Quakers and Creeds

If Creeds are the answer, what is the question? 

I’m a member of the Quaker Renewal Group, an online discussion forum which explores ‘spiritual renewal of the Quaker movement in Britain’. The other day a rather stern discussion erupted between two Friends, centred around my recent blog post about Derek Guiton’s new book exploring Quaker Theism. This set me thinking about Quaker attitudes to Creedal statements. To avoid misquoting the Friend in question, I shall refer back to his original post:

[If] we have no statement of faith what’s to prevent someone believing anything they like and calling themselves Quaker? With no statement of faith how do we define what we are other then saying anyone free to believe anything they like no matter what it is?….[No] statement of faith ends only one way…chaos like we are [in] now.

Suffice to say I’ve heard this kind of thing from disquieted Friends before. Whispers of Quakers being ‘vulnerable’ without a Creed is something I have certainly encountered on a number of occasions. These jitters are normally prefaced with an anecdote about a well-meaning Friend who tells an inquirer, ‘you can believe whatever you want in Friends’. So is this a big problem? And is some kind of Quaker creed the answer to tackling it? Derek Guition for his part suggests that creedal formulation is at least not antithetical to Quaker theology. One can cite Fox’s highly creedal statements in his letter to the rulers of Barbados (1671). Moreover, there are many embryonic and half-formed creedal statements at the heart of our apparently non-creedal Quaker Faith and Practice. As Guiton suggests, ‘The writings of early Friends like Edward Burroughs and Francis Howgill are full of creedal statements. Barclay’s Apology is one long creedal statement’ (A Man Looks on Glass, p. 83). Guiton is right as far as it goes, but it is important to recognize the difference between how Friends understood the process and reasons for creed-making as juxtaposed with reasons offered by other churches. We need to make a sufficient distinction between the function of formal creedal statements post-Nicaea and how Quakers (as Penn’s ‘primitive Christians revived’) understood their function. Making  such a separation matters, because it allows Friends to understand more clearly why our Quaker Way is the shape it is, and deter us from importing ideas wholesale from elsewhere. As Quakers experiencing a period of internal soul-searching, we need to seriously ask, if Creeds are the answer, exactly what is the question?

What’s Right with Creeds?

A useful tool for discerning a distinctively Quaker approach to creedal formulas can be found in Frances Young’s brilliant study, The Making of the Creeds. In it, Young attempts to inoculate us against the idea that the early Church (35-300 CE) used creedal statements as a ‘test of belief’ or a summary of doctrine. Rather they expressed ‘summaries of faith taught to new Christians by their local bishop, summaries that were traditional to each local church and in which detail varied from place to place (Young, Making of the Creed, p. 3.). So what were they for? The key thing, says Young, is not to look at these texts in terms of ‘doctrine’. What mattered to these early Church communities, was the ability to tell and transmit their story faithfully rather than argue for a given theology. Was it then about forcing every community to tell the same story? Startlingly no. As Young shows, there were significant divergences between early creedal formulations, regarding narrative emphasis. Early Christian creed-making was never an exercise in ironing out every particular into a single and definitive statement, because, says Young, ‘as we know there are many ways of telling the same story’ (Young p. 4).

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In this sense, these early texts can be understood as one byproduct of a community that knew its own story, a fellowship that knew its narrative’s meaning and shared in its outward implications. The key thing was not the precise words used in the formulation but the story a given Creed summarized. If the early Church had not produced these summaries (and first generation Quakers wished it had not, given hindsight) the Church would still have been the Church, because its narrative would have remained. This claim has two interesting implications which touch directly on the words of the disquieted Friend quoted above. Firstly, the community that is  most able to summarize their story is the community least in need of a Creed (in the sense of policing orthodoxy). They are only able to produce the creedal summary because they are sufficiently skillful readers and interpreters of their story. And if you think about it, the reverse is also true. The community seemingly most in need of a Creed (a community ruptured by internal disagreements) is the community least able to produce a convincing summary. Anything that is produced in this divided spirit is not a product of the whole community in prayer, but rather a partisan attempt to paper over the cracks.

The core thing then is not the production of a tidy formula (a religious community could be ordered or disordered while possessing such a text).  Look at the present internal struggles over gender and sexuality inside the Anglican Communion. It is clear that the 39 Articles have not prevented enormous schisms. It is unlikely that a Quaker creed would make any difference to our present wrangles about our identity either. The vital issue is whether the community knows its own narrative well enough so a sense of unity can be arrived at. In this light, Fox’s theological declarations in the Barbados letter express chiefly his inculturation into a particular narrative, his ability to know how the story runs, and what the story demands that he do. Fox doesn’t need a checklist. Christ ‘has come to teach the people Himself’ after all. How then should we look at texts like Fox’s “Something in answer to all such as falsely say the Quakers are no Christians” (1682)?:

We believe concerning God the Father, Son, and Spirit, according to the testimony of the holy scripture, which we receive and embrace as the most authentic and perfect Declaration of Christian Faith, being indicted by the Holy Spirit of God that never errs. 1st, That there is one God and Father, of whom are all things. 2ndly, That there is one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom all things were made…

What is interesting is that the formula here presented, sits in vivid continuity with a whole series of early Christian creeds; the Apostolic, the Athanasian and the Nicene. Although there is less stress on issues of essences, preexistence and creation (particular obsessions of the Nicene framers) there is a nascent debt both to early Trinitarian and Christological speculation, along the lines of someone like Origen. What does this mean for the way Quakerism understands creedal formulas? If Fox’s words echo earlier Nicean and Alexandrian ideas, they only do so because Fox says he has tested these in the Spirit and found Truth in them. They do not possess ‘truth’ just because a Church council authorizes them. The fact that Fox’s creedal statements frequently echo Nicean categories (‘the only begotten [‘monogene] for instance) does suggest that despite Imperial politicking, the Spirit was still working with Athanasius and the other framers. This raises a whole series of rather fascinating questions about the degree to which Quakerism relates to Post-Constantinian Christianity, although perhaps we should leave this topic for another day.

