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.
If this title, "The Will to Believe and the Need for Creed," were to be properly documented in accordance with The Chicago Manual of Style, it would bring together a truly "odd couple" of footnotes. For its first member, "The Will to Believe," was the title of lecture that was delivered by William James to the Philosophical Club at Yale (which he, being of course a professor at Harvard, called "your good old orthodox College") and that was first published as an article in the journal New World in June 1896, and then in 1897 as part of a book that has been reprinted several times since then and to which it gave its title. "The Need for Creed," on the other hand, was the headline of an article about a modern rock group, in the Sunday supplement to The New Haven Register (although I had in fact already formulated it on my own well before that article appeared).
Having had the privilege in 1990, while I was preparing my own Gifford Lectures of 1992/1993, Christianity and Classical Culture, of laying a wreath of homage in memory of William James by writing the "Introduction" to the Library of America edition of the Gifford Lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience, I want to use his Yale lecture as a spring board into the one "variety of religious experience" for which (borrowing Adolf von Harnack's pungent metaphor about the theology of his student Karl Barth) William James seems to have "possessed no antenna," perhaps even (if I may presume to suggest this about such a giant as William James) no real understanding: the no less authentically "religious experience" that I am calling here "the need for creed." To cite only one example: "If… we could descend upon our subject from above like Catholic theologians," James opined in Varieties, "with our fixed definitions of man and man's perfection and our positive dogmas about God, we should have an easy time of it." Tell that to Saint Augustine, the Catholic theologian who wrote the Confessions! Or to my late friend Father Alexander Schmemann, who could write in his recently translated Journals:
I become filled with disgust for the role I have been playing for decades … I feel that everybody around me knows what to do and how and what for, but I only pretend to know. In fact, I don't know anything; I am not sure of anything; I am deceiving myself and others. Only when I serve the Liturgy am I not deceitful.
But "the need for creed" entails as well the need for dogma, defined as the official public teaching of community of faith, whose development from the New Testament to the end of the twentieth century I have charted in the five volumes of my history, The Christian Tradition; that was why I entitled the comprehensive doctrinal index I prepared for Creeds and Confessions of Faith "A Comparative Creedal Syndogmaticon." Appropriately, a study subtitled "The Origins of Unbelief in America" bears the dual title, not only Without God, but Without Creed. After all these years of research into it and publication about, I have good reason of course, to be as keenly aware as anyone could be of how unfashionable it is nowadays even to speak about creed, not to mention dogma: "Any stick to bear a dog," the old proverb says, and therefore "Any stigma to beat a dogma."
In "The Will to Believe" William James took off from Blaise Pascal's's celebrated but highly controversial argument du pari, "the argument of wager," in his Pensées:
"Either God is or he is not." But to which view shall we be inclined? Reason cannot decide this question … Yes; but you must wager. There is no choice … Let us weigh up the gain and the loss involved in calling heads that God exists. Let us assess the two cases: if you win you win everything, if you lose you lose nothing. Do not hesitate then; wager that he does exist.
Defining himself in relation to Pascal, James made his own case for the role of individual human volition in shaping religious belief:
My own stake is important enough to give me the right to choose my own form of risk. If religion be true and the evidence for it be still insufficient, I do not wish, by putting your extinguisher upon my nature, … to forfeit my sole chance in life of getting upon the winning side, — that chance depending, of course, on my willingness to run the risk of acting as if my passional need of taking the world religiously might be prophetic and right.
It was on the basis of such statements as this that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a fellow member with William James of "the Metaphysical Club" in Cambridge, devised his posthumous bon mot, witty but cruel, about William James, "His wishes made him turn down the lights so as to give miracle a chance." At the same time, that quotation from "The Will to Believe" is an example of William James's propensity for focusing his attention on the individual in the here and now, at the cost of both of Tradition and of Church. Indeed, in the Gifford Lectures he went on, famously, to define "religion" as "the feeling, act, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves in relation to whatever they may consider the divine." Nevertheless, in at least one passage of "The Will to Believe" he had moved beyond this limitation to acknowledge: "Our faith is faith in some one else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case." That passage, in turn makes a natural transition from "the will to believe" to "the need for creed" and the need for Tradition.
Fundamental to any other consideration of the need for reed and confession of faith is its function as an indispensable key to the living and dynamic reality of the heritage of the faith of Israel in one God, enshrined in the Shema, "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one Lord" (Dt 6.4), which I have called "a monument and a fiery pillar, the primal creed and confession of the Christian church." This is the very first text of the more than two hundred that we have included in Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition; and all the thousands of pages of trinitarian creeds that follow may properly be seen as glosses on it, steadfastly affirming the oneness of God as the nonnegotiable presupposition for everything else, including and especially the dogma of the homoousios at Nicaea and the dogma of the Trinity at Constantinople I and the dogma of the Incarnation at Ephesus and Chalcedon. The Shema is, then, the most ancient of all our creeds — and the most daring, and the most shattering: the affirmation that within and beyond the Tower of Babel of voices in William James's "varieties of religious experience," within and beyond the metaphysical welter of William James's "pluralistic universe," is not the Many but the One; "and underneath are the everlasting arms" (Dt 33.27). It is an affirmation that has never, pace James's condescending phrase, had "an easy time of it." In what Dostoevsky called "the whirlwinds of doubt"; after a personal reprise of the hammer blows in chapter after chapter of the Book of Job; perishing for the faith in the Nazi death camps or Communist gulags; at the senseless death of an infant or in the wake of 9/11 or after the numbing triumph of demonic evil — who could ever, at any period in history, "have an easy time of it" affirming faith or making "God-talk"? But when personal religious faith has exhausted its allotted supply of "the courage to be," when the only Psalm it can remember is not the one that begins "The Lord is my shepherd" (Ps 23.1) but the one immediately preceding it, which begins "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" (Ps 22.1), then, precisely then, we are not thrown on our own individual and feeble resources of believing or speculating or explaining (or even "experiencing"), such as the may be. Rather, though perhaps in a sense that he may not have intended, it is then that the admission of William James comes through and rings true: "Our faith is faith in some one else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case." For then it is time to confess: However much or however little I may be able to believe on my own, existentially, as of this precise moment, I affirm myself to stand, trembling, in the continuity and heritage of that community which has been confessing without interruption for entire millennia, "Shema Yisroel, Adonoi Elohenu, Adonoi Echod; Credo in unum Deum."
The monotheistic faith and creed has been carefully guarded by (each in its own special way) Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — putting them, for now, in chronological order — the three people of the Book, who identify Abraham as, in the words of the New Testament, "the father of all who believe" (Rom 4.11) in the one true God. In the history of each of these three peoples of the Book, both within each community and above all in the history of each in its relations to the other two, however, the monotheistic creed has repeatedly become the text — or the pretext — for violence, coercion, and persecution against those who hold to another creed. Words like "crusade," "pogrom" (which as Slavs need to be reminded is not a Germanic coinage but a Slavic one, from grom, the word for thunder), and "jihad" have entered our vocabulary because of the prevalence of such conflict of creeds; and expectation that the age of such violence had come to an end because of the forces of Enlightenment (whether "Enlightenment" is spelled lowercase or uppercase) has been, quite literally, going up in smoke. For quite understandable reasons, consequently, this clash among creeds has led, in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, to what Claude Welch has labeled "the antidogmatic, antienthusiastic temper of an age tired and disgusted with religious controversies." Toleration among the creeds was and is, for many moderns, rooted in that "antidogmatic," anticreedal, and relativistic temper of the age; and in the presence of any unequivocal affirmation of a creed, therefore, and hope for civil peace and religious toleration is based on the wish that of only "those people" (whoever they may be) could give up their creedal beliefs for a nondogmatic faith, everything would be all right. One of the most powerful and persuasive statements of this case is Gotthold Ephraim Lessings's play of 1779, Nathan the Wise, with the Legend of the Three Rings.
Yet the outlook for the anticreedal and antidogmatic wish is — to use the title of a book published in 1927 by Sigmund Freud for the exact opposite of his authorial intent — "the future of an illusion." For as one of the most sensitive and provocative of the literature interpreters of Freud, Professor Lionel Trilling of Columbia University, pointed out in 1950, in an essay entitled "Wordsworth and the Rabbis"; "It is probably true that when dogmatic principle in religion is slighted, religion goes along for a while on generalized emotion and ethical intention — 'morality touched by emotion' — and then loses the force of its impulse, even the essence of its being. " From quite another direction but at most exactly the same time, in a lecture that he gave on 12 December 1951 at the New Jersey College for Women (now part of Rutgers University) and that I heard him deliver at Saint Louis University, Etienne Gilson of Paris and Toronto, who since my days as a graduate student has been my principal scholarly guide to the intellectual history of the Western Middle Ages, called for a dogmatic basis for tolerance, a doctrine of religious freedom that would be based not on the rejection of creed, but on the affirmation of creed. The catastrophic experience of Europe in the 1930 was, Professor Gilson argued, a cautionary tale about any case for religious toleration that is based on creedal indifference and on the absence of specific belief. For the "will to believe" it so relentless — or, if I may put it this way, so insidious — that when it is denied or frustrated and when religious toleration, instead of being "justified by faith" (Rom 3.28), is justified by non-faith, belief will (in Dostoevsky's phrase) go around the locked doors and sneak in through a window, substituting Wotan for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, and replacing the Shema, and Nicene Creed with the creed of Blut und Erde. "Heartily know," said Emerson: "When half-gods go, / The gods arrive." But unfortunately the movement can go in the opposite direction, too: with the disappearance of the "the gods" or of the One True God, "the half-gods" may arrive, wearing a hammer and sickle or a swastika and bringing in their train a creed that is even more ready to persecute than any of the historic creeds have been.
Etienne Gilson's call for a dogmatic creedal foundation for tolerance had been anticipated, albeit with certainly less of dogma than he would have liked, in England and the Netherlands. But the most ambitious response to it, and the most creedal, was the "Declaration of Religious Freedom of the Second Vatican Council, " Dignitatis humanae, officially issued on 7 December 1965. Dignitatis humanae freely acknowledges, speaking about various of the Christian traditions not excepting its own, that "at times in the life of the people of God, as it has pursued its pilgrimage through the twists and turns of human history, there have been ways of acting hardly in tune with the spirit of the gospel, indeed contrary to it." But over against these "ways of acting," which include the Roman Catholic Inquisition as well as Protestant New England and Orthodox Russia and other examples literally too numerous to mention, the Second Vatican Council promulgated this formula as a binding creedal confession: "The human person has a right to religious freedom. Such freedom consists in this, that all should have such immunity from coercion by individuals, or by groups, or by any human power, that no one should be forced to act against his conscience in religious matters, nor prevented from acting according to his conscience." The case for this freedom is said to be derived from "the dignity of the human person as this is known [first] from the revealed word of God and [second] from reason itself," so that it is not only a teaching of the Church but a universal human right.
But especially at a time like the present, it is salutary to be reminded that of the three monotheisms of the Book, as during Middle Ages they lived side by side in Spain and in the Levant, the most advanced scientifically, the most sophisticated philosophically, and the most tolerant religiously was Islam: the leading systematic exposition of the Eastern Orthodox Christian creed, The Orthodox Faith of Saint John of Damascus, and its counterpart for the Jewish creed, The Guide to the Perplexed of Rabbi Moses Maimonides ("the Rambam"), were both published under the protection of Muslim rulers (and latter in Arabic, in 1190) — not because these Muslims were skeptics or relativists about religious faith and creed, but because they accepted and obeyed the respect for other faiths that their creed and their Holy Book and their God required. As it is written in Surah 29 of the Qur'an,
Do not argue with the people of the Book
unless in a fair way … and say to them:
"We believe what has been sent down to you.
Our God and your God is one,
and to Him we submit." (29.46)
There is no religious imperative more urgent in our own time than the recovery, by each of the three monotheisms, of the need for a creed that will find in such toleration the direct implication not of unfaith, but of what (to employ a standard confessional formula) each community of faith "believes, teaches, and confesses" as divinely revealed truth. For if anyone supposes that a minimal religious toleration and civil peace will have to wait for a billion Muslims to exchange their creed for Western Enlightenment skepticism and relativism, then, as I have been quoted as saying, we had better fasten our safety belts!
The one overriding impression that Valerie Hotchkiss and I have carried away from all these years of examining, selecting, and then editing and translating creeds and confessions of faith from over a span of so many centuries is their pertinacity as a literary and theological genre. Quite counterintuitively, that pertinacity has manifested itself the most dramatically of all not in the fourth century or the sixteenth (both of which certainly produced a great many creeds and confessions of faith), but during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, amid what has been called "the discomfort with creed caused by the consciousness of modernity" and often in those very denominations where we might have least expected it to appear. For example, at least partly because of pressure from other groups for evidence that they really were Christian, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) in 1842 and the Church of Christ, Scientist in 1879 both formulated their distinctive tenets in statements of faith that ended up being much more traditional in their confessional form than they were in their doctrinal content. Similarly, the Society of Friends (Quakers) have been more thorough in eliminating sacraments than in dispensing with creeds, producing from the beginning a spate of confessions leading up to The Richmond Declaration of Faith of 1887. A particularly intriguing example of such persistence in an unexpected context is the formulary adopted by the Unitarian General Convention in 1935, which concludes, "Neither this nor any other statement shall be imposed as a creedal test," but then continues: "provided that the faith thus indicated be professed," which does sound very much like a creedal test. Like The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, an earlier secular consensus issued in 1776 had found it necessary to speak confessionally: "We hold these truths," if affirmed, not "We cannot know anything for sure." Paraphrasing the warning in a fragment attributed to Aristotle about why it is impossible to escape philosophizing: "You say that one must confess one's faith; then you need to confess your faith. You say that one must not confess; to say that, you will need to issue a confession! Either way, creeds and confessions are unavoidable."
One of the most frequently recurring of the modern objection to the need for creed within Christendom is the insistence that there is no need for creed because the authority of church confessions conflict with the authority of Holy Scripture, and Scripture is enough, sola Scriptura. In the challenge of Thomas Campbell, the intellectual founder of the Disciples of Christ, even as he was issuing a set of "propositions" in his Declaration and Address of 1809, "Let none imagine that the subjoined propositions are at all intended as an overture towards a new creed, or standard, for the church… They are merely designed for opening up the way, that we may come fairly and firmly to original ground upon clear and certain premises and take up things just as the apostles left them… disentangled from the accruing embarrassment of intervening ages." But as the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century had already discovered, one of the "accruing embarrassments of the intervening ages" was the question of just what belongs in the Bible in the first place, and therefore of who has the authority to define what belongs in the Bible — in short, the problem of the canon, to which eventually all of the major confessions were obliged to turn. The earliest Protestant confession opens with an attack on "all who say that the gospel is nothing without the approbation of the church"; this seems to be an attack on Saint Augustine, who had declared, in a passage that was repeatedly quoted in the Reformation controversies, "For my part, I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church." For The Scots Confession of 1560, authority in the church is "neither antiquity, usurped title, lineal succession, appointed place, nor the numbers of men approving an error," but "the true preaching of the word of God." But if it is not "the approbation of the church" from which we have received the canon of Scripture for "the true preaching of the word of God," then where did the canon come from? The Confessio Gallica of 1559/1571 answers that question head-on, by frankly invoking an utterly subjective criterion to validate the professedly objective authority of the Bible: "We know these books to be canonical, and the sure rule of our faith, not so much by the common accord and consent of the church, as by the testimony and inward illumination of the Holy Spirit, which enables us to distinguish them from other ecclesiastical books upon which, however useful, we can not base any articles of faith," making it possible, presumably, to use this filter to tell the difference between the canonical Book of Proverbs or Koheleth and the deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom or Sirach.
To affirm a creed as heritage is, then, to make one's own a tradition that has been handed down and passed on. For not only are the creeds themselves part of Tradition; they come out of Tradition and point back to Tradition. That quality of creeds makes itself palpable in the decrees of the seven ecumenical councils of the Church: I Nicaea 325, I Constantinople 381, Ephesus 431, Chalcedon 451, II Constantinople 553, III Constantinople 680-681, II Nicaea 787. Each one reaches forward by first reaching backward to the authority of the Prophets, to the authority of the New Testament, and to the authority of Tradition, especially as this has been articulated by the previous councils, in the summary formula that concludes the ekthesis of the Council of Chalcedon of 451: "just as the [Hebrew] prophets taught from the beginning about him, and as [in the Gospels] the Lord Jesus Christ himself instructed us, and as the creed of the fathers handed it down [traditioned it, paradedoke] to us [as the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Ephesus]." Even when the preceding council, the Council of Ephesus of 431, promulgated what John Henry Newman acknowledged to have been "an addition, greater perhaps than any before or since, to the letter of the primitive faith" by declaring the Virgin Mary to be the Theotokos, "the one who gave birth to God; the Mother of God," the council itself identified this not as an "addition [prostheke]" of what had not been there before, but as an "amplification [plerophoria]" that made explicit what had previously been only implicit.
But because Tradition is living Tradition — nothing I have ever written or said, I suppose, has achieved wider circulation than the epigram in the introduction to The Christian Tradition, "Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living" — the obverse side of this orthodox continuity and creedal fidelity is the creative engagement of creed with each new culture into which it comes. When, in the ninth century, Saints Cyril and Methodius of Thessalonica came from Constantinople to my ancestral "Great Moravia," they did not Hellenize the Slavs, but they Slavicized the liturgy and the gospel; this is why the subtitle of a recent book about them reads "The Acculturation of the Slavs." Among all the hundreds of creeds and confessions in our collection, my favorite illustration of such acculturation is The Masai Creed from East Africa in the 1960s:
We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created man and wanted man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the earth. We have known this High God in the darkness, and now we know him in the light. God promised in the book of his word, the Bible, that he would save the world and all the nations and tribes.
We believe that God made good his promise by sending his Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari, doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing that the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross and died. He lay buried in the grave, but they hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.
We believe that all our sins are forgiven through him. All who have faith in him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love, and share the bread together in love, to announce the good news to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.
The motto underlying this simple and yet profound Masai Creed is: "We must Africanize Christianity, not Christianize Africa."
From what I have already said it will, I hope, be clear that the locus of creed and confession is the believing community, and therefore that an essential component of the need for creed is the need to be situated within that community. As Martin Luther once put it, characteristically, you must do your own believing as you must do your own dying; but when you believe, as when die, you are surrounded by "a cloud of witnesses" (Heb 12.1). And here a textual and grammatical anomaly arises in the most universal of all the creeds in the Christian tradition, the so-called Nicene Creed (which scholars, and probably only scholars, call the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed). As everyone knows, the English word credo — which has even occasionally become the title for a book — comes from the first person singular of the Latin verb credere, "to believe," because, as today's concert has demonstrated in the rich and glorious variety of many languages, the Creed opens with the words "Credo in unum Deum, I believe in one God"; in Greek, too, it is Pisteuo, and in the Church Slavonic tradition in which Igor Stravinsky stood, Veruju — both of these in the first-person singular (or, as a colleague used to call it, "the first-person perpendicular"). But what the Second Ecumenical Council promulgated as its creed at Constantinople in 381 — and, for that matter, also what the First Ecumenical Council had already promulgated as its creed at Nicaea in 325 — both begin with pisteuomen, "We believe." In the East this change from the plural to the singular seems to have taken place because of the use of this creed in the rite of baptism, where both the renunciation of the devil and the affirmation of the faith are individual acts, spoken by the candidate or by the godparents in the name of candidate. In the West, the creed at baptism is the so-called Apostles' Creed, whose original text already had "I believe"; but by the time the West in 589, explaining in so many words that it was following long-standing Eastern liturgical practice, first made the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed a prescribed part of its celebrations of the Mass (though the liturgical practice did not actually become universal in the Western Church until several centuries later), the first-person singular had already been established. As a consequence of the new emphasis on the doctrine of the Church throughout Christendom during the twentieth century, "We believe in one God" has been restored as the wording of the creed in most of the Western denominations that still recite it in their celebrations of the Eucharist. And in view of the well-known sensitivity of Eastern Christendom to any changes in the text of the Creed as the Council originally formulated it, as that sensitivity has expressed itself in the controversies over the addition of "Filioque," the presence of the plural pisteuomen in the original text would appear to have a presumptive claim there, too, at any rate when the Creed is being employed in the Eucharistic liturgy rather than in the baptismal rite. For one of the primary needs for creed is the need to declare the faith together — together with those standing next to us as we worship, together with all those around the world who worship and confess as we do, whatever the language, together with all the generations who have gone before us worshiping and confessing and who, as the faith and hope of the Church affirm, still go on doing so before the face of God together with the holy angels. To quote again from William James, "Our faith is faith in someone else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case."
The reason for this corporate dimension of the need for creed and confession of faith is rooted in the basic nature of creed as liturgical act. It was (perhaps surprisingly for some) John Calvin who said that The Nicene Creed was meant to be sung rather than spoken — presumably so long as those who sang it were not encumbered by too many fancy vestments or enveloped in too much incense. And here it is important to be reminded of the historical philology of the word "orthodoxy." It comes, of course, from the Greek adjective orthos ("straight, correct," as in "orthodontist," one who straightens and corrects teeth) and the Greek noun doxa. Now doxa in Classical Greek basically meant "opinion," so that ortho-doxy means "holding to the correct opinion or doctrine." But quite early on, doxa acquired the more specific meaning of "laudatory opinion" about someone, therefore of "praise." In the Septuagint Greek version of the inaugural vision of the prophet Isaiah, the seraphim sang, "The whole earth is full of his doxa" (Is 6.3 LXX); and in the original Greek of the song of the Bethlehem angels (original to Saint Luke's Gospel, that is, whatever the native tongue of those angels may have been), "Doxa to God in the highest, and on earth peace" (Lk 2.14). Doxa Patri, "Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit," is repeated over and over again in the Liturgy; and for a long time, as the so-called Common Doxology in English hymnody also shows, it was the practice in Western churches to chant it as the concluding verse of every Psalm, not only in the Liturgy but in the canonical Hours.
From that meaning of doxa, "orthodoxy" was construed to mean "the correct way of giving glory." Because the word for "glory" in all the Slavic language is "slava," "ortho-doxy" is translated Pravo-slavie. The Feast of Orthodoxy, observed as part of the Eastern Orthodox calendar on the first Sunday of Lent, was instituted in 843 to celebrate, not correct doctrine or right theology as such, but the restoration of the images to the church's worship after the iconoclastic controversies — therefore "correct worship," which is ultimately inseparable from "correct doctrine. And that, of course, is precisely the point: creed is not in the first instance the business of the professional and learned theological elite; it is meant to be prayed, right alongside the Lord's Prayer, as an act of adoration and worship; and it has been universal experience, far beyond the borders of Christendom, that the best way to preserve genuine spontaneity in the life of prayer is, paradoxically, to formulate fixed and traditional liturgical texts for recitation, on the basis that the spirit of devotion, individual and corporate, can then go on to improvise. In a real sense, therefore, the task also of the theologian in relation to the creed can be summarized in the Latin mottos of the Western religious orders: the Jesuit sentire cum Ecclesia, "to think along with the Church," by first reciting the Church's creed and then, like Bach or Brahms, becoming a faithful virtuoso by improvising "variations on the theme"; and the Dominican contemplata aliis tradere, "to communicate to others the fruit of one's contemplation and study," thus bringing together worship and scholarship while still distinguishing between them. The creed, its text and its history, is and must be the object of intense scholarly study and research, as the volumes of Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition have demonstrated in what, I am sure, is at least sufficient, if not sometimes excessive, detail. But such research is inadequate if it does not come to terms with the full history of the creeds, of which their liturgical context has been an essential part.
But there is perhaps no scandal in the history either of such liturgical worship or of creedal profession that is more pervasive than the disjunction between the orthodox need for creed and the imperative of right action. The most shattering thunderbolts of the Hebrew prophets were reserved for that disjunction:
Has the LORD as great delight in
burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obeying the voice of the LORD?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to hearken than the fat of rams,
Samuel warned (I Sam 15.22). And standing squarely in that prophetic succession, Jesus told the following, altogether rabbinical story: "What do you think? A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' And he answered, 'I will not': but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, 'I go, sir,' but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" (Mr 21.28-31). The "I go, sir" of the second stands for the prescribed formula set down in the orthodox tradition; what follows it, in five monosyllables (at least in English translation), "but he did not go," has been the all too frequent outcome of the orthodox tradition. Therefore the expositors of the orthodox tradition — perhaps the most eloquent and most mordant of them all being Saint John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople — have constantly warned that the outcome and expression of authentic orthodoxy, the second "great commandment," which is "like [the first]" (Mt 22.39), is "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Through the centuries they have gone on warning — and the warning has gone on being needed, though not always heeded.
But that warning, necessary as it is, does not exhaust the meaning of this dimension of the need for creed. For pressed to its depths, the need for creed not only leads to, but actually presupposes, the commandment of love. "A new commandment I give you, that you love one another," Jesus said in his closing discourses (Jn 14:34). And The Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom introduces the changing of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed with the formula: "Let us confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided." It does not say, though that is what reasonably might have been expected, "Let us confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that we may love one another." Rather, to quote Bishop Kallistos Ware's commentary on this portion of the Orthodox Liturgy,
The Creed belongs only to those who live it. This exactly expresses the Orthodox attitude to Tradition. If we do not love one another, we cannot love God; and if we do not love God, we cannot make a true confession of faith and cannot enter into the inner spirit of Tradition, for there is no other way of knowing God than to love him.
That is why although "faith [mentioned first, also as creed, the faith that is confessed, fides quae creditur], hope, love abide, these three, still the greatest of these is love" (I Cor 13.13). That is also why The Masai Creed opens with the confession, "We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it," and why this creed affirms that the purpose of the Incarnation of the Son of God was "showing that the meaning of religion is love," and that the content of Christian life and worship is to "live the rules of love, and share the bread together in love." For, paradoxically, we need creed also to cut creed down to size and to put creed in its proper place: it does "abide," yes, along with hope and love, "but the greatest of these is love." And that, too, is what Church believes, teaches, and confesses by its Creed.
This essay was originally published in Orthodoxy and Western Culture and reprinted with permission of St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.