New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson is well-known for his critiques of the Historical Jesus movement. He recently spoke with Beliefnet about his latest book, an analysis of the Christian creed and what it means in the modern world.

In the book's introduction, you say that your respect for creeds has evolved over time--that creeds seemed less important to you when you were younger. Why did you change your mind?

When I was younger man, I shared the common conviction that the existential decision of faith, the response of the whole person, was far more interesting and important than belief, which seemed too intellectual, too abstract, and not sufficiently connected to life.

Over the years, without letting go of that, I've come to understand the critical nature of belief as the starting point for that response-as the letter to the Hebrews says, you can't really approach God unless you believe there is a God. I've also come to appreciate the way a statement of belief structures our understanding of the world and is therefore very much connected to our practice.

The old understanding of faith was very much in line with the psychology of the emotions. I think one of the great contributions of cognitive psychology has been the recovery of that ancient sense the Romans and Greeks had, that people really do act on what they think. If our construction of the world is stupid or faulty, our behavior is probably going to be as well.

The final thing that has grabbed me is the sense of what peril the church is in when it doesn't have a clear articulation of its construction of reality, both inwardly in terms of guiding its practices, and outwardly in terms of presenting any kind of credible conception of the world that would make sense to outsiders.

Part of my concern is that the creed has drifted off into a corner, has a vestigial place within the worship of most Christians, but is ill-understood and underappreciated. It has not been organically reconnected through the soil of practices to the reading of scripture and prayer. There's an impoverishment of Christian consciousness as a result.

You say today's Christians have lost touch with how radical and offensive it is to recite the creed. What are some examples?

There are just so many. It's very difficult for many people to talk in terms of God as father, as all-powerful, as judge. These things are offensive to contemporary sensibilities. I had to work very hard in the book to try to come to grips with how this language can be not only be appropriated and understood, but also celebrated. How could it be liberative, rather than simply seen as offensive and out of touch?

Even the language about God's ruling, God's kingdom, is offensive to many who grow nervous that Christianity could represent an actual politics, a way of being in the world.

When the crafters of the creed said that God is the "maker of all things visible and invisible," that was controversial in the context of the second and third centuries because of Gnosticism, which associated God only with things non-visible. So the creed was making this powerful statement that God is the cause of materiality, of all the messiness of embodied existence. Pretty dramatic. But today, all of us are materialists and think that bodies are all there is.

So for us the challenge is the word "invisible"?

Exactly. I teach at a university that gave up on "soul" a long time ago, has shelved "mind," and is basically thinking about brain chemistry. The whole idea of a realm of the spirit, that for ancients was more real than the realm of material, for us has become virtually non-existent, something we have to argue for.

The creed says both the material and the spiritual must be included in your construction of the world. That's a way in which we're profoundly challenged.

What else is hard for modern people to accept?

It's offensive for us to say that the Lord who has ascended to heaven-"his rule will never end." For many of us, it never seemed to have begun. That whole notion of God's cosmic rule of the universe through Jesus Christ is one that ought to be offensive to us, because it seems to be contradicted by the evidence.

One of the most interesting things in writing the book was discovering within myself the elements of resistance to what the creed was saying. I've always thought that the creed as instrument of the church believes more and better than any one of us does. So when I say "we believe in one God" on Sunday, at that moment, I probably don't. Or I may want to, but I'm involved in different patterns of idolatry.

What part of the creed do you see as the most confusing or argued over?

That large segment of the Nicene creed:
One Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
one in Being with the Father"
represents probably the part of the creed that is most alien to us.
It sounds like so much verbiage. What's at issue?