Evangelicals and Nicene Faith, part of the Beeson Divinity Series, includes papers delivered at a Beeson Divinity School conference in 2009. The volume is dedicated to Jaroslav Pelikan, whose essay “The Will to Believe and the Need for Creed”(Footnote 1) was foundational to the theme of this book. Timothy George, editor of this volume and Dean of Beeson Divinity School, both introduces the book’s theme and closes the volume with a tribute to Pelikan. All the book’s contributors agree that affirmation of the Nicene Creed and related early creeds is crucial; much of the discussion focuses on finding a balance between this “need for creed” and the Reformation and Baptist dictum, “No creed but the Bible.”
All sixteen contributors to this volume are excellent scholars who have crafted thoughtful articles from diverse perspectives within evangelicalism. The articles are too numerous to be discussed individually in this review, but each deserves careful attention. A few highlights will have to suffice. Tom Oden in his article decries the “modern” ecumenical movement as a “merger mentality represented by defensive bureaucracies” and “extreme politicization” (p. 6), calling instead for a return to the “new ecumenism,” which is “a rediscovery of our unity with ancient and contemporary Christian believers,” a unity based in “their personal relation with the incomparable Person, the incarnate risen Lord” (p. 6). For Oden, the early Christian creeds were a succinct way to crystallize the teachings of the New Testament and the apostles into a brief and memorable confession. These creeds faithfully reflect what we “have received” from the apostolic witness, not what we have “thought up” ourselves, and are the basis of unity in the “lowercase-c catholic” church (p. 18).
Gerald Bray traces the historical development of the Nicene, Athanasian, and Apostle’s creeds. The purpose of the creeds was fundamentally the conservation of apostolic truth. Bray notes, “Today we live in a world that prizes originality, rejects tradition, and lets people think that they can make up their own version of the truth. The Athanasian Creed is diametrically opposed to such notions and warns us of the dire consequences that will flow from that attitude” (p. 51). Bray navigates the reader through the key theological issues addressed in these three creeds regarding the Trinity, Christology, and the Final Judgment.
Regarding the catholicity of the church affirmed in the Nicene Creed, Steven Harmon discusses “the unavoidable problem of magisterium.” Harmon contrasts the Roman Catholic magisterium (basing authority upon communal formulation), the magisterium of the Magisterial Reformation (basing authority in an authoritative teacher supported by the civil magistrate, sometimes crystallized in a creed or confession that serves as a “paper magistrate”), and the Free Church magisterium (basing authority in the congregation as a whole, a “magisterium-hood of all believers” (p. 87). However, Harmon’s desire for Baptists to copy catholic practices such as celebration of the Christian year; affirmation the ancient creeds; utilization of forms of prayer such as the collect, acts of confession, and pardon; the practice of passing the peace; veneration of the saints; and singing hymns from the patristic era is unlikely to be realized.
Matthew Pinson’s article traces how Free Will Baptists remained faithful to confessional orthodoxy through their history against heretical and anticonfessional movements within their tradition. Curtis Freeman employs Hans Frei’s nomenclature of a “generous orthodoxy” in offering a balance between the need for creed and the rejection of credalism. Freeman critiques Brian McLaren’s project by the same name as majoring on generosity but giving short shrift to orthodoxy. Freeman suggested that creeds be viewed as a “centered set” rather than as a “bounded set,” focusing on inclusion of shared beliefs rather than exclusion by those outside doctrinal boundaries. However, in Freeman’s illustration of John Killinger’s aberrant Christology, it was unclear how Killinger’s “open-set revisionism” which “has neither center nor circumference” could be ruled out in a “centered set” approach.
Bishop John Rucyahana provides a powerful assertion from an African perspective of the need for the church to center on the orthodox Christian beliefs voiced in the creeds in order to maintain its vitality in preaching “for transformation to a Christian life, the repentance of sins, and surrender to Christ” (p. 175). Mark DeVine’s article offers a withering critique of the Emergent Church movement regarding its myopic focus on “doing” but aversion for “believing.” For DeVine, “To the extent that emerging churches fail to come to grips with the intrinsically believing and confession character of Christianity, their drift away from anything recognizably Christian seems inevitable” (p. 184). This volume affords a rich variety of perspectives on how the evangelical church can maintain fidelity to the ancient creeds of the church. This is recommended reading for every thoughtful Christian.
Footnote 1. Jaroslav Pelikan, “The Will to Believe and the Need for Creed,” in Orthodoxy and Western Culture: A Collection of Essays Honoring Jaroslav Pelikan on His Eightieth Birthday, ed. Valerie Hotchkiss and Patrick Henry (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005), 165-184.