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The Life We Claim
The Apostles' Creed for Preaching, Teaching, and Worship
By James C. Howell
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2005 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
INTRODUCTION TO THE APOSTLES' CREED
GROWING INTO OUR CONVICTIONS
Be ready to give an account for the hope that is in you, and do it with gentleness and reverence. (1 Peter 3:15, AP)
In ancient times, hundreds of Christians, under interrogation, refused to bow down to the empire's gods, stood their ground and declared, "I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth," and were executed for saying so. They had not long before left their old life behind and risked everything by choosing Christianity. In those days, new converts were instructed in the faith for months, during which time they fasted, abstained from entertainment and sex, and were prayed over diligently by the church elders. An all-night prayer vigil culminated at dawn on Easter when the converts waded out into a pool of water and were asked: "Do you believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth? Do you believe in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord?" After being baptized, they were anointed with oil, dressed in a white robe, and given a drink of milk and honey, powerful symbols of their new life in Christ.
Every time we say the Apostles' Creed, we step into a long, steady river, the great two-thousand year story of believers, missionaries, and martyrs. When I say "I believe in God," I become part of something bigger than myself. My faith is something in me, my reaching out, my believing; but faith is also outside myself. Faith has content. I attach myself to something old. Modern culture fawns after novelties, the latest fads. Christians look at the world with old eyes; as John Henry Newman put it, "Great acts take time." Ultimate truth cannot have been cooked up just last night, and ultimate truth does not materialize in my mind in a flash. "Deep convictions are not hazarded, but grown into slowly, obscurely and often painfully acquired" (Nicholas Lash).
The Apostles' Creed helps us grow into our convictions. To believe without the Creed would be like baking without a measuring cup or building furniture without a ruler. We read the Bible, we sing hymns, we ask questions and reflect together on theology, and it is easy to miss the forest for the trees. What is at the heart of what we believe? We will use the Apostles' Creed to discover what we believe, and don't believe, to figure out who we are and how to live.
The word credo means "I believe." Do we live in a disbelieving age? or in an overly credulous age? We are titans of doubt and cynicism, and yet advertisers and TV shows make our heads spin over nothing at all. Faith is not believing impossible things. Faith is what I give my heart to. Faith is how I view the universe; just as Copernicus yanked our perspective so we see the world isn't flat, and the earth isn't in the center of things, so the Creed suggests there is a deeper dimension than the stage we normally stroll upon, and we aren't in the middle of things. God is.
"I believe" is not the same as saying "I feel" or "I want" or "I think," but rather, "God is"—and I fling myself upon God, I attach myself to God. Nicholas Lash wrote that, theologically, "I believe" is grammatically equivalent to "I promise": "'I believe' does not express an opinion, however well founded or firmly held, concerning God's existence. It promises that life and love, mind, heart, and all my actions, are set henceforward steadfastly on God, and God alone."
The Creed is not a list of facts so much as it is an act of worship, an act of prayer. The Creed's logic teaches us how our religious ideas hang together. "Words take meaning from the company they keep" (Lash). And the words take on their only valid meaning when our lives are changed. Our faith is something we do; our faith comes to life when we engage in those peculiar practices Christians count on to keep their minds and bodies in sync. It would be worse than futile to expend mental energy on the Creed while shielding our practical lives from transformation, which is our true worship.
DOUBT AND DOGMA
They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask. (Mark 9:32, AP)
But what if we have doubts and hard questions? Does the Apostles' Creed alienate thinkers? The Creed, in a surprising way, invites doubt. The Creed was first composed as a set of questions, and for people with plenty of questions. If we know all the answers, we forget the questions! And if Jesus did anything in his ministry, he asked far more questions than he answered. Isn't there a faithfulness in our doubting? Haven't all great discoveries in history happened because somebody doubted? We have to learn to trust our questions, to think more deeply, never to quit in our pursuit of truth, to probe the pages of the Bible, to listen to the pulse of our lives, to pray more fervently. If we think cocksure certainty is the only posture for the faithful Christian, we will wind up mean or disillusioned.
The Creed does not banish doubt so much as it offers up a hopeful frame within which to ask our questions and to grow in our love for God and our heart for serving God. A vital relationship with God is not easy; the life of faith has its dark moments, as we grasp after a God who is palpable one moment and elusive the next. We shrink before a God beyond comprehension, and yet even as we shrink, we stay, not to toy with a mere idea of God, but to flourish in a startling friendship with the living God.
