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 to the dead.
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 again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Looking At the Creed
“Creed” comes from the Latin credo and means “to believe.” For millennia Christians have affirmed their central beliefs in short, pithy, creeds – the oldest one being the Apostles Creed. It is the most popular creed used in worship by Western Christians. Its central doctrines are those of the Trinity and God the Creator. It has been called the Creed of Creeds.
The creed was apparently used as a summary of Christian doctrine for baptismal candidates in the churches of Rome. In one version it was given in question and answer format with the baptismal candidates answering in the affirmative that they believed each statement.
Through a series of councils and creeds the church sought to clarify to others to what it believed about Jesus and attempted to rule out those ideas and beliefs that did not adequately express the faith in Jesus Christ. This was a long, careful, and exhaustive process of theological reflection and exploration which took more than three centuries.
Alister McGrath in his book Heresy (SPCK, 2009) says: “In one sense, the Church already knew what was so significant about Jesus of Nazareth. The problem was constructing an intellectual framework that did justice to what was already known about him.”
We must remember it was never the case that the Church did not know what it believed about Jesus and so needed to sort that out. The early Church did not seek to discern, in the midst of doubt, what it believed about Jesus, but rather it sought to conceive clearly and so express precisely what it did believe so as to leave no doubt.
This is reflected in the following from Alister McGrath: “If there is a heartbeat of the Christian faith, it lies in the sheer intellectual delight and excitement caused by the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Here is one whom the church finds to be intellectually luminous, spiritually persuasive, and infinitely satisfying, both communally and intellectually. While Christians express this delight and wonder in their creeds, they do so more especially in their worship and adoration.”
This is in direct contrast to the way many today think about Christian orthodoxy. Think of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which declares the divinity of Christ as a fabrication, a deliberate ploy on the part of a corrupt Church determined to secure its social status by any means and at any cost. As McGrath writes, “Brown’s narrative is an illuminating example of how fiction shapes perceptions of reality.”
The Apostle’s Creed is universally accepted across the Christian tradition. Many Christians know it and can recite it easily from memory. Originating from the baptismal confession of Matthew 28:19, it naturally follows the Trinitarian order there established.
The first article declares belief in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. The second article declares belief in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, and in the great facts embraced in the gospel witness regarding him. The third article affirms belief in the Holy Spirit, to which are appended the additional clauses, declaring belief in the holy catholic (universal) church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
Looking Along the Creed
Baptists often find themselves lost and bewildered at what they find in creeds and question their usefulness for faith today. They look at the creeds and are unconvinced these are useful at all. Why not just read Scripture, a psalm perhaps, or a portion from one of Paul’s letters?
And it is here that C.S. Lewis has much to teach us through two of his distinctive concepts, first the art of transposition, and second how to look along an object and not just at it.
“Transposition” is a relatively easy concept to grasp – it is to cause two or more things to change places with each other, or to transfer to a different place or context. In Screwtape Proposes a Toast and Other Pieces (London: Fontana, 1965), Lewis takes the incarnation as his prime example. Here the higher being – God, takes into himself a lower nature – human, and the Son becomes human, God with us, Immanuel. Transposition has occurred. Creeds, like the eternal Son, need to be transposed; in the case of creeds, transposed from formal theological articulation to personal statements of belief. From a statement of belief to a proclamation, “I believe!”
In “Meditation in a Toolshed,” Compelling Reason: Essays on Ethics and Theology, (ed. W. Hooper, Fount, 1998), Lewis explains how to transpose from the lower level of things to the higher. In short this involves looking at something and then looking along it. This basically entails the ability to look beyond a fact (looking at a thing) to seeing the meaning of a thing (looking along it). To illustrate he uses the sunbeam visible through the crack in his shed door, a young girl in love, the thinking of a mathematician, a dancing “savage,” an anthropologist, and a little girl crying over her broken doll.
As Lewis observed himself: “When you have got into the habit of making this distinction [between looking at something and looking along it] you will find examples of it all day long.”
The Apostles Creed acts in a similar way – we have to look along it before we can look at it. The simple adage applies here; we have to learn to see the forest (of faith) for the (theological) trees.
Before we dig into the metaphysics of the creed we have to learn to believe the creed. “I believe in God, the Father almighty.” No philosophical arguments are given, no proofs for the existence of God are offered, no counter objections are addressed. Instead we have a simple statement of faith: “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord.” Notice the creed does not give us an abstract definition of his manhood and his Godhead, nor of their relations. It simply gives us some raw facts and invites us to believe and embrace them. And the same goes for the Holy Spirit and the church.
In a commentary on the Apostles Creed, The Faith of the Church: A Commentary on the Apostle’s Creed According to Calvin’s Catechism (Fontana, 1960), Karl Barth made the following remarks in regard to the second article of the creed: “The same holds true for Christ as it does for a bird in full flight. No picture will convey that flight, except a moving picture. Likewise in theology: you will understand nothing if you try to lay hold of a position, to apply your mind to an assertion. You must follow the positions, follow the assertions and view the whole, not as if it were a system, but as a history.”
What Barth is saying is complementary to what Lewis presents, the art of transposition and looking along the creed rather than simply at it.
To conclude his remark Barth continues: “When we grasp each position simply within the movement of the whole, it can also be rightly remarked that we grasp the whole in each position (even as each note of a melody contains the entire melody).”
While styles change, techniques develop, and each local church will have its own identity and indeed each person within each church will have his or her own identity – what is it that unites us, which keeps us in harmony?
Arguably, it is the faith we profess, the faith that the creeds so eloquently and indelibly witness to. The Apostles Creed acts as a song sheet off which we all sing—Baptist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian. The Apostles Creed, when we learn to read along it, is a text for worship.
May we all learn to sing in tune and do so regularly in our public worship. Who knows, Baptist churches may even recite the creed publicly from time to time!
• Myk Habets is Director of the RJ Thompson Centre for Theological Studies at Carey Baptist College, Auckland.