Since arriving at Concordia Seminary my interest has been to use the heritage of our confessional writings as resources for the Church's life today. To that end, I have sought to uncover their presuppositions, theological priorities, and patterns of thought in order to guide how we think theologically about issues today that were not dealt with in the sixteenth century.
In the course of my work, I found myself drawn not only to the distinctively Lutheran Confessions like the Augsburg Confession and its Apology, but to the great ecumenical creeds of the Church. These creeds stand at the head of our confessional corpus, as the highest authority among our confessional writings as witnesses to Scripture. Yet more often than not, I tended to pass over them quickly in order to pay attention to the more distinctively Lutheran confessional writings.
There are a number of reasons for my turn to the ecumenical creeds as a framework for theology. Research for a book on Luther's catechisms, That I May Be His Own (2000), certainly played a major role. In those catechisms, the creed occupies such a central place that Luther interprets the Ten Commandments within the horizon of the First Article of the Creed and the Lord's Prayer within the horizon of the Third Article of the Creed. In addition, Luther does a marvelous job in bringing out of the Creeds of the Reformation emphasis on the personal nature of the gospel.
Another reason lies in the needs of our current transition to a post-Christian culture. Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg warned that the greater the ignorance of Christianity becomes, the greater the prejudice against Christianity grows. The Creeds have historically outlined the contours of Christian identity bestowed by the Triune name placed upon us in baptism. In a pluralistic culture where even Gnosticism is being revived as a "legitimate" form of Christianity, the Creeds become increasingly important for defining Christian identity and shaping Christian proclamation.
Since the Creeds summarize the heart of the Christian faith and proclamation, I have become intrigued about the extent to which their core affirmations can shape a theological method that articulates the comprehensiveness and coherence of Christian theology. I believe that they can assist in three areas: (1) they identify the central themes of Scripture over and against more minor themes; (2) their unity demonstrates the interdependence of the various articles of faith so as to comprise the analogia fidei; (3) they provide us with the big picture or meta-narrative of Christian existence.
The Chief Articles
By expressing the core theological affirmations of the Church, the Creeds answer the question, What does one need to know about the Christian faith above all else? As such, they distinguish a Christian outlook on life from all other non-Christian worldviews. It is becoming increasingly apparent that these same themes are once again becoming countercultural confessions of the Church and can no longer be taken for granted.
Consider the Creed's statement about God as "Maker of Heaven and Earth." It not only marks Christianity off from all variations of platonic dualism (God creates all things, visible and invisible), but from all current monistic worldviews such as New Age philosophies and pantheistic or panentheistic environmental theologies. Similarly, the distinction between creator and creation affirms that the Creator alone is independent, self-sufficient, and self-determining. The creature is not autonomous, self-sufficient, and self-determining (contra the prevailing anthropological assumptions in contemporary ethics regarding end of life issues).
Similarly, if one asks, What is the key to understanding the meaning of Christ's life?, the Creed points the way. It does not direct us first and foremost to the sayings and teachings of Christ, nor to the humanitarian activities and miracles of Christ. That is not to say they are unimportant; they are just not as central. The keys to understanding the significance of Christ's life lie with his incarnation and birth, suffering and death, resurrection and return.
The third article deals with the Holy Spirit who carries on the work of Christ within the new creation of the one holy Christian Church. It calls us to go beyond an individualistic approach to the Church. Nor should congregations live in isolation when the Creed directs our attention to the una sancta. Perhaps most importantly for our day is the fact that Creed does not direct one's attention to the interim state of the soul after death as our goal and hope. Instead, it centers on the parousia of Christ and the last judgment, which is no longer a day of wrath, but a day of joy.
The Inter-Relationship of the Articles or the Analogia Fidei
The Creed presents a corpus of core beliefs that are interconnected rather than a collection of disjointed members. The articles of the Creed stand in an intimate relationship with one another. This means that one article of faith cannot be expounded so as to contradict another article of faith. It also means that the various articles of faith are interdependent upon one another.
The Lutheran confession known as the Formula of Concord provides an excellent example of using the Creed as an analogy of faith. In Article 1, the formulators reject the error of one of their own champions, Matthias Flacius, who declared that original sin was the substance of human nature (he objected to calling it an accident as it seemed to minimize original sin as little more than a smudge of dirt upon the face). One of the ways in which they did so was by showing how Flacius' position contradicted the chief articles of the Christian faith, namely, creation, redemption, sanctification, and the resurrection of the body.
One can see how the distinction between the Creator and creation lays the sine qua non foundation for the First Commandment's prohibition against false gods. Similarly, the distinction denies any necessity or obligation in God for creation so that when he creates it is an act of freedom. The goodness of creation is the presupposition for the incarnation in the second article, the Sacraments and resurrection of the body in the third article.
In my own work, the Creed as an analogy of faith provided assistance for thinking through issues regarding the use of spiritual growth inventories. In particular, where the latter tend to disparage so-called natural talents in favor of spiritual gifts or play down any connection between natural talents and spiritual gifts, a creedal approach suggests that one cannot do that without disparaging the goodness of the First Article. Thus, when we enter the Church in the third article, we do not check our personalities or talents in at the door, but rather that the Spirit uses in the service of the gospel.
The Big Picture
Finally, the Creed taken as a whole suggests that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That is, to say, the Creed provides Christians with the big picture within which they can interpret the individual events of their lives or within which they can interpret various features of Scripture. It possesses what theologian Stanley Grenz calls "explanatory power." First, the Creed provides a Trinitarian framework with a Christological focus for all of theology. The Creed organizes the work of God according to the three persons of the Trinity, but in each case, the second article receives special attention as the focus of Trinitarian work. This emerges not only in the length of the second article in the Apostles and Nicene Creed, but in the structure of the Athanasian Creed as well. The Trinity cannot be understood apart from the Christology (in as much as the person of Christ and his relation to the Father provoked the Trinitarian question) nor can Christ be rightly confessed apart from his relation to the Father and the Spirit.
Second, the Trinitarian framework and Christological focus of the Creed gives rise to a narrative history that is oriented toward eschatology. The Trinitarian framework confesses God the Almighty as the one who rules over all of history, moving it from a beginning to a final culmination. He stands at the inception of the world and the creation of life and he stands at the end with a new creation through the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Christ creates the transition from the old creation to the new creation. He is bringing creation to culmination at the return of Christ. Christ is the catalyst and goal of history and the new creation.
Finally, this is to suggest that the Trinity, and with it creedal theology, does not exist as an intellectual hurdle that one must cross in order to become Christian, a hurdle once crossed is then left behind in order to focus on some really practical issues. To the contrary, the Trinity, and thus the theology of the Creed, encapsulates the confession of the gospel itself. Only in this light can one embrace the opening and closing lines of the Athanasian Creed.