Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Da Vinci Code and the Nicene Creed

In the hurly-burly of my files I found a three-year-old article by distinguished Roman Catholic academic and journalist Peter Steinfels, who writes a column for The New York Times every other Saturday. Nine times out of ten he has something both helpful and challenging to say. This column remains timely (I am sorry to say that a number of people dear to me have attached themselves to The Da Vinci Code [which, if Dan Brown had any learning or integrity whatsoever, would have been called The Leonardo Code] ). So the battle goes on. Here are some verbatim excerpts:

What's a Creed Good For?
Stirring up a hot debate, for one thing. Making a radical stand, for another.

by Peter Steinfels

The New York Times, June 5, 2004

"At least since the middle of the nineteenth century," writes Luke Timothy Johnson, "being part of the intelligentsia has meant despising creeds in general and Christianity's creed in particular."

For the modern mind, he continues, "belief in a creed is a sign of intellectual failure," an abandonment of critical thinking, a rejection of scientific evidence and a subordination of individual judgment to the herd mentality.

But more than many other religions, Professor Johnson points out in his book The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters, (2003), Christianity has insisted on the centrality of beliefs as well as deeds. Not that all Christians have accepted the classic creeds of their faith. Some have considered them a dangerous substitute for Scripture, a tool of hierarchical church authority or a distraction from heartfelt faith and virtuous living...

....[In] Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code...the fourth-century Nicene Creed, which has served Christian churches as a standard of orthodoxy over the centuries, is portrayed as nothing but a power play by which the emperor Constantine and patriarchal church authorities ruthlessly suppressed evidence that Jesus was not divine.

By now, Mr. Brown's coy claims to factuality have been pounded to an intellectual pulp. Even the latest publication of the Jesus Seminar, the scholars whose claims to dissect the Gospels did much to prepare the ground for Mr. Brown's fiction, carries an article on "The Da Vinci Fraud"...

Professor Johnson [is] a professor of the New Testament at Emory University's Candler School of Theology...The bulk of [his] book is a phrase-by-phrase, sometimes word-by-word, explication of the Nicene Creed, from "We believe in one God" to "the life of the world to come" and, finally, "Amen."

This is a mix of textual scholarship, early Christian history and theological reflection that should prove invigorating not only to the devout but also to the many Christians who, as Professor Johnson realizes, either sleepwalk their way through the creed when it is recited in their churches or puzzle over it or even privately edit out the parts that seem discomforting.

...he argues [that] the creed was not a fourth-century imposition of a politically motivated conformity, nor was it an abstract philosophical document rather than one grounded in the Scripture and religious experience. Instead, he sees the creed as an organic development deeply rooted in the biblical texts, which are profusely cited, and in the questions early Christians had to answer to maintain their integrity and to explain their experience of the living, risen Jesus...

From the start Christians had formulated a variety of creedal statements, he said in a phone conversation on Thursday, as they struggled with the question of "how to call God Lord and Jesus Lord at the same time."

...Where scholars like [Elaine]Pagels see the creed as narrowing the possibilities for Christianity, Professor Johnson sees the creed as empowering and opening up possibilities. He sees the creed as providing the church with "a clear and communal sense of identity" that enables it to make demands on its members and "to speak a prophetic word to the world."

..."Creedal Christians are able to offer a world desperate for significance and direction a unique vision of the world's origin, meaning and destiny," he writes, an alternative to the "nihilism" of the marketplace and a basis on which to "challenge the dominant idolatries by which the world mainly runs."

...Obviously, Professor Johnson views reciting the creed not as an act of submission but as one of subversion: "My aim is to make the creed controversial for those Christians who say it but do not understand it and therefore do not grasp what a radical and offensive act they perform," he writes.

After all, he adds with his typical brio, "there is something in the creed to offend virtually every contemporary sensibility."


Note: I also recommend a splendid book about our shorter creed, Exploring and Proclaiming the Apostles' Creed, edited by Roger van Harn (Eerdmans, 2004). Full disclosure: I am among those who contributed a chapter (on "The Resurrection of the Body").