I come from a tradition which has been suspicious of creeds. Baptists associate creeds with the Roman Catholic Church (and therefore reject the historic creeds), and one of the early slogans of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was “no creed but Christ.” I find it ironic that conservative Christians in Protestant churches who reject all creeds nevertheless believe every part of the Apostles’ Creed (with the exception of Christ’s descent into hell). My problem with most classic creeds in church history is the absence of any emphasis on the life, teachings, and deeds of Jesus. Most of them jump from the birth of Jesus to the death of Jesus with no mention of or focus on the life he lived and the truth he incarnated.
History demonstrates that creeds can be brittle distillations of theological conclusions which reflect the victory of one group of Christians over another. They can also reflect the status quo and the influence of the powers that be. Such creeds served as theological underpinnings of the authority and interests of both ecclesiastical and secular rulers. I think that’s why these creeds do not even mention the teachings and deeds of Jesus. Jesus’ whole ministry was about what he called the Kingdom of God. And that Kingdom of God threatened every aspect of earthly kingdoms. In the words of Mennonite theologians, the kingdom Jesus came to proclaim and to incarnate was Abba’s Upside-Down Kingdom. In other words, God’s will and goals were the opposite of the will and goals of every earthly kingdom. The “God Movement” (that’ how Clarence Jordan referred to the Kingdom of God) was radical and revolutionary—and these are two words that the Caesars of any age despise and fear.
Elsewhere in this blog I discuss the background of two historically important words in the history of the church: belief and creed. Tragically too often churches have focused on the content of what one believes. Christian Fundamentalists are called “Fundamentalists” because they maintain that there are certain fundamentals that one must believe to be “saved.” (Originally, there were five fundamentals of the faith. The number, however, has grown over the years.) After the first three centuries of Christianity, the church persecuted and, in some cases, tortured and executed those who did not embrace the intellectual beliefs of the majority. A knowledge of the etymological background to the word belief would have saved the church from much conflict and violence. The “be” in the word belief means “by” while “lief” means “live.” So, your belief is what you live by. With one exception in the New Testament, the Greek word for “believe” is better translated “trust.” Trust implies a relationship and the way one lives in light of that relationship. One can intellectually believe everything that is true in the Christian faith and still live contrary to the way of Jesus Christ.
The etymological background to the word creed comes from the Latin word for “heart.” My creed is what I give my heart to. In biblical thinking, the heart is the center of the will. It’s where we decide what we value and how we choose to live. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.” (Matthew 6:21) In other words, what you value is who you are. Our creed reflects what we value and who we are in the deepest recesses of our being. Both belief and creed emphasize our truest allegiances and how we choose to live our lives as we interact with all of God’s children.
Dorothee Soelle (1929-2003) was a feminist and liberation theologian as well as a political activist. Here is a poem which reveals Soelle’s creed.
I believe in god
Who did not create an immutable world
A thing incapable of change
Who does not govern according to eternal laws
That remain inviolate
Or according to a natural order
Of rich and poor
Of the expert and the ignorant
Of rulers and subjects
I believe in god
Who willed conflict in life
And wanted us to change the status quo
Through our work
Through our politics
I don’t know of a single church creed which resembles Dorothee Soelle’s Credo. However, I can think of countless verses in the Gospels which affirm Soelle’s insights in this powerful poem. Here are several examples:
- The Magnificat in Luke 2:46-55 where Mary says her son will bring down rulers from their thrones and lift up the lowly; he will fill the hungry and send the wealthy scampering away—Karl Marx called this song the most radical piece of poetry in the history of the world.
- The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11) which reverses the expectations of every status quo this world has ever known
- Luke 22:24-27 where Jesus contrasts the rulers of the Gentiles with his own rule which is defined by service and not brute power
- Luke 12:49-53 where Jesus says he has come to bring fire to the earth and division even in families—How many of you have ever heard a minister preach on this text?
- John 18:33-38 where Jesus contrasts his kingdom with that of Caesar
These are just a few of the many examples we could consider that reveal the revolutionary nature of the Kingdom of God Jesus came to proclaim and inaugurate. The rest of the New Testament continues to reflect this radical perspective. But the church compromised the gospel when it chose to serve the Roman Emperor Constantine rather than the radical God of the Exodus and the alternative Kingdom Jesus announced and fleshed out. Since then, “radical and revolutionary” are not adjectives historians have used to describe the church. A church which “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6) has become the chapel of the powers that be, and its ministers have too often served as chaplains of the status quo rather than being followers of a revolutionary Jesus.
I think we need a new creed (truth by which we live and to which we give our hearts) which surprisingly will be a recovery of the original vision and agenda of our Lord and the early church. Dorothee Soelle’s Credo could serve as a first step in that much needed transition. In her poem we can hear echoes of Mary’s song. And perhaps once again, the church might be faulted by the powers that be of “turning this world upside down.” (And if any of us doubt our world needs turning upside down, we should read the Gospels.)
(The blog article I mentioned on the nature of faith, belief, and creed can be found under Hebrews 11:1 “What Do We Mean by Faith?)