Jaroslav Pelikan —
The Need for Creeds

The idea of reciting an unchanging creed sounds suspicious to modern ears. But the late, great historian Jaroslav Pelikan illuminated ancient tradition in order to enliven faith in the present and the future. He insisted that strong statements of belief will be necessary if pluralism in the 21st century is to thrive. We take in his moving, provocative perspective on our enduring need for creeds.

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was professor of history at Yale University for four decades. He authored many books Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine and Credo.

Pertinent Posts

What happens when an opportunity to trace an interesting story intersects with the rebroadcast of a popular program? Producer Colleen Scheck tells her story.

Selected Readings

A Personal Memoir: Fragments of a Scholar's Autobiography

Repeatedly in recent years, members of my family have been urging me to write a full-length autobiography. I have resisted these suggestions. I tried nonetheless to address this proposal when I accepted the invitation to write a "middle-sized book" that "could amount to a kind of autobiography in small bites."

The Will to Believe and the Need for Creed

An address presented in 2003 in conjunction with a performance, "Concert of Credo Settings in Honor of Jaroslav Pelikan," performed earlier that day by the Yale Schola Cantorum, the Yale Russian Chorus, and the Hellenic College Schola Cantora of Brookline, Massachusetts.

The Nicene Creed

Used in both the East and the West, the Nicene Creed is a statement of faith that provides the basis for unity among Christians, including Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Calvinist and many other Christians. The creed was established as part of the eucharistic liturgy during the 5th century. In the Eastern church, the creed is also used at baptisms.

The Maasai Creed

The Maasai Creed is a creed composed in about 1960 by Western Christian missionaries for the Maasai, an indigenous African tribe of semi-nomadic people located primarily in Kenya and northern Tanzania. The creed attempts to express the essentials of the Christian faith within the Maasai culture.

About the Image

Christian Orthodox worshippers hold their heads up as a ray of light comes through a skylight in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's old city during the 'Holy Fire' ceremony on the eve of the Orthodox Easter. Believers hold that the fire is miraculously sent from heaven to ignite candles held by the Greek Orthodox patriarch in an annual rite dating back to the 4th century that symbolises the resurrection of Jesus.

Photo by Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images

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Jaroslav Pelikan and Krista Tippett agree that the Masai Creed is somehow more "authentic" than the Nazi Christian creed, even though they admit they can't explain how. That's because it isn't. If one can believe on faith that Jesus was God, one can likewise believe on faith that he wasn't a Jew. Faith implies a willingness to disregard evidence (as Pelikan clearly displays by asserting that Jesus sacrificed himself intentionally to save the world, despite the clear contrary evidence of his question, "My god, why have you forsaken me?")

It may be objected that the Nazi spirit was clearly different because they committed atrocities in the name of Nazism. But so have Christians, in the name of Christianity. Most Christians haven't, but then neither did most Nazis. Training to believe absurdities is no guarantee that one will commit atrocities, but it helps pave the way.

There is no reality but reality, and the senses are its messengers.

I enjoyed the scholarship and reflection of Jaroslav Pelikan on the history and meaning of creeds. This long view - both historical and in his own life is instructive and comforting to me. The comments that dismiss his views seem narcissistic as much of modern culture does to me - so I guess that doesn't surprise me. Thank you for bringing his voice to speak in my ears.

Yours is as fitting a comment with which to open the responses to this program, as it would also have been to close them with . Though it is important to note that religious faith goes far beyond implying a willingness to disregard evidence. Flying in the face of reason and disregarding evidence, the contrary, scientific, sort that bludgeons religious faith at every juncture, is its very lifeblood.

As is glaringly displayed in this, as blithely Orwellian as ever, program where the spawning of creeds is desperately massaged into something positive. Where in reality it is merely the balkanization of Bronze Age superstitious supernatural balderdash setting off centuries of internecine bickering. Which in turn brings to mind Sayre's law: "In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake."

