Monday, May 11, 2009

Yoder and the Creeds

Samuel Powell, in his The Trinity in German Thought, (Cambridge U. Press 2001, ch. 1), points out the oddity that Protestants of impeccable Trinitarian orthodoxy, as well as deniers of the doctrine of the Trinity, both hearkene back to the writings of Luther and Melanchthon for support for their positions. His discussion of their writings on the authority of the creeds reveals considerable ambiguity. Luther was convinced that councils had erred and that creeds, therefore, could not be presumed to be true automatically. Yet, they could not be presumed to be wrong either. So he proposed to test each statement of each creed by means of Scripture in order to see if they are true or not. Protestantism has been in confusion ever since. As Powell says:

". . . the fact that Melanchthon came finally to disclose in an express and unambiguous manner his adherance to the doctrine of the Trinity does not in itself settle all questions. Something had entered into the stream of Protestant Trinitarian thought that would prove difficult to control and unpredictable in its consequences. In spite of intentions to the contrary, an idea had been introduced that would in future generations make the doctrine of the Trinity a matter of suspicion. Luther and Melanchthon had unwittingly driven a wedge between creeds and the Bible by insisting that creeds are subject to inspection and criticism according to their agreement with the Bible. . . The reformers allowed such a contradiction in the case of medieval creeds and councils; these they found quite contrary to Scripture. It would be for later Protestants to extend this principle and claim that even the ancient creeds and councils had gone awry by thoroughly misconstruing the Bible's teaching. " (22)

In a post entitled "The Creedal Protectionist Reading of Yoder" R. O. Flyer seeks to understand my (alarming to him) conservativism:

"In some of the conversations about Craig Carter, the accuracy of his interpretation of Yoder has been called into question. Some of us have spoken of a “shift” in Carter’s theology, because many of us had read and enjoyed his book on Yoder. Now, Carter himself admits of such a shift, but one cannot help but wonder whether there are seeds of this shift in his earlier work. . . .

In his introduction Carter I think rightly states that pacifism is “not the point” of Yoder’s theology, rather “Jesus is the point.” Carter, however, goes on to say that, “Not only is Jesus the point, but protecting, declaring, and unpacking the claims of classical Christology is what Yoder is about” (17). In contrast to the early Anabaptist theologians who did not have the leisure of developing a systematic theological account, according to Carter Yoder is “a thinker who is steeped in the writings of the church fathers and the Reformers, who has a firm grasp of the history of Christianity, and who has a deep respect for the creeds and historic Christian orthodoxy” (17). Now, certainly Yoder read deeply, but he is by no means uncritical of the “classical” tradition, even to the point of being critical of creedal tradition. Now, that is not say Yoder did not have a “deep respect” for the creeds, but he was decidely not overly concerned with “protecting, declaring, and unpacking” the Christology of classical orthodoxy especially if this meant abstracting from the particular narrative of Jesus of Nazareth. Yoder did think his Christology was in line with the creeds, but he certainly was not in the business of deriving his Christology from the creeds. . . .

Further, I find it odd that Carter would associate such commitment to the creedal tradition to the survival and flourishing of the church’s witness to Jesus Christ in a post-Christendom era. I think we begin to see “seeds” of Carter’s shift in his reading of Yoder here. I think the sort of protectionist mentality and survival mode of thinking that Carter reads in Yoder is really problematic. Such an approach seems to me to be the very antithesis of what Yoder’s nonviolent method and style was all about. Moreover, such a mentality seems to be at the heart of Carter’s conservatism, concerned as it is most fundamentally with the protection and survival of Christianity against the onslaughts of liberalism."

