|A Meditation on the Necessity of the Creeds in Our Times
By Byron Harris
We live in an age of etymology. Language feels washed out; there resides a compulsion
to dig out the roots of the words we use. We distrust our own tongues. The habitual
impulse to deconstruct is strong; meaning appears elusive. So we pound out the
definitions, reaching for dictionaries to provide us a sturdy place on which to stand. The
Oxford English Dictionary’s long litany of who said what, how, and when creates a sense
To ponder the word creed compels such an exercise of excavation. The word comes
from the Latin, of course – credo, I believe – echoing the first lines of ancient creeds.
Belief should be foundational; after all, what could be more certain than certainty?
Yet there’s the rub. Denotation is not the final word on words. Unfair perhaps,
but connotations often trump. What real people hear and say overbears whatever the
lexicographers may claim. A home involves more than a house. Cool designates hip more
often than chilly. Multiple meanings hover over bread, bricks, grass, and countless other
For many in our culture, creed amounts to screed. It is for the credulous, and lacks
credibility. It is not so much solid as stolid. The attitude that says spirituality is good,
religion is bad projects creed as an impediment, a blockage, an unreasoning rigidity, the
maw of narrow-minded knuckleheads. This disposition signals our contemporary
capacity to turn things upside-down. Creeds, absent the distortion of the day, should
serve to liberate, to provide clarity, to free ourselves from delusion.
This topsy-turvy confusion subsumes the church. Our church divergent manifests itself
with a closely held suspicion. If two Christians meet across an airplane aisle, waiting in
the grocery checkout line, or watching their children on the soccer field, they do not
draw two lines in the sand forming a fish, the symbol of faith kept secret, evading
Roman persecution. No, in this age, we interrogate one another, pursuing clues as if we
were investigating a crime scene. Like sniffing dogs, we circle trying to discern just what
kind of Christian the other might be. Are they of the left or right, do take their theology
as broth or stew? There is little concern for Methodist, Catholic or Lutheran; views of
the Trinity and Incarnation stand moot; the political metaphor swallows our theological
realities: are they liberal, a conservative, one of us? Once we ascertain this truth of
ideological orientation, then we know how to proceed.
What we need to be after is something altogether different: the smell of the Cross.
Creeds, specifically the Apostles and the Nicene, can be our compasses, our divining
rods. The creeds can save us from endless statements of beliefs that go on for pages.
How can anyone ever get across the depths and complexities of justification, original sin,
or providence without tomes? Yet the creeds somehow encompass the entire gamut of
the faith, contain all the doubts and certitudes, sin and paradox, the grand and holy gift
that is the Christ. If ever one needs proof of the Holy Spirit, the fragile endurance of our
core creeds resound.
Yes, creeds create schism, like a honed blade cutting through an unwieldy knot. But in
doing so, creeds clear a path and open a door. We see one another true. These creeds
give us the way to Christ Crucified, as necessary as air. It is the spine of the faith, the
one extra-biblical thing the church must needs. We can navigate the shoals of Scripture
with a steady helm. When we drift toward disembodiment, cast the crucifixion itself as
metaphor, find ourselves diluting the Good News, the creeds mend the tear. Lit-crit,
queer theory, post-this and post-that cannot invalidate our story. Reverberating through
the ages, these creedal imperatives demand us in service after service to voice–
denotation unbelievable, connotation amazing – this incredible verity: I believe.
Byron Harris is a former assignment
editor at CNN. He holds a Master of
Arts in Theological Studies in Old
Testament from Columbia
Theological Seminary, where he
studied under Walter Brueggeman.
He also holds a Master of Arts in
Teaching English from Agnes Scott
College. Harris owns and operates
Splintered Light Bookstore in
Charlottesville, Va. The store's Web
site is www.splinteredlightbooks.com.