by S. Mark Heim
S. Mark Heim is assistant professor of Christian theology at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts. He is a member of the National Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission.
This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 17, 1985, pp. 379-381. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
The leading candidate to serve as an “ecumenical symbol” appears to be the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, with its understanding of the word “father.” No other symbol is so widely used or recognized among Christians as a statement of the apostolic faith.
The study presupposes that the apostolic faith can be expressed in many ways, and that the various Christian communities portray these in their own worship, witness and theologies. Recognizing this rich pluralism, the study seeks a particular expression that could be common to all. This expression would provide a doctrinal basis for recognizing each other as parts of the one unbroken body. To some -- though this possibility goes beyond the boundaries of the study -- such recognition could be the basis for an authoritative and ecumenical council of the whole world church.
The leading candidate to serve as such an "ecumenical symbol" appears to be the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381. No other symbol is so widely used or recognized among Christians as a statement of the apostolic faith. Even some groups that do not use the creed as a central expression of faith in their own internal lives can nevertheless affirm it as a common expression. The WCC study project anticipates a process of explication of the creed’s meaning, which will lead to the churches’ common recognition of the faith the creed expresses, and, finally, common confession of that faith.
Focusing on a creed immediately causes uneasiness in some circles. Many free churches feel that affirming the creed involves too much constraint and too little confession. Many others would agree on the second point, arguing that confession of the apostolic faith means much more than confessing the creed -- whether that "more" involves sacramental unity or acting on behalf of justice. A more general concern is whether a creed that was formulated to exclude can be appropriated to include and unify. The concern centers not on those the creed historically intended to exclude, like Arians, but on those who may feel themselves excluded by it now, such as women.
This concern has received special attention from a National Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission study group, since it is an area in which North American churches perhaps can contribute uniquely to the World Council’s dialogue. Part of this contribution comes from the NCC study group’s extreme pluralism. Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Missouri Synod Lutherans as well as Pentecostals, Quakers and most of those who might be regarded as somewhere in between are involved. I will sketch my own assessment of the issues emerging from this group’s study, thus indicating the type of reflection that is being fed into the World Council’s process. I will not attempt to summarize the views of any single participant, let alone the group as a whole.
There were deep differences among participants, however, in the way this distinction was understood. One position asserted that the content and the wording of the creed are severable in fact, and that the fourth-century church fathers understood and intended it that way. At the council of Constantinople the fathers were explicitly affirming what they called the "faith of Nicea," but were deliberately using different words.
Indeed, some scholars maintain that the Nicene Creed (which was actually produced by the council of Constantinople) is not even "Nicene" in the sense that it was an adaptation of and an elaboration on the creed of Nicea. Rather, they argue, Constantinople took a different, though similar, local baptismal creed as its point of departure for reaffirming the "faith of Nicea." Thus the very process of the creation of the creed implies that different language can express the same content or meaning. What the fathers of Constantinople did with the words of Nicea in fidelity to the faith of Nicea could in principle be done with the words of the "Nicene Creed" while remaining faithful to the apostolic faith. Thus, we could change their words in the same spirit.
An opposing position argues that meaning and language are not so easily severable in fact, nor did the fourth-century fathers believe that they were. The particular structure or creed taken as a point of departure is not so important as the fact that the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed does replicate language from the creed of Nicea. This replication was necessary because different words cannot always express the same meaning. And even if the same meaning sometimes can be expressed differently, language that comes with revelation and has been carried into the creed because it is in Scripture is a notable exception.
At issue is the word "father.’’ Adherents to the first view argue that it would be consistent with the creed’s faith to avoid any gender-linked word for God. According to the second view, the word "father" -- while not implying that the first person of the Trinity is male (an implication that the Cappadocian fathers, for instance, vehemently deny) -- conveys an aspect of trinitarian faith that no other language can express.
Study group participants generally agree that at least one central affirmation of the creed’s father-son language involves the generative relation of the first to the second person of the Trinity: the second person comes ‘of the same stuff" and is not a creature. Such language was already assumed in Scripture and in church usage, before the creed was written.
It can be argued historically that the Creed’s ‘‘father" language is not saying anything about God as known through creation (e.g., extrapolating knowledge of God from knowledge of human fathers), but rather is speaking of God within the Trinity: a subject unknowable and inexpressible save through revealed language. And even in such language, since we know so tenuously that of which we speak, we have a hard time meaning it correctly.
