Words Mean Things

(I know, I think I’ve used that title before, I promise I will probably use it again–it may even become the title of this blog eventually!)

In my studies in Anglicanism, I’ve been comparing the prayer books used in England and the USA throughout the history of the communion. It is certainly an interesting exercise and I think it is sharpening my theological vision.

One of the changes that has occurred that was brought to my attention by an article the late Peter Toon wrote is the addition of, “by the power of” to the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds in the 1979 US Prayer Book. You see, most renderings of the creeds say, “Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit.” The 1979 changes that to read, “Who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

So, what’s the big deal? Is it theological nit-picking? Well, my first question is, “Why add it?” It does nothing to clarify the text. In fact, I think it obscures it. Consider this interchange between the Pharisees and Pilate:

Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”  Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” (John 19:19-22 ESV)

Did the Pharisees request alter the truth? No. We could argue that Jesus never actually said, “I am the King of the Jews,” but his interchange with Pilate and his refusal to deny that he was make it clear enough. The Pharisee’s request to change the sign hung on the cross does not change the meaning, but it changes the perception of the message.

Consider another example. Say we’re at some social function and you and I have just met. I point to a woman across the room and say, “She’s my wife.” If I instead said, “That woman claims to be my wife,” you would most likely get a much different impression. Obviously, (and thankfully!) my wife does claim me. The second statement would not be false, but it would be misleading. It would place questions in your mind that the former statement did not. It would cast doubt on her actually being my wife.

The same is true with  “This man said, “I am King of the Jews.”” Those reading the sign would naturally wonder, “Does that mean he wasn’t really? Is that why he’s hanging there?”

In the power of the Holy Spirit” also opens a door for us to walk through that was not present before. Obviously, if the Holy Spirit does anything, he does it through his power. I don’t need to proclaim I am doing something in my own power, I only ever proclaim power when I am working on behalf of someone or something else. “By the power invested in me by the church and the state, I now pronounce you man and wife.”

So, “in the power of” opens the door to another agent working, “in the power of the Holy Spirit.” Like, say, Joseph? With that simple step through this theological gap created by this addition, the virgin birth is gone, and yet the appearance of orthodoxy remains because it is consistent with the revised creed. Granted, you still have that pesky line about the Virgin Mary to contend with…but I hope you see my point.

There is no historical precedent for adding “in the power of” and it creates potential problems and solves none. It only makes sense if there is an ulterior agenda at work. A revisionist, heretical agenda. It has been widely put forward in some circles that is what was at work with the 1979 prayer book. I would say this one small addition supports such a view. That is, unless someone can supply evidence to the contrary.

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