Creed or Chaos
Deuteronomy 6:4-9, I Peter 3:15-17
Frank W. Boreham, giving advice to his fellow ministers, was heard to say:
“Talk about Immensities.
Talk about Enormities.
Talk about Infinitudes.
Speak about things Eternal.
Talk about the big things and leave the little things alone.
Talk about oceans, not puddles.
Talk about mountain ranges, not molehills,
talk about continents, not garden plots.
Speak of galaxies and grandeurs.”
I decided to take the advice of Mr. Boreham and write about the things that matter supremely to all Christians regardless of their denomination, age or experience. My mind turned again to that document created near the dawn of the Christian Church, called, “The Apostles’ Creed.” that some of us in our churches affirm almost every Sunday.
The Creed of the Ancient Church
The Apostles’ Creed was not written by the Apostles. But during the second century the church Fathers gathered together the most essential elements of the teaching of the apostles. The creed went through some minor changes over the centuries, but from its earliest days it has stayed substantially in the form we have it today.
But why did the church compose a creed? Don’t we have a Bible? Isn’t that a sufficient guide for belief and behaviour? And on top of that, are not old creeds and ancient confessions outdated and overly brittle?
Listen to the poets and modern voices of our culture and you will find the word “creed” hurled as an insult.
- Robert South – “The best creed we can have is charity towards the creeds of others.”
- Louise Discroll – “what every one needs is wild religion without any creeds.”
- Gotthold Lessing – No man’s creed is wrong whose deed is right.”
- Tennyson – “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”
Creed, dogma, doctrine, & theology are all being insulted and derided increasingly in our day. I think that may be the death of us, if we do not reverse it. It is said that the first casualty in any war is the truth. And one of the casualties in our current Western Culture is that truth has been exchanged for “truthiness” which is truth made useful for marketing, advertising and a cynical spinning of the facts to fit one’s personal preference. Governments do it, corporations do it, churches do it, husbands and wives do it, and our children follow suit.
But when the church is healthy it is into truth telling, and is intent on affirming what it considers to be the essential truths of our faith, and in its affirmation of faith each Sunday, it declares to God, to humanity and to angels & devils the truths it would live by and die for.
And so the church handed down to us this ancient creed. Why?
First. In its first few centuries the Christian church was called upon to challenge the pagan world and to declare its faith. It had to face opposition, not only in the arenas, but also in the academies. Soon strange ideas and beliefs attempted to invade the church, and it became necessary to outline the church’s central convictions in these great debates. In fact each line of the creed was hammered out in serious arguments with other viewpoints of the day. These phrases are all contradictions to popular positions of the day.
Second. The first creeds were used with candidates for Baptism. New converts brought their own intellectual and emotional baggage with them as they entered the church. They entered the church for various reasons. But often “heart first” and that was fine. But if their heads did not follow soon, disaster would strike. For even the heart cannot long believe what the head finds incredible. So the creed served as the first catechism of what the head must understand and the heart must embrace. Because it is always true:
- What the mind attends to, it considers.
- What the mind denies, it dismisses.
- What the mind attends to continually, it believes.
- What the mind believes essential, it acts upon.
We suspect that the creed was first used in a question and answer form. It would go like this: “Do you believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven & earth?” and the baptismal candidate would answer, “I do!” Then the next question would be, “and do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only son, our Lord?” and the candidate would respond, “I do!” and so on through the creed. Later it was made into one long statement for memorizing and recital in public worship as a reaffirmation of our baptismal vows. The creed was a list of minimal convictions for any Christian.
Third. In those ancient days it was also necessary to give to all Christians a thumbnail sketch of the central message of the Old and New Testaments. It could not include everything that it believed on a thousand pressing questions, but it did want to declare the things it knew to be essential.
If asked the question, “What do you people believe?” the church did not want us giving the answer, “We don’t smoke or drink or dance or chew or go with girls that do.” Even on a more sophisticated level it did not want us saying, “well I’m a Catholic, or I’m a Protestant, or, I’m a Pentecostal or a Presbyterian, a Methodist or a Mennonite.”
