The Apostles Creed Says it Best

by Bishop Nolan B. Harmon, Retired
Condensed from Christian Advocate August 22, 1968
Copyright ©1968 by The Methodist Publishing House

Within comparatively recent years there have been placed in our Methodist orders of worship (in The Discipline, The Book of Worship and the Hymnal) along with the Apostles’ Creed, two other “Affirmations of faith.” These were the official formularies of the Methodist Episcopal Church previous to union, and went into The Discipline of the united church in 1939 and then into The Book of Worship when it was first issued in 1944 “for those who might wish to use them.”

One of these statements is called “A Modern Affirmation.” The other is “The Korean Creed. ” Many ministers today seem to prefer one or the other of these statements to the august symbol of the Faith itself, if indeed they have their people repeat any creed at all.

Each of the affirmations is introduced by the impressive statement: Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is the one true Church, apostolic and universal, whose holy faith let us now declare. Then follow in place of the tremendous item by item declarations of the apostolic witness, a few carefully worded sentences, some of which are open to varied interpretations as they express certain Christian viewpoints, but all a long way removed from the comprehensive, unmistakable directness of the Apostles’ Creed itself.

Now no one can object to these modern affirmations being used occasionally as explanations of certain truths of the creed, provided-and this is an important proviso-that the one who uses them, and the people who are led to repeat them, know exactly how far they go and do not go. I for one can say these affirmations with a right goodwill, since I know what they mean, and that they are ex parte only. What I do object to is to give the impression by the sonorous introduction and the constant use of these affirmations in churchwide worship that they embody anything like the comprehensive faith of the Christian Church.

Let it be granted that the Apostoles’ Creed itself does need amplification and explanation, and should have it in all sorts of sermonic and doctrinal teachings. The creed was not written to explain but to list in bare, terse, iron-ribbed language, the factual, actual fundamentals of the Christian faith. Each one of these fundamentals does need explaining, but at much greater length and in sermons and doctrinal teaching which every minister and Christian leader should be prepared to give, and that continuously.

Indeed the Korean Creed, which is much better than the Modern Affirmation, was written as Bishop Herbert Welch explained in The Christian Advocate [August1, 1946, p. 973] to be “intended primarily as a teaching instrument.” It went into The Discipline of the Korean Methodist Church where it is published today as a “Statement of Belief.” It was the goal of those who drew up this statement to make if “brief, including only the few essentials of a practical Christian faith … simple, couched in non-technical language.” This was certainly an understandable move as Bishop Welch and Dr. J. S. Ryang, later bishop himself, worked out this short confession for the nascent church whose people could not then have taken in more.

As to the Modern Affirmation, Bishop Welch tells us in the same issue of The Christian Advocate that this was drawn up by Professor Edwin Lewis of Drew Theological Seminary at the request of Bishop W. P. Thirkield, then chairman of the Commission on Worship and Music of The Methodist Episcopal Church. It was to be “a brief statement of Christian faith which, in addition to the Apostles’ Creed (italics mine), might be recommended to the Church.” So Dr. Lewis wrote, “And the judgment of the commission … was so favorable that his (Dr. Lewis’) statement was adopted without change.”

As one who knew Dr. Lewis well and greatly admired him, and indeed acted as his editor for his later books (I was book editor of the church then), it can be said frankly that Dr. Lewis wrote this statement some years before he came to that epochal point in his life when he admitted publicly that he had changed greatly in his fundamental theological viewpoint. The Edwin Lewis who wrote the Christian Manifesto of 1934 was not the Edwin Lewis who put out (and the General (Conference adopted) the ambiguities of the Modern Affirmation. Even had he been the same man, let it be noted that the Modern Affirmation was to be in addition to—not a substitute for—the Apostles’ Creed. If it and the Korean Creed also can be seen as formularies to supplement and not supplant the Apostles’ Creed, well and good. But full-bodied faith for the church today these affirmations certainly are not, and it will be a bad day for any congregation which is led to believe that they are.