As someone who was raised as a Roman Catholic and knows quite well the history of Constantine's conversion to Christianity, I was very offended by your guest speaker's characterization of Constantine as spreading Christianity and white culture "like wildfire" as a sort of gift to the rest of the world. I was also disappointed that Ms. Tippet didn't call him on this misrepresentation and remind him--amidst his fulminations about the greatness of the Nicene Creed--that Constantine spread Christianity by force. The occupants of the places Constantine conquered didn't have the option of continuing to worship their own deities or using their artistic talents to glorify those deities. Please put the comments about Bach's music being "the greatest the world has to offer" in that context.

The program today, Peligan on the need for Creed, is the first time I heard, on SOF, anything positive said about Roman Catholicism and Vatican II. Is the Roman Catholic faith less worthy of your time and examination? Maybe I missed a program or two. Can you list any programs the examine Catholic belief in a positive light.

Dear Krista,
As a Quaker I love mystery and the search for meaning in silence. Creeds are like barriers to listening to God. How can we listen when we are always talking? Why was St Augustine so afraid of silence?
Creeds clearly define the in group and the out groups in the history of the church. The hierarchy absolutely depend on creeds to maintain its power.

I am much more likely to judge a spiritual community by what their piety leads them to do to help transform a world filled with poverty, war and terrorism (both domestic and international). Words are cheap but, as Jesus said, we shall be known by our actions.

Harold Confer

Your guest, Jaroslav Pelican, wasn't precise in his translation of the Apostle John's gospel, "In the beginning was the Word," etc, because there are two words for 'word' in Greek, "ha rhema," the spoken word, and "ho logos," the recorded word. It's not 'ha rhema' which is God, but 'ho logos.' Man wasn't created in the image of this God until about 6,000 years ago when he too began to record the word. I'd translate "ho logos" in John as 'the Code,' because the etymology of 'code' specifies the Latin 'codex' which is what you get when you cut down a tree, slice off the top of the trunk, and then use it as a tablet to engrave writing upon. So it means the same thing 'ho logos' means in Greek.

I appreciate all of the scholarship that Dr. Pelikan contributed on the subject of creeds, but I didn't hear much on the broadcast about the potential power of the creeds to divide people. What of those who find merit in the example that Jesus lived, but ultimately can't come to believe, by faith or otherwise, the virgin birth, the resurrection or any kind of final judgment. In this era of freedom, reason and choice, creeds can drive wedges between faiths that may share common beliefs about the importance of deeds or whose beliefs may be more alike than they are different. Creeds can create fertile ground for that often administered but rarely discussed sacrament; the sacrament of exclusion.

There is nothing wrong with exclusion. In the end some of us are going to be excluded from God's presence.

A creed is the statement of belief of a group, of you don't believe it then you are not part of that group. Some groups of Christians believe things that are slightly different., most of these differences still keep s believer as the majority of Christians believe. some well then you may not be s Christian, which in America is alright we will let you believe.

Just remember even though God loves all off us, in the end the sheep and the goats will be separated.

I really, really appreciated the interview with Jaroslav Pelikan on this week's program. What a wonderful man: A great scholar with a big heart and a wonderful sense of humor! This was a shot in the arm for a former pastor's husband who has really struggled with his faith over the past couple of years for a variety of reasons. Interestingly, one of the few sources of comfort for me in terms of faith has been Russian liturgical music. Without understanding the words, I have been soothed and elevated by the sacred music of Rachmaninoff and Gretchaninov. I now intend to look into Orthodox Christianity as embraced by Dr. Pelikan.

Thanks so much for this particular program and for your excellent work on Public Radio!

Pelikan was a disappointment. I realize it's now November but this is when I was able to find a quite moment and catch up on SoF. I listened to the uncut version. It came across like Pelikan is just saying words, as if he doesn't mean anything he says. I had to go and listen to Tolle and read Rumi to clean my palate.

I really enjoyed the broadcast which features Jaroslav Pelikan because he reinstated that creeds bring together today's Christians with early followers who first celebrated Christianity. Creeds also affirm our beliefs when we have ups and downs in our life because it clarifies that God and His Son will help us get through the difficult times. There really is a need for creeds because there is a creed that can relate to any walk of life, celebrations and death, and with reciting them we must remember that God is with us day in and day out. Creeds help separate Christianity and any other religion. It is not a simple saying, but while expressing each creed we are stating are devotional belief in God.