I thank R. O. Flyer for trying to understand me and I think he is right on most points. First, he is right to see the seeds of my current thought in my earlier work; I have not actually changed much. Second, he is right to view me as trying to interpret Yoder as a conservative theologian insofar as I imply that he accepts the authority of the creeds. Third, it is fair to question my interpretation of Yoder at this point. I think it is a questionable (not necessarily wrong) interpretation; I hope I'm right but I do acknowledge the weight of counter evidence. Fourth, he is correct in linking the theological issue of creedal authority and my unease with political liberalism. I am definitely unsympathetic to the questioning of the ecumenical consensus of the early, undivided Church on Trinitarian and Christological dogma and I do not think that this ecumenical consensus should be seen as being on the same level as the formulations of medieval councils or doctrine developed by the divided Western Church, let alone the opinions of modern theologians. Fifth, however, I would need textual evidence to accept R. O. Flyer's contention that Yoder was critical of the creedal tradition. I don't see it; perhaps the meaning of "critical of" is the ambiguity. (see below) Sixth, I think that what he terms a: "protectionist mentality and survival mode of thinking" is standard NT fare (see I Cor. 15:1-11, Tit. 1:5-2:2), so I don't see why Flyer has such a problem with it. I find it odd not to connect the flourishing of the Church's witness to creedal orthodoxy.

The problem with the Protestant tendency (from Luther to Yoder) to subordinate the authority of the creeds to that of Scripture is that this risks enshrining the private, individual interpretation of Scripture as the highest authority (i.e. the papacy of the professors). Luther's concern was to deny that Popes and Councils could never err and most (all?) of the actual errors he was concerned about came from the medieval period, not the first five centuries. Actually, Powell points out, Luther singled out the first four councils for praise because (unlike later councils close to Luther's day) they did not introduce any new articles of faith. (Powell, 15)

The problem is that the creeds were intended to be summaries of apostolic (biblical) faith, but also as authoritative guides to reading Scripture in future. If you want to be with the Church Catholic from the 4th century on, then you must interpret the Bible according to the tradition enshrined in the creedal tradition (at least the Apostle's & Nicene Creeds). The early Church was adamant that both the creeds and the New Testament faithfully preserved and guarded the one apostolic tradition. Believing the Nicene Creed is to adopt one particular (non-Gnostic, non-Arian etc.) interpretation of the apostolic tradition and of the New Testament itself. Canon and creed go together in a mutually reinforcing manner. To suspend judgment on the Nicene creed, or leave it to the tender mercies of the higher critics, is to open the door to many heresies.

I think that Yoder does comes very close to falling into the Protestant trap of relativizing the creeds of the first five centuries by subordinating their authority to the private interpretation of Scripture, but it is unclear whether he does so or not in the end. It is probably safe to say that he does so no more than Luther does. For Yoder, “The doctrine of the Trinity is a test of whether your commitments to Jesus and to God are biblical enough that you have the problem the doctrine of the Trinity solves.” I take that to mean that he thinks the doctrine of the Trinity is biblically warranted and should be regarded as settled orthodoxy.

Let me say this clearly. Whatever Yoder tells us he really meant when we get to heaven, my position is as follows.

I think that the early creeds (specifically Apostle's and Nicene) are the unanimous testimony of the early Church Catholic and are the right way to read Scripture. All ways of reading Scripture that deny what these creeds say are heretical and unfaithful to apostolic tradition and there were plenty of such ways of reading Scripture in the early church, some of which are being revived today like classical nineteenth century Liberal Protestantism, neo-Gnostics like Elaine Pagels, the anti-creedalism of John Spong and many others. I do believe that the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity is taught in the Bible and I am highly suspicious of anyone who wants to drive a wedge between the Bible and the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity by insisting that we must endlessly discuss, investigate and "prove" that the Nicene doctrine can legitimately be derived from the Bible. Instead, I take the Nicene fatih as settled doctrine.

That is why Tyndale University College & Seminary, in the preamble to its recently revised Statement of Faith makes specific reference to the Apostle's and Nicene Creed as defining what we believe. This was the addition that I, as a revision committee member, was most pleased about. The Nicene Creed is not a hypothesis awaiting the judgment of contemporary theologians; it is simply what Christians believe. Protestants need to make up their minds about what it means to confess orthodoxy. For me, it means confessing the Nicene Creed as the right interpretation of Scripture.


Peter Dunn said...

"The problem is that the creeds were intended to be summaries of apostolic (biblical) faith, but also as authoritative guides to reading Scripture in future. If you want to be with the Church Catholic from the 4th century on, then you must interpret the Bible according to the tradition enshrined in the creedal tradition (at least the Apostle's & Nicene Creeds)."

