Tom Wright on the Creeds

Portrait of N.T. WrightTom (N.T.) Wright recently gave a lecture at Calvin College that I appreciated very much.  In it, he drew attention to an important issue I’ve written about here before: the over-simplification of faithfulness to Christ that takes place when creeds and statements of faith occupy a central position.  I know my own position is more extreme than Wright’s…he suggests putting the creeds in their rightful place while I suggest that the creeds themselves are part of the problem.  In context he still “loves” the creeds, while I accept the Apostle’s Creed as true though incomplete, and consider the Nicene Creed to be partially in error (a topic I intend to address in detail soon).  Nevertheless, I found Tom’s lecture to be refreshing in the extreme and I heartily commend it to you all.  You can read a bit of the background here.  The full audio of the one-hour lecture is also downloadable and though I usually don’t post podcasts, this is well worth a listen.

To whet your appetite, I transcribed one of the most salient (to me) passages which occurs between 8:20 and 10:34 in the audio:

The creeds were drafted in order to highlight points on which the church resolved major difficulties. But when the creeds began to be used as a teaching syllabus (as they often are to this day), then the problem begins, because of course the creeds jump straight from Jesus’ birth to his death … and I have a mental image at that point, of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John standing there saying ‘Excuse me, we spent a lot of time and effort telling you about all that stuff in between, and you just skip over it?  What’s that about?’

Now, I have nothing against the great creeds.  I love them, and I say them or sing them ex animo.  But they have accidentally encouraged—or the way they have been used has accidentally encouraged—a reading of the New Testament in which the main body of the four Gospels is not theologically load-bearing.  For many Christians, it would have been quite sufficient if Jesus of Nazareth had been born of a virgin, died on a cross, and never done anything in between except, perhaps, lived a sinless life.

The four Gospels then, function for many as the dispensible back story for the Gospel as preached by Paul … this is the de facto position of many Protestants and many Evangelicals—many conservative Evangelicals—the irony being, of course, that it’s the exact same position as that of Rudolph Bultman, with the only difference being that Bultman thought most of the stories were pious fictions.  But the reason why most Evangelicals would differ is not that the stories are doing anything theologically, in themselves, but simply to shore up a view of the inspiration of Scripture.  Not for the only time, swaths of Evangelicals are more anxious to protect a theory of Scripture, than to hear what Scripture actually says.

And toward the end, one more excellent quote (55:40 in the audio):

We have substituted the static belief in Jesus’ divinity for the active belief in what the Incarnate Son was actually doing.  It is possible to check the credal boxes, and miss the larger reality to which they are the signposts.

There’s much more to hear.  Take your time and give it a listen!

4 thoughts on “Tom Wright on the Creeds”

  1. Paul Pavao

    Hi Dan. Apparently I need to read your blog more than I do. I came back to look at your blog today because of a post you did back an August 7 called “Remember Me.” That blog answered a lot of questions for me.

    I’m now reading through several posts, and I have got to ask what you disagree with about the Nicene Creed. I wrote an extensively researched book on it called _Decoding Nicea_ (formerly, _In the Beginning Was the Logos_). May I hear what you disagree with in the Creed? Is it something in the content or just the fact the Creed was drawn up?

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Hey Paul, thanks for stopping by again. My disagreement with the Nicene Creed is summarized in this post. Briefly, although I do object to creeds generally for (1) reducing a way of discipleship to a propositional belief system, and (2) setting up artificial (i.e. extrabiblical) boundaries to who’s “in” and who’s “out” (for more, see A Word About Creeds), I also object to the Nicene Creed in particular for its christology and pneumatology. I have since learned that at least from the pneumatology side, part of my objection is to the Roman side of the “Filioque” controversy, in that the Eastern church holds the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, and it is the Roman church who insisted the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. However, even with an Eastern interpretation, several of my problems still remain.

  2. Maria

    Altogether I do not know about the fundamental purpose of the Apostles creed. I believe that as it stands it is substantively true yet it falls short in talking about all the Jesus is. This is important because if that is all that one is relying on it is incomplete. Furthermore, personally I believe God prefers to hear what is in our harts as we pry to him, this rather than reciting memorized prayers.

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