Creeds have helped move Christianity into where it is today because it unites its members and gives us all something that we can contribute, as one, to. By stating such phrases as "We believe in one God" we, as a community, continue to strengthen our beliefs as one. I feel that by expressing these creeds we can develop a stronger relationship with God because I feel that each time we express this we are showing complete gratitude to our Creator. Creeds become just as beautiful as music, symbols or any other physical object relating to Christianity because it simply strengths our own beliefs and makes us understand our religion a bit more. Pelikan points out that many Christians in today's world are not comfortable with past creeds, but I feel that we should be priviledged to express our love toward God, I also think that creeds should be continued because of their historical contentt, we will continue to wear crosses or read scriptures and I feel that expressing creeds aloud and together as a community can only strengthen us.

I would like to challenge Christian churches today who have mostly side-lined the matter of healing from their efforts to live as a Christian, appa-rently leaving it up to the medical profession alone to fulfill that task, and in fact making it almost mandatory to do so.

Clearly healing was one of the primary instructions for us to do from Jesus, along with other matters which Christian churches do work mightily to address, like spreading the word of God and giving to the poor.

A young minister in a Protestant church I recently attended asked the youngers in the children's ser-mon what Jesus did for the people when he was a-live. They dutifully described everything except healing and raising the dead!

Why is that no longer a part of Christianity? (Is the Apostle's Creed, which also leaves that out, partly to blame?)

Though creeds, as Pelikan states, are beneficial for universality of the faith, I personally do not think that having one creed that crosses all time and cultural boundaries has much merit. I think this way because, seeing as a creed is presented in response to clarifying what proper belief looks like, each set of times and cultures may need clarifying in different ways. Also on the same topic, creeds would need to be translated into different languages and, as we have seen in bible translations, some languages may not define the word quite as it was originally understood in the original language. On the other hand, Christianity is the only world religion that has many creeds, so maybe the making of new creeds is not the answer. Although a unified creed for all time and all of the worldwide church would be nice, there are already many creeds and some may not represent the Christian faith as well as others. A creed must be in response to an issue or argument that is against what the church believes to be true, so in order to draw the line in the sand there must be a creed must be in place. To eliminate the vast number of creeds one could reword or retranslate an already constructed creed, but it would be better to write a new one to ensure alinement with what the church also believes and what the Bible states. To farther the importance of the revamping or the recreating of creeds is to answer the question of "who do you say I am?" as Jesus asks over and over again. People though time and culture will always confuse or create hereditary believe by answering Jesus' question without alining it to what the Bible says or what the Church believes. In a way the Church must be proactive in adjusting their creedal statements to avoid possible culturally provoked heretical beliefs. As Pelikan stated "the 'you say' in that question is the culture in which we live". By this statement Pelikan is saying that Jesus' question must be answered again and again by the Church because culture is continuously changing.

Pelikan's views on plurality are wonderful, but it's hard to hear him dismiss Islam as intolerant is difficult for me (...if we are too wait for Muslims to embrace this tolerance, "...we'd better fasten our seatbelts."). There are millions of Muslims worldwide whose ability to reconcile the truth of their beliefs with a respect for the dignity of contrasting beliefs. What limits a person's ability to dignify belief s/he does not share are poverty, lack of education, political oppression and injustice and poor mental health. We have seen many Christian terrorists, and somehow we don't implicate their religion as a factor in their actions. Pelikan may be a great thinker, but he falls down here. On this point he is as myopic as many of his less thoughtful and enlightened coreligionists can be in their lesser moments.

I think you misunderstood his point. He noted that Islam is not inherently intolerant, citing historical examples of Christians and Jews who were free to confess their faith under Muslim rule. Pelikan's point was that we need to be careful about how we advance arguments in favor of tolerance. If we argue for tolerance because "no one can really be sure he is right", we will alienate committed believers of any tradition. Pelikan's point, using the example of "Dignitatis Humanae", is that there is a more effective argument for tolerance, rooted in the firm belief in the inherent dignity of every person created by God.

Very inspiring radio show with Krista Tippet today, April 27th.

Here is a poem I wrote inspired by today's interview with Jaroslav Pelikan.


