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From Creed to Screed

The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (Doubleday, 2003), the latest book from Catholic Scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, is a reflective, popular commentary on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Johnson has gained recognition in recent years for his books The Real Jesus (1996) and Living Jesus (1999), both strongly critical of the Jesus Seminar. Johnson’s affirmations of orthodox christological doctrines are fairly conservative theologically. But his support of women’s ordination, dislike for Humanae Vitae, and openness to “the possibilities of committed covenantal same-sex love” (a phrase from his homepage on the web site of Emory University, where he teaches) definitely fall on the liberal end of the spectrum.

The Creed is a mixture of these conservative and liberal stances. Ostensibly written from within the “Roman Catholic tradition,” the book is sometimes insightful, occasionally muddled, and often marred by strong polemics against Church doctrine. An examination of some of Johnson’s attacks on Church teaching provides a helpful glimpse into how some Catholic theologians, convinced of their superior understanding of doctrine and theology, can lose their moorings and become a stumbling block for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

The Dissenter’s Trinity: Sex, Gender, and Power

When Johnson agrees with Church teaching, his writing is measured and his arguments are logical. But when Johnson parts ways with Church teaching, the tone becomes polemical and he shows little if any respect for the thinking and logic behind those teachings. For example, in speaking of gender-exclusive and gender-inclusive language, Johnson quotes radical feminist Mary Daly approvingly and writes:

“Within Christianity, gender-exclusive language about God has served to support ecclesiastical sexism and power structures that have been bad for women. Recent arguments from the Vatican that support the refusal to ordain women to the Roman Catholic priesthood because priests represent Christ, and Christ is male, only make the point by reducing it to the absurd. As Elizabeth Johnson has noted, sexism is truly revealed when even the theoretical possibility of God’s incarnation as a woman is rejected” (83).

This jab at Pope John II’s apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis raises a question much larger than the priesthood. If the teaching “that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone” that has been “preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church” (OS 4) is “absurd” in some way, then what other historical, consistent teaching of the Church might we consider “absurd” and in need of correction? The Church’s definition of marriage? Its condemnation of artificial contraceptives? Johnson says yes to those as well. But what about the Church’s teachings about Jesus and his divinity? Or the Trinity? Or the Resurrection? Cannot those beliefs also be considered absurd, outdated, and in need of change? Johnson vigorously resists these suggestions, not seeming to notice the inconsistency in doing so.

In addition, Johnson must know that there is more to the Church’s teaching about the priesthood than a glib appeal to Jesus being male, as if the Church has no interest in the deeper meaning of gender. Many fine Catholic theologians have delved into the depths of sexuality, gender, ecclesiology, and Christology and have explored the dynamic relationships between Christ and the Church, Christ and Mary, and man and woman. Many of these theologians are women, including Edith Stein, Gertrud von le Fort, Alice von Hildebrand, Monica Migliorino Miller, and Janet Smith. Unfortunately, Johnson ignores those contributions.

Discussing gender, Johnson writes, “It is a form of generational narcissism to change texts to suit one’s own needs” (85). Indeed, but what about changing doctrines and dogmas to suit one’s needs? Is it coincidental that Johnson’s views on sexuality strongly resemble the narcissistic views of his own generation, enamored as it is with radical feminism, pro-homosexuality, and disgust with the notion of celibacy?

Like a Virgin? Does It Matter?

Johnson calls the phrase “He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary” as a “faulty translation.” He suggests that the Church is playing loose with the facts: “We should note that the translation used in the liturgies of many churches (the Catholic and Episcopal churches, for example) and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is freer than it should be. In the original, there is no mention of the power of the Holy Spirit or of Jesus’ being born. Such translations soften and explain a harder original” (155).

