One Sunday morning several years ago an elderly woman approached me in the coffee hour and asked me earnestly why we never said “The Affirmation of Faith.” On that particular morning we had recited a modern affirmation and I pointed that out. “No,” she said, “I mean the original one.”
“You mean, the Apostles' Creed,” I said.
“Yes,” she answered, “Why don’t we ever say the Apostles' Creed?”
“Well,” I hesitated, “the truth is that a lot of people don’t really believe the Apostles' Creed and they feel uncomfortable saying it.” I paused. “I mean they don’t believe all of it literally . . .”
She smiled. “I don’t believe it either, but I still like to say it.”
That may sound odd, but basically, she had it right. She didn't mean that she didn't believe any of it, she meant that she didn't believe all of it literally. One of the things that is difficult for modern Christians to understand is that the creed was intended as a liturgical retelling of the Gospel Story. It was part of the worship life of the early church. More like a hymn than a theological statement, and certainly not intended to be read as history.
The official United Methodist web site has an article on the historic creeds of the Christian faith, which begins with the declaration that, “Unlike some churches that require affirmation of a strict list of beliefs as a condition of membership, The United Methodist Church is not a creedal church.” Historically, United Methodists have not been expected to believe literally in every word of the creeds. We used the creeds because they can “help us come to our own understanding of the Christian faith. They affirm our unity in Christ with those followers who first wrote them, the many generations who have recited them before us and those who will recite them after we have gone.”
This is the Traditional version of the Apostles' Creed as it appears in the United Methodist Hymnal:
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
Although our hymnal calls it “Traditional,” it is not the original version. In the original version, after he was “crucified, dead and buried,” it says that “he descended into hell.” The Ecumenical version replaces the phrase “descended into hell,” with “descended to the dead.” Our “Traditional” version omits it altogether.
In the spirit of Eugene Peterson’s “The Message,” I want to offer a paraphrase of the Apostles' Creed:
I believe in God, the Ground of our Being and the Source of all that is.
And in Jesus Christ, the fullest and best revelation of God, who was born into a human family, suffered under the violence of the Empire, was executed for treason and died a human death. He went to God, even as he came from God, and then appeared again to his disciples. By his life and death all things are judged, and in his love the whole world is reconciled to God.
I believe in the Living Spirit of God in the world, and in the Church as Christ’s living presence among us. I believe God accepts us in spite of our brokenness and loves us beyond our imagining, now and forever. Amen.
If I had been starting with a blank slate, I would not have included all of sections included in the Apostles' Creed and I would have said more about how I believe we are called to live the world. I would have said something about my understanding of the Kingdom of God and how we are called to make that a reality on earth. But it is a useful exercise to use the ancient language as a template.
My guess is that your creed might be different from mine. What would it look like?