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Mark Shea: Why Creeds? Do This in Remembrance of Me

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PHOTO: Christopher Sardegna on Unsplash

This is Part 6 of Mark Shea’s series on the Creed.
It begins with Why Creeds? Part 1

As we have seen, I had been taught by my little church group that creeds were ‘religion’ in chemical purity: an attempt to put the living God in a box and reduce him to a sort of formula.  But I had learned that creeds were what marked out a crucial difference between the gospel and the surrounding pagan world in which it was born.  Pagans didn’t have creeds. You don’t need a creed for a collection of tall tales about gods in Asgaard, Olympus, or the Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon. The myths of Greece or Rome or the folk tales of Germany and the Great Plains required only poets and bards, not creeds.

But with the Incarnation, God refused to remain safely in the realm of Myth and barged into the world of fact, the world of census statistics, and dirty diapers and worries about the bills and plumbing problems.  He became a guy from Nazareth, the son of Joseph, the carpenter.  His neighbors could and did say, “Him?  But we know that guy.  There’s nothing mysterious about him.  He just a kid from the neighborhood.  Talks with a twang like the rest of us. Uses the bathroom like anybody else.”  So there would be pressure from that side to downplay the miraculous side of Jesus’ life and reduce him to a mere man who worked no miracles, healed no blind men, raised no dead, and stayed in the grave once killed.

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Conversely, as the Church moved out into a pagan culture awash in myths, there would be pressure to jazz things up with more spectacular special effects.  The demand would be, “Why don’t you spice up the story with some epic tales of Olympian derring-do like proper gods offer?”  So while the Sanhedrin would put the man Jesus to death for answering, “I AM” to the question, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (Mark 14:61-62), the first heresies, such as Docetism, had no trouble with the claims of Jesus’ deity.  What offended them was the claim of Jesus’ humanity.

They wanted to believe that Jesus was just a spirit who left no footprints, an apparition who could neither bleed nor die. The religious instincts of pagan antiquity were quite prepared for Myth.  But they were wholly unprepared for Fact, for a peasant beaten bloody by the bully boys under Pontius Pilate, for a corpse catalogued and accounted for somewhere on a document in a file drawer in the offices of a bureaucrat.  And so G.K. Chesterton describes the shock of what the early Church had to say, because it was nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has visited his world in person. It declares that really and even recently, or right in the middle of historic times, there did walk into the world this original invisible being; about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths; the Man Who Made the World.

That such a higher personality exists behind all things had indeed always been implied by all the best thinkers, as well as by all the most beautiful legends. But nothing of this sort had ever been implied in any of them. It is simply false to say that the other sages and heroes had claimed to be that mysterious master and maker, of whom the world had dreamed and disputed. Not one of them had ever claimed to be anything of the sort. Not one of their sects or schools had ever claimed that they had claimed to be anything of the sort. The most that any religious prophet had said was that he was the true servant of such a being. The most that any visionary had ever said was that men might catch glimpses of the glory of that spiritual being; or much more often of lesser spiritual beings. The most that any primitive myth had ever suggested was that the Creator was present at the Creation. But that the Creator was present at scenes a little subsequent to the supper-parties of Horace, and talked with tax-collectors and government officials in the detailed daily life of the Roman Empire, and that this fact continued to be firmly asserted by the whole of that great civilisation for more than a thousand years that is something utterly unlike anything else in nature.

It was only when something had happened, not Once Upon a Time, but to a specific group of people living in a real place during the reign of a Roman bureaucrat that creeds became necessary, because real memories, not dreams and legends, were involved. For this people was constantly being pressured by its neighbours and by its own sinful tendencies to forget what had happened–to remove Jesus to Cloud Cuckoo Land where anything and everything might be said of him, to make him more amenable to pagan tales and dreams. That is why John has to tell his flock:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. (1 Jn 4:1–3)

Jesus Christ–God–has come in the flesh.  More than this, he has been raised in the flesh too:  breaking bread, eating fish, being touched after his Resurrection.  And still more than this he has pressed into the minds, hearts, mouths, and hands of his disciples a Eucharist of that crucified, raised, and glorified flesh with the word, “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25).  He has refused to stay in the realm of myth and has left footprints and drunk water from a well in Nazareth that can be located with a GPS.  He is not merely the comfortably abstract “that which was from the beginning”.

He is, far more alarmingly, that “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands” (1 John 1:1).  And so, the Church’s history necessarily became one long and careful act of remembering, not imagining—designed to make sure that their past was not lost. Since what had happened was so strange—and so fraught with the possibility of being misunderstood in a thousand ways—the early Christians therefore were immediately committed to creating Creeds: summaries of their experience that, while initially brief (“Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9)), expanded in length over time to make sure that the broad contours of the basic story and its meaning were not lost.

Read Mark’s conclusion.

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