It is an interesting fact that Christianity’s three most famous creedal statements, the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed, contain no moral doctrines. They contain metaphysical doctrines, e.g. the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement; and what I suppose may be called historical-miraculous doctrines, e.g., the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, the Ascension. But no moral doctrines: nothing about the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the two great commandments – love God, love your neighbor.
Is this because early Christianity was not concerned with morality? Far from it. The four Gospels and the other parts of the New Testament, if we may take these as indicators of early Christianity, are replete with concerns about morality.
But the morality of early Christianity was pretty much noncontroversial, whereas the doctrinal parts of Christianity were highly controversial. The creeds were created to draw bright lines between orthodox and non-orthodox beliefs. The Church was saying, “This is what we believe, and that is what we don’t believe. There’s the line between the two. If you’re on this side of the line, you are inside the Church. If you’re on that side, you are outside the Church.”
That this is what was going on is very clear in the case of the Nicene Creed, created by the first Ecumenical Council held at Nicea (325 AD) and somewhat modified at the First Council of Constantinople (381). The point of the Nicene Creed, while reaffirming and clarifying the doctrines expressed in the earlier Apostles Creed, was to draw a bright line between Catholic/Orthodox beliefs and Arian beliefs.
The Arians held that the Son was very like God the Father – but not quite. The Son is a great God so to speak, but not equal to the greatest of all Gods, God the Father. The Son, who had created the world, had himself been created by the Father. The Son was the first and greatest of all creatures, but inferior to the Father and subordinate to him. By implication, then, Jesus, who was the human incarnation of the Son, was not the highest God.
The Council of Nicea having clarified that Jesus was both true God and true man, there remained the great question of the relationship between the divinity of Jesus and his humanity. Subsequent Councils dealt with that vexed question, ruling out the Monophysite solution (Jesus was one person with a single divine nature) and the Nestorian solution (Jesus is two persons, one human, the other divine), and settling finally on the Catholic/Orthodox solution (Jesus has two natures, human and divine, yet is one person, a divine person).
The Church was only loosely organized in those days. The bishop of Rome (the pope) was generally acknowledged to be Church’s number one bishop, but he did not possess supreme administrative authority; he could not, for example, hire and fire bishops in Egypt and Greece and Syria. Hence the Church was not held together by being answerable to a central administrative headquarters. It was held together above all by a doctrinal consensus.
And so it was important to find just the right formulations of doctrine. Every time a doctrinal disagreement arose, this disagreement threatened to destroy the unity of the Church. It became important to call the bishops together in yet one more ecumenical council that would re-state the Catholic/Orthodox doctrine.
The results were mixed. On the one hand, orthodoxy became more and more precisely defined. On the other, not all parts of the Christian world obeyed the doctrinal dictates of the ecumenical councils. As a consequence, Christianity, ideally a unified thing, split into a number of large sections: the Catholic/Orthodox section, the Arian section, the Monophysite section, the Nestorian section.
Eventually (in the 11thcentury) the Catholic/Orthodox section split in two. Then the Catholic section split into Catholic and Protestant sections. And, finally, the Protestant section split into a thousand subsections.
But throughout these many centuries and these many splits and re-splits, there were no notable disagreements about moral issues. All Christians, with only a few insignificant exceptions, agreed on the importance of the Ten Commandments (even if they might not agree on how to number them), of the Beatitudes, of the two great commandments (love God, love your neighbor); and they agreed that the ideal Christian life was a life done in imitation of Christ.
And they all also agreed that the rules of morality were God-based and therefore unchangeable; they were not man-made and therefore amendable when we happened to think of something that seemed to us better.
I am not saying of course that all Christians lived according to their Christian moral beliefs. Far from it. But they did at least hold these beliefs, no matter how often they violated them. Christian adulterers, for instance, did not deny that adultery is very sinful. Nor did crooked Christian politicians deny that bribery is wrong. No, with regard to adultery, bribery, etc., they made special exceptions for themselves.
Today, however, all this has changed, a change that took place beginning in the 20thcentury. Today many Christians, including many Catholics, hold that certain ancient Christian sins – including for example fornication, adultery, abortion, homosexual sodomy, suicide, and euthanasia – are no longer sinful.
Do we, then, need a new creed, a moral creed that will draw bright lines between true Christian morality and the bogus Christian morality that has infected much of the Protestant world and is beginning to infect the Catholic world? I say, definitely YES.
And do we, therefore, need a new ecumenical council that will draw up this moral creed? No, for I fear the “soft-on-orthodoxy” bishops, especially German bishops, could perhaps dominate such a council.
So, we face a two-fold challenge: Rome would first need to be vigilant in appointing a whole new generation of bishops who are truly and fully Catholic in their views on faith and morals. And those bishops would also need the courage to directly confront our culture, including many of today’s self-described “Christians.”
Likely? Let us pray.
*Image: The First Council of Nicea by Giovanni Speranza, c. 1520 [Vatican Library]