The Flatlanders’ Creed
David Mills on Putting God in His Box
“I believe in God the Almighty Lord Creator, / I believe in Jesus the Savior of the people, / And I do believe in the power of the Spirit” runs (leaving out all the repetition) a creed now popular in some Anglican circles, indeed in some places used instead of the Nicene Creed in the Communion liturgy. Taken from South Africa, whose Anglican Church is the most westernized in Africa, it is sung to a very bouncy tune, which probably explains some of its appeal.
The tune, Louis Tarsitano wrote me, is “a critical detail here. The childish mind that hates the discipline of dogma is usually, at the same time, addicted to entertainment. Dogma is ‘boring,’ but finger painting your own ‘creed’ is ‘fun’.” The people I know who like this sort of thing intend to believe the full Nicene doctrine, if the choice is put that clearly, but simply do not know it well enough or love it deeply enough to say it when an entertaining alternative is on offer.
At any rate, the South African creed is certainly sung to a very singable tune and does get the singers to declare their belief in God. It suffers only in being heretical. For though it has a trinitarian form, it does not say anything about the nature of the Trinity itself and the relations of the three Persons. God is Father before he is Creator, and Jesus is Son before he is Savior, and the Holy Spirit is he who proceeds from the Father before he is the giver of power to men.
This creed is modalist, because it does not name the Persons but treats them as mere actors or functionaries. Modalism is the idea, the appealingly simple idea, that there is only one God in one person who acts and is experienced by us in three different ways. The Church (thinks the modalist) once named these three modes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, those being the metaphors at hand for the types of experiences it wanted to describe, and it could rename them now if it wanted to or thought better and more relevant metaphors had been found.
As a test, think of into what acclamation or blessing this creed could be turned. It could be turned into the modalist acclamation “I believe in God: Creator, Savior, and Empowerer,” but it could not be turned into the orthodox acclamation of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. It has not within it even the minimum facts needed for even the simplest Trinitarian statement.
I suppose one could argue that it is not actually heretical—the question is whether the absence of necessary truths alone makes a statement heretical—but if it isn’t heretical it is still terribly thin. It really doesn’t say much at all, perhaps because it speaks only of what the Trinity does for us, which does greatly narrow what we can see of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. At any rate the faith it offers is not, beyond the use of the name Jesus for the second item in the list, a particularly Christian one.
Some Don’t Like Doctrines
Its possible heresy aside, one does wonder why anyone would choose this creed over the Nicene or Apostles’ Creeds. Either of these, with their fuller articulation of the good news, would be the obvious choice of any normal Christian, who would want to say as much as he could about God. The thinness of the South African creed alone would be against it. It is as if a man, asked to speak for thirty minutes in praise of a great and good man whom he loved, chose instead to spend three minutes reading a few of the main points of the man’s resume.
One answer, I think, is simply that a lot of people don’t like doctrines. Liberals notoriously don’t like them, either in form or content, but a lot of very conservative people don’t like them either. And both groups dislike them because (among several reasons) they think we shouldn’t be speaking about such things.
Some, conservative as well as liberal, are happy to be Christians as long as Christianity doesn’t make any definite claim to be true and, more to the point, as long as it doesn’t present them with a long and elaborate list of claims, requiring the submission of their intellect and a disciplining of their moral life. Doctrine is too definite, too restrictive, too final.
The Sermon on the Mount is all right, because it can be reduced, by selective quotation, to neighborliness and good feeling. The Nicene Creed is not, because it can’t. “Blessed are the meek” can be adapted as needed, perhaps as praise of simplicity or “eco-awareness” or men turning into feminists; “begotten, not made” has to mean something specific. It can’t easily be turned into a metaphor for something pleasing and anodyne.
If it means something specific, it might mean something specifically irritating. If Jesus is everything the Nicene Creed says he is, as the serial killer the Misfit says in Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him.” The human mind knows, instinctively, whatever modern philosophers may say, that with every statement of “is” comes a statement of “ought.”
