Confessing Our Faith – What is a Creed?

Scripture Reading – Romans 10:5-11 (NRSV)

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law that “the person who does these things will live by them.” 6But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7“or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”

What is a creed? With very few exceptions, the worship services of our congregation include an opportunity to “confess our faith” using the words of one of the two creeds found in our hymnal – the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. We’ll spend some time over the next couple of weeks talking about those particular texts (and another historic creed of the church), but before we get there we must deal with this question: What is a creed?

Our English word “creed” finds its source in the Latin verb credo, which means “I believe”. At base, then, a creed is nothing more or less than a statement of belief or faith, a text that attempts to describe the object of one’s trust. Most often this is used in religious context, but not exclusively. For example, back in 1917, a man named William Tyler Page wrote what came to be known as the “American’s Creed”, recognized by the US House of Representatives on April 3, 1918.

I believe in the United States of America as a government of the people, by the people, for the people; whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed, a democracy in a republic, a sovereign Nation of many sovereign States; a perfect union, one and inseparable; established upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes.

I therefore believe it is my duty to my country to love it, to support its Constitution, to obey its laws, to respect its flag, and to defend it against all enemies.

[“The American’s Creed”,

As Christians, of course, our faith is not in a government, but in God. From the beginning of the Christian faith (and even before), creeds have been a part of our common life. The people of Israel found their identity in a common confession recorded in Deuteronomy 6:4-5:

Hear, O Israel. The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Jewish Publication Society, 1999)

This creed set the Israelites apart from virtually every other people in the region of the world in which they lived. Their insistence on the oneness of God (and on their belonging to that one God) was considered by the surrounding nations and tribes to be at best naïve and at worst sacrilegious, because it caused them to ignore other gods who were considered to be worthy of worship by those other peoples.

Christianity had this same problem after it arose. The Roman Empire embraced the worship of many different gods, from the gods who were believed to deal with specific households, to the gods of the Roman pantheon (Zeus, Jupiter, Mercury, etc.), to the emperor himself, who was considered to be divine and to exercise the will of God through his authority on earth. For those early Christians, the most basic (and important) confession was the one recounted in the reading for this evening: Jesus is Lord. This confession made one’s allegiance immediately clear, both for good and for ill.

And so it has continued throughout the church’s history. As Christians have read and interpreted Scripture and wrestled with their experience of God in Christ and through the Holy Spirit, the church has from time to time found new ways to express its understanding of the divine. In some cases, those expressions were intended to form clear dividing lines between people – those who accepted and confessed a particular creed signaled that they belonged to one community or another, while those who didn’t were considered to have placed themselves outside that community. We’ll see this most clearly when we look at the Athanasian Creed in three weeks. This process is not confined to the early centuries of the church’s history, either. The Reformation movements of the sixteen century spawned a series of confessional and creedal statements, like the Augsburg Confession accepted by Lutheran churches throughout the world, or the Westminster Confession of Faith accepted by the majority of the Reformed churches. Even into the twentieth century, Christians found themselves drafting new confessions to speak powerfully to current events. One example would be the Barmen Declaration written and signed in 1934 by members of the Confessing Church movement in Germany during the Third Reich, declaring their faith in God and their understanding that the German Evangelical Church had so closely aligned itself with the National Socialist government that it had ceased to function as the church of Jesus Christ.

Christianity is somewhat unusual among the major world religions in this manner of confessing faith. Perhaps no other religion places such emphasis on declaring one’s allegiance to God in ways both old and new, and this creates both problems and opportunities. What does it mean to confess our faith in the twenty-first century using words written (in some cases) over 1600 years ago? What would a “modern” confession of faith look like for us? How do “the creeds” and other statements of faith both unite and divide us? These are some of the questions we’ll explore over the next month. As “homework”, I would invite you to look closely at the words we’ll be studying next week – the words of the Apostles’ Creed – and to ask yourself some of the following questions: What do they mean for you? Do you agree with all of them? Is there anything you would add if you had the opportunity? How does this creed function in the life of our community? I look forward to hearing your thoughts and reflections as we journey through this Lenten season.

Let us pray.

Most high and holy God, pour out upon us your one and unifying Spirit, and awaken in every confession of the whole church a holy hunger and thirst for unity in you; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

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