personal belief and corporate confession :: creeds and community (part IV)
by Eric Daryl Meyer
The last entry thinking about the creeds focused on the relationship between the creeds and scripture. As normative confession, the creeds guide the boundaries of our interpretation of scripture in order to enable us to read scripture well. The creeds stand as a history lesson about God’s people reading God’s word; they are our opportunity to hear and understand the thought of those Christians who down through the generations have passed on the gospel and put the scripture in our hands. We disregard their advice at our own hazard. We cannot even touch scripture until someone gives it to us – and that event (taking the book into our hands) links us to a long chain that reaches back to the roots of our tradition. Any loss of memory constitutes a crisis of identity, but especially an intentional ignorance with regard to tradition.
In this entry however, I’d like to dig into questions about the normative influence of the creeds within the church today – look at how we relate to these ancient documents, and how we are to look at them. How do creeds function within our communities? What do communities that move away from creeds replace them with?
On some level, belief is a personal matter impossible to “regulate” or “enforce”. We do not begin the creeds by saying, “You’d better believe, or else, in God the Father Almighty.” Rather, we say, “We believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth….” There is some wiggle room in the word “we” and hopefully some grace in the people it represents. When we speak with one voice, we speak as the Church. As a whole, the Church must testify to the story contained in the creeds. As a whole, this is the only truth that the church knows. When we recite the creeds, we are speaking out what we, as the church, believe to be true. The church is responsible to God to proclaim the truth, you and I are responsible to God for the lives, relationships, and many good things that he has given to us.
The creeds are not a contract so much as a proclamation. When we say “we believe,” I may still be coming to believe in what we confess. “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” I may believe around, through, or despite many of my questions. There is room within the “we” of the church for people of all ages, in all stages of life, and for many diverse beliefs. The creeds are not weapons to be imposed upon the unsuspecting and wayward. Used as such, they betray their own content and the life to which they give testimony.
There is a tension here. And I’m not entirely sure how to resolve it, or even that it should be resolved. The Church has room for a great diversity of questions and doubts. The God of history has never been afraid of inquisitive minds (not nearly as afraid as some of his followers seem to be), yet to be a part of the Church means being remade in the image of Christ, it means dying to the old self and finding new life within the body of Christ. This means that “we” believe despite, through, and beyond our individual doubts. Together, in Christ, we can overcome such things. There is a tension between the room that the church must maintain for honesty – the real confession of real sinners – and the mandate to proclaim the truth boldly, putting sin behind us and striving to live among the great cloud of saints who witness to the truth that we too are privileged to acknowledge.
We should be careful, lest wiggle room leads us to hypocrisy. When I join myself to a people who say, “we believe” I place myself within that “we.” I am there with all my questions, doubts, and struggles. There is wiggle room, but we cannot ignore plain contradiction. The creeds should not function as a contract, but they do function as boundaries. It is difficult to confess that we believe in “Jesus Christ his only son our Lord, conceived by the virgin Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit” and simultaneously to deny Christ’s lordship and divinity in word or action. The wiggle room is room for exploration and growth within the community not license for contradiction.
So long as we recite the creed together, you and I should exercise a generous hermeneutic, seeking all possible ways to reconcile our own doubts to the collective belief, rather than leveraging our questions and doubts against it. You and I should hold ourselves together in the “we” as long as possible. By placing ourselves within the creed’s “we”, you and I acknowledge a responsibility to represent that corporate confession well and seek to understand its truth.
The creeds function as boundaries and guidelines that shape our community and hold us together. Churches (especially Protestant churches) divide over embarrassingly paltry matters – little more than power struggles and personality conflicts at bottom. The normative function of the creeds enables us to discern the theological life-and-death matters calling into question petty divisive squabbles. The basic narrative of the Church’s story, encapsulated in the creeds, is the story that enables Jews and Gentiles, immigrants and Minutemen, convicts and librarians all to worship with one another – overcoming their differences in God’s love. The “we” of the creeds locates you and I within the story they tell. Confessing a belief in the church while we all stand around as the church makes reciting the creed a reflective and participatory activity. When it comes to matters of unity and division, that participation teaches us the difference between arguments and enmities that have been reconciled in the power of Christ’s death and resurrection, and those arguments that threaten the integrity, apostolicity, and authenticity of the gospel itself. On what points is exclusion or excommunication needed? Where is division necessary? What ecclesial ditches do we really want to die in? The creeds do not answer these sorts of questions for us, but they enable us to answer them from a deeper, more carefully reasoned perspective.
Reciting the creeds is one of the very few ecumenical actions that churches all over the world share. Even where churches refuse to recognize the validity of the Eucharistic table as practiced in another church, often both churches repeat the same creed. While we have cut one another off in all sorts of other ways, we can all stand together (even if it is in different buildings) as we say, “we believe.” This is a glimmer of hope for the embarrassing fractures in the Body of Christ, a brief moment where churches visibly overcome their differences. We should look forward to, and work toward, the day when we can all genuinely share the bread and cup together – unified in our differences. In the mean time, repeating the creeds incorporates (in-bodies) us as the church by centering on the church’s basic proclamation. Where the content of the creed is proclaimed and practiced, there is the church. Churches that have liturgically abandoned the creeds have severed a connection, not only with the church of history, but with our brothers and sisters around the world sitting on the other side of the denominational fences we have erected.
Many churches and Christian institutions have replaced the creeds within their communities (at least functionally) with mission statements, or “statements of faith.” Unsatisfied with the inexact narrative quality of the creeds, many push toward something quite a bit more propositional, quite a bit more contractual, quite a bit more rigid. I think this unwise. Granted, the creeds do not settle all our questions, nor do they interpret themselves (they are always read within a theological framework); controversies have always lurked in the gaps left by the creed’s language. But the attempt to circumvent the possibility of disagreement by containing (propositionally) the essence of right belief, negates some of the wiggle room that is a gift of God’s grace to the church as a whole, a gift preserved in the creeds.