Rethinking the First Article of the Creed

[“Maker of Heaven and Earth” detail from The Apostles’ Creed Window at First Presbyterian Church, Allentown (Pennsylvania).  Leonids Linauts, stained glass artist.]

The title of this blog post is the title of a paper written by Patrick D. Miller and published in Theology Today in 2005.  Miller is Charles T. Haley Professor Emeritus of Old Testament Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.  He was also for twenty years Editor of Theology Today, and his paper appeared in the issue that announced his retirement as Editor.  In it, Miller boldly proposed that a new clause be added to the first article of the two primary Christian creeds, i.e. the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.  The revised first article would then read: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, who delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage.”  Here is the abstract for Miller’s paper:

The ancient and controlling creeds of the church contain an overly compact and thus deficient first article.  While there may be many things that could be added to the creed, I propose that the one fundamentally necessary clause lacking for proper representation of what Christian faith must say about the first person of the Trinity is the affirmation that God delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage.  Theological, liturgical, and pedagogical reasons are given to indicate why such a clause is necessary for the most minimal statement of faith about God the Father and for avoiding a kind of modalism that does not affirm the commonality of Father and Son in the redemptive work of God in the world.

The full text of his ten-page paper is available online, but I will review the highlights of it here.  I will then try to enlarge Miller’s idea of what “rethinking the first article of the creed” might mean, perhaps beyond a point Miller would countenance, by venturing north to Scandinavian creation theology – specifically, Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783-1872), Knud Ejler Løgstrup (1905-1981) and Gustaf Wingren (1910-2000) – with a side trip to America and two pioneers in relating theology to ecological concerns, Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858-1954) and Joseph Sittler (1904-1987).  Finally, I will propose that two additional clauses (which make use of a felicitous phrase by Ellen M. Alexander that refers to the 104th Psalm, and Kimberley C. Patton’s discussion of Leviathan in that same psalm) be added to the first article, just prior to Miller’s proposed clause.  The doubly-revised first article would then read: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, who waters the cedars of Lebanon and feeds the lions and birds, who plays with Leviathan in the sea, who delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage.”

Miller takes for his starting point the contention of Gerhard von Rad (1901-1971) that an ancient Israelite credo (Latin for “I believe”) can be discerned at several points in the Hexateuch (Pentateuch + Joshua), perhaps most clearly in Deuteronomy 26:5-9 (TNIV):

My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous.  But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor.  Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression.  So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders.  He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Von Rad’s belief that the Hexateuch – i.e. the shaping of it from the original sources – was inaugurated by this ancient Israelite credo has been discredited by later scholars, who believe that any such credo is a “late” abstraction or summary of the Hexateuch.  But historical considerations do not negate the importance of von Rad’s observation.  Keith L. Eades is surely right to ask (“Divine Action and Human Action: A Comparative Study of Deutoronomy 26:1-11 and Haggai 2:10-19” in Reading the Hebrew Bible for the New Millennium: Form, Content, and Theological Perspective.  Volume 2: Exegetical and Theological Studies):

If the credo is considered as an abstraction from the whole, a “canon within a canon,” must we assume that there was no guiding factor in the gathering and ordering of the pentateuchal traditions?  If we see the gathering of the traditions motivated by theological as well as historical concerns, must we not assume that what were understood to be the central elements of theological concern must have shaped the way the traditions were presented?  If von Rad’s thesis about the antiquity of the credo must now be rejected, is it not an oversimplification to regard the credo merely as an abstraction, without considering the manner in which a people’s understanding of themselves and their world would influence the way in which that people would present their traditions about themselves?  Can a society be imagined that worships a god and produces literature about itself and its god without some kind of written or unwritten credo?

The issue would seem to be rather like the question “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”  To speak either of a credo shaping traditions, or of a credo that is merely abstracted from traditions, is to oversimplify a complex relationship.

Miller’s argument is that because nothing of the ancient Israelite credo survives in the most often recited Christian creeds, the church’s theology and the believers’ faith has been greatly affected (distorted), i.e. by a neglect of the Old Testament and relegation of it “to a secondary position in the church’s faith and life,” and by a failure “to speak sufficiently . . . about the triune God.”  To be clear, Miller is not suggesting that his proposed clause was ever removed from the creeds; rather, he maintains that “an essential element of Christian faith was overlooked in formulating the first article of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds” (emphasis added).  His rationale for inclusion of the missing clause is presented under two headings: theological and liturgical-pedagogical.

Miller’s theological rationale

Images of God as “Father” abound in the Old Testament as well as the New.  In Hosea 11:1, for example, it is written, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”  Miller asserts:

In the church’s liturgy and teaching, however, Christians hear and interpret the phrase “God the Father” primarily in relation to the second article in the creed – that is, as the Father of the Son and thus our Father.

