Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Disciples -- Are We Really Creedless?

I am a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  We claim to be a non-creedal church. Our founders were somewhat averse to creedal statements, believing them to be divisive. The "devil is in the details." One of our old slogans was "No Creed but Christ, No Book but the Bible."  It sounds good, but are we really creedless?

I recently finished reading George Lindbeck's post-liberal tome -- The Nature of Doctrine (a book I should have read long ago).  Lindbeck argues for the primacy of a "cultural-linguistic" understanding of Christian doctrine/theology -- in contrast to propositional and experiential-expressive versions. In the Cultural-Linguistic model, which appeals to me, doctrine is understood to be a set of grammatical rules that govern the way we speak of faith. Leaving aside propositionalism, which no one on the center-left spectrum embraces, whereas the experiential-expressivism of liberalism starts with the premise that there is a common religious spirit, which religions express in different ways. The cultural linguistic model differs from this model in that it assumes that Christian faith is formed/taught. Doctrine serves to guide this process.  

With this brief background, I want to raise a question for my friends and colleagues within the Disciples community. If we are non-creedal, what does this mean with regard to our faith expressions?  Here is what Lindbeck says, which I want to lay out as a way of stirring a conversation:

First, in reference to the inescapability of doctrine, it would seem that the creedless Christianity" professed by a number of groups (including, for example, many Quakers and the Disciples of Christ) is not genuinely creedless. When creedlesssness is insisted on as a mark of group identity, it becomes by definition operationally creedal. Indeed, usually it becomes at least semiofficial, as in the slogan used by some Protestants, No creed but the Bible." What this aphorism is directed against is not doctrines in general, but postbiblical doctrines -- or more precisely, the official status of these doctrines. (Most biblicistic Protestants, for example, adhere in practice to postbiblical Trinitarianism: they do not deny what the Nicene Creed teaches, but they ignore the creed itself and act as if its teachings were self-evidently scriptural).   [The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, 25th Anniversary Edition, p. 60.]
 It is this question of the inescapability of doctrine that we need to address. From and experiential-expressivist perspective, a view that is very attractive, it would seem possible. But there are problems, and those problems have to do with our ability to speak with some coherence of what it is  we profess (believe). Now, beliefs need not be imposed or coerced, but at the same time there is the question of whether the Christian faith is an individualistic one or one that is expressed in community.  So, Disciples and others, what do you think about this issue of creeds/beliefs? Can we get along without them?


John McCauslin said...

Creeds are valuable as teaching tools, but ultimately, as DOC, I understand that each person is called upon to explore their own relationship with God and Jesus Christ. As a community of believers, we share our faith stories, nurturing one another in our faith journeys. We also join with our sisters and brothers in prayer and praise, and we take our seat at the table set by Jesus and share in the spiritual sustenance offered by Jesus.

The Creeds provide us with a snapshot from history of how the Church and its faithful have perceived the divine and the relationship between human and divine. In the same vein, our parents and significant people in our lives share their own snapshots, and so too do members of our faith communities share. Each of these pictures, by addition and/or subtraction or even affirmation or disapproval, contribute to the growth and deepening of our own relationship with divinity.

barlow said...

It has always been my understanding that the Disciples of Christ are not truly anti-creedal, but against creeds to determine membership or theological exclusivity in some other form (ordinances). Therefore, Disciples may align themselves with a particular creed and still fit fully within the constructs of the Christian movement. Not anti-creedal but anti-exclusive. But then you have to deal with the whole Preamble thing and requiring a confession that "Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and proclaim Him Lord and Savior of the world" that some Disciples sort of skim over. Are we truly anti-creedal/anti-exclusive if we require a confession of faith in Jesus Christ in order to be recognized as a "Christian"? My vote is no... and we shouldn't be.

Robert Cornwall said...

BJ, we have a complicated relationships with creeds. The point Lindbeck is making is more that we can't get away from doctrine -- that is describing what it is that we believe. At the very least to say that we are disciples of Christ, suggests that we have a certain loyalty to Jesus and the God whom Jesus represents (even if we don't all agree on the particulars -- as John might be suggesting).