by Pastor Doug Kings

In my Reformation Day sermon, I singled out two parts of the liturgy I felt needed to be changed as part of a reformation of Christianity. Last week I wrote about the Confession and today I look at the Creed.

Jaroslav Pelikan was perhaps the greatest church historian of the 20th century. Raised Lutheran and later a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, a graduate of Concordia Seminary and the University of Chicago, he was a professor at Yale University for 40 years and died in 2006.

A few years before his death, Pelikan was interview by Krista Tippet in the first year of her long-running NPR radio show, On Being. Pelikan had just published Credo, a survey of about 200 Christian creeds, narrowed down from nearly a thousand he had found.

According to Pelikan, Christianity is the only religion that churns out creeds like this. The creeds of the other biblical religions, Judaism and Islam, are famously short. In the Shema, a Jew simply declares (as Jesus did), “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is one.” And a Muslim says the Shahada, “There is no god but God, and Mohammed is his messenger.”

Pelikan acknowledges the strength of both traditions, despite their simple core statements of belief. Christianity, however, requires more detailed and complex creeds, according to Pelikan, but he never makes clear why that is. The value of such long creeds, he says, is to move us away from a “to whom it many concern” God. The creeds make clear who God is. But then why does this not apply to Jews or Muslims?

When Pelikan talks about Christianity’s earliest official creeds, he hints at why Christian creeds are so wordy, and not surprisingly it’s Jesus. The longest sections of these creeds all try to explain what the church believes about Jesus, especially in relation to God.

The church struggled for centuries to put into words how Jesus was both divine and human. Each new attempt was longer and more complicated than the last, often created with much turmoil and division. It’s said that the struggle over whether Jesus was homoousios (Greek for same substance or essence) or homoiousios (similar substance) caused riots in the streets.

We now know that for 300 years, the first Christians lived with remarkable diversity of beliefs. That diversity only became intolerable when the Roman emperor Constantine decided Christianity would be the empire’s new official religion. To be the unifying force he wanted Christianity to be, Constantine insisted that the bishops agree on a single, uniform statement of belief. Thus, after much effort, official Christian belief was decided by majority vote and enforced by Roman legions.

Today there is wide agreement this development was a disaster. The church was seduced and corrupted by Roman power. The creeds gave church authorities the excuse to be on constant lookout for divergent ideas (aka heresy). This both stifled theological creativity and froze the church’s self-understanding in language that soon became out-of-date. As a result, what once caused riots now generates yawns. No one today knows what “being of one substance with the Father” means, as “substance” is an ancient Greek philosophical category that disappeared from use long ago.

Pelikan believed strongly in the continued use of the ancient creeds. In his view, they hold the church together, connecting us both to Christians of the past and Christians around the world. I don’t share his conviction. It ignores the vital first three centuries when Christianity had no such creeds, it ignores the millions of Christians today who belong to non-credal traditions, and it ignores that much of the ancient creedal language is now incomprehensible.

While supporting the traditional creeds, Pelikan also recognized the need to continue to restate Christian beliefs in fresh and appropriate ways. One of his favorite examples was this 1960 Maasai creed. He said it illustrated the need, in this case, to not only Christianize Africa but Africanize Christianity:

We believe in one high God, who out of love created the beautiful world. We believe that God made good His promise by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left His home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, and showing that the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by His people, tortured and nailed, hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch Him, and on the third day He rose from the grave.

Pelikan highlights the fact that the Maasai creed includes Jesus’ adult life and seems to acknowledge that leaving this out is a significant failing of the ancient creeds. For this reason, when we use the Apostles’ Creed in worship, we now include a section written by German theologian Jurgen Moltman that talks of Jesus’ life.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, baptized by John the Baptist, and filled with the Holy Spirit: to proclaim God’s kingdom to the poor, to heal the sick, to receive the rejected, to awaken Israel for the salvation of the nations, and to have mercy upon all people. He suffered under Pontius Pilate….

Today, this omission is the largest failing of the creeds and reflects a serious wrong turn taken by the ancient church. Jesus’ life was ignored because the church had become fixated on its “salvation operations.” Concern for the afterlife far overshadowed interest in what Christian life looks like here and now. Thus, for the creeds, Jesus was born to die. Whatever else he did was barely a footnote.

In the interview, the host Krista Tippet raises the question that Jesus asks the disciples, and which hangs over the church: “Who do you say that I am?” For the renewal of Christianity, we need to experiment with new creeds which seek to answer that question in ways relevant to our world today. Such creeds also need to explore the related question, “And who then are we as followers of this Jesus?”

Creeds don’t need to be divisive, as many where when they were adopted. But neither should they be acts of nostalgia, repeated by rote for their comfort. To be meaningful, creeds should have an edge to them which moves us to ask of ourselves Jesus’ question about his identity, and then ask the follow up question, “So what?”

Blessings in your life and ministry.