Each Sunday after church we gather in the narthex to socialize a bit. A congregant turned to our rector and asked, “Why the change in the Apostles’ Creed from the ‘I’ believe to the ‘We’ believe?”
It was a really good question and I could not help but recall Ben Myers’s little book, The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism. Although I mentioned this excellent source previously, I decided to look back at what he said. Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter titled, appropriately, “I”.
The first word is perhaps the strangest part of the whole Apostles’ Creed: “I.” Who is this I? Whose voice is speaking in the creed?
I have been to wedding ceremonies where the couple write their own vows. It is a recent custom that reflects wider cultural changes. In the past, one of the things that made a wedding special was the fact that you got to say exactly the same words that everybody else said. When a couple said their vows, they weren’t just expressing their own feelings. They didn’t use their own words; they used the same words that their parents and their ancestors had spoken, and they made those words their own.
But today we are skeptical about the past. We are skeptical about anything that is merely handed down to us. We assume that the truest thing we could ever say would be something we had made up ourselves. In the same way, Christians today are often suspicious of creeds. Many churches are more comfortable with mission statements than with creeds. The thing about a mission statement is you always get to make it up for yourself. It’s like writing your own wedding vows.
But here’s the paradox. It is the individualized confession, like the personalized wedding vow, that ends up sounding like an echo of the wider society. What could be more conformist than expressing your feelings of love through your own specifically crafted wedding vow? The wedding is a grand occasion, so you want to make it special: but the more you try to personalize it, the more it degenerates into triviality and cliché. The ceremonial quality evaporates.…
By contrast, to confess the creed is to take up a countercultural stance. When we say the creed, we are not just expressing our own views, or our own priorities. We are joining our voices to a great communal voice that calls out across the centuries from every tribe and town. We locate ourselves as part of that community that transcends time and place. That gives us a critical distance from our own time and place. If our voices are still echoes, they are now echoing something from beyond our own cultural movement.
“I believe.” Who is the “I” that speaks when we make that confession? It is the body of Christ. It is a community stretched out across history … the whole company of Christ followers goes down into the waters of baptism, crying out the threefold “I believe!“ in baptism, nobody is invited to come up with their own personal statement of belief. All are invited to be immersed into a reality beyond themselves and to join their individual voices to a community voice that transcends them all.