In this series, we will explore the hard questions that dog people outside (and inside) the Church. Can anyone prove there is a God? What about science and the Bible? How can God be good if there is evil? Why call God "Father"? Does it matter if Mary was a virgin? Doctrine, we might remember, is the extravagant effort of Christian thinkers to make sense out of a faith that is complex, and one that is never embarrassed by awkward questions.
We may all know fervent Christians bristling with faith who say, "Just give me Jesus." But the Creed not only gives us Jesus. In Rowan Williams's lovely words, it is "the job of doctrine ... to hold us still before Jesus. When that slips out of view, we begin instead to use this language to defend ourselves, to denigrate others, to control and correct—and then it becomes a problem."
Doctrine is holding us still before Jesus! So working through the Creed could never be dull or boring. The mystery writer Dorothy Sayers suggested that "it is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama. That drama is summarized quite clearly in the Creeds." And the excitement of the drama played out in the Creed is never just a mind game; the Creed issues in a radically altered life, as we will see in each chapter of this book. Sayers, grousing about the demise of Christianity in Great Britain a half century ago, may have prophesied where we have wound up in America:
It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology. It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling.... And it is fatal to imagine that everybody knows quite well what Christianity is and needs only a little encouragement to practice it. The brutal fact is that in this Christian country not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion what the Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ.
We want to be sure we at least are clear about what the Church teaches and about the true nature of morality. If we look closely into the nooks and crannies of the Creed, we will be drawn into a scintillating, changed life together.
A SUMMARY OF THE BIBLE STORY
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching. (2 Timothy 3:16, AP)
A legend circulated in the early Church: after the Spirit descended on the disciples at Pentecost, Peter said, "I believe in God the Father Almighty." Andrew added, "and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord." And so they went around the table, a dozen disciples, a dozen sentences forming the Apostles' Creed. A lovely (if fabricated) legend.
Yet this impulse to trace the Creed to the living characters of the Bible is on target. "What the Scriptures say at length, the Creed says briefly" (Nicholas Lash). The Apostles' Creed is a quick summary of the sixty-six books of the Bible, a bird's-eye view of the high points of the story spanning thousands of years. How easy it is to get mired in the 1,189 chapters and 31,000-plus verses of the very long Bible; the Creed helps us get our arms around the big story, or perhaps the Creed helps the story of God's mighty acts get God's arms around us.
For centuries, the Creed was especially important, for a majority of Christians did not know how to read. So the Creed indelibly impressed on the eager but illiterate heart the story of God's love in this world. Perhaps in our own day, when people know how to read but often spend vast sums of time with higher tech media (or when people own Bibles that gather dust from lack of use), the Creed may be the most convenient vehicle to remind us of the one story that ultimately matters.
Notice the Creed isn't a list of dogmatic propositions. Its sentences are not like a deck of cards that could be shuffled and still be a creed. The Creed tells a story, in chronological order: God is first, then God creates; then God sends Jesus, who is born, dies, and is raised; and then the Holy Spirit dawns on the Church and its life. How fortunate we are that the Bible is a story and that the Creed is a story, for my life feels like a story. If I say, "Tell me about yourself," you don't really reveal yourself until you tell me a good story or two that unveils the depth of who you are. The Creed's words hang together with a plot; unlike a quiz in which the teacher says, "Only seven of these ten need be attempted in the allotted time," the Creed's phrases flow from one to the next.
The Creed's story flows from God to us, not vice versa. We know about God, not because we are shrewd or spiritual, but because God has lovingly, mercifully revealed God's heart to us in history. "God is the One who has made Himself known in His own revelation, and not the one man thinks out for himself and describes as God" (Karl Barth).
Within the Bible itself, we discover several "creeds" used during Bible times. The ancient Israelites recited Deuteronomy 26:6-8 in worship: "The Egyptians afflicted us; we cried to the Lord; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand" (AP). The early Christians recited (and probably sang) summaries of what they believed. "There is one God, and one mediator, Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom" (1 Timothy 2:5-6, AP). "Christ was in the form of God, but emptied himself, born in our likeness, humbled himself, obedient unto death on a cross" (Philippians 2:6-8, AP).
