In 1844 Philip Schaff, a Swiss church historian, to the surprise of his academic colleagues, accepted a position at the German Reformed Seminary in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. At the time the seminary, under the leadership of the Reformed theologian John Nevin, was the center of a movement of renewal within the German Reformed churches in the United States. The Mercersburg Movement, as it came to be known, was an effort to recover “catholic” substance in doctrine and liturgy by returning to the classical sources of Christian faith, chiefly the writings of the Church Fathers. In this undertaking a first-class historian of Christianity was essential and Nevin was able to persuade Schaff to leave his post in Germany to settle in the United States. For a quarter of a century Schaff worked side by side with Nevin at Mercersburg, but in 1870 he moved to Union Theological Seminary in New York City. While at Union he advanced the program of Mercersburg by making available classical texts from the Christian tradition, most notably the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, still the most complete collection of translations of the Church Fathers in English. He also published in three volumes TheCreeds of Christendom (1877), a comprehensive collection of confessional documents from all periods of church history.
Last fall Yale University Press began the publication of a new “Schaff.” Like the original nineteenth-century work, the Yale edition comprises three volumes of documents, but the editors have wisely added a fourth, Credo, a substantive study of the role of creeds, statements of faith, confessions, and other related material over the whole history of Christianity. Jaroslav Pelikan is one of a very small company of scholars—he may be the only one—who would attempt such a task, and the result is a work of keen insight, great learning, and ecumenical generosity, written out of deep devotion to the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” confessed in the Nicene Creed.
Creeds have been and continue to be an integral part of Christian life. “Every Sunday all over the world,” writes Pelikan, “millions and millions of Christians recite or sing (or, at any rate, hear) one or another creed, and most of them have had a creed spoken over them, or by them, at their baptism.” Yet many Christians, especially since the Reformation and in modern times, have voiced reservations about the legitimacy of creeds. Why are creeds necessary? Jesus did not hand on a creed, he only taught the love of God and neighbor. Isn’t the Bible sufficient as a guide to faith and life? What is the relation between the Bible and creeds, i.e., between Scripture and tradition? Aren’t deeds more important than creeds? Don’t creeds make faith into a matter of doctrines and dogmas? Haven’t creeds been instruments of oppression? Why make such a fuss about the ancient creeds when beliefs change over time? Don’t creeds divide rather than unite the Church? Haven’t creeds become obsolete in modern times?
These are only a few of the many topics addressed in Credo. For example, in answer to the question of whether the time for formulating creeds has passed, Pelikan shows that in the past two centuries, national church bodies, denominations, or ecumenical bodies, often stirred by the unprecedented situations in which modern Christians have found themselves, composed new creeds or confessions of faith: a Statement of Faith of the American Baptist Association in 1905; Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States in 1932; Statement of Faith of the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar in 1958; Common Statement of Faith issued by the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches in 1978; Statement of Faith of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines in 1986; and many others.
At the other end of the historical spectrum, in answer to the question of why we should have creeds at all, Pelikan shows that formal confessions of faith arise out of the nature of Christianity and the Holy Scriptures. The religion of the Greeks and the Romans was not creedal; it was an affair of rituals and practices. For Christianity, however, as for Judaism and Islam, each of which has its own form of creed, belief in the one true God and the conviction that God had been revealed in persons and events required that there be “some sort of formula for the confessing of the faith.” Already in the Old Testament there are confessions, most notably the Sh’ma: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4). And in the New Testament, Paul, drawing on the Sh’ma, used the formula: “There is one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:5). It is a small step from the language of the Bible to the words of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty,” or the opening phrase of the Nicene Creed, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”
As is to be expected in a work of this sort, a good part of Credo is devoted to the classical creeds of the early Church and to the theological developments that supported the first confessions of faith. Schaff knew, however, that the making of creeds was not limited to the patristic period; formulas of faith and confessions were composed in medieval times (in both East and West) and especially during the Reformation, which led to a surge of new confessions. So in Credo Pelikan skillfully weaves into his narrative a bewildering array of doctrinal and confessional formulations, including the First Helvetic Confession, the Lateran Creed of 1215, the Orthodox Confession of the Catholic and Apostolic Eastern Church by Peter Mogila, the First Bohemian Confession of 1535 (on which Pelikan wrote his doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago in 1946), the Tridentine Profession of Faith, and the Fourteen Theses of the Old Catholic Union Conference with Greeks and Anglicans of 1874, to name but a few. He even has a paragraph on the creed of Dante in Canto 24 of his Paradiso. After Dante recited his creed (drawing on classical creeds) “the apostolic light” encircled him three times, says Dante, because “the speech I spoke had brought him such delight.”
Although Credo is not a lexicon or an encyclopedia, Pelikan has designed a particularly useful index to creeds and confessions that will endear him to serious students of the history of Christian thought. Using the conception of a “synopticon,” the index created for the Great Books of the Western World, Pelikan coined the term “syndogmaticon.” The synopticon was arranged according to the “great ideas,” and the syndogmaticon is arranged according to the dogmata, the doctrines of the Christian tradition that appear in the various creeds and confessions of faith. With the Nicene Creed as the framework, the index lists the various Christian doctrines under accessible rubrics (such as “became incarnate,” “his kingdom will have no end,” “who spoke through the prophets”) and provides extensive references to creeds and confessions in which the doctrines are expounded.
Finally, lest I leave the impression that Credo is chiefly a work of reference to be dutifully catalogued and placed on a shelf in the library, it should be said that amidst all the historical detail and theological exposition Pelikan has written a vigorous defense of the durability of creedal Christianity, though he never quite puts it that way. For instance, at a key point he cites writers such as Edward Gibbon, Adolf von Harnack, and Matthew Arnold, who believed that “creeds pass” and “no altar standeth whole.” At other points he quotes with approval John Henry Newman saying that “dogma” is the principle of religion, or even Lionel Trilling observing that “when the dogmatic principle in religion is slighted religion goes along for a while on generalized emotion and ethical intention . . . and then loses the force of its impulse, even the essence of its being.”
Drawing on his vast knowledge of the history of Christianity, Pelikan reminds contemporary Christians of a profound truth that many theologians and church leaders in our age have forgotten: Over the Church’s long history the orthodox and creedal form of faith has been the most enduring, the most adaptable, and the most faithful to the Scriptures. In his many books and lectures Jaroslav Pelikan has presented, expounded, and interpreted the great central tradition of Christian doctrine, and it is most fitting that after five decades of scholarship he has now given us a work with the title: I believe.
Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.