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Christians, Dogmas, and Creeds

Posted on Thursday, March 22, 2007 at 08:00AM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , | Comments25 Comments

Do we Friends have dogmas? Do we even have creeds? And, whether we have such things or not, should we have them?

In my previous essay, I began with the familiar assertion that “Quakers don’t have creeds”, and proceeded to show that even the most liberal of us do at least have doctrines. (A doctrine is a teaching or a unified body of teachings.)

Now, in this present essay, I want to turn to dogmas and creeds.

Do we have dogmas and creeds? Should we have them? That is the set of questions I am aiming to address.

But the first step (as usual) must be to define our terms. What is a dogma, anyway? And what is a creed?

I wish I could settle these questions simply, by invoking standard definitions. I’ve tried to do so in discussions elsewhere.

But I find that none of the standard definitions of “dogma” really do justice to the term; for the concept is one that has evolved markedly through time, and one cannot really understand it without understanding the forces that have shaped it.

And as for the term “creed”, we cannot truly understand what it is except in relation to dogma.

So in this present essay, I mean to address the questions of what dogmas truly are, and what creeds truly are, by looking at their place in history. And that (I hope) will enable us, in a later essay, to understand their rôle in Quakerism.



The word “dogma” is Greek, and its original meaning in that language is “that which seems good”. Its evolution as a theological term begins in Acts 16:4 — the chapter that tells the story of the Christian movement immediately after the council of apostles and elders in Jerusalem.

Those familiar with Acts will recall that the council had been asked to settle questions concerning right Christian practice, and concerning, too, the admission of non-Jews, Gentiles, to the newborn Church.

Luke writes in Acts 16:4: “As they went through the towns, [the apostles Paul, Silas and Timothy] delivered to [their listeners] the things-which-seemed-good [dogmata] that had been arrived at by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, (for them) to keep.” There we have the first appearance of dogma in recorded church history.

Now, this passage, Acts 16:4, refers us back to the previous chapter of Acts, in which Luke tells us how the council arrived at those things-which-seemed-good. There (Acts 15:28) we are informed that the apostles and elders wrote in a letter: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us, that nothing more should be imposed on you than these (minimally) necessary things….

But there we find that the idea of something seeming good is described using totally different words from the word used in verse 16:4 — edozen gar instead of dogmata.

When an author uses two different sets of words to convey the same idea, the second set of words works to confirm that we have understood the first set correctly. So in the book of Acts, comparing edozen gar with dogmata, we can be quite sure that dogma genuinely meant something that seems good to the Holy Spirit and to the weightiest members of the Church.

Historically, the early Church took from this primordial dogma-story these three lessons:

  • First, that because dogmas are revelations of the Holy Spirit to the very weightiest members of the Church, they are far more serious and binding than mere doctrines — indeed, they must be utterly binding on true believers.

  • Second, that a dogma must be grounded in God’s revelation, either immediately (i.e., direct from the Holy Spirit) or (more commonly) via Scripture.

  • And third, that a dogma cannot be established except by the highest authority of the Church, the equivalent of a council of apostles and elders in Jerusalem — which in the Orthodox and Catholic world swiftly came to mean the high Church Councils.

Alas, with the schism between Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox churches of the East, and later with the outbreak of the Reformation, there have been disagreements about exactly which Church Councils have had sufficient authority to establish (or clarify) dogmas.

The Roman Catholic world recognizes all its numerous Councils down through Vatican II, and also the ex cathedra pronouncements of the Pope on faith and morals. But the Eastern Orthodox and Anglican churches regard only seven Councils as sufficiently authoritative (“genuinely ecumenical”), and do not accept the claims of the Pope.

The Reformed tradition accepts only four early Councils, so that, when it uses the term “dogma” at all, it restricts the application of the term to the formula of the Trinity and the christological formulations of those four. And a handful of Protestant bodies, such as the Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”), the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Unitarians, don’t accept any Councils at all.

Still, so far as I know, all these groups would unite behind Karl Rahner’s description of what the term “dogma” means today: “A proposition which the Church explicitly propounds as revealed by God in such a way that its denial is condemned by the Church as heresy and anathematized.

What a change this is from what the dogmata were in Acts 16:4! For in the situation that the book of Acts describes, there was no threat of being branded a heretic or of being anathematized.

The apostles’ hearers, we are told, were called on “to keep” what was being proclaimed to them — and the Greek word for “to keep” in this passage is psylassein, which means “to guard, watch over, protect, preserve”. So they were not being told to “obey” these things as one obeys a commandment. Rather, they were being entrusted with a hard-won new wisdom, as a guard is entrusted with the care of a treasure (“that which seems good”). And they were being entrusted, too, with the task of converting that wisdom from theory into practice.

To entrust people with a new wisdom and a great task in this way is quite a compliment to the person so entrusted. It says that you see them as intelligent, capable and responsible, and that you see their judgment as worthy of trust and respect.

Thus the meaning of “dogma” in the mainstream Christian world has changed very significantly in the past nineteen centuries and a half — from meaning something empowering, something that “seems good” and that ordinary believers are wise and reliable enough to uphold in the best possible way, to meaning something inhibiting, something that is to be enforced on the untrustworthy by expulsion from the Church if need be.



The intriguing questions are, why did the meaning of “dogma” change in this way? — and, what good purpose was the change supposed to serve? For we may be sure that the Church did not permit such a change to happen, without some reason that seemed good to it at the time.

The first Friends regarded the established Church as something that had fallen away from God into apostasy. (“Apostasy” is the condition of someone who no longer lives according to God’s will.) Seen in that light, it is easy to conclude that the evolution of “dogma” in Church thinking must have been a result of the Church’s apostasy. In other words, dogma evolved as the people involved sought to use dogma for their own ends instead of for God’s.

There’s a measure of truth in this. When the established church convened its great councils to deal with the ideas of thinkers such as Marcion, Arius, Nestorius, Jan Hus and Luther, and to establish the dogmas (in Rahner’s sense of the term) that would either vindicate these thinkers or anathematize them, somehow, the decisions that the councils came to were always decisions that protected and upheld the entrenched power structure. This can hardly be a coincidence when it happens so many times running — especially since most modern opinion, even among the most orthodox, is inclined to regard Luther in particular as having been basically correct.

Absolutely, then: one part of what was going on was that the establishment was reflexively serving its own ends.

But that is by no means the whole of the story — and the rest of what was going on is revealing.

It had to do with meeting the needs of the ordinary members of the Church.

Let’s recall that a unity of common understanding, concerning the basic message of Christianity (the core doctrine and kerygma), did not exist in the early days.

In the years following Jesus’s death, the people who had known him found that they were not all agreed about who he was or what he was doing. Gradually groups of Christians emerged that held to very different understandings of Christ and his message.

In particular, the differences between the religion of the apostles and the authors of the New Testament, and the religion of the movement begun by Simon Magus of Samaria, were serious enough that the two evolved into rivals — the former, into the established Christian church; the latter, into Christian gnosticism.

It would seem that there were four major areas where the gnostic Christians and the orthodox Christians came to disagree:

  • First, there was disagreement concerning the relationship between the God whom Christ called “Father” and the created world.

