Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Quakers and creeds

Oswald Chambers My Utmost for his Highest, a book of devotionals published after his death in WWI, fascinates and perplexes me. In today's reading, he sounds much like a Quaker:

"When we become advocates of a creed, something dies; we do not believe God, we only believe our belief about him. ... 'Believe also in Me,' Jesus said, not 'Believe certain things about Me.' Leav[ing] the whole thing to Him, it is gloriously uncertain how He will come in, but He will come."

I see the problem with creeds that Chambers spells out: Our beliefs about God or what God "should be," can block our direct, unmediated experience of what God IS. Quakers are rightfully concerned about having that direct experience. However, I also understand how in Quakerism the lack of structure or framework can lead to a spreading, anything-goes dilution, like wine spilled out from a container. We learn in the Bible that we need new wineskins not no wineskins.

I also wonder if Quakers make an idol--or a creed--of not having creeds.

What do you think? Leaving aside our own sense that "creeds are bad," does it help or hinder Quakers to be adamantly against creeds?


Michael Jay said...

I think that we suffer by ignoring the Ecumenical (Nicaean) creed specifically, and tradition in general. While Friends might not agree with how it has been historically applied, but that does not mean that the contents are meaningless. What is the creed, other than the only short statement of faith -- accepted by Christians everywhere?

Actually if we really believed in immediate revelation (Barclay's 2nd proposition), we would wish to search and weigh tradition -- for, this comes from the weightiest Christians in the world coming together to struggle with difficult issues and seek Truth.

R said...

It seems like a very worthwhile way of seeking a deeper communion, to "search and weigh tradition," to explore the creeds and consider whether they speak to our condition. It would be worth doing for an individual or for a meeting. I find the Nicene creed very beautiful and inspiring myself.

But not with the desire of finding one to adopt, teach, and never change. The creeds were created not only out of a struggle to know the truth but also out of a struggle to make political compromises that would stabilize the chaotic early church and silence the more adventurous outliers. They are not unadulterated revelation.

What I found as a Catholic was that in spite of the church's declaration that not believing its teachings is a sin, individual Catholics believe whatever they choose to believe, just as Quakers do. There are nontheists and nonChristians among Catholics, too. They aren't free to be honest about their beliefs, or they don't seem to realize that they are free. The church teaches them that they aren't.

Bill Samuel said...

The point is to have a center. A creed makes a very poor center. Early Friends emphasized Jesus Christ as the center. Whenever Friends get away from that, they get in trouble. That could be getting away to beliefs about, or to no clear focus and even an aversion to Jesus Christ.

We learn from history, but it should never be the center. Creeds were developed to address issues of the time. So they are to some degree frozen in a particular time and environment. I think that is why they usually have some minor points and miss some major points.

Diane said...

Hi Michael Jay and Rosemary,

I agree there's something to be said for not wanting to throw out the creed concept a priori as not even open for conversation. I also think it's good to try to understand the creeds in their historical context. Often, as you point out, Rosemary, that address a particular point in time--it's often said that the Nicene and Apostle's creeds talk about the birth, death and Resurrection of Jesus but nothing in between--what does that say but that people were agreed on "the in between"--or at least not locked in mortal combat over it. Certainly, as I understand it, insisting Jesus was born of the virgin Mary has less to do with her virginity than with establishing him as fully human, etc etc. Anyway, I struggle with creedalism and like the chance to talk about it.

Diane said...

Hi Bill,

I hope you are well! I think the creeds do reflect the concerns of a moment in time. It's also interesting that the Nicene and Apostle's creeds have provided such a wide umbrella for very different groups and very different times. I agree that creeds shouldn't be the center.

Marshall Massey (Iowa Yearly Meeting [Conservative]) said...

This sure is a touchy subject among liberal Quakers.

To begin with, we need to understand both what a creed is, and also what it is not. Many liberal Quakers are not clear on this. They mistake the doctrines of the Church — its basic teachings, representing Christians’ shared convictions — for creeds — fixed verbal formulas declaring the beliefs a person must accept before she can be herself accepted. The Apostolicum, or Apostles’ Creed (“I believe in God the Father almighty,” etc.), is the most basic creed of Christendom. All the ideas contained within that creed are doctrines.

Friends rejected creeds for a variety of reasons: reducing the Truth to a creed reduced it to a caricature; the demand that people subscribe to a creed constituted a forcing of the conscience; a creed could be repeated by a hypocrite; etc.

But Friends never rejected doctrines. The ideas in the Apostolicum were accepted without quarrel by the early Friends and their heirs. Most of Fox’s writings were specifically written to impart doctrines, and so are referred to as the “Doctrinals”. And the subtitle of Barclay’s Apology declares that it is “A Full Explanation and Vindication of [Friends’] Principles and Doctrines”.

So when we see that Chambers, in the quotation you reproduce, wrote “creeds” and not “doctrines”, we might take note of the fact that he was rejecting creeds, not doctrines.

In my personal opinion, the problematic thing about liberal Quakerism is that, having first confused doctrines with creeds, it then makes an idol of not having Christian doctrines (although it does in fact retain all sorts of secular liberal doctrines and spiritual doctrines not specific to Christianity, such as the idea that Violence Is Bad and Democracy is Good and the idea that there is Something in the Silence). This rejection of Christian doctrines has allowed a majority of Quakers in many liberal yearly meetings to lose touch with the original central commitment of Quakerism, its commitment to be a true and living Christianity.