This sort of willful agnosticism is usually defined as liberal, but today one finds just as many conservatives as liberals avoiding any developed statement of doctrine. I suspect that as the middle class, even the church-going middle class, has become more secular, the risk that a statement of doctrine will lead to a moral imperative they’d rather avoid has grown greatly. If the studies are right, Affluent evangelical women have as many abortions as other women, because the belief in the necessity of self-fulfillment is as great among Evangelicals as among their secular suburban neighbors.
Defining a Person
If people often dislike the Creed because it leads to morality, they often dislike it also because they think it presumptuous. Their agnosticism grows from a sort of humility. They suspect that in composing creeds we are doing more than we are allowed to do. They worry that doctrinal statements confine God within the limits of human knowledge, thereby (however accidentally) making him what we want him to be and putting him under our control.
Even some very conservative Christians, who don’t object to anything the Creed says, believe that Christians don’t need any text other than the Bible or any creed more complex than “God is love” or “Jesus is Lord” or John 3:16. They don’t mind restriction and finality, but they sense, rightly, that man can put God out of his life with a cleverly constructed set of words, and think it better to avoid the temptation.
That the Church has seen this danger is one reason the Nicene Creed is, even though a summary of the Faith, so complex and elaborate. Christian doctrine must be so complex because we have to speak of very complex realities that are for the most part beyond the power of words to convey. It is often the simple creeds that confine God by leaving so much undefined and to the choice of the individual, who will tend to fill in the blanks in his own interest. Complexity of statement is often needed to prevent too much from being defined or assumed. One says more to make sure someone else doesn’t say too much.
And the Creed is complex and elaborate for the more obvious reason that the Church has a lot to say. In speaking of our Lord we have to define as precisely as we can a person, and a person is complex, especially if he is God and man at the same time. Jesus is not simply “the Savior of the people” but the Son of the Father, Light of Light, and so on, and indeed he is only Savior because he is first several other things that must be articulated for the word “Savior” to have any useful meaning.
Defining a person is (as I once wrote in explaining liturgical language) like trying to draw a circle with straight lines. You cannot do it at all well, but you do better if you use more lines. With three lines you have only a triangle. With four you have only a square. But with five lines you have something recognizably circular. A circle it is not, it is nowhere near circular, but it is like a circle, it is circular enough for people who need to picture a circle.
Each phrase in the Creed is another line helping us define, as best we can, he who cannot be defined. We need such elaboration and precision because we are trying to define the God we cannot possibly describe in words and need to say no more than we are allowed but also, lest others fail to see him, no less than we are allowed.
Every detail matters, when you must find someone, which is why the police go to such trouble to get pictures of the suspects they are trying to catch. Two men may be the same height and weight, which distinguishes them from many men, and both have scars in the same places, which distinguishes them from most men, but have different colored eyes, which distinguishes them from each other, and makes it possible to find the one you are looking for. No one has ever complained that a wanted poster was too complex or elaborate or gave too much detail.
God also is a wanted character, hence “God from God, Light from Light, very God from very God,” and all the other complexities and elaborations. There are enough gods pretending to be God that we need to give anyone looking for him as complete a picture as we can.
Here someone will protest that it is presumption to try to define God at all. The Church has done too much in trying to make its God unmistakable. Defining a creed is “putting God in a box.” And this critic will be almost right. Almost, but not quite, and wrong in a dangerous way. We cannot say anything adequate to the subject, true, but we can say something adequate to our needs.
In approaching the things of God, we are, as C. S. Lewis described us in “The Poison of Subjectivism,” “Flatlanders,” two-dimensional creatures trying to understand three-dimensional objects. “Flatlanders attempting to imagine a cube,” he wrote, “would either imagine the six squares coinciding, and thus destroy their distinctness, or else imagine them set out side by side, and thus destroy the unity. Our difficulties about the Trinity are of much the same kind.”
