I suspect that many of the readers who find their way to this blog have a rather strong aversion to evangelical statements of faith—such as that of the Evangelical Alliance in the UK—probably because they are perceived in this easy-going postmodern age to be crudely propositional and coercive. I am less worried about the epistemological shortcomings of the genre than about the fit with scripture. Statements of faith have the form of a synopsis of the biblical narrative, but when you look closely, it becomes apparent that they are a highly refined and selective synopsis. They are theological rather than historical documents.
Consider this simple observation. The Bible is full of historical events. Indeed, it is of its essence a largely accidental account of the tumultuous history of a people from Abraham to just before the outbreak of hostilities against Rome—and beyond that if we include the prophetic-apocalyptic material in the New Testament. The typical evangelical statement of faith, however, makes virtually no reference to historical events. Creation and the “personal and visible return of Jesus Christ” do not qualify, which leaves us with the incarnation—the birth of Jesus to a virgin—which is included for theological rather than historical reasons.
The creeds, despite their narrative structure, are little better: we believe that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate”. It is interesting that Jesus is located in Europe’s story rather than Israel’s, but that’s the extent of it. There is no reference to anything that happened in the Old Testament, no reference to Israel or to any of the critical events that shaped the self-understanding of the biblical people of God: exodus, kingdom, exile, the clash with empire, occupation, the war against Rome, the victory over paganism….
I think that this oversight could amount to a quite serious contradiction of the claims of modern evangelicalism to be biblically grounded.
It also made me wonder what a narrative-historical creed might actually look like. What follows is only a rough draft, an adaptation, that begins to push the content of the classic creeds in this direction. There’s plenty of scope for discussion about the details, and it could certainly be done more consistently. It’s more the principle of the thing. What we believe is a theologically significant but historically grounded story about where we have come from and where we are going.
We believe in God, the maker of heaven and earth, who sustains the unfolding of all life;
Who called a people in Abraham for his own possession and for his own purposes, to be a new beginning, a new creation, in the midst of the nations;
Who entered into judgment against his people Israel, subjecting them to the heavy hand of pagan empire.
We believe in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, Israel’s king;
Born under Augustus, executed under Tiberius;
Who died to save his rebellious people from destruction;
Who was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures and was exalted to the right hand of the Father;
Who was given the name which was above every name, for the sake of the glory of Israel’s God in the ancient world;
Who was made judge and ruler of the nations;
And through whom his persecuted followers came to inherit the empire and then the world.
We believe in the Holy Spirit;
Who is the presence of the creator God in the midst of his people;
Who gives life and form and endurance to God’s new creation.
We believe in one people under Christ, redeemed from the corrosive power of sin, transformed by the events of the New Testament story, justified by its persistent trust in the creator, called to live practically and prophetically in the light of the final renewal of all things.
We believe in a final justice, the final defeat of Satan, evil and death. We believe in the new heavens and the new earth, the reconciliation of creator and creation, and the healing of the nations.