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Unit 5: THE NEW COVENANT AND THE CREEDS

The New Covenant

     To many Christians the Old Covenant emphasized laws, procedures, and customs, as if all of them were absolutely essential to covenant living. Loving obedience to God stressed in the Old Testament often seemed to be in the shadow of a multitude of regulations. [See “Covenant” in Worship Notes/Bible of this website.]

     The New Covenant lived and taught by Jesus emphasized mutual love-in-community as essential to life. Laws, procedures, and customs are binding and useful only to the extent that they promote such love.

     When we hear Christians using words like "Kingdom of God" in connection with the New Covenant, we're learning about a Christian belief in perfected love in God's presence. It's very important to distinguish between the Kingdom of God and the church! Too often individuals expect the church, which is made up of imperfect human beings, to be the perfected Kingdom; when they discover the errors and frailties of the church, they become disillusioned. Had they understood the humanness of the church and its distinction from the Kingdom, had they understood that the community called "The Church" is on a pilgrimage toward the Kingdom, they would have had a more realistic picture of the church's mortal limitations and goal.

     It is curious that throughout the history of the community of the New Covenant (the Christian Church) some individuals and groups have interpreted the Christian Faith, especially in its moral dimension, as a multitude of absolute laws, procedures, and customs (an approach sometimes called “legalism”). Although many people feel more secure when their lives are regulated quite thoroughly, the New Covenant does not offer such moment-by-moment directives; Jesus' life and teachings subordinated all else to the “Summary of the Law” which provides "life in all its fullness."

     The “Summary of the Law” given by Jesus is the only binding absolute moral law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. The second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all other laws and the prophets.” According to this view, love of God, neighbor, and self is the only absolute law which ought never to be broken. Other laws are to be put into action to the extent that they bring about the best possible love in each situation, in terms of both individual’s morality and social justice. . Never should the other Commandments be set aside lightly, but only when and if love is better served. In fact, advocates of this position respect the ethical maxims and the wisdom that have come down from the past. As Joseph Fletcher proposed in his controversial book Situation Ethics (p. 26):

The situationist enters into every decision-making situation fully armed with the ethical maxims of his community and its heritage, and he treats them with respect as illuminators of his problems. Just the same he is prepared in any situation to compromise them or set them aside in the situation if love seems better served by doing so.

     For these Christians, the only absolute is love (agape); only love is universally good. “…anything and everything is right or wrong, according to the situation,” says Fletcher, because the good is the most loving, concerned act. Love can rightly be directed only toward a person and not toward some abstract good. [Situation Ethics, p. 124.]

      Here’s a fabricated example of situation ethics which focuses on the Summary of the Law. Suppose you were a citizen in a country in which only tyrannical rulers had sufficient sustenance. They had a food surplus in storage, yet you and your family, as well as other members of the community, were starving, faced with malnutrition and possible death. One Commandment says that you shouldn’t steal! If you regard that Commandment as a binding absolute law, you won’t steal even in this situation. On the other hand, if you ask yourself how love is best experienced in this situation, you might conclude that stealing the surplus food is morally acceptable under these circumstances. (Situation ethics needs to be distinguished from the antinomian approach, which is lawless.) [See “Can There Be Morality Without Rules?” in the Cherbonnier subsite.]

     Both approaches (legalism and situation ethics) have apparent strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, having many rules and “going by the book” without exception appears always morally right; in some circumstances, however, the “good” might be cruel in its results. On the other hand, an appeal to the love of God, neighbor, and self as the only absolute rule allows for flexibility for the best possible results for persons involved; however, fuzzy thinking and self-deception are quite possible. Christians, as we said before, differ as to which approach is best.

