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Fathers and Evangelicals

07 December 2012

US Evangelicals are revisiting the Creeds, says Christopher Cocksworth

Evangelicals and Nicene Faith: Reclaiming the apostolic witness
Timothy George, editor
Baker Academic £16.99
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THERE is something deeply ecumenical going on in American Evangelicalism which is of great significance to the worldwide Church. A broad range of American Evangelicals are reclaiming their stake in the universal heritage of the Church, renewing their fundamental identity in historic Nicene Christianity, and reconnecting with the great tradition of Christianity, shared with Catholic and Orthodox. This collection of essays, edited by Timothy George, is part of that movement, and focuses on the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381.

Evangelicals and Nicene Faith is divided into three sections: identity, history, and practice. Some of the essays will be valuable reading for anyone who wants to understand the evolution of the Creed, and especially its relationship to the scriptures. Others are of general appeal, and apply the Creed to various aspects of Christian living, from political thought (Elizabeth Newman) to suffering in times of national crisis (John Rucyahana, former Bishop in Rwanda during the genocide). Others are more specifically addressed to intra-Evangelical debates, especially among American Baptists. But, even to those far away geographically and theologically, these studies offer fascinating insights into the ecclesial psychology of a powerful swath of American Christianity as it seeks to be both self-critical and self-consistent. Among them are two essays that particularly grabbed my attention, raising matters of direct relevance to the Church of England.

Steven Harmon grapples with the "problem of the Magisterium". He recognises that some agency of doctrinal authority is needed in order to define the teaching of the Church, and to secure an authentic interpretation of biblical truth. After analysing the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church and the methods of the Magisterial Reformers, he proposes "a Free Church Magisterium" in which authority is located in the gathered Church that listens attentively to the whole Church, past and present.

Although his model does not map exactly on to Anglican ways, Harmon's wise words on the weighting of voices may give us some clues on how to handle the tensions between the part played by synods and the responsibility of bishops in the articulation of the Church's teaching.

Mark DeVine's engagement with the emergent church scene not only rehearses Evangelical critiques of the creeds, but also provides a good example of raw ecclesiology-in-the-making. While defining the Nicene Creed as a response to the voice of God rather than the voice itself, DeVine strongly commends the Creed to the emergent Church as a voice that it needs to hear with humility and obedience.

At the same time, although he regards the Creed as necessary to the healthy development of new forms of church, he does not see it as sufficient, and calls for accompanying confessions that provide a theological interpretation of the Creed's narrative of salvation. Anglicans are unlikely to be convinced about the lattercri de coeur, but DeVine's challenge to shape every emergent form of the Church according to the contours of the Creed is a timely reminder to us all.

Dr Christopher Cocksworth is the Bishop of Coventry.


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