Is this point made to clarify? No, it is apparently meant to obscure, for Johnson is concerned that the Church is too clear, as well as too gender-exclusive and too literal in its translation. How strange that Johnson accepts that the ancient Church battled Arianism, that it crafted the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, and that its apostolic work was based upon the authority given by Christ. But when the Church’s authoritative translation of this phrase—taken from its own Creed—displeases him, Johnson is out of sorts. This despite the fact that the changes, as it were, come from the Tradition and, it can be argued, directly from Scripture (cf. Luke 1:35; 2:11).

Anglican theologian N. T. Wright once lamented that Johnson gets caught up in “calling down a plague on all the houses” of those who disagree with him. This proclivity to mass judgment occurs often in The Creed, with Johnson eventually calling down plagues on the early Church Fathers, the councils, the Catholic Church, the papacy, Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, progressives, and modernists, leaving only himself and a few unidentified others standing on high ground with the truth in hand.

Except it’s not clear at all what that truth is. Regarding the conception of Jesus, Johnson acknowledges that the early Christian writers understood the New Testament to teach that it “was a miraculous intervention by the Holy Spirit, bypassing normal sexual intercourse between a male and female. The shapers of the creed undoubtedly understood the language of Scripture in a literal and biological way. And the development of Mariology within Roman Catholicism, which insisted on the ‘perpetual’ virginity of Mary, extended that literalness considerably” (156). But no mention is made of several conciliar declarations (keep in mind that the Creed is part of conciliar, magisterial teaching), including this from the Council of Lateran in 649:

“From the first formulations of her faith, the Church has confessed that Jesus was conceived solely by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, affirming also the corporeal.aspect of this event: Jesus was conceived ‘by the Holy Spirit without human seed’” (cf. CCC 496).

Johnson depicts the issue of Mary’s perpetual virginity as a silly fight between “biblical” and “progressive” Christians—or “fundamentalists” and “modernists.” He then writes, “Each side has its own absurdities. Those claiming an absolute fidelity to Scripture prove to be typically selective, ignoring (or explaining away) those passages of the New Testament that speak plainly about Jesus having brothers or sisters (see Mark 6:3), including an important leader of the early Church, James, ‘the brother of the Lord’ (see 1 Cor. 9:5; 15:7; Gal. 1:19)” (157).

So the teaching of the Catholic Church on this matter is fundamentalist? Fundamentalists (and most Evangelicals) do not defend the perpetual virginity of Mary but only the Virgin Birth of Christ. Most believe that Jesus did have siblings. More importantly, Johnson must be familiar with the history of the Church’s teaching about Mary’s virginity, reiterated at different times and in various ways, including in the Catechism (CCC 496–507).

What is Johnson’s concern? That the Church is lying about the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus? Johnson’s claim that the Church ignores or “explains away” evidence of Jesus’ siblings is either ignorant of explanations made by Fathers, councils, and great theologians or purposely dismissive of them. While accusing the Church of ignoring or explaining away supposed evidence against its position, Johnson ignores or explains away the sound reasons for the Church’s belief—and then concludes that we cannot know what happened, so why be concerned with it: “The plain fact is that it is neither possible nor important to know the biology of Jesus’ conception and birth” (157, emphasis added).

This is an astounding remark. If a Jesus Seminar proponent said that “it is neither possible nor important to know the relationship of Jesus’ human and divine natures,” Johnson undoubtedly would be concerned, and rightly so. Yet that relationship is also at stake here: How do the divine and human meet, interact, and relate in the person of Jesus Christ, including in his conception and birth? Although Johnson states that we need to “shift from a preoccupation with biology,” it really is an issue of humanity, well beyond biology.

In calling down a plague on the “progressives,” Johnson condemns their assertion that God couldn’t have created a human person “apart from sex” even while they accept God’s ability to create ex nihiloor raise people from the dead. But the contrast is empty, since many progressives would question those beliefs also. More vacuous is the claim that the “conservative’s defense of the virgin birth does not really celebrate God’s capacity to work wonders in creation, but instead limits that capacity” (157).

