The intersection of canon and creed

At every point in their history, communities have two historically oriented challenges: to remember their definitive story line faithfully and to project it forward into an uncharted future.

The Christian community faced this dual challenge with special urgency in the middle of the second century, closer in time to its foundational events than we are to the Civil War that has in many ways defined the American story. Back then, of course, there were fewer ways to remember and transmit the past than we have now. Even with our many modes of communication, however, it is not clear that we are in a better position than they with respect to projecting the story forward.

In the twenty-first century as in the second, the life and character of the Christian community are at stake as we work at the task of transmitting our faith to the people around us.

During the second century crisis, the Christian community developed thee mechanisms to help its members stay focused on the organizing story of its life. It identified a set of writings that were deemed to be most reliable in remembering and interpreting the past. It set forth a compact set of ideas that constituted the theme or message that was to serve as a guide to understanding this literature. It acknowledged a teaching voice that could guard the past and proclaim its implications for the present moment and the future.

In a book that is part of a new series of “resources for the use of scripture in the church,” theologian Robert W. Jenson discusses the intersection of two of these elements—the body of recommended writings and the organizing story. For convenience, he uses two technical words—canon for the body of writings and creed for a set of approved statements or formulas adopted as statements of the Christian faith.

Jenson is persuaded that Christians need both elements because neither one by itself satisfies the historical challenge that we face. By itself, the canon contains more information, ideas, and interpretation than we need, and much of it is distracting. We need a guide to help us discern the central story around which all of the detail is organized. That is what the creed, a sharply defined set of basic ideas, does for us.

By itself, however, the creed—the body of concise statements of faith—is insufficient. It leaves out or minimizes aspects of the story that we actually need in order to understand the narrative and be empowered by it.

Jenson is not much interested in the detail of how the canon was decided upon or who made the decisions. Instead, his interest focuses upon the relationship to each other of what traditionally have been called the Old and New Testaments. The canon for Christians in the church’s early life was what we call the Old Testament. Not until Jesus and those who had known him personally disappeared did some of the new writings take on the aura that previously had surrounded the law and the prophets. The question for Jenson is not what use Christians have of the Old Testament. Rather, it is why Christians who already have the Old Testament need the New.

Similarly, Jenson is less interested in specific creeds, such as the Apostles’ or Nicene, than he is in the creedal tradition, in the practice of drawing up and using brief summaries of the central story. The purpose of the creedal tradition is to provide assurances to Christians that they are in touch with the authentic stream of faith and the life-giving practices that are deeply rooted in that faith.

An important aspect of this book is a set of exegetical chapters in which Jenson demonstrates how canon and creed work together. Under the interpretive principle of “the creed as critical theory for scripture,” he discusses Genesis 1:1-15, Luke 1:26-38, and Mark 14:35-36. He acknowledges that we live in a challenging time when several ideologies, including postcolonial theory and womanist theory, instruct us to be “suspicious of appearances.” The church, he says, “cannot simply opt out of modernity’s critical pathos; we may not be of the world, but we are in it, and all in it now are critics.

The question for us is what “set of instructions” should we use “to perceive what a scripture text is truly up to.” Jenson’s answer is that it is creed. For most Christians in the church today, however, this answer will take some hard chewing before we can digest it. More on this another time.

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3 Responses to The intersection of canon and creed

  1. bobcornwallB says:

    Keith, this last paragraph is key — especially for those of us in the Disciples tradition, where the creeds do not function as an authority. But, my experience as a Disciple is that too often this freedom from creedalism has gone to seed, so we think that you can be a Disciple and believe what ever you want. Now this may be true of the Unitarian Universalist tradition today, but I’m not sure that it works for the Disciples, who at least have relied on canon — at least early on.

    • Bob, At an earlier time Disciples certainly upheld the canon, as you indicate in your comment. We probably adhered to an understanding of Jesus that was implicitly consistent with classic trinitarianism and also salvific in intention. Thus we had a functional creed that served much as the formal statements did. We are in a situation now in which neither entity is followed with respect and understanding. The absence of these assurances that we are part of the church that began with the apostles leaves us vulnerable to all kinds of distress. Keith

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