Chapter 1: Why Do We Have Creeds?

Christian Affirmations
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 1: Why Do We Have Creeds?

The plan for the series of six meetings which we are having together includes the discussions of some questions that are often asked by Church people and by inquirers -- questions concerning the meaning of important beliefs of the Christian Church, questions concerning certain practices which we find among those who are members of the Church. This evening the question which is before us is one which is very frequently put to all of us who are Christian people and most frequently to anyone who is a clergyman: "Why Do We Have Creeds?"

It seems to many people that Christianity is a very simple thing. It consists, they believe, in the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the promotion of good will and understanding among all people, and the development of a spirit of charity, a spirit of sympathy, a concern for justice; and that is about all there is to it. Jesus Christ in that idea of Christianity plays the part of the great teacher and prophet who enunciated the truths with which Christians are concerned, but who is not Himself the center of their worship and their service. I am afraid that I have got to say flatly that any such view of the meaning of Christianity is simply wrong.

Of course, it is theoretically a possibility that the Christian Religion for two thousand years has been moving along the wrong line, and that another, and what might be called by some a better, understanding of the meaning of Christianity will take the place of that which has been conventional among us through these centuries. I say theoretically that is a possibility, but if we are concerned not with theoretical possibilities but with actual facts, we shall have to admit that Christianity is not the simple religion of God’s Fatherhood and man’s brotherhood, but rather the religion which finds God come to men for their wholeness of life in the person of Jesus Christ; and therefore finds in Him, in who He was, in what He did, in who He is, and in what He does, and in the consequences of those things, the whole substance of our Christian way of life.

If Christianity is centered in Jesus Christ, in who He was and what He did, in who He is and what He does, and in the consequences of these things, there will have to be a creed, there will have to be a statement of belief in Him and in His significance. And I think that one could say that those who object to creeds on principle are usually those who object to Christianity on principle, or more likely, do not know what Christianity is. They object, that is, to the idea of any religion which is concerned with affirmations about the nature of things, with affirmations about historical personalities and their significance; and they prefer a religion which is concerned more with how we feel and think, or how we think we ought to feel.

Our creeds, such as we have in the Book of Common Prayer, are of course, two: the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. For purposes of American audiences, we do not have to think about a third creed which is found in the Prayer Books of all the other branches of the Anglican Communion, the Athanasian Creed, which has the misfortune of being neither a creed nor by Athanasius. It does not really concern us. It is a detailed, theological canticle set for singing, and is of extreme importance to theological experts but for most of us does not even get within our range of vision. We are concerned here with the Apostles’ Creed, which we use in Morning and Evening Prayer and at some other times, and with the Nicene Creed which is the creed used in the Holy Communion. We ought to see how these creeds came to be.

Let us look first of all at the Apostles’ Creed. That is a very simple thing. If you should look at it, you would find that it is divided into three sets of statements. One is a set of statements about Jesus Christ Himself; the other is a set of statements about God, the Father of our Lord; and the third is a series of statements which are, as it were, the consequence of the other two. Now that is not the way the Creed actually runs. It begins by our saying that we believe in God the Father Almighty; it goes on to say that we believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; and it concludes by statements about the Holy Spirit, the Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. But the central paragraph, which is concerned with Christ, is literally the crucial paragraph, and it is that second and central section which helps us to understand how the Apostles’ Creed came into existence.

When, in the earliest days of the Church, men and women who had been converted to Christianity were to be welcomed into membership in the Christian fellowship, incorporated into the Church, it was required that they should profess their belief in Christ as the Messiah -- which is to say, God’s special representative for the establishment of His kingdom among men -- and as the Son of God -- that is, as uniquely related to the Father of all mankind. From the simple formula used at Baptism the development of the Apostles’ Creed takes its rise. It is quite wrong to think, as some people apparently do, that the Apostles sat down and contributed each one a clause to the Creed. That was an ancient and mistaken idea. It is equally wrong to assume that a group of theologians, intent on making Christianity very difficult, determined that they would devise a sort of formula that would have to be accepted by anybody who claimed to be a Christian. The Apostles’ Creed arose out of -- and, in fact, still has its primary meaning as -- a baptismal creed.

"Do you believe in Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God?" If you do, you can be baptized and welcomed in the Church. That is the beginning of the Creed. But the early days of Christianity -- the first two or three centuries -- were not all easy going. There were theories, speculations, philosophies, and ideas which imperiled the Christian point of view. For example, there were those who believed that our Lord did not really have a human body and a human nature, and such people by their teaching imperiled the Christian assertion that God had acted for us in one of our own kind, and therefore in a way which we, men and women with bodies and human nature, could grasp and be grasped by. It is for this reason that the simple affirmation about our Lord as Messiah and Son of God was expanded to include the assertions of His birth, His death, His resurrection -- sheer historical data to show that man’s Salvation had been won m terms of our common humanity and on the open field of history.

