I call the Church of the Brethren home. The tradition is really part of the second generation of Anabaptists (1708). That is to say that ours is a mode of Christianity birthed both in the dawning of the Enlightenment and following the violence of political/religious struggles for power.
So what does this mean?
Primarily, it means the Brethren have a healthy skepticism of the creeds. In the wake of the Reformation battles, the one litmus test for many regions in Europe was the recitation of the creeds. This became increasingly important as traditions divided over which creed was acceptable and which confession of faith had legal status within a territory. The Enlightenment responded through projects of legal and philosophical separation of faith and practice, or the privatization of belief. Religious communities followed suit by rejecting confessions and creeds out right based on their violent and limiting use at the hands of princes and bishops.
For the early Brethren, this translated into an act of civil disobedience- they would not cite the creeds in their gatherings or in the presence of authority. Over time we have come to understand this practice in very Anabaptist terms: “We have no creed but the New Testament, as read in community under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” Some have taken this as a way to expand the historic creeds in order to include the full life of Jesus. Others have taken this as an opening of the definition of what it means to be Christian.
In my own spiritual life, I have journeyed this open pasture and find myself resting in the frames of the creeds. As Richard Rohr noted in his book Everything Belongs, some times the question must be explored from every angle, only to arrive back at the original answer….albeit with a whole new understanding.
So how is that this Radical Pietist, Anabaptist, and staunch critic of the Constantinian form of the Church can stand in worship and find the creeds spiritually sustaining?
First, the Nicene formula makes tw0 things clear. God is God. And Christ is God. In the ancient language, begotten not made, light from light, true God from true God. So why is that important? Early in the debates the ancient theologians wanted to maintain the distinction between creator and created. To place the Word (Logos) on the created side of that line would be place the saving Christ on the side of those needing saved. In essence giving sand to parched. This made even more clear that the very salvation offered by God was a result of God’s coming to us, making even more poignant the beauty of the Christ hymn in Philippians:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (2:5-8)
Or as Athansius of Alexandria said: God became human so that we could become divine.
Second, I deeply value the Chalcedonian definition (451). For most, this means nothing. Yet, most of our ideas about Jesus as the Christ emerge from this statement of faith and not the Nicene creed. Each time a pastor or Sunday school teacher says Jesus Christ is both human and divine they intone the Chalcedonian definition. More specifically they unknowingly reference its central claim that Jesus is;
one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ.
Behind all the fancy language and technical terms of substance and nature is a fundamental conviction, stated clearly by Gregory of Nanzianzus but here paraphrased: That which God did not take on of the human person is not redeemed. Here we have the Incarnation of Christ spelled out in full. Not only does God come down, but God puts on everything of our bodied existence…and in so doing restores material living.
So what is all this to say? Simple. Despite the horrific uses of the ancient creeds and definitions, the theology of these texts is amazingly liberating. God is God, yet God also so values created and embodied existence to take on flash and bone, life and death … and life. No getting around it, the Incarnation redeems and restores bodied life, empowering us to be human beings fully alive.
In essence, this Brethren boy longs for the times of reciting the creed, times of true profession of faith.