     Although some Episcopalians lean toward legalism, the Church as a whole does not. As a book from the 1979 “Church’s Teaching Series” notes:

Anglicanism is not given to rules – either commands or prohibitions. It tends to be permissive rather than legalistic, not because ethical issues are unimportant but because each person is unique, as is each moral situation. This, no doubt, is why there is so much diversity in the moral commitments of Episcopalians. It is also why we are able to respect and care for one another in the midst of that diversity.” [The Christian Moral Vision, p. 13]

     Occasionally the General Convention of the Episcopal Church provides Resolutions about moral issues, such as war and peace, ecology, justice, capital punishment, abortion, sexuality, biomedical ethics, etc. These may be accessed at http://www.ecusa.anglican.org/governance/general-convention. These Resolutions are adopted after careful study and by vote. Not regarded as infallible or compulsory, they are offered as advisory and instructive.

[Within the Reflections subsite, under the Title Index, please see “Contracts and Covenants,” “In Search of Moral Truths,” “Jesus’ Ethics,” “Neighborhood Boundaries,” and “Summary of the Law,”]

The Creeds

     An historian, Professor Ross Mackenzie, has written a brief article "Creed" in the Academic American Encyclopedia. His slightly abridged essay, which serves our purpose well, follows.

     A creed is a brief, authorized summary of the Christian doctrine that is sometimes recited in church services as an affirmation of faith. Formulations of the Christian faith, presumably taken as the basis of teaching and evangelization, are to be found in the New Testament, although in a rudimentary form as in 1 Cor. 12:3. St. Paul wrote of believers who submitted without reservation to the creed that they were taught (Rom. 6:17).

     Of the two classical creeds, the Apostles' Creed belongs in its essential content to the apostolic age, although it is not the work of the Apostles. It had its origin in the form of a confession of faith used in the instruction of catechumens (converts undergoing instruction) and in the liturgy of BAPTISM. The creed may have been learned by heart and at first transmitted orally (to protect it from profanation). It is based on a formula current at Rome c. 200, although the present form of the text did not appear before the 6th century. It is used by Roman Catholics and many Protestant churches but has never been accepted by the Eastern Orthodox churches.

     The other classical creed, the Nicene, was an expression of the faith of the church as defined at the Councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381), and later reaffirmed at the Councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451). Based probably on the baptismal creed of Jerusalem, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed contained a fuller statement concerning Christ and the Holy Spirit than the earlier formula. Its use in eucharistic worship is not much earlier than the 5th century... The Nicene Creed is used by Roman Catholics, many Protestants, and the Eastern Orthodox...

     The Athanasian Creed... was first clearly referred to in the 6th century, and the attribution to ATHANASIUS is untenable. It is Latin in origin, and in the Middle Ages it was regularly used in church services. Since the Reformation the liturgical use of the Athanasian Creed has been confined mainly to the Roman Catholic church and the Anglican Communion, although it is now infrequently recited.

     “The Creed of Saint Athanasius” is in the “Historical Documents of the Church” section of the The Book of Common Prayer (pp. 864 f.).

     Two additional sources offer further comments on the Creeds. First, from a book Doctrine In the Church of England (page 37):

     The general acceptance of the formulations drawn up in another age and another context of thought gives rise to special problems, especially when some of the phrases used are indisputably symbolic, and no clear distinction is drawn, or perhaps can be drawn, between these and others. ...It is not their purpose to affirm either historical facts or metaphysical truths merely as such. It is as expressions of the Gospel and of the presuppositions (basic convictions) of the Christian life that the statements of the Creeds, whether in the sphere of history or in that of philosophy have permanent truth and value. In this sense every clause in the Creeds is of necessity 'symbolic.' ... Statements affirming particular facts may be found to have value as pictorial expressions of spiritual truths, even though the supposed facts themselves did not actually happen.

Second, from a book entitled The Faith of the Church (page 23):

     They are historically grounded and traditionally hallowed affirmations of the Christian belief of all ages. By the very fact that many of their words are pictorial or dramatic in nature, they delivery us from literalism. By their very antiquity, they unite us with our brethren in faith through all the ages of Christianity. bove all, by their close relationship to the primitive Christian proclamation, they ground us in the faith which is found in the pages of the New Testament and which informed the life of the earliest Christian believers. They are indeed indispensable.