As an example of this, Miller cites one of Calvin’s answers on the Apostles’ Creed in his Geneva Catechism (1541), to the question “Why do you call Him Father?”:

It is with reference to Christ who is His eternal Word, begotten of Him before all time, and being sent into this world was demonstrated and declared to be His Son.  But since God is the Father of Jesus Christ, it follows that He is our Father also.

Miller cites J. N. D. Kelly (in Early Christian Creeds, 2nd ed.) to the effect that second-century church fathers (Clement of Rome, Justin, Irenaeus, Theophilus of Antioch, Tatian and Novatian), at least, still understood the primary reference in the title Father to be “God in His capacity as Father and creator of the universe.”  Between that time and this, we have lost the original Christian understanding of Father, due to the overly compact and therefore deficient first article of the creed.

Miller notes that while some explications of the first article acknowledge as implicit in it more of the Old Testament than just the creation event, this is not commonly the case.  As examples of the prevailing neglect, Miller cites the writings of Gustaf Wingren and Karl Barth on the creed.  About Wingren’s book, Credo: The Christian View of Faith and Life, Miller states, “The Old Testament is virtually absent from the interpretation except primarily for the creation account in Genesis,” and “For Wingren, the first article of the creed has to do with creation and law.”  I think Miller is too summary in his dismissal of Wingren.  Whether it’s because he’s not that familiar with Wingren’s corpus, or he is and simply finds fault with it, is impossible to tell (Miller limits his remarks to the single work of Wingren’s).  But I know of no theologian who has championed the first article more than Wingren – albeit for a different reason, and with a different motivation, than Miller – and if Miller knew this, I think he ought to have mentioned it.  I will have more to say about Wingren later on.  About Barth, Miller admits that he can hardly be said to have neglected the Old Testament in his comprehensive Church Dogmatics.  But, in the works where he specifically addressed the creed, Miller says that Barth “notably fails to develop the first article of the creed in relation to God’s election and deliverance of Israel.”  Miller cites the theologian Kendall Soulen’s statement that “the God of Israel is the firm foundation and inescapable predicament of Christian theology,” in order to assert:

If the God of Israel is, indeed, the firm foundation of Christian theology, the creed that Christians confess must not be silent on this point.

Miller moves next to a discussion of the paradigmatic relevance to Christians of God’s deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage, and the way in which this deliverance serves to make clearer the connection between the first and second articles of the creed (and the first and second persons of the Trinity).  Miller says, “As the Christian story goes on, insistence on the oneness of God as Trinity depends very much upon the claim arising from the Exodus event that Jesus is who God always was.”  He also cites theologian Robert W. Jensen’s answer, in the latter’s Systematic Theology, to the question of God’s identity: “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel from Egypt.”  The following paragraph of Miller’s is worth quoting in full:

It is only thus that the church knows what this God is like and how the power of the pantokrator, the Almighty, is manifest in the world.  The link between the first clause of the creed and the second is not only a link between the Father and the Son but also between the identity of God and the identity of Jesus.  This continuity is most clearly recognized in confessing the Father Almighty as the one “who delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage.”  All parts of this hypothetically missing clause are crucial for the Christian creed.  It is in the story of Israel, with its defining moment in God setting Israel free from oppression and bondage, that one sees that the Maker of heaven and earth is bent toward the weak and the oppressed, toward those who are in bondage and dying.  In the biblical story, the first time the Maker of heaven and earth ever appears on the scene in response to any human address is upon hearing the blood of the murdered Abel crying out from the ground (Gen 4:10).  It is no surprise, then, when the cries of the oppressed Hebrews in Egypt elicit a divine response.  That is who the Father is.

Miller’s article then includes a fascinating discussion of Psalms 102 through 107 that could be seen (perhaps even by Miller himself?) as a bit of a digression, but which I shall use as a “pivot point” to enlarge the idea of what “rethinking the first article of the creed” might mean.

In an earlier article, titled “The Psalter as a Book of Theology,” Miller had suggested that Psalms 103 and 104 constitute “a kind of compressed but comprehensive theology, a poetic expression of the identity and reality of God in relation to the human creature and the whole creation.”  Here, Miller describes the two Psalms this way:

Psalm 103 is about the hesed of God, the compassion and mercy God manifests to “those who fear him,” the one who heals and forgives, who redeems and crowns our life, “who works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed,” and whose compassion is like that of a father for his children.  Psalm 104 is an extended hymn about the Maker of heaven and earth, the Creator and provider of all.  But Psalm 104 is inadequate to identify and characterize God without Psalm 103, and vice versa.

Miller goes on to say that Psalms 103 and 104 are themselves contextualized by the previous Psalm (102 – a lament) and the following three Psalms (105, 106, and 107 – which elaborate on 103 and 104): “Thus, one reads Psalms 103 through 107 as a unit in response to Psalm 102.”

