Sunday, 10 January 2016

The Creed According to Hillsong


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 everlasting
The all-creating One
God Almighty
Through your Holy Spirit
Conceiving Christ the Son
Jesus our Saviour.

I believe in God our Father
I believe in Christ the Son
I believe in the Holy Spirit
Our God is three in one
I believe in the resurrection
That we will rise again
For I believe in the Name of Jesus.

Our Judge and our Defender
Suffered and crucified
Forgiveness is in you
Descended into darkness
You rose in glorious life
Forever seated high.

I believe in you
I believe you rose again
I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord.

I believe in life eternal
I believe in the virgin birth
I believe in the saints’ communion
And in your holy Church.
I believe in the resurrection
When Jesus comes again
For 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.

13 comments:

  1. There is a problem with the first verse:

    Our Father everlasting
    The all-creating One
    God Almighty
    Through your Holy Spirit
    Conceiving Christ the Son
    Jesus our Saviour.

    This verse states that the Father is everlasting and could suggest that "there was a time when the Son was not." I'm sure this is unintended and this verse may well be addressing the incarnation, but that sounds Arian.

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    1. Yes, that's definitely a possibility, James. Thanks.

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  2. When I first read your post, I have to admit (sorry) that my initial reaction was 'Seriously? This kind of thing really bothers you?' Just at first, it felt to me a little bit overly picky. Mea culpa.

    However, on longer reflection, I think I'm starting to understand what you're getting at, at least a little. The fact that your church is using it in place of saying the usual Creed is key for me. If the song were simply part of the worship repertoire alongside the spoken Creed, it wouldn't bother me too much, but as the sole communally-affirmed creed it does perhaps have a few issues. (Though I'm still probably not as exercised by it as you are.)

    Worryingly, I recognise the same tendencies in my own personal theology as in the song - i.e. tending to overlook the historical and geopolitical nature of Jesus in favour of a more cosmic or simply more 'spiritual', dehistoricised Jesus. And I'm still trying to work out how much of a problem I think that is!

    For on the one hand I do think that it's absolutely crucial that Jesus was and is a historical person in a particular geopolitical context, and that he makes particular claims and demands which relate to the current political world.

    But on the other, I also see him as the 'Man for all Seasons', not tied to any particular place or politics, the one who transcends all such distinctions, and who is incarnate afresh in all peoples and all cultures and times.

    Plenty of other things do bother me with contemporary worship song lyrics though!

    And I don't know if you've sung one that starts 'Grander earth has quaked before', but that one *really* annoys Rosie...

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    1. I've not come across that one before, Harvey. I Googled it and read the words, but I'm not really sure what it's saying. Oh, well.

      I can see why you'd think my post is nit-picking. I can live with that. My criticism of 'This I Believe' focuses on the kind of faith we confess - is our faith rooted in historical reality, or is it rooted in our own spiritual state or even preferences. Maybe the risen and ascended Jesus isn't tied to any particular place or politics; but by the Spirit he is certainly present in every particular place, and the politics of his Kingdom constantly jostle and judge the politics of every worldly kingdom. So, for me at least, confessing the Apostles' Creed-lite only leads away from the historical rootedness of the Christian faith.

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    2. You're allowed to be different from (to?) me, and to have differing concerns and priorities! If it's important to you but less so to me, I don't see that as problematic. I may simply not have realised the full implications.

      I suppose my response would be that our faith needs to be rooted in both things - both the historical reality and also our own more subjective spiritual state or experience. I don't see how it can be other and remain personally meaningful. So I don't mind having Hillsongs in the mix, so long as it stands alongside (or under) the Apostles' Creed.

      And I see your new post is a timely response to the charge of theological nit-picking... ;)

      PS I wish there were some way to know when you'd responded to a comment - at the moment I just have to remember to check back later.

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    3. Funnily enough, I was going to post the quotation anyway - but the heinous charge of nit-picking did lead me to post it today and with that blog title! :p

      When you post a comment, do you see a little tick box to the bottom right-hand side of the comment box saying 'Notify me'? If you do, tick that box and see what happens. If you don't, then I haven't the foggiest!

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  3. This may or may not be tied to what you're saying but I also thought the whole point and strength in saying the apostle's creed doxologically is that you are affirming the same truths that the church has since the beginning. To make any amendment robs it of it's significance and power.

    Not that it shouldnt be translated, just that it should always have exactly the same content.

    P.s. has anyone from your church responded to your opinions of this matter? Just curious how your reaction would go down with the people who chose to sing the song.

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    1. Hi, Phil. Thanks for your comment.

      Yes, I agree with you; it's a significant part of it, confessing that which has been passed down to us. I wanted to concentrate on the changing of the words, but I can see, too, how changing the words itself could imply a lack of regard for what has been handed down.

      No-one in my church has responded in any depth. I've been pointed to a website explaining the history and rationale behind 'This I Believe', and had a couple of Facebook 'likes' (which is always a serious measure, of course); otherwise, most of the comments have come from friends or readers outside my church.

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    2. Interesting points... but does a faith and its creed necessarily have to remain static and monolithic, or is it okay to develop and even change in some areas over time?

      I don't know the answer to that, and I'm asking mainly to be provocative and play devil's advocate. But if pressed I suppose I would say that there might be certain reasons why specific elements of doctrinal/creedal statements could be changed or adapted over time.

      I can certainly see the value in having an absolute, set-in-stone unchangeable credo, and the reason why we might want one, but I can also see the potential need for some flexibility. But of course I recognise the potential dangers in that too.

      And Terry, no, I see no tick-boxes when I leave a comment. (Move to Wordpress... move to Wordpress...)

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    3. Well, funnily enough, the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed (with the exception of its filioque clause, which was later added by the Western Church) have remained unchanged for the best part of 2000 years. Is there a reason to suppose that they will be changed in the future? Nothing rules it out, but the thing with creeds is that they are usually settled ecumenically and not by any individual denomination as such. In the case of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, it would take the Church catholic to agree a change - and frankly, I can't envisage that ever happening (though who's to say what will happen, say, 8000 years from now?).

      The other thing is that this raises the question - which I believe we've discussed before - about how creeds are used. I don't believe the creeds are inflexible, unless, of course, you wish not to confess any of the things contained therein.

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  4. Thank you, Terry, for this post. I come from an evangelical non-denominational background and am now Catholic and when we went over the apostles creed in RCIA, I thought, wait a minute, that song I heard a while ago comes straight from the apostles creed! Though missing details like you pointed out in your post, I was just shocked and couldn't put together my thoughts on this until now.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Strangedork. I dare say that had I sung this song twenty years ago, I wouldn't have had a problem with it. But the more used to formal liturgy I've become, the less satisfied I am with this kind of expression. I wonder if this is a common phenomenon.

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