I’ve recently come across Hillsong’s ‘This I Believe (The Creed)’, written by Ben Fielding and Matt Crocker. We’ve sung it in the church where I worship for the past two weeks in place of saying the Nicene Creed or one of Common Worship’s so-called ‘Authorized Affirmations of Faith’. Needless to say, I have some reservations about the Hillsong version, and not just because musically I find it trite (a friend also says it reminds him of Peter Cetera’s ‘The Glory of Love’). I’m finding it hard to articulate my reservations, so what follows is a little disorganized; but it’s fair to say that I think that ‘This I Believe’ dehistoricizes and so depoliticizes the Apostles’ Creed on which it’s (presumably) based. Here are the lyrics:
Our Father everlastingThe all-creating OneGod AlmightyThrough your Holy SpiritConceiving Christ the SonJesus our Saviour.I believe in God our FatherI believe in Christ the SonI believe in the Holy SpiritOur God is three in oneI believe in the resurrectionThat we will rise againFor I believe in the Name of Jesus.Our Judge and our DefenderSuffered and crucifiedForgiveness is in youDescended into darknessYou rose in glorious lifeForever seated high.I believe in youI believe you rose againI believe that Jesus Christ is Lord.I believe in life eternalI believe in the virgin birthI believe in the saints’ communionAnd in your holy Church.I believe in the resurrectionWhen Jesus comes againFor I believe in the Name of Jesus.
At first glance, there aren’t too many problems with the words to ‘This I Believe’. All three persons of the Trinity are mentioned, and there are references to the Son’s conception by the Holy Spirit, the virgin birth, the Son’s crucifixion and suffering, the communion of saints, the Church, and so on. But there are, I think, some significant omissions that present a dehistoricized version of the Christian faith. So while there’s a reference in ‘This I Believe’ to the virgin birth, there’s no reference to Mary. And while there’s mention of the Son’s suffering and crucifixion, there’s no mention of Pontius Pilate. But why? The omission of Mary and Pilate from the Apostles’ Creed could encourage a more mythical interpretation of the Son’s life rather than one that situates him at a particular time and in a particular place. Moreover, there is no explicit statement that Christ died and was buried. Of course, ‘crucified’ presumes death, but the lack of reference to Christ’s death and burial avoids making a necessary connection with the reality of life and death in first-century Palestine under Roman rule.
‘This I Believe’ also alters and embroiders the Apostles’ Creed. The Son (presumably) is described as ‘our Judge and our Defender’, but this is ambiguous. Of whom is Jesus the Judge? Does the ‘our’ in ‘our Judge’ refer to every person in the world or to Christians alone? If the latter, then arguably the geopolitical sovereignty of the risen and ascended Son is almost a fiction. And why is Jesus described as ‘our Defender’? Again, is this a reference to the whole world or just to Christians? If the latter, then how far is this idea of Jesus as ‘our Defender’ no more than a belief in Jesus as a Big Brother or a bodyguard, someone eager to protect Christians from the nasty bullies or elements of the world?
Elsewhere in ‘This I Believe’, Jesus descended into darkness – but not to the dead. ‘Darkness’ lacks the finality of ‘the dead’, perhaps, and needn’t even mean ‘the dead’ (unless, of course, the songwriters are channelling Old Testament conceptions of Sheol). There is a statement about resurrection, but not necessarily resurrection of the body; a belief in the holy Church, but not the holy catholic Church; a recognition that ‘forgiveness is in you’, but no clear recognition that this forgiveness is specifically the forgiveness of humanity’s sins; and an acknowledgement that the Son is ‘forever seated high’, but not that he is seated at the right hand of the Father, with all the geopolitical connotations this conviction entails. And finally, is the phrase ‘You rose in glorious life forever seated high’ a conflation of Christ’s resurrection and ascension, two events in the life of Christ that the Apostles’ Creed itself takes care to distinguish? This, alongside the line ‘I believe in the resurrection when Jesus comes again’, could express a theology that sees salvation primarily as isolation and extraction from the world.
All these things suggest to me that ‘This I Believe’ is a dehistoricized version of the Apostles’ Creed. The tenets of belief have been stripped of any clothes that might root them in a reality that doesn’t prioritize the internal life of the individual believer. This means that ‘This I Believe’ is not only a dehistoricized version of the Apostles’ Creed, but a depoliticized version, too. The affirmation that Christ is forever seated high as ‘our Judge and our Defender’ is surely an impoverished view of the sovereignty exercised by the risen Son as received by his Father, the sovereignty to judge the living and the dead.
Now I’ll admit that many of these points may seem to be stretching things a little. After all, if ‘This I Believe’ is simply based on the Apostles’ Creed, then it probably doesn’t need to include every single detail contained within its source. But here’s the thing: Any act of editing, including this song, is a process of deciding what elements to leave in and what elements to leave out. Thus it’s legitimate to ask why certain things have been ‘removed’ from the Apostles’ Creed – for example, Mary and Pilate, or Christ’s death and burial. I can’t say for certain why Fielding and Crocker chose to write what they did; but my concern is that, as it stands, ‘This I Believe’ is a dehistoricized and so depoliticized version of the Apostles’ Creed. Why is this a problem? In my view, a dehistoricized and depoliticized Apostles’ Creed is more amenable to those whose faith is predominantly an individualized, internalized spirituality, one focussed on salvation as extraction from the world rather than on salvation as transformation of the world, and all expressed using terms sympathetic to a theological therapeuticism.