Of course, the 104th Psalm is well-known as a peerless hymn of creation.  Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) once wrote, “It is worth studying the Hebrew language for ten years in order to read Psalm 104 in the original.”  It is used liturgically in Judaism and the Eastern Orthodox Church.  Anticipating my later argument, Joseph Sittler referred to Psalm 104 as “a holy naturalism” (1954), “an ecological doxology” (1970), and “a cosmic-ecological doxology” (1972).  Miller’s insistence that Psalm 104 not be understood wrenched free of the surrounding Psalms, especially Psalm 103, is a point well taken, and he has caused me to see the 104th Psalm in a new light.

Miller admits that Psalm 104 is (equally) necessary to an understanding of Psalm 103.  I would be interested to hear him explain then why he thinks, as he apparently does, that the existing clause in the first article, “Creator of heaven and earth,” is adequate to what the 104th Psalm expresses.  Because it seems to me altogether inadequate.  By itself and without amplification, “Creator of heaven and earth” (the Nicene Creed adds the colorless phrase, “and of all things visible and invisible”), in the context of the rest of the creed, tends to suggest (wrongly) that while we Christians await the last judgment, and except for the ministrations of the Holy Spirit and the holy Christian church, the universe writ large runs more or less untended by God.  I submit that along with mentioning God’s deliverance of Israel, the creed must also not be silent about God’s ongoing nurturance of His entire creation – human and nonhuman alike.  But I’ve digressed and gotten ahead of myself.

Miller concludes his theological rationale for inclusion of the clause, “who delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage,” by noting the fact that Jesus programmatically linked his ministry with the Exodus event when, in the synagogue in Nazareth, He read from Isaiah (Luke 4:18-19):

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Miller writes:

The verses quoted from Isaiah 56 and 61 are held together by their definition of this one as carrying out a ministry of release and setting free, a joining of the two texts and a definition of the ministry of Christ through the word aphesis, which, in its Old Testament context, means release and setting free from slavery, prison, bonded indebtedness, and the like, but becomes, in the New Testament, also the common word for forgiveness.  The Son thus continues the saving and freeing work of the Father revealed paradigmatically in the Exodus.  The ongoing work of God to release humankind from those chains that bind and destroy life is a central feature of the Christian claim.  That divine work includes release from the bondage of sin but also, at least eschatologically, from all forms of destruction and bondage, including suffering and death.  The one who delivered Israel from death also delivered Jesus from death, and therein lies our hope.

Miller’s liturgical-pedagogical rationale

This section of Miller’s paper is considerably shorter that the prior one, but perhaps equally important.  In it, Miller stresses the the fact that our liturgical recitation of the creed, in a proper sense, dehistoricizes the creed:

It is an immediate, contemporary, and quite personal claim about what we believe here and now.  Further, the creed is both communal and universal, transcending its temporal origins and the way its original formulators may have understood the faith.  What is missing from the creed is not, then, simply an issue in the history of doctrine to be analyzed contextually, interpreted, and criticized.  It is missing now from the believer’s confession, from the Christian’s understanding of the God in whom she trusts.

It is perhaps inevitable that to the many Christians who value the church’s traditions very highly the thought of modifying the oldest Christian creeds will appear to be a complete nonstarter.  Miller’s words above seem meant for these Christians in particular.  In the area of pedagogy, where the Nicene creed is often a primary basis for catechesis, Miller points out:

While such instruction can, of course, expand on our simple confession of God as Father in the first article in order to connect that to God’s fatherhood of Israel, this extension is by no means automatic or even common, as even a quick perusal of the many catechisms and credal teaching aids shows.

Miller concludes his paper with some brief remarks to the effect that adoption of his proposal might facilitate interfaith dialogue and relations with members of the Jewish faith.  But he makes it clear that this possible benefit to that important relationship has nothing to do with his argument.

For my part, I am fully persuaded by Miller’s argument, which I think is superb.  I believe the clause he proposes should be added to the first article of the creed.  But, as I have already indicated, I would not stop where Miller seems content to stop.  I believe two additional clauses are necessary.  The first article should then read:

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, who waters the cedars of Lebanon and feeds the lions and birds, who plays with Leviathan in the sea, who delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage.

Although I am certainly no theologian, never mind a theologian approaching Miller’s stature, in part 2 of this post I will try to make the case for this revision.  [24 June 2011: I still haven’t written part 2 yet, but I plan to at some point.  Once I do, I will link to it from here.]

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This entry was posted in Bailey, Liberty Hyde, Eades, Keith L., Grundtvig, N. F. S., Løgstrup, K. E., Miller, Patrick D., Rad, Gerhard von, Scandinavian creation theology, Sittler, Joseph, Wingren, Gustaf. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Rethinking the First Article of the Creed

  1. Pingback: “He Who Sits in the Heavens Laughs”: Recovering Animal Theology in the Abrahamic Traditions | Extravagant Creation

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