The Problem With Creeds
Date: Monday, October 24, 2005 Time: 10:07:38 PM Topic: theology
In many Christian churches throughout the world, an affirmation of faith, known as a creed, is read or recited at regular intervals. The word “creed” comes from the latin credo, I believe, and in the best instance is indeed an affirmation of the deep faith of the person who utters it. But whereas, as Jacob Boehme says, “faith is that out of which the creed arises,” a bastardized definition of faith has developed which considers “assent to a creed” as sufficient evidence of faith. Thus what was once vital and vibrant enough to produce some rather astounding declarations and affirmations is finally reduced to a dull recitation of barely-undersood syllables.
It was to this rather lifeless use of unthinking recitations that some persons of vital faith objected, in the waning decades of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, when they said they were forevermore done with “sects and creeds.” Just as joining one’s name to the membership rolls of a religious organization does not in itself guarantee that one has indeed begun to partake of a living faith, likewise, it was felt, with the recitation of the creeds. Who needs a creed, when you’ve got Jesus as a personal friend, the Holy Spirit as an indwelling power, the Father in Heaven as a gracious overseer of all your circumstances?
A study of history will show that creeds and confessions were developed in times of controversy, to provide tools for distinguishing between the true believer and the heretic. Among the earliest convocations to produce a creed was one which was called at the behest of Constantine, emperor of Rome, who, having proclaimed by edict that Christians were not to be persecuted, had a real desire to find out about what it was that he had promised to tolerate. So at his request the bishops came from far and wide to see what they could agree on, and what would be deemed an unacceptable departure from the faith, so that the emperor would not find himself protecting someone unworthy of such imperial sanction.
Hence, the first fact concerning creeds must be noted: they are produced by committees, and as such are political documents, the end product of debate, disagreement, and compromise. As with any communique produced for public consumption at the close of any political summit meeting, the broad statement of agreement often serves as a face-saving way to leave for another day any serious discussion of topics that are left out of the document. What you are left with is a least-common-denominator summary of what a diverse group of leaders can barely agree on.
So, with this in mind, let’s take a look (from memory) at some familiar words:
I believe in
God the Father, maker of heaven and earth,
Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord;
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried. [He descended into hell;]
The third day he rose from the dead.
He ascended into heaven; he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
from thence he shall come to judge the quick (living) and the dead.
I believe in
the Holy Spirit;
the holy catholic (universal) Church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and life everlasting.
Now, from the first blush, that looks pretty good, doesn’t it? It paints a broad stroke, covering Father, Son, and (briefly) the Spirit, creation, last things, and of course, provides a brief biography of Jesus. But wait…. let’s look at that biography again.
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified…
Anything about what he did in between his birth and death? Anything about his life? Any mention of his miracles, his healings, his parables, his teaching, his confrontations with the leaders of his own people? Nope. Those are the things the bishops couldn’t agree about! So any mention of them got left out of the document, because there was no consensus over what those things meant.
What results is a Christianity featuring a content-free Christ as a being of divine parentage, about whom the only thing anyone needs to know is that he died for our sins, rose again, will come as judge, and meanwhile should be worshipped as Lord. Again, we’re pretty used to this, because it’s so familiar. But is this what Jesus wanted people to be told about him? Let’s look at the Great Commission.
• Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. (Matthew 28:19-20)
• And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. (Mark 16:15)
• And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:44-48)
• Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained. (John 20:21-23)
Each of the evangelists gives us a little different take on this. The creed-makers, as we have suggested, would have been looking for a common theme. We might do the same, and from these texts discern, for example, the universality of the intended audience: “all nations,” “all the world,” “every creature.” “among all nations,” “whose soever”. This may be reflected in the reference to the “holy catholic church.” So the audience, the scope of the audience for the worldwide message is not in dispute. But what about the message to be carried?
Matthew: “all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” Given the literary context (Matthew’s gospel), the Sermon on the Mount is a good candidate.
Mark: “the gospel.” This is Ευαγγέλιον, the good news. Rather unspecific.
Luke: “Repentance and remission of sins.” Forgiveness of sins, at least, did make it into the creed.
John: “Whose sins ye remit, they are remitted…” Seems to agree with Luke as to the thrust of the message. Also: ” Receive the Holy Spirit” and “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” We’ll have to look at what is said in John about the purpose of Jesus being sent, to find out more specifically what it is the disciples (and, by extension, the church) are sent to say or do.
To sum up: Forgiveness of sins; the Holy Spirit; repentance; good news; and everything taught or commanded by Jesus.
If we promote Jesus as a figure to be believed in, worshipped, and admired, without reference to the things he said and taught, we fall far short of the commission he gave. Repentance and forgiveness are included in that teaching; so is the Holy Spirit, and the purpose for which he came among us. We must let Jesus be our teacher, and let his teaching be our teaching. What good is it to speak in admiring tones of a teacher, even to sing his praise, if we never come to class or pay attention to his instruction? The church is not, not, not the fellowship of those who can come together and recite a creed; it is the fellowship of all those, whatever their credo, who have made it their purpose to learn from Jesus.