Craig: Thanks for this post. I am not an interpreter of Yoder but I am interested in the question of Creeds and authority in the church. I've been saying something similar in my courses in biblical interpretation, starting at Tyndale Seminary when I taught there in 1996-98. I've stressed the importance of the Rule of Faith, as a body of apostolic teaching passed on in oral form in the early church, known to us from summaries of the church Fathers, esp. Irenaeus. The Apostolic and Nicene Creeds are later formulations based on reactions to the heresies, especially gnosticism (Apostolic Creed) and Arianism (Nicene Creed). Without the creeds, or without the Rule of Faith, exegesis becomes a game of proving one's private interpretation using hermeneutical techniques.

In my view it would be good to mine teaching of the early church on the questions of sexuality, which has become one of the major heresies of our time. Then, it would be good if the church today could establish a ecumenical creed regarding sexuality based upon the Rule of Faith. It would not be hard to determine what the Rule of Faith on human sexuality would be in the early church, since there is practical unanimity on the issue in the New Testament, the Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus. All accepted monogamous marriage for the bearing and raising of children, rejected adultery and fornication, held sexual continence in high regard, and rejected all deviant expressions of sexuality. They were also confronted by various sexual heresies, from the licentious Caprocratians and Cainites, the "moderate" Nicolaitans, and the extreme ascetics, e.g., Marcionites and Encratites. Just some thoughts.

Craig Carter said...

I agree that there is virtual unaniminity in the early church on human sexuality and where there is disagreement it veers off in the opposite direction of modern permissiveness. So modernity is heavily invested in downplaying the authority of the creeds/Fathers.

I think the key is anthropology, which is why my current book project deals with what theological antropology arises out of classical Trinitarianism and how it contrasts with modern views of the autonomous self, which are rooted in late Medieval voluntarism. This project has many similarities to the Radical Orthodoxy project, especially in its Catholic manifestations (eg. T. Rowland, M. Hanby, etc.)

jamie said...


"The creeds are helpful as fences, but affirming, believing, debating for, fighting for the Creeds, is probably something which a radical Anabaptist faith would not concentrate on doing."

I know you know this line from Preface, as you quote it in your book, so I've always wondered why you fight so hard to prove that Yoder affirmed the creeds.

But you're a bit disingenuous when you say here that Yoder was uncritical of the creedal tradition--you know full well that Yoder was unhappy with the way the creeds skip over Jesus' life, and was suspicious of the politics that went into their formulation. These criticisms didn't mean Yoder rejected the creeds, but he was open to reformulating them.

Yoder and "settled orthodoxy"? From his dissertation onward, Yoder thought dialogue, not settled orthodoxy, was the proper mark of the church.

Yoder and individualistic biblicism? Again, from his first to his last writings Yoder repudiates individualistic hermeneutics in favor of local communities of believers interpreting scripture together in the power of the Spirit. But I'm pretty sure you know this too, so I'm confused as to why you would portray Yoder otherwise. Yoder is wholly uninterested in "private interpretation."


Craig Carter said...

I'm afraid you would need to show me textual evidence in the Yoder corpus where he says that he is open to "re-formulating" the creeds. I know John Spong is open to such things, but I've never seen any statement of the kind in Yoder's writings. The closest he came was saying that we might say the same thing in different words, which to me is not what "re-formulating" implies. Arianism would still need to be excluded if we said the same thing in different words. But that is translation not doctrinal change.

As for skipping over Jesus' life, the whole point of the creeds is to guard the historical, unique particularity of the incarnation from attempts to turn it into some sort of abstract principle. Yoder's concern there was simply misplaced.

As for "private interpretation" I don't think "congregational interpretation" is much better if it means that every local congregation has its own version of Christianity. I don't think that is what Yoder meant. Congregational discernment of the truth is exactly what went on at the Council of Nicea.

jamie said...


Agreed that Yoder is no Spong. But in Preface, 204f, he asks us to question the politics which went into the creeds ("we have to be dubious about giving this movement any authority"), the rightness of Hellenistic categories ("we have to challenge whether the creed does us any good"), and wonders about their arbitrariness as liturgical documents.