R said...

Hi Diane,

I'm new to the Quaker blogosphere. I've been attending a liberal meeting for about 7 years. I enjoy your blog very much. Thanks!

I'd like to take back what I said earlier about people "choosing to believe" whatever they like. I'm not sure that's really true. Surely to some extent our beliefs choose us?

For example, I recently heard a "spiritual journey" talk from a nontheist Friend. He has spent his adult life researching scholarly history (on his own, not professionally) of Christianity, especially the earliest, and also Jewish history. He has faithfully attended meeting for decades and often impresses me with his admiration for friends who do believe in God and experience a living relationship with the divine. I think he would like to know God. He just doesn't.
I hope you don't mind me bringing in my Catholic background again. While I was Catholic a wonderful priest taught a course on spiritual direction, and one of his points (taken from Teresa of Avila) was that skepticism, questioning, and doubt may be an important step in a spiritual journey. It may in some way I don't claim to understand be the work God is asking a particular person to do. What do you think?

Diane said...


The difference between doctrines and creeds is very, very interesting. I've thought of creeds as shorthand doctrines but maybe they are something different. I'm thinking here about bounded sets and unbounded sets. Creeds seem to be something on the outer periphery of a group that you have to say to get in. Doctrines seem to be the thing at the core that we are all working towards. In which case, losing doctrines is worse than losing creeds. Of course, that word doctrine is so ... doctrinaire. Maybe a new term would help.

Diane said...

Hi Rosemary,

I appreciate your kind words, and I agree that doubt and questioning can be important parts of the spiritual journey. I do think doubts are humbling and communicate to us that we don't know everything about how God works or how God works for other people. Thanks for that comment.

Steven Davison said...

Marshall has really done a great job, I think, of clarifying this issue, with his distinction between creeds and doctrines, and by pointing out that the creed's function is to define who's in and who's out of the believing community.

By this definition, liberal Friends certainly have a creed, as Ben Pink Dandelion has show in his dense but important exploration of the sociology of Quaker beliefs. The creed is one of practice, though, rather than of belief, unless you count the belief in "that of God in everyone." 'Quaker process' (not gospel order) defines who we are.

I think there's also an important distinction to make between believing and 'believing in'. Jesus almost always says 'believe in,' meaning put your whole faith in—him, or the kingdom of heaven. This describes a dedication of spirit and an expectation that what he is saying is true, that his promises are going to come true. It doesn't describe a set of ideas about him or God.

Steve said...

I see creeds and doctrins as written expressions of revelation from God to the writer. While many of us share common revelation, these writtings or statements can help us communicate and explore His life with each other. The problem remains as Chambers eluded too when these revelations interfere with relationship; either with Jesus Himself, or each other. When these statements of belief become objects of judgement and thereby exclusion or inclusion our ability to love each other is hindered. Is Jesus sufficient to take care of Himself? While I personally accept the beliefs expressed in the Nicene Creed, I find myself having little use for them at this moment. I much prefer Jesus to expressions of past revelation.
Nice Blog, hello.

Diane said...


Yes, I too believe :) it's important to "believe in" (have faith) than "belief" in the sense of wanting every fact to be entirely accurate. A good example is our U.S. Thanksgiving: Every year newspaper run the article that says " The Pilgrims and Indians didn't eat turkey at the first Thanksgiving! They ate venison!" Perhaps, then, we no longer believe that they ate turkey at the first Thanksgiving. But we still "believe in" the holiday and the meaning behind it. We also understand the symbolic important behind serving turkey ourselves, as this bird represents the freedom of the New World (at least for white anglos) and venison symbolizes the Old World order of lords and ladies.

Diane said...

Please forgive the typos in the above comment. I seem to have outdone myself on dropped words and letters.

Diane said...

Hi Steve,

Thanks for the kind words. I too prefer the living Christ ...

Marshall Massey said...

My thanks to [*] Monster for his compliment regarding my earlier comment.

At the same time, an important point: While Jesus, in the canonical Gospels, often talks about believing in him, there are actually quite a number of verses where he talks about the value of hearing his word and believing, believing his word, or believing his words. These verses include, among others, Luke 1:20 and 8:12, and John 4:41, 5:24, 5:47, 8:30, 8:31, 12:47, and 17:8.

The common idea in all these passages, as well as other related verses, is not that belief in the words saves in and of itself, but that belief in a message verbally and intellectually delivered can be an opening or gateway to salvation.

I would suggest that this remains the great value of Christian Quaker doctrines to this day: a belief in them does not save in and of itself, but hearing and pondering and understanding them and putting them to good use does provide invaluable openings to salvation.

noah vail 2 said...

Friends have Testimonies, which in my meeting feel very close to creeds, and Queries, which led me to become a Friend because how else are you going to stay open to a living God but through questions.

Unfortunately I find few Friends who take the Queries seriously as valuable tools for spiritual development. Too many of us are satisfied with answers that may be decade's old.

David Carl said...

But what are the theological implications of online shoe shopping, particularly the statement that "everyone has unique requirements in terms of brands, personal specifications and choices?" Or is God just messing with us?

Elliott Broidy said...

Great review