But who is limiting whom? Is the traditional, orthodox view of the Virgin Birth really a limitation of God’s capacity, or is it a demonstration of his capacity to work wonders in creation and give grace freely? Johnson’s statements imply that if God chooses to bypass sex in the conception of Jesus, then he is (or at least appears to be) anti-sex. More to the point, if the Church insists that Mary was perpetually a virgin, the Church must be anti-sex and even anti-woman.

“How absurd,” Johnson writes, “to think that the God who is able to create all things through the Word cannot enter humanity through the Word and through the processes of sexuality that God has created as good!” He applies Matthew 22:29 to those on “both sides of this sad disputation”: “You are wrong because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (157). So the Fathers and the councils are not only wrong but biblically illiterate and estranged from the power of God, which rests upon only certain Scripture scholars?

Contrast Johnson’s remarks with the Catechism, which states: “Faith in the virginal conception of Jesus met with the lively opposition, mockery, or incomprehension of non-believers, Jews and pagans alike. . . . The meaning of this event is accessible only to faith, which understands in it the ‘connection of these mysteries with one another’ in the totality of Christ’s mysteries, from his Incarnation to his Passover” (CCC 498).

The Church doesn’t teach that God couldn’t work in a different way. It teaches that he did choose to work in a certain way—and that there’s a logic and meaning to it. The Virgin Birth is not a denunciation of the goodness of sexuality any more than it is a denunciation of the Church’s teaching that sex is meant for marriage. Mary’s virginity “manifests God’s absolute initiative in the Incarnation” (CCC 503) and makes clear the Son’s relationship with the Father. It shows that Jesus, the New Adam who “inaugurates the new creation” (504), is from heaven, filled with the Holy Spirit. Because of his virginal conception, the New Adam can “usher in the new birth of children adopted in the Holy Spirit through faith” (505). Mary’s virginal motherhood proclaims her acceptance, in total faith and obedience, to her part in the plan of salvation (cf. 505–6). As virgin and mother, Mary symbolizes the Church, who is holy, blameless, and faithful (cf. 507). Sadly, these rich truths are ignored in The Creed.

The Not-So-Nice Screed

Johnson takes swipes at other Catholic teachings. After a positive remark about Martin Luther’s battle against “the excrescences of medieval Catholicism,” he writes that “the prophetic witness of the church has been compromised by its many strategies of adaptation and survival over the centuries” (274). No one can deny failures and sins committed by the sons and daughters of the Church, yet not all such strategies are about compromise. Some resulted in Christians being accepted by the Roman Empire and eventually produced the first ecumenical councils and the Creed. Besides, the early Church was hardly a pristine community free of compromises. Just read Paul’s epistles to the Galatians and Corinthians or the description in the book of Revelation of the church at Laodicea as “neither cold nor hot” but “lukewarm” (Rev. 3:15–16).

In a passage that would make a Fundamentalist apologist proud, Johnson asks, “Where in the New Testament do we find pope or cardinals? Where do we find mandatory celibacy? Where we do find indulgences, or even purgatory? Where do we find the office of the Inquisition?” (274). Legitimate questions, but ones addressed by men such as Augustine, Aquinas, Bellarmine, de Sales, Newman, and von Balthasar, not to mention by much recent apologetic writings.

The questions are rhetorical, part of Johnson’s demand for “a simpler and more radical ‘New Testament’ lifestyle by Christians . . . a life directed by the Holy Spirit more than by papal decretals.” He adds that the Church must avoid identifying “its tradition with the truth” and must instead seek “the truth that God reveals at every moment through the working of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people” (274). Pitting Church authority and tradition against the working of the Holy Spirit may attract non-Catholic readers but does a disservice to the reality of the magisterium and its legitimate work at the behest of the Holy Spirit.

The Johnson Denomination

Johnson makes continual reference to “Christian community,” “the church,” “the Christian people,” “creedal Christianity,” and “the faith community.” But what “Christian community” or “church” is being referred to? Who defines the nature of “creedal Christianity”?

