2016-06-30
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?

Well, what's at issue is whether or not salvation is simply a matter of a repair job done by a human mechanic, or is actually God entering into the fabric of our freedom and raising us to a participation in God's life. Very few Christians have that latter vision anymore.

The only place where I grew impatient with the creed is with the filioque controversy [the debate over whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or proceeds from the Father and the Son].

I praise the creed for its fastidiousness, its parsimony of profession-it really doesn't go where it shouldn't go, for the most part.

You praise it not just for what it says but for what it decides not to say. It focuses on what we believe but not how those things are to be interpreted.

It's a very critical distinction. It doesn't go into who's in charge of the church or a theory of sin or atonement. It's not explaining, it's professing.

The filioque is the one exception, really going beyond what faith can say. We haven't got a clue as to how the spirit reaches us.

You're saying the phrase "proceeds from the Father [and the Son]" is descriptive-it answers the question how.

Exactly. And both positions can be supported marvelously from scripture, as I show in that chapter. Therefore there should not have been a fight over it-it's one of those things we kind of should have just left.

Why doesn't the creed mention Jesus' teachings, like helping the poor?

It's one of the ways in which the creed does decisively define an understanding of a Christian thing, and that is that Jesus was important for who he was rather than what he did.

Again, the backdrop is that the creed does not replace scripture. All of that rich portrayal of Jesus in scripture is there. Rather, the creed focuses on the essential thing: that if Jesus had not taught in a certain way, had not acted prophetically-if Jesus had been simply God participating in human existence, the witness of his life was one of, let's say, mute sickness-

If he had never done anything?

More radically, what if he were a quadriplegic? In some sense, the creed is saying that when we talk about Jesus as God's son, we are saying something far more than that Jesus of Nazareth was a moral exemplar or a particularly impressive teacher. It's a mythic structure: God has entered into human existence, and humans are caught up into God's existence.

To say that we're a population of a billion and half people who gather and engage in a charade of praying through the Lord Jesus and expecting the resurrection of the dead, when in fact Jesus was simply another human being like us and that's it, means that we really are, as Paul says, engaging in kind of an emptiness.

Why is Pontius Pilate's name mentioned in the Creed?

Only two humans besides Jesus are mentioned, and I think in some level they represent the responses of humanity to God's visitation. One response of humanity is to kill it. The other is to provide hospitality to it. One is to inflict suffering. The other is to invite suffering.

Were the creed crafters making a statement about the Romans?

I don't think it's Roman bashing. I think it's scandal-maintaining. Here is someone who's executed as a criminal in public by the state. Everything before and after that must be understood as having that pivot. He is the crucified and raised Messiah.

One of the things for which I'm very grateful is that it does focus--I think quite properly-upon the Roman authority for that, and doesn't get into the role of the Jews, as the Passion accounts do.

At one level, the creed is a bit minimalistic in terms of Christianity's relationship to Judaism. Obviously 'God as creator' and 'God speaks through the prophets according to scriptures'-we have those phrases. But it's not well-developed. On the other side, that's also a benefit. Once you've made all these allusions to the biblical story, how much more need you say about the Jewishness of Jesus?

The creed walks a fine line-it says enough to ground the story in scripture, but its main interest is to open that story to all humanity. There is more of a universal claim than simply "Jesus is a Jewish Messiah."

Which parts of the creed should churches be "living" more?

If you believe that God is the creator of all things physical and spiritual, what does that have to say about environmental conscience? That's one example. If God is the maker of all, and the paradigm of God's activity with us is self-emptying, what does that have to say about the way in which we use possessions?

What is striking is that the church in America, for the most part, quite gladly embraces a capitalistic ethic, a success ethic, a freedom-from-suffering ethic. All of which are contrary to the logic of the creed.

There's a deep, inward prophetic challenge. If they really struggle to interpret the creed and then begin to ask, how does this connect to our actual practices?

But again, some would argue that nothing in the creed says "help your neighbor."

But it does. Because the entire pattern of God's gifting us with life is one of self-dispossession. That's the power of myth over the power of an example or a commandment. The problem is that that's not explicated and pulled out.

This points to the entire structure of the religion we are: God discloses God's self through humans, human bodies and human speech. Here's another very practical [example]: the Holy Spirit 'speaks through the prophets.' If the church actually took seriously that every human life is potentially a prophetic statement that must be attended to in order to respond to God adequately, what difference would that make on issues like women's ordination, homosexuality, and so forth?

This is a vital element that is lacking, certainly in my own Catholic communion: a careful attention to the voice of the prophets, namely those who are the saints living today and witnessing to the truth.

I've heard that some Christians advocate changing "We believe" in the Nicene Creed to "I believe." What do you think of this?

The creed always varied in that respect. The creed recited at baptism often had 'I.' The Apostles' Creed begins with 'I.' Different versions shift back between 'I' and 'we.'

What I try to emphasize here is, "What is the significance of saying 'We' rather than 'I'? I would hope that churches would not move in that direction.

Some spiritual "seekers" are not comfortable with very idea of creeds. How would you justify creeds to people suspicious of organized religion?

I probably wouldn't make much progress, because very often people who describe themselves that way are reacting to various kinds of what might be called repressive or oppressive structures, whether they truly are or not.

Nevertheless, it might be helpful to recognize that all of us actually do work out of an implicit set of principles, ideas, and convictions. The question then is whether it's my individually crafted one or a communal one; one that I make up on the spur of the moment, or one that has lasted and engendered sanctity in a people for 2000 years; whether it is relatively incoherent because I'm just making this up, or whether it reflects a deeply coherent view of reality. And finally, how adequately does it interpret scripture?

So here is an argument I would make for the Nicene Creed: it does a pretty good job. Most people who have their own private creeds are pretty highly selective.



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