    — Orthodoxy affirmed that God created everything and that everything He created was good.

    — Gnosticism, on the other hand, saw the created world as the place of evil, the creation of a lesser, secondary god (a “demiurge”, from the Greek word meaning “craftsman”), from which Christ and His Father sought to save us into the place of pure goodness.

  • Second, there was disagreement concerning who or what Christ was as a person.

    — The orthodox community found itself most comfortable with the idea that Christ was wholly a man of flesh and blood while at the same time being wholly God.

    — Gnosticism was not at all comfortable with that understanding, since it regarded the flesh as part of the evil creation wrought by the demiurge, so it separated fleshy Jesus from divine Christ in various ways — in different ways in different schools of gnosticism.

  • A third disagreement concerned the relationship between the Christian religion and Judaism.

    — The orthodox community saw its story as a continuation of the Jewish story, and itself as, in essence, inheriting the mantle of God’s chosen people, living out the next chapter of a story that began all the way back with Abraham. It saw the account contained in the New Testament as the second part of a story that began with the account contained in the Old.

    — The gnostics, however, regarded the god of Judaism as identical with the demiurge, a separate god from the One whom Christ proclaimed. And consequently they interpreted the message of Christ as constituting a clean break from Judaism. The gnostics thus did not accept the Jewish scriptures as holy. Whatever scriptures they accepted — and which ones they accepted depended on which school of gnosticism we are talking about — those scriptures were a free-standing book entirely separate from the Jewish Bible.

  • A fourth, final disagreement concerned the nature of salvation.

    — The orthodox saw salvation as a consequence of affiliation: we affiliate with Christ and his God through our faith and good works, thus becoming adoptive children of God (“affiliate” comes from the Latin ad filius, meaning “a child to”), and so inheriting a share in His kingdom as adoptive children can do. This was of course consistent with the idea that Christians had acquired the position formerly held by the Jews.

    — The gnostics, though, saw salvation as coming through a special knowledge (gnosis). This knowledge came from the pure place of Christ’s God, totally beyond the ordinary knowledge that pertains to the demiurge’s world. The knowledge was imparted by Christ to his followers, who in turn passed it on to the elite of the Christian gnostic movement. Gnostic salvation was thus not a matter of faith and good works, but something much more like guruistic enlightenment.



What reasons did the gnostics have for parting ways with the orthodox on these matters?

Some of it surely had to do with the appeal of elitism — the special pleasure of being able to think, “I am more spiritual than all you others because I have gnosis.” And some of it likely had to do with a feeling among many Christian gnostics that they really didn’t like Jews.

But a great deal of it must have had to do with the Judæo-Christian issue of theodicy (“God-justice”).

The essential concern of theodicy can be posed thus: If God is wholly good and just, as Christianity proclaims, and if He created the world, as the Jewish Bible testifies, then why is there evil in the world? Why must we suffer?

Orthodox Christianity, like Judaism, answered these questions in terms of humanity’s own sinfulness: our ancestors’ sins engendered the situations that now cause us suffering.

Many people in every generation, though, have found this answer unsatisfying. What sins could possibly justify the sufferings of newborn babies who die in agony? Were there no innocent Jewish victims of the Holocaust? And as the friar in Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey wonders, why are the people who die horribly in accidents sometimes better — more kind, less sinful, more godly — than the ones who go on living?

These are good questions. And the gnostic answer was simply to deny that the God of Christianity was the one who had created the world. It was an answer that spoke to the condition of a great many people.

Yet if the gnostic answer was so satisfying, why didn’t all second- and third-century Christians become gnostics? Why was the orthodox Christian movement so strong, so appealing, that it could out-compete the gnostic movement even before it gained political power?

The answer is that the orthodox approach had important strengths that the gnostic movement didn’t share.



First, the orthodox approach offered embeddedness in community.

Gnosticism’s essential stance — the stance of a movement built around a special knowledge that only a few lucky people could attain — was one that makes for very isolated believers. According to Irenæus, the Basilideans, who were one of the largest and most successful gnostic schools, believed that only one in a thousand, or maybe two in ten thousand, are capable of knowing the holy secrets.

Such an attitude toward one’s fellow human beings leaves the believer very much alone in the world, even if he has pride in his uniqueness. With that isolation comes vulnerability and crises of confidence. It also tends to lead to a sense that the enlightened person is not accountable to ordinary folk for what he does. Ancient accounts tell us that many gnostic schools were plagued with scandals of immorality.

Early orthodoxy, on the other hand, said that people are saved not by knowledge but by faithfulness, and in particular by becoming good and faithful members of a saving community. A new convert entered into a community — a local church — to which she had voluntarily committed herself, believing that it could give her the spiritual and tangible benefits that she needed.

From the moment of the convert’s decision to join this community, she was wrapped in its loving care, challenged to rise to its moral expectations, and worked upon by the nurturing discipline of its bishops and presbyters and her own peers. She became less vulnerable, less lonely, and better behaved.

Entry into the early church was described as entry into “newness of life” (Romans 6:4), and members of the early church were addressed without pretense or affectation as “sister” and “brother”. (The apostle Paul referred to members of the Church as “believers” on ten occasions in his letters, and as “saints” on twenty-five, but as “brothers” and/or “sisters” one hundred and sixteen times.) This language speaks eloquently of how intimate and precious the experience of membership in the community became. So too does the fact that believers chose to hold their property in common — not only in the early Church in Jerusalem, as we read in the book of Acts, but for much of the following two centuries, throughout much of the orthodox Christian world, as we learn from later writers.

The writings of the New Testament, and other Christian writings of the following two centuries, emphasize the care that the Church gave to the least of the its members — its poor, its sick, its prisoners, its widows and orphans and other vulnerable folk — and attest, too, to a tremendous amount of intervisitation and sharing of material wealth linking each orthodox community with all the others. It’s difficult to come up with any comparable example to this vast mutual aid network, anywhere else in the ancient world.

And not only was there such a networking of mutual aid, but there was a widespread sense that the communities were answerable to one another, even as each individual Christian was answerable. This sense of mutual accountability — which one can find not only throughout the epistolary material of the New Testament, but also in the letters of Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Barnabas and Polycarp, and elsewhere — kept the community honest and strong in its practice, and so made continuing mutual support a practical reality for centuries.

Moreover, the orthodox Church recorded what it had learned about the difficult art of building good communities, and passed these lessons on from generation to generation. Paul’s letters are suffused with such teachings, and so are the epistle of James, John’s account of the Sermon at the Last Supper, Matthew’s eighteenth chapter, the Didache (the first written discipline of the Church), and many other early Christian texts.

To live within such a tightly-knit, caring community is deeply satisfying. We have that on good authority, not only from the early Christians themselves, but also from outside observers. And we have it, too, from outsiders who have lived within similar communities today — for instance, from those who have lived for a time among the Amish and the Hutterites.



But this was only the first of the two great strengths that the orthodox church had to offer.

Second, there was also the fact that orthodox Christianity offered its believers embeddedness in a meaningful cosmos, a cosmos with meaningful rules grounded in a meaningful cosmic history.

