Interpreting the creeds “in a later age”

I’ve recently written about adding to, or modifying, the classic creed of the church, the Apostles Creed.

In this blog, I turn my attention to the process of interpreting this creed, and other classic creeds of the church.

Paragraph 11 of the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church declares that the church values “contact with contemporary thought”, the inheritance of “literary, historical and scientific enquiry”, engagement with others within “the worldwide fellowship of churches” as well as with “contemporary society” … all of which stands in the service of developing “an informed faith” which is relevant to the current period of time.

I have long understood that this paragraph informs the way we undertake interpretation of scripture (reflected in paragraph 5). That shaped the way I have undertaken this task, both as a teacher of biblical studies, as well as a preacher. 

In more recent years, I have come to appreciate that paragraph 11 also shapes our approach to the matters discussed in the paragraphs which follow paragraph 5: namely, the sacraments (paras 6-8), the classic creeds (para 9), and the confessions of key reformers (para 10). It provides guidance for what is fundamental in Uniting Church interpretation of the faith. We are to operate in a thoughtfully critical manner.

In fact, this critical and thoughtful approach to the creeds is reflected in the specific wording employed in paragraph 9. This paragraph presents two complementary aspects of the place of creeds in our faith. 

One the one hand, it specifically notes the “authoritative status” and doctrinal function that these creeds enjoy within the church. That honours the tradition of the church catholic, for which the regular recital of the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed was an important element of worship as well as shaping the ongoing teaching of doctrines. The Basis follows this tradition by according the creeds an “authoritative status”.

Alongside that, however, it notes that the creeds were “framed in the language of their day” and then it commits UCA ministers and instructors “to careful study of these creeds and to the discipline of interpreting their teaching in a later age”.

The fact is, the creeds were written in another language (Koine Greek), at a different time in history (late antiquity), within a different culture (late Greco-Roman), and in the midst of a different political arrangement (emerging Christendom within the Roman Empire). Each of these factors needs to be carefully considered, when we turn to the creeds. 

Each of these factors invites us to engage in careful, critical thinking about the message inherent in the particular creed. Each factor requires an awareness of hermeneutics, the business of thinking about how we “make meaning” when we read or hear one of the creeds. For we are in “a later age”, an age different from the age in which the creeds were created, and so our interpretation needs to communicate to people “in a later age”—the age in which we live.

So, the application of paragraph 11 of the Basis of Union is essential when we recite or recall one of the classic creeds. We need to bear in mind how our understanding is shaped by “contact with contemporary thought”, the inheritance of “literary, historical and scientific enquiry”, engagement with others within “the worldwide fellowship of churches” as well as with “contemporary society” … and to be conscious of how all of this functions in the service of developing “an informed faith” for the present time.

Both the authoritative status of the creeds as witnesses to faith, and thoughtfully critical interpretation of the words of the creeds within the present context, are valued in paragraph 9 of the Basis of Union. So why do we not live this out, and give full weight to the process of interpreting older words and practices in the context of contemporary life?

Surely the nature of a community of faith is that there is a diversity of perspective and commitment, and that as we seek to appropriate, contextualise, and interpret our traditions for the present age, we will see a range of theologies articulated in the contemporary context. 

We do well if we do not simply repeat the bare words of the creed; we do well if we undertake exploration and interpretation in the light of contemporary learnings. And so the wondrous diversity of contemporary theology emerges from our engagement with these ancient, classic confessions of faith.

See also

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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