Project Canterbury

Facts Affirmed by the Creed

by the Rt. Rev. A.C.A. Hall, D.D.
Bishop of Vermont.

Reprinted, with some revision, from an Address to his Diocesan Convention, 1906.

New York: John G. Scharf, no date.

A question involving grave issues concerning both belief and morals has been presented to the Church in connection with the claim of certain clergymen to "interpret" parts of the Creed in what must be acknowledged as a non-natural sense. General arguments have been widely circulated and principles asserted, which, apart from their application to particular cases, need and demand serious consideration.

I. By some persons objection is made to trial for heresy or for departure from the Church's doctrinal teaching, not only as being an undesirable method of maintaining the truth, but as interfering with the liberty which a minister ought to enjoy to preach and teach what he is persuaded to be true. A trial and judicial sentence we should all feel to be a last resort, when argument and persuasion have failed. But when other means have failed, it seems clear that if the Church is to be faithful to the message committed to her, and to preserve the respect both of her own members and of those outside, she must repudiate the erroneous teaching, on fundamental points (concerning either faith or morals), of those who claim to speak in her name; she must insist that they either conform to her teaching or withdraw from her ministry.

We may recall the care which the Church takes to ensure this conformity.

Before Ordination to the Diaconate a candidate must present to the Standing Committee of the Diocese a certificate from the Minister and Vestry of the Parish of which he is a member, in which they testify that they are well assured and believe that the candidate "for the space of three years last past hath lived a sober, honest, and godly life, and that he is loyal to the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of this Church, and does not hold anything contrary thereto." (Canon 7.)

Before Ordination to the Priesthood a similar certificate is required, in which it is stated that he "hath not written, taught, or held anything contrary to the Doctrine, Discipline, or Worship of this Church." (Canon 8.)

The following declaration is also required to be made before Ordination to either the Diaconate or the Priesthood, by each candidate, in the presence of the ordaining Bishop:

"I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America." (Article VIII of the Constitution.)

One of the questions publicly asked (in the service) of a man to be ordained Priest is the following:

"Will you give your faithful diligence always so to minister the Doctrine and Sacraments, and the Discipline of Christ, as the Lord hath commanded, and as this Church hath received the same, according to the Commandments of God; so that you may teach the people committed to your Cure and Charge with all diligence to keep and observe the same?" To this the candidate makes reply, "I will so do, by the help of the Lord."

It must be plain, one would think, to every reasonable person from these requirements, that on his Ordination a man surrenders the right to teach as a minister and representative of the Church what may seem to him more true than the doctrine which the Church has accepted, and which she commissions him to teach in her name. It is absurd to suppose that these precautions are taken to secure conformity to the Church's doctrine as a condition of Ordination, but that after Ordination the obligation ceases, and that a man is then justified in taking a different line.

It is sometimes urged in defense of any departure from received teaching, that the man to be ordained Priest promises to instruct the people out of the Scriptures, and to teach nothing, as necessary to eternal salvation, but that which he shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture. But this promise, which excludes all unscriptural teaching, is followed by the other just cited, in which the man further engages to teach and minister according to the rule of the Church.

No tyranny is exerted over the man's conscience or intellect. If he becomes unable conscientiously to fulfill the obligations which he undertook, and to observe the conditions on which he was admitted to the ministry, his honest and honorable course is to retire from a position which has become to him untenable. With whatever regret it is viewed, such action will be regarded with respect by all men. Respect cannot be looked for when a man repeatedly says, and leads the congregation in saying, "I believe" what, in the obvious and generally understood meaning of the words, he denies, and teaches others to deny. Appeal may be made in this connection to two divines of acknowledged authority and weight, one English and one American. In his treatise, The Case of Arian Subscription Considered, Dr. Waterland (1723) combats the fallacious plea that because the Church claims that her doctrine is Scriptural anyone is at liberty to subscribe to that doctrine in such sense as he thinks to be agreeable to Scripture. "To make it still plainer that such subscription [in contradiction to the plain meaning of the words, and to the known sense intended by the compilers and imposers] is fraudulent; let it be considered what the ends and purposes intended by the ruling powers, in requiring subscription, are. They are expressed in our public laws and canons to this effect; that pastors may be sound in the faith; that no doctrines be publicly or privately taught but what the Church and State approve of; that all diversity of opinions, in respect of points determined, be avoided; that one uniform scheme of religion, one harmonious form of worship (consonant to Scripture and primitive Christianity) be constantly preserved among the clergy and people. These are the main ends designed by subscription. But if subscribers may take the liberty of affixing their own sense to the public forms, in contradiction to the known sense of the imposers, all these ends are liable to be miserably defeated and frustrated. Pastors, instead of being sound in the faith, (which is but one), may have as many different faiths as they happen to have different wits, or inventions. Multiplicity of doctrines, opposite to each other, may be publicly taught and propagated: and, instead of any uniform scheme of religion, or form of worship, there may happen to be as many different and dissonant religions in the same Church or kingdom, as there are pastors or parishes. These being the natural consequences of that latitude of subscription now pleaded for, it is evident that such a latitude is a contradiction to the very end and design of all subscription; and is therefore unrighteous, and full of deceit." (Waterland's Works, vol. II, ch. III, 2.)