Later (Preface, 224f) he suggests that Anabaptists separating themselves from fundamentalism haven't fully thought out their proper relation to the creed; he seems to want us to see them as solutions to the "intellectual problem" of how to "keep the centrality of Jesus straight in the language of their time." But he negates the idea that we place faith in them, elevate them over the Bible, or give them "automatic authority." Presumably he wants us to be open to reformulating the centrality of Jesus in the languages of our own time (as he indicates in passages on "gospel translation" in Priestly Kingdom and elsewhere).

My point was to refute your claim that Yoder was never critical of the creeds--clearly he was but, as I said originally, critique doesn't entail rejection. Honoring Yoder's thought on the creeds therefore means (a) being willing to critique the creeds, (b) looking for new ways to talk about the centrality of Jesus (ways which should be in continuity and in tension with the old creeds), and (c) refusing to make a debate about the creeds central to one's theology and practice. We could debate all day about (a) and (b), but I'm really curious as to why you (apparently) disagree with (c).

I have a very, very hard time imagining Yoder trumpeting Nicea as a model of congregational discernment. Especially given his critique of the politics of that era in Preface, 204, his questioning of the ecumenicity of Nicea in Body Politics, 64, and his critique of "telescoping" the activity of the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 and that of Nicea (also Body Politics, 64).

But I don't want to argue about that. I'm rather more concerned with your critique of congregational interpretation. From his earliest to his last writings, Yoder maintains that the rule of Paul avoids "the specter of anarchy" (a) because the Spirit brings proper local "flexibility," and because (b) Jesus is the same always and everywhere (Body Politics, 69f). In his doctoral work he showed how the Swiss Anabaptist practice of local discernment was an outworking of Zwingli's conviction of the "clarity of the Word of God" (Anabaptism and Reformation, 220-224), their "believing assumption that the Word and the Spirit are objective, real, working powers" (222) and "their belief that the Word of God forges unity" (224).

Yoder's point, and he believes he is faithful to the Swiss Anabaptists and to Paul, is that faith in Christ and the Spirit means we can practice local discernment without fearing a profusion of warring Christianities. He explicitly prefers this path to unity than that offered by "monarchical decree" (Body Politics, 70) or by the formulations of professional theologians (Anabaptism and Reformation, 219; The Fullness of Christ; Priestly Kingdom, 15-45; etc.). The implication for the creeds is clear here--which again is not to say that we can or should start from scratch or reject the creeds.

To summarize, I'm mainly interested in engaging you on two issues concerning your relation to Yoder's thought: (1) Yoder's claim that radical faith doesn't focus on the creeds and (2) Yoder's claim that local discernment better secures unity than other options.


tim said...

Yoder wrote the following on the Council of Nicea and the ways in which its decisions were made and enforced in his The Ecumenical Movement and the Faithful Church (1958):

"This was a very effective method; it enabled the church to maintain a high degree of formal unity. But it was not very Christian. For one thing, the procedure in the councils was itself far from the normal process of seeking the leading of the Holy Spirit…Nor did it bring about unity. The councils of the fourth century, which decided how to state the Trinity, could not prevent the Arian churches, because they were more missionary, from winning the Gothic tribes outside the Roman Empire and holding their allegiance for centuries….Especially in our day, when the essentially missionary nature of the church is being rediscovered, we should learn to challenge the method and rethink the results of these councils."

Wouldn't "rethinking the results" seem to demonstrate Yoder's ambivalence (if not something stronger) towards the Nicene Creed?

Craig Carter said...

Sometimes when people talk about the creeds, they refer to the historical documents and the wording of those documents (#1). Other times they mean the truth expressed by the words of those creeds, the truth that preceded the creeds (#2) and to which they are faithful (or not). I find these two usages confused in your comments, which makes me uncertain as to what you are really saying.

