Why Creeds?

I became a Christian with the help of a small group of believers on my college dorm floor. As is common in such circles, we believed that “the Bible alone” was sufficient to know Christ’s revelation and live as he wanted us to. We didn’t recite the words “No Creed but the Bible” (itself a sort of creed), but we would have sympathized with it.

We had a great fear of the word “religion”. Christianity (I was taught) was a relationship, not a religion. “Religion” had about it the savor of something stiff, dried out, mummified. It was (we thought) the husk left over when the juice of a living relationship with God had evaporated. It was the cardboard container the food came in—a thing to be thrown away, avoided, despised. And creeds seemed to be a dose of “religion” in chemical purity: an attempt to put the living God back in the box.

The problem came as we tried to live out the gospel in the real world. It’s all well and good to be “Spirit-led”, footloose and fancy-free, a leaf on the wind, when you are in college and you are singing chipper tunes about God loving you to the thrum of a guitar. But as time goes on and your prayer group graduates and tries to become a local church and starts to attract a few strangers from the neighborhood who aren’t part of your cozy circle of friends, things get complicated. Fairly quickly, somebody asks “What do you believe?” and you can no longer rely on a sort of network of unspoken knowledge that you and your friends are decent folk who wouldn’t believe or do anything at odds with the gospel. You have to try to articulate what, precisely, you believe in a way that is intelligible to somebody who doesn’t know you.

And so we found ourselves, a group of perhaps thirty young adults, huddled in a room with a blackboard, trying to summarize what we, as Bible-believing charismatic Christians, believed in a “Statement of Faith”. It was, in its own way, a hilarious afternoon (at least in retrospect). The chalkboard was soon filled with different clauses and points of doctrine, connected in a baffling web of arrows that looked like a football diagram in a Goofy cartoon. After several hours, we gave it up as a bad job and went home. A week or so later, the pastor just pounded out something on his own typewriter about how we believed in the Bible, God the Father, Jesus His Son, the Holy Spirit, and being a community of Spirit-filled servants. I thought to myself dimly that it reminded me of something I’d heard somewhere, but my lack of familiarity with historical Christianity had prevented me from having much familiarity with the Apostles or Nicene-Constantinopolitan creeds. When I did discover them a few years later, it began to dawn on me that we could have saved a lot of time just copying them instead re-inventing the wheel with corners on it.

Pagans didn’t have creeds. You don’t need a creed for a collection of tales about gods in Asgaard, Olympus, or the Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon. The myths of Greece or Rome or the folk tales of Germany and the Great Plains required only poets and bards, not creeds. It was only when Heaven began to upset the apple cart by involving itself in the mundane day-to-day events of very real group of humans called “Israel” whom the Lord God had brought from Egypt, that something like creedal formulae began to emerge. Suddenly something had happened, not Once Upon a Time, but to a specific group of people in history. Moreover, this people was constantly being pressured by its neighbors and by its own sinful tendencies to forget what had happened. And so, their history became one long and the careful act of remembering, not imagining—designed to make sure that their past was not lost.

When the Church began, that need to remember and summarize what had happened continued. And since what had happened was so strange—and so fraught with the possibility of being misunderstood in a thousand ways—the Church also was immediately committed to creating summaries of the Faith that, while initially brief (“Jesus is Lord”), expanded in length over time to make sure that the broad contours of the basic story and its meaning were not lost. That’s because the central command around which the entire Church was built was “Do this in memory of me.” No creed, no memory. No memory, no Eucharist.

Over the next dozen installments of this column, therefore, we are going to take an extended look at the Creed and see how this long act of remembering still speaks to us today in the heart of our Eucharistic Church.

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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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