“The only alternative to tradition is bad tradition”
-- Jaroslav Pelikan, heard over Krista Tippett’s “On Being”, WNYC

She learned a love song when she was little
In a language that she hardly knew
O she would sing it as if she wrote it
And she made each word sound true.

One day her lover asked her a question
About the language that she hardly knew
She could not answer, and so she left him
But returned with words she knew.

You’ll find that couple singing their love song,
In the language that only they know
But all their children sing like that couple
In a language that they hardly know.


I enjoy listening to Ms. Tippett and her guests, it is a very calming program. The comments made make one think. She has a pleasant, genial, manner, that's non-confrontational, and yet, asks probing questions. Even if I might disagree with some of the views presented, she tries to maintain a balanced discussion. For example with the last show on "Creeds". My continued best wishes to her and her show and family. As a Roman Catholic, who often has issues with his church, it is nice to hear different points of view and faith is a ongoing process, as many times we're tested by events, both personally and in the larger world view. Thanks.

Highly, highly enlightening! Thank you,

I appreciate On Being hosting some points of view that Krista and probably most of her audience flatly disagree with. I find those conversations a lot more interesting than the ones where nothing contentious is said. I'd enjoy them even more if Krista would be a little less reticent to express her own point of view and get into her disagreements with her guest, although I understand that that's not the role she intends to fill for On Being.

just a great, informative inspiring interview!

Read, reread and listen and it is both wonderful and maddening covering the texts of some of the comments. What a lot of Catholic bashers, 'recovering Catholics', Post Vatican II mummers, women as priests, same sex marriage etc., don't get is what Pelikan so brilliantly displayed in his disquisition; and, that is that a prayer, any prayer, the Creed, the Sh'ma is an intensely personal private experience and whether or not it is the Our Father, a daily Amidah, or the recitation of the Ten Commandments[which were first given to a Man and not to an ethnic group du jour] it is a personal thing not a social thing; it is a statement of 'Creed' all of it. You are the poor one; you are the lonely one, you are the 'naked'. The constant socialist claptrap Post Vatican II buffoonery of Secular Liberal Atheist Humanists masquerading as Priests and Clerics has given us the silliness that somehow Yeshua Mashiac was actually Che Guevara in camouflage without an AK47, that the Sermon on the Mount was about 'redistribution of income' and that the Beatitudes were actually the ACA. All of this has reduced religion and especially the eternal truths of the Catholic Church to so much sterile political diatribe and heresy: a Catholic looks like a Baptist, looks like a Mormon, looks like a Presbyterian, looks like an Anglican?, looks like a Methodist, looks like the latest representative of a heavenly 'The Wage and Price Control Board'. Yes the Creed excludes; I do not want to be identified with the Muslims [violent Monists their protestations not with standing] no more than I want to be identified with Buhddists [?sp?]or than I agree with homosexuals who are damned when they "ARE" that. All of your faith, all of your religion, all of the utterances of the Ten Commandments are about what you "ARE" in actuality not in potentiality. What you are in actuality is what damns you or is instrumental in saving you. What you are in actuality is either a 'Man the Redeemer' or a Man the Damned', nothing more and certainly nothing less. When a Man engages himself in an act that is a parody of creation whether it be that between a Man and a Woman, or falsely swearing to what he knows is not true, or even to tell the truth to which he knows truly is to harm and destroy rather to help build-up and correct he is engaged in sin and not that of kadosh [being holy- set aside]. The Creed of a large body of Messianic Jews [Christians] goes to that position. It is exclusionist out of respect for 'the name' of God [do not take His name for vanity]and for fellow believers. To all of those who engage this socialist claptrap I wish they would go away and stick their heads in the latest edition of Das Kapital and choke to death from the boredom, or come back out gasping for air and the promise for life that He who made us promised each one of us individually, through Moshe' the greatest Prophet after Jesus Christ, Yehsua Mashiac who is our Rabbi.

I'm awestruck with Krista Tippit's conversation with Karen Armstrong! Having been in a religious community for 37 years and now out for 20, I can hardly believe the new revelations this conversation has brought to me. Convent living did attempt to snuff out living "with doubt" when wrestling with how God was really integral to my self understanding....and an increasing number of emotional health issues we were told to ignore. I've read several of Karen's books and intend to revisit them soon. Thanks for this reminder.