Why take these ancient words on our lips week after week? At bottom, reciting the Creed with others profoundly shapes the way we view the world and our place within its unfolding story. Confessing the Creed reminds us that we are called to live into something bigger than ourselves, and that we share this “something bigger” with an unbroken throng of witnesses stretching back across time and around the world.
Even so, it’s easy to imagine how saying the Creed week after week might lead to dead formalism. Neither repetition nor rote memorization inevitably leads to deeper insight. This is true regarding Scripture as well as the Creed. If we would own our faith, we have to chase understanding. This is particularly true of the Creed, because its theological language reflects a foreign context that requires a bit of diligence to appreciate. But with close attention to the great tradition and teachers of the faith, we can learn to take the Creed on our lips and into our hearts with greater clarity and conviction.
But which creed do we call the Creed and why? The Creed is that set forth by the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. The previous Council of Nicaea in 325 first articulated its substance, and then the Eastern Fathers filled out its language in light of subsequent challenges, bringing the Creed to full expression in 381. This Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, often just called the Nicene Creed, now stands as the ecumenical symbol claiming the assent of both East and West, both Catholics and evangelicals. Since the Creed expresses the substance and shape of the faith for so many Christians it invites deeper reflection, even by those who don’t share this faith. After all, who can really disagree with something before understanding its claims?
David Foster Wallace used to speak about Generation X’s haunted loneliness and boredom. He was also keenly aware of how technology and consumerism unite to cultivate a thirst for novelty that often results in a deep sense of existential displacement. A decade after Wallace’s death his cultural analysis and dystopian suspicions seem almost prophetic, at least for the West.
Just so, the Creed’s first word reflects a timely and countercultural perspective. For Christians, to say, “We believe” is to exchange our dislocated individuality with a communal identity that transcends time and space. Our collective confession is that of the baptized community, mystically united to Christ and one another through water, Word, Spirit, and blood (Rom 6:3-4; Eph 5:25-27; Tit 3:5; John 3:5; 19:34; 1 John 5:6-8). Those of us who truly confess, “We believe” are immersed into a reality more enduring than anything our consumerist, throwaway culture can offer. The “We” of the Creed implies a people baptized into the Threefold Name, into the fellowship of the Trinity. And it’s the life, light, and love, gained from this fellowship that enables us to surmount the captivating perspectives of our own cultural moment.
The Creed’s second word is no less countercultural. Confessing we believe invites distain and misunderstanding from different directions. In our post-Enlightenment context, folks still pit reason against faith, and cast science in a perpetual war against religious belief. It’s still common to hear from this perspective that our belief is nothing but primitive, superstitious ascent to authority. Conversely, others view our confession as a power play. In their view, all knowledge claims are thoroughly constructed and subjective, and so when Christians claim to perceive ultimate reality in the words of the Creed, it’s all about controlling others. But rightly understood, confessing, “We believe” doesn’t fall prey to either of these misconceptions.
To be sure, the faith we confesses is not some blind leap in the dark. Christians have always believed that faith has its reasons, and this is supported by a public paper trail stretching back from Tim Keller through Aquinas, Augustine, Origen, and then to the Apostles. So too, our creedal faith happily co-exists with knowledge gained by science, rejecting only a rouge scientism that claims total explanatory power over reality. We believe that reality is deeper and far richer than that observed by the scientific method. With postmodernism, we agree that reciting the Creed powerfully constructs our communal imaginations of the world. But not every interpretation of the world can be true. Even so, the Creed doesn’t empower us to coerce others to share its vision. Those who truly confess the Creed, according to its own inner logic, are apprehended by Christ and so willingly leave other narratives for that of the Creed.
We own the fact that the Creed commits us to controversy in our world. As a political statement, the Creed declares our ultimate allegiance to the City of God, while sojourning in the City of Man (John 18:36; Phil 3:20). Secularists continue to see our confession as a cancer in society, skeptics scoff at our mindless credulity, while some Christians demand a more androgynistic and inclusive portrait of God. Yet we continue to recite the Creed received from our ancestors, because we believe it faithfully works out what the earliest Christians meant by confessing, “Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9;1 Cor 12:3). But we’re also mindful of the bewildered inquirer facing the apparently impenetrable tangle of historical and theological questions evoked by the Creed. With Augustine we say, “If you can’t understand, believe and then you’ll understand” (c.f. Faith and the Creed, 1; 25). This is true because experiencing God leads to a deeper knowledge of his mystery, and this experience, like all relationships, begins with a simple act of trust.