A seemingly ever bubbling topic of discussion on Catholica, and previous discussions boards such as the old CathNews discussion board, has been the question of creeds. Today Dr Gabe Lomas, in response to the more recent conversations on Catholica, offers a more critical examination of the subject. Dr Lomas asks: "Has the time come for the leadership of the body of Christ, in which we all share, to be better spread through the church, particularly as regards what we do and don't believe, and what we can and can't say 'credo' to?"
Proclaiming whose belief...?
Eucharistic liturgies often involve the proclamation of a creed. And when we recite this creed, we announce tenets of the Christian faith to which we personally and collectively are meant to assent. We're meant to be asserting the beliefs of the local group of people we happen to be with, a group chosen and assembled by Christ — the Church.
But is this how things are in fact? Are we declaring our own beliefs, or the beliefs of others? The credal statements as set out for the Eucharist are not under our control, but given us to proclaim by our leaders. It could well be that what they put before us to confess may not be part of our own beliefs — not part of what we, the Church assembled in Eucharist, believe in.
Consider, for example, two items proposed for us to recite in the creeds we proclaim in the Eucharistic assembly these days.
What do you think these phrases mean? What's behind them? How important are they in your life as a Christian? Do you consider them to be basic to faith?
Has it always been the job of the hierarchy to tell us what we are to believe in? Is our role simply to assent? Could things change?
In the course of exploring these questions, we'll take a look at creed-like NT passages, some early church creeds, the Apostles' Creed, creeds as Symbola, and questions about grass-roots credal statements.
Some previous creeds...
What, we might ask, is the basis of credal statements? How 'traditional' are they? How long have they been around? Who formulates them? Why?
Well, fragments of early credal reports seem to be behind many passages in the NT. Take 1 Corinthians 15.3ff:
For I passed on to you in the first place what I myself had received:
Similarly, Romans 1.3ff:
Concerning his son.
While in 1 Peter 3.18ff we find:
For Christ also suffered for our sins
There are many more such examples (see Kelly 2006, pp.12-13), pointing to the existence of unordered and fragmentary batches of beliefs among early Christians.
When we turn to evidence from the practices of these early Christian groups, we find that it is mainly in baptismal liturgies that credal statements appear.
Thus, Cyril of Jerusalem in his Catechetical Lectures (348 CE) describes that neophytes avowed:
I believe in the Father,
The Catechetical Lectures of Theodore of Mopsuetia, who lived around 350-425 CE, carefully expound a variant of the credal formula of Constantinople, which Theodore said was recited "before baptism" (Kelly 2006, p.34).
A fourth century Coptic baptismal creed exhorts neophytes:
to believe in one true god, father of all creation
While a baptismal interrogation of the same times from Ethiopia asks:
do you believe in one god, father of all creation
And an interesting Armenian credal baptismal proclamation from that era says:
we believe in a holy trinity, in father and son and holy spirit
As you can see, these credal declarations contain some elements we might think important, and others that we consider trivial. Similarly, some items of belief are widely held, while others seem limited to particular geographical locations.
You and I may think that the annunciation story — and feast days — are hardly matters to mix with the trinity or the resurrection as articles of belief, but clearly the Armenians who used the last formula quoted above thought that these matters were important and needed to be affirmed as part of the beliefs of the local group. Perhaps this was a 'grass-roots' credal statement.
Whatever the case, we can see that the credal statements of the early Christians were varied, short and concise, lacked sophistication, and were sometimes quite rough-and-ready – group-specific – in what they proclaimed.
Notions grew up over the years that the apostles must have composed a catechetical list of agreed beliefs for the purpose of evangelizing. One myth, eventually written down in the 900s CE, tells how, with all the apostles gathered together ten days after Christ ascended, the Spirit inspired them to draw up a credal statement, to which each one of the twelve made a separate contribution (Kelly 2006 p.3). This statement was labelled the Apostles' Creed.
By the end of the first millennium, it was being adopted widely among Western Christians, who often seemed to have a liking for legends and romantic stories such as this. However, while Rome enormously expanded its prestige and jurisdiction in the West, it was less influential in the East. At the Council of Florence (1438-45 CE), Orthodox Christians firmly rejected the Roman push to use the Apostles' Creed. Marcus Eugenicus (Patriarch of Ephesus) said: "We do not possess and have never seen this creed of the Apostles. If it had ever existed, the book of the Acts would have spoken of it."
Those Christians living in the West were less fortunate, less free. Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457), an Italian academic and cleric, rejected the notion that the apostles composed the Apostles' Creed. He was forced to recant. Bishop Reginald Peacock (St Asaph 1444; Chichester 1450) denied the apostolic authorship of the Apostles' Creed, and rejected 'he descended into hell'. The bishop was forced to resign his see in 1458. (Cfr Kelly 2006, p.5)
G J Voss (1642), a clergyman and academic of the Dutch Church, and James Ussher (1647), the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, espoused the ideas of Valla and Peacock with impunity. By 1850 CE it was generally doubted if anything like the Apostles' Creed had ever existed in NT times, and the claims about its origins were quietly put aside. Thus it is that rather than trying to tie such credal statements to important authority figures, we're better off seeing them as an amalgam of beliefs, perhaps having something of their origins in the grass-roots church.
A declaration of belief(s) became known as a Symbolum (plural: Symbola), and often these were used at Synods and Councils as a way of expressing common convictions. The Symbolum became incorporated into liturgies, especially Baptism and the Eucharist, and that's where we still encounter it. There are many data available to illustrate the evolution of liturgies in Christian communities, and these help us build up a picture of how the Symbola have changed and 'grown' with time.
While Symbola have come and gone over the years, church leaders have always tried to regulate them and make sure that they express Christian beliefs within the theological and philosophical frameworks with which they, the church leaders, are familiar. One wonders why the credal statements in our liturgies are so exhaustive, why so long? Might they be more succinct had they had input from the grass-roots?
Some specifically local Symbola have existed – and probably still do – but the fear of being accused of touting heresies has had the effect of making local people wary of expressing opinions about matters in which the clergy have always been deferred to.
Are things any different nowadays? There are many non-clerics, expert in the fields of theology and philosophy and, in today's climate, not afraid to speak out. Has the time come for the leadership of the body of Christ, in which we all share, to be better spread through the church, particularly as regards what we do and don't believe, and what we can and can't say 'credo' to?
Is it time for the grass-roots to insist on real, not just token, input in such matters, which affect us personally? Are we, the church, prepared to take on the serious task of composing credal statements for use in liturgies? We would need a variety, so the same one wouldn't have to be used all the time. Different ones will be needed for different liturgies, and even for different seasons and occasions – like the Prayers of the Faithful. Would that be a good way to start?
Gabe Lomas, Sydney (submitted to Catholica on 03Aug2011)
What are your thoughts on this commentary?