Jaroslav Pelikan — The Need for Creeds
October 22, 2009

For many modern Americans, the very idea of reciting an unchanging creed, composed centuries ago, is troublesome. But, Jaroslav Pelikan, who died on May 13, 2006, was a scholar who devoted his life to exploring the vitality of ancient theology and creeds. He insisted that even modern pluralists need strong statements of belief.

Here, we revisit Krista's 2003 conversation with him, who, then, in his 80th year, had released a historic collection of Christian faith from biblical times to the present and from across the globe. They discuss the history and nature of creeds, and how a fixed creed can be reconciled with an honest, intellectual faith that changes and evolves.

(photo: Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)


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Selected Readings

The Will to Believe and the Need for Creed

by Jaroslav Pelikan

The following address was presented on the evening of December 5, 2003 at Dwight Chapel 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

Modern wording of the original Nicene–Constantinopolitan Creed
325, 381 CE

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.

SoundSeen (our multimedia stories)

Bach's Bible

[audio slideshow, 3:47]
Bach's compositions, Dr. Thomas Rossin says, stemmed from his private faith — a faith evidenced by Bach's handwritten notes in his Bible. Hear about the Bible's nomadic journey and its possible influence of his Mass in B Minor — what Pelikan holds up as an example of the "best we've ever done."

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About the Image

An Armenian Orthodox worshipper reads from the prayer book during a service celebrating The Feast of Theopany, the Armenian Orthodox Christmas at St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in New York City.

(photo: Stephen Chernin/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.

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.

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.

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was professor of History at Yale University. He's written more than 40 books, including his 2003 opus, Credo. His most recent work is Whose Bible Is It? A History of Scriptures Through the Ages.

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