The options appear limited. Once again calling down a plague on many houses, Johnson chastises those “Christian groups” who “confuse the accidental with the essential” and “tend to make a single element of belief or morals the litmus test of membership and indeed of true Christianity. For some, it is the literal inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture; for others, baptism in the Spirit; for others, recognition of papal authority; for many, the condemnation of homosexuality and the canonization of the nuclear family” (298). In an ironic passage, Johnson states that those groups are “fundamentally sectarian, because they define themselves as much by what they oppose as what they affirm. They exemplify the classical definition of heresy as an elevation of one truth to the distortion of other rules” (299).

These are caricatures of the worldviews found among most Christians, Protestant or Catholic, who certainly emphasize specific beliefs but almost always within a complex framework of other beliefs. Again, these statements smack of rhetorical devices used to demonstrate how broadminded Johnson is in contrast to large numbers of Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and Catholics.

Johnson declares that “so individualistic has Christianity become in the United States, indeed, that one could argue that there is no church in America” (309). The solution, he explains, is “creedal Christianity,” which is “a healthy alternative” to the extremes of fundamentalism and modernism. “In contrast to a commitment to history found in both opposing parties, creedal Christians insist on the superiority of myth to history. Yes, we must know history and know it well, to read Scripture responsibly. But the truths of which Scripture speaks can scarcely be contained within the framework of critical history” (308).

This is self-serving sleight-of-pen. Most Fundamentalists are rightly concerned that a postmodern approach to history empties it of substance, rendering Christianity a myth without meaning. They would agree with the Catholic Church that Christians must be committed to history, recognizing all the while that the faith “transcends and surpasses history” (CCC 647). There is no need to pit history and faith against one another.

The appeal to sola credo intensifies as The Creed concludes. Because the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed does not say much about the sacraments (save baptism), church practices, and organization, Johnson concludes that it “leaves the church free to invent itself in a variety of forms consonant with Scripture and the direction of the Holy Spirit” (319). This argument from silence cuts both ways—the Creed never mentions the New Testament, Scripture scholars, or ordaining women. It also ignores the historical context of the Creed and why it was written: to defend and define the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, not controversies over eucharistic theology or ecclesiastical structure.

Yet Johnson argues that since the Creed “says nothing about the Lord’s Supper or other sacraments,” we can conclude that “they are not essential, and if they are not essential, then definition should be avoided and a plurality of observance should be allowed or even cultivated” (320). Abandoning any decent measure of reason or context, Johnson fumes that “the endless—and continuing—debates over the meaning of ‘the real presence’ in the Eucharist are only one instance among many in which the frenzy to define the indefinable has led to the crassest forms of theological immodesty—and the breaking of communion!” (321).

This likely would come as a surprise to Jesus, who allowed disciples to leave him when they doubted his repeated call to “eat my flesh and drink my blood” (John 6). And what of those Church Fathers and councils who defended the Real Presence in the Eucharist and often were forced to define, debate, and get their hands dirty as they grappled with heretics and dissenters? Has Johnson forgotten that without definitions he wouldn’t have a Creed? Or that without specific definitions about the Eucharist there would be not only division but rampant confusion among the Catholic faithful?

The Creed versus The Creed

Just as Luther believed that sola scriptura would cure the Church of corruption and false teachings, Johnson believes that adherence to the “Creed alone” will do the same. Just as Luther never imagined (at first) that anyone freed from Romanist influence could read the Bible differently from him, Johnson seems to believe that a renunciation of 1,700 years of Catholic accretions, mixed with a modern sensibility about issues of sexuality and authority, will restore the Church and return final authority to those to whom it belongs: the theologians interpreting the Creed.

It is this pick-and-choose, cafeteria-style approach to the Creed that robs Johnson’s work of credibility and cohesion. Filled with promise and moments of insight, The Creed finally erodes into a sad screed, betrayed by its attachment to contemporary fads and the momentary obsessions of a passing age.

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