Bishop Whittingham, in his Charge to the Clergy of the Diocese of Maryland, 1849, The Doctrine of this Church, p. 16, says, "If as an individual he should find his belief varying from the norm of the society in which he is an officer, he can no longer continue to bear office. He must regain his liberty by laying down the office which is its restriction. His bearing office depends on his private conscience; but while he bears it, not his conscience, but his office, is the limit of his liberty. As a man, he cannot teach what he does not believe. In office, he must teach the belief of the society in which he is an officer. If it is not his belief, his conscience must be obeyed: but its dictate is, not that he shall violate his office, but that he shall lay it down. He must escape the limits imposed by office, by falling back upon his larger liberty as a private individual. While he remains an officer, the society of which he is the voice, controls its own voice. Its rule of teaching is his law. He teaches what that rule directs, and nothing else."

II. It has been urged that a clergyman is entitled to retain his position in the Church although his views on points of doctrine may have changed since his Ordination, that he "is entirely within his rights in following his scholarship where-ever it may lead him, so long as the Creed is to him the historic statement of the belief of the Church, full now as always of spiritual truth and significance." What is exactly meant by this enigmatical provision I do not profess to understand. But two remarks I desire to make about the con-
tendon: (1) First, that "scholarship" is not by any means (as is sometimes assumed) necessarily or generally on the side of negation. Wider research, deeper thought, as well as growing experience, will often give a further insight into truths which had at first been held with somewhat of a barren intelligence. They should lead to clearer views, sometimes to a restatement of the truth in more appropriate language; but on what ground is it assumed that scholarship is likely to contradict faith? Have all Christian people in past ages, including the great teachers of the Church, and those who laid down their lives for the faith, been so credulous or superstitious that they accepted without investigation the doctrines for which they made such sacrifices, in the exposition of which they showed such skill? Scholarship, let it be understood, is not a monopoly of unbelief.

(2) It is most important to realize the "spiritual significance" of the articles of our belief. This is what year after year we ought to be learning. So shall we build up ourselves, our moral and spiritual life, on the foundation of our most holy faith. [Jude 20] So shall we enter into the devotional language of the Church as illustrated in the collects for the great festivals. [E. g., Christmas Day, the Circumcision, the Purification, the Annunciation, Easter Eve and Easter Day, the Ascension.] But the spiritual significance is based upon, and is not a substitute for, the literal truth of the facts of our Lord's life. Since Christ actually died, and was buried, and rose again, we are in the spiritual sphere to die to sin and rise with Him to newness of life. [Rom. vi. 3-6.] Our crucifixion of the flesh, with its passions and lusts, is not a denial, under the guise of a spiritual interpretation, of the statements of the Apostles' Creed that He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; [Gal. v. 24.] that His soul went into the place of departed spirits, as His body was laid in the grave; and that on the third day He rose again. Nor is the declaration of the Creed that Jesus Christ our Lord was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary to be spiritually interpreted by saying that while He was the child of Joseph and Mary by the ordinary process of generation, the human nature thus derived was of immaculate purity. [Dr. Greer, the former Bishop of New York, who would not be accused of narrow and illiberal opinions, in his Yale lectures on The Preacher and His Place discusses, as it seems to me, very helpfully, "the self-imposed limitation of a theological subscription." He distinguishes between (a) statements of facts in a creed, which we are bound to accept as facts, and (b) any limitation of the meaning of the fact. "So far as a creed or doctrine is a statement of fact, such, for instance, as the Apostles' Creed, it is of course final. Fact is fact, and always remains fact; and the Creed which expresses fact in connection with Jesus Christ, as the fact of His birth, for instance, or life, or death, or resurrection, is to that extent stationary. But the interpretation of the fact, or of the significance of the fact, that is not stationary. One age apprehends it in part, and another age apprehends it in part. The different apprehensions are not contradictory, but supplemental." (Pp. 11, 17.)

