Part 3 of series: My Statement of Faith
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series
When Presbyterian pastors or candidates for ordained ministry are being “checked out” theologically, their statements of faith usually take the form of six or seven paragraphs of prose. Each paragraph includes carefully chosen, tightly-packed theological language. They are basically creedal in form, touching upon such key doctrines as the nature of God, the nature and mission of Christ, salvation, the church, the sacraments, Scripture, and Christian mission in the world.
If you look closely at what I submitted, you’ll see some of this familiar structure and content. I though upon the following themes in the following order:
God as Father
God as Trinity
God as creator, lover, savior
Jesus as both divine and human
Jesus as savior
Jesus as sovereign
Jesus as friend and one to whom we pray
The Holy Spirit in us
Commitment of my whole self to God
Submission to God’s sovereignty
Desire for God’s deliverance
The trustworthiness of God’s Word
Trusting God’s Word
The church founded on Jesus
The church as God’s elect
The church as unified yet diverse
The church as the temple of the Holy Spirit
The church’s mission as lifting up the cross of Christ
The church’s mission as multiplying God’s love, especially to the
The promise of the new creation
God’s great faithfulness
You’ll see that the basic form and content of my statement is pretty much standard Christian orthodoxy of a Reformed, evangelical stripe. Nothing particularly surprising here.
What’s unusual about my statement of faith is the use of hymns and songs. Why did I opt for these poetic expressions of faith rather than more standard prose?
Before I answer this question, let me say that I am not opposed to prosaic, propositional statements of faith. I believe that genuine Christianity affirms certain core beliefs, and that these can and should be expressed in propositions. Human words can never fully capture God’s reality, of course. But the use of our limited words in sentences is an essential aspect of Christian faith. It’s not an accident that the church, throughout the centuries, has written creeds and confessions to express what it believes (and, at times, what it does not believe). In some quarters of the church today you’ll find postmodern people who are also post-creedal. They’re nervous about the limitations and demarcations that come from words and statements in theology. So they are apt not to express their faith in creedal forms, and to criticize the church for being overly doctrinal. Just for the record, though I have some sympathy for those in this quarter of Christendom, I don’t live there myself.
Yet Christian faith is not just a series of propositions. It includes sentences of belief and is in many ways based upon them, to be sure. But Christian faith transcends such statements. It is a living relationship with the living God. It is belief put into practice. It is conviction expressed through adoration. In this way Christian faith is rather like a marriage. I could say, truthfully, that I love my wife. But my marriage is not just an affirmation of this truth, but a daily experience of it as well. So with my faith in God.
Thus when I was asked to write a statement of faith, I interpreted this as more than a statement of my core beliefs. Yes, yes, I realize that what the committee needed to do its job was a statement of these beliefs. They needed to make sure I was orthodox in a Presbyterian sort of way. And I supplied this orthodox summary in a poetic way. But what I gave them was more than just my crucial beliefs. I shared in an open-hearted way my faith in God, my relationship with God, my love of God.
For me, nothing expresses this kind of faith better than hymns and songs. For one thing, I’ve been singing many of these lyrics for most of my life. Some of them I’ve sung at least several hundred times. I think, for example, that I sung “Trust and Obey” just about every week of Sunday school during my elementary years. And even though I don’t sing it much any more, it has been forever burned into my memory. Ironically, my journey of faith in the last year has been mostly a matter of trusting and obeying God. The old song sings anew in my heart. (Photo: The First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, where I grew up singing “Trust and Obey.”)
Hymns and songs have a way of joining heart and mind like nothing else I know. If I say, “God has been very faithful to me,” I can mean it, but my heart remains unmoved. If, however, I’m singing “Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me” in a worship service, I am often moved to tears. Why? Partly it’s the power of poetry. Partly it’s the power of beautiful music. Partly it’s the memories I associated with this hymn. Add them up and you have a profound statement of truth, “Great is Thy faithfulness,” expressed with deep emotion. Plus, when I’m singing, my body is involved too. I’m loving the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Many of the hymns and songs I chose are prayers to God:
Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father.
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee.
Fairest Lord Jesus, . . . Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor.
Spirit of God, descend upon my heart.
Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!
Let Thy grace, Lord, like a fetter, Bind my wand’ring heart to
Multiply Your love through us To the lost and the least.
Finish then Thy new creation, Pure and spotless let us be.
Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness!
They are not only statements about God, but also statements addressed to God. Thus they represent communication that is intimate as well as truthful. My faith in God is not merely propositional. It is also worshipful, relational, and emotional. It touches everything that I am, not merely my intellect. Thus hymns and songs enable me to state my true faith in a more complete and, in some sense, more honest way. When you listen to what I sing to the Lord, you peer into the depth of my heart.