I want to hold your brand. Or at least put your brand on hold.
The arrival of a new Christological creed from Ligonier Ministries raises some helpful questions. Over at Reformation 21, Mark Jones seems generally appreciative of the intention while critical of some of the theological shortcomings and wording of the various documents. Yet, while sharing Jones’s concerns, my hesitations about the project are somewhat different.
One concern at which Jones hints is that a parachurch group has produced a creed, an ecclesiastical, ecumenical, liturgical document. One (debatable) response to him might be that gatherings such as the Westminster Assembly were not obviously ecclesiastical in origin and authority, and that the Belgic Confession, while deriving its official status from an act of the church, was the work of one man. Setting aside the strength or weakness of such a claim, one thing still seems obvious: today’s parachurches, such as Ligonier or indeed the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, are not direct analogues of something like the Westminster Assembly. Apart from anything else, these modern parachurches are brands. Of this more below.
One might also respond to Jones by saying that the statement is not a creed, and that churches use many things – hymns, Bible translations, written prayers – which are produced by individuals, have no specific ecclesiastical origin or status, and yet are useful in her life and worship. In response to this, the document’s own statement of purpose is helpful:
For the glory of Christ and the edification of His people, the Ligonier Statement on Christology seeks to encapsulate the historic, orthodox, biblical Christology of the Christian church in a form that is simple to confess, useful to help teach the church’s enduring faith, and able to serve as a common confession around which believers from different churches can rally for mission together. This statement is not a replacement for the church’s historic creeds and confessions but a supplement that articulates their collective teaching on who Christ is and what He has done. May Christ use it for His kingdom.
It is clear that the import of the first sentence means that we should read the term ‘supplement’ in the second as ‘stand alongside and be formally, materially, and functionally interchangeable with’ etc. etc. For, if this is ‘a common confession around which believers from different churches can rally for mission together…. [and] articulates their collective teaching on who Christ is and what he has done,’ then it is intentionally designed to perform a distinctive catholic, ecclesiastical, and ecumenical purpose. It is also hard to see how the statement could be used in a public worship service other than at that point in the liturgy where the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed might be placed. For me as a Gloucestershire man, the First Law of Sheep Identification surely applies to such things: if it is white, woolly and goes ‘Baaa!’ then, call it what you may, it’s quite definitely a sheep. Thus, if it looks like a creed, sounds like a creed, and functions liturgically like a creed, then, hey, guess what? It’s a creed!
This is where the brand aspect becomes a matter of concern. After all, the text carries the name of Ligonier. Should the church integrate a brand into its liturgy in such a fashion? One might respond in the positive, pointing to the fact that churches use hymn books and Bibles which are attached to particular editors and publishers. But again, the act of creedal formulation, and the insertion of such a creed into the liturgy of a church as an act of corporate, ecclesiastical, ecumenical confession, carries a solemn and special significance which goes beyond the singing of a hymn or the adoption of a Bible translation. As the document itself declares, this composition is specifically designed for common confession, for rallying together, and for mission.
To repeat: as its very name indicates, this Christological statement is inextricably and explicitly bound to a brand. Not to a congregation. Not to a denomination. Not to an ecumenical church council. Not to an otherwise anonymous group of theologians who gathered in a specific geographical locale with a narrowly defined purpose and who, at the close of business, went their separate ways. It is bound to a brand, a very particular, influential, and ongoing brand.
Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with being a brand – I work for one and, indeed, I am writing for one here and now; but – forget the contestable parachurch issue for a moment – brands should not be intruded into territory traditionally occupied in church life and public worship by ecumenical creeds. When they do so, whether they intend it or not, such brands risk promoting themselves in and through a central part of the liturgical action of the church. This is therefore the key question that needs to be asked by all churches contemplating adding this to their liturgical repertoire: should we adopt for the purpose of common confession, for rallying together, and for our mission, a creed which is so unavoidably associated with a specific brand?
One final point. Part of the problem in today’s church is her loss of historical roots. Groups like Ligonier really have done great work in promoting historic Christianity for which we should all be grateful, but this task really requires more than just preservation of historic concepts. Historical roots are also properly nurtured by the cultivation of forms and practices which connect the church to her past because they are continuous with that past. One obvious way of doing that is use of those documents which are in form, content, and function part of her historic identity.
However good the intention here, supplementing the ecumenical creeds with modern equivalents potentially dilutes the exclusive place which they have held. Reciting the Nicene Creed connects us in both content and form with Christians around the world and through the ages. This creed does not do that and is actually only useful at precisely those points where it says what has been better said by its predecessors before. I fear that the shadow of that modern reformed evangelical disease, the misguided love of theological kitsch as an antidote to weightless evangelical innovation, is ever lurking in the background of this need to supplement the tried and the tested.
If you are a Protestant who really does want ‘a common confession around which believers from different churches can rally for mission together,’ then simply use the Nicene Creed. It is not in danger of ever being a piece of kitsch. It does not risk promoting a brand. And all the evidence suggests that it has done its job pretty well for some 1600 years.