III. It is urged that a considerable latitude of interpretation is generally allowed with regard to other articles of the Creed, and with regard to statements in the Old Testament (for instance in the first chapter of Genesis), and therefore that a like latitude may be considered admissible with regard to the Virgin Birth. Let us take these two points separately.

1. The resurrection from the dead, Christ's and ours, may often have been stated crudely, and thought of in a way inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture on the subject. [I Cor. xv. 35-38, and 50.] To repudiate unworthy and gross explanations is perfectly compatible with tenaciously holding to the belief that our bodies, in however changed a condition, will rise again, that we shall be restored to the integrity of our complex being in body and soul. We are free to hold various conceptions of the nature of our Lord's risen body: we are bound to believe that the sepulchre on Easter morning was empty. The body that had been laid there had been reassumed in a different condition. [See Latham's The Risen Master, ch. i-iii.]

Similarly materialistic and unworthy notions have been entertained concerning our Lord's Ascension into heaven, and His session at the right hand of God. These are certainly not sanctioned by the Church or by the New Testament Scriptures, which have always plainly taught that "God is Spirit." [John iv. 24.] If we think of the risen and spiritual body as being capable of being manifested in this lower outward sphere, rather than as capable of being withdrawn, we shall find little difficulty in the Scriptural account of the Ascension, which is adopted in the Creed. The risen body of the Lord no longer belonged to earth; after divers manifestations of Himself to the disciples (to assure them of His conquest of death, and to instruct them in the things concerning the kingdom of God), He was finally withdrawn from their sensible cognizance, while promising always to be with them by His Spirit in a better and closer way. The right hand of God is, of course, a metaphorical expression, like many others in the Scriptures,8 not intended to be understood literally (which would be an impossibility) , but symbolizing the highest place at once of honor and of power. To such condition was the manhood of our Lord raised. [E. g., Prov. xv. 3, Ps. xxxiv. 15, xcv. 4, xcviii. 2. 15]

Various explanations of the Resurrection and the Ascension are compatible with acceptance of the facts. A denial of the facts is not an explanation. It would be a parallel explanation of the Virgin Birth (whether correct or not) to suppose that the Holy Spirit quickened the powers of the mother rather than in any way performed the functions of a father, the Word of God Himself assuming human nature from the Virgin's substance. [Compare DuBose, The Soteriology of the New Testament, pp. 209-212.] A high esteem of the child's character and nature is not an explanation of the statement that he was born of a Virgin mother.

2. A wide distinction ought to be noted between statements in the Old Testament Scriptures, such, for instance, as are contained in the early chapters of Genesis, which, on no theory of date and authorship, claim to be the record of eyewitnesses and contemporaries, and the statements of the Gospels, for which the precise claim is made, that they are an almost contemporary record of the testimony of those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word. [Luke i. 2, John xix. 35, xx. 24.]

IV. Concerning our Lord's miraculous birth the evidence is all that can be expected. To say that it is recorded only by two out of the four Evangelists is misleading. It is told, in independent fashion, by both the Evangelists who give any history of the birth and early years of our Lord. St. John's Gospel is confessedly supplementary, not as a rule going over ground which had already been covered by the earlier Evangelists, whose writings, when the Fourth Gospel was written, were already well known in the Church. St. Mark's Gospel (which probably most nearly represents the earliest narrative circulated, orally or in writing, among Christians) begins with the entrance of our Lord on His public work, giving the testimony of those who were His companions during His ministry. [Acts x. 37-40] The circumstances of the Birth would naturally not be at first discussed. When the disciples had become convinced of the more than human dignity of their Master, they would with equal naturalness make enquiry as to His entrance into the world; and the story, told by those immediately concerned, would find its place in what may be called the second edition of the Life of Jesus Christ, represented by St. Matthew and St. Luke, as the fourth Gospel may be thought of as a last edition, or supplementary volume, of Apostolic testimony. [Compare DuBose, The Gospel in the Gospels, p. 12.]

