Why Creeds? (Part 1 of 3)

This is part of a short piece I used as a pre-semester reading when I was co-teaching a seminary theology 101 course. The sections on theology are here and here, and two more creed pieces will be coming soon. Readers interested in checking out some of the academic background and claims made in these pieces – especially as they pertain to creeds – are encouraged to pick up Jaroslav Pelikan's Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition and/or listen to his interview on the show "On Being."


While many know the creeds contemporarily as quasi-chants that you “have to” believe, their history began as part of the dangerous path into communal Christian life. At a time when living as a Christian was a subversive task, early baptismal creeds were the words by which your life was given over to God and your priorities were radically shifted. By saying “yes” to Christ you said “no” to Caesar and Mammon, a risky position indeed. The question therefore, was not “will you, or will you not, repeat these words?” but, “are you willing to stake your life to the hope and promise that prompts you to profess this as your faith?” If we approach the creeds from this perspective we can see them inviting us to answer that same question: upon what would we stake our lives?

Acknowledging then that the heart of the creeds is the theological impulse to reinterpret, rearticulate, and reinvision, we are best served by remembering that at a time before they were what some see as monotonous obligation, they were daring and transformative proclamation. In a contemporary American culture where a trend of intense suspicion of authority persists, it is a marked challenge to accept that this kind of history stands behind what many take to be a less-than-vibrant tradition of the Church. Yet it seems part of the task of the Christian leader and theologian to mine our histories – and creeds – for vibrancy and hope, something we often sorely lack.


Richard Neuhaus is a staunch critic of the culture of incessant, suspicious criticism and he pointedly addresses its repercussions when he writes that we live in “the toxic cultural air of a disenchanted world in which the mark of sophistication is to reduce wonder to banality… In academic circles, this is called 'the hermeneutics of suspicion,' meaning that things are interpreted to reveal that they are not in fact what they appear to be… They must be exposed and debunked if we are to get to 'the truth of the matter.' The false, the self-serving, the ugly and the evil, on the other hand, are permitted to stand as revealing 'the real world.'” And we could well succumb to this same “toxic cultural air” in our engagement with the creeds of the church. They are hollow documents, we might say, imperial attempts to reify the Church and exert human power and control over what is God's! And we would – in many instances – be speaking some measure of truth. But what Christians do we make if our only cries are of lament and loss? I believe that by virtue of our Baptism and as a function of our calling to faith and ministry we are called to a process of reclamation and audacious hope. In the face of the self-serving, ugly, and evil things of the work we respond that there is yet something more. The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur equally believed in such a calling, articulating it most clearly in his book The Symbolism of Evil.

It is in the age when our language has become more precise, more univocal, [and] more technical… that we want to recharge our language, that we want to start again from the fullness of language… Beyond the desert of criticism we wish to be called again. (349) In every way, something has been lost, irremediably lost: immediacy of belief. But if we can no longer live the great symbolisms of the sacred in accordance with the original belief in them, we can, we modern men [sic], aim at a second naïveté in and through criticism. (351)

 Our engagement with creeds provides us with ample opportunity to seek out Ricoeur's “second naïveté.”

 He isn't calling us to a “first naïveté,” a kind of childish acceptance of whatever we are told by those in positions of authority, but rather to a new kind of belief. Our task isn't to force ourselves to ignore the fact that human foibles and power struggles influence theological proclamation, but to somehow acknowledge this critically, allow it to influence our reading of texts, and then move beyond mere criticism. If we can do this, the hope is that we will come to a place “beyond the desert of criticism,” where we can acknowledge our doubts and questions, preaching – and living into – a fresher and more powerful Gospel for not trying to deny the complexities and marks of confusion that haunt and tantalize us. Beyond that desert the Living Water yet flows. 

5 Responses

  1. I come from the Radical Pietist perspective of the Church of the Brethren, which sees creeds a bit differently. In our historical experience, creeds have also been used to enforce not only doctrinal but political allegiance. During Europe’s Hundred Years War, your citizenship was defined by which creedal confession you swore to uphold. The Radical Pietists who refused all creeds were staking their lives on a creedless religious and political system, while those who accepted their creed were playing it safe and protecting their own power. Radical Pietists have also chosen no creeds because we stake our lives on the fact that our understanding of God will necessarily change.

    I still see some value in creeds as words to claim, confess, embrace, question, resist, and transform throughout our journeys. But they only take us so far. They’re interesting when you’re studying theology, and can name our faith in acts of worship, but we can’t take them too seriously because they can keep us from seeing Christ among and within us.

  2. I like the article. Folks forget that the Roman Symbol, one of the earliest creeds of the church began as a PRAYER… and the early creeds are based on baptismal prayers/confessions. Any part of the tradition viewed as straightjacket, prison, is horrible. Yet treated as prayer, they can be beautiful symbols of a lived faith.

  3. I'm sorry.  I see creeds as being needlessly divisive.  There are enough moral questions to be divided over without looking for theological differences.  If we have to have a creed I'm happy with
    God is love.  I have my own beliefs and hopefully half of them are correct, but I don't want to restrict myself to fellowship with the minute group who would possibly agree with the exact same 50% that I believe in.  Most of them probably wouldn't speak the same language I do and live no where near me.

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