The United Church of Christ, in its original Constitution, in 1961, asserted:
|The United Church of Christ . . . claims as its own the faith of the historic Church expressed in the ancient creeds and reclaimed in the basic insights of the Protestant Reformers. It affirms the responsibility of the church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.|
In this statement, the new Church asserted that its doctrine was a continuation of the doctrine of the historic Christian Church. It defined three categories of Confessional statements to be part of its heritage:
Along with this third group, went the responsibility of the Church to continue the process of doctrinal definition.
The new Church expressed these ideas perhaps more clearly in the Plan of Union of 1957:
|The faith which unites us and to which we bear witness is that faith in God which the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments set forth, which the ancient church expressed in the ecumenical creeds, to which our own spiritual fathers gave utterance in the evangelical confessions of the Reformation, and which we are in duty bound to express in the words of our time as God Himself gives us light. In all our expressions of that faith we seek to preserve unity of heart and spirit with those who have gone before us as well as those who now labor with us.|
The groups that came together to form the United Church of Christ had different attitudes towards creeds.
The Reformed Churches origionally used the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort as its doctrinal standards. However, the Canons were always controversial because of their extreme predestination position, and were dropped by the Reformed Church when it organized itself independent of any European bodies in 1793. The Heidelberg Catechism, studied and memorized by young people in confirmation classes, profoundly shaped the faith of the church.
The Evangelical Synod affirmed the creeds of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, but with considerable freedom of interpretation. They declared in 1848 that they accepted:
the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures as given in the symbolic books of the Lutheran and Reformed Church, the most important being: the Augsburg Confession, Luther's and the Heidelberg Catechisms, in so far as they agree; but where they disagree, we adhere strictly to the passages of Holy Scriptures bearing on the subject, and avail ourselves of the liberty of conscience prevailing in the Evangelical Church.In this way the Evangelical Synod affirmed the value of the historic creeds, but clearly placed them in the context of the Scriptures and "liberty of conscience."
The Congregational churches often each had a local church covenant, and a faith statement in the local church Constitution. Although each local congregation was autonomous, the faith statements of local churches sound remarkably similar. After a long period of cooperation with Presbyterians in the Nineteenth Century, Congregationalists continued to affirm the same doctrinal statements as Presbyterians, but did not give them the same weight. For Congregationalists, Creeds and Catechisms were important teaching tools, and were accepted “for substance of doctrine” (to use the Cambridge Platform’s words), but persons dissenting from one or another point were not excluded from fellowship. Congregationalists nurtured the tradition of issuing periodic new statements of faith.
Churches of the Christian tradition were most critical of the use of creeds. They had seen creeds being used as weapons for persecution of those disagreeing with ecclesiastical authorities, and sources of division, contrary to the unity to which Christ calls us. They would oppose any tyrannical use of creeds to oppress local church autonomy or the freedom of the individual conscience.
The Iglesia Evangélica Unida de Puerto Rico, created in 1931 as a union of Congregational, United Brethren in Christ, and Christian churches, created a faith statement as part of its union process, Nuestra Credo. This was revised in 1990 as Confesión de Fe. These statements identify the new church with the parent denominations and with the church of all times and places.
The Magyar Synod, organized in 1940, expressed its continuity with the parent church in Hungary, by declaring the Second Helvetic Confession to be its doctrinal standard.
The Congregational tradition believed strongly that the church’s understanding of its faith must not be frozen in the past, but must continue to grow. This conviction began with the often quoted words of John Robinson, the Pilgrims’ pastor in the Netherlands, in his farewell address to the Pilgrims, as reported by a hearer:
|We are now ere long to part asunder, and the Lord knoweth whether ever he should live to see our faces again. But whether the Lord had appointed it or not, he charged us before God and his blessed angels, to follow him no further than he followed Christ; and if God should reveal any thing to us by any other instrument of his, to be as ready to receive it as ever we were to receive any truth by his ministry; for he was very confident the Lord had more truth and light yet to break fourth out of his holy word. He took occasion also miserably to bewail the state and condition of the Reformed Churches, who were come to a period in religion, and would go no further than the instruments of their Reformation. As, for example, the Lutherans, they could not be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw; for whatever part of God's will he had further imparted and revealed to Calvin, they will rather die than embrace it. And so also, saith he, you see the Calvinists, they stick where he left them; a misery much to be lamented; for though they were precious shining lights in their times, yet God had not revealed his whole will to them; and were they now living, saith he, they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light, as that they had received.|
In other words, our doctrine is to be founded on the Bible, and informed by the Church of the past. But it cannot be frozen in the past. We must continue to grow and evolve: to receive new insights, and, when necessary, to reject past ideas when they have been disproved.
This idea, called in the Nineteenth Century the “Development of Doctrine” was advocated most strongly in America by a theologian of the Reformed Church, Philip Schaff. He saw the church as an organism, in continuity with the past, yet continuing to evolve. The church of the present could neither reject what it had been, nor be confined by what it had been. Schaff collected, edited, and published the Creeds of Christendom, from ancient times, through the Reformation, to his time. So the Congregational view of continuing doctrinal formulation was warmly received by many in the Reformed Church, even though that was the branch of the church most strongly attached to one creed.
What follows is a collection of doctrinal statements endorsed in some way by some representative body of the United Church of Christ or its antecedents in America. Let me explain more precisely by describing what is not included:
|To the confession of faith published in the name of the Church of England and to every article thereof we do with the Reformed Churches where we live and also elsewhere assent wholly.|
But I find no record of a formal endorsement of these articles by a representative group in America.
There may be other documents of which I am not yet aware. I once saw a faith statement from Dakota Association and Dakota Presbytery, but I could not translate it, and do not know to what extent it was endorsed by those bodies. The early German Congregational Conferences endorsed the Apostles’ Creed as their faith statement. If the other ethnic groups that have been organized within the Congregational body had faith statements, I do not know.
The doctrinal statements are as follows, with the year of adoption, and the part of the United Church of Christ from which they came. Click the underlined title to go to an introduction to the document.
|Luther’s Smaller Catechism||1529||Evangelical|
|Heidelberg Catechism||1563||Reformed + Evangelical|
|Second Helvetic Confession||1566||Magyar|
|Westminster Confession as revised in the Saybrook Platform||1644 (1708)||Congregational|
|Westminster Shorter Catechism||1644||Congregational|
|Burial Hill Declaration||1865||Congregational|
|Five Cardinal Principles||1866||Christian|
|Kansas City Statement of Faith||1913||Congregational|
|Nuestro Credo||1931||Puerto Rico|
|Theological Commission Statement of Faith||1946||Congregational|
|Basis of Union||1949||United Church of Christ|
|Preamble of the Constitution||1957||United Church of Christ|
|Statement of Faith||1959||United Church of Christ|
|Confesión de Fe||1990||Puerto Rico|
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