Creeds, Confessions, and the Ecumenical Dialogues of a Creedless Church

                I am embarking on a journey of discovery. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has entered a season of discernment as to how we might pursue full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. I will be participating fully in this conversation as co-chair of this bilateral dialog (I have an ELCA co-chair). The Disciples are a non-creedal/covenant community while the ELCA is a confessional community. So how do we achieve some form of full communion with this difference before us (and this is not the only difference between the two, but for this posting, it’s the one I want to consider)? So what should we do about creeds when we enter bilateral conversations as a non-creedal community with one that treasures them? Remember it’s not just the Disciples who must struggle with this question. The ELCA must also struggle with it.  

                Over the years I’ve used this forum to occasionally reflect on my denomination’s decision to eschew creeds. I will confess that due to my own background in the Episcopal Church, I’m more comfortable with them, at least with the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. Growing up with them I never thought of them as being tests of faith. As for my current denominational heritage, our founders, including Thomas and Alexander Campbell, embraced the view that we should stick with the New Testament and not get caught up in later speculative creeds and confessions. So, does our decision to go creedless mean we can’t reach full communion with a denomination that prizes creeds and confessions? That is the question we will wrestle with over the coming months and possibly years as the dialog continues.

                As for the Disciples, we might simply start with where Thomas Campbell began when he issued his foundational Declaration and Address. In proposition 3 he wrote that “in order to do this, nothing ought to be inculcated upon Christians as articles of faith; nor required of them as terms of communion, but what is expressly taught and enjoined upon them in the word of God. Nor ought anything to be admitted, as of Divine obligation, in their Church constitution and managements, but what is expressly enjoined by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles upon the New Testament Church; either in express terms or by approved precedent” [Campbell, Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington (p. 19). Good Press. Kindle Edition]. Then in proposition 5, he wrote that “Nothing ought to be received into the faith or worship of the Church, or be made a term of communion among Christians, that is not as old as the New Testament” [Campbell, Declaration and Address, (p. 20). Good Press. Kindle Edition]. That sounds pretty clear, but before we declare Campbell to be anti-creedal, we ought to heed this caveat, for Campbell was not completely opposed to creeds only their abuse and misuse. Therefore, he writes:

    As to creeds and confessions, although we may appear to our brethren to oppose them, yet this is to be understood only in so far as they oppose the unity of the Church, by containing sentiments not expressly revealed in the word of God; or, by the way of using them, become the instruments of a human or implicit faith, or oppress the weak of God's heritage. Where they are liable to none of those objections, we have nothing against them. It is the abuse and not the lawful use of such compilations that we oppose.  [Campbell, Declaration and Address, (p. 30). Good Press. Kindle Edition].

The question then is what is the proper use of these statements of faith that go back to the Bible itself. We can find baptismal confessions there. We Disciples make the Good Confession when joining a congregation or when we are baptized. With Peter, we confess that “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” If we move into the Second Century we will find a variety of confessions, including the “Rule of Faith,” which predates the canon of Scripture and probably served as a guide to the creation of the New Testament.

                If we want to be honest, we will acknowledge that the Preamble to the Design, the governing document for Disciples is itself a confession of faith. It is, one might say a revelation of the Disciples tradition. Consider these words:

As members of the Christian Church,
We confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and proclaim him Lord and Savior of the world.

In Christ’s name and by his grace we accept our mission of witness and service to all people.

We rejoice in God, maker of heaven and earth, and in God’s covenant of love which binds us to God and to one another.

Through baptism into Christ we enter into newness of life and are made one with the whole people of God.

In the communion of the Holy Spirit we are joined together in discipleship and in obedience to Christ.

At the Table of the Lord we celebrate with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of Christ.

Within the universal church we receive the gift of ministry and the light of scripture.

In the bonds of Christian faith we yield ourselves to God that we may serve the One whose kingdom has no end.

Blessing, glory, and honor be to God forever. Amen.

