Is Nicaea Enough?

A sentiment with which I sympathize and which I hear often is that “Nicaea is enough.” By this people seem to mean that, when trying to articulate boundaries for orthodoxy and, thus, for who is and who isn’t a Christian, the Nicene Creed, or more often the Apostles’ Creed, serves as the arbiter. In this model, someone who affirms historic Christian teaching on the Trinity, the hypostatic union, the necessity of Christ’s work for salvation, the church as the people of God, and the expectation that Christ will return in glory should be considered a Christian. I sympathize with this approach because, well, look at that list! It covers many issues that are vitally important for the Christian faith.

But often when I hear or see people say, “Nicaea is enough,” it appears to me that what they mean is that we don’t need to hold others to doctrinal or ethical standards beyond what was laid down in the fourth through eighth centuries. On the former, I am not talking about those working toward an evangelical ecumenicity, like Timothy George; I am referring, rather, to those who seek to elide and escape doctrinal convictions beyond what is taught in the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed. So, for instance, bibliology is not addressed in the Creeds; therefore, according to this “Nicaea is enough” way of thinking, Christians can believe a whole host of different positions about Scripture. The latter rationale for “Nicaea is enough,” the ethical, is the more popular these days, though. In this respect “NiE” is used to say that, for instance, sexuality is not addressed in the Creeds, and therefore Christians can believe a whole host of different ideas about gender and sexuality. To be frank, it seems to me that “NiE” is used most often not as a genuine attempt at doctrinal catholicity but rather as a euphemism for giving in to our current cultural climate regarding sexuality. Rather than an attempt at a catholic (small c!) orthodoxy, this sentiment is more often used to sneak in non-traditional ethical or doctrinal teachings through a supposed creedal gap.

What can we say to this? As a Protestant and evangelical, I think there are at least four responses we can give to this sentiment and ultimately claim that Nicaea, or even the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils all together, is not enough to measure what is properly Christian.

  1. Creeds and councils are not the ultimate measure of Christian doctrinal and ethical faithfulness; Scripture is. The first and most important point to make here is that the creeds and councils are not the ultimate arbiter of what counts as properly apostolic. That position, from a Protestant perspective, lies ultimately with Scripture alone. While creeds and confessions help codify, at a particular historical moment, the church’s ministerially and derivatively authoritative summary of Scripture, it is Scripture alone that holds the primary place. Therefore, even if we do not have a creed that addresses an explicit departure from Scripture, it is still just that – a departure from Scripture. And Scripture is clear that there are simple errors and then there are departures; the former, mistakes to be corrected, the latter, clear rejections of biblical teaching that results in communal exclusion (see point #2).
  2. There are a number of teachings, including permitting sexual immorality, that Scripture identifies as “false teaching” and enough to cast one out from the ecclesia. The idea that only those issues addressed by the early church warrant excommunication misses the force of many scriptural statements about casting out false teachers. And while many assume that “false teaching” is only directly related to doctrinal issues, like John’s forceful argument against docetism in 1 John 4, Scripture does not limit false teaching to doctrine. For instance, Jesus threatens covenant exclusion for those in the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira who follow, respectively, the Nicolatian and Jezebel-ian teachings about sexual immorality (Rev. 2:14-15; 19-23). We could add to this the instances where Paul addresses excommunication and ties it explicitly to divisiveness (e.g. Titus 3:10). The point is that exclusion from the covenant community is not limited in Scripture to doctrinal issues, or to some kind of arbitrary doctrinal ranking system. Instead, it covers doctrinal, ethical, and communal rejections of biblical authority.
  3. The “NiE” sentiment wrongly assumes that everything doctrinally or ethically important was settled in the first five centuries of the church’s history. This ignores both the function and history of creedal statements. Regarding the latter, it should be obvious from studying church history that, while the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology were relatively settled by the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils, these are not the only doctrines that caused first-order controversies. One only needs to remember the Reformation to realize that, in that case, the doctrines of soteriology (esp. justification) and ecclesiology still needed to be clarified at an ecclesiastical level. For Protestants, the five solas of the Reformation function creedally, even while they are not technically formalized in a creed. The point is that, as important as the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils are, they did not address every doctrinal issue that could be considered of first importance. And this brings us back to the former aspect of creeds and confessions that “NiE” ignores: they arise out of specific socio-cultural situations where certain doctrinal controversies must be addressed. In the providence of God, the church first had to deal with the Trinity and Christology. But this doesn’t mean that controversies surrounding other doctrines are not of first-order importance. Of course, that doesn’t mean that every controversy is of first-order importance. But it does mean that some deviations from traditional Christian teaching are. The Patristic and early Medieval period addressed the Trinity and Christology; the Reformation addressed soteriology and ecclesiology; and it seems to me that, today, we need to address bibliology and anthropology. The way to tell if modern deviations from traditional Christian teaching are first-order departures brings us back to point #1 – does it clearly depart from the apostolic deposit, Holy Scripture, and in such a way that it can be characterized as a rejection of Scripture’s authority? (FWIW here’s my attempt to describe what counts as “biblical.”) Yes, people can come to different interpretive conclusions, but this does not make them all correct. And as Protestants, our theological method calls us to return to Scripture again and again.
  4. “Orthodox” is not the only term we can use to communicate what counts as Christian teaching and what does not. But if we use another term, as Derek Rishmawy and others have argued, it had better have enough force to communicate that deviation from it warrants exclusion from the Christian community.