Yoder writes in Preface, 204, which you cite:

"Is the doctrine of the Trinity valid in other cultures? . . . The doctrine of the Trinity is a test of whether your commitments to Jesus and God are biblical enough that you have the problem the doctrine of the Trinity solves. It may be that there will be other solutions, words, phrasings or ways to avoid tripping over the problem the way the Greeks did. But we shall have to examine them with the same committment to the man Jesus, and the same commitment to the unique God that they had, or else we shall have left the Christian family."

Now, in this passage we see Y's distinction between Creeds #1 and Creeds #2. The creeds #1 are questionable - maybe we can find more appropriate words to express the same truth in our very different culture; this is a communication problem. But the creeds #2 cannot be denied without ceasing to be a Christian.

What I take Y to be saying here is that it may well be that the explanation of how the onesness of God is compatible with the divinity of Jesus could be explained more clearly in a 21st century context using other words than the Greek words used in the Nicene Creed. Fair enough. But to go further and assume that he is meaning to say that if your local church has a meeting and decides that the Arian view of Jesus as the highest created being is what the NT teaches, then your local church is just as good a Christian church as one that confesses the Nicene faith (whether they actually use the creed or not), then I think you are wrong. He doesn't mean that. The reason your hypothetical Arian congregation is not Christian (for Y.) is that it has denied one of the "commitments" (204) that Y. sees as rooted in Scripture and which he says we must profess or else we have left the Christian family.

So I think Y. is interested in fighting for the truth of the creeds (#2), even though he is flexible about the specific wording of the historical documents. Now, I happen to think that he is a bit naive to separate the two so neatly and cleanly. I am far more concerned about the words themselves because I don't see them so much as the product of the political machinations (the political machine cranked out other creeds that have been forgotten), but rather as the result of a long process of communal discernment, prayer, thinking and debate. See Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy, for a description of this process.

I'm not criticizing the process of communal discernment or local theologizing. What I'm concerned about is what is true, rather than what is the right procedure to get there. To suppose that the procedure makes it true automatically is to support what Y rejects - an infallible method. What I'm saying is that if your local church decides to use the Gospel of Thomas to formulate its Christology, that is a problem. And if you local Church uses Arius' arguements to prove Jesus was created, that is a problem. Both canon and creed are fundamentals of the faith that we do not need to debate at this point in history. Rather, we use them.

Craig Carter said...

I interpret Y. in the quote you reference to be talking about the Emperor-driven method of imposing unity on the church, which Y argues leads to a failure to be missionary.

I don't think he is meaning to say that perhaps Arianism is not all that bad since it evangelistic. After all Mormanism and Islam are very missionary-minded religions.

I think Y. is saying that top-down, imposed unity stifles the mission of the church. I don't think saying that leads to the questioning of the Nicene faith at all.

Andrew Fulford said...

I think there's some ambiguity here:

"I think that Yoder does comes very close to falling into the Protestant trap of relativizing the creeds of the first five centuries by subordinating their authority to the private interpretation of Scripture, but it is unclear whether he does so or not in the end. It is probably safe to say that he does so no more than Luther does... . [H]e thinks the doctrine of the Trinity is biblically warranted and should be regarded as settled orthodoxy."

One can subordinate the creeds to scripture in terms of how individuals should decide their theology without entailing anything negative about the truth of the clainms the Creeds make (or as you put it, "Creeds #2"). In fact, I'm not sure why someone would even raise the question of whether the Creeds were biblically warranted if they thought the creeds were equal in authority to scripture; it would be kind of like questioning whether the book of Genesis was equal in authority to scripture. No?

Andrew Fulford said...

Or, rather, it would "be kind of like asking whether the book of Genesis was biblically warranted"

Craig Carter said...

I think it is possible to see the theology of the creeds of the early centuries as settled doctrine in the sense of being settled interpretations of Scripture. So yes, they certainly are subordinate to Scripture in the sense that they derive their authority from Scripture, but they are more than just "some guy's opinion of what the Bible means."

I'm really working toward a two-fold concept of Tradition in which not every traditional interpretation of Scripture is on the same level as every other one. It is basically the dogma-doctrine-theory distinction within an historical context.

Andrew Fulford said...

"So yes, they certainly are subordinate to Scripture in the sense that they derive their authority from Scripture, but they are more than just "some guy's opinion of what the Bible means.""