Exactly, my critic says. We fallen humans can’t compose a creed. Better give it up. But we Flatlanders are not left to our own devices. We know that certain things happened in human history and that Someone outside our history has told us what those things mean. These give us the data we need to speak of God in a creed.
Suppose one day part of a copy of Touchstone passes through the Flatlander’s world. The Flatlander can describe the parts of the front and back covers he saw and make a few good guesses as to what the rest looked like. He could complete some of the sentences and guess what else was in the pictures.
Suppose also that a reader of Touchstone, speaking to him from beyond his world, tells him about parts that he had not seen and could not imagine. He would know what was on the parts of the covers he did not see. He would learn that there is such a thing as inside pages (though what these were he could not, as a Flatlander, really tell) and know what appeared on some of them. He would hear the names of Hutchens and Reardon and Hitchcock and know that, whoever they were, in that world they counted for something.
After this, the Flatlander will be just as ignorant of cubes as he was before, and as incapable of imagining life in three dimensions, but he will have seen a three-dimensional object and been told something of what life is like in three dimensions. He now can say something about a three-dimensional object even if he cannot say, except with metaphors he knows are inadequate, what three dimensions really are.
In what he has seen of Touchstone and in what the reader has told him about the pages he could not see, the Flatlander has enough facts to make some accurate statements about the content and nature of Touchstone. He will not know very much about the magazine, but everything he says about it will be true.
An Act of Humility
This is all the Church has done, in putting in a creed what she knows about God from history and revelation. It is not a matter of speculating about things beyond our understanding, but of seeing what parts of such things have passed within our view and hearing what we have been told about them.
The Christian is not being presumptuous in speaking definitively about God, no more than he is presuming when he decides that his three-year-old has taken a cookie from the cookie jar because the jar is open, the child’s cheeks are covered with crumbs and smears of chocolate, and his older brother told on him. It is a matter of submitting to the evidence before him.
I don’t think, at the end of the day, that humility will be much of an excuse for ignoring the Creed or replacing it with simpler creeds, because the people who do so are being humble about things about which they have no right to be humble. As G. K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, “What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.”
The man, conservative or liberal, who declares that he is protecting God from being put into a box is doing God no favor. He is refusing to see what he has been shown and to hear what he has been told. At the cost of his Son’s life, the Father has given him a box, and even gift-wrapped it, and the man who takes such pride in his doctrinal humility has refused the gift.
Lewis described this sin in the comic but sad picture of the apostate bishop in The Great Divorce. The bishop thinks himself brave and bold for rejecting the Faith “when it ceased to commend itself,” though his apostasy brought him only wealth and power. Now, offered a last chance of heaven by a friend sent to bring him there, he insists that “For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? ‘Prove all things’ . . . to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.”
A little later, promised that his thirst shall be quenched, he replies, “I am not aware of a thirst for some ready-made truth which puts an end to intellectual activity in the way you seem to be describing. Will it leave me the free play of Mind, Dick? I must insist on that, you know.” To this his friend says, “Free, as a man is free to drink while he is drinking. He is not free still to be dry.” “I can make nothing of that idea,” the bishop says, and soon returns, “with a bright clerical smile,” to hell.
Taking the Gift
As the Misfit understood, taking the gift, the God in the box, requires submitting not only the mind but the will. If a man will not submit his will, he will rarely submit his mind. He is not making a scholarly judgment about the origin of alligators or Napoleon’s strategy at Waterloo or the effect of Cezanne on modern art, decisions that don’t matter much in the end. He is saying that the world is like this, and therefore I must be like that. He is saying that God has done this, and therefore I must do that.
In submitting to the Creed, by saying out loud that God is “the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth” and not “the great spirit that permeates the cosmos,” he is placing himself under an obligation to say to the Father “Thy will be done.” By saying out loud that Jesus is “God of God” and not “a man whose life is worth imitating,” he is placing himself under an obligation to turn the other cheek, to walk the second mile, to take up his cross and die.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“The Flatlanders’ Creed” first appeared in the March 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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