This is NOT a progressive post repudiating the ancient creeds of the church (Apostles’, Nicene, etc.).
Instead, it’s an attempt to put doctrine and creedal formulation in their proper place.
Even more importantly, it’s an answer to one of the most frequent of questions I get asked as a pastor: Can I be a part of your church if I don’t believe everything Christians believe?
Let’s start by being clear. We’re all individuals, and there is absolutely no homogenous belief system even in tightly knit communities of faith. We all mix and blend what we believe as people of faith with other types of faith commitments.
Some of these faith commitments are sublimated or subconscious. We might say we believe in grace, for example, but then also believe in a punitive governmental incarceration system. Or we might say we trust God, but actually we trust our pension plan.
In other words, anyone who has given you the impression that doctrinal standards or creedal formulations are rigid standards by which we can define who is in and out of religious community is feeding you a line of crap.
Or, in a classic limerick shared recently by a colleague:
I’m a clergyman whose last name is Mead/ With a wife and a family to feed./ I desire a post/ Where they reverence the Host/ And believe at least half of the Creed.
So what is the place of the creed?
Creeds are not fences. They are better understood as touchstones, or guideposts. In our church, nobody takes a test where they have to confess they believe in the virgin birth (I’ll come back to this one in a moment), or even in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, in order to be a part of our community.
Now, do we say out loud creeds that contain these beliefs? Yes.
Does everyone, even the pastor, have an identical and orthodox understanding of what those creedal statements mean? No!
Now, back to the virgin birth, as one example. Quite simply, that item in the creed came up because St. Jerome translated the Hebrew and Greek texts into Latin. The term for “maiden” in those languages he translated as “virgin” in Latin. Subsequent theologians (chief among them Augustine) made much of Mary’s virgin status, and so it became a core creedal commitment.
But the canon itself, the Scriptures, focuses more on her maidenhood rather than her virginity.
Take that for what it is worth.
Another example: when we say that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, what precisely do we mean? Theologians and people of faith have concluded all things regarding it, and all of these are potentially fair interpretations of belief in the resurrection, all the way from Feuerbach’s notion of the resurrection as a kind of wish fulfillment, to my more traditional commitment as a pastor that the tomb was empty, the disciples met Jesus after his death, and beyond that it’s rather difficult to know what precisely happened in the resurrection.
In other words, the creeds become a kind of sign, a guidepost, a touchstone, around which we can do a lot of interesting theological work, and people of quite diverse faiths can consider and examine them.
But Can We Just Reject The Creeds Altogether?
I’d say no. I don’t find that helpful, because in rejecting the creeds, we reject the history of the development of Christian doctrine as well, and that’s deeply problematic. Even the Scripture itself has a history of development, and nobody just “believes in the Bible.” It’s far more complex than that. Maintaining the creeds is one way of maintaining our attention to a simple reality: what we believe develops and shifts over the centuries.
Today, in the 21st century, especially in Western culture, we have different movements. Some people of faith are shifting toward more rigid, fundamentalist views. You have to believe in a certain way about the fundamentals.
Other people of faith are moving in another, more capacious direction, seeing their own tradition as one among many. In my opinion, some take this a bit too far, relativizing their own faith in comparison to other faiths and assuming (presuming) all faiths lead to the same thing.
I myself don’t go that far, at least in part because I find it somewhat presumptuous about those other faiths. But also because I am a Christian who loves Jesus and other humans, and I find one of the best ways to love other humans is to remain deeply situated within my own tradition while open to learning about others and myself through comparison and sharing of life and mission.
Should The Creeds Be Updated?Probably yes. I’ll give two examples here. First, notice that since the early church was especially worried over the two natures of Christ–basically, how could Christ be fully God and fully human–the creed ends up emphasizing this part of our understanding of Jesus, and unfortunately to the exclusion of anything concerning his earthly life and ministry. So all the creeds skip straight from “born of the Virgin Mary” to “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”
The creeds should be updated to include more of Jesus’ actual life. We have a good model for this in Pope John Paul’s updating of the rosary adding the Luminous Mysteries, all focusing on the life of Jesus.
One prominent theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, has proposed an addition to the Apostles’ Creed that I believe makes a lot of sense. He suggests we add after ‘born of the Virgin Mary’ or ‘was made man’ (in the Nicene Creed):
Baptized by John the Baptist, filled with the Holy Spirit: to preach the kingdom of God to the poor, to heal the sick, to receive those who have been cast out, to revive Israel for the salvation of the nations, and to have mercy upon all people.
This or something like it would be Christ’s earthly ministry central into the creeds, and could have the net impact over the long term of moving Christian communities away from their tendency to abstract Christ into notional positions quite distant from life in community and toward the kingdom.
Similarly, there is a gap in the creed in its first article. There’s no mention of Israel, nothing that brings anything related to the Hebrew Scriptures. The first articles as currently written focus exclusively on God as Father of Jesus and creator of heaven and earth.
Nothing wrong with those per se, but also nothing in there about the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not to mention Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. No mention of the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One.”
Any update of the creed, in addition to adding the life of Jesus, could find a brief way to break with the general supersessionist tendencies of Christianity and recognize God’s long and loving relationship with Israel, a story that is the fertile soil for all the things Christians confess in their creeds.
Finally, I might argue our work in the 21st century is not so much to disavow creedal Christianity and shift to simply “living as church,” but rather consider ways to bring our creeds more into consonance with the commitment to justice and peace centered in Jesus Christ.
One such fitting creed, spoken by Dorothee Soelle in Cologne, Germany in 1968 as part of Political Evensong, can serve as one excellent example, and as invitation to everyone reading this to look to the creeds as touchstone and inspiration rather than exclusionary fence and conversation-stopper.
I believe in God
who created the world not ready made
like a thing that must forever stay what it is
who does not govern according to eternal laws
that have perpetual validity
nor according to natural orders
of poor and rich,
experts and ignoramuses,
people who dominate and people subjected.
I believe in God
who desires the counter-argument of the living
and the alteration of every condition
through our work
through our politics.
I believe in Jesus Christ
who was right when he
“as an individual who can’t do anything”
just like us
worked to alter every condition
and came to grief in so doing
Looking to him I discern
how our intelligence is crippled,
our imagination suffocates,
and our exertion is in vain
because we do not live as he did
Every day I am afraid
that he died for nothing
because he is buried in our churches,
because we have betrayed his revolution
in our obedience to and fear
of the authorities.
I believe in Jesus Christ
who is resurrected into our life
so that we shall be free
from prejudice and presumptuousness
from fear and hate
and push his revolution onward
and toward his reign
I believe in the Spirit
who came into the world with Jesus,
in the communion of all peoples
and our responsibility for what will become of our earth:
a valley of tears, hunger, and violence
or the city of God.
I believe in the just peace
that can be created,
in the possibility of meaningful life
for all humankind,
in the future of this world of God.