A word about creeds

Those who’ve been in regular dialog with me for some time now know that I have a long-running issue with creeds or statements of faith. To some extent my issue is with the concept itself–that a creed seems often to be used to define who’s “in,” or more particularly who’s “out” of fellowship with a group, a deity, a religion. While I freely acknowledge my own inconsistencies here, it seems to me a proper understanding of the sovereignty of God would necessitate a certain humility of the sort that would say “this is what I believe I understand to be true, but the final arbiter of faith and faithfulness can be God alone.” Not content with that, humans seem to have expended a lot of effort over the years trying to draw clear “lines in the sand” delineating who’s got it and who’s not.

The word “creed,” of course, comes from the Latin “credo” which simply means “I believe.” So at its simplest a creed is simply a summary of those things an individual or group believes to be true. Depending on what follows the “I believe” statement, however, a creed can–and often has–become a list of what is important to the particular believer(s) to the effectual exclusion of those things not on the list. At its worst, then (and here I’m speaking strictly of Christianity, though I am sure similar things can be said in and of other faiths), subscribing to a creed may tend toward a form of reductionism whereby any concerns not on the list–however relevant or scriptural–are excluded as of lesser (or no) import.

Creeds need not be reductionist. The only creed that we have recorded in the Gospels as being endorsed by Jesus himself is simple, yet all-encompassing:

Hear, o Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one!
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. . .and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Mark 12:29-31

I have represented this as a creed, and yet that’s not entirely accurate. Jesus actually spoke these words (quoting from the Hebrew scriptures), not in terms of “what should we believe?” but rather “what is the greatest commandment?” This difference is actually quite important, because particularly in our current definitions of faith, “believe” is something one does in one’s head, while a “commandment” implies action. In fact, the love of God and neighbor are necessarily active things that cannot exist in an intellectual vacuum apart from deeds and lifestyle. This is vitally different from, for example, the statement of faith recently adopted by the denomination of the church I currently attend. Have a look at this fairly-typical evangelical statement of faith here. Interestingly, nearly all of the points in this statement, and certainly all of the specifics, involve propositions to which one must give intellectual assent to be a member in good standing. Very little is said about the way one might live as a believer, and what is said is in the most generic of terms. (To those who would suggest I’m selling the church short by oversimplifying its SOF I would add that in my personal experience, I have been excluded from certain opportunities to serve based solely upon my failure to give assent to points in that statement about which we can do nothing EXCEPT agree or disagree intellectually)

The history of creeds in the church needs far more detailed analysis than I shall attempt here, but I think it’s interesting to note an unsubtle trend in the church’s use of such statements. We begin, of course, with the concise, yet all-encompassing “Love God, love your neighbor” summary Jesus himself preached. The early church was similarly broad but simple with its revolutionary claim “Jesus is Lord,” which could not have been mistaken by any first-century hearer–“Caesar is Lord” being both a theological and political pledge of allegiance in the Roman empire of the day (citations welcome; I don’t have one readily at hand).

But by the time of the second century, looking at Iraneus’ Rule of faith and the Apostles’ Creed, we see something interesting has happened. Gone from Iraneus are any references to discipleship, lordship of Christ, or anything of the sort (the Apostle’s Creed still calls Jesus “our Lord”), replaced entirely by things one either thinks are true, or not. The Nicene Creed, a hundred-plus years later, perpetuates this loss while further defining what must be believed, but it gets really interesting in the sixth century when we look at the Constantinople “anathemas,” in which we are informed that (if I may crudely, but not inaccurately, paraphrase) “if you don’t believe and say these things, you can go to hell, and if you aren’t sure that certain people (names are listed!) are going to hell, you can go to hell, too!”

(Lest the reader fear that I am overdoing the sense of “anathema,” have a look at this document which clarifies what the term means and meant in the time those anathemas were written. Consider this language from the anathematizing ritual: “…we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate, so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church…”)

I am sad to say that this latter has pretty much become the standard. Sure, just what is on or off the list has varied somewhat through the centuries, but the core is still there: what counts is what you think and say, and if you don’t think and say the right things, you can (and will!) go to hell.

How far we have strayed from Jesus’ “Come to me!” And how many may we have driven FROM him with our creeds? Christe eleison (Christ, have mercy)!

12 thoughts on “A word about creeds”

  1. Cadog

    Hi Dan, I “met” you on Carson’s site, and he has a link to yours … I have had an interest in statements of faith and why folks and groups have them, and creeds are of course such statements.

    I see that after 3-1/2 years I am also first to comment! So rather than go on I think I’ll leave it for now, in the event that this string is no longer active.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Hi cadog,

      I never let a thread completely die on this blog, and since it’s got a “Recent Discussions” widget to the right, anybody who looks there will see there’s activity. I would welcome your thoughts.

  2. Cadog

    Recent Discussion feature is cool … I hadn’t noticed it.

    In that a creed is a summation of what we believe … I think that we all have creeds, whether they are “formulated” (as in a statement of faith or, say, the Apostle’s Creed) or not. Thus any time we are asked, or even in the privacy of our own hearts review or recite what we believe, we are engaging in creedal behavior.

    Thus, the claim that “we are a non-creedal people”, which I heard in a denominational church (great folks by the way) that was very proud of this position, was not too persuasive, since they also have an “Our Values” page on their website that includes 6 statements all of which begin, “We believe …”

    That said … my reconsideration of many aspects of my expressions of faith began with a rather critical evaluation of “statements of faith” — and whether they were needed — and whether I could or should subscribe to one.

    btw, I am delighted to see Wright’s Surprised by Hope included on your reading list. I heard him, along with a panel of other scholars, speak at Wheaton College last year. He was the centerpiece of the entire weekend and it was really wonderful.