To understand "father" in human terms is to misunderstand it. Indeed, the Nicene Creed was framed against those who wanted to stress the human analogy -- the Arians. If the human analogy is definitive, the Arians were undeniably right: fathers precede children, and it follows that there must necessarily have been a time when the second person of the Trinity "was not." But the creed rejects this understanding, insisting that ‘‘father’’ cannot and must not be exegeted by a ruling human analogy. The content of "father" is not time sequence or, through the same reasoning, anatomy.
Unlike the common ways of treating God as "father" in our tradition, the Nicene usage does not appear to have embodied what we would call fatherly qualities: love, discipline, care, protectiveness. The theologians of Nicea and Constantinople (most notably the Cappadocians) did not think of the "persons" of the Trinity in such "personal" terms. Doing so would be letting human analogy rule.
Thus, the creed was already alive to the objection so readily raised today to talk of God as father -- namely, that many people do not have a positive conception of the word "father" because of negative experiences with their own fathers. This objection has only been able to gain force because people have begun associating modern ideas of the human person with the "person" of the Trinity. But using the term in the creed was not even intended to imply a list of such qualities.
Some argue that the "father" language only implies that the second person is generated from the first, and that generative function is all the apostolic faith was expressing in using the word "father." Thus the apostolic faith -- if not the Nicene Creed -- may be expressed adequately without any gender-specific references to God.
Others, while agreeing with this position, would argue that more content is included. The word "father" implies not only generation, but also the very root essence of personhood: the capacity for relationship ‘that makes generation a possibility.
In the view that the term "father" has only generational connotations, genderless language could convey the faith expressed in the word. In the latter view, however, gender reference is essential to the expression. And while both points of view agree that the same faith can sometimes be expressed through different words, they disagree about whether "father’’ is such a case.
Thus the question becomes, does "mother" have the same terminological meaning of generation as "father"? To argue that it cannot have this meaning because women’s role in reproduction implies a previous male role is to fall into the very line of thought that the creed itself ruled out in its connotations of the word "father" -- i.e., the dominance of human analogy. (And even human analogy would fail to yield a clear distinction, since "father" implies a female role just as much as "mother" implies a male one.) Thus the only possible arguments for exclusively using father language seem to be: (1) Something about the relation of generation is more aptly expressed by "father" than "mother"; and (2) there simply are "revealed metaphors" -- mandated ways to speak of the unspeakable -- that we must preserve.
This leads naturally to the question of the particularity of language as a sign of the particularity of incarnation and history. The incarnation is undoubtedly an event of historical particularity, and it follows that the language of Scripture and creed is historically conditioned. All study group participants are concerned that there be no "flight from history," though they see that danger from two directions.
For some, the danger comes from a gnostic direction -- abstracting from a particular time and place, and simply expunging the specific traces of that particularity (such as language like "father"). The language’s particularity must be preserved as the context of the revelation, lest the revelation itself be distorted, the character of Christianity as a historical faith be denied, and true transposition to another context be made impossible.
Others see the danger of a flight from history in a refusal to take present history seriously enough. Incarnation, they assert, is not only a single historical particularity, but the freedom to meet each historical situation in its particularity, without being dominated by the context of the original revelation. Refusing to alter language distorts the revelation’s original context, because words no longer convey the same connotation or even denotation that they did in other times. It is all very well to argue about what "father" was intended to mean historically, but the meaning it conveys today must be faced. The inescapable task of the church is to find the historical means of witnessing to the living truth of the apostolic faith.
There is general agreement that the chief concern of the language of faith is to convey the promise of the gospel. But this may be taken to mean either that questions about the language should be met by clarifying the intent and the effect of the proclamation as a whole, or that the language should be modified if it hinders the message. For some, explication of the text is required. For others, the text could be changed so that it says what it means.
Since an altered creed loses the very attributes that make it such an attractive vehicle of common confession -- namely, its antiquity, widespread use and authority -- some feel that once again the ecumenical movement encounters a conflict between unity and justice. But this is a hasty foreclosure of the process. For one can see real hope in the breadth of agreement that exists in explicating the creed’s faith. As the World Council study continues, reflections from many other contexts will augment those of the NCC study group. Here in North America, scouts and forerunners (like the Inclusive Language Lectionary project) will continue to search out new territory.
The task of finding ways for the church ecumenical to affirm the universal faith that permeates the historical expression of the Nicene Creed may prove to be more uniting than dividing. And as we search for the proper historical expressions of our faith today, we may be able to find common ground in recognizing that faith as it was expressed in another context and as it continues to witness to us through that historical symbol.