Oddly enough, the best way to understand the Apostles' Creed is to dig into the Bible. If we don't know the Bible, or if we steel ourselves against the mysterious work the Bible can do in our souls, then the Creed will seem arbitrary: "We only discover the meaning of the Creed in the measure that the Bible stays an open book" (Nicholas Lash).
The Bible, of course, requires interpretation. We think about it, probe, question its words, and let them question us.
Christianity is more than a set of devotional practices and a moral code: it is also a way of thinking about God, us, the world and history. For Christians, thinking is part of believing. Augustine wrote, "No one believes anything unless one first thinks it believable.... Not everyone who thinks believes, since many think in order not to believe; but everyone who believes thinks" (Robert Wilken).
Some who explore the Bible and Creed think in order not to believe! But we want to think and believe, not to believe and avoid thinking, for Jesus told us the truth would set us free. Thinking, after all, is intensely personal, as we will see in lesson 4.
THE PERSONAL, SPIRITUAL QUEST
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. (Psalm 42:1, AP)
Somehow in modern times, the whole idea of a creed seems arid, remote, as if some faceless bureaucrat is imposing upon free people who should think for themselves. The Apostles' Creed can become mindless, rote, pointless; and most people I talk with are eager for a direct, personal relationship with God, and aren't sure why they might benefit from a two-thousand-year-old creed. So in this last introductory lesson, let us underline how deeply personal the Creed can become. The very word "creed" originally meant "give my heart to." Evelyn Underhill noticed "how close the connection is between the great doctrines of religion and the 'inner life': how rich and splendid is the Christian account of reality, and how much food it has to offer to the contemplative soul."
The Creed hints at a beautiful thought—that there is such a thing as truth, that genuine truth is not an imposition forced upon us, but rather is an open door through which we walk out into the marvelous space of life with God. We live in a culture highly suspicious of authority; but the Christian faith, luckily for us, still steps forward lovingly and teaches a story that does not diminish me or you. We find our personal fulfillment when we discover our place in the broader work of God in space and time. Otherwise we get stuck in our own egos, and our faith is nothing more than me and my private biases and preferences. "A faith which does not find its justification outside itself remains imprisoned in its own ego and cannot be sustained" (Wolfhart Pannenberg). Should Christianity adjust itself to me and my spiritual quest? Or do I discover myself beyond myself? Don't I need a truth that is bigger than me, that challenges my private biases and preferences so I might grow?
Why listen to ancient authors who penned a creed centuries ago? The Church's first theologians were masters of the spiritual life, saints, martyrs, people of intense prayer who took Communion almost daily, people of immense learning who read the Scriptures deeply, passionate to the point of giving up their own lives for the truth. When they disagreed, they seized the opportunity to refine their thinking and discover an even higher truth. Nicholas Lash described their controversies as "people learning to make music, to move closer to the harmony of God, in whom alone all things hold still."
One of those ancient theologians, after sitting through weeks of heated sessions debating fine points of theology, wrote this:
The holy fathers dealt with problems by common debate. When a disputed question is raised in communal discussion, the light of truth drives out the shadows of falsehood. The truth cannot be made clear in any other way than when there are debates about questions of faith, since everyone requires the assistance of his neighbor.
I need the assistance of my neighbor to grow into my convictions. The Creed is a way for us, together, to learn to make music, and heated discussion yields more light and drives out falsehood. The Apostles' Creed began with "I believe," but soon all the other major creeds (like the Nicene Creed) shifted to "We believe." Believing is something we do together. "Personal" does not have to mean "private" or "individualistic." When I think about what is "personal" to me, I think about my relationships with other people. The Creed reminds me that I am not sawed off out on a limb when I believe. I believe with you; you believe with me; we help each other to believe; we believe for each other when it's hard to believe. We even have a mystical fellowship with Christians across the globe, and throughout the ages of history. And that is the beauty of the Creed.
So, neighbor, I invite you to this time of thinking, reflection, and even heated discussion together as we work our way through the various sentences of the Creed. I am excited, and I pray to God that through this we will grow in our relationship with God, and with one another. Thank you for joining me in this quest!
Excerpted from The Life We Claim by James C. Howell. Copyright © 2005 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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