I could remember only the words of the first line and the melody of the refrain. It was a hymn that we sang in my home church when I was a boy. I checked with my colleague Ted Thomas, who has an amazing knowledge of hymnology. I sang the first line of the chorus, and before I could hum the rest, he said, “We Saw Thee Not.” It was the hymn that kept running through my mind when I sat down to write this article. Let me explain.
When asked, “Can women preach in your churches?” one wit answered, “Of course they can, as long as they put it to a melody.” Perhaps another version of this could be, “Can you recite creeds in your worship services?” Once again the answer might be, “Of course we can, as long as we put it to a melody.” There are many hymns whose words are, in effect, a confession of faith, and, after all, that is what we mean by a creed. In the hymn, “We Saw Thee Not,” each stanza’s refrain begins, “But we believe. . . .”
“But we believe Thy footsteps trod its streets and plains, Thou Son of God.”
“But we believe the deed was done, that shook the earth and veiled the sun.”
“But we believe that angels said, ‘Why seek the living with the dead?”
“But we believe that human eyes beheld that journey to the skies.”1
Our young people introduced me to Rich Mullins’s contemporary chorus entitled “Creed.” Anyone who has had occasion to attend a service where the Apostles’ Creed is recited would recognize where Mullins got his words.
But are we not a people who have championed the slogan, “No creed but Christ”?
When a person comes forward to make the Good Confession, he or she is asked, “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God?” Or sometimes the person is invited to “repeat after me: ‘I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’” And sometimes members of the congregation are invited to reaffirm their faith by saying this confessional statement along with, or shortly after, the new convert makes a “confession of faith.”
The reaction against “divisive creeds” in the early days of the Restoration Movement is understandable.2 Subtle and sometimes not so subtle interpretations of Scripture are written into creeds as a means of defining a particular denomination, and hence, separating it from other churches with whom they disagree. There was something liberating in being able to affirm a basic statement of faith that effectively united us with all others who affirmed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. And sometimes it did bring about unity.
But we soon saw other “tests of faith” arising among us that seemed to be justified on what was taken to be the clear teaching of Scripture. Catholics could say, “I believe that Jesus is the Christ,” but there were miles of ecclesiology and theology that separated Catholics from the “reformers of the 19th century.” Methodists and Presbyterians could affirm their faith in Jesus as the Christ, but their practice of infant baptism still separated them from the reformers. Even Baptists who shared with us the practice of believers’ baptism by immersion dissented when it came to understanding the purposes of baptism, which, of course, the Restoration leaders were convinced was “for the remission of sins.” Slogans can seem so obvious until applied to life situations!
On the other hand, there has always been a liberating experience in affirming this basic creed, “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.” One example is the “open Communion table,” which, by and large, churches of the Restoration Movement have practiced. “We neither invite nor debar. It is the Lord’s table. If you are His, you are invited.” Thus visiting Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterians, etc., who attend our services may well “commune” with us at the Lord’s table. At least for that moment, we are “one in Christ.”
Reciprocally I would feel welcomed to participate in the Lord’s Supper were I present at a variety of denominational services, assuming they did not practice “closed Communion.” That is the positive side of our Restoration Movement heritage with respect to creeds.
Creeds in Worship Services?
The negative side, or perhaps I should say, the puzzling side, is that we deprive ourselves of what can be meaningful worship experiences by not having a congregational recitation of statements of faith.
In my younger, more flamboyant days, I once developed what I thought was a liturgical service for one of our college chapel services. The choir was stationed in the balcony, and we did a responsorial Scripture reading. A verse of Scripture would be read from the pulpit and the choir would sing a response. In our naïve way, we probably thought we were sounding “high church.”
When it came to the part where there would ordinarily be the recitation of the creed, I listed it as a “statement of faith,” without indicating the source. We recited as a congregation Philippians 3:10 and 11: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”
Following the service, I was challenged by one of our ministerial students. He had the service program in hand and his finger on the passage we had recited, which he had not recognized as Scripture. “What do you mean ‘so somehow’ to attain the resurrection of the dead?” he challenged. “Aren’t we sure of the resurrection?”
My response was, “You will have to ask Paul.”
One of my colleagues explained the young man’s reaction quite well. The service was so different from what he was accustomed to experiencing that he was sure there had to be something wrong with it. And he thought he had found it when we recited a creed!
The English word creed is derived from the Latin credo, which simply means, “I believe.” Hence the Latin form of the Apostles’ Creed begins, “Credo in Deum Patrem . . .” (I believe in God the Father). The Apostles’ Creed was not written by the apostles, but was believed to be a summation by the early church of what the apostles believed and taught. And even though we may have problems with these historic creeds, I notice that many of our congregations do have “Statements of Faith” in their bulletins or on their websites. Sometimes these statements of faith are simply designated, “What We Believe.”
Perhaps we are more comfortable with singing our creeds than reciting them together as an act of worship. And it is certainly up to a congregation and its worship leader to decide how the recitation of an “affirmation of faith” can be made to be a meaningful part of the worship. But I might suggest that you look at some of the creedal statements in the New Testament.
For example, some have suggested that Philippians 2:6-11 was a creedal hymn sung by the early church to affirm the deity of Christ: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.”
Also, the sentence structure of 1 Timothy 3:16 suggests it too was a creedal statement or hymn: “He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.”
During my pastoral ministries, I have sometimes been requested to participate in a reaffirmation of marriage vows. I remember on one occasion doing it for a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. They stood before me holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes. The husband began, “I take you to be my wedded wife, to have to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.”
Once again they were affirming their commitment to each other with a far better knowledge of what that commitment now means. “In sickness and in health? Yes, I will be there if your heart begins to fail. Yes, I will be there to care for your body, if your mind begins to desert you.” The couple did not wait 50 years to reaffirm their love and commitment to each other. Our married lives are characterized by the many ways we reaffirm our marriage vows.
Likewise, we spend a lifetime reaffirming our faith in Christ. We do it with our words, our songs, and various services we give in the name of Christ. And we can do it as an act of mutual encouragement and worship when we come together as the church. I find it significant that in some liturgical traditions the recitation of the creed comes before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. That strikes me as especially appropriate: once again affirming, even saying out loud, “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” before that moment when we, as the body of Christ, share with him in Communion.
1“We Saw Thee Not,” words by Anne Richter (1834); recast by John H. Gurney.
2Readers will find helpful Paul Blowers’s article, “Creeds and Confessions” in The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, ed. Douglas Foster, et al. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Company, 2004).
C. Robert Wetzel is chancellor at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee.