I Believe

        In September of 2000, the Australian rock duo, Savage Garden, sang their then-popular song, "Affirmation," at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics. Every line begins with the phrase "I believe." Take a moment, if you are unfamiliar with this song, to read the lyrics, or watch the youtube video of the event (below).

 

        While we may not agree with everything in this song, there is probably something in there which we can "affirm." When a Sunday School "Seekers" class listened to it a while back, they noted that some of the lines made sense because experience had told them, for instance, that "you donít know what youíve got until you say goodbye" (as the song states), or "the sun should never set on an argument," each prefaced with the words, "I believe."

        This song is a "creed." With enthusiasm, the artists are speaking what they believe, which is what "Credo" means - "I believe." Of course, there are probably some lines in that song which you might not be able to affirm. For instance, saying "I believe in Karma" presents a problem for a Christian, for it is a concept (recently popularized by the television show, "My Name is Earl") from another religion. But every problem presents a possibility.

Karma - "A personís acts and their ethical or physical consequences. Human actions are held to generate the power behind the round of rebirths and deaths which must be endured by the individual until liberation is attained. Thus, in this or in some future existence the individual becomes heir to the consequence (karma) of his or her own deeds. This is a basic doctrine for Hindus, Buddhists, and Jainas, though they differ as to its nature and process."
       (Christopher R. King, from Abingdon Dictionary of Living Religions,
                Keith Crim, ed., ©1981, Abingdon Press, Nashville, p. 403.)

        We are living in an exciting age, when many religions are vying to be heard. Gone are the days in this country when "Christian" ideas were the only voice. Why is this "exciting?" Well, because our faith, as followers of Jesus Christ, flowers abundantly in such an atmosphere. These days are not unlike the early days of the church, when Christians made their case for Jesus in a very pluralistic society. It was a period of phenomenal growth!

        Those first followers of Jesus knew what they believed - because they had to. They didnít depend upon the culture to speak the truth they had discovered. They spoke it themselves, with "gusto!" Even when they were persecuted for doing so. Listen to 1 Peter 3:14-16:

         "But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame."       (NRSV)

        "Always be ready to make your defense..." The word in Greek (the language in which these words were originally written) for defense is "apologia." Does that look familiar? We associate the word - "apology" - with admitting failure, telling someone we are sorry. Thatís not really what it means in this case, in relation to what we believe. Many of us are very apologetic about our faith, but more in the sense of being ashamed of it. We donít want to offend anyone, or stand out as different. However, being "different" is not bad. Jesus called us to be the "salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13), to add real flavor to this world. We are seasoning. Salt is also a preservative, it helps keep food from spoiling. How might that apply to what Jesus calls us to be?

        We canít be a preservative, we can't add flavor, however, if weíre ashamed of the taste of our faith. "Always be ready" to share it, the Bible says, to give "an accounting for the hope that is in you." Of course, there are tasteless ways of doing so, being "offensive" or "defensive" (in the negative sense of both words) in how we share what we believe. We are, scripture says, to "do it with gentleness and reverence..." Thatís the key, isnít it? Even so, we are called to "do it," to share what we believe, to give "an accounting for the hope" within us, to "be ready to make (our) defense," our "apologia," without being intimidated (or intimidating others, for that matter).

        Of course, in order to do so, we need to know what it is that we believe. Down through the centuries, followers of Jesus have tried to put into words their "credo," their "I believe." One of the earliest efforts is known as the Apostleís Creed. As you read it below, recall the enthusiasm of that musical "Affirmation" mentioned above. Listen. Can you hear a joy-filled song behind these words?  The believers who stand beside them literally set the world on fire with their passion. Perhaps the song by Rich Mullins to the right captures some of that quality.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
            the Creator of heaven and earth,

and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
            Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
            born of the Virgin Mary,
            suffered under Pontius Pilate,
            was crucified, died, and was buried.
            He descended into hell.
            The third day He arose again from the dead.
            He ascended into heaven
            and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
            whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
            the holy *catholic church,                     *
"catholic" refers not to
            the communion of saints,                            
the Roman Catholic Church,
            the forgiveness of sins,
                                           but to the universal church.
            the resurrection of the body,
            and life everlasting.

                                 Amen.

 
"Credo" by Rich Mullins (lyrics)

        While you may not agree with everything in this "song of faith," there is probably much in there which you can "affirm," isnít there? Perhaps this affirmation on your part comes because you have read it in the Bible, or because you have personally experienced it to be true (or both). Itís important that we sense the "fire" of the early church in these words, as they spread and defended their faith. Remember, the New Testament as we now have it was not in their hands. The story, and the faith, was in their minds and hearts. The words were alive, not merely ink upon a page.

         Lest I give a wrong impression, however, the formal creeds of Christianity usually came into existence to "defend" (apologia) the faith against persons within the church who were perceived as leading the faithful into heresy. The above "Apostle's Creed" itself sought to counter the teachings of the "Gnostics." For more on this read "The Apostle's Creed Versus Gnosticism."

        Now, some churches repeat the creed above, or some of the creeds that have followed it, every week in worship. Our "Seekers" class noted that point as we read through the Apostleís Creed together, for this creed was very ingrained in the memory of some of them, having been raised in such churches. They spoke it with almost a groan, as if the words were not full of spirit, but rather were like dead weight placed upon their shoulders.

