A narrative-historical creed (first draft)

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 They are theological rather than historical documents.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.

Good first shot. i am wondering if changing the tense to "We have always believed in..." wouldn't add some sense of a historical continuity to the beliefs? I always feel that saying "We believe" makes the belief current (which is a good thing) at the expense of the continuity of belief (tradition). Also perhaps change "Who died to save his rebellious people from destruction" to say something like "Who died to vanquish death" - which would link it back to the (older) Christus Victor tradition?

Anyway - great first draft! Really great!

Leo, that’s an excellent suggestion. The only problem is that the church has not always believed in this way, but I may take it up all the same, for the reasons that you give.

The second point I’m not so sure about. The victory over death is important. It is there in the reference to Jesus’ resurrection and could perhaps be made more explicit. It’s also there at the end. But I would not want to lose the historical notion of Jesus saving the people of God from the impending disaster of war, which was understood as God’s judgment on a sinful nation.

Dana Ames | Fri, 10/07/2011 - 18:19 | Permalink

Interesting concept.

Wright likens the Creed to a suitcase, in which things are more easily transportable, but which must be unpacked.  Part of the problem is the assumption that people today even know the references of each point that is being unpacked.  I do think everything in the Nic/Const creed can be unpacked to cover your points.  Ex:  "his kingdom shall have no end" covers the life & miracles of Christ - and even the "political" aspects of his announcement - as well as what will happen at his return.  I think we have lost the ability to do that unpacking in understandable terms, if we indeed ever had it, which is of course the major part of your complaint/thesis...


Why did the God of Israel enter into judgment with his people?

What does "the only Son of God" mean?  Does "born" mean born as a real, physical, truly human being?  This is the meaning of Mary being mentioned in the Nic/Const creed.

"Crucified under Pontius Pilate" is a very definite localized historical "peg":  Pilate only had the authority to crucify anyone during his prefecture in Judea, 26-36 CE.

"Who died to raise his rebellious people from destruction" is only part of the reason he died, if you want to reflect what Christians have believed since the beginning.  This can be indicated without getting into an "individualized salvation gospel" sort of thing.

"Raised on the third day" does not necessarily mean the same as "arose from the dead".

The phrase re the Holy Spirit in the Nic/Const Creed, "who spoke through the prophets", points to the Jewish prophets; when unpacked properly, this should lead us to much of what you wrote under Father and Son.  Unfortunately, again, we haven't shown we know how to do this.

Where is "the Resurrection of the dead"?  The physical resurrection is what distinguished early Christianity (along with much of Judaism) from the rest of the 1st century world, and even many Christians today don't believe that the Resurrection means a material, physical body.  In "classical Christianity" this is the defining feature of the eschaton.




Doug in CO | Sat, 10/08/2011 - 02:21 | Permalink

I think it would be helpful to address the fall, the resultant death, and how Israel's history fixes this.

I agree with Martin and Vaughn in "Beyond Creation Science" that one of the things we tend to do is to ignore the relationship between first things and last things.  I have some problems with their formulation, but I'd like to see others attempt to answer the question as they bravely attempt to do.  In the case of a history based creed, I don't think it is enough to skip from the creation to Abraham without explaining exactly what the dilemma is that God is supposed to be solving in the Biblical narrative.

In the case of a history based creed, I don’t think it is enough to skip from the creation to Abraham without explaining exactly what the dilemma is that God is supposed to be solving in the Biblical narrative.

Agreed, but I wonder how you would answer your own question. I see the call of Abraham as God’s response to a creational dilemma that is more than the disobedience of Adam and Eve. We have had the judgment of the antediluvian generation because of its wickedness and violence. We have had the judgment of the descendants of Noah, who camped on the plain of Shinar and built themselves a prototype of the Babylonian empire. So Abraham is meant to be the beginning of a new creation in microcosm, unlike what has gone before. He will be blessed, made fruitful, he will multiply, and his descendants will fill the land that God will give them.

I'm not exactly sure how I'd answer my own question.  It seems to me that the issue still being solved in Romans is the curse per Adam.  In addition, if all of the blood of the righteous since Able were going to be required of that generation the this implies (assuming that it is Abel the son of Adam in view) that previous judgments had been inadequate to settle the score (but that this one would be).  On the other hand, if you are seeing a new creation in Abraham, then how does this speak to creation anticipating its redemption in Romans 8?  How would a new creation starting with Abraham require dissolving the universe to the atomic level and then recreating it?

My bias at this point is to see a lot of that language as covenantal and figurative.  However, if you move back to the creation story, Adam, the fall, and the curse, using the same ideas you start to step on toes.  It's more complicated that it would seem at first glance.

Thanks for the link. It’s very good. I think there’s still a fair bit of loose theology flapping around in the wind that could be pegged to the ground of history. It seems to me to fall into the category of narrative up to Jesus and then we just have church and theology—the gospel between history and theology category that I may have unfairly applied to Scot McKnight. I think that the New Testament not only presupposes a narrative but also projects a narrative.

Another shortcoming that NT Wright has pointed out in the traditional creeds is the lack of any mention of the life of Jesus and kingdom reality that he enbodied. So a line or two about the “middle bit” between the birth and death of Jesus would be welcomed.

I guess you haven’t answered to the Jeus “raised from the dead” and the bodily resurrection” points Dana Ames mentioned.
Especially the latter point, the individual eschatological motif, seems to have subsumed under new creation, the cosmological motif.

I admire your effort to extend the propositinally-looking creedal formula into an historical-narrative framework and it has many merits, esp. recovering the O.T. themes back into the Story.
But at the end, I feel the propositinal style is justified in emphasizing the particular salvific events stand out clearly.
As in I Cor.15: — Jesus “died,” “buried,” and “raised from the dead,” without providing their salvific theological explanations, it seems to me the events themselves have a primary importance over exploration of their theological meanings.
 That’s why I’m a bit hesitant to put creeds into a smooth narrative form.
The way to do may be pick up some more points left out from, say, the Apostle’s Creed — the O.T. points like Abraham, exodus, exile, and the kingdom.

Or well, I don’t know, I’m not so consistent after all.

Interestingly, though, the Apostles’ Creed has no soteriology, whereas I at least have the line “Who died to save his rebellious people from destruction”.

Jason Coates | Thu, 08/26/2021 - 10:14 | Permalink

Andrew, do you think this creed would benefit with any further updates or changes?