A Devolving Faith ~ The Bare Essentials of Christianity

I came across an interesting quote the other day while on Facebook. It had been posted by a friend of mine who is a very dedicated Christian and very active in ministry at the non-denominational church that he attends.  The quote was from Ben Franklin and simply read, “Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he governs it by Providence. That he ought to be worshipped.” It was originally posted by a lawyer in Washington DC, and people were encouraged to “share if you agree.” At the time I wrote this article it had over 25,000 “likes” and over 17,000 “shares.” Apparently this quote resonates with a lot of people, many of whom are probably very dedicated Christians like my friend. Now, I happen to be a fan of Benjamin Franklin’s, and I was familiar with the quote, but I’d like to explain why I didn’t hit “share” or “like” the post. And the reason is this –

As a credal statement it’s appalling.

I know that Ben Franklin is one of the founding fathers of our country and I certainly mean him no disrespect. In fact, to be fair the quote comes from a much longer statement by Franklin contained in a letter to Ezra Stiles (then president of Yale) and dated March 9, 1790, a little more than a month before Franklin’s death. In this letter Franklin completes his “creed” with the words, “That the most acceptable Service we render to him is doing good to his other Children. That the soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them.” All in all, it’s not a horrible sentiment and certainly fits well within the values of a Judeo/Cristian ethic. But as a Christian Creed it falls woefully short.

This should, in point of fact, come as no surprise to us since Benjamin Franklin was avowedly not a Christian. He was instead a deist. The very next paragraph of his letter makes this perfectly clear when he writes, “As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of Morals and His Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some doubt as to his Divinity; tho’ it is a question I need not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.”

Here’s the thing. There is much in Franklin’s writings that we may enthusiastically agree with as Christians. We would agree that there is one God who is Creator and Ruler of His Universe, and that He deserves our worship. The great monotheistic religions of the world, those of Judaism and Islam would also agree. They would also agree that man’s soul is immortal, that it will be judged in the world to come on the basis of its actions in this one, and that one of the most acceptable services we can offer God is in service to others. And it is good that we can agree with our brothers on these statements of faith. As Christians we would also agree with Franklin’s assessment of Jesus’s moral and religious system; but we would presumably violently disagree with his doubts about Christ’s divinity. Or would we? Is the divinity of Christ something that many would also hesitate to be “dogmatic” about?

A credal statement is a statement of the shared beliefs of a religious community. Creeds are not intended to be comprehensive, but to be a summary of core beliefs. When Ben Franklin expresses “his” credal statement, it is not an expression of the shared beliefs of a religious community, but it is rather intended to summarize his individual core beliefs. In contrast, the earliest known Christian Creed is the one written by Saint Paul approximately twenty years after the death of Christ. “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-7)  As the Church grew and various heresies were addressed we see the development of a much fuller creed, that of the Apostle’s Creed. The Apostle’s Creed is a very concise summary of the core beliefs as shared by the Catholic (or universal) Church, and reads:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth;
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead;
He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.

The Nicene Creed (adopted by the first ecumenical council of Nicaea in 325 AD) while not as brief as the Apostles Creed, develops Christian Orthodoxy and belief in an even more precise and elegant manner:

I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.

I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

These credal statements were carefully developed by the Church in order to transmit and safeguard the faith while preventing the errors and heresy that were bound to develop over the centuries since Christ’s coming. Since many of these earliest heresies centered on the nature of the Trinity and nature of Christ, the creeds developed by the Church were designed to ensure that the Trinity was properly understood and that Christ’s nature and divinity was dogmatized. As I read Benjamin Franklin’s quote on Facebook I can’t help but wonder, why do so many Christians seem to feel the need to jettison these Creeds?  As a convert to the Catholic Church from a Protestant upbringing this is perhaps especially striking to me. Many of the Catholics that I now attend church with would probably be shocked to find that most of my Protestant friends have never even heard (much less recited) these foundational Creeds of Christendom. For those raised in the Catholic Church these Creeds are part of the very fabric of what it means to be a Christian. The Nicene Creed is recited in unison by the faithful at every Mass, while the Apostles Creed is recited as a part of the Rosary. These shared statements of core beliefs are a large part of what it means to be a Christian within the Catholic tradition.

