Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Faith of the Church

I’ve just started reading a great little book by Latino Methodist theologian Justo L. Gonzalez entitled The Apostles’ Creed for Today (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007). Divided into thirteen chapters, it provides historical and theological background and context for the different articles of one of the most universally used creeds within Western Christendom. There are also helpful questions for discussion at the end of each chapter. This would make a great book for a small study group.

What Gonzalez says about the connection between the Apostles’ Creed as a statement of the Church’s faith and the personal faith of individuals is worth sharing:

[The Apostles’ Creed] is not so much my statement of faith as it is a statement of the faith of the church through the centuries – a statement that shapes the identity of the church, much as the Pledge of Allegiance shapes the identity of the nation.

There is a story about a young Orthodox priest who told his spiritual advisor that he had difficulties with some of the statements of the Nicene Creed.

“Recite it anyhow,” the advisor replied.

The young man came back after a few days, again declaring that he could not in good conscience claim to believe all that the Creed said.

“Recite it anyhow,” the older man insisted.

This went on for several weeks, until finally, exasperated and confused, the young priest asked, “Why do you insist that I repeat the Creed, when you know there are in it some phrases I don’t really believe.”

To which the elderly adviser replied: “Because it is not your creed. It is the Creed of the church. When you recite it you are not directly saying what you believe. You are declaring what the church believes. And you are declaring yourself part of that church, no matter whether you believe every point of doctrine or not.”

The same is true for each one of us when it comes to the Apostles’ Creed. Were I to write my own creed, I would probably leave out one or two phrases and add some others of my own. I might find it easier to delete the phrase about the virgin birth. And I certainly would want to add something about the social responsibility of believers, about the place of worship in the life of the church, and a number of other items. But when I recite the Apostles’ Creed I am declaring myself part of that countless multitude throughout the centuries who have found their identity in the same gospel and the same community of believers of which I am now a part – a multitude that includes martyrs, saints, missionaries, and great theologians, but where in the final analysis all are nothing but redeemed sinners, just as I am (pp. 8-9; emphasis in text).

A few things stand out for me in this passage. First, the advisor’s insistence that the young Orthodox priest continue reciting the Creed, even though he was sure he didn’t or couldn’t believe it all, says something important about what it means to be a Christian in a liturgical and creedal Church. Evangelical Christian and social activist Jim Wallis puts it well (and I’m paraphrasing from memory): “Christian faith is always personal, but it’s never individual.” It’s less about “me and Jesus” and more about “we and Jesus.”

One of the real benefits of finding personal faith within this larger context of the corporate faith of the Church is that others can carry me along the way when I’m not sure where I’m going or how I’m going to get there. Writing about the recitation of the Nicene Creed in the liturgy, Barbara Brown Taylor puts it like this:

When I say, “We believe …” I count on that to cover what I cannot believe on my own right now. When my faith limps, I lean on the faith of the church, letting “our” faith suffice until “mine” returns. Later, when I am able to say, “We believe …” with renewed confidence, I know that I am filling in for others who are indisposed for the time being, as they filled in for me. My decision to say the creed at all is a decision to trust those who have gone before me, embracing the faith they have commended to me [The Preaching Life (Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 71].

I suspect that, at different times in our faith journeys, many of us share Gonzalez’s desire to add or subtract articles from the historic creeds of the Church. Perhaps that’s because, like the Orthodox priest, we’re not sure we believe every single bit of what the creed says. Or maybe it’s just the opposite. Maybe it’s because we are sure of what we believe, and the creeds don’t even mention things we wish they included, such as articles about Jesus’ teachings, his table fellowship with sinners and outcasts, his love for the poor, etc.

Fair enough.

Even so, perhaps we can still affirm that, while statements of faith such as the Apostles’ Creed are not perfect, they are nonetheless necessary and sufficient for summarizing the core of the faith, even if there are other important aspects that need to be highlighted as well. And so, in imperfect ways, these statements of the Church’s faith keep our individual, subjective preferences in check so that, when it comes to the core, we’re all on the same page. In that way, the creeds not only guard the faith of the Church, but also protect and promote the unity of the Church as well.


tenn55 said...

Gotta love that Jim Wallis quote. I've seen that somewhere. Our culture really lends itself to individualism which just rips at the Body. Hard to imagine getting a Creed agreed upon today!

No wonder we/I have a hard time embracing them as something other than just for the individual---altho' I'd really hope to be worshiping in the spirit that all of us are embracing it/them both personally and collectively. Seems that the one would strengthen the other.

Bryan+ said...

I hear you, tenn55. And I agree with you about individualism ripping apart the Body of Christ.

Perhaps we could say that individualism, left unchecked by Holy Scripture and the sufficient statements of the Christian faith we have in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, is like a cancer in the Body of Christ. Slowly, but surely, it cuts us off from each other. It kills the common life that gives each of us as individuals a personal access to the abundant life of the risen Christ we can only know in its fullness insofar as we remain in communion with each other.