Jesus Christ is Risen! An Examination of Creeds and Confessions

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

As we celebrate Easter we are all reminded afresh about what lies at the heart of Christian faith; namely, that Jesus Christ bodily rose from the dead, triumphing over evil, sin and death.  St. Paul declares that if Jesus Christ is not risen we are still in our sins and our preaching is useless (I Cor. 15:12-20).  This is why it is so important that Christians regularly confess the historic creeds of the faith (Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed).  These creeds remind us of the heart of the Christian faith. I am amazed at the quiet disappearance of Creeds in many worship services today.

To see the value of a creed we must first understand the difference between a creed and a confession of faith.  A creed is a historic declaration of the faith which unites all Christians throughout the world and across the annals of time. It is, if I can use the word, an ecumenical statement, i.e. it is for the whole “house of faith.”  A confession of faith, on the other hand, may emphasize certain beliefs that a particular group of Christians want to emphasize but does not unite the whole house of faith.

Take, for example, the collections at the back of the United Methodist hymnal.  The UMC hymnal has nine “confessions” all under the general heading “Affirmations of Faith.”  What follows, more precisely, are the two creeds (Nicene and Apostles), four confessions of faith (United Church of Canada, Korean Methodist church, a Modern affirmation and the World Methodist Social Affirmation), and, finally, there are three affirmations from three passages of Scripture (from Romans 8, Colossians 1 and I Timothy).  It is rather unfortunate that no explanation is given as to the vital differences between these.

The United Church of Canada statement has a rather vague statement of the incarnation, is not explicitly Trinitarian, and totally omits the ascension of Jesus Christ.  The Korean Methodist church statement boldly confesses that Jesus Christ is the “redeemer and savior of the world” but curiously omits the crucifixion of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and the ascension of Christ.  It would be hard to reconstruct the meta-narrative of the New Testament if one only had the Korean Methodist Church statement. The Modern Affirmation likewise omits the crucifixion, resurrection and the ascension of Christ.  The World Methodist Social Affirmation confuses the two uses of the word “confession.”  It begins as a “confession” meaning a declaration of faith, but then drifts into a “confession”  about how we have not lived up to the truth of the gospel through our sin, violation of human dignity, exploitation of people, etc.  It is, of course, a good thing to confess our sins publicly (see earlier blogs on this point), but a confession of faith is supposed to be about what He has done, not what we have not done.  The Scriptural affirmations are, of course, wonderful and should be used in public worship.  We need more Scripture read, not less.

Thus, my word of advice on this collection at the back of the United Methodist Hymnal is that United Methodist churches should politely avoid using any of the four confessions in public worship.  They are simply too weak theologically to sustain the faith of the church and they do not unite us with the church throughout the world and back in time. Instead, we should include as a normal component of worship a creed, Nicene or Apostles, or a Scriptural affirmation (Romans 8, Colossians 1, or 1Timothy).


  • Bearing in mind, however, that the version of the Nicene Creed in the back of the UM Hymnal contains the filioque, which is not accepted by the Eastern orthodox church (and by many theologians, as well). But, otherwise, I think your advice is sound.

  • Clay Knick says:

    I always include, with a rare exception, the Apostles’ Creed. I never, ever use the others mentioned, except for the Nicene Creed. The others are vapid, ahistorical, & boring.

  • JAy. says:

    Dr. Tennett, I agree with you completely. I would add one caveat, especially for churches that use the Scriptural confessions: Don’t get “stuck” on a single confession. The most thorough creed is the Nicene Creed. The most historical is the Apostles Creed. There are good reasons to use them. While the Scriptural confessions are nice for a change, it is important to remember the Creeds really define who we as Christians claim to be.

  • Mary Fisher says:

    Dr Tennett, I believe the creeds are key to our formation as the people of God but I also recognize that as NT Wright says there is a major lack.

    They go from virgin birth to standing before Pilate and crucifixion with no understanding of the profound inbreaking inauguration of the Kingdom in the life of Jesus, the anointed.

    Combined with the rank individualism so dominant in the Western church this leads to a lack which manifests itself in profound ways. Perhaps not so much in Methodist tradition but The Creeds lack of emphasis on the in breaking Kingdom needs to be noted.

  • I agree that the creeds and scriptural affirmations should be said regularly and often, however, I see no harm in occasionally reading together one of the confessions. While you are absolutely correct, they do not encompass the entire Christian theology in the way that the creeds do, I do not believe that we can dismiss them so casually as not belonging in our traditions. They state some very foundational spiritual truths, in very beautiful language. I will incorporate the reading of one of these about once every two months.

  • You’ve focused our attention on a vital area of worship. The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds hold a central role in our Methodist tradition and, even more importantly, the whole tradition of the Church. I’m thankful that an orthodox Anglican friend pointed out the deficiencies of our hymnal’s confessions early in my ministry. The only other affirmation I’ve used very occasionally is one from the Confession of St. Patrick, which while it does not rise to the significance of the ecumenical creeds, does provide a significant and ancient alternative from what can become too familiar words.

  • Kelly says:

    For a long time, I haven’t been a part of a church that says either the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed. For the last three years, I went to a church that didn’t even use the Lord’s Prayer. Having grown up in traditions that did those things, I do miss it, and I feel as if I have more of an appreciation for them when I’ve been away from them for some time. I even credit the Catholic church and the recitation of the Nicene Creed weekly in my childhood with helping me to hold on to my belief even when I had many questions and doubts.

  • Bob Kaylor says:

    I recall N.T. Wright’s assertion, however, that the historic creeds were meant to resolve controversies about the divinity of Christ but have somehow become the sum total of much Christian faith. The creeds do not mention the kingdom of God, for example, which is inexorably tied to both the cross and the resurrection. The creeds jump from the birth of Jesus directly to his death (“Born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate…”). But what about all that stuff in the middle? Is that not “essential” as well? What about the kingdom, what about the conduct of discipleship, what about what we DO with this image of Christ? E. Stanley Jones asserted, “As the Apostles’ Creed now stands you can accept every word of it and leave the essential self untouched. Suppose we had written [the Sermon on the Mount] into our creeds and had repeated each time with conviction: ‘I believe in the Sermon on the Mount and its way of life, and I intend, God helping me, to embody it!'” (Christ of the Mount, 12).Yes, we say the historic creeds in our worship here, too, but we have a Christianity that is often too enamored with statements about Jesus than we are enamored with following him. We need a more fully biblical creedal tradition.

  • Nun in Gottes Namen, dass kann man, muss man aber nicht so sehen. Aber ich werde darüber nachgrübeln. Ist unter Umständen auch für mich brauchbar.