Who Really Pays Attention to Those Creeds Anyways?

creeds bookI’ve recently begun reading N.T. Wright’s book, “Surprised by Hope.”  I’m not very far into it and so it is possible that I’m getting ahead of myself in writing this entry … but I just had a cup of coffee and don’t really have much else to do … so why not make a shabby attempt at expounding upon someone else’s already well-written thoughts, right?

I don’t really know anything about the sideways (it was the only way I could fit all the words in) book seen above these words because I haven’t read it and couldn’t find a synopsis online.  It could have nothing to do with what I’m going to write about here.  But based on title–“Christianity Beyond Creeds: Making religion believable for today … and tomorrow”–it seemed an appropriate representation of our current trajectory within the Christian faith.  A few churches still recite creeds from the early church (possibly a large number of small, dying churches); but the “traditions” (“practices” might be a better word choice) of the Christian faith that are large and growing, with few exceptions, have tossed the corporate recitation of creeds & of the Lord’s prayer right out of their weekly services, apparently finding either the creeds themselves, or their indoctrination to be either unnecessary or irrelevant.

I grew up in a small PC(USA) church and remember reciting weekly the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed.  I’ve written them out below as we recited them each week:

The Lord’s Prayer:

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.  Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from [the] evil [one].  For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.”

The Apostles’ Creed:

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: 

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary: Suffered under Pontius Pilate, 

Was crucified, dead, and buried:

He descended into hell;

The third day he rose again from the dead:

He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty:

From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost: The holy Catholic Church; The Communion of Saints: The Forgiveness of sins: 

The Resurrection of the body, And the Life everlasting.

Amen.”

My question is this: how many Christians actually believe these things?  How many believe that we are supposed to ask that God’s kingdom would become present on this earth?  How many believe in the physical resurrection of our bodies, not just our souls?  

The statement in the apostles’ Creed about believing in the resurrection of the body is not a statement of believe in Jesus’ resurrection; that would be redundant, following only a few lines after our statement of believe in Jesus having risen from the dead.  The phrase “The Resurrection of the body” is instead a reference to a believe about our physical bodies.  We know this because of the wording (use of the words “of the body”), and because of its location amongst other beliefs about “the saints” or Christians.  The statement follows “the communion of saints”,  and “the forgiveness of sins,” which is obviously not a reference to Jesus, who was sinless and needs no forgiveness, but to humanity, which is under the curse of sin and thus requiring forgiveness.  It then is followed by “the life everlasting,” a believe in our eternal life that is made possible through Jesus having defeated death by his resurrection.

What is unfortunate is that even though I grew up reciting the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer every week in church, my understanding of resurrection, the kingdom of God, and of the life everlasting was almost completely unaffected by the claims made in either recitation.  I did not believe in the eventual resurrection of my body, but instead in a separation of my soul from the dead body so that the “good part” of me could float up to heaven and be with God.  This is what the masses of the Christian world told me … it was in fact the end goal of faith … to save souls … to get as many souls as possible, including your own, into heaven.

Similarly, I always understood the Kingdom of God & the Kingdom of Heaven (used in the gospel of Matthew) to be a reference to heaven as the place we hope to go when we die and found nothing strange about the fact that Jesus instructs us to pray that the distant kingdom would come here … to earth … to us.  It wasn’t that I realized or believed that the kingdom of heaven (or “of God”) could be more than a place … it was simply (and unfortunately) that I just never thought much about the implications of the Lord’s prayer.

It is worth noting that there seems to be a fast growing trend in popular Christianity of noticing this instruction of Jesus and trying to figure out what it means.  Thanks in part to writers like Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and other “emergent-types” for re-opening our eyes to present-kingdom language.  At the same time, this trend has seemed to be one that has moved Christians to search for salvation through the active social justice of humanity rather that in the resurrection of Jesus.  The present kingdom of God cannot be rightly understood outside the context of the resurrection of Jesus as the saving act for all of the world.  We do not work to free people from oppression and injustice because we believe that if we work hard enough we’ll fix the problem, but because we believe that we were created to live this life, not another one, and that consequently this life is important; we believe that it is God’s desire and was God’s intention that God’s children would live free from oppression and injustice, and so we work to make that a reality when and where we can, with hope in the eventual return of Jesus to complete the victory of good over evil … to do what we cannot do by our own efforts or power.

As for the life everlasting, I just had to have faith that my soul wouldn’t ever get bored sitting on a cloud and singing for all of eternity.

It’s probable that people like me are the reason that many churches have abandoned the corporate recitation of the creeds and the Lord’s Prayer.  Most people who learn the creeds and the Lord’s Prayer just memorize them in 7th grade and then spend the rest of their lives mindlessly drawing on their memory each Sunday, whether they actually know what they are saying or not … much less understand or believe it!  The creeds and the Lord’s Prayer had become items on a checklist, and I am in agreement with the churches who think that that is a bad thing.  But the decision not to use them in worship any more seems a bit like throwing the baby out with the bath-water.  And though it is probably true that the church had replaced orthodoxy around these doctrines with something else before it stopped using the creeds and the Lord’s Prayer in worship, I would content that we have put ourselves in a position in which it could be very difficult to recover beliefs consistent with the trajectory of Scripture in more than a few doctrines.  It is certainly not impossible.  After all, the creeds are not a part of the canonical books of scripture (though most of the Lord’s Prayer is), but were formulated out of it.  The problem is that we have voluntarily cut ourselves off from our own history … from the communion of saints.  We have become too arrogant to think that we have anything to learn from our ancestors.  But we are wrong!

And I do understand that because the modern, western church is not oppressed, anyone can go without having too much to be afraid of, and so there are often large numbers of people at a given church service who don’t believe the statements made in the creeds, and who even if they did pay attention, would not really want to pray the Lord’s prayer.  And I understand and agree that we need to make church accessible to those people, because it is a good thing that they are there and we don’t want to run them all off.  And so, if a pastor decides that the congregation will not be asked to recite the creeds or the Lord’s prayer every week, I think that is fine.  But they should be used and taught with some regularity in churches regardless of whatever controversy they may cause.  There are ways to introduce controversial aspects of a worship service and teach around them so that even those who do not agree or understand don’t feel out of place or unwelcome; and the church should be striving to learn this art.

N.T. Wright thinks that these doctrines (the kingdom of God, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting) are not only important, but absolutely central to understanding the life (present & future) that we are called to.  In the opening chapter he writes these words:

“This book addresses two questions that have often been dealt with entirely separately but that, I passionately believe, belong together.  First, what is the ultimate Christian hope?  Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present? … But if the Christian hope is for God’s new creation, for “new heavens and new earth,” and if that hope has already come to life in Jesus of Nazareth, then there is every reason to join the two questions together.  And if that is so we find that answering the one is also answering the other.  I find that to many–not least, to many Christians–all this comes as a surprise: both that the Christian hope is surprisingly different from what they had assumed and that this same hope offers a coherent and energizing basis for work in today’s world.”

I believe that Wright is onto something extremely significant here; and though it is not new thought or theology by any means, it has too often been overlooked or replaced with “not-quite-as-good news.”  If you have been intrigued or offended by this, I would encourage you to pick up a copy of Surprised by Hope and read through what N.T Wright has to say.  I’d love to have conversation partners as I read through it myself!

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~ by Will Norman on May 4, 2008.

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