One of the things that has surprised me in the discussion here about whether or not there is a dividing line between Roman Catholics and Protestants in general (as opposed to the differences between Presbyterians and Baptists, for example) is what I would call the “concession speech”. Here’s my version of the concession speech (so I cannot be accused of taking someone else to task for it):
I know a lot of Catholics that I like – they are all decent fellows, let me say. It turns out we share a lot of moral reasoning together, and we want the same things out of society – we want safety for our families, and the right to earn a living, and we want to go to the place of worship of our choice when it’s open (maybe even Saturday night! How’s that for “emergent”?!), and we want to use the name of Jesus as the shibboleth of our point of view.
And honestly – I wish more [I’ll say Baptists, but you fill in your denom/nondenom there] were more like them. They are serious people, very earnest in their faith practice and in their concerns about the way of the Cross. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to call them “not Christian”. It must be ignorance or something worse.
Which, of course, we have seen several version of over the last few days.
And you know what? I’m completely on-board until we get to the last two sentences. I do know a lot of Catholics I like. Most of them are decent fellows, let me say. We do share a lot of moral reasoning, and I would even go one further and say that many Catholics I know are far more serious about their moral reasoning than many of the Baptists I know. In many ways, they want for our social order what I want for our social order – and let me be clear that I want for them what I want for myself socially – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, if we may use the short form here and not be defenestrated. I would never deny them their time and place of worship, and I wish many of my Baptist church-mates were more like them in many, many ways. I wish Baptists were more actually-serious about what they believe rather than, well, the way we are as a clan.
And let me say this as well: I wish more Baptists were actually Christians.
This is the part of the discussion which, of course, gets by a lot of people. The defenders of Catholicism think that because I think (to use a specific example) that what the Catechism and all the allegedly-infallible paper trail of the Catholic Magisterium ultimately teaches is a false Gospel, I think all Catholics are lost and all Baptists (again, for example) are saved.
As we say in my neck of the woods: pheh.
Listen: the root problem here is that people are lost. It’s a problem that goes back to the first man who did what he did in pure disobedience and not because he was deceived. It goes to his son who killed his brother because God rejected his offering of the fruit of the vine for the offering of the blood of the first born. It goes back to a hard-hearted people who, in spite of God showing them a rather impressive series of miracles, decided that they wanted to be a nation like all the other nations. The root problem is that people are lost, and in many cases, they don’t even know it.
And if that is the root problem, then what we are looking for is any and every solution to that problem. But let’s be clear here: it’s only a solution if it solves the problem, but not if it only makes us feel better about the problem. You know: atheism addresses this problem because it denies the problem whole-cloth – so it’s not a solution but a distraction. So the likelihood that there will be more than one solution is low – because this is a rather complex problem which can be stated in a ridiculously-simple way: people are lost.
But here’s what the concession speech wants to do: it wants to make a statement which both sides can agree to and call that the solution. So the concession speech wants us to believe that what makes someone a Christian is something like this:
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
And this is an interesting tactic – to use the Nicene Creed as a unifying document. But let me suggest something about that creed which this view overlooks: the Nicene Creed was not intended as a unifying document.
The way it originally ended was like this:
And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost. And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not (ἤν ποτε ὅτε οὐκ ἦν), or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion —all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.
Those who want to use this creed as the basis for their concession speech have to grasp first that the creed was not the means by which the universal and apostolic church all held hands and sang the Greek version of “Kumbaya”. It was the means by which the church was separating itself from egregious error. Schaff puts it this way:
… in this, as in every other of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the question the Fathers considered was not what they supposed Holy Scripture might mean, nor what they, from à priori arguments, thought would be consistent with the mind of God, but something entirely different, to wit, what they had received. They understood their position to be that of witnesses, not that of exegetes. They recognized but one duty resting upon them in this respect—to hand down to other faithful men that good thing the Church had received according to the command of God. The first requirement was not learning, but honesty. The question they were called upon to answer was not, What do I think probable, or even certain, from Holy Scripture? but, What have I been taught, what has been intrusted to me to hand down to others?
The point of the council, then, and therefore of the creed which springs from it is to cast off error and proclaim only the truth.
But this effort has one limitation: the context of the questions being considered. This is why Nicene orthodoxy is simply not a rigorous enough tool to determine what it false from what is true in our faith: the scope of what it is considering is too narrow to answer all the questions. That means that the Nicene Creed is not a concession speech meant to unify all kinds of diverse people, but a symbol of the church – a shibboleth for a certain time and place which excludes a certain type of error.
So before we finish up our concession speeches and call off all the theological wrangling and haggling and reasoning and just call it a day in which the differences between Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are simply in-house debates, let’s be a little more rigorous in what we are demanding from ourselves, and more honest about what those before us have said and done. They were clear that many people are lost, and need to know it without any quibbling. There’s no question that those who fall outside the confession of the Nicene Creed cannot be Christians – but to say that this is the only test is anachronistic at best, and misses the point of that creed in particular, and misses the point that many people are lost, and that there is only one name under Heaven and on Earth by which they must be saved.