No, that was not the function of the Creeds

Creed
Creed (Photo credit: ThunderKiss Photography)

Very early in the life of the church, creeds and doctrinal statements became tools in the hands of political and religious leaders to control crowds and dominate others.

Creeds Kill – Till He Comes.

There are other erroneous statements in that post by my friend, but this one is one of the most repeated and baseless claims. This is not the function of the Creeds, nor was it the tool of anyone in the early Church. I’d argue it wasn’t a tool in the medieval Church either.

The earliest creeds were used before Scripture was settled as a way to test, instruct, and build the Church. Further, the creeds and baptismal formulas were the simplest expression of the Christian faith. Simply, put… Christians were to believe in God, Jesus, and just a few other things. Nothing about Creation, except God is Creator. Nothing about Jesus, except the rudimentary story. Jesus was born of Mary, crucified, died, buried and rose again. This is best seen in Tertullian. He develops it, but he was an outcast as well.

This is not to say the earliest Church did not believe in the deity of Jesus. That’s another post.

Everything is used by those in power to dominate someone else. That doesn’t mean we have to see the object by its use. This is the same thing I encounter when I speak about Scripture. Many have given up on it.

As one commenter recently said… written by men, translated by men, studied by men. Or, its a fairy tale. Or it condones slavery. Or a host of other things SCripture was used for.

Anyway, call this a rant.

I might blog about this later.

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Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

10 thoughts on “No, that was not the function of the Creeds”

  1. Both positions could be true. After all, more than one good intent on this earth has been corrupted by blind ambition.

    1. One lesson religious zealots never learn is how to say: “I don’t know.” Instead, when confronted with recondite questioning, these fanatics frequently resort to bluffing, bullying, and bamboozling in order to conceal their profound ignorance. While this duplicitous coping strategy often derails questioning by less astute youth, it only serves to ignite the occasional brighter mind. When this happens, the result can be a Dan Brown.
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      At the same time, while the church may condemn the Dan Browns of this world as a heretics because it cannot control their free thought, it desperately needs these enemies of the faith to justify its own precarious existence as a self-appointed spokesman for the divine.

  2. “became tools in the hands of political and religious leaders”… I have to agree. From your own reference, “he was one of the strongest champions of catholic orthodoxy against the Gnostic heresies, and would allow no change in matters of fundamental doctrine”. Some Gnostics used the lot to determine who preached (very OT – priests, and NT, selection of new disciple). But the establishment wanted to make sure the bishops and priests were in the position of power. Tertullian on gnostic lots, “how frivolous, how worldly, how merely human it is…it is uncertain who is a catechumen, and who a believer: they all have access equally, they listen equally, they pray equally….All of them are arrogant…all offer you gnosis”…”so today one man is a bishop and tomorrow another; the person who is a deacon today, tomorrow is a reader; the one who is a priest today is a layman tomorrow; for even on the laity they impose the functions of priesthood.” How democratic, and it even included women! Irenaeus made the same points, “It is not legitimate either to baptize or to hold an agape without the bishop…To join with the bishop is to join the church; to separate oneself from the bishop is to separate oneself not only from the church, but from God himself”…”True gnosis is that which consists in the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient consititution of the church throughout the whole world, and the character of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops…”. Thus the creeds (constitution), to keep the church leaders in power, and any deviations from the bishops as official heresy. Thus to control crowds (popular practices by gnostics) and dominate others. Can’t have the masses dominated by the people, and not the priests. By the way, I WONDER how Tertullian and Irenaeus would have liked modern PhD’s in especially secular institutions of gnosis, interpreting scriptures? NOT! :-)

  3. Thanks for stating your view! I appreciate it.

    I think maybe you are arguing for why the creeds were written, while I am stating how they came to be used. Would that be fair?

    I do not deny that the creeds were written to teach, inform, instruct, and help build unity. But despite the good reasons for the origin of the creeds, church history is pretty full of good examples of how the creeds soon became tools in the hands of kings and emperors to kill their enemies and control the crowds with fear of hell.

    And I didn’t get this idea from Dan Brown either. Ha! Almost any church history book will point this out.

      1. Good point. Scripture also has been used at times by politicians and those in power to further their own agenda and to instill fear in the hearts of others.

        I guess the goal for those of us who are seeking to live in the Kingdom of God rather than the kingdoms of this world, is to use Scripture and creeds in a loving way.

        1. The turmoil of 17th century Britain demonstrated that the Bible can be use to support vast array of political positions. At the same time, it is worth noting that Judeo-Christian scripture supports concentrations of power rather than dispersal thereof.
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          Until a rising 18th century middle class in Europe disrupted the pattern, before being transferred to the fledgling United States, the classic setup was one ruler claiming some form of divine right. He was generally surrounded by a cohort easily intoxicated by the smell of power. Given an exalted title and usually bedecked in gaudy attire, one of the ruler’s cronies was appointed as God’s mouthpiece. Below them was everyone else. God’s will was blind obedience to the ruler.
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          In a typical scheme, the masses are promised rewards in the next life for unquestioning obedience this side of the grave. Docile slaves, i.e. the working class, can be promised mansions and lives of ease in heaven for unending sweat and toil to make their masters rich. Obedient soldiers would walk streets of gold for helping their commanders acquire the spoils of the next war. Of course, these promises were all guaranteed by God “in writing,” i.e. the Bible, rather than by those holding the reins of power of this earth. Small wonder then that Constantine baptized the troops and Christianized the Empire!
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          Being on top is a great job if one can get it and keep it. The potential rewards are sufficient to entice the avaricious. Yet, as history records, God is often harder on kings that those given to greed might wish.

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