Why We Need Creeds
An acclaimed scholar explains how the Christian creed developed and how it continues to shape churches.
BY: Interview with Jaroslav Pelikan
Many spiritual seekers are not comfortable with very idea of creeds. Why are creeds important to Christianity--and all religions? Why do we need them?
A faith that is completely personal and subjective has its ups and downs. You can't count on having only ups. Therefore, what's needed is some kind of continuity both within the faith life of an individual from month to month and year to year, and for that individual with the community of believers from previous ages. The fluctuations of personal belief need to be protected from going off the page by some kind of assertion, a shared faith which provides a floor and a ceiling.
Creeds function the way a constitution functions in a political society--as a statement of shared principles and convictions, and a celebration of those convictions. Just as we, in the American political order, cherish and value individual freedom but believe that freedom is protected both from external force and from its own internal threat by a constitution and the bill of rights, so a creed is a way of enshrining faith in such a way that people can go on affirming it.
Your book indicates that Jesus sanctioned the idea of creeds by the emphasis he placed on the Shema. You're saying the Shema is the basis of all Christian creeds?
Sure. The most important Christian creed, the Nicene Creed, begins with the words "I believe in one God," which of course is the statement of the Shema.Jesus quotes the Shema
in the gospel of Mark. Mark says many important and exalted things about the person of Jesus, and speaks of him as divine in his words and deeds and person. So how can someone whom the Christian faith affirms to be divine say "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one"? How do you reconcile the oneness that he confesses with the more-than-oneness of the divine that he represents? In a simple sense, that's what the creed, and the doctrine of the Trinity confessed in the creed, try to do.
"A code of moral conduct by
itself--the Scout oath--won't sustain you."
They try to hold those together without weakening either one or pretending to know more about the unknowable than the human mind is capable.
How did the creed as we know it come about?
The creed grew out of a baptismal creed. Baptism was administered by a bishop or priest with the formula "You are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Baptism involved faith and confession--some kind of statement of your faith. A lot of local [statements] developed across the Mediterranean world. What was eventually adopted in 381 at the Council of Constantinople as what we call the Nicene Creed appears to be the adaptation of a creed that was being used for baptism, maybe in the city of Caesarea.