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.