It is clear both from the evidence of the early Creeds and from the writings of the Fathers, that the doctrine in question was part of the original body of Christian teaching communicated by the Apostles to the Churches which they founded. On no other theory could we account for the agreement of all early summaries of Christian belief in declaring the birth of the Incarnate Son as of the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary. A single quotation may be given from Irenaeus, who represents both Eastern and Western Christendom of his time (not later than A. D. 190). We believe, he says, "the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Jesus Christ our Lord." Of this creed Irenaeus says, "Not otherwise have the Churches in Germany believed and delivered, nor those in Spain, nor the Celts, nor those in the East, nor in Egypt, nor in Libya, nor in Italy." [Adv. Haer. I. x. 1, 2. See Clark's Ante-Nicene Library, vol. V, pp. 42, 43.] Earlier passages may be cited from St. Ignatius (A. D. 110). At the beginning of his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans Ignatius thanks God that those whom he is addressing are "fully persuaded as touching our Lord, that He is truly of the race of David according to the flesh, but Son of God by the Divine will and power, truly born of a virgin and baptized by John," etc.; while in his Epistle to the Ephesians he says, "For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived in the womb by Mary according to a dispensation, of the seed of David but also of the Holy Ghost; and He was born and was baptized that by His passion He might cleanse water. And hidden from the prince of this world were the virginity of Mary and her child-bearing and likewise also the death of the Lord-three mysteries to be cried aloud-the which were wrought in the silence of God." [Smyrn. 1, Ephes. 18, 19, Bishop Lightfoot's translations.]

The Virgin Birth, it should be remembered, was never put forward like the Resurrection of our Lord as a ground for belief. The Resurrection was the sign He Himself had repeatedly promised as a divine sanction of His mission and teaching, a proof that He was what He claimed to be. [E. g., John ii. 18-22, Matt. xii. 38-40, Mark x. 32-34.] The Virgin Birth rather follows from than leads to our belief in our Lord's divine person. To those who recognize in Him the eternal Son and Word of God manifested in human form, it is a perfectly congruous, one might almost say, a natural mode of entrance into this world. Without any sort of slur on marriage (God's own institution) we see emphasized in this exceptional mode of birth (1) the single personality of our Lord Jesus Christ, with two perfect and complete natures; and (2) likewise the entirely fresh start which mankind finds in Him, whose human nature, free from any taint of inherited disorder, is from the first fashioned and inspired by the Spirit of God in accordance with God's original design for man. [A full discussion of the question will be found in Bishop Gore's Dissertations on Subjects Connected with the Incarnation (Murray, 1893), in Creeds or No Creeds? by Charles Harris (Button, 1922), and in Bishop F. H. Chase's Belief and Creed, and The Creed and the New Testament (Macmillan, 1918 and 1920), replies to Canon Glazebrook's Statements of Modernist Belief.]

Accordingly it is noticeable that the denial of the Virgin Birth, or doubt concerning it, commonly goes along with the denial of our Lord's true Godhead, or the treating of this as an open question and a matter of opinion. A real resurrection is denied or doubted. This was the sign which would authenticate Christ's claim. Consequently His divine nature and person is regarded as a matter comparatively unimportant. And then there is no need-no room-for a miraculous birth. The connection between one doctrine or denial and another is instructive. You will see that it is in reality no small point on which the Church insists when she requires that we should profess our belief in this and in all the articles of the Apostles' Creed.

The Question and Answer concerning the Creed, in the Order for the Ministration of Baptism and in the Visitation of the Sick, are an absolute refutation (if any be needed) of the contention that the acceptance of the Creed as a whole, while its detailed statements may be rejected, is to be understood as an "affirmation of discipleship." Early (or any but exceedingly modern) Christians would be surprised to learn that the term "symbol," which they applied to the Creed, as a watchword or badge of believers, ought really to be understood (now at any rate) only in the sense of an emblem or figure of something that its words do not really represent!

Threats or warnings as to what may be the result of enforcing a strict acceptance of the statement of the Creed cannot be considered as if there were danger only on one side. If "this Church" were to decide to leave as open questions such matters as the true Godhead of our Lord Jesus Christ, His actual resurrection from the dead, His birth of a Virgin Mother, hundreds of her clergy could no longer minister in her name, and thousands of lay people could no longer regard her as a representative of the Catholic Church.

A good deal of loose language has been used about what is characterized as a "sectarian" attitude, in contradistinction from that which should be adopted by the Church. It is assumed that the Church is to show its catholic as opposed to a sectarian temper, by making room for all shades of belief, and for many, if not all, of unbelief, as if it were "sectarian" to insist upon adherence to definite principles of faith or worship. (Why not also of life?) This is a confusing and misleading use of language. According to customary use a sectarian attitude with regard to belief would be to insist upon doctrines, by way of affirmation or of denial, which have not the sanction of the Catholic Church, throughout the world and throughout the ages. The Church allows differences of opinion within wide limits, but not the denial of what has from the beginning been generally received and held, such as articles of the Apostles' Creed.

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