“I believe”: A few thoughts on confession & creeds

Nicene-Creed.croppedI invited students to think with me last week about the nature of the confession “I believe” and the relationship this might hold to the ecumenical creeds and confessions of the Church. 

Students read selections of New Testament proto-creeds and excerpts from Origen, Karl Rahner, Georges Florovsky, and John Webster. It all made for vigorous discussion about the various ways we can conceive the purpose and role of confessions in the church’s ongoing life. Consider the following two excerpts, one from Rahner and the other from Webster, and let me know what you think: What is the ongoing role of the creeds in the life of the church – if there is one?

Rahner first:   

[T]he effective mission of the church in the face of modern disbelief likewise requires a testimony to the Christian message in which this message really becomes intelligible for people today … This message has to be able to express the essentials briefly for busy people today, and to express it again and again … [H]owever much [the Apostles Creed] will always be a permanent and binding norm of faith, nevertheless it cannot simply perform the function of a basic summary of faith today in an adequate way because it does not appeal directly enough to our contemporary intellectual and spiritual situation (Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, p. 449. Emphasis mine).

Set this next to Webster’s and you immediately see stark differences:

What is said about the nature and functions of creeds and confessions must be rooted in talk about the Triune God in the economy of salvation, tracing these human texts back to their source in teh church’s participation in the drama of God’s saving self-communication in Christ through the Spirit’s power … It is simply to say that the history of the creeds is part of the history of the church – part, that is, of that sphere of human life invaded and annexed by God and characterized by astonished and chastened hearing of the Word and by grateful and afflicted witness (“Confession and Confessions” in Nicene Christianity [Brazos, 2001], p. 120).

With whom do you feel more resonance, why? Or, what are the gains and losses of casting the history of the creeds into the divine economy of salvation as Webster does – while creating a foundation to argue for the ongoing significance of the creeds in the Church’s life, does this line of reasoning have drawbacks?

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6 thoughts on ““I believe”: A few thoughts on confession & creeds

  1. I want both, and in an effective way, but I just don’t know how to do it. I find that the more relevant a contemporary creed the less appeal it has to a wider audience, and the more sectarian its feel. But the traditional Apostles/Nicean approach doesn’t seem to generate the kind of passion amongst people in general that the sectarian kind does precisely because it is general (and often also unintelligible). So I have to admit to leaving creed/s out whenever possible!

    • I understand the tension Warren. Having ministered in settings where the creedal heritage of the church was almost entirely unknown to the community of faith, I have struggled to discern the best remedy. It seems to me that it must at least include a process of education in which the relationship between Scripture, experience, and tradition is not only discussed/explored but lived out in practice through the ‘liturgy’ of the worshipping community. When the heritage of the church (i.e. tradition) is given voice within the worshipping body as the encounter of God with brothers and sisters of the faith in ages past, rather than dead relic, there opens up many possibilities. For this reason I find Webster’s move to recognize the tradition of the church as instances of God’s movement among his church as entirely helpful.

  2. I would agree that sometimes, for practical purposes, you need to explicitly link this or that church itself, to God, in order to justify your work there to churchgoers. Still, one problem with many creeds in general, is that they over emphasize loyalty to the church itself.

    The Apostles’ Creed for example, begins (from memory): “I believe in one holy aposotolic church.” This creed does not begin by swearing loyalty to God, note, but to a church. (Of course, God comes in later. But only in second place, so to speak).

    That would be the problem.

    No doubt, the practical needs of pastoring a church, and explaining to people why they need to be there every Sunday (if they do), requires at times, valorizing the church itself. Still, I submit we should never forget the idea of a God who after all, transcends all our human ideas and institutions.

    With precisely the kind of “transcendence” that you yourself have commented upon, earlier.

    • Joe, no the Apostles Creed does not begin that way. Rather, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord…” The confession regarding the church comes later under a confession regarding the Holy Spirit.

  3. Woops. You’re right.

    But in my defense, I’d have to honestly say that the way I was introduced to the Creed, was in short excerpts … headed by the “believe … in … Church” clause.

    Honestly, the way it was presented to me by the Church, gave me the impression that loyalty to the church was indeed, first on the agenda.

    Glad to be reminded that the Creed itself put its values in a slightly different order.

    • Yes and I would think the actual order of the Creed (Father, Son, Spirit and only then the church as the people in whom and through whom the Spirit is active) would be precisely the solution to the problem that worried you: “over emphasize loyalty to the church itself”.

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