Return to the Creed

In the Christian world of ideas there is nothing that has the least contact with reality - and it is in the instinctive hatred of reality that we have recognised the only motivating force at the root of Christianity. Friedrich Nietzsche

A Necessary Project

Another book I would recommend as essential reading for the contemporary Church in the project of renewing Jerusalem in the 21st Century is “The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters” by the Roman Catholic scholar Luke Timothy Johnson. He argues that for Modernity, it is the Christian Creed that most offends the “Cultured Despisers” of our age. It is this which brings ridicule from the likes of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens. Yet for Johnson, the Creed is something we set aside at our peril. It is needed more than ever as Christianity searches for an identity and purpose in the modern world. It is also a great source of authority and focus for unity among a divided Christian world. I might add it also provides us with a link to historical Christianity especially the age of the Church Fathers and the intellectual achievement highlighted by Robert Louis Wilken (see previous blog post).

The State of Play

In many churches the Creed is rarely if ever used. In others, it is not seen as relevant or even believable. And in yet others, it is used regularly but poorly understood. Johnson’s book is an attempt to rectify this situation. Using the more extensive Nicene Creed (as opposed to the shorter Apostle’s Creed) as his frame of reference, Johnson systematically expounds the text in an informative and inspiring manner which provides preachers, teachers, and enquiring lay people with a treasure trove of insight for the hungry and needy Christian soul. In my own pilgrimage I had, over time, moved from the conservative wing of Protestantism to its opposite liberal and progressive wing. However, in these last years I have returned to central ground (or should I say foundational ground) partly due to both Eastern orthodox and Roman Catholic writers who have challenged and inspired me anew. I know that my story is not an uncommon one. Johnson’s achievement is to bring the dry liturgical words of the Creed to life and make it “sing” again. He is a prophet for today and I can’t recommend his work enough.

Rediscovery and Renewal

One problem we face at the outset is the mistrust and misunderstanding of the term “dogma.” G.K. Chesterton, who like Mark Twain, seems to have had a quotable quote for every subject, once said that “There are only two kinds of people, those who accept dogmas and know it, and those who accept dogmas and don’t know it.” Absolutely right! The New Atheists come into that category. The Eastern Orthodox theologian Andrew Louth argues that whilst our faith is ultimately beyond understanding it is not beyond misunderstanding, hence the need for Creedal statements. For Christians, a dogma does not fully explain a belief it simply marks a boundary beyond which lies heresy. The late great Evangelical John Stott used the following illustrations: a caged bird; a released balloon; a hand-held kite. The first represents religious Fundamentalism which restricts and constrains. The second represents religious Liberalism which once released floats out of sight as there is no connection to the ground. The third represents genuine Christian faith that is anchored to the ground but in the hands of the kite-flyer can move very flexibly indeed. That is orthodox faith. It is grounded but not oppressive and there is room to manoeuvre. Christian denominations will always disagree about many things but the famous words of St Augustine are apposite here -

In essentials, unity: in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity

Our beliefs, convictions and affirmations whether consciously held or not, affect how we see and understand the world around us and how we behave and act in it. Therefore revisiting the Christian Creed may provide an excellent starting point for reassessing who we are and what we are about in today’s world. It also allows us to respond vigorously to the accusations made by Nietzsche at the beginning of the blog. A healthy and encouraging start to this can be made through engaging with Johnson’s book.

by Rev Dr Russel Moffat

27 Responses

  1. /March 28, 2018/ by Iain Morris /

    Thank you for this analysis. It could, and should,  be used as a form of ‘creed’ for Grasping the Nettle!
    And don’t we owe deep gratitude to St Augustine not only for his wisdom but also for the ability to distil it into just a few words that have the concentrated power of poetry! 

    But I write simply to underscore two points you have made very adequately already.

    The first is that revisiting the fundamentals of belief- and understanding the evidential rationale behind them- is not only enriching but crucially important.  It is so easy to take such basic things for granted and miss the grandeur- of the creed, in this case. Revisiting,  re-scrutinising and re- asserting core beliefs offer multidimensional benefits that are at the very heart of community.

    The second point relates to the things Christians may understand less well and, consequently, be matters about which we may find less agreement.  How ironic that a common reaction is dogmatism and assertion, often in a way that erects barriers against those who interpret the issue differently.  Oh that humility, honest and open enquiry,  at least   in some matters,  could replace the pseudo certainty used as a comforting replacement for the ’ real’ knowledge that human beings naturally seek.

    It behoves Christians well in many matters of theology to forsake the false premise that uncertainty and questioning are weaknesses to be eschewed at all costs and that being able to state one’s views with confidence is more important than owning up to being a pilgrim walking with others along an uncertain paths- but one replete with insights and exciting possibilities along the way.
      I sense that Grasping the Nettle is rightly more about the pilgrim way while still feeding and serving the appetite for knowledge, truth and understanding.