What’s Wrong with Creeds?  

So in a nut-shell, we might say that the Quaker view of Creeds is very much in line with Young’s depiction of the view taken by many early Christian communities. They were useful productions for articulating a faith already held and widely understood by the community. Given this attitude, why did creeds become somewhat taboo among many British and American Friends? The answer involves understanding the Quaker view of Church history. We Quakers begin with our own vision of an Elysian golden age, when the Church lived in accordance with the Spirit of Christ. In this Apostolic epoch, creedal statements did not spring from compromised Church councils, but from the work of Christ in the heart of believers. So when Peter stands before the Jerusalem crowd and declares his faith, he was definitely pronouncing a creed:

Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him (Acts 2:22-5).

Yet, for early Friends, this Lukan scene presented no difficulties since it was an expression of the Spirit at work. Notice its structure is not Trinitarian, Athanasian or Arian, but rather is a record of God’s work among the people. It was the result of an overwhelming desire to proclaim the shape of the Christ-centred life. It was definitely not a policing measure. But as the decades and centuries trundled on, the Church (especially after Nicaea) saw creedal statements as things to be assented to, not as things to be practiced, loved and lived. This disconnection between words and practice was made all the more problematic by the series of entanglements (from the 3rd century onward) between civil and ecclesial authorities in the conduct of Church affairs. This heightened sense of a Church compromised had a name for early Friends, the Great Apostasy; the moment when the Church stopped believing on mass in God’s capacity to change the world, and instead, saw itself as the agent of change. It did not believe that God alone would protect the story of Christ (that ‘the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you’). Rather, it saw civil power, the sword, and Caesar as its chief guardian. Arguments concerning universal creedal statements was a symptom of this transferred guardianship. The Church stopped telling its own story (the Petrine story about ‘Jesus of Nazareth’) and began telling Caesar’s story (a convenient tale  of the progress of an Empire under the banner of Christ). According to this account, creeds do not necessarily go wrong at the point of proclamation, but they can and do go wrong in the course of reception.

Living Without Formal Creeds

Given these qualifications and our contemporary tensions over identity, how do Friends move forward? It seems to me that in order for us to un-knot these issues, we have to take Young’s emphasis seriously; we cannot be creed-makers before we are story-preservers and story-tellers. We cannot hope to resolve differences unless and until we dig down into our own Quaker story; unless we come to terms with its power and implications. At least part of our sense of spiritual malaise is a reticence to engage with the depth of the Quaker tale. Partly that reticence is about a lack of teaching ministry among Friends. We haven’t given each other the tools to become skillful readers of our own narrative. We have assumed that people can just ‘pick this stuff up’ through a mysterious process of osmosis. This has led to a fragmentation of understanding about the meaning and implications of Quaker grammar. Perhaps more subtly there has also been a a process of self-policing in Quaker meetings, produced by a well-meaning yet confused liberalism, which fears to say too much, in order to avoid offence. This is ultimately a high road to nowhere, leaving us very little to say to the enquirer. We might fall back on that old favorite, the list of Quaker negatives ( no priests, no outward sacraments, no creeds) but it’s hard to stimulate a conversation about who we are when we start with a series of absences. Why don’t we start from what we do have, not from what we lack? Why don’t we start the conversation with a respect for the contours of our history? Imagine how the conversation would be transformed if we started by saying: ‘During the 1640s, the first Friends felt themselves guided by the same Spirit that worked in Jesus of Nazareth. We have spent the last 350 years trying to work out what this means for us, our society and our world. We don’t have the answer yet, but we’d love you to come with us on the journey.’ Wouldn’t that liberate our Quakerism rather than shackle it?


6 thoughts on “Quakers and Creeds

  1. Thanks Ben for this very illuminating piece. I remember Hauerwas writing somewhere in a similar vein that the creeds call out for unpacking as narrative. It seems quite true to me that our common stories and images are much more fundamental than the creedal or doctrinal forms in which they are summarised (or sometimes distorted).
    I’m very much enjoying these posts, please keep it up!
    In Friendship,

  2. Thinking further about this, I have been wondering what actually is the ‘story’? I am not convinced that it is primarily a historical story, ie one that starts ‘During the 1640s…’
    Instead, I wonder if it is first of all each speaker’s own story of personal experience, ie ‘I have found a source of inward guidance and power, that has led me into community with other Quakers who recognise the same inward guide at work in their lives, and in our common life together…’ etc
    The difficult issue with this story of course, is whether we can say it truthfully. If we could, I suspect, we would not be in our current feeble condition. So, this returns to the importance of our Quaker practices (for worship, discernment and testimony) for enabling the authenticity of our shared experience and hence the possibility of a shared story.

    1. I feel you have the nub of it there Craig. If most of us could say truthfully that we had found that source, and recognize it one another, then we wouldn’t be in our current position. I doubt if we can bear good fruit unless there is a critical mass of members who have experienced this source AND are willing to respond to it. So that could form a creed, of experience and intention as well as belief.

  3. Pingback: Creeds and stories

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