A number of my blogging friends (here, here here, and here) have been posting about the importance and value of the creeds (mainly Apostles and Nicene) for Christian belief and practice. They also have engaged in debate about whether John Wesley’s leadership and United Methodist identity require acceptance and use of the creeds. Those posts all generally agree that our United Methodist Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith are normatively shaped by the creeds and in certain places use explicitly creedal language (such as the Nicene Creed) in their statements. I agree with these friends’ claims regarding the importance of the creeds.
Understandably, others are pushing back. They worry that the creeds represent a wooden dogmatism requiring unnecessary and unhelpful – perhaps even damaging – strictures on faith. Their worries remind me of an earlier argument in a part of church history particularly relevant for United Methodists. Let’s take a glance at that movement known as Pietism and its “founder” or “father,” Philip Jakob Spener, a Lutheran pastor/theologian. The Pietist movement had direct influence on the Wesleys.
Philip Spener lived from 1635 to 1705. He pastored in Frankfurt-am-Main, served in the Saxon Court at Dresden, and finished his ministry in Berlin. He is probably best known for the book, Pia Desideria, a work originally intended as the introduction to the book of another leader in Lutheran circles. It became a stand-alone treatise as the apologia for the Pietist Movement and continues to provide guidance to the church today. In it Spener emphasized and explained the crucial importance of a living faith as opposed to a dead orthodoxy.
In the German Lutheranism that Spener knew, the church was divided by alternative and opposing viewpoints regarding what beliefs and practices best represented Martin Luther and his tradition. One of those parties came to be known as Lutheran Orthodoxy. My old PhD advisor, Dr. K. James Stein, has written an illuminating biography on Spener and this context, so I’ll refer the interested reader to his work, Philip Jakob Spener, Pietist Patriarch (Covenant Press, 1986) and leave it at that. The relevant point for us is that Spener was very concerned to overcome dry, dead, reductionistic faith that focused on agreement with correct doctrines as the sum total of faith.
Spener became convinced (as illustrated in Pia Desideria) that there is far more to the faith than mere intellectual agreement with theological statements. He preached and wrote voluminously on the new birth and the action of the Holy Spirit. He emphasized the importance of practical obedience and experience in response to scripture reading. He organized people into small groups (collegiae pietas) to help church members grow spiritually and to inspire a living faith that went beyond creedal agreement.
From this spare description one can see the obvious connections to Mr. Wesley and his Methodists. Those Moravian missionaries that Wesley encountered in America and England were Pietist heirs of Spener. Wesley, too, came to emphasize what Spener called living faith as opposed to dry, dead orthodoxy. As recent online arguments have shown, one can find in Mr. Wesley’s writings words and sentiment that seem to give warrant to downplaying creeds almost to the point of ignoring them.
Drawing this inference would be a major mistake, historically and logically. To return to Jim Stein’s biography of Spener, Spener himself was theologically orthodox, in full agreement with the Formula of Concord (a late sixteenth-century summary of Lutheran theology). But Spener was pre-eminently a pastor, who knew that cognitive agreement apart from heartfelt commitment was no true Christian faith. He knew the distinction between the dead letter and the life-giving Spirit. On scripture, for example, he believed that the words on the page were analogous to Moses’ rod. The rod was ordinary until Moses used it in obedience to God’s commands. The words on the page are little more than words unless vivified in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
The same with the Wesleys. The Anglican Articles of Religion and the Homilies of the Church satisfied the Wesleys beyond question as to the deposit of the faith once delivered. There was no need, so to speak, to try to re-invent the wheel. But there was also much, much more to the faith than dry, intellectual assent. Don’t lean on adherence to the creeds as “proof” of real faith. There’s more.
Americans are inexorably pragmatist and au courant. With our cultural biases, creeds as old as the Apostles and Nicene seem to moderns hopelessly out of touch with reality. Why would we insist that we hold ourselves accountable to them? Especially since, it seems by reference to the Pietist Movement and its influence on the Wesleys, we United Methodists have historical and theological precedent for de-emphasizing them. But as I stated earlier, to make this move in our thinking is a mistake.
I know I’m repeating myself from other posts, but it bears repeating. Every group which claims to be Christian, will have a set of beliefs – its dogma – that form and identify that group. The idea that only “orthodox” United Methodists are concerned with doctrine (and illegitimately so) is either an ignorant and naive belief or a disingenuous ploy to play on modern sensibilities. Logically and practically, no group can indefinitely avoid the question of what they consider “orthodox” belief and practice.
But our adherence to the creeds goes far beyond just figuring out who we are and what we stand for. The creeds summarize the life-giving Gospel. The creeds hold us near to the Source of Life. They support freedom, not bondage.
Can they be misused and misunderstood? Of course. Again, I repeat myself when I say that I (and my “orthodox” friends) have no interest in excluding people. This narrative about the intent to exclude people is another one that deludes and obfuscates. In spite of being subject to misunderstanding and abuse, the creeds also provide an indispensable, enduring reference point. They are crucial means of discerning whether we are sharing in the faith once delivered to the saints, whether we are joining that great cloud of witnesses, whether we are on the path that leads to life.
Don’t fear the creeds. They are useful for our edification. We don’t have to trade them off against fresh experience and Holy Spirit activity. The Spirit and the letter: we need them both.