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What’s the Point of Creeds?
I remember vividly how deeply moved I was as a young Protestant to hear how one of the Catholic martyrs died: scratching in the sand with his own blood the words of the creed, “Credo ....”( “I believe”).
My heart was moved, but my head did not yet understand. What do these Catholics see in their creeds anyway? How can a set of words be worth dying for? Why have wars been fought over a word? What's the point of creeds?
Then I read Dorothy Sayers' little masterpiece Creed or Chaos?, and I was answered.
The question can be answered by remembering another question, the one Pilate asked Christ in another life-or-death situation: “What is truth?”
And that is the point of the creeds: truth. In fact, Primal Truth, the truth about God. That is why the words of the Creed are sacred words. Just as God's material houses are sacred, so are his verbal houses. Of course God is no more confined to words, even the sacred words of creeds, than he is confined to the sacred buildings of tent or temple, church or cathedral. But both are holy, set apart, sacred. “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. “
Faith has two dimensions: the objective and the subjective. Creeds express these two dimensions: “I believe in God. “ There is an I, a believing subject, and there is God, the object of belief. There is the psychology of believing, which is something in us, and there is the theology of belief, which is the Truth believed. There is the eye, and there is the light. And woe to him who mistakes the one for the other.
When the Church formulated her creeds, humanity was more interested in the light than in the eye. God providentially arranged for the great creeds of the Church to be formulated in ages that cared passionately about objective truth. By modern standards, they ignored the subjective, psychological dimension of faith.
But we moderns fall into the opposite and far worse extreme: we are so interested in the subject that we often forget or even scorn the object. Psychology has become our new religion, as Paul Vitz and Kirk Kilpatrick have both so brilliantly shown.
Yet it's the object, not the subjective act, of faith that makes the creeds sacred. They are sacred because Truth is sacred, not because believing is sacred. Creeds do not say merely what we believe, but what is. Creeds wake us from our dreams and prejudices into objective reality. Creeds do not confine us in little cages, as the modern world thinks; creeds free us into the outdoors, into the real world where the winds of heaven whip around our heads.
What is the object, the Truth? Saint Thomas says that the primary object of faith is not words and statements but God himself. “We believe in God.” Further, as Christians we know God most fully in Christ, God incarnate, and as Catholics we know Christ through Holy Mother Church and her creeds.
When human reason raved, in the Arian heresy, that Christ could not possibly be both fully human and fully divine, Athanasius stood against the world; today we know Christ as he really is because of Athanasius and his creed.
When contemporary forms of the same heresy water down the strong meat” of Christ, the Church again braves the media, the mouth of the world, and calmly thunders the full truth about Christ. True, it is Christ rather than words that is the primary object of the Christian's faith, but what Christ? Here words are crucial.
Two extremes must be avoided: intellectualism and anti-intellectualism, worshipping the words and scorning the words. If the ancient mind tended to the former extreme, the modern mind certainly tends to the latter. Both errors are deadly.
Intellectualism misses the core of faith, both objectively and subjectively. Objectively, the core of faith is God, who is a Person, not a concept. Subjectively, the core of faith is the will, not the intellect. Though informed by the intellect, it is the will that freely chooses to believe.
Faith is not the relation between an intellect and an idea, but the relation between an I and a Thou. That is why faith makes the difference between heaven and hell. God does not send you to hell for flunking his theology exam but for willingly divorcing from him.
Anti-intellectualism also misses the core of faith, both objectively and subjectively. Objectively, because its faith has no object. It calls faith an experience (“the faith experience”) — a term never used by our Lord, Scripture, the creeds, or the popes. Modern people are constantly saying, “Have faith!” But faith in what or whom? They often mean “have faith in faith. “ But faith in faith in what?
Anti-intellectualism is a modern reaction against the modern narrowing of reason to scientific reason. When the ancients and medievals called man a “rational animal”, they did not mean a computerized camera mounted in an ape. They meant by “reason” understanding, wisdom, insight, and conscience as well as logical calculation.
