Why Creeds? (Part 2 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, the first on creeds is here, and the last will hit Friday.




Each creed is a snapshot of a turning point and the period in which it was written. Who was involved? What did they they think? Why did they think it? And just like a snapshot, though the people in it may have tried to get themselves together and pose before the click of the camera, someone will be blinking or looking away. Furthermore, as many pictures from family functions can attest, not everyone has a good time at the reunion.

 The study of creeds is the study of a collision of social history, theology, and polity. They record the outcomes of each collision, the results of an intersection of attempts to more clearly name aspects of the Divine and the human frailties which sometimes sought to gain advantage in the process. By studying creeds we get to see how theologians have crafted language to articulate their sense of things and we are given the opportunity to see what circumstances beyond the creeds themselves may have influenced that language. We sharpen our own skills of articulation and acquire the grammar and vocabulary of our tradition in the hope that we become fluent enough to authentically appropriate that which is life-giving and employ it as best we might in our own context(s).

 As we immerse ourselves in the language and patterns of tradition we can learn to navigate our own situations, traveling down similar paths to those who crafted the creeds we can read, but in a new day and place. What's more, our day and place has been indelibly marked by that very same language and formed by those very same traditions: the creeds are our history as Christians. We study them as markers of schisms, splits, and decisions, to immerse ourselves in the nitty-gritty of belief and profession. Not as detached observers of clean, historical documents, but as the descendents in faith of those captured by the flash. 

Why Creeds? Because part of our work is to determine what we believe and how to live in light of that belief, and the creeds are part of the living tradition of which we are still a part. They are very much a historical “theological map,” and though old maps are not likely to meet our needs in the present entirely, it would be foolish to throw them all away for want of something new.

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.