We could add other points here, like the fact that the entire Christian tradition has assumed a particular anthropology, which includes a particular sexual ethic, for the first two thousand years of its history. But I think these four points summarize the methodological problems with the “NiE” sentiment, even if we could say more about particular doctrinal issues and how to argue for the properly Christian position on them.

 

Angelic Bodies, Human Bodies, and the Intermediate State

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I have just finished Paul Griffith’s Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures (Waco: Baylor, 2014). In it his aim is to explicate the novissimum, or last thing, of all creatures, animate (angelic, human, animals) and inanimate (plants, rocks, etc.). While there is much to commend and to critique, my purpose for reading is my continued research on Christ’s descent to the dead. And although, as Griffiths notes, the intermediate state is not properly a novissimum, it is intricately connected to each creature’s last thing and so he deals with it in this book, albeit more briefly than other topics.

Other than mapping the options for those persons in the intermediate state (heaven, hell, and purgatory [Griffiths is Roman Catholic]), the other main concern of Griffith’s chapter on this issue is to describe “the intermediate state . . . [and] the nature and capacities of the soul therein, understood as a kind of body, and as the only trace of the human remaining in the incarnate state” (178, emphasis mine). I highlight that middle phrase because it is my particular concern with the descensus: how can we speak of Christ’s soul descending to the dead, and in what way(s) is his own “intermediate state” instructive for understanding ours? Griffiths provides one avenue for answering those questions by arguing that disincarnate souls have bodies.

He bases this point on his understanding of both angels and timespace. Of angels, Griffiths says,

If the created order is by definition spatio-temporal, and if the LORD is by definition not, then angels, being creatures, must be located firmly within the created order, and that is best done by clarity about their spatio-temporality and (therefore) the fact that they are bodies. … We must say, if we are to think with the church, that angels lack bodies if by “body” is meant a solid, fleshly body like that of animals, including humans (angels are not incarnate; they have no caro; we must also say that they lack bodies if by that is meant the continuous extension in space of aggregated inanimate matter (angels are not in this way like rocks or bodies of water). We must also say that they are not eternal (angels are not the LORD), which is the same as to say that they are part of the created order, and thus temporal in some sense, and that they can, again in some sense, occupy or appear in space. And if spatio-temorality implies body…then there must be a sense in which angels have bodies, or are embodied (120-21, emphasis mine).

This is a foundational truth for Griffiths (and indeed, for the Tradition) – the Creator/creature divide means only God is unbound by space and time. Angels must, therefore, be located within timespace (even if it is in a different manner than other creatures), and this entails having a body of some sort. Griffiths goes on to describe angels as “permanently disincarnate animate bodies,” and says this about them:

 … In ordinary English usage, terms like “body,” “flesh,” “matter,” and “mass” are not clearly distinguished, and we affirm the existence of many kinds of thing (electrons and quarks, for instance) whose capacity for spatio-temporal location is very unlike that of enfleshed animate bodies. … “Body” names capacity for spatio-temporal location, and thus for availability and responsiveness to other creatures with spatio-temporal location…. Bodies come, however, in many kinds.

In other words, all creatures have bodies of some sort, precisely because they are creaturely – they are located in timespace. But there are different kinds of bodies. To speak in logical terms, all creatures are embodied, but not all creatures are enfleshed. “Flesh” is a subset of “body.” Continuing in this vein, Griffiths says that,

Angelic bodies, according to this definition [located in timespace], have mass, but not, or not necessarily, matter. … “Mass” … names, in the discourse of physics, a body’s resistance to acceleration by force acting upon it (inertial mass), and its gravitational attraction to other bodies (gravitational mass). These may be properties of bodies without matter, which is to say bodies consisting only of energy … [T]o speak of a body’s mass, then, is another way of speaking about its availability and responsiveness to other bodies, without necessarily attributing to them the weight and aggregated extension in space characteristic of animate fleshly bodies. Angelic bodies, I should think (in this like the bodies of the separated souls), are bodies whose mass is immaterial… (122).

In other words, angels are embodied much like quarks and electrons are embodied, albeit as animate rather than inanimate.

The key phrase for my purposes is “in this like the bodies of the separated souls,” for in his chapter on the intermediate state, Griffiths explicitly compares again the permanently disincarnate animate bodies of angels with the temporarily disincarnate animate bodies of souls that have been separated from their fleshly body by death. In other words, according to Griffiths, separated souls exist as embodied and locatable, albeit in a different type of embodiment than the one they experienced prior to their death in their fallen enfleshed existence and than the one they will experience at the general resurrection of the dead and their subsequent novissimum.

Where are they? Griffiths says,

Asking where they are in this sense is like asking where an electron is at the moment: a malformed question. The best answer to it is that they are, disincarnately, more or less intimate, depending on their state – those in hell very much less, those in heaven very much more – with the locus-tempus that is the LORD (181).

This understanding of both spatio-temporality and of angels and separated human souls as “bodies,” albeit unenfleshed ones, has obvious implications for both our understanding of the intermediate state and of Christ’s descent. I am still working through the ramifications but nonetheless found Griffiths’ approach worthy of attention.