There were some also who believed that the God who had sent Christ was not really the final God of all things, that behind the God of religious experience and faith there was a dark, unknown, all-controlling being, or even a fate, and that in meeting Christ we met not this final God who in the long run is in control, but only, as it were, a secondary, but good, God. You can see at once that any such view would destroy the whole meaning of Salvation, because if the God who meets us in Christ is not the God finally in control of all reality, then life is not made safe. It may be that there are some obscure corners somewhere in which God’s writ does not run. The Christian position does not hold by such views; and so assertions about God the Creator of Heaven and earth, the Almighty One, were placed in the Creed to safeguard the Fatherhood of God by making clear that He who is our Father is also the Ruler of all things.

And the implications of the coming of Christ in the forgiveness of our sins, the assurance of life beyond and through death, the persistence of personality conceived in terms (natural to the time) of the resurrection of the body: these too were added to the Creed, as being necessary to the right understanding of the purpose and mission of Christ as come from God.

So also to the Creed were added the Holy Spirit, the Church, and the Communion of Saints, all of them closely related because all of them are ways of saying that he who commits himself to Christ commits himself also to that community established through Christ’s coming, where the fact of Salvation is known and experienced and men are empowered from God by a Spirit which is given to them, a Spirit that is indeed so personal in operation that no longer can we call the Spirit ‘that’ or ‘which,’ but must call the Spirit ‘Who’ or ‘He.’ That is a very brief and inadequate sketch of the way in which from the simple, early baptismal formula we have received the developed Apostles’ Creed.

Now let me try to say something more of the "Why" of the Creed, the "Why" of the Church’s having a Creed. I think I can get at this best of all by pointing out that Christianity is not merely, as so many have thought, a way in which men live one with another, nor is it merely a way in which we worship God. It is also a set of affirmations which give meaning to our way of life and illuminate our worship of God, a set of affirmations in terms of which we live and the meaning of which is declared to us and by us every time we participate in an act of Christian worship. The Church, that is to say, stands for something or, as I like to put it, the Church belongs to the order of vertebrates -- it has a backbone; it is not a jelly fish. To be a Christian means that you take a stand. It means that you take a stand with millions of men and women over hundreds of years who have also taken that stand, the Christian stand, the Christian position: that God is, that God cares for men, that His care for men has included His coming among them in a Man to give them wholeness of life, that His care for men has included the bringing of them to Himself in fellowship with their brethren and with the assurance that life does not end with this short term of mortal years. If you are a Christian, this is what you believe and this is why you have a creed. If you did not have a creed, there would be no way of securing that the essential Christian statements would continue from generation to generation and across the whole world, uniting us as a fellowship in belief as well as a fellowship in worship and in Christian service.

But, of course, there is the problem of the way in which you and I as individual men and women are to say the Creeds. And I think that we should look very honestly at this particular difficulty in an effort to see precisely what the Creeds are all about.

Let me suggest that there are in the Creeds three different kinds of language. The first kind is historical. I have spoken about that. It is a statement that a certain Person lived in history, that He was in fact born, that He died, that He rose from the dead.

The second kind of language in the Creeds is what I should want to call by a word that I hope is not too outlandish: "ontological." Now this is a word which comes from Greek. By it I mean that there are statements in the Creeds which concern the nature of things, the way things really are. There is, for example, an affirmation about God. Now that is not "historical"; God is not just somebody who happens to turn up in history. God is, in the very nature of things, there. And so also I should say that phrases such as those concerned with our eternal destiny are what I call by this long philosophical term -- they have ontological significance.

There is a third kind of language in the Creeds, and that is symbolical language, the language which talks, for instance, about God’s "right hand." Obviously, God does not have a right hand on which or at which Christ sits. This is the language of poetry, the language of metaphor. It used to be said -- although I am told it is incorrect to say it -- that when the Creed was translated into Chinese, it was necessary to alter the words so as to have Christ sitting on the left hand of God, this being the Chinese place of honor. This illustrates the point: if there were some culture where the place of honor was sitting on somebody’s head, then we should have to put it that way, for "the highest place which heaven affords is His by right."

And while I am speaking of this, I might just as well say something about the Nicene Creed, with its language about coming down from Heaven, and the like. After all, Heaven is not "up" and earth "down." But to say that Christ "came down from heaven" means that he entered with humility and love into the world of men, and so this symbolic phrase is appropriate, although obviously it is not to be taken literally, unless you want to subscribe to a view of the world in which Heaven is literally up and Hell is literally down.