The orthodox history of the world began with Genesis, the very creation of the world, and traced a meaningful salvation history from Adam through Moses to Christ to the apostles and thence to the living community of believers. And then the prophecies of the orthodox looked ahead to a final Judgment in which the wicked would be punished, the virtuous rewarded, and all accounts would be balanced — and beyond the Judgment to an eternity of righteousness.

From Creation to Judgment, the goodness of the created world and the workings of a caring God in history were both continuous, things that every believer could count on with total confidence, and the moral principles of the universe were things that the believer could regard as ultimately enforced by that God. Every believer could rest securely in the knowledge that God had provided her with a place both in that world and in His workings.

Compared to this, what did gnosticism offer? Its salvific history began only in the first century A.D., with Christ, and its image of Christ was of one who was at odds with the demiurge and therefore at odds with the basic fabric of the world and the basic flow of worldly events. In other words, its history was one that was alienating rather than integrating.

Moreover, the founding teachers of the various gnostic schools were gurus who illuminated their followers’ worlds while alive, but, once dead, left their followers to struggle along on their own strength. Such a set-up gave the gnostics little reason for confidence when their teachers were not present — and it’s a historical fact that most gnostic schools tended to disintegrate fairly quickly after their founders’ deaths.

It can be difficult for modern liberals to understand the psychological goodness that a sense of embeddedness in a cosmos with meaningful rules grounded in a meaningful history can bring. But in modern psychology and sociology there is a term — anomie — popularized by the nineteenth-century thinker Émile Durkheim, that describes the condition of those who have lost their sense of such embeddedness.

Durkheim argued that anomie is a (or maybe even the) primary cause of suicide. That contention has since been challenged and largely discredited; but there can be little question that, for many people, the experience of anomie is tied to debilitating feelings of depression, and also to occasional quite destructive attacks on the world that one sees as alien.

And the diametric opposite of such anomie was the embeddedness that early orthodox Christianity offered. If anomie is debilitating, the early orthodox experience was empowering; if anomie is depressing, the orthodox experience was a cause of joy; if anomie leads to attacks on the world, the orthodox experience led to creative reconciliation.

Combining as it did a tight-knit, effective, satisfying community with a totally positive cosmology, the orthodox formula was a tremendously potent thing. In fact, it goes a long way toward explaining why, today, orthodox Christianity is the most widespread religion on the planet, claiming the loyalty of a quarter of the whole human race.

And yet gnostic Christianity still posed a serious challenge to the very survival of this orthodoxy in its early years. It posed such a challenge because it attacked the orthodox position on the key point of theodicy. Nowhere was the orthodox position weaker. And few things were more central to the orthodox faith.



Actually, by challenging orthodox Christianity on the matter of theodicy, gnosticism challenged it at other levels besides:

  • It challenged orthodoxy’s truthfulness about the history of the universe and the nature and story of Jesus.

  • It challenged its understanding of what Christ was seeking to transmit to the world.

  • It challenged its legitimacy as an expression of Christ’s ministry.

  • It challenged its claims both to the loyalty of Christians and to the serious attention of potential converts.

  • It challenged its argument that a Christian is a true Christian only as a moral and obedient member of a Christian community.

So total, indeed, and so effective, was gnosticism’s overall challenge, that orthodox Christianity was forced to take every major point of disagreement with utter seriousness. It spent countless tens of thousands of hours of labor laboring to answer the points of disagreement to its own members’ satisfaction.

The struggle continued at a fair level of intensity for much of the first five centuries of the Christian era. All through this time, the orthodox Christian world was still unclear about many of the details of its own beliefs regarding Christ and his mission, and this very lack of clarity rendered it very open to being reshaped by outside influences. And so, during this era, gnosticism — for all its relative weakness — actually stood in a position to transform orthodox Christianity, by the simple diffusion of gnostic ideas, into something like a dilute copy of itself.

It was in response to this possibility that the orthodox church began elaborating its dogmas. Its dogmas concerned the nature of God, His relationship with the Creation, the nature of Jesus himself, the way that history had unfolded through the Jews into Christianity, the way that history could be expected to wind up in the future, the rôle of the Church as community and as teacher of the faithful — in short, all the matters where gnosticism seemed in a position to overcome the orthodox account.

The new dogmas were intended as bulwarks against the incoming influence of gnostic thinking. By preserving the orthodox cosmology, they would also preserve the potent synthesis of community and cosmology that made orthodoxy such a wonderful thing to be immersed in; and by preserving that combination, they would also preserve the community.



There’s a lot of modern speculation to the effect that the dogmas of orthodox Christianity originally took the form of queries — questions propounded to those who wished to join the orthodox community, to ensure that new members subscribed to orthodox doctrines.

Thus, a candidate for baptism would be asked, “Do you believe in only one God, and do you believe that He made heaven and earth?” The candidate would be expected to answer, Yes! — thus proving that he had been indoctrinated against gnostic belief in a demiurge. A candidate who answered wrongly would not be admitted to the church.

Bishops of Nicæa The bishops of the First Council of Nicæa unfurl their achievement, the Nicene Creed, as something resembling a wall — a bulwark to separate the Church from heresy. Iconic image from Wikipedia.

Eventually, the ideas upheld by these queries were ratified by high Church Councils, and so became dogmas in the formal sense. Like the dogmas referred to in Acts 16:4, these new dogmas were things that seemed good to the leaders of the Church — the bishops and priests — and things that the faithful could be trusted to uphold because they served to preserve what the faithful loved about their beloved community. But they were also, now, teachings about which one had to be dogmatic (narrow-minded!), because departure from them would mean expulsion from the community.

The dogmas of orthodoxy did not evolve only from baptismal queries. They also evolved as the Christian church figured out just what its holy scriptures were.

There was considerable debate about the question of which scriptures deserved to be regarded as holy (“canonical”) all through the second, third, and fourth centuries A.D. Many scriptural texts honored by the gnostics were rejected out of hand as fabrications at odds with history and unlikely to do much good to the reader. At least one quite deserving text, the Gospel of Thomas was also rejected, apparently because it gave too much honor to some gnostic ideas and was too well regarded by the gnostics.

And at least one other text, the Gospel of John, was included, even though it too gave great honor to some gnostic ideas and was much beloved by many gnostics, apparently because it also contained many teachings that the orthodox community found it just could not get along without.

The decisions as to what to include and what not to include in the canonical Bible did a great deal to shape the evolution of orthodox thought. The gnostic ideas in John became an accepted part of orthodox doctrine and colored its dogma, while some fine teachings found in Thomas but not in the orthodox gospels were abandoned. Of course, that is the nature of dogma — it pries the mind open in some ways, while pushing it closed in others, always in the service of the community that has created it!

Eventually, the dogmas of the orthodox were boiled down into creeds.



Creeds take their name from the Latin word credô, meaning “I believe”.

Credô is the first word both of the Roman Catholic Latin version of the Apostles’ Creed and of the Roman Catholic Latin version of the Nicene Creed. Naming these documents “creeds”, then, highlights the fact that they are composed as affirmations of belief in matters of dogma.

The oldest Christian creed is probably the Apostles’. It seems to have evolved directly out of the queries posed to candidates for baptism in the early Christian era — and indeed, there is a Christian text from the middle of the third century that explicitly connects this creed with baptism.