        Belief, though, is not a dead weight. It is a power which can set the world on fire. When a creed is so formal that it is like dead weight, it loses its power. Those who bear it then cease to be "salt." Our Brethren forebearers understood this when they stepped out by faith nearly 300 years ago. The Creeds of Christendom had become fortresses to defend property, used by religious and political rulers to define their territory. If you could affirm "their" particular creed, you were "in." If not, you were "out." Literally.

        Against that background, the early Brethren stated their own belief that "we have no creed but the New Testament," an affirmation which is still part of who we are as a church. To better understand our emphasis upon this, read our Annual Conference statement "The New Testament as our Rule of Faith and Practice." Please note, we do not say we have "no creed." Sometimes, Brethren have fallen into that trap. Furthermore, this can become a hot-button issue for Brethren whenever a statement approaches looking like a creed. Some Brethren will not utter the Apostleís Creed if it is included in worship for, after all, we have "no creed." But thatís not really true. We do believe in something, otherwise we would cease to exist. I, for one, can affirm most of the basic creeds of the wider church of Jesus Christ, but I know any statement of faith only scratches the surface.

        In his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin recorded a conversation with Michael Wohlfahrt, whom he identified as one of the founders of the Brethren:

       "He [Wohlfahrt] complained to me that they [the Dunkers] were grievously calumniated by the zealots of other persuasions, and charged with abominable principles and practices to which they were utter strangers. I told him this had always been the case with new sects, and that, to put a stop to such abuse I imagined it might be well to publish the articles of their belief, and the rules of their discipline. He said that it had been proposed among them, but not agreed to, for this reason: ĎWhen we were first drawn together as a society,í says he, Ďit had pleased God to enlighten our minds so far as to see that some doctrines, which we had once esteemed errors, were real truths. From time to time He has been pleased to afford us farther light, and our principles have been improving, and errors diminishing. Now we are not sure that we have arrived at the end of this progression, and at the perfection of spiritual or theological knowledge; and we fear that, if we should print our confession, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confined by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive farther improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from.í

       "This modesty in a sect is perhaps a singular instance in the history of mankind," Franklin wrote, "every other sect supposing itself in possession of all truth, and that those who differ are so far in the wrong."

        Wohlfahrt was indeed baptized by the Brethren, but later became a leader of the Ephrata Community, a monastic group that broke off from the Brethren.

Source: "A Singular Instance," Kenneth I. Morse, The Brethren Encyclopedia,
Elgin, IL: The Brethren Press, 1983, II:943. Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography [1788 continuation],
New York: Henry Holt & Co, 1912, 128-29.

        Ideally, any formal creed is understood as a photograph in time of where those who composed it stood at the moment. Some churches periodically update their creeds as a reminder of this fact. The Brethren, themselves, have not been totally adverse to creedal-like statements. An example is the Brethren Card, though when it was first written and approved in the latter 19th century, our denomination emphasized emphatically that it was not to be construed as a creed (even though it sure looks like one). It's not a bad document, one which I can also affirm - though I struggle with a few parts of it.

        "Struggling," or "wrestling" is important for faith. After all, as followers of Jesus of Nazareth we are spiritual descendants of Jacob. You may recall, Jacob wrestled with God on the banks of the Jabbok river one night and, in blessing him, God gave Jacob a new name - "Israel,"  a name which means "one who contends with God(see Genesis 32:22-32). In its best sense, a creed comes from such wrestling. It should always be pointing beyond itself, to the One with whom we "wrestle," whose "Word" is a lamp that helps illuminate the path upon which we walk now (Psalm 119:105). I challenge you to do a bit of wrestling, to sit down and ponder what you believe. With the New Testament as your/our truest creed, see what kind of inspired "I believe" comes forth.

        Of course, your "I believe" is part of a larger picture. You do not stand alone, especially when coming to the source from which our faith flows. Another key Brethren (if not also Christian) understanding is that Bible study is not a solo effort - we come to the written Word as a community of faith, not as lone rangers, each hearing God speak. When shared, it's amazing what "farther light" is shed upon our common journey with Jesus.

        One caution: the faith with which we live is not just a mind-trip. I still recall our 2002 Annual Conference moderator, Paul Grout, speaking to the relational aspect of our Credo. When returning home after being away a long time, he doesn't come to his wife and affirm her existence, saying "I believe in you." No, he enfolds her in his arms and expresses the love that is between them. The same needs to be true of our relationship with God. To say that we believe in God's existence is a far cry from a living relationship where real love is greater than faith and hope, as the apostle Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 13:13. Can our Credo reflect this? ... I believe it must.


        Want more on this topic? Why not explore some of the creeds in the Bible itself?  Or check out "No Creed but the New Testament?," by Richard B. Gardner, or Frank Ramirez's article on "Creeds and the Church of the Brethren."  Also, try to understand how Brethren approach Biblical Inspiration and Authority. Michael H. Anderson, a Presbyterian minister, has done a good job of compiling many of the major "Creeds of Christendom," including historic denominational statements. Our Mennonite cousins are not as adverse to creeds as we are, and you can check out some of their "wrestling" in a recent Mennonite Confession of Faith.


            National Public Radio (NPR) has an interesting collection of on-air essays on this topic - from a wide range of viewpoints - secular and religious - in its "This I Believe" series. Check it out.


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©2001 Peter L. Haynes

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