                Whether it is the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, or the Preamble, they assist us in making known our belief systems. Where they become problematic is when we impose them on each other or use them to exclude persons whose beliefs differ from fellowship. Of course, every confession needs to be regularly evaluated, for embedded within our confessions can be elements that don’t reflect the message of Jesus, that are reflective of certain cultural dynamics that existed at the time of their creation. So, as William Tabernee writes of the traditioning process that gives rise to these confessions: “Consequently, as in the case of reading scripture, one must interpret and utilize Tradition/tradition(s) by paying due attention to the cultural context(s) in which they developed and, where necessary, engage the Tradition/tradition(s) with a sense of appropriate ‘critical distance.’ Only by doing so can we both benefit from the Tradition/tradition(s) to which we are heirs and construct a relevant theology for our own situation” [“Theology and Tradition,” Chalice Introduction to Disciples Theology, p. 50]. With that in mind, it would seem wise to engage in this process ecumenically and even interreligiously so that we might listen to diverse voices that will challenge the traditions we’ve held close.

                So, getting back to my introductory remarks. Who knows where this conversation will go or how long it will take, but I’m hopeful that the Disciples and the Lutherans will find a way of sharing more fully in communion with one another.


Jeff Gill said…
I boil Father Thomas' words down to this: do not use creeds as a test of fellowship. If we take someone who says "Yes" to Christ as Lord, and add "AND . . . do you believe in this way" we are overstepping our Divine sanctions as a church, in Thomas Campbell's view.

But in many Disciples congregations, we've picked up creeds, read them, studied them, benefited from them. We've tended to avoid liturgical use of them because of the implied expectation when you offer them that way that membership requires consent to the whole statement. But most of our congregations, if you asked them "does the Apostles Creed outline the mainstream of faith for your church?" they'd say "oh, sure, although we've got some people who'd not go along with every line of it." (A very Disciples thing to say.) The tension from the Auld Sod was when young men would approach graduation from Oxford or Cambridge or Glasgow and say "but there's a line I don't agree with entirely" and his tutors and fellows would say "you just say you do, and the world opens up from here . . ." but the record shows that conscience and questions regularly left some walking away from the table, from Holy Orders, from civil honors, over a phrase of the Articles or creeds.

Thomas said not to use creeds as a test, but (my word) as a tool, to open up and investigate the claims of Christianity on a believer. And I think that stance holds up well.
Robert Cornwall said…
Jeff, I agree. I know, growing up Episcopalian, that the words of the creeds -- Apostles and Nicene -- were held somewhat loosely. They help us understand what the "church" has understood to be the core without having to embrace every piece literally. Or, we can say with Stone, I accept it as far as it is in line with Scripture and leave it at that.
jose francisco said…
I too agree with Jeff. It's the use of creeds *against* and not the use of creeds for (education, reflection, ecumenical dialogue, etc.) that's the issue. Indeed, there's a difference between anti-creedal and non-creedal.

Thanks for this reflection, Bob! And for your ecumenical leadership!
David Cobb said…
Bob, I’m grateful for your willingness to serve in this capacity. I served as a “younger theologian “in drafting a study guide for Confessing the One Faith, a Faith and Order document that followed on the heels of Baptism Eucharist and Ministry. It was an enlightening process to engage with Christian traditions around the world and identify core values of faith, rooted in scripture, where we could find some agreement.

I think disciples would benefit greatly from conversations like this. The trouble is we’ve allowed “no Creed but Christ” to become just as divisive a “creed” as we often claim the historic creeds to be. In many of our congregations and for many of our members, our identity depends on this artificial division between scripture and tradition.

One of the great benefits of our bilateral dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, and with others, is the recognition that scripture itself is the product of tradition. The creeds formed in the same time that the Canon was taking its shape. This is something that the founders of the Disciples of Christ understand dimly, but we see more clearly now. Having built upon the work they did, which laid the foundation for the modern historical critical study of the Bible, we have an obligation not to deny what we’ve discovered.

We now know more than they did then. If we still believe in unity, we’ll stop comparing the abuses of creeds in the past to the faithful use of them today. We’ll acknowledge our own shortcomings. Somehow we avoided fundamentalism and literalism when it came to the Bible, but we’ve retained an almost fundamentalist literalism where the historic creeds are concerned.

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