Let me quote the Apostles’ Creed here in the form it takes in the English Book of Common Prayer (1662), since that was the form best known to Friends throughout most of Quaker history. As you, dear readers, will doubtless see, it is a partial recapitulation of the cosmic history taught by the orthodox Church, and most of the clauses in it directly contradict gnostic teaching in one way or another. So it really is a series of bulwarks thrown up against gnostic influence in the Church:


The Apostles’ Creed


I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth,

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried.

He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost,
The holy Catholic Church,
The communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting.


The second great creed of Christendom — the Nicene Creed — is basically just a careful elaboration of the principal ideas of the Apostles’ Creed.

And the third and fourth great creeds — the Athanasian and Chalcedonian — simply aimed to set up barriers against the Arian, Nestorian, Monophysite, and Macedonian positions, comparable to those which the first two creeds had thrown up against gnosticism.

Bulwarks, then. They are all bulwarks.

How do creeds relate to dogmas? Basically, as quick summaries, summaries that express major conclusions without going into the reasonings that lead there.

Creeds are at the same time extracts from the body of church doctrine, just as dogmas themselves are. Creeds are not intended to be the whole of dogma, let alone the whole of doctrine; but as collections of key points they can be readily used as tests to exclude whatever is not seen as desirable in the Church.



A modern reader, looking at the great creeds of Christendom, might well wonder why so much sweat (and sometimes blood) was expended over such very arcane matters.

Why on earth or in heaven should it matter whether Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit or not? Why should those who disagree with the Church on this matter be excluded from the community?

I think there is value in asking such questions, and reëxamining the components of creeds on this basis.

A credal statement that served a very good purpose in one period of history, by preventing an outside influence or internal heresy from tearing the community to pieces, may nevertheless, in a later era, serve no good purpose at all — it may even do more harm than good. It may also be proven just plain mistaken by continued growth in human understanding. And in such circumstances, it deserves to be gently laid down — as, in fact, the Athanasian and Chalcedonian Creeds have been laid down, for all intents and purposes, by most church leaders in our modern age.

But before we reject all dogmas and creeds wholesale, we need to remember the good purposes they have served, and in many ways continue to serve. So let me list those here:

  • A dogma is, indeed, a shared perception of what is good — i.e., what is of God — coming through the weightiest members of the Church; as such, it is a sharing of something that the wise have found of intrinsic value. The wise may be wrong, may be way off base; but we cannot know that without first coming to grips with what they have shared. A dogma thus has the purpose of making us grapple with the vision of the wise.

  • A dogma is something entrusted to the whole body of the faithful, and serves no useful purpose unless the faithful rise to the challenge of that trust, grasping the wisdom contained in the dogma and making that wisdom their own. But if the faithful rise to the challenge successfully, a good dogma then becomes a blessing to everyone it touches even slightly. A dogma thus has the dual purpose of provoking the faithful to rise to the challenge and conveying such a blessing.

  • A dogma is an anchor for the doctrine of the community, serving to check the tendency of doctrine to drift from its original form, and to remind the community of the place it may be drifting from. It thus has a useful conservative purpose.

  • Similarly, a creed serves as an easy exercise to bring that same original doctrine, and that same early wisdom, back to mindfulness. It keeps a cosmological vision alive, and to the extent that the cosmological vision is a good one, the exercise of keeping it alive is likewise good.

  • A creed serves as a gatekeeper in a very good way, excluding beliefs that would divide and harm the community while not hurting the bearers of those beliefs.

  • A creed preserves the church as a community united in faithfulness to a common vision and capable of working closely together to fulfill its mission in the world.



This should be enough of an overview of both the good and the bad sides of creeds and dogmas, to equip us for an intelligent reëxamination of the place of these things among Friends.

So that is what I will aim to discuss in the next essay in this series.

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Reader Comments (25)

Hi Marshall,

It seems like every time I read something you've written I learn something new, or find a new way to think about an old subject!

This essay provides a very wide context for many contemporary debates among Friends. Your point that there are both good and bad sides to dogmas and creeds can possibly rescue us from sterile arguments that assume they're all one or the other.

I hope your discussion of early gnosticism and early orthodoxy gets wide attention among Friends. The gnostics, after centuries of sometimes excessive abuse, have lately received very good press and uncritical acclaim in the mass media and even in Quaker circles. What you have to say may restore some balance.

I look forward to your next essay in the series.

- - Rich Accetta-Evans

Mar 22, 2007 at 01:38PM | Unregistered CommenterRich Accetta-Evans

Early in my Quaker life I had a conversation with a friend (note small F) who insisted endorsing the Nicene Creed was critical to being a "real Christian" -- he was enrolled at the time in a bible college sponsored by the Plymouth Brethren, group about which I know nothing other than Hannah Whitall Smith -- a birthright Friend -- from the 19th century -- sought refuge there.

My response to my Brethren Friend was that I endorse everything in the creed but did not find anything in it that I considered either necessary or sufficient to make a person a Christian.

My response stopped him cold. He carefully had thought through apologetic arguments to defend each point of the creed and failed to anticipate that my objection was to the creed qua creed.

Over the years since then (has it been 20!) my thinking has calcified somewhat. Some folks need the structures just as some plants need trellises. But still, I stand by my original point, I believe in the virgin birth but I do not believe that believing in the virgin birth is necessary or sufficient to make you a Christian. It may however play a role in being a better Christian if you let it inform your understanding of who Christ is for you.

Mar 23, 2007 at 06:51PM | Unregistered Commenterdavid

Question for you Marshall -- not directly related but still in the ball park I think.

I have been reading a book on prayer from the Eastern (Russian actually) Orthodox tradition. It cites Gregory of Sinai:

a man needs great powers of discernment to discriminate rightly between good and evil. So in your heedlessness, do not be carried away too quickly by what you see (i.e., in visions), but be weighty, (my emphasis) not easy to move, and, carefully testing everything, accept the good and reject the evil.

I see the relation to your discussions as to follow this advice presupposes some degree of communal consensus on dogmata in your original sense.

But what strikes me, is the term "weighty". In the Quakerism I'm familiar with, we're a united meeting so I don't know which branch Canadian Friends borrowed it from, "weighty" means a Friend whose practical experience makes the opinion on matters of faith and practice carry more weight.

I'm wondering if you know anything about the term weighty in Friends usage, and whether it ever meant something like what Gregory of Sinai meant of it. I see connections between this teaching and Friend's use of the term "wait" for our manner of worship and the teachings of George Fox, especially as shown in Epistle 10.

Mar 24, 2007 at 07:04AM | Unregistered Commenterdavid

Rich, thank you for your kind words.

david, judging from the little you've said, I don't think you and I have any fundamental disagreement about creeds. I will try to address your question about "weight" when I have time to do the necessary digging-around in old Quaker texts.

Mar 25, 2007 at 06:33AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

You've done good service here, Marshall, along the lines Rich suggests.

It strikes me that much of the talking past each other that goes on in our meetings stems from simple ignorance of the framework and terms of religious discourse, otherwise known as theology. Consequently, religion gets discussed in the language and concepts provided by scientific materialism, psychology and other modern disciplines, resulting in confusion and frustration.

I, too, look forward to your reexamination of the place of dogma and creeds among Friends. (I hope you haven't forgotten confession of faith.)

Mar 25, 2007 at 08:48PM | Unregistered CommenterPaul L

I'll too chime in that you've done us all a service in giving some much-needed context for these words, which are so often misunderstood and decontextualized in Quaker discussions. I'm also glad you're posting separately about the "facts" (here) and the value-laden and controversial topic of what this all means for Friends (upcoming), which I think will aid the reception of this piece.

A few minor points I'd like to make, however.

(1) I'm not so sure you've really discussed both the good *and* the bad sides of dogmas and creeds as you claim at the end. Not a huge problem, as the most important thing right now is simply getting clearer on what these terms mean, and no doubt the pros and cons will be exhaustively discussed next time around.

(2) Whether creeds/dogmas/doctrines are understood to be normative for everyone or simply the particular community is a vital and fundamental issue to this discussion. In other words, the idea that you must believe dogma X to be a part of a given community means one thing if the community believes you must be one of them to be saved (or otherwise on the "good side"), and quite a different thing if not.

I don't see it as a fault that you don't bring this up, as it doesn't seem to have occurred to many people to take the latter position (i.e. it's OK that people aren't of my community) until modern times, which are beyond the scope of this essay. But I hope it will be a part of the next discussion, as it seems particularly relevant to the universalist Quaker ethic(s), and also to the issue of "confessions of faith".

(3) I'm still thinking about whether it impacts on the core issues here -- perhaps not much -- but for the record, in my limited reading on the subject it seems that "Gnosticism" is a dubious category. I've seen one writer describe it as a term invented by 16th century scholars and in search of a coherent and textually-supported definition or referent ever since. You may be aware of the book Rethinking Gnosticism written a few years ago arguing that we stop using the category altogether, in part because it suggests a monolithic or otherwise unified community or body of doctrines (such as you give the classic examples of).

It reminds me a bit of how both Friends (then and now) and the early Puritan heresiographers loved to describe "Ranterism" and its alleged doctrines, when in reality the people so described were very diverse and can only questionably be lumped together as a movement. (The main proponent of this point of view being J.C. Davis, in Fear, Myth and History: The Ranters and the Historians.)

Looking forward to the next article.

Zach A / The Seed Lifting Up

Mar 26, 2007 at 10:54AM | Unregistered CommenterZach A

Thanks, Marshall. That's a very useful summary. I think a key point is that creeds and dogmas tended to be adopted to meet a specific historical circumstance. We can respect their usefulness in that context, without it thereby leading us to adopt historical creeds and dogmas as essential components of contemporary faith communities.

Also these are ways of defining a community's identity. They weren't originally the exclusive ways. We can look at what are the ways we establish and maintain an identity with the understanding that some means are needed, but a particular means may not be.

Both the means and the way they are used are significant. They relate to the distinction my pastor makes using set theory. You can have bounded-set communities or centered-set communities. Creeds and dogmas are frequently used by bounded-set type faith communities, but they are not the only means used to set boundaries (do liberal Quakers sometimes use a different means to set boundaries?). I myself am more drawn to the centered-set approach, and specifically to centering on Jesus Christ while not setting clear boundaries in terms of dogma.

Mar 26, 2007 at 06:52PM | Unregistered CommenterBill Samuel

Ooo! Set theory as metaphor. We have well-ordered sets and unordered sets for example. And then we have liberal Quakerism, which belongs to the Woody Allen set (the set of all sets which do not have themselves as a member).

One of the interesting things about set theory is that a set can have properties not shared by its members -- the set of all blue things isn't itself blue -- for example.

One implication this is that (if we see a meeting/church as analogous to a set) all members of a meeting could be Christian without the meeting itself being Christian. Another is how it can be rightly said that meeting agreed to a course of action without any member in particular approving of it.

Mar 26, 2007 at 08:54PM | Unregistered Commenterdavid

Hello Marshall:

Wonderful thoughtful bit of writing. Where I see things differently is in seeing a competition between success and truth and a false, failed movement. We tend to give a single name to groups of things, of thoughts and bind our understanding of them by that. In fact, Orthodoxy contains much Gnostic contentions, and Gnosticism never fully died, or was reinvented again and again because there are Gnostic thoughts inseparable from the teaching of Jesus, which contradicts the often violent organizational workings of the Catholic Church. So, one finds Gnosticism reemerging in Manicheism until the Cathar genocide, and even, quite strongly in Quakerism, which is why Quakers studying texts like Thomas, or the writings of Cathars, find such common ideals such as pacifism and light within each of us.

I think we are in unity that something real happened. It happened in violent and remarkable times, but not unique times. There are several stories going on at the same time, a story of colonialism and conquest, of political and spiritual resistance. So, for me, an Irish Republican, looking at these time, I see strong ties to our Easter Rebellion, a spirit led action, certain to fail, and carried out by some who believed the failure of their actions would inspire enough spirit for their people to rise above conquest, as the most rational of them said, to his daughter Nora (my friend Brian's mother), just before her father, James Connolly was to be tied to a chair and executed ... he said "We shall rise again." What those words mean, are claimed by many today, times being what they are, one of the only implications avoided, was a physical resurrection. But, Connolly, who was not religious, may have preferred the idea that the rising again, was the 1919 successful uprising, rather than those who speak of the spirit of James Connolly abroad on the land when the rising took place, as many came to use that phrase. Not a hundred years later the fractured movements which rose all have different myth, different politics, different histories, and not surprisingly there is a state version, as fictionalized as all the rest, but supported by the strong arm of the state. Human history is a flow of organic conspiracy, of people thinking alike, rejecting that which does not fit that world view, and petty conspiracies to support the great organic conspiracy, so the books of the Gnostics are burned and the back of Michael Collin's hat is trimmed away to hide the point blank nature of the shot which killed him, all so that the official history becomes unchangeable. In the history of Ireland taught today, the violent overthrow of the British colonial governing of Ireland is denied, mything a process of a benevolent British government seeking moderate Irish leadership to pursue diplomatic solutions to Irish unreasonable violence. Sometimes even the losers get to write history ... eventually... Romans telling the history of a Jewish radical.

Elaine Pagels and Karin L. King wrote a wonderful book on reading the Gospel of Judas. It shows that the confusion over "what happened" may have begun during the very time of Jesus' execution. Certainly the original apostles fell out, into a camp of Philip and Mary Magdalane and Matthew, Peter, and Paul. So, there begins a battle to not only describe what happened by relate it to proofs of the past. So, did Jesus tell Judas to bring the Romans? To prove he did not, those who back one version take proof from Zacharia, he did not, Judas took thirty pieces of Gold. Did the story win out because of its value, or because of the process of institution building? For me, that becomes an important question for several reasons. One, I want to understand the human political inspirations of the writers, the real politic, and two, I feel drawn to try and recover the human lives of these people who have been made into icons and symbols, sometimes at the cost of spiritual lessons they sought to teach.

