Why We Need Creeds

An acclaimed scholar explains how the Christian creed developed and how it continues to shape churches.

World-renowned historian Jaroslav Pelikan has spent decades researching and analyzing Christian confessions of faith. He recently spoke with Beliefnet about Credo, his comprehensive overview of the development of creeds.

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.

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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.

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