Meaningful creeds for the 21st Century- Q and A with Bishop Spong

John Shelby Spong Question & Answer

Nina Brock from Ovando, Montana, writes:


Your comment in a recent column about Paul not being able to say the Nicene Creed prompts a question. We attended your week long seminar in Berkeley, CA, last summer on “Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World” in which you remarked that a creed is “not a girdle into which we force our flabby faith.” Later, you said that you viewed the creed as a love song and would perhaps reword it. My question is how would you restate the creed to make it not only palatable but meaningful in the 21st century?


Dear Nina,

I am glad you were with me in Berkeley last summer. That was a vigorous week for both me and the class. The schedule of five days – Monday-Friday – and four hours each day, 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., makes it the hardest week I ever do, but the response of those who attended that Pacific School of Religion course made it worth while.

Let me restate what I believe I said in regard to the creeds. After describing them as “love songs that my religious ancestors sang to God in the 4th century of the Christian Era,” I stated that if Christians, including me, were to have the opportunity to compose the creeds in 2013, none of us would use the language of the 4th century. What I seek to get people to understand is that the creeds are an explanation of a life-changing religious experience and that explanations always reflect the time in which they are composed. No explanation ever endures forever. Every explanation is, therefore, subjective not objective, time bound and not eternal. No time-warped human creation can actually capture the ultimate reality we call God and any claim that they can or have is nothing less than ecclesiastical idolatry. So any attempt to impose the 4th century creeds on today’s world is an act of violence. Our task is, rather, to try to lead people into the Christ experience that created the creeds in the first place. How do we put the reality of that experience into our words and our 21st century frame of reference? This is what a creed is designed to do and no 4th century document can do that for those of us who live in the 21st century.

A contemporary expression of the Christian Faith requires us to define the God experience we claim in a very new and different way. I do not think we can continue to view God as a supernatural, miracle-working deity who lives above the sky. That definition of God died in the 17th century as a direct result of the work of such people as Galileo and Isaac Newton. It also requires that we redefine how we believe the meaning of God was found in the life of Jesus. The language of such creedal doctrines as the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity makes assumptions that 21st century people cannot make. It requires that we stop talking in pre-Darwinian terms of a perfect creation from which human beings fell into original sin, necessitating a rescue operation that Jesus accomplished by dying on the cross. That kind of language makes no sense in a post-Darwinian world. The task of writing a modern creed means that we release the words of our creedal past, while we cling to the reality of the Jesus experience that ancient creeds sought to explain and we assert that there was something about Jesus that expanded life beyond every boundary including the boundary of creeds.

I do not know what a 21st century creed would look like, but I do know two things about it. One, it would not be the same as the creeds we now recite in Christian Churches and, two, it would no more be eternally true than the creeds that it replaced. Why don’t you and the members of your congregation have a go at rewriting the creed for our time?

Enjoy your life in Montana. I loved our time in Helena this past September. It is beautiful country and filled with great people.

~John Shelby Spong

Review & Commentary

  • Dawid

    After reading many of J.S. Spong’s books, including a New Christianity for a new world and whilst following the fb. site of ProgressiveChristianity, I become more aware of the following :
    1. A frustration amongst many Christians in the world about a dying faith, kept alive by an induced supernaturalism wishful thinking and
    2. An unwilling and unprepared church, unable to keep the faith tradition (words of Rev. dr. R. Ray) alive and mission driven.

    This particular article on question and answer page” by Bishop Spong is so important, something I have been thinking for along time. And maybe it is time to challenge the church to think differently in this “post modern era” about our Creeds and Confessions.

    Christian Love.


  • Robert “Bob” Croskery

    It is my guess that virtually all of us who read Progressive Christianity deny what Bishop Spong denies, but probably affirm our faith differently from the Bishop and differently from one another.

    It may well be that as we sharfe with one another our affirmations, we will enrich the church as it now is and/or that into which it is evolving.

    I am attracted to THANK GOD FOR EVOLUTION, and other efforts to express our faith in ways which are consonant with the process and the findings of science. Hence, as knowledge evolves and grows so our beliefs about the ultimate change and grow.

    Religious faith, for me, IS and is an expression of justice, which must underlie all successful efforts to bring about peace and freedom.

    Certain classical phrases speak to me. It seems likely that all of us likely respond to some classical rerligious language. Life in “the Holy Spirit” to me expresses for a me a faith that there is reality in the non-material; and all that inheres in our relations to others of love, friendship, service, and sacrifice. In those relations, and in the process daily of giving thanks, do I find joy and peace.

    What say others?

  • Phil Iversen

    When my former church split apart over a gay and lesbian issue I became more aware of my surroundngs, how we behaved toward each other and outsiders, what we believed and what we said in church. I had more or less unconsciously followed the service by rote and realized that I was an alien in this group and could no longer recite the Nicene Creed. To do so would make me a hypocrite. Is a creed really necessary? It’s a statement of my belief, but you may have a different version. Is it really necessary that we all walk in lock step?