Thy reflections on suicide, I believe, overlook the real lives of folks who lived in a Gnostic or post Gnostic dualist faith. Orthodoxy grafted the idea of the evil of the flesh into mainstream doctrine, creating the virgin birth and need to mortify the flesh. If one reads the day to day reflections of Cathars from the work of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, in translating early 12 century inquisition transcripts, thee will find that tangential to the idea of an evil flesh is a more Hebraic view of sin as separation. As a result, most of us can think of cases, often folks we know, who have suffered such separation from their bodies because of the ideals of Orthodox Christianity, that it caused them a life time of pain and sometimes suicide. So, for the Cathar, as I imagine with the earlier Gnostic, it was not important that humans have human sexual needs, these needs do not separate one from the purity of light. That these things are base, is not a matter of shame, as it does not turn one away from the light. So, this did not mean that Cathars where generally sexually immoral, there where social rules which protected each other from abandonment and harm, and like every other human society, these rules where both followed and abused. So, in the instance where Pierre Moray is asked to marry a girl, who, a close reading of his testimony leads one to assume, was impregnated improperly by a Cathar Parfait, human weakness finds a way around the rules, and human kindness finds a way that all try to make it right. The difference was, the Cathars would not stone each other for the transgression, and in this case, the girl was not abandoned to go off and kill herself. We must be careful not to judge the lives of others by the context of our own philosophy, especially when examining history. There is always another level.

That schools of thought did not survive their teachers, I think is more a result of the decentralization of Gnosticism, it was not a faith driven forward by a colonialist empire. It answered speech and thought with more speech and thought, not with the sword and rack and heretic's pyre. If one begins with the presumption that the truth grew by reason that it was true, ignoring the scaffold scourge and pillory, it limits the conversation to a great degree.

Thank'ee, Marshall. I am getting over pneumonia, and thy writing gave me a lot to think about other than the wheezing.

Thine in the light

Mar 27, 2007 at 08:29AM | Unregistered CommenterLorcan Otway

Heavens, there's a lot to respond to here. Thank you, friends, for all your comments!

Paul, I agree with your observation regarding the cost of our lack of knowledge "of the framework and terms of religious discourse" -- I see the costs in Friends Journal and on the Web, although it doesn't seem to be a problem locally, here in Omaha.

Zach, I agree that I treated the good & bad points about dogmas and creeds only briefly -- but I'm not trying to be encyclopædic; I was only trying to lay out enough of a framework that I will then be able to talk intelligibly about what it is Friends are up to. The same applies to my treatment of the question of whether doctrines, dogmas and creeds are presumed to apply to nonmembers. There will inevitably be aspects of the general topic that interest you (and others), but that I don't discuss simply because the subject is so vast. You, and others, are most welcome to take up the neglected aspects in your comments.

Also, I do understand Williams's criticisms of the misuse of the label "Gnostic", and Davis's similar criticisms of the misuse of the label "Ranter". They are similar to some of my own criticisms of the misuse of "cult". However, I don't think there's anything wrong with using such labels, provided we are careful about what we say the class members did have in common and about who we apply the labels to. Using analytic classifications to discuss trends in society, that the people involved did not, or do not, apply to themselves, can be a very productive exercise when it is done with sufficient care.

In the present instance, those movements that offered a gnosis through which salvation could be attained, as opposed to the path through which salvation is attained in orthodox Christianity, can in consequence be quite fairly categorized as being of a gnostic type, whether or not they are joined in some larger common effort. If they have other distinguishing commonalities as well -- e.g., belief that Christ's God was not the Jewish God, existence in the same period of history -- this deserves examination, because it may be a clue to something. If they have enough things in common, then we may be justified in speaking of a general social phenomenon we can call "gnosticism".

Present use of the label "gnostic" is, in general, much more careful than usage two decades ago. Historians are much less willing to call Simon Magus and Marcion "gnostics", or to call Catharism a gnostic movement.

Bill, I do share your interest in the way membership in a set (or sect) should be defined. I'm not sure, though, that a centered-set (or fuzzy set, or rough set) approach works for a group that, like Quakerism or early Christianity, is often at odds with the larger social establishment, and in consequence has to be concerned about whose words and actions it will accept responsibility for and whose words and actions it will not.

david, I love your comment about the Woody Allen set! But you do know it was actually Groucho Marx, don't you?

Lorcan, thank you for your thoughtful posting. I don't agree, though, that pacifism and "light within us" are gnostic as distinct from orthodox Christian positions. There was plenty of emphatic pacifism in early orthodox Christianity, and the doctrine of the inward Light is solidly rooted in orthodox scripture.

Also, the idea of the evil of the flesh is strongly Pauline (it comes out at many points in his letters), and thus preceded anything we can call clearly gnostic or clearly "mainstream", so it could not have been "grafted into mainstream doctrine", it was rather one of the points that orthodox doctrine coalesced around.

Arguments from Catharism prove nothing about gnosticism; Catharism was a much later phenomenon, as far removed from gnosticism by time and historical upheaval as our own era is from pre-Columbian America.

Finally, I am fascinated that what I call "community" you call "colonialist empire". I would point out that early Christianity in the centuries of persecution, when it was competing with gnosticism and formulating its anti-gnostic baptismal queries, was far, far too weak to operate as an empire. Those were the times when orthodox Christians were hiding in catacombs and being thrown to the lions; it would be ridiculous to assert that any Christian in those centuries made any use at all of racks or "heretic's pyres" against others. And yet the Christianity of those centuries survived while the gnostic schools went one-by-one to pieces. Clearly the difference was not that Christianity was a "colonialist empire" in that time.

Mar 29, 2007 at 07:16AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Thanks for the correction. I'm pretty sure Woody said it too (but likely stole it from Groucho).

Regarding "inner light" as gnostic or canonical: John's likely a gospel owned by both Orthodox and Gnostics. So the question isn't -- can we substantiate the doctrine canonically -- the question is: what makes the formulation in John safer than in the gnostic literature?

I would think it is the strong teachings around communal fellowship and mystical union with Christ.

Actually I find the so-called Quaker gospel quite difficult to read. I much prefer Luke and Mark. John's constant nagging about "the Jews" is hard to hear except as antisemitism even though cognitively I don't think that was the orginal intent.

If there's a truly Quaker book in the New Testament my vote is James -- if only because Martin Luther rejected it as dry straw. But also because it substantiates much of the Quaker ethos. Peace. Simplicity. Integrity of faith and Action.

