Confessing and Believing (Trevor Hart) -- Review

CONFESSING AND BELIEVING: The Apostle’s Creed as Script for the Christian Life. By Trevor Hart. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2022. Xvi + 336 pages.

                Creeds serve as summations of the Christian faith. As such they represent the way at least some Christians have believed in a particular moment in time. All told many different creeds have emerged over time and continue to emerge as Christians take stock of their faith in a particular moment. Some of these faith statements carry authority in particular communities. They can be used as gatekeepers. If you affirm the confession, you’re in. If not, you’re out. Among these many creeds and confessions, two stand out as especially important. The Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed are embraced in some fashion by most Christian communities and thus are seen as ecumenical rather than denominationally specific confessions.

                Of these two ecumenical creeds/confessions, the Apostles' Creed is the briefest and thus used more often in worship than the Nicene Creed. The Apostle’s Creed, because of its compact nature is often turned to by theologians who wish to reflect on the basic elements of the Christian faith. Many of these books, like the Creed itself, are rather brief in scope, which is not true of Trevor Hart’s Confessing and Believing. At over three hundred pages (including endnotes) Hart dives deeply into this central confession of the Christian faith. Although I am part of a non-creedal tradition (Disciples of Christ), I have contemplated writing my own reflection. Perhaps that’s because I grew up in the Episcopal Church and regularly recited the Creed as a child. Thus, I requested a review copy of this commentary on the Creed to see how this theologian dealt with its various parts.

The author of Confessing and Believing, Trevor Hart, is rector of St. Andrews Scottish Episcopal Church and canon theologian of St. Ninian’s Cathedral, Perth, Scotland. Before this, he served as a professor of divinity at the University of St. Andrews. As noted, Hart’s attempt to write a reflection/commentary on the Apostle's Creed is not brief in scope. It runs just under 300 pages, with thirty pages of end notes. In writing this book, Hart not only seeks to offer a theological reflection on this ecumenical creed but suggests that it serves as a "script for the Christian Life." It serves as a description of "mere Christianity," and thus is something to be memorized and taken to heart, to nurture the faith of the believer. Unlike the Nicene and other creeds, the Apostles’ Creed, which was created to respond to deviant ideas or clarify certain beliefs, offers a convenient overview of what C.S. Lewis called “Mere Christianity.” Thus, this was seen to reflect a common set of beliefs held by most Christians. In fact, one of the founders of my faith tradition, Alexander Campbell, rejected creeds but when it came to the Apostles’ Creed, he could find nothing there that did not reflect the biblical witness. In Hart’s mind, the Apostles’ Creed serves as “a digest of what might reasonably be reckoned to be the bare minimum of these—of the gist, we might say, of the apostolic teaching” (p. 4).

Regarding the origin of this Creed, Hart acknowledges that it did not originate with the Apostles. It gets its moniker, not because of its authorship but because it is assumed that it reflects apostolic teaching. Its origins are shrouded in mystery, with the version we have today going back to the ninth century, but there are predecessor confessions, the oldest being a Greek confession from the mid-second century used in the church in Rome. As for its contemporary usage, he notes that in the Anglican tradition, the Apostles’ Creed is generally used in non-eucharistic services such as Morning or Evening Prayer. For the overall purposes of this particular commentary on the Creed, Hart suggests that the Creed is a tool for Christian nurture, something that can be memorized and meditated on in daily life.

With this introduction to the purpose of the Creed, Hart focuses the bulk of this lengthy book on diving into the Creed phrase by phrase, beginning with the declaration “I believe.” Of this word “believe,” Hart notes that it is a transitive verb that requires an object. The declaration of “I believe” points us to a list of items to believe in. He points out that he has chosen to divide/distribute the Creed into twelve distinct chapters. These chapters serve to unpack the first element of the confession— “I believe.” He writes that it is not so much what we believe but who we believe in. That is God as revealed in the person of Jesus, thus the Creed concentrates on Jesus. In his view, "Christianity is not a set of timeless 'religious' truths about the cosmos but an awkward insistence that the world itself is a stage on which a divine drama has been played out in history" (p. 13). The Creed in essence sets out the path on which the Christian embarks. In this opening chapter, he seeks to define the nature of faith and does so with some depth. He speaks of faith (the act of believing) as first and foremost a gift of God. Faith begins with, as we see with Abraham, God’s call and self-revelation. That “belief” eventuates in a relationship with God. Faith does involve assent, but it is more than that. It involves knowledge, but it is also the “conviction of things unseen.” It involves elements that cannot be scientifically proven. It may be a gift but it also involves a response on our part.

