Following the outline established by the 2005 Jesus Still Lead On study guide, we are sharing different aspects of The Ground of the Unity, one of the worldwide Moravian Church’s key doctrinal statement, in each 2016 issue of The Moravian. This month, we’ll discuss Continual Search for Sound Doctrine and Divine Mysteries. Thanks to Dr. Craig Atwood and the editors of Jesus Still Lead 0n for this material.—Mike Riess, editor, the Moravian magazine
Creeds and Confessions
The Unitas Fratrum recognizes in the creeds of the Church the thankful acclaim of the Body of Christ. These creeds aid the Church in formulating a Scriptural confession, in marking the boundary of heresies, and in exhorting believers to an obedient and fearless testimony in every age. The Unitas Fratrum maintains that all creeds formulated by the Christian Church stand in need of constant testing in the light of the Holy Scriptures.
The Moravian Church has an unusual approach to formal creeds and confessions. Some Protestant churches reject all creeds and claim that they hold to “scripture alone.” Other Protestant churches use only the ancient creeds of the universal Church, especially the Apostles’ Creed. Some Protestant churches, especially those born during the Reformation, define themselves by having a confession of faith that distinguishes their beliefs from other churches.
The Moravian Church teaches that creeds and confessions of faith are very useful, but that they are also all imperfect. Interestingly, the Ground of the Unity is not a creed or a confession. It is a statement of foundational principles that leaves much room for personal and congregational development. The Ground of the Unity assumes that Moravians will study and learn from the creeds of the early Church as well as from our own heritage.
Creeds are an important teaching tool in the Church because they summarize the most important aspects of Christian belief. It is sometimes very helpful to respond to the question “what do you believe” by reciting the Apostles’ Creed which speaks of central issues and leaves other matters open. The ancient creeds were short and used mainly at baptism. Later confessions of faith were much longer and more intellectual. It is important to remember that many times when the Church (narrowly) defined its dogma, it actually created heretics by excluding people who had been active members of the community of faith but who could not affirm the new dogma.
The statement about the need constantly to test creeds and confessions confuses many people. This is in part because we forget that doctrine means “teaching.” The Ground of the Unity is doctrine, but it does not claim to be infallible or eternal teaching. In fact, the Moravian Church has always recognized that all systems of doctrine or dogmatic statements are subject to error because they are all written by human beings and expressed in human language. The Christian Church has made many dogmatic claims that were later rejected, as Jan Hus pointed out to the Council of Constance. Our ancestors were often persecuted by authorities who claimed to possess divine truth; therefore we have been suspicious of theological arrogance for centuries. We have traditionally held to a principle of self-criticism that includes a continual search for truth.
- What creeds does your congregation use in worship? Are any of them important to you?
- Do you think that everyone who joins the Moravian Church or who confirms their faith should profess adherence to a particular creed?
- Is what is left out of creeds also significant?
- How is it helpful to understand the historical circumstances of creeds and confessions?
- What do you think should be in a creedal statement?
- How do we constantly test creeds and confessions of faith? Does this involve questioning?
It acknowledges as such true professions of faith the early Christian witness: “Jesus Christ is Lord!” and also especially the ancient Christian creeds and the fundamental creeds of the Reformation. (Note: In the various Provinces of the Renewed Unitas Fratrum the following creeds in particular gained special importance, because in them the main doctrines of the Christian faith find clear and simple expression: The Apostles’ Creed, The Athanasian Creed, The Nicene Creed, The Confession of the Unity of the Bohemian Brethren (1535), The Twenty-One Articles of the unaltered Augsburg Confession, The Shorter Catechism of Martin Luther, The Synod of Berne of 1532, The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, The Theological Declaration of Barmen of 1934, The Heidelberg Catechism.)
Moravians may not realize it, but this is one of the most surprising statements in the Ground of the Unity. It clearly reflects the work of the ecumenical movement and the desire to focus on what unites churches rather than what divides them. It also expresses the traditional Moravian understanding that God works in different ways in different churches. During Zinzendorf’s time, this was called the “tropus” idea. We affirm many different confessions of faith as being important to different communities of faith without being overly concerned about their different details.