Mar 29, 2007 at 11:46AM | Unregistered Commenterdavid mckay

Dear Friend Marshall:

Once again, we seem to be missing each other's point. I did not say that Cathars were the survival of Gnosticism, nor that we Quakers are descended from Cathars. Rather, in every human field of organization there will be a branch based in the interpretive and ambiguous, comfortable with or even based in ambiguity, and one branch based in the concrete and unambiguous, the final and unbending word. So, the teaching of Yeshua, a Pharisee, a radical interpretive thinker in the more ambiguous and interpretive branch of his faith, sowed in the seeds of his ministry ambiguity and, as one sees especially in Thomas, warnings against thinking one understands literally. But, humans being what we are, this interpretive message gave rise to a literalist movement, which eventually gave rise to an imperial institution. It is no happenstance that the Roman Emperor, when looking to empowerment in Christianity, bent towards the part of the Jesus movement that was without ambiguity, and continued the process of removing ambiguities from the message. For Rome, for a religion to inspire armies, Jesus could not live only in spirit, but had to physically rise out of the grave, literally conquer death. So, yes, at first, those who were drawn to the conquering death message, were those standing up to the oppression of Rome, but then they were Rome. Gnostics often taught that Jesus' message was not about sacrifice of the life here on earth, but rather was about life and love, and that God did not intend us to suffer in his name. So, I do think it is a stretch to say that they were the suicidal branch of Christianity, more than those lining up to feed the lions as a sure ticket to heaven.
The point in wondering why one theology and not another won out, is key to looking at questions such as, why, even in liberal democracies, we tend to empower a large number of sociopathic leaders. What is it about the dynamic of leadership which causes large numbers to gravitate towards the simple, direct and often brutal? For me, the winning out of mainstream Christianity is not unrelated to the winning out of Stalinism over Menchevikism, or that after the common folk made it possible for Washing to do the impossible and defeat George, a short time later, Washington would defeat Shays and the common folk ... and though it is true that tyrannies fall of their own weight, we empower them again and again. So, for me, I look to the root of the tremors which bring down tyrannies, it is generally in the margins of power, little people like Jesus or Payne, or Martin King, and how often their story becomes told by the powerful to create new tyrannies. So, I am less likely to be dismissive about the value of the philosophies which are pushed aside by the powerful.

Thine in the light

Mar 30, 2007 at 06:57AM | Unregistered CommenterLorcan Otway

It seems ingenuous to me to associate literalism with power-mongers and sociopaths to dismiss it and then associate metaphor with Payne and MLK.

Surely the question isn't literalism vs ambiguity in the broad strokes, but rather, in any given specific instance the degree of ambiguity or clarity that is most helpful, most appropriate, most congruent with what we can know of the original intent. Interpretation presupposes a community standard of what counts as interpretation. And I don't think saying so makes one a proto-Nazi.

Similarly, the doctrine of a bodily resurrection isn't disproved by arguing it served the interests of Empire. It also coheres with the witness to an empty tomb, affirmed by the four canonical gospels, which likely passed along that witness from even earlier sources which we no longer have access to -- and the witness to the empty tomb is centuries older than any collusion between the Caesars and Christianity.

Mar 30, 2007 at 08:47PM | Unregistered Commenterdavid

BTW. There were other cults with resurrected gods running around in them at the -- if Rome needed one there were several to hand -- Mithras and Osiris come to mind.

Mar 30, 2007 at 08:50PM | Unregistered Commenterdavid

Hello David:

A careful reading will show that I did not call the pre-Roman church proto-nazi, though that is an interesting question. After all, the process of creating the canonical gospels became more and more violent as the cult of the risen body of Jesus, rather than the risen spirit became protected by Rome. The marginalization of Yeshua's tribe by first by Christendom, and now by the other major faith to grow from that process, is an interesting question for Christians seeking the truth beyond the institutions. I always enjoy Harold Bloom's image of Judaism being squeezed between two aggressive faiths, Christianity and the Muslim faith, and surviving remarkably, while vilified by its spiritual children.
I think in today's world, if we are a faith devoted to honesty as well as truth, we should be open to apply the same standards of historical judgment to the history of our faith that we would to any mundane history we study. In supporting the four canonical gospels, I find it handy to look to second sources, and original sources, to look at the changing language in the early Greek translations of the four gospels, and to do the same in looking at the Hebrew Scriptures. One finds, in doing so that the Torah, or the Pentateuch as Christians call it, is for the most part, fictional, while from David on, there are histories which are supported by second, non-Hebrew sources. Bloom makes a wonderful point that much of the additions to the history of Jesus' like, where made to reclaim the activist Yahweh of the Torah, during the fall of the political state of Judea.
This is not unimportant. In looking at our own place in history, as it is one thing to have myth as a way of presenting those aspects of life that are hard to describe, as a rhetorical truth, it is another to present falsehoods as imperial truth, because it suits our politic and our faith. In so doing, we often deny the honest truths of other faiths. I don't see this as a skeptical rationalism, but rather a devotion to rational honesty. For me the stand is, if in a civil court case this evidence were presented, could I find for the presenter over another telling. In doing this, I am not casting dispersions on early Christians. Both sides were both the product of another culture of presentation of information, where rhetorical truth was meant to be taken as expressing deeper truths, and a time when empiricism was not a common language of decision making. I find it odd that we bifurcate our approach to the world to reject empiricism in looking at the elements of faith. For me, that is a denial of God. I don't predicate my belief in the rejection of the world God created. I am sure, in the marrow of my bones that one can believe in God without believing in a God who breaks natural law. his own law, to make a point.
What is the political implications of all this? Well, I look at the Christian right, accepting the gross untruths of our government today, mything as we murder, and I see a pattern, visible in the left as well. Those who create a static and orthodox Marxism did so in establishing the Soviet State. I am not saying there are not righteous right wingers, but rather, we should consider the track record and the process of creating orthodoxy in creating lock step systems ... there has yet to be an empire ruled by those who embrace diversity and ambiguity. For those who would argue that our own nation, embraces diversity, well, I would advise spending a number of years traveling the world. We actually are not great at the acceptance of diversity, and the closer one gets to power, the more orthodoxy, political and social one finds.

Thine dearly in the light

PS Of the at least four risen man god cults, the Romans prior to the Roman Catholic church DID embrace at least two of the four, of the top of my head, Mithras, Dionasis, and were allies of those who accepted Horus, or is it Isis...?

Mar 31, 2007 at 11:22AM | Unregistered CommenterLorcan Otway

PS Oh, as to sociopathic leadership, even the best of American leadership, well, let's look at the track record, Johnson, great president, really powerfully poorly adjusted, Nixon - what can one say, would you trust your daughters with Clinton or Kennedy? Both Bush presidents, Reagan - could not tell the truth if it was written in front of him, and one of the few sane men who held the office, Ford, was never elected! So then we look at nations with a strong political orthodoxy, and we have Thatcher, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Andropov, Yeltsin, and the list goes on, as opposed to nations with a liberal tradition where we have the likes of Olaf Palme, who I don't believe could have been elected in the US. Maybe I have read too much Hannah Arendt, but I am deeply concerned that original sin may look much more like conformity than sexual knowledge.

Mar 31, 2007 at 11:59AM | Unregistered CommenterLorcan Otway

Friend david — you wrote on March 29, "John's likely a gospel owned by both Orthodox and Gnostics." The historical record does show that it was owned by the Valentinians, one of the very largest Christian-gnostic sects!

You then wrote, "So the question isn't — can we substantiate the doctrine canonically -- the question is: what makes the formulation in John safer than in the gnostic literature?" And my personal answer would be that there are prominent statements in John that uphold orthodox doctrines contrary to gnosticism — most notably, "The light that enlightens every person" (John 1:9); but also such statements as "you are my friends if you do whatsoever I command you" (John 15:14). Such teachings work to undermine the standard gnostic position that salvation comes through a saving knowledge imparted only to a few.