  2. /April 2, 2018/ by Russel Moffat /

    Hi Iain
    Thanks for your response. Just to elaborate a little on my original post I would argue the Creed is important for three reasons
    First to remind the Christian Church of its identity and purpose; who we are and for what we are called and commissioned. This is so necessary in an age of doubt, scepticism and unbelief which has filtered through to our faith communities. To use Paul’s metaphor of a Trumpet Call (1Cor 14:8) the great affirmations of the Creed provide that rallying call to a Church in retreat and disarray.
    Second, to provide an anchor around which Christian unity can be built up.  The historical divisions of the Church although they may have been contextually unavoidable, are a luxury we cannot afford in the 21st century. We must remember that the only people who have ever benefitted from Christian disunity have been Muslims and Atheists.
    Third, the Creed involves the grand Christian Vision from Creation through Redemption to the Consummation of all things. Within this framework and under this umbrella we are to unite all things in Christ and that for our purposes includes the best of human thought, reason and knowledge about the nature of reality. It is therefore a great springboard to begin the project outlined by Tom Wright (see my Post on “Theology in the Public Square”).
    I firmly believe “Grasping the Nettle” has an important role to play in all of this and you are right to point out that we need honesty and humility in our approach to others on this pilgrim journey that God has called us to. With God’s grace that will not be beyond us. Exciting times indeed!

  3. /April 10, 2018/ by David Fergusson /

    It’s good to be reminded of the importance of the Nicene Creed of 381, too often neglected in our Reformed churches. In my occasional exercises in adult Christian education, I have sometimes found that choir members are more receptive to the Nicene Creed than others. I suspect that has something to with its setting to music and ways in which singing the creed enables us internalise it. Bach’s Mass in B-Minor is a powerful testimony to this capacity of the sung creed.  A further feature of the Nicene Creed is its first person plural. Beginning with the confession ‘we believe’ it contrasts with the ‘I believe’ at the opening of the Apostles’ Creed. I find this significant too. Together with other Christians across space and time, we confess the faith of the one, catholic church. This corporate dimension also deepens our conviction. The great historian of Christian theology, Jaroslav Pelikan often spoke of how he drew comfort from regularly reciting ‘we believe.’ In times when his faith wavered or seemed remote or beset with difficulty, he could repose upon the faith of others, drawing strength from those around him who carried him along with their confession. Both these examples remind me that faith is not merely a matter of intellectual assent or private opinion. It is a way of orienting one’s whole self, situated within a community of faith with its worship, friendship and service. Thinking about God belongs to a whole-person social setting in which body, mind and heart are all engaged.

  4. /April 11, 2018/ by Russel Moffat /

    Hi David
    Thanks for your comments and the excellent points you raise. I’m a late convert to liturgy as you know! Part of the reason for that was my experience as a young Christian on the receiving end of very formal and structured worship which seemed arid, mechanical and meaningless. Luke Timothy Johnson acknowledges that even in the Roman Catholic Church, where the creed is regularly recited, many people don’t fully understand what they are saying (one of the reasons he wrote his book). Last year I introduced the use of the Apostle’s Creed in my own church every Sunday but as it is projected on our screen we were able to change the “I” to “We” in line with point you make in regard to that. I thought we might move to the fuller version in time! I started preaching my way through the creed just recently and not only have I enjoyed it immensely but the response from my congregation has been very positive and enthusiastic indeed. This has been followed up with a midweek study group reflecting on the issues raised. My Session Clerk gently rebuked me about my use of the term “recite”; he said we should be “proclaiming” the creed. Amen!  Perhaps it comes down to the clergy reminding people of what we are doing and why we are doing it thereby making every Sunday act of worship a real existential “event.”
    On another note, we had a conversation a while ago about theological education for candidates for the Ministry. You know only too well my long struggle with issues of faith/doubt particularly in relation to my postgraduate studies. The reason “I’m still standing” (to quote Elton John) has a lot to do with Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic writers whom I have read in recent years and who have drawn me back to the Faith. Do you think we Protestants do enough to support and guide our candidates for Ministry through the minefield and quagmire that results from an Enlightenment approach to theological studies? Universities are not responsible for the cultivation or promotion of faith. My own experience is of a fascinating and challenging theological education where I was left to put all the varied elements together on my own. Not very successfully I might add. Hence, until recently, my Ministry was in a different compartment of my life from my academic pilgrimage and there were dark days when I wanted out.
    Can the Church do more in this regard?  Is there a role here for Grasping the Nettle?

  5. /April 18, 2018/ by Iain Morris /

    It is such an intriguing question: is there a role here for Grasping the Nettle?  i have a preferred answer but prefer that it would emerge from the thoughtful contributions of others.

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