Notice, though, that we do not include all confessions of faith in this list. The principle of selection is not rigid, but basically the Moravian Church affirms the classic creeds of the early church and the confessions of faith of churches most like our own. For instance, the Synod of Berne statement and the Heidelberg Catechism are confessions of the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition that are closer in spirit to the Moravian emphasis on Christian experience (“heart religion”) than some of the more famous Reformed and Presbyterian statements.
The Ground of the Unity point us to these creeds for our continual theological education and spiritual growth, but this statement also means that these doctrinal statements are already approved as orthodox statements of Christian faith from a Moravian perspective. In other words, when we engage in ecumenical dialogue with churches in the Anglican, Lutheran, and German or Swiss Reform tradition we have the advantage of having already affirmed their doctrine as consistent with our own.
- Which of these creeds or confessions have you read?
- If you were confirmed in a non-Moravian congregation, did you use any of these creeds or confessions?
- Do you think it would be better for the church to simply get rid of creeds altogether? Why or why not?
- What does the Moravian approval of so many creeds and confessions mean to you?
We believe in and confess the Unity of the Church given in the one Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior. He died that He might unite the scattered children of God. As the living Lord and Shepherd, He is leading His flock toward such unity. The Unitas Fratrum espoused such unity when it took over the name of the Old Bohemian Brethren’s Church, “Unitas Fratrum” (Unity of Brethren). Nor can we ever forget the powerful unifying experience granted by the crucified and risen Lord to our ancestors in Herrnhut on the occasion of the Holy Communion of August 13, 1727, in Bethelsdorf.
There is no denying that unity in Christ is one of the deepest values of the Moravian Church. The Ground of the Unity reminds us that the famous experience on August 13, 1727, was one of the formative moments in the development of the modern Moravian Church. We sometimes call this the Moravian Pentecost, but it is important to recognize that this means something different than modern Pentecostalism. The experience of August 13 was indeed emotional and many tears were shed, but it was not about receiving dramatic or supernatural gifts. The worshippers did not start praying incoherently, prophesying, healing diseases, or manifesting similar signs of the Spirit. What they did experience was an almost inexpressible joy that was the result of reconciliation to one another and to Christ. The gifts of the Holy Spirit were unity, love, gentleness, courage, and a sense of divine mission. For Moravians, evangelism and world mission has always been connected to reconciliation, forgiveness, and unity in love.
For Moravians, one of the signs of disease in the church is division and fruitless conflict. Our proclamation of the Gospel at home and abroad, in word and deed, should result in an increase of love and unity among the brothers and sisters. We do not believe that it is helpful to sow division or promote narrow interpretations of Christian doctrine that merely serve to divide and breed conflict. We used to pray that God would save us from “untimely projects,” which meant in part that some decisions and actions need to be put off until there is greater consensus.
Unity, for Moravians, is not achieved through enforcing certain canons of doctrine, but is a visible sign of our devotion to Jesus Christ and sincere effort to live as brothers and sisters. Unity in the church is like the marriage bond. Our confidence in our unity gives us the freedom to discuss our differences and work toward better understanding.
- What does “unity” mean to you?
- Do you feel that there is unity in your congregation? In the Moravian Church?
- How would you propose that the Church could make unity a reality?
- Are there times when the Church should be willing to face division rather than compromise something essential? What would be such a time?
It is the Lord’s will that Christendom should give evidence of and seek unity in Him with zeal and love. In our own midst we see how such unity has been promised us and laid upon us as a charge. We recognize that through the grace of Christ the different churches have received many gifts. It is our desire that we may learn from each other and rejoice together in the riches of the love of Christ and the manifold wisdom of God. We confess our share in the guilt which is manifest in the severed and divided state of Christendom. By means of such divisions we ourselves hinder the message and power of the Gospel. We recognize the danger of self-righteousness and judging others without love.
