Do you believe in God?
The reflexive response of most Christians would be an immediate “Yes!”
But exactly which God do they mean — the Old Testament God, the New Testament God, the Father, Son or Holy Spirit?
The Rev. Brent Strawn addressed this and other questions in the first of two lectures about the Apostles’ Creed at Rome First United Methodist Church on Sunday. More than 50 people turned up for the free presentation, which was also hosted by Trinity United Methodist Church.
Strawn — associate professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology at Emory University — knows the Apostles’ Creed backwards and forwards, in English and in Latin. The 110 or so words (77 in Latin) are the original statement of faith, he said.
A storm of protest erupted in Rome last October when Shorter University required faculty and staff to sign lengthy personal faith statements that include a rejection of public drinking, homosexuality and premarital sex.
Strawn’s lecture, scheduled before the controversy, is not a response to that debate.
The Rev. Jane Brooks, senior pastor at Rome First United Methodist Church, said the Apostles’ Creed is a broad, overarching way for Christians to confirm their faith.
“Dr. Strawn is saying it simply and best expresses our faith, and it points us back to the Scriptures,” she said.
The Creed is recited at baptisms in confirmation of one’s beliefs, and in unison by congregations across the world every Sunday morning. But Strawn said it’s not just some poem or song that, when said, means you are a Christian. It is, he said, a summation of the Scripture as a whole.
A binding commitment
Although it begins with the words “I believe,” the Creed is not in fact a statement of opinion, said Strawn, but rather a promise or binding commitment. Strawn said that by saying the Creed, Christians are making a promise, pledging themselves to God.
“I think one thing that people don’t take into account is that they’re promising themselves in the Creed,” he said. “The performative language is the key thing.”
The words “I believe” are performative speech, Strawn said, the same as saying “I do” in a marriage ceremony. At a wedding, when the bride and groom each say, “I do,” that doesn’t mean, “I will if I feel like it sometimes” or, “Sure, for her, but maybe for another sweetheart, too.”
When you say “I do,” Strawn said, “it just got done.” Similarly, saying “I believe” when reciting the Apostles’ Creed is making a firm pledge to God.
“Another mistake is (reciting) the Creed so it’s a kind of laundry list to check off,” he said. “Like, OK, I tick off on the virgin birth and ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate,’ but it doesn’t matter what I believe about the poor or what have you. So it’s not a kind of laundry list, it’s like wedding vows.”
The nature of God
The Creed has three parts — distinct to God the Father Almighty, to Jesus Christ and to the Holy Spirit — and saying the Creed is the same thing as confirming your belief in that God, Strawn said.
The God of the Apostles’ Creed, then, is the same as believing in the Holy Trinity, which Strawn said, is distinct to Christianity.
“No other world religion has three gods in one, neat, divine package,” he said, adding that “the triune nature of God is the most important thing about the Apostles’ Creed.”
Strawn said saying the Creed is a way to free yourself from the stresses of life. Instead of having a life devoted to work, family or other obligations, taking the 30 seconds to say the Apostles’ Creed is devoting that time entirely to God.
“The Creed is one of the ways people pray and pledge their lives to be different and pledge themselves to God,” Strawn said. “I think I’m at my best Christian self when I’m doing God’s work. If I’m preaching, I’m teaching, I’m praying, I’m doing acts of service — that’s when I’m my best self.”
Strawn said Christians who aspire to better themselves should say the Apostles’ Creed, not just at worship services, but every day.
“(Christians are) at their best when they pray and they’re at their best when they devote themselves to God,” Strawn said. “They marry God every time they say the Creed.”
Strawn will be preaching both morning services at Trinity United Methodist Church next Sunday. He’ll conclude his lecture about the Apostles’ Creed that same day, from 4 to 6 p.m. at Rome First United Methodist Church’s Wilder Center, 202 E. Third Ave.