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New Testament creeds not liturgy, but summaries: John Dickson

Ridley senior lecturer presents 'groundbreaking' new theory during annual Leon Morris Lecture

By Stephen Cauchi

October 28 2019Christian academic and writer the Revd Dr John Dickson has advanced a groundbreaking theory that New Testament passages that resemble liturgical creeds – as in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 – were not taken from worship liturgy but from educational material.

Dr Dickson – a senior lecturer at Ridley College and a founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity – made his argument during Ridley College’s annual Leon Morris lecture, held on 17 September.

“These credal summaries are often thought to be statements made at a baptism service, or during Sunday worship, or whatever,” Dr Dickson told TMA.

“The idea that they are educational summaries—akin to the use of similar summaries in the Greco-Roman world—is the finding of my current research, which I hope to publish for scholarly discussion in the next few years.”

Dr Dickson said his theory was “not widely shared, yet.”

In his lecture to Ridley, Dr Dickson said that “the New Testament creeds are not creeds at all, in the liturgical sense.

“They are mnemonic devices, or verbal summaries, of larger bodies of learned and remembered material.”

The summaries were designed to help people memorise these longer details about Christianity, he said.

Memorisation was crucial in a world where books were rare. Students in the Greco-Roman world practised “mental gymnastics” aimed at developing their memory to levels “unheard of in the modern world”.

The Corinthians passage – which briefly describes Christ’s death, burial, resurrection and appearance – was “a summary-definition of the Gospel,” said Dr Dickson.

The passage “could be used in a drill that would expand each line with further rehearsed material”.

As with other credal material from the New Testament, the Corinthians passage was not invented by the writer – in this case, the Apostle Paul.

The writer was simply quoting an existing verbal summary.

“Paul is not giving us some views that he worked out for himself; he is passing on what had been told him.”

There were “perhaps a dozen clear examples of credal formulae in the New Testament, mostly in Paul,” said Dr Dickson.

These included the Corinthians passage, Romans 1:3-4, hymn-like material in Colossians and Philippians, and five “trustworthy sayings” found in Timothy and Titus. They were “pithy summaries of the faith”, he said.

Condensing teaching for ease of memorisation was a “basic part of education in Jewish communities, Greco-Roman schools and philosophical movements,” said Dr Dickson.

“I’m suggesting that the New Testament creeds fit this educational setting better than the liturgical one, where creeds are acts of worship in a public setting.

“Whatever place they may have in church services, their function was probably first educational.”

The Apostle Paul’s background as a Pharisee made memorisation from summaries “second-nature to him as a teacher”.

“There is every reason to think that his students in a Romanised Greek city like Corinth also had an awareness – from the classroom, the philosophical schools or the home – of the educational importance of memorising, contracting, and expanding key teachings.”

Most, if not all, of Paul’s letters were written before the gospels. This has led academics to speculate what he intended his readers to know about Jesus, said Dr Dickson.

The old position was that Paul had “little interest in a historical Jesus” and just wanted his converts to think about the “glorified Lord”. This is because Paul tended to shun narrative details, he said.

For example, Paul wrote that Jesus was buried – but did not say how, where, or by whom.

But this could be refuted if his material was a summary, designed to aid memory, said Dr Dickson. 

In that case Paul would be intending his readers to think about far more than what he had written.

“We would be justified in seeing the New Testament creeds as educational summaries of learned material, material given literary form later in the Gospels.”

Dr Dickson acknowledged that debates on oral tradition in early Christianity are difficult to prove.

“There are some who doubt we can say anything substantial about oral tradition … since all our evidence about such things, by definition, comes from written sources.”