The Moravian Church has always understood that it is a portion of the Body of Christ, not the entire Body of Christ. Part of our Christian mission and calling is to seek good relations with our brothers and sisters in other communities of faith. During the days of the Reformation and the Wars of Religion, the Unity of the Brethren signed two of the most significant early ecumenical statements: the Confessio Bohemica and the Consensus of Sandomier in the 1500s. Bishop Comenius worked closely with Anglicans, Lutherans, and Reformed leaders and wrote some of the earliest works on ecumenical theology. Zinzendorf is often identified as an “ecumenical pioneer” whose vision of the church included Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and even Coptic churches as part of the mystical body of Christ. The Moravian Church in the 20th century participated actively in the ecumenical effort to restore some of the visible unity of the Church. A Moravian even once served as President of the National Council of the Churches of Christ.
One of the reasons that we are ecumenical is because we have suffered at the hands of Christians who did not see us as brothers and sisters in faith. Through the ages we have refused to persecute others because their understanding of the Gospel differs from ours. We also recognize that it is spiritually damaging to us when we stand in judgment on other churches. Such judgments lead to self-righteousness and arrogance. Instead we embrace an understanding that Christ works in different ways through different churches. Just as we are enriched when we examine the rich history of Christianity, we can also be enriched by our contact with other believers. Moravians acknowledge that no single church has the complete understanding of God, but we discover from each other what may be missing in our worship and our service.
The hardest part of this statement in the Ground of the Unity, though, may be the call to confess where we have contributed to the divisions in Christianity. But confession is the first step to improvement. It can seem difficult to be true to yourself while learning from others, but we are best able to establish a loving and close relationship with someone else when we are sure of who we are. It is important that Moravians enter into ecumenical relationships with a clear sense of our identity and the gifts that God has given to us as well as with a sense of humility and sincere desire to learn from others.
- What does it feel like to be a member of a small denomination when you deal with people in much bigger churches?
- Do you think that the Moravians can benefit from discussions with other Christian churches?
- What gifts can the Moravian Church bring to other churches?
- In what ways does the Moravian Church or your congregation contribute to divisions and misunderstandings among Christians? How can we change this?
- Does seeking greater unity among the scattered followers of Christ mean that the Moravian Church should lose its identify or even cease to exist?
Since we together with all Christendom are pilgrims on the way to meet our coming Lord, we welcome every step that brings us nearer the goal of unity in Him. He himself invites us to communion in His supper. Through it He leads the Church toward that union which He has promised. By means of His presence in the Holy Communion He makes our unity in Him evident and certain even today.
The theme of pilgrimage has a long history in Christianity and it continues to be a helpful way of viewing the Christian life. A pilgrim is someone who wanders through the world pursuing a spiritual goal. In the Moravian Church we emphasize that ordained ministers are pilgrims subject to being called to new areas of service. Moravians have also viewed the Church itself as a pilgrim community without a fixed home in this world. We are not to become too comfortable with our current understanding and practice because as individuals and as a church we are on a journey. We also acknowledge that other Christians are also on journeys, sometimes by different paths, but that we are all going to meet the Lord who is coming to us.
This idea that all Christians will be visibly united when Christ returns is the basis for our belief that all Christians are already spiritually united through our common faith in Christ. Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, is the symbol of this already-but-not-yet reality that all followers of Christ are one in Christ despite our different rituals and doctrines. Communion in the Moravian Church is not just a reminder of the sacrifice of Christ; it is also the marriage feast of the Lamb. In Communion we celebrate a foretaste of our union with God and our communion with all the saints, past, present, and future. This is why in the Moravian Church we do not exclude members of other churches from full participation in Holy Communion or try to use Communion as a reward for right beliefs. Communion is the Lord’s Supper, not our supper, and it is for all who profess Christ as Lord.
- What does it mean to you to say that Christians are pilgrims in the world? What journey are you on?
- If we are willing to acknowledge that believers in other churches are Christians even though they disagree with us doctrinally, should we apply tolerance to people within our church as well?
- What do you think it means to be united in Christ, particularly in light of the fact of conflict between Christians?
- How can Holy Communion be a symbol of unity in the Church when so many churches will not share in communion with other churches?