It has been reported that the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church recited an edited version of the Apostles’ Creed that read “Creator Almighty” rather than the customary “Father Almighty.” Predictably, this stokes up a lot of conversations amongst my fellow United Methodists as to how divided our denomination is. With tensions rising about the future of our denomination and blog posts from progressive-minded United Methodists such as here and here that are clearly standing against historical orthodoxy, it is understandable that an act such as changing a word in one of the Church’s creeds will raise alarm. While at the end, I disagree with the edit, it is prudent to be thoughtful as to why this specific edit is a problem. Theological hypervigilance is not a state in which our responses form good theology, as we will too quickly reach for regulative rules that, while ruling a problematic action out of bounds, will become problematic if universally applied.
Can you edit the Apostles’ Creed? If our understanding of the history of the Apostles’ Creed is accurate, then, yes, you can. The current version of the Apostles’ Creed is not the original form of the creed. It is derived from the Old Roman Creed, which excludes phrases such as “maker of heaven and earth” and “the communions of saints” along with some other differences in phraseology. What we know today as the Apostles’ Creed has not existed for 2000 years, as Rev. Mcilwain said, who posted about the edit on social media. Unlike the Nicene Creed that was formally agreed upon by an ecumenical council and largely unchanged, except for the famous filoque clause, the Apostles’ Creed seemd to have been accepted through convention, not a formal council decision. As a result, it was more malleable through the transmission process.
However, to say that the Apostle’s Creed has been edited therefore it can be edited is different from saying should one edit “Father” and substitute it with “Creator.” There is a general permissibility with editing the Apostle’s Creed, but that does not mean just any edit is suitable. If we look what seems to be the three of most significant edits, we can then begin to inquire what sort of changes are permissible. While the explanations offered for the edits may not end up being the actual historical reasons, but the hope is to show the general nature of the changes the Apostles’ Creed went through.
1) Old Roman Symbol (ORS) – “I believe in God the Father Almighty” vs. Apostles’ Creed (AC) – “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”
This change provides an appositional statement that clarifies the meaning of παντοκράτορα, which is a term of power. The nature of God’s power/almighty-ness is a creational power. Here, the edit provides greater clarification about the Father, which is consistent with the Biblical narrative and statements about creation.
2) ORS – “Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary” vs. AC – “Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit/Born of the Virgin Mary”
The Old Roman Symbol could be misconstrued to read a sexual relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. The Apostles’ Creed adopts a language that would define how Jesus is Son but in a manner that is different from sexual intercourse. Instead, a view of conceptive can be derived from the statement of God being maker of heaven and earth. Just like the change above, there seems to be greater theological clarity that is offered by the change.
3) ORS – “Who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried” vs. AC – “suffered under Pontius Pilate/was crucified, dead, and buried”
The Apostles’ Creed is more direct and vivid about Jesus humanity who is said to have suffered and died. A more docetic Christ who only appeared human could be said to be crucified and buried, but to predicate suffering and death to Jesus in the Apostles’ Creed provides, yet again, further clarity to what was already said. I would suggest the more controversial κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα (which is commonly translated as “descended into hell,” although it can also be rendered “descended into the lower realms” as reference to the holding place of the souls of the dead, rather than a place of punishment and torment) is also a part of making clear that Jesus shared in human life and nature.
4) ORS – “the holy Church” vs. AC – “the holy catholic Church/the communion of saints”
Here, the Apostles’ Creed offers a more robust ecclesiology, defining the church by its universal nature and providing the spiritual basis for hte Church in the communion of the saints. What was implied by the “holy Church” in the Old Roman Symbol becomes more explicit in the Apostles’ Creed.
In summary, one could say each of these four significant edits provides a greater doctrinal clarity. One could argue that nothing new was added to the creed, but it only became more explicit. Later edits respected the implicit ideas latent within the earlier versions of the creed.
However, the problem however with changing “Father” to “Creator” is that this edit offers no clarity at all. If anything, it muddies the nature of the Creedal statement further. Why say the Creator Almighty is maker of heaven and earth? Certainly, it is true, but it is trivially true. Why restate this? However, beyond simply making the creed more trivial, this edit takes away from the implicit Trinitarian structure of the creed. In the Apostles’ Creed, God is spoken of as Father, Jesus is Son, and the Holy Spirit is the one who brings about conception. The three persons of the Trinity are integrally related through the birth of Christ. But if you speak of only the Creator Almighty, you lose this structure, as being a Creator is not as closely related to having a Son and conceiving.
If I may draw an analogy: imagine a copy of the Mona Lisa painting, but because you wanted to make it more modern, you photoshopped it to look more modern in terms of clothing, hair style, etc. and you then called it the Mona Lisa in such a way as to suggest it is the same thing as da Vinci’s painting. Certainly, this new painting might gain some interest, but it isn’t the same thing as the Mona Lisa. You have changed it into some other form that would render it different from its original spirit. What you did might be an interesting parody; it might itself deserve to be a new piece of art in its own right. But what you haven’t done is given the same thing as the original Mona Lisa. That is what happens when you change the Apostles’ Creed “Father Almighty” to “Creator Almighty.”
The statements of the creeds were not constructed as a set of lego pieces, where you can simply plug in play any other equivalently sized piece. The word “Father” says something substantive within the context of the Apostles’ Creed that “Creator” does not. Sure, “Creator Almighty” is something you can say about God from a Trinitarian perspective, which I have argued previously. But by doing that, you are changing the very structure of the creed. Then, by giving it authoritative status by continuing to call it the Apostles’ Creed, you are committing an act of manipulative appropriation. This amount to a hijacking of the Christian tradition rather than appreciating it.
Now, I can empathize with some of the concerns about the patriarchal language. But it is more honest to have the courage to provide a different statement of faith and deal with the backlash from that than trying to misleadingly appropriate a statement. Trying to edit the creed in such a way that does not clarify but only dramatically alters the structure of the Creed due to modern concerns is manipulative at best, deceptive at worst. Even if it is done in the name of a more “ecumenical” approach that has language most everyone would agree with, this is still a manipulative appropriation. The creeds were meant to be specific statements on the nature of Christian that would exclude many people who would call themselves Christian, not generic statements that any and all would accept. Such an edit is foreign to the spirit of the early formation of the creed.
Respecting tradition is not simply taking the forms of early traditions as a starting point to then tear apart and piece back together for your own theological inclinations. Respecting tradition entails allowing the tradition to speak on its own terms and if you disagree with the tradition, representing that objection separately and speaking that honestly. To edit the Creed in the manner of replacing “Father” with “Creator” amounts to an act of cultural appropriation by Western, progressive elites from the early Christian Church that faced persecution for multiple centuries. The edit does not treat the original source material with respect.