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What's the Point of Creeds? | Peter Kreeft | From Fundamentals of the Faith
I remember vividly how deeply moved I was as a young
Protestant to hear how one of the Catholic martyrs died: scratching in the sand
with his own blood the words of the creed, "Credo...."( "I believe").
My heart was moved, but my head did not yet understand. What
do these Catholics see in their creeds anyway? How can a set of words be worth
dying for? Why have wars been fought over a word? What's the point of creeds?
Then I read Dorothy Sayers' little masterpiece Creed or
Chaos?, and I was answered.
The question can be answered by remembering another
question, the one Pilate asked Christ in another life-or-death situation: "What
And that is the point of the creeds: truth. In fact, Primal
Truth, the truth about God. That is why the words of the Creed are sacred
words. Just as God's material houses are sacred, so are his verbal houses. Of
course God is no more confined to words, even the sacred words of creeds, than
he is confined to the sacred buildings of tent or temple, church or cathedral.
But both are holy, set apart, sacred. "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord
thy God in vain."
Faith has two dimensions: the objective and the subjective.
Creeds express these two dimensions: "I believe in God. " There is an I, a
believing subject, and there is God, the object of belief. There is the
psychology of believing, which is something in us, and there is the theology of
belief, which is the Truth believed. There is the eye, and there is the light.
And woe to him who mistakes the one for the other.
When the Church formulated her creeds, humanity was more
interested in the light than in the eye. God providentially arranged for the
great creeds of the Church to be formulated in ages that cared passionately
about objective truth. By modern standards, they ignored the subjective,
psychological dimension of faith.
But we moderns fall into the opposite and far worse extreme:
we are so interested in the subject that we often forget or even scorn the
object. Psychology has become our new religion, as Paul Vitz and Kirk
Kilpatrick have both so brilliantly shown.
Yet it's the object, not the subjective act, of faith that
makes the creeds sacred. They are sacred because Truth is sacred, not because
believing is sacred. Creeds do not say merely what we believe, but what is.
Creeds wake us from our dreams and prejudices into objective reality. Creeds do
not confine us in little cages, as the modern world thinks; creeds free us into
the outdoors, into the real world where the winds of heaven whip around our
What is the object, the Truth? Saint Thomas says that the
primary object of faith is not words and statements but God himself. "We
believe in God." Further, as Christians we know God most fully in Christ, God
incarnate, and as Catholics we know Christ through Holy Mother Church and her
When human reason raved, in the Arian heresy, that Christ
could not possibly be both fully human and fully divine, Athanasius stood
against the world; today we know Christ as he really is because of Athanasius
and his creed.
When contemporary forms of the same heresy water down the
strong meat" of Christ, the Church again braves the media, the mouth of the
world, and calmly thunders the full truth about Christ. True, it is Christ
rather than words that is the primary object of the Christian's faith, but what
Christ? Here words are crucial.
Two extremes must be avoided: intellectualism and
anti-intellectualism, worshipping the words and scorning the words. If the
ancient mind tended to the former extreme, the modern mind certainly tends to
the latter. Both errors are deadly.
Intellectualism misses the core of faith, both objectively
and subjectively. Objectively, the core of faith is God, who is a Person, not a
concept. Subjectively, the core of faith is the will, not the intellect. Though
informed by the intellect, it is the will that freely chooses to believe.
Faith is not the relation between an intellect and an idea,
but the relation between an I and a Thou. That is why faith makes the
difference between heaven and hell. God does not send you to hell for flunking
his theology exam but for willingly divorcing from him.
Anti-intellectualism also misses the core of faith, both
objectively and subjectively. Objectively, because its faith has no object. It
calls faith an experience ("the faith experience") — a term never used by our Lord, Scripture, the creeds, or the
popes. Modern people are constantly saying, "Have faith!" But faith in what or
whom? They often mean "have faith in faith. " But faith in faith in what?
Anti-intellectualism is a modern reaction against the modern
narrowing of reason to scientific reason. When the ancients and medievals
called man a "rational animal", they did not mean a computerized camera mounted
in an ape. They meant by "reason" understanding, wisdom, insight, and
conscience as well as logical calculation.
Modern thinkers often forget this dimension of man and think
only of reasoning (as in calculating) and feeling. And because they see that
faith is not a matter of reasoning, they conclude that it must be a matter of
feeling. Thus "I believe" comes to mean "I feel and creeds simply have no place.
Faith becomes a "leap" in the dark instead of a leap in the light.
Many of the Church's greatest saints have been doctors of
the Church, theologians, philosophers, intellectuals: Augustine, Anselm,
Aquinas, Bonaventure. Anti-intellectuals like Tatian and Tertullian and Luther
(who called reason "the devil's whore") often die excommunicated, as heretics.
The Church — repeating what Saint Paul said in Romans
1: 19-20 — even teaches as a matter of faith that God's existence can be
known by reason, independent of faith!
The Catholic ideal is the complete person, with a cool head
and a warm heart, a hard head and a soft heart. The mere intellectual has a
cool heart; the anti-intellectual has a hot head. The intellectual has a hard
heart, the anti-intellectual has a soft head. The Church puts the severed parts
in the right order because the Church has the blueprint: Christ (Eph 4:13). The
Church has always had a conservative head and a liberal heart, and the world
has never understood her, just as it never understood Christ.
Creeds are to the head what good works are to the heart:
creeds express truth, the head's food, as good works express love, the heart's
food. Both are sacred.
If there is any doubt about the need for creeds, it can be
settled by fact: the fact that the Church established by Christ, the Church
Christ promised to "guide into all truth", has in fact formulated and taught
The first bishops, the apostles, formulated the Church's
first, shortest, and most important creed, the Apostles' Creed. Whether the
apostles literally wrote it, as tradition says, or whether it was written by
their disciples to preserve the apostles' teaching, in either case it is the
teaching of the apostles. When we recite this creed we speak in unison with
There is a strange notion abroad that creeds oppress,
repress, or suppress people. That is like saying that light or food is
repressive. The practical purpose of the creeds is truth, and truth is light
and food for the soul.
Each of the Church's creeds was written in response to a
heresy, to combat it not by force but by truth, as light combats darkness.
Creeds are "truth in labeling". Those who disbelieve in truth or scorn it, or
who disbelieve in our ability to know it, see creeds as power plays.
The media's hysterical rhetoric about the pope's labeling
Hans Kung's theology as non-Catholic theology is a good example of the world's
utter confusion here. The media conjured up visions of the return of the
Inquisition simply because the pope said, in effect, that Kung's teachings
about Christ should not be confused with the Church's teachings about Christ.
But this reaction should be expected if we remember the words of Christ himself
(read Jn 3:17-21 prayerfully).
The most important creeds were those formulated by the
Church's ecumenical (universal) councils in response to the most important
heresies, the heresies about Christ; and of these the two most important were Chalcedon
and Nicaea. (The Nicene Creed is the one we recite each Sunday at Mass.) The
Church's most recent council, Vatican II, formulated no new creeds and no new
doctrines but applied the old ones to new needs and situations.
The pope called an extraordinary synod of bishops in 1985 in
part to clarify Catholic confusion concerning Vatican II. Anyone who would take
the trouble to read the actual documents (which are much, much longer than
creeds) would see how traditional they are. The "spirit of Vatican II" conjured
by the media and some theologians is a phantom, a ghostlike half-person, with
the fatal split between head and heart, creed and deed, theology and social
action, love of God and love of man, eternal principles and updated
But the pope is a bridge builder, a pontifex; he will patch
what the world has torn. And the blueprint he will follow in doing this will be
the historic, never-abandoned creeds of the Church of Christ.
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Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor
of philosophy at Boston College who has written over forty books, including C.S.
Lewis for the Third Millennium, Fundamentals
of the Faith, Catholic
to Virtue, Three
Approaches to Abortion, and The
Philosophy of Tolkien.
His most recent Ignatius Press books include Socrates
Meets Descartes, You
Can Understand the Bible, The
God Who Loves You, and Because God Is Real:
Sixteen Questions, One Answer.
A complete list of Ignatius Press books
by Kreeft can be viewed on his IgnatiusInsight.com
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