I think your point that John upholds community is also important. Thank you for making it, because it would not have occurred to me on my own —

I believe it was Howard Brinton who called John "the Quaker gospel". But that was Brinton's private opinion, and it does not seem substantiated by any particular emphasis on John in the writings of early Friends. Brinton's understanding of Quakerism, like Rufus Jones's before him (and William James's too), made Quakerism look like a Protestant variant of Catholic mysticism, rather than like the very Puritan, prophetic rather than mystic, activist rather than contemplative thing that it actually began as. I rather suspect Brinton singled out John because John, too, emphasizes what the contemplatives emphasized, and (comparatively speaking) de-emphasizes the prophetic and activist sides of Christ's summons and example.

But backing up now to the beginning of your comment, I see that you wrote, "regarding 'inner light' as gnostic or canonical", and it seems to me that this way of posing the question already introduces a false conception of what the issue is. In the New Testament literature, the imagery of Light is very much secondary to the imagery of Wind or Breath — pneuma in the Greek, "Spirit" in the standard translation. And the two are linked: as Proverbs 20:27 says, "The heave of a person's breath is the lamp of YHWH, searching all the hidden places in his gut."

It is the letter to the Hebrews, not the letter of James or the book of John, that most clearly recalls our attention to this same linkage between Breath (Spirit) and Light in the New Testament: if we do a very-thorough-spelling-out-of-the-linguistic-nuances translation of Hebrews 4:12, we may read: " For God's informing Presence (Logos) is living and breathing (us) and is at work in (us). Sharper than any double-edged knife, it penetrates to the parting of the ways between (our) selfish breathing (psykhê) and God-connected breathing (pneuma), as that (parting) is expressed in the bending-places [that stiffen with emotion in our bodies], and (even) in the innermost places (there) — and (so it) is able to interpret the excitements and the cool intentions of the heart." This is a clear expansion of the idea in Proverbs 20:27.

Paul's letter to the Ephesians, verses 6:17-18a, makes use of the same idea. And in the apostolic literature, Clement of Rome takes up the same line of thinking in his first epistle to the Corinthians, xxi.9: "For He is a searcher of excited thoughts and cool intentions. It is His breathing that is in us...."

And of course, Paul's letter to the Romans, 8:26-27, is also relevant.

The early Friends gave much attention to Spirit language as well as to Light language, and at least one of the most prominent and influential, Isaac Penington, explicitly picked up on the linkage between Spirit, breathing, and the Light. (See in particular Penington, The Ancient Principle of Truth or the Light Within Asserted... [1672]. There are other places in Penington's writings that also contain relevant passages.)

Other early Friends may have consciously grasped the linkage between Breath and Light, too: Fox makes remarks in several places which strike me as suggestive, and there are notable passages also in the writings of Katharine Evans, Charles Marshall, Job Scott, and others.

The linkage of Light to Breath quite plainly universalizes what is being talked about: everyone breathes, and therefore everyone has access to the lamp of YHWH within -- as well as to YHWH himself, whose Hand holds the lamp. This is a linkage utterly contrary to the elitism of the gnostics. And it is a linkage explicit in Hebrews and Ephesians as well as in Proverbs, and implicit in other passages throughout both Testaments.

Apr 1, 2007 at 09:59AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Your translation -- the breath of man is the lamp of God runs counter to the 2-3 translations I have to hand -- they all translate it as spirit -- yes -- I'm well aware they're the same word. But the implications of your translation are immense -- and would seem to counter the number of exegetical translators out there.

Apr 2, 2007 at 06:31AM | Unregistered Commenterdavid

Friend Lorcan, three points:

First, you wrote on March 30, "I did not say that Cathars were the survival of Gnosticism...." But on March 27 you wrote "...one finds Gnosticism reemerging in Manicheism until the Cathar genocide...." It sounds to me like you're contradicting yourself there.

Second, I don't see that the orthodox Christian Church was any more "without ambiguity" in Constantine's time than gnostic Christianity was at that same time. Even by the mid-second century A.D., when Thomas seems to have taken its final form, Christian gnosticism had already evolved a long way beyond the cryptic sayings of Thomas; it had elaborate cosmologies and theories of salvation that were as exact, specific, and purged of ambiguity as orthodoxy's. Look at the doctrines of the Basilideans (discussed here and here) and those of the Valentinians (discussed here and here). Both these doctrinal systems were composed around the same time as Thomas, and they were among the very few gnostic systems that had any sort of substantial following in the days of Constantine.

Finally, you write that "there has yet to be an empire ruled by those who embrace diversity and ambiguity." I might point out that the empires of ancient Persia, Alexander the Great and his successors, Genghis Khan, and Ashoka all embraced diversity deliberately, both as a conscious humanistic virtue and as a pragmatic policy for the governance of polyglot populations. (See in particular Ashoka's Rock Edict XII.) Ancient Rome did some of that, too. You yourself note that the Romans tolerated several different cults of risen man-gods, and I would ask you to recall that those were by no means the only cults they tolerated.

As for ambiguity, most imperial rulers have found it very useful. There are famous examples of this — like Queen Elizabeth I's ambiguous dictum about the Host, which she uttered in order to preserve the peace between the Catholics and the Calvinists in her nation. Orwell's 1984 contains a fairly profound examination of the ways in which a totalitarian state is bound to find ambiguity not merely useful but essential.

Apr 3, 2007 at 08:16PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Hi Marshall:

Again, I did not mean the reemergence as ideas passed down, but reemergence in the aspect that there are archetypes in human thought which represent the basic difference in thinking between people ... and some of those archetypes are contained in the teaching of Yeshua.

As to ambiguity, the idea of resurrection of spirit, is by itself, ambiguous, rather than the literalism of a reanimated body. Now, just as Stalinism emerged from Marxism, a system of analysis based in seeking to go beyond the concrete to the ambiguous, if any of the Gnostic traditions had been adopted by Rome, I am sure that, just as it did with the surviving orthodoxy, book burning and torture would have followed as well.

The point is, that until Rome chose an orthodoxy from the vibrant conversation going on between Gnostics and the final Orthodoxy, the tools of discernment where talk and more talk, Rome brought the sword and heretic fire into the conversation. So, I again say, it was not the value of the message, but the violence by which that message was decided upon which sought to end ambiguity.

Thy reflections on past powerful leadership is a wonderful point to consider. In fact, the strongest leaders are those who can choose their orthodoxies. Elizabeth, united England, to a great degree, at a time when the battle between her father's church and Catholicism had become, not only bloody, but threatened England's power on the world stage. So, she played the nationalist card, in much the same way Stalin did, to turn the tide during the Great Patriotic War, or WW2 as we say. This did not mean that the Church of England did not limit Catholic freedoms during her reign, as was seen in the caution of Catholics such as William Shakespeare, who had to maintain a public Protestant persona. The idea that a leader can incorporate some of the beliefs of conquered people, while substituting an unquestioned orthodoxy -- such as nationalism, is the way many tyrants became powerful. If one looks at Napoleon, while acting against regional French cultural differences, he allowed many unique rights to the Bretons in order to bring them under the orthodoxy of nationalism, including allowing them an exemption from French military service, a remarkable concession and a brilliant power move, which did not make him any less a despoiler of many individual rights in creating the French empire. Little in the world is all one thing or the other.

Thine in the light

Apr 4, 2007 at 08:10AM | Unregistered CommenterLorcan Otway

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