     Let's explore the first two words of the Creeds, "I believe." Again, we have a series of useful quotations:

     Any geometry student will remember that axiom precedes theorem. It is not possible to start reasoning without assumptions . ... We call axioms self-evident. But they are taken on faith. One cannot prove them. The physicist, no less than the mathematician, starts with faith and then he reasons. (The Faith of the Church, p. 27)

     You do accept things on faith. You are living a certain way, you have a particular scale of values, you go about from day to day with definite assumptions . ... broad or narrow, one's basic view of things is taken on faith. (The Faith of the Church, p. 29)

     Faith and assent are both kinds of belief. The difference between them is often marked by the presence or absence of the word 'in' after the verb 'believe'. To believe that God exists is, or may be, bare assent. To believe in God is faith." (Doctrines of the Creeds, p. 1)

     Because this is the nature of faith, we say at the beginning of the Creed, I believe in, not I believe that . ... I put my trust in Him. This is quite a different thing from saying, ‘I believe that there is a God.’ . ...Faith is the response of a person to a Person. (The Faith of the Church, p. 30)

     ON ASSENT ... Assent to formularies and the use of liturgical language in public worship should be understood as signifying such general acceptance without implying detailed assent to every phrase or proposition thus employed. (Doctrine in the Church of England. p. 38)

     The Creed then affirms faith both in God and what God has done and revealed... and this faith is a kind of belief quite different from bare assent. It is conceivable - that a man should assent ...to every clause in the Creed, and yet have no spark of faith in anything which it affirms. (Doctrines of the Creeds, p. 2)

     The Creeds, therefore, function in the Christian Faith at two levels: (1) as general, personal, historical, symbolic statements of trust in God and Christ and (2) as general, personal, historical and symbolic statements of basic beliefs about God. At both levels there is a reasonable latitude of informed, expert interpretation. [Please see the subsite “All Handouts” for the following entries: “Beyond Certitude,” “Blik,” “Facts and Their Interpretation,” “Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty,” “On Science and Uncertainty,” and “Philosophical Pluralism.” Within the Reflections subsite, under the Title Index, please see “Doubt, Faith and St. Thomas,” and “Easter and Roller Skating.”]


To conclude this unit, please read the section below from “An Outline of the Faith.”


The New Covenant

Q. What is the New Covenant?
A. The New Covenant is the new relationship with God given by Jesus Christ, the Messiah, to the apostles; and, through them, to all who believe in him.

Q. What did the Messiah promise in the New Covenant?
A. Christ promised to bring us into the kingdom of God and give life in all its fullness.

Q. What response did Christ require?
A. Christ commanded us to believe in him and to keep his commandments.

Q. What are the commandments taught by Christ?
A. Christ taught us the Summary of the Law and gave us the New Commandment.

Q. What is the Summary of the Law?
A. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Q. What is the New Commandment?
A. The New Commandment is that we love one another as Christ loved us.

Q. Where may we find what Christians believe about Christ?
A. What Christians believe about Christ is found in the Scriptures and summed up in the creeds.

The Creeds

Q. What are the creeds?
A. The creeds are statements of our basic beliefs about God.

Q. How many creeds does this Church use in its worship?
A. This Church uses two creeds: The Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed.

Q. What is the Apostles' Creed?
A. The Apostles' Creed is the ancient creed of Baptism; it is used in the Church's daily worship to recall our Baptismal Covenant.

Q. What is the Nicene Creed?
A. The Nicene Creed is the creed of the universal Church and is used at the Eucharist.

Q. What, then, is the Athanasian Creed?
A. The Athanasian Creed is an ancient document proclaiming the nature of the Incarnation and of God as Trinity.

The next entry is explored in Unit 6.

Q. What is the Trinity?
A. The Trinity is one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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