Well, I think at least two different conceptions could fit into that description: 1) you could have something like Rome's current teaching on the primacy of scripture, or 2) you could have something like Barth's teaching on the authority of the church/creeds. Both would say formally that the creeds are subordinate in authority to scripture, and both would say the creeds have more weight than a fringe interpretation of scripture would.

It would be interesting to see the criterion for distinguishing the two, and to see how dogma but not doctrine would be guaranteed infallibility in some kind of guarantee of dominical or apostolic provenance (i.e., in the scriptures).

Craig Carter said...

One difference is that in Rome's understanding new dogmas can be proclaimed at any time (like the 20th Cen. for instance), while for me that is not true. The first 5 centuries are unique. We live in a divided Church that is much further from the originating events. This is part of the historical character of the Christian faith. We can never go back to the 4th cen. and therefore our councils cannot be just like Nicaea.

And I'm not attributing infallibility to the Nicene Creed, just a very high level of respect that makes it not a fit subject for causual revision. The degree of respect becomes infallibility in RC theology, but remains near-but-not-quite infallibility in Protestant versions.

I hope the concept of near-infallibility makes sense to you. If not, think of how justification by faith functions for confessional Protestants. Can you imagine them giving up that doctrine just because Ed Sanders says to?

Andrew Fulford said...

OK. I'm comfortable with a "near" infallibility for things that are agreed upon by the vast majority of Christians through history.

But it would still be interesting to see the theological justification behind respecting such a broad agreement as near-infallible (since it can't be the RC justification, and must be consistent with sola scriptura in some way). For me, it would be along the lines of the inner-witess of the Spirit and/or the charismatic nature of the church, combined with a recognition that apostolic teaching is supposed to be more authoritative than those things for our judgments.

Craig Carter said...

Why couldn't it be a re-evaluation of Tradition that sees the RC view as too "high" and the Protestant as an over-reaction. A revised, moderate Protestant view could be as described above; I think this is what has happened in practice in confessional Protestantism anyhow as the major confessions re-affirmed the content of the creeds. Why are we so afraid to say it out loud?

Andrew Fulford said...

Well, I'm not sure what you are saying is any different from classical magisterial Protestantism, as long as the ultimate authority for the individual Christian's conscience is scripture alone and the creeds (and even lower, the confessions) are fallible but helpful guides.

But my question is more: on what basis can we establish that these lesser authorities have their special level of authority, if it is not via an RC/EO-like appeal to an infallible church? I think that's the most interesting question for this moderate Protestant position we're trying to describe.

jamie said...


Thanks for your response. It seems you've moved on from this discussion, but I did want to answer.

I suppose I'm okay with your formulation (about Creeds 1 and Creeds 2), so long as you're not proposing that there is some ideal propositional truth floating around free of language. And if you're not saying that, then I think it must be accepted that any process of translation involves transformation, however subtle, of the content being translated. Over time these changes can add up to significant revolutions in our understanding of doctrine. This sort of change doesn't invalidate the truth of the creeds, but it does suggest that there may come a time in which they might not be as useful in shaping our doxological practice. Perhaps Yoder in Preface was suggesting that Anabaptism represents just such a revolution.

On your point about local discernment, I agree both that trans-local ecumenical discernment is necessary and that Yoder doesn't see discernment as a "method" to guarantee the discovery of truth. But he does place great faith in the process, or rather in the Holy Spirit who guides that process.

I take the following quote from Yoder's dissertation as an adequate summary of his life-long position on all that we're discussing:

"It belongs to the visibility of the church community that, in the final analysis, order is more important than teaching. ... The fact that one is a member of the church community and is therefore a participant in the communal process of theological discernment is more important than the orthodoxy of previously-gained knowledge. This priority of the community over theology is the normal conclusion of Zwingli's original concept of the community, according to which the church community should judge its teachers." (Anabaptism and Reformation in Switzerland, 271f.)

In the end, I'm with Yoder. For all the theological bounty of recent wranglings with classical orthodoxy, I'd rather discuss how to bring about communities of discernment and faithful practice.