Neither did it include teachings about angels, devils, miracles, the inspiration of Scripture or Christian ethics. The ancient church wanted us to answer with bigger affirmations, “We believe in God the Father Almighty….”
Fourth. The early centuries were also days of illiteracy where few could read, and if some could read they still would not be able to own an entire Bible simply due to the high cost of hand written editions. So a brief summary of the Bible’s central teaching was crucial. The creed distilled the greatest truths of the Christian faith and put them into a compact and memorizable form.
Fifth. The creed also served as a syllabus for the apostles’ teachings. For all those who are baptized into the discipling community are enrolled in the School of Christ. Here is the outline of the course of study. Here are the major topics for life-long learning. These are the pegs upon which to hang your own thoughts. The creed laid out the foundation stones upon which to build the rest of Christian understanding and Christian practice.
The Need in Contemporary Culture
But what does all that have to do with us today? Why should we bother with the teachings of a creed?
Today we all live in a multi-cultural world, with religious pluralism becoming the norm. With the birth of strange new religions or the increased evangelistic activity of old religions, with the New Age Movements resurrecting Old Age Paganism, it is crucial that we too know what we believe. The Internet and Mass Media are educating us daily on religious issues. The Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey get access to our homes and provide their unique spins on the nature and work of God. We need a clear word from the founding fathers and mothers of the Christian Church, as a counter argument to these alternative proposals.
North American culture has changed drastically in the past few years. In a former day we could presume that our nation was based on and operated with Christian understandings, with Christian beliefs and Christian ethics guiding society. That can no longer be presumed. We have entered a very different world. All voices are now allowed equal time.
Now the Christian church has several alternatives.
- We can lobby the political powers for a return to the old ways. By the use of the courts, we can lobby to outlaw abortion, euthanasia, or pornography, and demand the return of prayer to our schools and the 10 commandments to our courthouses. Or,
- We can lament our fate and wring our hands in anguish, and start to believe that disaster has struck and these must be the last days. Or,
- We can become intolerant of all other expressions of faith and become defensive and in the process become unpleasantly offensive. Or
- We can withdraw into the cocoons of our homes and churches and ignore the confusion of the searching world, Or
- We can take the challenge seriously to play on what now may even be an un-level playing field, with no political or cultural advantage, just as the early Christian church had to. We can out-live, out-think, and out-perform the alternatives. We can become competitive in the battle for the minds, the hearts and the allegiances of the people of our community.
But how shall we do that?
First, we must begin at least with knowing what we believe. St. Peter says that it is important that we have an answer for any one who asks us, a reason for the hope we have. The world is increasingly interested in “spirituality”, though it is suspicious of all forms of “religion”. But the good news is – God and spiritual matters are highly discussable in our culture. We should know what we are talking about.
Second, we must get our brains back. There is a trend within the church these days. I think it may be a good trend. It gives focus to “emotion” & “feeling“. For the first half of the last century we aimed primarily for the mind and the will. Ministers saw themselves as educators or persuaders. In recent decades there has been a reaction to that as focus has been given to inner experience. That may be a good thing in part, but to climb out of one ditch and head into the other one is no solution. We need to keep our brains alert while we give full expression to our hearts. A recent movie captures the theme: It is called “Dumb, Dummer and Dummerer.” It’s not funny! The Dumbing Down of North America is taking place. (Recent news: 50% of all Americans in the course of last year never read one book.) This trend is affecting the church and it too can dumb down if it is not vigilant. We must keep heart and head closely connected.
We read from the Book of Deuteronomy the words “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” But when Jesus quotes this passage he adds another phrase, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.” Thinking with clarity must be joined with deep feeling if we are to grow in the grace and knowledge of God.
Dorothy L. Sayers entitles one of her books “Creed or Chaos”. She tells us that we either believe what this creed teaches us or we end up with chaos.
In these essays I have decided to explore each of the lines of this greatest distillation of Christian theology, and to review again the central convictions of our faith. I think it will profit us all.