?" Or wherein Christ "descended into hell." May one accept this creed without necessarily asserting that the non-biblical language in the creed, including that creed's most central non-biblical term, the "homoousion" ("of the same being," or "of the same essence"), is permanently appropriate and that one might in fact develop better ways of understanding the relation of the Son to the Father, as long as one does not do violence against the intention of the New Testament, as Arius surely did, or fail to exalt Christ? "It will be observed that these queries are intended to press on our Roman Catholic friends the question of what they think must be included in the notion of dogmatic development…" (ibid., pp. 14-15).

Unfortunately, we don't have a clear record of how all of the Roman Catholic participants responded to Lindbeck's questions at the two-day conference. We do know that the organizers of the first dialogue wanted to focus on areas of agreement rather than on areas of controversy. And yet, Lindbeck's questions point to a controversial issue that would repeatedly surface in subsequent dialogues, namely, what is the role of the church--and church authority--in the formulation of church doctrine?
Murray's paper stresses the Roman position that the truths of the faith are contained in the Scriptures AND in the divine tradition, be it implicitly or explicitly, as this tradition is guarded, interpreted, and taught by the church's authoritative teachers (the magisterium). God has given the church the magisterium so that those truths that are obscure and/or implicit in the deposit of faith may later come to light and be more carefully formulated. In other words, the relationship between church and teaching office of the church (centered for Rome ultimately in the papacy) is reciprocal: the word of God in the Scriptures is normative for the church's faith and the magisterial function of the church is to interpret the Scriptures and declare their authoritative content that is to be accepted by faith.

As a Lutheran, I am uncomfortable with Murray's reasoning, even if I also acknowledge that the first article of the Augsburg Confession, the principal confession (after the ecumenical creeds!) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, acknowledges a legitimate dogmatic development in the church when it affirms the decree of the Council of Nicaea and even proceeds to clarify the meanings of later dogmatic terms (such as "person"). Lindbeck notes that a Lutheran holds, at least in principle, that the church's doctrine is reformable, whereas it appears that for Catholics doctrine is irreformable. Then too, at least for Lutheran Christians, the creeds are always subject to repeated investigation of the Scriptures, which are themselves always in need of careful interpretation so that they serve "the rule of faith," that is, so that the prophetic and apostolic intention of eliciting and strengthening faith alone in Christ alone is honored and supported.

Do Lutherans and Roman Catholics accept the N-C Creed in the same way? Lindbeck, who did not attend the two-day event and could not participate in the discussions (he shared his paper in advance), has suggested that a general agreement could be recognized between the two communions if there is (1) the rejection of what the creed clearly and unequivocally rejects, and (2) agreement that what the dogma asserts can be understood in an acceptable manner. What was left unfinished work, and what remains unfinished work (despite repeated later dialogues about teaching authority), as far as I can tell, is related to the nature and structure of teaching authority in the church as it relates to the development of doctrine. More on this problem another time.

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