Thursday, December 21, 2023

What is the creed for?

There was a time in which creeds and confessions stated the minimum.  You have to believe this at least in order to be consider orthodox.  That was certainly the case with the old Roman symbol that became the Apostles' Creed.  Formed in the earliest centuries of Christianity and framed in the context of baptismal questions, that creed became the minimum that must be confessed in order to be baptized into the life of the Church -- though it was never the maximum and the catechumen was always growing in faith.  It was also true of the Nicene addition to the Apostles' Creed that was required to answer the Arian heresy.  The place of that creed in the liturgy extended this minimum though it was never intended to be the sum total of what we believe, teach, and confess.

Now, however, the days are different.  Creeds have become in most denominations the maximal expressions of the faith and one that many even struggle even to confess.  The confessional documents of old have become mere footnotes in the history of the tradition and do not inform or norm what is believed, confessed, or taught today.  Strangely, what once was considered the beginning has become the end.  If you get to the creed, you have gone as far as you need to go.  It is no wonder that what we confess in words has become somewhat distant from what we actually believe.  The words we confess have become aspirational instead of confessional.

Curiously enough, even liturgical churches which would never consider omitting the creed from the liturgy do not include it so much as a confession as a relic -- a symbolic tie to the past rather than a living link between those who came before.  We have made the faith into symbols detached from the fact of history and also distanced from what we actually believe and confess.  The sacred deposit has become like a museum piece which we treasure not for the truth and hope it embodies but for the antiquity of it -- sort of how we like antiques as objects that appeal to our feelings and memories rather than as a useful objects we employ in daily life.  In this way the creeds and confessions of old end up like great-grandma's china in the cabinet -- we love it sentimentally but never actually eat off of it.

The Small Catechism can easily become such a thing as well.  Children learn the catechism not for what it means for them and their daily lives but simply as a rite of passage, similar to their parents, in which the catechism becomes ritual without meaning and words without content.  I fear that this is how I was catechized.  We memorized the words but we did not learn them.  In contrast to that past, the next generations sought to emphasize the relationship but ended up with feelings over truth and emotion over doctrine.  It is not that we need a balance.  We don't.  We need something different.  We need to approach the catechism as the living faith once confessed, now taught to us, and continuing to live in us every day -- not to mention passed on through us to others.  The goal here is not a common rite of passage but a unity of faith and piety, doctrine and life, dogma and worship.  The goal of the catechism is that each life might be, as Franzmann so eloquently put it, a high doxology.  Theology must sing and it sings through our own voices -- not in performance to entertain or for the art of it but as true piety.  This we believe.

Over the last month or so I was privileged to baptize a dozen or so -- babies just a week old and young boys from 4 to 12.  We brought them in not through a common ritual but by the means of grace that does what it says and bestows what it signs.  At each baptism the family joined the candidate or became the voice of the baptized in saying "This we believe" even as the water splashed over the forehead three times in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The congregation was there to testify that this was as real as reality gets -- though known by faith.  With the witness of God working in water to incorporate these as God's sons and daughters, we acknowledge what was done for us and to us and are refreshed by this glorious knowledge.  In the end though, it is not about how we feel but what God says and does and the Spirit moving through the water and the Word to make it so.  After the baptism it is the liturgy which becomes the catechist, imparting the fruits of Christ's redeeming work through the means of grace, and by confessing the creed we say each week this we believe.  When the creeds become mere historical documents and aspirational instead of confessional, the whole liturgical act devolves into mere empty ritual accompanied by meaningless words.  

In the end it is like those who know Jesus only as the infant in the manger or the ghostly image rising from the tomb.  They are Christmas and Easter people who come for the tradition but who know it only as relic of the past and not as part of their identity.  We repeat the words yet remain the words of other sand not our own.  We teach them to our children and we confess them so that they may be our words -- owned by faith and confessed in life.  "You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth." (Deut. 11:18-21) 


Chris said...

It is absolutely false that the APostles' Creed predates the Nicene Creed. The evidence suggests that the APostles' Creed did not come into being until around A.D. 600, a good 300 years AFTER the formulation at Nicaea.

Pastor Peters said...

If we regard, then, the present text of the Apostles' Creed as a complete whole, we can hardly trace it beyond the sixth, certainly not beyond the close of the fifth century, and its triumph over all the other forms in the Latin Church was not completed till the eighth century, or about the time when the bishops of Rome strenuously endeavored to conform the liturgies of the Western churches to the Roman order.28
But if we look at the several articles of the Creed separately, they are all of Nicene or ante-Nicene origin, while its kernel goes back to the apostolic age. All the facts and doctrines which it contains, are in entire agreement with the New Testament. Philip Schaff