Wednesday, February 28, 2007


As kids, many of us learned the Apostles’ Creed, the second confession in the Presbyterian Book of Confessions. Why begin with the second confession instead of the first? Well, because “many of us learned” it as kids, and relatively fewer of us learned the church’s earliest confession, the Nicene Creed. Start with what you know!

Or, if you can’t really manage that, start with the beginning: “I believe …”

What does it mean to us to say, “I believe …” and follow that with “God the Father Almighty” and “Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord … Virgin Mary … sitteth on the right hand … quick and the dead … Holy Ghost … holy catholic Church” and so on?

Is “confessing” our belief in these the same as saying “I believe Einstein was right about relativity” or “I believe the Braves will win the pennant” or “I believe the war in Iraq is wrong”? Those statements, whether you agree with them or not, stand open to the judgments of science and history, of knowledge and time, in ways that the Creeds do not, unless we imagine God in the role of ultimate lab technician or final historian.

Even if we imagine God in those roles we ought to acknowledge a couple of things:

First, those roles – scientist or historian – are thoroughly modern notions that would have been utterly foreign to the framers of the early creeds. Second, the creeds themselves never imagine God in such roles even if one accounts for the different cultural referents.

That raises a question: Does “God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” spend time judging whether or not our statements of “belief” about the divine godhead are any more accurate than my statement of “belief” – or, is it faith – that the Braves will ascend to their rightful place atop the National League East.

“Belief” – or, is it faith – that, perhaps, is the key question when pondering the creeds and confessions. What does it mean to say “I believe”?

If it means “I give my intellectual assent to this propositional statement,” then I will confess some significant difficulties with the Apostles Creed, and others that we’ll get to in the next few weeks. Confess, or, should I say scruple (and invite you to find the use of this au courant word in this none-too-trendy piece by Nathanial Hawthorne, whose use of the word a century and a half ago I find edifying. To get a handle on its contemporary use in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) I recommend reading a post from former GA Moderator Rick Ufford-Chase.)

But I digress. These difficulties that I scruple would have to include, at least, these:

* God the Father

* only Son

* Virgin Mary

* ascended into heaven

These few scruples name in shorthand theological controversies concerning the masculine image of God, exclusive salvation in Jesus, the incarnation of the human being Jesus, and the meaning and “location” of salvation. Forests have been felled and libraries filled to give full expression to the various positions on those topics.

What I happen to believe or disbelieve – that is to say, what I think about any one of them doesn’t much matter here. Because the heart of the matter is not what I think, but rather what will matter enough to me to stake my life on.

The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart, here. The first word of the creed in Latin is credo. It is adequately translated as “I believe.” A deeper rendering might be “I give my heart to.” Marcus Borg explains the distinction, if not the Latin, well when he says, “when we say the creeds, we are saying, "I give my heart to God." Which God? The maker of Heaven and Earth. I give my heart to Jesus Christ. And who is that, the one whom we tell stories about as born of a virgin and suffered under Pontius Pilate and so forth? Credo means giving one's heart to God and entering into a relationship of personal allegiance, not to the statements, but to the one about whom these statements are made.”

Richard Rodriguez, in his Hunger of Memory, includes a central section called “Credo,” in which he describes the Latino immigrant Roman Catholic culture of his childhood. He describes there not a set of beliefs written down in church doctrine, but rather an entire web of community that marked the very timing of one’s life: “the Church rocked through time – a cradle, an ark – to rhythms of sorrow and joy, marking the passage of man.” Credo was not words or arguments but the narrative of life itself.

When I consider the creeds and confessions this way – as stories about the God to whom I give my heart – I can recite them faithfully and with integrity. No matter what historic circumstances, what theological or political battles were being waged in the words, I can claim these words – or be claimed by them.

Indeed, the very fact that different historic circumstances will occasion different confessions, reminds me that it is a matter of heart, first and foremost. So I can join my heart to the place the writers of the Apostles’ Creed aimed for in these ancient words and set aside for another time the intellectual arguments over their claims to a lesser truth.

How do you respond to these words? Or picture (which turned up from an image search of credo.)


Anonymous said...

Everyone should read this. It helped me to solidify what I believ in

Anonymous said...

Actually, I'd like to learn about the historical events that led to the writing of the confession.