Doug Pagitt on creeds

In his recent video podcast rant, Doug Pagitt makes the point that creeds are not summations of the Christian faith but rather contextual responses to particular theological questions in the history of the church. I do not necessarily disagree, but Pagitt makes a false dichotomy. He assumes that something contextual cannot also function universally. In making this statement, Pagitt is following a long tradition of theological liberalism, deeply indebted to Schleiermacher, which argues that what is primary is what is true for you. In other words, personal experience is the criterion for the validity or relevancy of something. Pagitt seems to be establishing a reason for why a church need not bother with the creeds. When a creed is simply a contextual problem, and not a summary of something essential to the faith, then the groundwork is laid for leaving the creeds behind.

Pagitt’s argument is problematic for a number of reasons. (1) First, the problems that the creeds (particularly the Nicene Creed) address are universal problems: the divinity of Jesus Christ, the triunity of God, the union of divinity and humanity in Jesus, the divinity of the Holy Spirit, etc. These were all contextual situations, but the problems and the answers are universal. Thus, the Nicene Creed remains necessary for the church today—not only because it addresses are perennially an issue, but because it is the defining creed of orthodoxy. With the Nicene Creed, Christianity as we know it today came into existence, because only with its formulation was the centrality of Jesus Christ affirmed for the church. And if we wish to be a church centered on the gospel of Jesus, then we cannot have any doubts about the relevancy of this creed for us today. (2) Second, Scripture itself is a contextual writing, but we do not circumscribe its validity for today. (3) Third, Pagitt seems to forget the Apostles’ Creed. While we should not be naive about its appropriateness as a summary of the faith (e.g., there is no mention of Israel), I do think we should acknowledge that if there ever was a summary of Christianity, it could be found there. Moreover, the Apostle’s Creed was not a response to a particular theological heresy, but instead arose as a baptismal liturgy. Its context is positive, not negative. (4) Fourth, Pagitt seems dangerously close to the sentiment of Hegel, who wrote in his Jena diary: “In Swabia people say of something that took place long ago that it is so long since it happened that it can hardly be true any more. So Christ died for our sins so long ago that it can hardly be true any more.”

But perhaps I heard Pagitt incorrectly. Perhaps he only meant that the creeds do not summarize all that we must affirm in the Christian faith. To which I wholeheartedly agree. Perhaps he only meant to remind people that creeds are historically conditioned and not some abstract textbook answer or an appendix to the Bible. To which I also wholeheartedly agree. Whatever the case, it is important to affirm the living importance of the creeds. Bonhoeffer once asked, “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” And I would ask, “What are the creeds for us today?” This is a question we in the church need to ponder long and hard.

H/T to Chris of Disruptive Grace for pointing out Pagitt’s podcast.


Good thoughts, David, especially on the Apostles' Creed. However, I think there needs to be some explanation for why we should label the problems and solutions of the creeds "universal." What do we mean by this exactly? I would add that the problems and solutions of the creeds are also deeply contextual (the language of ousia was not part of church's immediate context). Likewise, our interpretations of them are also deeply contextual. Still, this does not mean they are not "true." And by "true," do we mean the same thing as "universal"?

So my question for Doug is this: when he says "I'm not saying that I would never hold to them [the creeds]," on what grounds would he hold to them? We all need to get things off our chest, but then there's a time for reconstruction, however slow-coming it might be.
I probably closer to Pagit and Bonhoeffer here. The Apostle's Creed doesn't just fail to mention Israel, but hides the entire life and teachings of Jesus behind a comma, "born of the Virgin Mary--COMMA--suffered under Pontius Pilate." That's it? Where the healings, exorcisms, the Sermon on the Mount, etc.? This supports the minimalism of Bultmannians--the mere fact of Jesus' life is all that's important.

I mention this not to diss the Apostle's Creed, but to deny the universal adequacy of all creeds and confessions. They are human attempts to summarize the faith for a particular time and place--even though many continue to be helpful for other contexts. They are provisional, flawed, but they are probably necessary.

In this, I reflect, I know, my own (Ana)Baptist tradition which always emphasized that we had confessions, not creeds, and that no confessional statement was ever final. In many of our confessions we even preface with a preamble that says that are revisable. It is, of course, why there is such a strong connection between much of Baptist tradition and Schleiermacher. I recognize the vulnerabilities here--the possible relativism and subjectivism--but I think it is worth the risk. The dangers of creedalism seem larger to me.
J. K. Jones said…
My issue with Pagitt and company is that they never stop using meaningful words and sentences to explain to me why words and sentences can have no universal meaning.