A Radical Quaker Confronts the Creeds

Fellow Quaker Callid Keefe Perry posted some presentation notes he used for a class on the early Christian creeds. Callid and other Christian Quakers find themselves attracted to some aspects of early creeds for reasons that are understandable, but in the interest of friendly dialogue, I will post a dissenting viewpoint.

First of all, to reject the early creeds as totally as I will herein is not to reject my fellow Christian Quakers as fellow Quakers. In fact, I believe that one could embrace my radical view of the creeds and still be an orthodox Quaker. That feat is possible because that view seems to me to have been the view of Early Friends. Early Quakers struggled with the government of England, a “Christian nation,” for the right not to use the word “trinity” in the Toleration Act. They won a concession from the Parliament that ended up allowing them to be recognized as a church and the Unitarians to be excluded. While I wish that this latter exclusion hadn’t taken place, it has since been rectified to the extent that Unitarians are now officially tolerated in England.

However, I will doubtless go beyond even the point at which Orthodox early Friends were willing to go in rejecting creeds. After all, I am an ex-Christian Quaker, so I have even less sympathy with the idea that a religious community needs to police the beliefs of its membership. Early Friends did produce catechisms in order to achieve the legal recognition of the sort won in the Toleration Act, so they were not averse to a certain amount of theological uniformity.

However, more than the question of Early Friends’ distaste for creeds, my objection to them centers on how they operated in the late Roman Empire. Callid’s notes state, “At a time when living as a Christian was a subversive task, early baptismal creeds were the words by which your life was given over to God and your priorities were radically shifted. By saying “yes” to Christ you said “no” to Caesar and Mammon, a risky position indeed.” The irony of history is that the only creed to date to have achieved nearly universal approval among orthodox Christians, the Nicene Creed of 325 CE, was precisely formulated as an imposition of uniform beliefs among Christians in order to say “yes” to Caesar, that is Emperor Constantine.

This creed explicitly rejected several unorthodox views of Jesus that were held by various churches, notably the Arians, but also outliers like the Ebionites who didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus at all. Now one might believe that on the matter of the divinity of Jesus, the Arians were simply wrong, but the political upshot of this creed was to solidify the power of the Constantinople government over the churches of the Empire. Constantine was sympathetic to Arianism, since it was more understandable to his pagan worldview than the stricter monotheism of the Bible. However, he didn’t really care all that much and was later persuaded to adopt the Nicene Creed. What Constantine wanted was one united orthodox Church by which allegiance to the Rome could be secured.

As an unorthodox Quaker, my view of Jesus is complicated. However, I am quite strongly influenced by the early Church, insofar as I was a believer for most of my adult life and can’t entirely shake off its influence. In particular, the early Christian story of Jesus and the Jerusalem Commune strike me as a glorious episode of utopian energy bursting out in a world that quickly moved to extinguish its more radical potential. Rather than take a religious view of Jesus, I take a political one. Jesus as social radical is far more appealing to me than Jesus the heavenly god-man savior.

While I don’t want to project modern political questions onto the past in an anachronistic manner, there seems to me to be some validity to seeing the early Christians as a protest movement against not only the Roman Empire, but also the collaboration of certain Judean religious leaders with colonial domination. These questions to me don’t seem to hang on metaphysical matters like what the Greek word “theos” or “god” means, or whether Jesus’ body was miraculously transformed after his crucifixion. In fact, I don’t even think we have to believe in a historical Jesus at all to read the early Christian story as a radical upsurge of emancipatory energy.

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