Wednesday, December 07, 2005

On the Episcopal Catechism, Pt. 1

Anyone exploring the Christian teaching of ECUSA should take a careful look at its 1979 BCP Catechism—for here ECUSA explicitly claims to have presented an “outline for instruction” that comments on the creeds. What propositions does ECUSA take to follow from confession or recitation of the creeds? The Catechism lays them out—without claiming to have exhausted their meaning. ECUSA claims the Catechism “is not meant to be a complete statement of belief and practice;” nevertheless, it is a reliable “point of departure.” Some conservatives in ECUSA, writing of “Nicene Christianity” or some such thing, would do well to measure their understanding of the creeds against that implicit in the Catechism. Are there salient differences? Incompatibilities? How great is the distance?

Indeed, this commentary on the creeds comments on their nature—they are “statements of our basic beliefs about God.” Trading in “beliefs,” the creeds are involved in expressing our relationship with God in propositional terms, and what’s more, in making these propositional beliefs explicit, in actually stating them. These beliefs which might have remained merely implicit in our worship practice having been brought to light, they are made public for the congregation and even beyond. This is not trivial, as once made public, they are open to being explicitly critiqued and refined.

Apparently, the catechism accepts that our beliefs about God may be basic or non-basic; the creeds are not to dabble in clarifying or rendering explicit our non-basic beliefs about God, but only those which are foundational, primitive. Creeds should not push into non-basic territory, say (to be obvious), deciding between Scotus and Aquinas on the nature of the Persons of the Trinity, or deciding between Molina and Banez on the nature of divine foreknowledge. Thus, the Creeds—and the Catechism—do not aim to eliminate indefiniteness from Christian belief. There is a case to be made here that we must, as Christians, simply live with a certain measure of doctrinal vagueness beyond the reach of any proper creedal orthodoxy.

Creeds that are used in worship—the Apostles’ and Nicene—are given special status over those which make a proclamation about doctrine but are not used in worship—the Athanasian. The Apostles’ Creed is used in daily prayer, and in Baptism; it is part of a covenant made between Christians and God in the baptismal rite. Its duly noted antiquity gives it a priority among the elements of Christian tradition: the very identity of Christians is and has been constituted through liturgical use of the creed. It does not just state the beliefs of already formed Christians, but helps to form them as persons. The same can be said of the Nicene Creed; the Catechism adds that the Nicene Creed is used at the Eucharist, and “is the creed of the universal church.”

Universality or catholicity, according to the creeds and the Catechism, is a mark of the Christian Church; the Nicene Creed as well as, I venture to say, the Apostles’ Creed give the content of the Church’s universality. There may be more to the universality of the Church than this, but “the whole Faith” which the Church is obliged to teach everywhere and always includes at least the content of these creeds. Note, on pain of consistency, “the whole Faith” need not settle every issue disputed among Christians. Creeds should not and need not push so far: catholicity needs to leave room for indefiniteness in Christian belief. By implication, it need not be any part of the catholic Church’s mission in teaching the whole Faith to settle all doctrinal disputes between Christians.

“The Creeds” section of the Catechism ends with a note on the Trinity; thereby the Catechism insinuates the creeds teach primarily the Trinity and the Incarnation. It is as if the reflective clarification of our worship in propositional terms leads us to hash out these doctrines, of all things. As if disputes and confusions in our worship life are helped by clarity about them; or better: our reflective clarification of what we need to clarify of the Faith leads us to these doctrines. Maybe teaching that is disputed, but does not touch these doctrines, may be left indefinite.


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