  3. Dan Martin

    I hear what you’re saying about creeds. I agree that most (if not all) who claim not to have one are being disingenuous. I refer you, however, to the second paragraph of this post. To the extent that a creed either becomes reductionist in that only what’s on the list matters, or exclusionist in that its purpose is to define who is “in” or “out” of a group, they are a damaging exercise.

  4. Dan Martin

    I, too, heard Wright speak once…at a debate with Bart Ehrman in San Francisco, on the topic of God and Evil. I have rarely heard a man speak whose love for his Lord was so evident, as Tom Wright. It was indeed a pleasure.

  5. Cadog

    I did note your comments re reductionist/exclusionist. Also your introductory comment re creeds/SoFs defining who is “in” or “out”.

    I want to consider further, but I think your arguments are pretty broad,in both your assertions and conclusions. And while I have plenty of thoughts on SoFs (I am generally not wild about them incidentally) — let me try a different tack on your well-reasoned argument, with which I can sympathize, even if I eventually don’t agree.

    You say, “creeds need not be reductionist” and propose as an example the wonderful (and very brief!) Hebrew shema prayer.‎

    A friend in ministry whose tradition does not include creeds (but whose church has a SoF) makes the exact opposite (i.e., non-reductionist) argument when, in answer to any difficult question, he waves his big black bible and says “This is all I need. If it’s not here I don’t need it and if it says it here I believe it.”

    A couple comments, just in an effort to simplify:

    Firstly, in a real sense, what he is saying is that the bible in its entirety is his “creed”. Which I have no problem with. It’s just that it is very long.

    Secondly, in saying he believes what the bible says, he is really saying he believes not only what (he THINKS) the bible says, but also what he thinks THE BIBLE MEANS.

    Further to the first point: a creed or SoF, as a summary of what is most important to the person or group who draws it up, does leave things out. For example, all three major creeds observed by the Roman church are silent on really important (to them) topics, like the real presence, immaculate conception, veneration of saints, and so on.

    Yes, they are essentially saying, “this is what is most important”, but we all do this in some way, with intent or otherwise, because good communication and time constraints require it. That doesn’t make it a bad thing.

    To the second point: I guess this has to do with authority. My friends who reject the creeds do so, probably at least in part, out of a strong protestant/reformation tradition that also rejects the authority of a central church (Rome at the time of the creeds and of course the reformation itself). My friend whose creed is the bible also makes himself the authority by insisting on his own black-and-white interpretation of what it means. His approach, as you suggest, does exclude those who disagree with him – but the main exclusion he accomplishes is from fellowship with him.

    But if you accept that there are lines and claims of authority – be it the bible, what it says, or what people think it says; or the church, be it very large and central or very small and local; or reason, which Anglicans add as a “third leg” of basis for belief — then, yes, I guess creeds do tend to exclude.

    Also, while I used “creed” in this comment as somewhat synonymous with “statement of faith”, I don’t consider the terms interchangeable. I just didn’t want to take a lot more space (or time as I am running late for work) to take up SoFs.

    Christ’s peace this and each new day!

  6. Dan Martin

    Actually I have also been using Creed and SOF synonymously, because in function I think they are often used so (whether this equation is historically or etymologically solid is, of course, another matter).

    I would guess you might find that I’ve engaged in your definition of a creed in my post Some of What I Believe Today…, and to an extent you’d be right, though I consider that article to be more of a sampler of distinctives than a compendium of truth. Any careful survey of this blog will reveal that I do have a pretty substantial objection to most claims of ecclesastical and doctrinal authority…as I think such things really need to be worked out in real time by a local body of believers who are committed to each other. While such a body would err if it completely ignored the history of saints who have gone before, I contend it errs equally if it ascribes to those saints an authority superior to that body’s own discernment of the scripture.

    And then, as I made clear at the outset, I take particular issue with any construct–and creeds are a significant one–that replaces the way of living in discipleship, with a system of largely cerebral “belief.”

    I certainly agree with you in contra the “whole Bible” attitude of your friend…in large measure because I do not see the Bible making the sorts of encyclopedic and comprehensive demands most self-proclaimed Biblicists do.

    So while we might, in fact, disagree if we were to thrash this all out, I have a sense we’d find a lot more commonality than dissent once we sorted through our various terms and usage.

    In any event, peace be also with you!

  7. Cadog

    Thanks for the dialog Dan, hope to enjoy more with you! I have browsed a few of your other posts, but limited, having only “found” you the other day. I did gather that historic church authority might be something you don’t embrace (in good company with TONS of other protestants, myself included to a point — I am not nor ever expect to be Roman catholic!).

    All of your comments are thoughtful and reasoned. Had I gotten more such dialog in my past evangelical life, I might not have gone a different path into TEC.

    By the way, even though my priest has gently chided me that “evangelical” is not entirely a bad thing — I share the perspective of Francis Collins (author of The Language of God and Director of Natl Institutes of Health, formerly of Human Genome Project), who, responding to a reporter’s attempt to label him as an evangelical, stated his preference to be known as a “serious Christian”.

    Cheers and Blessings! — Cadog

  8. Cadog

    Oh sorry, thought it might have been evident from Carson’s site — TEC = The Episcopal Church (formerly EPUSA or Episcopal Church in the USA).

  9. Cadog

    Not sure re Carson’s affiliation … he has a lot of content, so I am unsure, but I thought I recalled him referring to Episcopal connection.

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