With this introduction, Hart then spends the remainder of the book exploring elements of the confession beginning with the opening declaration of belief in “God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.” He continues chapter by chapter exploring each tenet.   The first two chapters, “I believe” and the reflection on the confession of God as Father and Creator, form Part one of the Book. Part II of the book focuses on the declarations concerning the person of Jesus. He divides this section into six chapters, beginning with a chapter reflecting on the confession that Jesus is the Christ and God’s only Son, our Lord. From there he moves in chapter 4 to Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit and being born of the Virgin Mary. This part of the confession is the tricky one for many modern Christians, who not only wonder what it means for Jesus to be conceived by the Holy Spirit, but this statement about being born of the Virgin Mary can be problematic for many. Hart takes note of the Scriptural roots of the doctrine of the virginal conception and then deals with the question of credulity. He acknowledges that to the modern mind, such things as a virginal conception simply don’t happen. We know how biology works, and this isn’t possible. Of course, the ancients might not know exactly what we know, but they knew how things generally worked. While science can tell us what doesn’t happen, could God who created the universe causing a young Palestinian woman to become pregnant without a partner? The point he wants to make is that we need to take confession seriously. As we do this, we, he suggests, need to let go of the idea that this confession of virginal confession has to do with the connection of sex and Jesus’ sinlessness—he reminds us that there is nothing in Scripture that suggests this connection. Secondly, he addresses the idea that a virginal conception is needed for the incarnation. In his view, it is s possible to imagine God taking on flesh without being born in this way. So, taking the confession seriously, why might God do things this way? He suggests that “in this particular birth as in no other before or since, God is making a fresh start, initiating a new impulse within humankind, regenerating our nature by taking it upon himself in order to become, as Paul has it, the first fruits of a new creation” (p. 98). While his reflection might not satisfy everyone (I still struggle with this part of the confession), he does attempt to take the confession seriously and not merely skip over it as just an example of an earlier time that has no meaning for us. I paused to reflect a bit on this often-problematic text, but he then moves on to Jesus' suffering, death, burial, descent to the realm of the dead, resurrection, ascension, and Jesus' return to judge the living and the dead.

Finally, in Part II he has four chapters, beginning with the Creed's brief mention of the Holy Spirit, followed by explorations of the holy catholic Church, the forgiveness of sins, and concluding with the resurrection and life everlasting. Regarding the Holy Spirit, with this confession, we turn in the Creed from what God does for us to what God does in us and with us, and through us. This is where we become involved in the story.

Among reflections on the Creed, this is on the lengthy side. It will require some thought and attention to stay with it. It has an academic tone, but with some work on the reader’s part, Confessing and Believing will serve a theologically sophisticated audience with fruit that might nourish the faith. He asks us to deal with aspects of the Creed that can be challenging, such as the reference to the virginal conception of divine judgment. While I would say that his theological vantage point might be described as traditional, he is not dogmatic in the way he presents the material. Thus, it is a significant contribution to discerning what this mere Christianity might look like. Most definitely, Hart takes us much deeper than C.S. Lewis did. As for me, being that I am part of a non-creedal tradition that is open to hearing and reflecting on these confessional statements, for us, it’s not the creed itself but its use by some to exclude those who cannot embrace elements of the confession (perhaps the virginal conception). Books like Confessing and Believing, can, if we understand the creeds to be summations of belief reflecting particular points in time, prove useful in deepening our understanding of the Christian faith.


Leonard Allen said…
Thank you for this informative and careful review. You convinced me that I need to read and use it.