Thinking Through the Creed, Introduction

The oldest known comprehensive creedal formulation of the Christian faith is known as the "Old Roman Symbol."  As best as we can tell, it dates from the 2nd Century, and is found almost unchanged in both Latin and Greek forms (the Greek version adds "the life everlasting" to the end of the litany).  Here is what it says:

I believe in God the Father almighty;
and in Christ Jesus His only Son, our Lord,
Who was born from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
Who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried,
on the third day rose again from the dead,
ascended to heaven,
sits at the right hand of the Father,
whence He will come to judge the living and the dead;
and in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Church,
the remission of sins,
the resurrection of the flesh.

With a few additions, the Old Roman Symbol forms the basis of what has become known as the Apostles Creed, the creed which is used in the West as the Baptismal creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic and apostolic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

The Old Roman Symbol/Apostles Creed is the place to start when thinking about the Christian faith.
 The better known Nicene Creed is, in essence, explanatory material grafted on to the basic superstructure of the Apostles Creed for the purpose of affirming (at least in a basic form) a Trinitarian understanding of Christianity.  The doctrine of the Trinity is of central importance, but I think it is one level removed from the absolute core of the faith as expressed in the Apostles Creed.  If you want to get to the most fundamental expression of Christianity, this is the place to begin.

I've been thinking about creeds recently.  For people who worship in a liturgical church, the creeds often become a kind of background noise, a long soliloquy that gets recited by reflex.  For others, it becomes a kind of test or oath--a measuring stick to determine who is in and who is out (or should be out).  Both of those are the wrong way to think about the creeds, I think.

Frank Strong had a series about a year or two ago (which you can find here, and here, and here) about the creed that is the right way to think about creeds.  Strong's interlocutors insisted that the purpose of the creed was to provide hard, objective answers, which could be used as a sword and shield to fend off heresy.  Strong, correctly, notes that creeds are simply not concrete enough for that task.  Instead, they are a place to begin, a centering, a common locus.  Every person who says "I believe in God" on a Sunday morning is affirming a common commitment, but is also expressing a contention that is deeply personal and unique.  In other words, we may all believe in God, but how we believe, and what that belief means is necessarily individualized.  Religion can never fully be reduced to a set of interchangable parts or a one-size-fits-all garment that anyone and everyone can put on (I have some thoughts on why that is, but more on that in future posts).

I've also been thinking about creeds recently because it has occurred to me that my faith has changed a great deal in the last few years, corresponding roughly with the time that I have been writing this blog.  I still say the same creedal statements that I used to, but what I mean by them, and how I understand what I am saying, has changed a great deal.  I many respects, I believe those formulations more than I used to, to the extent that "more" or "less" are useful adjectives in this context.  But I certainly believe them differently, in some cases very differently, than I once did.  The center has stayed the same, but the places where I have gone from that center has been very new.

So, I'm going to take a couple of posts and reflect a bit on how I understand the words of the Apostles' Creed.  The idea is to break the Creed up into a few sections and take it in pieces, with perhaps a few posts on a particular section (there is a lot to unpack here).  Mindful of Frank Strong's reflections, the idea is not in any way to suggest that this is how you should understand the Creed, but only how I understand different parts.  The idea is to talk about where I happen to be at this point in time, and perhaps that will be useful for others in their reflections and where ever they happen to be.

Hopefully, this can be a starting point for others in their reflections.  After all, that's what creeds are for.


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