Look at the differences: The Apostles’ Creed affirms belief in God the Father Almighty and in Jesus Christ His Only Son our Lord; it affirms His Incarnation through the Virgin Mary, his appearance in time before Pontius Pilate, His Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, Session on the right hand of God, and declares that He will come to judge the quick and the dead. The whole Christology of the Christian faith is summed up in that one mighty paragraph.

But what says the Modern Affirmation: “We believe in Jesus Christ, Son of God and son of man.” That statement is, of course, correct, but it is exactly the one used by many Unitarians who explain that we are all “sons of God” as well as sons of men, and of course Jesus was also. No unique Sonship, no “only begotten” is herein affirmed.

The “gift of the Father’s unfailing love” goes on the Modern Affirmation. Yes, but how given? No birth, no date in time, no crucifixion, no death, no resurrection, and especially no second coming and no final judgment. What a truncated, lopped-off “holy faith ” we are thus led to declare!

The Korean Creed does it much better, calling Jesus “God manifest in the flesh, our teacher, example, and Redeemer, and the Savior of the world.” All that yes, but how one would like to hear breaking in the long roll of the war-drum of the Nicene Creed with a Jesus Christ who is God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made . . . Who for us men and our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. In contrast with that mighty sentence these modern affirmations sound like the tinkling of ice cubes in a glass of water over against the roar of a heavy surf on the edge of the illimitable sea.

And what of Resurrection, what of Ascension, what of a final Judgment, what of life in the world to come? They just aren’t there. To be sure, the “life everlasting ” is in the Korean Creed, but not much of the rest of the vast divine program which the Apostle’s Creed sets forth, and upon which the church rests the sureness of its hope.

As to the Holy Spirit, the Modern Affirmation declares belief in Him as “the divine presence in our lives.” The Korean has “God present with us for guidance, for comfort, and for strength.” Both these statements are true, but here comes in the troublesome ambiguity of the word “spirit.” I have known many a man refer to the “spirit of God,” or pray for “the spirit of Jesus to be upon us” whom I knew had not the slightest idea of affirming belief in the Third Person of the Holy Trinity. The Apostles’ Creed said flatly: I believe in the Holy Ghost.

Incidentally, it was a bad day for Trinitarian belief in Methodism when Holy Spirit was substituted for Holy Ghost in our copies of the creed. I am one who said so at the table when this was done, as I was on the Commission on Worship when the change was made. One distinguished leader argued that the word ghost had connotations that made it frightening to children; another stated that the word spirit out of the Latin Sanctus Spiritus had always been in the church. Old Dr. Forlines of the Methodist Protestant, group, who combined vast erudition with practical sagacity, moved that we print two editions of the Creed, with Holy Spirit in one and Holy Ghost in the other. So we voted, but when the edition of the Creed came out in Ritual and Discipline of the early 1940’s it was Holy Spirit and that only. (I am glad to see that in our new Hymnal in the Creed we have got an asterisk which allows Holy Ghost as an alternative.)

The difficulty is that the word Spirit lends itself to all sorts of interpretations, as there may be 57 varieties of a holy spirit. The name Holy Ghost cannot possibly be mistaken for any emanation or effulgence, but denominates unmistakably the Ineffable Person who with the Father and the Son is to be worshiped forever.

And what of the church? Well, there is no church at all in the Modern Affirmation. In the Korean Creed it becomes a “fellowship for worship and for service.” It is that of course, but the church, holy and catholic, far transcends earthly patterns of work and worship. It has an entity all its own apart from the fellowship of its earthly members, which fellowship of course is a precious matter. But the church is something vastly more. It is the “pillar and ground of the truth”; “purchased by the blood of Christ”; It is the “company of the first born in heaven”; it exemplifies and embodies the communion of the saints, those on earth and those in glory; it is the body of which Christ is the head, and against which the gates of hell shall not prevail; and this church, holy and catholic, is not even mentioned in the modern substitute creed.

