Mark Shea: Why Creeds? Conclusion

PHOTO: Onkundi Nyabuto on Unsplash

This is the conclusion of Mark’s series on the Creed.
It begins at Why Creeds? Part 1

One of the ways in which I moved from partial to fully biblical (that is, Catholic) faith was by discovering that my little dorm group was wrong about baptism.  In the early Church, to believe and profess your faith and to be baptised were the same thing.  If you believed, you sought baptism and if you were baptised, you were, ipso facto, a believer. Controversies dating from a millennium-and-a-half after the time of the New Testament still have many Christians today splitting hairs over ‘water baptism’ vs. ‘Spirit baptism’ or vs. ‘profession of faith’, but none of that would have been intelligible to the authors and original readers of the New Testament.  What they took for granted was not the distinction between baptism in water and the gift of the Spirit or the profession of faith in Jesus, but the identity of all three of these things.  To ask them to choose between these three things was like asking them which blade on the scissors does the cutting.  It was a nonsense question.

Profession-of-Faith-and-Baptism was how you both entered the Body of Christ and how God the Father gave you his Spirit through Christ the Son.  You were “born again of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5).  Accordingly, with the sole exception of the Good Thief (who is, tellingly, understood by the early Church as having been baptised in blood, not water), every convert in the New Testament is baptised when they believe the preaching of the apostles whom Jesus commanded:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Indeed, it is so much taken for granted that parents, acting on behalf of their children with the assumption that they will be raised in the Faith, have their “household” (meaning wife, children, and, if any, slaves) baptised in much the same way that Jews had their infant children circumcised.  We see this, for instance, with the Philippian Jailer (Acts 16:25-34), Crispus the synagogue ruler (Acts 18:8), and Stephanus (1 Corinthians 1:16).  The head of the household makes a profession of faith on behalf of the whole household and all are baptised.  So it’s not surprising that many ancient manuscripts of Acts include this passage:

And the eunuch said to Philip, “Please, about whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news of Jesus. And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptised?” And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptised him. (Acts 8:34–38)

The combination of a profession of faith with the act of baptism is so second nature to the New Testament mind that Paul (who himself was commanded at the start of his Christian life to “Rise and be baptised, and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16)) uses a phrase that fuses baptism and profession of faith into a single image.  He speaks of “the washing of water with the word” (Ephesians 5:26).  And so, everywhere in Scripture, baptism, profession of faith in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the Father’s gift of the Spirit through Jesus Christ are all simply one thing.

Therefore, the key thing to understand about a Creed (from the word Credo, meaning “I believe”) is that it is a baptismal act.  You say it or affirm it as you are being baptised.  And baptism, in turn, is no mere symbol.  It is a sacrament.  It does something to you, as Paul says:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Ro 6:3–4)

Baptism crucifies you with Christ, raises you with him, makes you a member of his Body, confers on you the Wedding Garment that makes you a guest at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, the Eucharist (cf. Matthew 22:1-14; Revelation 19:7-9). Every time you say the Creed thereafter, you recall your baptism even as you recollect the truths you believe about the three Persons of the Trinity, remember the great saving acts of God in his Son Jesus Christ, and affirm the great gifts and promises he has given his Body, the Church.

The Church, indulging its genius for taking common sense ideas and wrapping them in baffling jargon, calls the Creed a ‘symbol of the Faith’.  The point of that jargon is to head off the impulse so many of us have to reduce God from the ineffable mystery He is in Himself down to a mere formula.  We do not, strictly speaking, ‘believe in the Creed’.  We believe in the One whom the Creed portrays and symbolises in words.  Our mission as Catholics is not, in the final analysis, to ‘master the Creed’ (as though God is a ‘subject’ or ‘topic’ we wrap our heads around).  It is to enter into the mystery of relationship with the living God the Creed describes to us.

Different creeds have been promulgated by different communities over time, and some of them have been promulgated by the whole Church or by this or that Pope.  One useful way to think of their relationship to one another is as the rings of a tree.  Older creeds are no more obsolete than inner tree rings and newer ones do not retire them.  Rather, the newer ones address issues and questions that came up later.  Of all these Creeds, the two greatest are the Apostles’ Creed and its more elaborate descendant, the Nicene (or more properly, Nicene-Constantinopolitan) Creed.  The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed demonstrates the Tree Ring Principle well, since we can watch the little amendments accrue over time as new questions.  Yet even though the more developed Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is recited by Catholics every time they go to Sunday Mass, that does not stop them from saying the Apostles’ Creed every time they pray the Rosary.

This Tree Ring Principle, and the care with which the Church has developed her doctrine concerning the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (and the Church which believes and obeys Him) is, in the end, the answer to the question “Why Creeds?”

Creeds are necessary because the Church is a communion of memory, not myth.  You don’t need a creed to organise opinions about the myths of Persephone, Isis, and Athena.  You need them to remember the saving history of God and his people in the life, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.  If Jesus did not happen, it doesn’t matter what he did.  If Jesus did happen, it matters intensely and it matters intensely that we get the story right, since our faith is not in a concept or an idea or a moral code or a set of philosophical principles.  It is in a man who is also God, whose actions for us in dying and rising demand a response of the whole heart, soul, mind, and strength of each person who will ever live.

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