Swinburne: On Creedal Christianity
Visiting Scholar Richard Swinburne discusses creedal Christianity with CCT Associate Director Steve Porter.
You know, there are lots of things that Christians disagree with each other on. Lots of these are getting a great amount of attention, debate over morality of homosexuality, and other issues. I mean, there’s been a debate within a lot of areas of Christianity recently on what kind of foreknowledge God has, and whether he has exhaustive knowledge.
And you have views on these sorts of things; but sometimes in the midst of this, we need some sort of way to determine what are the central things that Christians need to kind of have some sort of consensus on. And then what are the things that we can agree to disagree, and how does one draw that line, or how do you draw that line between what may be called essential Christian beliefs and those that are nonessential?
Yes, well, Jesus Christ didn’t write a book; he founded a church; and he promised it that the Holy Spirit would guide it into all truth. So what we should be concerned with was identifying how the church down the centuries has determined these matters. And clearly one criterion which it used for the first five, six, 7th, 8th, universally, it recognized continuity of its officers with the first apostles. That is to say, they commissioned people, eventually became called bishops; and bishops commissioned other bishops, and so on.
So you can’t just set up a church by yourself and decide things. You’ve got to link in with a continuing order of the church; and that, of course, has paradigmatically been done by Catholic, Orthodox, and perhaps to some extent, Anglican churches. But, secondly, of course, it’s not any gathering of bishops which will settle the issue. There has to be some reasonable recognition by all Christians at large that they’ve done it right. And, in particular, by right, whether they have drawn out of the teaching of Jesus what is really implicit in it.
And that is, of course, the teaching of Jesus is paradigmatically considered in the Bible. So there are these two criteria: continuity, organization with the past, and continuity of doctrine with the past. And that’s the way the church decided these matters in the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th centuries was by having councils of bishops, and the councils of bishops voted. And a vote wasn’t decisive as it were because some councils of bishops were not recognized subsequently as orthodox. But it suggested an answer, and unless the church widely rebelled against that, that answer became consolidated and recognized.
And the Christian creed is undoubtedly what’s called the Nicene Creed. It was the creed which was recognized by the Council of Constantinople in 381 as capturing the ideas of the early council, the Council of Nicaea, and it is the central creed which is said at each Eucharist in Catholic, Orthodox, and some of the Anglican churches. And, yes, there may be room for further doctrines, but those further doctrines have to be well-justified by history, implicit in the history of the church without much exception, and continuity with that.
And not merely the people who have held it, but those held as important to hold it. I mean, Christians have held certain things. For example, the earth is about 6,000 years old; but nobody ever made that a doctrine. And, so, it’s important to distinguish among the things that Christians have held as they have regarded as very important. And if you use those criteria, I think certain things fall on one side of the line; and certain things fall on other side of the line.
But, certainly, the Nicene Creed was the creed of Christianity central from when it was formulated through 381. A few groups existed that didn’t agree with it, but they soon faded out. But until the Reformation, that was the central creed; and I think that, I don’t think anybody should be in the business of denying that.