Of creeds and confessions

Apr 24, 2019 by

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“Ours is not a creedal church,” I often hear. That is, we don’t officially hold churches and their members to any of the historic statements of faith from the first few centuries of church history, such as The Apostles’ Creed (4th century), the Nicene Creed (early 4th century), the Athanasian Creed (5th century) or others.

Anabaptists have confessions instead, like Schleitheim (1527) and Dordrecht (1632), and the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (1995) which are more attuned to the needs of the time and the context. While the creeds focus on what the faith is, Anabaptism and its confessions also focus on what faith should look like in life. Unlike the creeds, confessions can be reviewed and renewed as the needs, times and context change.

One reason for that difference was the Anabaptist experience of corruption in and persecution by creedal churches — both Roman Catholic and Protestant. Their members might recite the Creed for a minute during Sunday worship and then live violently and immorally the rest of the week.

The creeds don’t even express any ethical content, leaving the door open for the kind of disconnect between belief and behavior, doctrine and discipleship, that Anabaptism has always sought to avoid and to overcome. When we look back on the ages when people were conquered, imprisoned, tortured, enslaved or killed with the blessing of some creedal state church authorities, we might associate the creeds with imperialism, authoritarianism and oppression. Some would even blame the creeds themselves for the sordid history of Western conquest, colonialism, slavery and oppression.

To take being “confessional” as being anti-creedal, however, goes way beyond what most of the first Anabaptist leaders, theologians and evangelists intended. Anabaptism has been a diverse family of beliefs and character from the start. But the Anabaptist groups which survived, thrived and spread were those which hewed most closely to the ancient Christians creeds. With a few exceptions, their writings, sermons and histories typically display the language, the mindset and the assertions of the creeds on such matters as the incarnation, the trinity, the virgin birth, that “Christ died  for our sins . . . the resurrection of the dead, and the life everlasting,” and that “he shall come again to judge the living and the dead.” Rarely was their aim to overthrow the creeds, as much as it was to live out the faith of the creeds consistently, at least for the groups that survived and thrived, despite being the kind of Anabaptism that the creedal state churches found most worth persecuting. They were threatened because of how much the Anabaptists shared with them in belief, as well as because of how much they differed in their expression of it.

Anabaptism did not begin simply in reaction nor rejection of all previous 1,500 years of church history, traditions and practices. Some founders and leaders, like Michael Sattler, were deeply formed by them, even while they weighed the accumulated traditions and practices of creedal church history against the Bible.

Nor should we assume that they were only going “back to the Bible,” as though the previous 1,500 years of theological reflection and development had never happened, did not matter or had all been wrong. Like Luther, they wanted to trim the traditions and practices back from the tangled and overgrown thicket they had become, and which obscured the Bible and the Gospel. If anything, the creeds may have helped them in this process. For, at their best, the creeds not only derive from the Bible, they help interpret it.

One commonly-held stereotype is that the creeds came down from gilded palaces and cathedrals as power plays by a self-promoting hierarchy eager only to cement its power over people whose faith and consciences would otherwise have been free.

They actually come from a time within living memory of persecution, when Christians could be opposed and ridiculed for what they did (like adopting abandoned newborns), but they could be killed for who and what they confessed. Their feet are planted in a time when Christians had to discern which faith, which Jesus and which gospel were worth dying for. Such discernment could not simply stop after the persecutions let up, but logically had to continue as Christians confronted a world of inner divisions and missionary possibilities.

The Athanasian Creed strikes modern ears as most oppressive and offensive with words such as, “Which faith unless everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.” But that stern language was a push-back against the allegedly Christian emperors who advocated in the councils and the controversies over Christ’s nature for a less-than-divine Christ. The implications of an incarnate Servant-God for imperial power and leadership (even with a Christian veneer) are not hard to discern. Bishop Athanasius was exiled five times for his insistence on the divinity of Christ.

Anabaptists rightly stress that the spirit of God guides the interpretation of the word of God through the people of God. By that we usually mean the local congregation, or perhaps a cluster of churches, like a conference. The creeds, however, contribute to our interpretive task the voice of believers from beyond our own time and culture. These other voices can open our mental and spiritual horizons even while they challenge the unstated, unconscious creeds by which we often interpret the world and the Bible as stringently as does the Athanasian Creed. For behind every confession stands a creed, consciously or not. One of our unconscious creeds today holds that Western society is automatically and inevitably progressing morally, spiritually and intellectually toward ever greater personal wisdom, freedom and justice, along with our technological and medical progress, and is leading the way for the rest of the world, including the church. Therefore, the past has nothing to say to us.

Such unstated, subconscious creeds are all the more powerful for flying under our conscious mental radar. By contrast, a long-tested, hard-fought, high cost, carefully-worded, lived-out, died-for creed like the Apostles’ Creed consciously expresses a worldview that we can choose, or not. It also exposes and illuminates other creeds and counter-creeds, acknowledged or assumed.

Creed and confession, belief and behavior, cannot help but affect and reinforce each other, for good or ill. Rather than pit creed against confession, and so pit belief against behavior in false dichotomies, let’s be clear and honest about the creeds which lie behind and beneath our confessions, and which drive our behavior and organization.

As our post-Christian 21st century turns out to be more like the 1st century than the 20th, we may again have to consider which faith is worth suffering — perhaps even dying — for. Anabaptism has much to contribute to the wider church “for such a time as this.” Voices from outside our communion, our context and our century also have much to contribute to us, even those which still speak through the creeds. We may find out again why they were worth confessing, suffering and even dying for.

Mathew Swora is lead pastor of Zion Mennonite Church in Hubbard, Ore. He blogs at zionmennoniteoregon.org.


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