I have mentioned the Nicene Creed, and I want to go on with it, because it is for some of us rather more complicated and difficult than the Apostles’ Creed. The Nicene Creed is an amplifying and developing of the point of view stated in the Apostles,’ or Baptismal, Creed. The history of the Nicene Creed can be put briefly: apparently it is a rewriting of a statement of faith used in one of the churches of Asia Minor, adopted by a gathering of Christian bishops assembled in council in the town of Nicaea AD. 325, expanded very considerably at two later councils of the Church’s bishops, and finally adopted in the approximate form in which we have it in the year 451, at a meeting of the bishops in the town of Chalcedon, held to rid the Church of some pestilent heresies concerning the meaning of Christ.

The Nicene Creed is constructed like the Apostles’ Creed. The opening paragraph is concerned with God the Father. The middle paragraph deals with the historical facts of Christ, but with something else too -- namely, the relation of Christ to God, so there can be no mistake among Christians as to the major insistence of all Christian experience, that when we meet Christ we meet nothing less than God Himself. Christ as we know Him is so related to God that we use of Him the words, "of one substance with the Father"; which is to say that the very same stuff, the very same reality, is in Christ as characterizes the nature of God our Creator. The third part, like that the Apostles’ Creed, is once again an amplification of the consequences of belief in Christ, with references to the Holy Spirit, to the Church, to the forgiveness of sins at Baptism, to our destiny beyond death. Here, once more, the same three kinds of language may be noted. "God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible" -- this is the language which I call ontological, as is also the phrase "of one substance with the Father." There are also the historical phrases: "born," "crucified," "died," "risen." And there are the symbolical phrases: "came down from heaven," "sitteth on the right hand of the Father," etc., like those we have seen in the Apostles’ Creed.

With that much behind us, we may go on to say something about the way in which you and I repeat the Creeds. Surely we cannot expect that the Creeds are to be treated as if they were hurdles over which every Christian must jump in order to be "qualified" to be a member of the Church. It would be a little absurd to expect a three- or four-month-old baby to repeat ex animo, with complete assent, every phrase that occurs in the Creed. For the rest of us, too, it is not as if the Creeds were proposed as tests -- that the Church puts up tests that we must past with at least the grade of "D," or we cannot be admitted to membership. The fact that we baptize little babies who cannot understand anything about the Creed, and bring them up in a society where the Creed is said and believed, is the clue to the way in which the Creed is to be used. The Creed is the Christian Church’s affirmation of belief; and when you and I say, "I believe," as we repeat the Creed, what we are really saying is this: "I take my stand where the Christian Church takes its stand, and, please God, I shall grow daily into a deeper understanding of that position which the Creed states, so that the faith which is the faith of the Church will more and more become my own personal faith too, until at the end of the day I, with all the saints, may join in the great Te Deum before the throne of God."

Anybody who has his wits about him does not ask a young person presenting himself for Confirmation to pass a test in dogmatic theology such as I might give my students in General Seminary. What is asked is that the young person shall be willing and desirous to live the Christian life, to worship in the Christian way, and to share so far as may be possible for him in the Christian faith, trusting, indeed knowing, that as he lives the life and worships in the way, he will grow more and more in the understanding and the believing.

It is significant in this connection that in the early days of Christianity, the Creed -- not the Apostles’, but the Nicene -- began with the Greek word p s t e n w m e n "we believe." This was the community’s act of assent, and when Christians stood and said or sang the Creed, they were saying that they wished to be, they were intensely anxious to be, of the company of Christian faith. I think that if we understood this, one of the real difficulties that many people have about both Creeds would disappear, because as perhaps some of you may yourselves feel, there are certain phrases to be found in the Creeds that can cause trouble. Perhaps you do not know whether you can really say that you believe them with all your heart, and yet you would not want to contradict the Church’s tradition, feeling that there is a wisdom here that may be deeper than your own. I should say that the right thing to do is to "come on in because the water is really very fine"; that there is no place where the wisdom of the Christian Church can be known save within the Christian Church; that if one can assent in general lines to that which the Creeds say, one can rightly belong in the Church.

For my part, I believe that Christianity is true. It is not just helpful, nice, agreeable, valuable to develop your personality and help you make friends. It is true, and truth need never be afraid. Any man or woman who is willing to expose himself to the truth of the Christian faith in the life of the Christian community, nourished by the worship of Christian people, will discover that the truth becomes true for him.