Teaching theology at a Jesuit University with a consciously ecumenical mission, I often have the opportunity to speak on behalf of Anglicanism and Protestantism more generally to my Roman Catholic colleagues. I was recently asked whether it was fair to say on an exam that “even those Protestant (and, by implication, non-denominational) churches which do not regularly (or ever) say the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed in worship, adhere to it.”
My colleague presumed that this would be generally true. I paused for a moment, and then said to her: “No, I’m not sure that you can say that.”
But, I’ve been asking around. To my chagrin, I find that I’m more right than I had hoped. Take, for example, the current creedal agonies of the United Methodist Church. Just this month, at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, the UMC failed to adopt resolution 60980, a petition submitted to the Faith and Order committee by a West Virginia man named Joel Watts. The resolution would have added the Nicene Creed into the doctrinal standards of the Book of Discipline. The petition was defeated in committee: 47 to 18, with 4 abstaining.
To conservative Methodists of an ecumenical bent, this failure to adopt represents a massive irony and inconsistency within their own tradition: The Wesley brothers themselves were Anglicans and thereby presupposed the authority of the creeds and did not speak against Nicaea-Constantinople. Something like Nicene orthodoxy is also affirmed in the Methodists’ Articles of Religion (adapted from the 39 Articles).
Furthermore, the current lex orandi of Methodism, in which the creed is apparently said in worship and included in the 1989 Hymnal, suggests partial adoption by some churches and begets a kind of “creed embarrassment” at the national level, requiring pastoral comment on the UMC webpage. There, the Rev. J. Richard Peck explains:
Unlike some churches that require affirmation of a strict list of beliefs as a condition of membership, The United Methodist Church is not a creedal church. (emphasis added)
Peck’s middle way on the creeds adds that UMC folks and congregations are welcome to use the creeds as they like, so long as no one is mandated to endorse them.
Others, however, are even happier about the defeat of Resolution 60980. Thus, Geoffrey Kruse-Safford wrote in a blog post:
[This] is why I’m so glad I’m a member of a non-creedal tradition. That doesn’t mean we can’t and don’t read creeds, because of course we do. We United Methodists are non-creedal because we recognize there is no single, simple formula that captures the depth of the human experience of the Divine. Our Articles of Religion, Wesley’s Notes On The Old and New Testaments, and John Wesley’s Sermons lie at the heart of our faith because, let’s face it: How is it possible that any creed could express the fullness of our belief? (“We Rejected the Nicene Creed and That’s a Good Thing,” No I has heard [May 13])
The difference between the perspectives of Kruse-Safford and Watts (who are apparently Facebook friends) reveals a deep rift around the place of tradition within United Methodism, which I presume exists also among its bishops, pastors, and university theologians. Interestingly, a friend who attends a Bible church in North Carolina recently told me that the same thing holds true in many non-denominational churches as well. She thinks the pastors of her church could echo Kruse-Safford’s words: “no single, simple formula … captures the depth of the human experience of the divine.” The Bible, not Wesley’s Book of Discipline (see Section 104), articulates the requisite positions of church members.
I don’t intend to point fingers here. After all, it has long been known that, despite the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (1888) and other similar documents, which mandate that churches in what has come to be the Anglican Communion adhere to Nicaea-Constantinople, many Episcopalians and Anglicans say the creed “with their fingers crossed,” or actually mean something more like Rowan Atkinson in this famous sketch comedy.
The real questions are: (1) Why has the Creed of Nicaea-Constantinople fallen on hard times now: why has it become a scandal? (2) What is at stake if we jettison this symbol?
I will not venture long answers on either of these questions. For those who see the failure to adopt the symbol as a victory or a necessity, I would only suggest (as a first step) returning to the questions of whether the creed of Nicaea-Constantinople is in fact “simple” and whether anyone ever thought that its job was “to capture the depth of the human experience of the divine.” If both of these premises are found to be false, then to reject the creeds on these grounds is to behave like the atheist who rejects belief in God because the Bible says he has hands and feet (and everyone knows that he doesn’t).
What, then, is the purpose of the creed, and what do we stand to lose by not adopting it? Here again, I won’t say too much. However, the broad evangelical allergy to Christian creedalism does seem to validate a judgment made by Adolph Harnack over a century ago in his magisterial History of Dogma, which bears repeating:
The Protestant faith, the Lutheran as well as the reformed … presents itself as a doctrine of faith which, resting on the Catholic canon of scripture, is, in point of form, quite analogous to the Catholic doctrine of faith, has a series of dogmas in common with it, and only differs in a few. … The Reformers, however, in addition to this, began to unfold a conception of Christianity which might be described, in contrast with the Catholic type of religion, as a new conception, and which indeed draws support for the old dogmas, but changes their original significance materially and formally.
The least one may say about this judgment is that it seems supported by Methodist and non-denominational reactions to the creed, and indeed, advanced by them. Not only are many Protestant and post-Protestant churches unwilling to be tied to this historical meaning of the Creeds, they are also honest-to-God enough to reject them from their doctrinal teaching. In a time when the influence of Christianity is splintering and weakening in Western political and cultural life, this is perhaps hardly to be expected. A postmodern, post-Christendom church, enchanted by the plasticity and multiplicity of symbols, might indeed hail this as a victory.
Still, as Oliver O’Donovan has so often reminded us, with this kind of doctrinal multiplicity and plasticity comes a contingent weakening of authority, and hence a diminishment of ecclesial unity and authentic human freedom. For those interested in the latter point (on authority and freedom), I need only suggest rereading O’Donovan’s classic, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge, 1999).
However, popular culture seems to show that what many today are after is not “fake plastic symbols” but something more like a real symbol. The recent revival and success of the Batman franchise (not least the very underrated Batman vs. Superman) suggests that, given the choice between a world with or without real symbols (and thereby, of a world with or without a God powerful enough to make real demands on belief and action), many still opt for the former.
Many seek a world with real, authoritative symbols, able to engage and disagree with one another, and thereby to command real admiration, self-sacrifice, and love. In such a climate, churches on the fringe of flickering away into non-relevance might well consider again whether the old Nicene Symbol might be a banner worth lifting high.
In hac symbola, vinces.
 Adolph Harnack, History of Dogma, trans. by Neil Buchanan, 3rd ed. (New York: Dover, 1894), 1.3, emphasis added.