Words of Faith: A Creedal Church

 

‘Credo’ means ‘I believe’ in the Latin tongue.  It is the creed of the Canadian constitutional documents that your religious faith is not relevant to being Canadian, just being born here makes it so. It is the belief of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, that the society should use strong measures to communicate that alcohol consumption and motor vehicles don’t mix. It is the doctrinal conviction of the United Church of Canada

that that it is our duty, as disciples and servants of Christ, to further the extension of His Kingdom, to do good unto all men, to maintain the public and private worship of God, to hallow the Lord’s Day, to preserve the inviolability of marriage and the sanctity of the family, to uphold the just authority of the State, and so to live in all honesty, purity, and charity, that our lives shall testify of Christ. We joyfully receive the word of Christ, bidding His people go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, declaring unto them that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, and that He will have all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. We confidently believe that by His power and grace all His enemies shall finally be overcome, and the kingdoms of this world be made the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ.(Article 20)

As The United Church of Canada engages in an important discussion of the future of its doctrine, I really have to respond to a rampant cliché. Over and over people will say, “We are not a creedal church.” Let’s start by recognizing that this cliché is a creed. It is a statement of belief . Some seem to be saying that our church should not require adherence to a creed at all, that anyone may be a member, no matter what their belief. The merits of the proposal aside, it is still a creed: “Beliefs don’t matter” is a creed.

Of course that’s not what most people are saying when they say we are not a creedal church, they mean that strict adherence to the Apostles’ Creed, or the Nicene Creed, or the New Creed is not required to be a member (nor paid accountable minister) of the church.  It would be better to say that the creed of the United Church accommodates a range of beliefs. But think about it, every creed does that.  The Apostles’ Creed doesn’t state a particular belief in how many days creation took, merely addressing “God the Father” as “Creator of heaven and earth.”  All creeds have a breadth, just as they have boundaries. To put it another way, by declaring certain things as our common faith, we simultaneously declare that some beliefs don’t matter.

There are those that want to change the essence of the 20 Articles. They don’t believe that “Jesus Christ is the only Mediator between God and man.(Article 7)” Others would just like to update the language, and replace the gender specific “man” with “person.” Some don’t believe about Jesus that “For our redemption, He fulfilled all righteousness, offered Himself a perfect sacrifice on the Cross, satisfied Divine justice, and made propitiation for the sins of the whole world.(Article 7)” Others would quibble about propitiation vs. expiation while the rest of the church rolls its eyes.  These are two very different movements within the church.  The current discussion in the church is not about editing this creed, but about adding various additional statements which may illuminate, limit or even contradict the 20 Articles.

I can’t find myself in common cause with those who think the Christian church through the ages has been wrong about the identity of Christ, or the salvation he declares as his purpose. The United church stands for, and intentionally framed its doctrine to stand with the historic community of Christian faith. I believe that there is a chasm fixed between those who seem to think we are only now beginning to approach knowledge of God, and we who believe “that in the fullness of time He (God) has perfectly revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who is the brightness of the Father’s glory and the express image of His person. (Article 2)” The United Church exists to “proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope(A New Creed)” just as MADD exists to resist drunk driving, or the Heart and Stroke Foundation exists to promote health, and resist smoking. If you don’t believe the core of what these organisations believe, then don’t be a part of them! But if you believe their core beliefs, and wish to participate in their mission, then join in. Creeds are indispensible in giving an organisation its mandate.

In the current doctrine of the United Church, the 20 Articles of Faith, a fair degree of latitude is expressed. For instance, in Article 15, “we acknowledge as a part, more or less pure, of this universal brotherhood(sic), every particular church throughout the world which professes this faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to Him as divine Lord and Saviour.”  This is a rather broad belief about the many denominational distinctives that exist within the universal church.

Much is made of the ordination standard expressed in Polity section 11.2:

The Conference shall examine each Candidate on the Statement of Doctrine of the United Church and shall, before ordination, commissioning, or admission, be satisfied that such Candidate is in essential agreement therewith, and as a member of the Order of Ministry of the United Church accepts the statement as being in substance agreeable to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures.

A key point of debate in this section is the word “essential.” Apparently essential agreement was the phrase chosen to express the belief that particular words and idioms of the 20 Articles might not be the best choice from some people’s point of view, so this allowed a the prospective minister to profess the idea (essence) without necessarily liking the wording. Additionally, in the fine theological points balancing faith and works, election and freedom, predestination and human choice, a candidate for ministry could accept the doctrine as a reasonable compromise rather than a perfect theological statement.

In my opinion, the 20 Articles of Faith are essentially a good creed. In what is declared and in what is not specified it does a great job of expressing the essence of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, through the Scriptures, of the  Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and declaring God’s work and will for his people, the church.  I actually thank God for the times it is a little archaic in language, knowing that contained within its century old provisions is the truth that is greater than any terms we can bring: a truth which nevertheless can be “essentially” communicated in every language and every generation. The greatest effort of the framers of this creed was the attempt to frame ideas that have always, and everywhere been the faith of the body of Christ, and I am pretty sure that from the Apostles to the present day every Christian, in every time and place, could say it expressed the faith that their community knows and practices. Essentially.