2016-06-30
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.

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. The most important thing that happened after its adoption was the decision to make a recitation--a chanting, singing, or statement--of that creed a part of the liturgy of Holy Communion. It was an official statement of a council, it became an indispensable part of the daily and Sunday Eucharist, and it was the basis for the instruction of the young and of prospective believers. The creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer was the core of the catechism. Every child was to be instructed in the meaning of those three texts. Those are the ones you need to be able to recite all your life. Anyone who came in from the outside and said, "You know, I think I'd like to be a Christian--what does it take?" Well, this is what it takes.
When St. Paul says faith, hope, and love, faith meant the creed--"I believe." Hope meant the Lord's Prayer--what we hope for, we pray for. And love meant the 10 Commandments, because they tell us what love does when it goes into action. I get this from St. Augustine. There aren't many sets of words that have been recited every single day for nearly two thousand years. It embeds itself in the individual and collective memory of the church. Historically speaking, what has been the most disputed part of the Nicene Creed? The filioque? Yes, that's the one on which the most ink has been shed. I once wrote that that there must be one circle of Dante's hell reserved for the people who wrote all those things. [laughs] Many of Beliefnet's Orthodox readers seem concerned about the Catholic-Orthodox split, wondering if they should engage in dialogue or keep their distance.

I'm a historian, and I answer all such questions by history. I would say they would find it useful to look at what has happened in 150 years in the West. To read the decrees of the First Vatican Council, 1869 and 1870, and then the decrees of the Second. The first was the one that proclaimed the infallibility of the pope. It's defiant, rigid, "take it or leave it." The Second Vatican Council does not deny what has been previously said, but it breathes a completely different spirit. The Second Vatican Council is based on a fresh reading of the Bible, the Church Fathers, especially the Greek Church Fathers, and on the liturgy rather than canon law. The Church is not defined in legal terms as a corporation, but in liturgical terms as a corpus, the body of Christ.

Those three ways of looking at things are the very ones that define the Orthodox tradition: scripture, the Fathers, and the liturgy. For all the differences that still remain even after Vatican II, the perspective has shifted. What the Second Vatican Council says about the East, considering all the history, is very fraternal.

Going back to other parts of the Creed, was "light from light" ever disputed? It's beautiful, but I always wondered why it's in there.

I've got a book on that too. In the first chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews, Christ is called the radiance of the Father. The New Testament says God is light. Radiance proceeds from a source--in our case, the sun or a light bulb--and is distinct from that source, because the sun is not here in my room right now. It's distinct from that source but it's not separate from it or different in its nature from it. It's the same light. So light comes from light, being both distinct and identical. So is Christ in relation to the Father. Why was it necessary to include that when they'd already said "God from God"?

Partly because they were already using that in their worship and their hymns. If anything is worth saying, it's worth saying more than once. Your book traces many schisms. What perspective does history give you about ecumenism today? Is there hope, or do you think churches will keep splitting?

In the third volume of the collection, there are a number of joint statements of the faith, usually by two groups who had been separated for a long time; for example, a recent Catholic-Lutheran statement on the doctrine of justification.

There's a joint statement by Pope John Paul II and the head of the Armenian Church. They'd been separated since 451. Both of them, respecting their own traditions, met, discussed, and concluded that not only were there strong political factors that had originally driven them apart, but also misunderstanding--partly as a consequence of language (Armenian, Greek, and Latin are very different). And that since Christian truth is never just a mathematical formula but is dialectical--it says two things at the same time--if you emphasize one of those at the expense of the other, you tilt in one or the other direction. What they said was that over the course of the centuries, in the heat of theological battle, such a tilt had indeed come in. But that now having looked at the questions carefully, they concluded that whatever differences [existed] were differences of emphasis within a single faith and should not keep people apart any more. It's a hopeful sign, and there are a number of such, like the document that brought together the church of South India. Out of a number of countries--Ghana, Madagascar, China--has come the effort to express in their own language the faith that they have together, to do it with their own cultural setting and vocabulary. Out of that have come reunions and their own fresh way of stating the faith. That's a very hopeful sign. My favorite is the Masai Creed.

That's an amazing creed. It includes a part about Jesus' burial: "the hyenas did not touch him."

Here in Africa, suddenly these new Christian believers--reading the gospels and receiving their faith and having to fight the hyenas around them--suddenly they read that Jesus was buried in a rock tomb, rather than underground as we bury, to keep the wild animals away. In none of these other creeds had anyone ever said anything about his being buried in a rock tomb. Suddenly "and the hyenas did not touch his body." That Jesus was "always on safari."

Did you have concerns that in creeds like this one, they added or removed material from the Nicene Creed?

That's true in other statements of faith as well after Nicea. In the Tome of Leo the First (449), it says "it was a human nature that wept when Lazarus died, and it was the divine nature that raised Lazarus from the dead." So it takes a gospel incident and finds there an expression of a question that was being debated, namely the relation between the divine and the human. They are distinct; the divine nature did not weep, and the human nature was not capable of raising a friend from the dead. But one person, who was both divine and human, wept and raised him from the dead. So a gospel story becomes the most effective way to articulate an answer to distortions on both sides. Your book talks about the 'deeds and creeds' conflict--how creeds are criticized for coming at the expense of actions. You say it's agreed that dogma and ethics should be inseparable. How can the creed help guide practice?

What's that Gilbert and Sullivan line? "I have a little list." [laughs] Any consideration of Christian life and ethics must always ask "what is distinctive about the Christian life?" What's the difference between being a Christian and being a nice guy, a good neighbor, an upright citizen, or an honest businessman? We all know people to whom we will give our house keys and the combination of our safe who don't believe what Christians believe. So it's quite possible, despite what some evangelists may say, even without faith in God, to be an honest and upright citizen. So what's the value added of being a Christian? Part of the answer is the motivation for doing [good], and the safety net when human weakness brings about a minor or major violation of the code of conduct we profess. What do you do with others or yourself as a sinner? The trouble with morality is it's not self-perpetuating. You need to have some way of coping with the human propensity to hypocrisy and deception and self-deception. You could say the creed is there to motivate, on the positive side, and to heal when there is a violation. The word salvation in Greek really means healing. Without that, a code of moral conduct by itself--the Scout oath--won't sustain you. That's why St. Paul says all those things about the law without faith.

Would meditating on a certain part of the creed impel you to a certain action?

It often does. Start at the beginning: when you take the interpretation of our environmental responsibility--one that's been articulated so beautifully and powerfully by the current Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew (who's known as the 'green patriarch')--all of that comes from this old man sitting in the middle of Turkey thinking about what it means to say "maker of heaven and earth, of all that is visible and invisible." [Read the statement.] [It's saying] I live in a world that is a continuum from the angels to the oysters. All of it is the product of divine activity. That's what the creed says. If that's the case, in a very real sense, every creature comes from the same Father, and that makes them all brothers and sisters. Without identifying the world with God in a pantheistic way, it nevertheless provides a direct and powerful motivation for treating creatures as our fellows. That's one example. Are we moving beyond the era of creeds? In my book, I raise the question "Do creeds have a future as well as a past?" I invoke the analogy of a CD. There's nothing more static than a CD: they stack up on a shelf, get dusty. They can go from year to year without ever touching anyone. But anytime you want to, you can put that CD in a player and all of a sudden out comes the Credo from the B minor mass of Bach. It's been there all along.

So it is with creeds and their history. At crucial times, when you can no longer count on your own strength of will, character, conviction, and guts, you simply say "I don't know where I am right now, but I want to be part of the company that says 'I believe in one God.'"

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