The Evangelical Universalist Forum

A simple desultory philippic on creeds

This is an excerpt I made from Channing’s longer piece. Harsh or true??

I cannot but look on human creeds with feelings approaching contempt. When I bring them into contrast with the New Testament, into what insignificance do they sink! What are they? Skeletons, freezing abstractions metaphysical expressions of unintelligible dogmas; and these I am to regard as the expositions of the fresh living, infinite truth which came from Jesus! I might with equal propriety be required to hear and receive the lispings of infancy as the expressions of wisdom. Creeds are to the Scriptures what rush-lights are to the sun. The creed-maker defines Jesus in half a dozen lines, perhaps in metaphysical terms, and calls me to assent to this account of my Saviour. I learn less of Christ by this process than I should learn of the sun; by being told that this glorious luminary is a circle about a foot in diameter. There is but one way of knowing Christ. We must place ourselves near him, see him, hear him, follow him from his cross; to the heavens, sympathize with him and obey him, and thus catch clear and bright glimpses of his divine glory.

Christian truth is infinite. Who can think of shutting it up in a few lines of an abstract creed? You might as well compress the boundless atmosphere, the fire, the all-pervading light, the free winds of the universe into separate parcels, and weigh and label them, as break up Christianity into a few propositions. Christianity is freer, more illimitable, than the light or the winds. It is too mighty to be bound down by man’s puny hands. It is a spirit rather than a rigid doctrine, - the spirit of boundless love. The infinite cannot be defined and measured out like a human manufacture. It cannot be reduced to a system. It can not be comprehended in a set of precise ideas. It is to be felt rather than described. The spiritual impressions which a true Christian receives from the character and teachings of Christ, and in which the chief efficacy of the religion lies, can be poorly brought out in words. Words are but brief, rude hints of a Christian’s mind. His thoughts and feelings overflow them. To those who feel as he does, he can make himself known; for such can understand the tones of the heart: but he can no more lay down his religion in a series of abstract propositions, than he can make known in a few vague terms the expressive features and inmost soul of a much loved friend. It has been the fault of all sects that they have been too anxious to define their religion. They have labored to circumscribe the infinite. Christianity, as it exists in the mind of the true disciple, is not made up of fragments, of separate ideas which he can express in detached propositions. It is a vast and ever-unfolding whole, pervaded by one spirit, each precept and doctrine deriving its vitality from its union with all. When I see this generous, heavenly doctrine compressed and cramped in human creeds, I feel as I should were I to see screws and chains applied to the countenance and limbs of a noble fellow-creature, deforming and destroying one of the most beautiful works of God.

From the infinity of Christian truth, of which I have spoken, it follows that our views of it must always be very imperfect, and ought to be continually enlarged. The wisest theologians are children who have caught but faint glimpses of the religion; who have taken but their first lessons; and whose business it is "to grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ."Need I say how hostile to this growth is a fixed creed, beyond which we must never wander? Such a religion as Christ’s demands the highest possible activity and freedom of the soul. Every new gleam of light should be welcomed with joy. Every hint should be followed out with eagerness. Every whisper of the divine voice in the soul should be heard. The love of Christian truth should be so intense as to make us willing to part with all other things for a better comprehension of it. Who does not see that human creeds, setting bounds to thought and telling us where all inquiry must stop, tend to repress this holy zeal, to shut our eyes on new illumination, to hem us within the beaten paths of man’s construction, to arrest that perpetual progress which is the life and glory of an immortal mind?

Another sad effect of creeds is, that they favor unbelief. It is not the object of a creed to express the simple truths of our religion, though in these its efficiency chiefly lies, but to embody and decree those mysteries about which Christians have been contending. I use the word “mysteries,” not in the Scriptural but popular sense, as meaning doctrines which give a shock to the reason and seem to contradict some acknowledged truth. Such mysteries are the staples of creeds. The celestial virtues of Christ’s character, these are not inserted into articles of faith. On the contrary, doctrines which from their darkness or unintelligibleness have provoked controversy, and which owe their importance very much to the circumstance of having been fought for or fought against for ages, these are thrown by the creed-makers into the foremost ranks of the religion and made its especial representatives. Christianity as set forth in creeds is a propounder of dark sayings, of riddles, of knotty propositions, of apparent contradictions. Who, on reading these standards, would catch a glimpse of the simple, pure, benevolent, practical character of Christianity? And what is the result? Christianity becoming identified, by means of creeds, with so many dark doctrines, is looked on by many as a subject for theologians to quarrel about, but too thorny or perplexed for common minds, while it is spurned by many more as an insult on human reason, as a triumph of fanaticism over common-sense. -end-

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Well said, bro’. It’s good for me, in my current state of mind, to know I am not alone.

I am working on a new topic in my mind at present, trying to get my thoughts organized as well as you have been able to.

BTW - I got most of the title for the OP here:

“Do not be satisfied with the stories that come before you. Unfold your own myth.”-- Rumi

I think a good creed can provide a quick explanation of the Christian’s stance to others. Take for instance the Nicene Creed IN ITS ORIGINAL FORM. There’s not a thing in it with which I disagree. Of course the various forms of the altered Nicene Creed is another matter.

However, I, also, have no need of reciting any creed repetitiously in a formal way. What follows is the original Nicene Creed of A.D. 325, just before Trinitarianism became widespread:

We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, only begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father;
God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not created, being of one substance with the Father,
Through whom all things were made; both things in heaven and things on earth;
Who for us people, and for our salvation, came down, and was incarnate, and was made man;
He suffered, and was raised again the third day,
And ascended into heaven
And he shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead,
And we believe in the Holy Spirit,
And in one baptism of repentance for deliverance from sins,
And in one holy universal Church,
And in the resurrection of the flesh,
And in everlasting life.

Today, creeds have been replaced by “statements of faith” among many churches.

I also think that is an excellent creed. As you mentioned ‘recitation’, how the creeds are used is very important - which was also part of Channing’s emphasis.