The two best-known creeds of the Western Church are the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. The Nicene Creed dates from 325 and represents the Church’s unified response to an ongoing controversy about the divine nature of Christ. The Apostles’ Creed is harder to date. The earliest extant text dates from the late 700s, but at that time the Church claimed it had been in use for centuries. Phrases from the creed had already appeared in the writings of certain Church Fathers centuries earlier.
The creeds were an attempt to clarify what the church believed about God, in a way that helped ordinary believers understand and articulate their faith. Recitation of the creeds allowed uneducated men and women a chance to participate in the church’s worship. It gave a voice to ordinary believers.
The word “creed” comes from the Latin, “credo,” which means, “I believe.” The Nicene Creed begins with the words, “We believe,” and the Apostles’ Creed with, “I believe.” Whether the people who recited the creeds actually believed them is unclear. Some probably did. For others, the creeds were likely only a string of words put into their mouths by theologian priests.
The creeds are still repeated weekly in churches around the world. Some people understand and firmly believe the truths they recite, but for others the creeds remain enigmatic strings of words put into their mouths by priests and pastors.
The value of the creeds lies in their capacity to educate ordinary believers about the nature of the ongoing story in which they have a part. The creeds also remind believers that they share a faith with people from around the world and across the expanse of time. Additionally, the recitation of creeds provides people with an opportunity to participate in worship rather than merely spectate.
There is, however, a possible downside to the recitation of a creed: people might confess a faith they don’t really share and have never seriously considered. Such solemn confession of what one neither believes nor fully understands happens all the time – for some political appointees, it’s practically a part of the job description. That it also happens in the church is not surprising.
According to the ancient prophets and biblical writers, God knows what is going on inside a person. He is the “heart monitor,” constantly hearing people’s hearts, not just their words. It would be disconcerting – and perhaps frightening – to hear what God hears when the gathered church sings her favorite songs and recites her historic creeds.
The first lines of the Apostles’ Creed run: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord…” If, as people recite those lines, God hears their hearts rather than their voices, what exactly might he hear?
The variations would be endless. Some hearts would surely communicate genuine wonder and praise. The true expression of other hearts might, however, sound like this: “I believe in myself, and in the Dollar almighty, creator of pleasure and satisfaction. And I believe in Convenience, my Lord.”
As the recitation of the creed continued, the assembled worshipers would say: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”
As these words were coming from their mouths, God might hear other beliefs coming from their hearts: “I believe in Technology, the American Dream, the Republican (or Democratic) Party, the toleration of sins, retirement with ample income, and a future without hassles. Amen.”
Long ago, A. W. Tozer wrote: “Compared with our actual thoughts about [God], our credal statements are of little consequence.” This is undoubtedly true. Our actual beliefs determine the trajectory of our lives in a way that formal confessions never do. When what we actually believe diverges from what we say we believe, we will follow our actual beliefs every time.
Can the beliefs of the heart be ascertained? Broadly speaking, yes. According to Jesus, “where your treasure is, there will you heart be also.” That means we will find our heart and its beliefs where our treasure – our money, energy and thought – is invested.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/13/2018