Covenanters, Lutherans, and creeds

by Tom Tredway

Many Pietists have an aversion to formal creeds. For example, take this recent e-mail, sent to me by a sometime contributor to Pietisten, a Mission Friend, born and bred: “I have modified much from my youth but not the conviction that creeds if not simply bad, are problematic.” The wider subject of that e-mail exchange does not matter here. But this fellow, a man of my ripe age, expresses an attitude that has been shared by many Scandinavian free church folk since the mid-nineteenth century revivals. Among other gifts of those revivals are the two Mission Covenants —on both sides of the Atlantic.

Suspicion about creeds and its corollary, an appeal to sola scriptura, was strong among the founders of the Covenant tradition. North Park church historian Philip Anderson writes that P.P. Waldenström himself steered Pietism “away from confessional norms to sole biblical authority.” The antipathy in the Scandinavian free churches toward creeds is caught in a statement from Per Olov Enquist’s 2001 novel Lewis Resa (Levi’s Journey, 2005), about the great Swedish revivalist Lewi Pethrus (1884-1974). Though a Pentecostal, Pethrus might in this regard at least have been speaking for the Mission Friends too: “A creed came from human beings and not from God. It was something that a group of people pulled out of the Bible and that would basically cause nothing but division. The clear words of the Bible were sufficient.” Further, “The word ‘creed’ . . . reeked of the state church.” The odors of the state church and its creeds were not sweet in free-church nostrils.

Karl Olsson’s magisterial history, By One Spirit (1962), makes it clear that this was a disposition shared by the people who in 1885 began the Mission Covenant in North America. Their constitution was “devoid of any creedal content,” Olsson writes. “The Covenant, wearied of theological astrolabes, sextants, and compasses, decided henceforth to steer only by the stars.” Astronomical devices were for Lutherans; the Mission Friends would navigate simply by the Scriptures.

Common to this doubt about the historical creeds of Christendom is the sense that the Bible speaks for itself and that, guided by the Spirit, a Christian can take a stand on the plain faith that is born of reading it. Further elaboration and ornamentation, often couched in the non-biblical language of Plato or Aristotle or some other system of philosophy, are what the creeds are full of. As my e-mail correspondent says, such creeds “if not simply bad, are problematic.” Worse, they tend to replace simple faith with a frame of ideas that have more to do with the wisdom of the world than they do with the Gospel. By these lights, there is more Greek metaphysics than biblical faith in the Nicean Creed.

In the last issue of Pietisten, I suggested that during the years in the mid-twentieth century when Karl Olsson loomed over the Evangelical Covenant Church of America, Conrad Bergendoff stood as the leading intellectual of the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church (or “Synod”). I also noted that though they respected one another, there were moments when important disagreements surfaced between these two Swedish-American ecclesiastical titans.

One such encounter came over this matter of religious creeds. In the January, 1963, issue of The Swedish Pioneer Historical Quarterly, Bergendoff wrote a review of Olsson’s newly issued By One Spirit. After marveling at the author’s amazing gift for language and stopping to correct a few minor errors of fact in Olsson’s text, Bergendoff turned to the matter that seems most to have interested and even troubled him in By One Spirit: the question of formal creeds.

Bergendoff felt that their unwillingness to adopt a creed made it hard for others to figure out what the Covenanters stood for. Himself heavily involved in the ecumenical movement, the Lutheran steadily insisted that any Christian community must declare itself—so that others might understand what it was about: “We cannot avoid putting into words what we believe, if we are to make known our Christian faith.” By One Spirit was, at least for Bergendoff, “a case study of what happens when a church experiments with a creedless unity, . . . or fails to define ‘non-essential’ Christian doctrine.”

Later Bergendoff explained what he meant by this. In an interview given a decade and a half after he wrote the review of the Olsson history, he recalled, “I poke a little fun at the title of the thing, ‘By One Spirit,’ because there are all kinds of spirits in the book.” He drew a connection between the acrimony toward one another that arose, especially in the 1920s, among members of the American Covenant and the lack of a formal creedal statement in the denomination: “Well, when you think of these kind of groups [the non-creedal churches]—the Lutheran Church can at least say ‘this is what we believe.’” (Olsson had chronicled those Covenant troubles of the twenties in his chapter “Groping for an Image.”)

The Augustana reviewer did understand, of course, that individual Christians would each have their own particular understanding, their personal faith. But when they banded together to support missionary work or to start an educational institution, these people would need to state the common beliefs that tied them together in the first place and that, in the second, distinguished them from other such groups. However you labeled it, such a statement was a “creed.”

Of course, an historian before he was either a theologian or a Lutheran apologist, Bergendoff would have admitted that loyalty to the Confessio Augustana (Augsburg Confession) had not ipso facto kept the Augustana Synod free of controversy either. His own efforts to bring his denomination into the national and the world councils of churches had been met with resistance in certain quarters of Midwestern Lutheranism. So had his work to unite the Augustana Church with the United Lutheran Church in America, the group occupying the more liberal end of the American Lutheran spectrum in the mid-twentieth century. (The Augustana Church did eventually join with the ULCA to form the Lutheran Church in America, 1962-88.)

So readers of Swedish-American religious history will realize that the two major church groups set up by the immigrants to North America, the Augustana Synod and the Covenant, had, in spite of their many commonalities, an essential difference on the matter of creedal statements. The Lutherans had, in fact, named themselves after the basic Lutheran creed, the Augsburg Confession. The Pietists did not need it; they had the New Testament, and it was enough.

With the passage of a century and a half, things have simmered down. Many of the heirs of the Augustana Church, now included in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (after 1988), are often more willing than were their elders to recognize the distinction between biblical faith and the creedal declarations of Christian history, including those made during the Lutheran Reformation. And Covenanters often recite at least the Apostles Creed during Sunday services, though the intricacies of the Athanasian and Nicean Creeds may remain terra incognita to many of them.

A short essay such as this one cannot do justice to the complicated question of how Swedish-American denominations related to formal creedal or confessional statements. Yet even this quick glance at the religious history of Swedes in the New World suggests that in earlier years there were significant differences. Of course, other issues separated the newly established immigrant denominations as well. They included the doctrine of the Atonement, the nature of the church, and the role of the clergy.

The importance of these additional theological questions should not be minimized. But to young people of my generation, many of whom moved between the people and the institutions of the two denominations—Olsson and Bergendoff, North Park and Augustana, Covenant and Lutheran—matters like reciting the creed and the forms of corporate worship were the distinctions that immediately struck us. In the next issue of Pietisten, I hope to consider liturgical questions and look briefly at the differing ways the two denominations expressed themselves when they gathered for church services. Their respective attitudes toward liturgies reflect an interesting parallel to their views on the importance of creeds.

In the meantime, watch out when you send me an e-mail; I may start the next essay by quoting you.