People of the Way -- Future of Faith ch. 5

Transforming Theology Project
Harvey Cox,
Future of Faith, Harper One, 2009

Chapter 5: The People of the Way:
The Devolution from Faith to Belief

Chapter 5 wrestles with creeds. Indeed, it’s all about the creeds, and Cox is anti-creedal. He sees some value in them as symbols and sign posts, but he believes that they too easily degenerate into something else that’s not wholesome. The descent into creedalism is evidence of deterioration, a “devolution from faith to belief.” The question again, is why and when – was it the rise of the papacy? Or Constantine? Could it be the insertion of the filioque clause into the creeds? In Cox’s mind there’s a relationship between creedalism and hierarchies. The two came together in the 4th century, as changes in the nature of Christianity required uniformity. That sense of need for uniformity remains with us – whether in Protestant fundamentalism or Catholic traditionalism.

Much of what is said here about creeds is useful – we make a mistake if we take them either literally or as final judgments. They are products of their time and speak to that age. But, we can find in them help and guidance, especially if we see in them metaphor not fact.
Taken literally, creeds continue to constitute more of a hindrance than a help to Christian faith. They keep people stalled in the obsolete Age of Belief. But there are signs that they are becoming less important every day (p. 76).

As evidence of this changing dynamic, Cox points to Rick Warren, an evangelical Baptist preacher who has suggested the need for a “second reformation” that’s based on “deeds not creeds.” That’s exactly what Cox has in mind. Now, the question is whether Warren and Cox are on the same page doctrinally. Warren likely wants a bit more doctrinal conformity than his fellow Baptist would like!

In response to creedalism, Cox wants us to recognize the variety inherent in the early church doctrine and practice. In the earliest moments the lone creed was Jesus as Lord – which served as a statement or pledge of allegiance, one that was quite political. For, if Jesus Lord, then Caesar isn’t! The question that needs to be raised concerns when doctrinal development began to occur. Cox seems to believe that the development of faith statements is rather late – perhaps mid 3rd century. But there’s good evidence of the development of the Rule of Faith in the early 2nd Century that gave guidance to the development of the canon. Indeed, the canon was forming early in the 2nd century.

Creeds emerged for a number of reasons, including challenges from religious rivals such as Mithraism on the outside, as well as internal differences. As noted in an earlier discussion, there are similarities between then and now, as religious pluralism offers the church more and more competition. There is no longer a monopoly by the church, so how will we respond?

This new situation offers opportunities, and Cox suggests that we through off the distortions and embrace the essential core of the faith. There is in this conversation something akin to the Campbellite call to throw off creedal incrustations so as to embrace the core faith.

But as to the rivals, there were two primary ones – the emperor cult, which is akin to civil religion, and classical paganism – the traditional religious traditions. In response, he says Christians offered to strategies – first they rejected Caesar – no pledge of allegiance, for Jesus alone is Lord. They might pray for the emperor, but not burn incense to his name. For this they were branded subversives. The question for us is to what degree have we subsumed our faith to our national civil religion (pledges of allegiance?). Interestingly, the response to Greek religion was to claim Greek philosophy for itself – especially the idea of the Logos. But, still creeds are not needed!

Creeds are not, Cox believes, fences or sign posts to outsiders. They are instead partitions within the body of Christ. They’re meant to show to the door those who will not obey. And thus, belief (doctrine) replaces faith (following Jesus). “The Way,” that early demarcation of the Christian Community, after all, speaks of following Jesus not ascribing to doctrinal definitions.


Anonymous said…
Cox sounds like a Campbellite to me and there we disagree.

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