How is it that the individual credal statement of a deist who essentially just affirms the existence of God can be substituted for the great Christian Creeds handed down to us over the millennia, and no one bats an eye? Is this what the faith has been reduced to? How did we arrive at this place?

I believe that the answer to these questions lie in one of the great aspirations of the church – that of Christian unity. Over and over we find the call to Christian unity exhorted by the writers of the New Testament. Consider the words of Saint Paul, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” (1 Corinthians 1:10)  But can this unity be possible if there is no agreement on the core beliefs of the faith? Can there be unity when there is disagreement over what it even means to be a Christian?

The notion that Christians need not submit to the teaching authority of the Church which Christ established, arose with the advent of the Protestant Reformation. For the first time, men were left to devise their own creeds based on their own interpretations of Scripture. To determine what “their” creed would be. This freedom of interpretation ultimately lead to conflict and division in the newly forming Protestant movement. With these divisions came new creeds; the Augsburg Confession of 1530, the Heidelberg Catechism of 1562, and the Westminster Confession of 1643. Churches divided and divided again as denominations multiplied to authentically represent the differing beliefs and “creeds” of their members. And with each new denomination a new creed. Unity was lost in a plethora of denominations – well over 40,000 at the time of this writing. But increasingly there was a dissatisfaction with divisions in the church. And so it became important to be able to once again affirm in one voice what we believe.

The rise of the non-denominational church was one of these efforts to return to unity within Christendom. The call to focus on only the “essentials” of the faith and to disregard the divisive non-essentials. Perhaps the maxim that best expresses this concept is, “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” Although the authorship of this quote is uncertain (it has often been falsely attributed to St. Augustine), it appears to have first appeared sometime in the early to mid 17th century. While we can all agree with the spirit of the quote, it still doesn’t determine what the essentials of the Christian faith are, and more importantly the question of who gets to decide? The ongoing quest for unity within the Protestant movement while being unable to agree on the essentials of the faith has ultimately led to such creeds as the one professed by the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ – “No Creed but Christ.” While we can all agree that Christ is central, this really tells us nothing at all of who He was, what He did, or more importantly what He requires of us, his disciples.

So does Christian unity really require that we sacrifice the essentials of the faith as handed down to us by the Apostles? The same Jesus who prays that we “may be brought to complete unity” (John 17:23) also says,“For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:35-38)

Christ’s Apostles seem to understand that Christian unity must be brought about by adherence to correct doctrine as established by the church – not by individual interpretation of scripture. Saint Paul teaches that it is the Church which is, “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15b) while Saint Peter warns us to avoid individual interpretations of scripture, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty…So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” 2 Peter  1:16, & 19-21  In the conclusion to his same epistle he warns that scripture can be both difficult to understand, and also intentionally twisted by the ignorant and unstable when he writes, “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” 2 Peter 3:15b-16  It is because of this “twisting,” of both the Scriptures and the teachings of the Apostles, that the early Christian Creeds were developed in the first place; in order to safeguard the basic truths of the faith for those of us who would follow after, and to unite us in a shared belief with the Apostles who themselves bore witness to the life of Christ.

The truth is, there can be no Christian unity without shared beliefs. There can be no, “one, holy, catholic (universal), and apostolic church” without a common creed. Without the authority of Christ, his Apostles, and the Church he founded, each believer is left to declare as Franklin did, “Here is my creed…” and then fill in the blanks as they see fit. This ultimately doesn’t bring Christian unity, but it’s antithesis – Christian apathy and religious relativism. In order to arrive at a place where we can declare with one voice, “I believe” we have stripped Christianity to it’s barest essentials. In declaring with Franklin, “I believe in one God.” we would do well to consider the words of Saint James who writes, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder.” (James 2:19)

Ultimately I will leave the credal statement of a deist and one of the founding fathers of our country to those who can only agree together that there is indeed a God, and will instead declare with the faithful throughout the world the Nicene Creed; the credal statement professed by the fathers of not just our country, but of our Faith.

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