Modern thinkers often forget this dimension of man and think only of reasoning (as in calculating) and feeling. And because they see that faith is not a matter of reasoning, they conclude that it must be a matter of feeling. Thus “I believe” comes to mean “I feel and creeds simply have no place. Faith becomes a “leap” in the dark instead of a leap in the light.
Many of the Church's greatest saints have been doctors of the Church, theologians, philosophers, intellectuals: Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Bonaventure. Anti-intellectuals like Tatian and Tertullian and Luther (who called reason “the devil's whore”) often die excommunicated, as heretics.
The Church — repeating what Saint Paul said in Romans 1: 19-20 — even teaches as a matter of faith that God's existence can be known by reason, independent of faith!
The Catholic ideal is the complete person, with a cool head and a warm heart, a hard head and a soft heart. The mere intellectual has a cool heart; the anti-intellectual has a hot head. The intellectual has a hard heart, the anti-intellectual has a soft head. The Church puts the severed parts in the right order because the Church has the blueprint: Christ (Eph 4:13). The Church has always had a conservative head and a liberal heart, and the world has never understood her, just as it never understood Christ.
Creeds are to the head what good works are to the heart: creeds express truth, the head's food, as good works express love, the heart's food. Both are sacred.
If there is any doubt about the need for creeds, it can be settled by fact: the fact that the Church established by Christ, the Church Christ promised to “guide into all truth”, has in fact formulated and taught creeds.
The first bishops, the apostles, formulated the Church's first, shortest, and most important creed, the Apostles' Creed. Whether the apostles literally wrote it, as tradition says, or whether it was written by their disciples to preserve the apostles' teaching, in either case it is the teaching of the apostles. When we recite this creed we speak in unison with them.
There is a strange notion abroad that creeds oppress, repress, or suppress people. That is like saying that light or food is repressive. The practical purpose of the creeds is truth, and truth is light and food for the soul.
Each of the Church's creeds was written in response to a heresy, to combat it not by force but by truth, as light combats darkness. Creeds are “truth in labeling”. Those who disbelieve in truth or scorn it, or who disbelieve in our ability to know it, see creeds as power plays.
The media's hysterical rhetoric about the pope's labeling Hans Kung's theology as non-Catholic theology is a good example of the world's utter confusion here. The media conjured up visions of the return of the Inquisition simply because the pope said, in effect, that Kung's teachings about Christ should not be confused with the Church's teachings about Christ. But this reaction should be expected if we remember the words of Christ himself (read Jn 3:17-21 prayerfully).
The most important creeds were those formulated by the Church's ecumenical (universal) councils in response to the most important heresies, the heresies about Christ; and of these the two most important were Chalcedon and Nicaea. (The Nicene Creed is the one we recite each Sunday at Mass.) The Church's most recent council, Vatican II, formulated no new creeds and no new doctrines but applied the old ones to new needs and situations.
The pope called an extraordinary synod of bishops in 1985 in part to clarify Catholic confusion concerning Vatican II. Anyone who would take the trouble to read the actual documents (which are much, much longer than creeds) would see how traditional they are. The “spirit of Vatican II” conjured by the media and some theologians is a phantom, a ghostlike half-person, with the fatal split between head and heart, creed and deed, theology and social action, love of God and love of man, eternal principles and updated applications.
But the pope is a bridge builder, a pontifex; he will patch what the world has torn. And the blueprint he will follow in doing this will be the historic, never-abandoned creeds of the Church of Christ.
Kreeft, Peter. “What's the Point of Creeds?” Chapter 17 in Fundamentals of the Faith. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 107-111.
Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. Fundamentals of the Faith - ISBN 0-89870-202-X.
Peter Kreeft teaches at Boston College in Boston Massachusetts. He is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
Copyright © 1988 Ignatius Press