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
Please take some time to read our latest blog articles: