Krista's Journal: On the Role of Creeds in Modern Society

May 18, 2006

I first interviewed Jaroslav Pelikan at Yale a decade ago. "Jary" speaks in full paragraphs, his friends said to me. He is considered by many in the universe of Christian scholarship to be one of the greatest minds of his generation. His five-volume opus about Christian tradition is his defining work, and a subject most moderns would not dare to approach in such a comprehensive way.

So I was fascinated when I learned that in his eighth decade, Jaroslav Pelikan had taken on another monumental topic, the history and importance of creeds in the Christian church. He set out to collect a representative sample of Christian creeds from biblical times to the present, and from across the globe. He has written a dense, wide-ranging historical and theological guide to accompany that.

I was pleased, as I delved into this work, that Pelikan acknowledges what a difficult thing creeds can be for modern people. He affirms modern suspicions that the original formulation of creeds had, as one effect, the consolidation of power—both of church authority and of Christian empire. But he insists on capturing a sense of the profound and positive reasons Christianity, alone among the major traditions, seemed to require creeds.

The history of the global spread of Christianity and of the translation of the Bible into now more than 2000 languages, as Pelikan describes it, "is the history of how one sought in a new setting not to speak the same thing but to say the same thing." And creeds meet a deep human need. The singing of a creed is a way of indicating a universality of the faith across space and time, Pelikan says. As he speaks, I realize how his generous sense of space and time helps him internalize the original impulse of creeds and communicate their meaning to the rest of us.

In a lifetime of worship, Pelikan has come to cherish the fact that the creed he recites in ordinary worship is the same one that was sung in the Phillipines that same morning and recited by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century and Thomas Aquinas in the 13th and intoned by his own grandfather in the 20th century. This experience resonates tangibly to the very foundations of his faith. As he says in our interview, "The only alternative to tradition is bad tradition." This is a view unpopular in our age, but worth dwelling on.

As always when I write these newsletter reflections, there's so much I don't have space to dwell on. Pelikan makes compelling observations about what happens when we abandon creeds and how creeds will become more necessary, as our world becomes more pluralistic.

But I'll share one lovely image that has stayed with me. Attempts to make creeds modern and contemporary often seem to lose something in depth and grace. Pelikan compares this, interestingly, to the language of love. We can try to be creative and unconventional, but there aren't terribly many ways to say "I love you." Again and again most of us fall back on those well-worn words and find that they more than suffice.

Having noted that, one of the most poignant moments of the conversation and the program is when Jaroslav Pelikan recites one of the newest creeds he discovered—a creed written by the Masai people of Africa in 1960. They have taken the barebones summaries the great creeds represent and enlivened them with the vocabulary of their lives. Pelikan the great scholar reads this Masai creed, which includes mention of hyenas and safari, with reverent passion and an almost child-like delight.

In the course of our conversation, I told Jaroslav Pelikan of an illulminating image I once received from a scientist, Lyndon Eaves, about the great creeds of the church. He proposed that we think of them as operational hypotheses, the best formulations we have of things we know we can not perfectly comprehend. In response, Jaroslav Pelikan left me with a wonderful statement of St. Augustine. I think about this sometimes in the context of what we're doing with Speaking of Faith. We're putting words around human experiences of ultimate truths and ultimate mysteries, which is quite presumptuous and doomed to imperfection. St. Augustine, apparently, experienced his own theologizing in this way as well. But we resolve to speak of these things nevertheless, he insisted, not in order to say something but in order not to remain altogether silent on matters so important to humanity.

Recommended Reading

Image of Orthodoxy And Western Culture: A Collection of Essays Honoring Jaroslav Pelikan on His Eightieth Birthday
Author: Valerie R. Hotchkiss, Patrick Henry
Publisher: St Vladimirs Seminary Pr (2006)
Binding: Paperback, 231 pages

Orthodoxy and Western Culture is a collection of lively, intellectually satisfying essays by a range of interesting thinkers that commemorated Pelikan's 80th birthday. It includes two succinct essays by Pelikan himself — one autobiographical, one summarizing his reverence for "the will to believe and the need for creeds." If you are interested in who this man was and what he believed — and how his legacy and these ideas continue to resonate in contemporary scholarship and culture — you will appreciate this book.

Pelikan's most recent book, published in 2004 and written in a wonderful narrative style for popular reading, speaks directly to some of our current cultural debates. Whose Bible Is It: A Short History of the Scriptures condenses Pelikan's lifetime of knowledge about how the Hebrew Bible and New Testaments came to be, and the work of interpretation they have always entailed.

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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.