One would not know there is a communion of saints and a forgiveness of sins. Neither are mentioned in the Modern Affirmation. Neither is there a resurrection of the body and a life everlasting in the Modern Affirmation. The goal of it all is “to the end that the kingdom of God may come upon the earth.” The Korean does do it better with a belief in the “final triumph of righteousness”—doesn’t say when or where—and while it affirms life everlasting, it leaves out the resurrection of the body.

The fact is, this Modern Affirmation (leave the Korean Creed aside a moment) was written and adopted in the heyday of that curious, optimistic, irresponsible liberalism that came to full flower in the first three or four decades of this century. Anyone could then see that the world was getting better and better. To stop war, you simply promised not to fight. (Hitler and Mussolini were waiting in the wings.) To bring in the kingdom, you got laws passed in Washington, and the idea that the spirit of man could be evil—well, this was our Father’s world, and “pie in the sky by and by ” was the contemptuous way in which the whole concept of eternity was banished.

Then came on one world war and then came another and all that unthoughted, this-worldly optimism was swept away by genocide and torture on a cosmic scale worthy of the Dark Ages, and the emergence as world powers of proudly atheistic nations. It was realized anew what the church of the ages has always known-that there is a vast malevolent spirit of evil loose in the world (Edwin Lewis wrote God and the Adversary to express this powerfully), that it is a kingdom not of this world which the Lord came to bring and which remains always the true inheritance of the people of Christ. But 1910-1939 couldn’t see it.

Another thing that should be said is that when any item of the Apostles’ Creed is omitted, the whole corpus of belief is mutilated and denatured. Many people do not believe in the Virgin Birth and so do not repeat the creed in order to avoid affirming that. But see what happens when no mention is made of the Lord’s birth. There will be belief in “God, the Father Almighty, and in Jesus Christ His Son our Lord, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified,” etc. No true Incarnation-God just picked out a good man, a normally born Jesus, and made him to be both Christ and Lord, redeemed the world by Him, and has “put all things under His feet!” No real Advent; no tidings of great joy; God to be father just used the body of a human male (proxy fatherhood!) to bring into the world His co-eternal Son! It simply does not add up, certainly not against Matthew and Luke. Admittedly the Virgin Birth is a matter of faith, as it is something which no man, living or dead, ever could or ever can prove or disprove, and which the Virgin Mary herself said she could not understand. But I do not think modern theologians see what they give up when they glibly say they cannot accept it.

Or try ending the Creed at: He ascended into heaven. Period. Period. No Session, no Return, no final Judgment “where the works of earth are tried by a juster judge than here.” Where does that leave us? Right with those modern novelists who clearly depict all the injustices of this world, and cry out against all its evils and wrongs, but not believing in any God, or any world where things will be righted, they take their shotgun and their life. And why not? If there be no God to “judge the living and the dead” why not a pistol or a bottle of sleeping tablets? No wonder the world lacks hope and purpose if it lacks the whole Gospel.

To be sure, we Methodists do leave out the “descent into hell,” but even those who affirm it never claim that it is of the esse of the Faith. John Wesley did keep the descent into hell in the text of the Creed he sent to American Methodism (in Adult Baptism), but he struck out the Article of Religion (Number Ill of the XXXIX) affirming it, when he picked out 24 of the articles for us here. But on this side, Coke and Asbury got the descent into hell out of the text of the creed in short order. Research shows it is not in the early copies of the creed; there is no sure Scripture for it; and whether it happened or did not happen, it is not relevant to the vast truths of Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Judgment to come, basic to the Gospel itself.

Analyzing these “modern” affirmations is not done to argue with brother ministers and leaders of worship over what they personally believe or do not believe. What is objected to is the public palming off as “the Holy Faith of the Church,” these 20th-century affirmations which sound so lofty and leave out so much. If they supplement, yes; if they supplant, no. Let the Apostles’ Creed be used and let its verities be explained and preached- the whole Gospel for the whole world.


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