This thoughtful, fully accessible exploration of the creed, the list of beliefs central to the Christian faith, delves into its origins and illuminates the contemporary significance of why it still matters.
During services in Christian communities, the members of the congregation stand together to recite the creed, professing in unison the beliefs they share. For most Christians, the creed functions as a sort of "ABC" of what it means to be a Christian and to be part of a worldwide movement. Few people, however, know the source of this litany of beliefs, a topic that is further confused by the fact that there are two different versions: the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed.
In The Creed, Luke Timothy Johnson, a New Testament scholar and Catholic theologian, clarifies the history of the creed, discussing its evolution from the first decades of the Christian Church to the present day. By connecting the deep theological conflicts of the early Church with the conflicts and questions facing Christians today, Johnson shows that faith is a dynamic process, not based on a static set of rules. Written in a clear, graceful style and appropriate for Christians of all denominations, The Creed is destined to become a classic of modern writings on spirituality.
Catholic theologian Johnson knows that the creed, although it is recited by millions of worshippers every Sunday, is far from being well understood. He also knows, clearly from personal experience, that much of what the creed affirms-from a personal Creator to a final resurrection-is the butt of jokes at fashionable dinner parties. This book is his careful attempt to explain to perplexed Christians, with attention to their dinner-party friends, why an ancient confession of faith still makes sense in the modern world. Exploring the Nicene creed line by line, Johnson introduces readers to the history behind each phrase, both in Christian Scripture and in church tradition, and he defends its relevance to faith today. While this approach is similar to that of Catholic apologists like Scott Hahn and Patrick Madrid, Johnson diverges from them in his willingness to sharply criticize both the secular modern world and his own tradition when he sees either one denying the powerful, liberating truths that the creed expresses. Both fundamentalists and progressive Christians (liberation theologians, feminists and devotees of the "historical Jesus") get equal-time rebuttals as well. Johnson's studied vagueness on some controversial questions (such as the historical nature of the resurrection and the uniqueness of Christianity) will put off some readers, but many others will find this a compelling introduction to the essence of Christian faith.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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August 16, 2004
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Excerpt from The Creed by Luke Timothy Johnson
Before considering its individual elements, we do well to think about the existence of the Christian creed as such. Where does it come from? What does it do? Why do we still have it? By no means is it obvious, after all, that people should gather themselves into intentional communities with elaborate statements of what the members believe. The word "creed" comes from its opening word in Latin, credo ("I believe") or credimus ("we believe"). Not all religions even have creeds. Belief as such is not nearly so central to most other religions as it is to Christianity.
Many religions put more emphasis on orthopraxy (right practice) than on orthodoxy (right opinion or belief). Judaism and Islam each have created sophisticated systems of law to guide behavior, but have allowed an astonishing freedom of conviction and intellectual expression. Both have been able to get along with comparatively short statements of belief. Buddhism and Hinduism concentrate on the practices of ritual and transformation rather than on uniformity of belief. And tribal religions express their view of reality through a variety of myths, not a "rule of faith" for their members. What is it about Christianity that placed such peculiar emphasis on belief, and, given that emphasis, led to an ever more elaborate and official statement of beliefs in a creed?
In what follows, I want to show that the creed is not a late and violent imposition upon the simple gospel story--as some of its critics charge--but rather a natural development of Christianity best understood in light of the specific character of the Christian religion and the crises it faced from the start. I will try to show that the Christian creed began as a variation of Judaism's Shema Israel. We will see from Israel's experience that a creed takes its significance within a context of competing loyalties, the proper understanding of a communal narrative of experience, and serves both to identify the proper object of loyalty and to define the group that shows such loyalty. But the experience of Jesus as the resurrected one led his followers to a fundamental alteration in the narrative that they shared with their fellow Jews. With other Jews, they confessed one God, and so distinguished themselves from the polytheism of the Greco-Roman world. But they distinguished themselves from other Jews by professing Jesus as Christ, Lord, and Son of God, terms that later found their way into the creed.
This profession was rooted in deep religious experience. Indeed, in the early baptismal rites we see the close connection between the confession and first Christians' experience. I will then try to show that the creed became more explicit and elaborate in response to three challenges. The first challenge was to define the experience of Jesus within and over against the shared story of Israel. The second challenge was to clarify the complex understanding of God that was embedded in the resurrection experience. The third challenge was to correct misunderstandings of the newly emergent "Christian narrative" that was, at heart, a "story about Jesus."
The Book of Deuteronomy contains an ancient rudimentary confession of belief known as the Shema (from its first word, "Hear"): "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might" (Deut 6:4). The statement has three features of special interest. First, it is a call for communal, and not simply individual, commitment. Second, in the context of surrounding polytheistic cultures, it is exclusive: The Lord (the proper name of Israel's God, Yahweh) is both the "one" God and the only God toward whom Israel owes allegiance. Finally, it is a personal commitment: Israelites are to "love" the Lord God with their whole heart and whole soul and whole might. In other words, the Shema both defines the one to whom loyalty is given and defines Israel among all the nations by its unique loyalty to this deity.
The Shema Israel stands within the community's shared narrative of how God has been at work in the people. A compressed version of that story is spoken by the Lord to introduce the Ten Commandments: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery," from which follows the conclusion, "You shall have no other Gods before me" (Exod 20:2-3). The people respond with faith and obedience to the one who first showed love and fidelity to them. The creedal statement "The Lord our God is one Lord" does not replace their experience and story, but is its most compressed expression.