Douglas Dales continues his series on the essentials of the faith with a consideration of the Creeds
TO GO ON A JOURNEY you need a map, preferably one that is well tried and tested. Using it is an act of intelligent and not uncritical faith. But it is imprudent to tear up or ignore a part of it which may not seem to be immediately intelligible. Sometimes it is only when you are in the midst of the landscape it describes that the map makes sense; and in some crises it may rescue you and save your life.
The Creeds function rather like well tried and tested maps for the journey of Christian faith. They define in the sense that they indicate where the boundaries lie, beyond which faith becomes lost. They elucidate the central pattern of interpretation of Scripture and tradition in a way that has been generally believed by Christians everywhere and at all times. As such they occupy a central focus in worship. The Nicene Creed has been reverenced in the eucharist on Sundays and feast-days in both west and east for over a thousand years. In that sense the Creed is an umbilical of orthodoxy, mediating the balanced wholeness of Christian truth to heart and mind throughout a Christian’s pilgrimage. As such its solemn affirmation in divine worship constitutes a potent bond of unity between Christians in all churches, comparable with the acclamation of the gospel or the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
The recitation of the Lord’s Prayer is not some mindless mantra however, but the expression of a relationship of love in prayer. Likewise the Creed is not affirmed in a state of uncritical indoctrination or empty superstition; nor is it simply an antiquated relic of merely symbolic or sentimental importance. In what spirit should the Creed be used and regarded? Here St. Anselm gives an important clue in his famous dictum: ‘fides quaerens intellectum’ – faith seeking understanding. No statement of belief can exhaust the truth which is God, nor can human minds expect ever fully to comprehend God’s nature and being. The essence of Christian belief is that God may truly be apprehended in a personal way to which a personal response of faith and love may be made. As in any human relationship, we may never fully know the person we love; but what we do know should be a secure basis for a genuine relationship. In this respect, the Creed steers our faith, opening doors of trust which in turn deepen loving understanding. Fidelity to the Creed in this spirit ensures that we are never precluded from entering more fully and truly into the mystery of God and his church.
The Creeds constitute the proper framework for Christian thought, worship and evangelism. Clearly belief in one God is the foundation of Christian as well as Jewish and Muslim faith. But this one God is defined first as the Father of Jesus, and only in the light of that as the all-powerful creator. Thus his power is determined by the nature of his love; but his saving love is consistent with his work as creator. As the Fathers used to say: the creator is also the re-creator. All that exists is the expression of his purpose, and while not all that happens is in accordance with his will, nothing in fact occurs that is outside his will and power to redeem and bring to perfection. That has important implications for how we understand the world as we find it, and also for the phenomenon of evil. As Mother Julian glimpsed, the creation is secure because it is held in the hand of God. The creation is also a most powerful mirror of its creator, of his beauty and intelligence and power.
The Nicene Creed lays particular emphasis upon a full and balanced understanding of the person of Christ, for historic reasons which have proved their value on many occasions throughout Christian history. The unity of his person ensures that Christ is regarded as an actual human being in history, not just an exalted symbol of humanity; the unique and eternal nature of his relationship with God as ‘Son’ indicates that in all he was and did God was present and active and self-revealing. As a candle is kindled from another with no diminution of flame, or love is shared among children with no lessening of feeling, so God gives himself in Jesus and so reveals the eternal nature of such self-giving love. This insight in turn becomes the hidden clue to every aspect of creation, and especially of the creation of man even in his fallen existence. Christlike love is the key that will unlock even the gates of hell, as the Apostles’ Creed intimates precisely. The mystery of incarnation and redemption is the uniting of theology and history: the coming of God into human life in a precise and particular way, and the taking of human life into God as well, as the ‘Athanasian Creed’ asserts so eloquently. The creeds stress the human reality of the Incarnation, of the suffering of Jesus, the finality of his death and who was responsible for it in human terms. The ‘descent into hell’ affirms the truth of the Johannine prologue, that ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can neither comprehend it nor quench it’. There is no escape from the presence of God’s love: the ultimate choice for man is to accept it or reject it. The affirmation of the reality of the resurrection of Jesus presupposes the gospel testimonies and also the experience of St. Paul and others in the New Testament. But this belief is not simply about something that manifested itself in history in the past in some mysterious way; it is linked inescapably with the eternal glory of Christ in heaven which impinges upon the Christian present, and with the future hope of the coming kingdom of God. This movement of ascension determines the whole perspective of Christian life. It is a very searching aspect of belief, for it holds out the prospect of divine judgement for all mankind. It asserts by implication the important ethical principle of personal accountability before God for how we live our lives now. In every generation of the church, the communication of this aspect of belief has proved the hardest. Yet on any reading of the New Testament or the writings of Fathers and saints it is urgent and fundamental. In this way the Risen Christ impinges in love and judgement upon the life and witness of the church today.
This occurs by the work of the Holy Spirit who in the words of Jesus ‘will take what is mine and make it known to you’. His work is that of life-giving, as in the beginning, as in the miracles, as in the conception and resurrection of Jesus himself. It is through the sacraments of the church and through the inspired pages of scripture, and through the life-giving lives of saints that the Spirit is particularly sensed and received. It is the work of his grace to restore nature and to transform it into the orbit of divine love. Although the ‘filioque’ remains a sticking-point between east and west the force of belief in the Holy Spirit is not in reality weakened by each emphasis implied: the Spirit flows from the Father, but is mediated to the Church by the Son, supremely through his death on Calvary. The activity of the Spirit accounts for the consistency of revelation communicated through the Bible and the tradition of the Fathers and saints, for in the words of T. S. Eliot, ‘the communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living’. The Creeds conclude by affirming the essential and indivisible unity of the Church, of which individual churches aspire to become more truly a part. The Church has its feet and hands on earth, but its heart and its Head are in heaven; it is an eternal reality, and that may be sensed during its worship, especially at the eucharist. Therefore the Christian past, the traditions and teachings of its saints, is a ‘living past’ in-forming a living present. When we worship and recite this Creed we are part of something much greater than ourselves. We are united with Christians around the world and throughout history in the eternal purpose of God for the world. For the Church does not exist as an end in itself: it is ‘apostolic’ both in its particular historical origins – the Apostles – and in its being sent out and given as a loving witness for the life of mankind. This Mission springs out of the work of Christ in regenerating human beings who will accept God’s forgiveness and live by it. Its goal is no less than their sanctification in this life and for an eternal life in which all that they have become as loving persons in relationship with God and others will be secure and recreated in God’s love for them. This is the true goal of human life and history, individual and corporate; and the Church exists as the sign and path to this goal.
The Nicene Creed in particular (with the Apostles’ Creed) has always been regarded as a touchstone of Anglicanism, from the Reformation to the formulation of the ‘Lambeth Quadrilateral’ a hundred years ago. It has determined a great deal of the liturgical language of the eucharist and remains the surest framework for catechesis at any level. In the end it may best be regarded like a great piece of music, mediating something much greater and more mysterious than the mere words in themselves can fathom. But like such music, it is best not tampered with, adulterated or ignored: it may take a lifetime to master and until that occurs it commands both respect and love and familiarity through regular use in worship.
Douglas Dales is Chaplain and Head of Religious Studies at Marlborough College.