Mulling my Lenten way through the Apostles’ Creed, I have come to see that in defining what we do not believe, we come to know better what we do believe. While the Creed positively summarizes what Christians believe, it equally fences out what we negatively do not believe. I have been walking the fence line, seeing what there is to see on the other side.
Once we begin sorting through the relatively modest list of things we do believe, we find a hefty pile of things we do not believe. Indeed, we discover that if we were to believe the things the Creed says we do not believe, we would no longer be the Church.
Of the three ecumenical creeds, it is by far the friendliest. The Nicene Creed, more formally the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, was written by a band of theologians to settle a serious theological dispute, and it sounds like it. The language is somewhat ponderous and there’s hardly any poetry to it. “Jesus sings music in the sinner’s ear,” says the old Charles Wesley hymn, but theologians can never quite, you know, catch the rhythm. Still, unlike the Apostle’s and Athanasian creeds, we can date it exactly to 325 AD, with a later amendment in 381 AD. Somebody was taking minutes during the council meetings.
The Athanasian Creed was most definitely not written by Athanasius. Authorship instead seems most likely to fall on Vincent of Lérins (d. 445), largely by inference from his surviving theological writings, and he may have been borrowing themes from Augustine (d. 430). It too is a theological document, heavily precise and containing anathemas. It, too, quite clearly says what it is we do not believe.
But the Apostle’s Creed is a people’s creed. It is a friendly comfort, like a long trusted settled friendship—an uncomplicated confession of faith for basic Christians. It was a very early creed that arose originally as the Old Roman Symbol, a series of questions asked of those being baptized: “Do you believe . . . ?” “I believe . . . .” The questions are still asked of and answered by those being baptized in churches confessing the Creed.
Being a people’s creed, it was based, then, in the experience of catechists and catechumens, coming out of the pastoral needs of the Church of Rome. A line or two was added over time as need, and heresy, required. Rome being Rome, it is no surprise it spread from there.
Where Marcion proposed two gods, the first article says: nope, doesn’t work, there’s just the one—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father who made all creation with the specific intention of including you in it.
Equally, it is a heresy to claim creation is without God. Simply put, we do not believe this is a godless cosmos subject to dumb capacious random futility. Where we are told the universe is a pointless happenstance, the Creed pleads, No. Your life is not an inconsequential accident. Here we meet the Gospel for the first time, the Good News that says you have a welcomed place in creation.
The second article asserts there is a historical reality to Jesus of Nazareth, a “then” and “there” facticity rooted in a time that, in significance, extends to our time and to the future. In short, we do not believe that history is finally unreliable. We say “suffered under Pontius Pilate” and immediately we know pretty closely when Christ was crucified and was raised.
So we have two points of the Gospel right away: The God who made heaven and earth made you, and He has secured Himself to you by the death and resurrection of Christ.
The third article of the Creed says we believe in the Church. You have probably heard the jibe: Jesus Christ preached the kingdom and all he got for it was the Church. It is no secret that the Church of Christ is composed of vexatious, argumentative, and sometimes quarrelsome people. That seems to be something of what Jesus got from the beginning when he took in the likes of Peter, James, and John. He got vexatious, argumentative, quarrelsome people, but each of whom has been—get this—baptized into the Kingdom of God.
Christ’s Church is a pledged community, baptized in Christ. That means the holiness of the Church is lodged not in her own virtues, but solely—here is the Gospel, again—in the call and mercy of God.
In Roman law, this mutual pledge is a sworn sacramentum. God pledges Himself to us and we turn in gratitude to the very love that calls us, pledging ourselves to Him. The Church is a sacramental encounter with Jesus and with what he preached.
So what exactly are we are saying we do not believe when we say “I believe” at the Creed’s third article?
We do not believe, first, that truth is subjective or that reality is malleable. We do not, in brief, believe I am the goal, the summary and summit of my own life. We do not believe that my autonomous self-seeking quest for self-validation is the only thing worthy of my life. We insist upon the truth: “I am pledged in all things first to another who has pledged Himself to me.”
To help me keep faithful to that pledge, God has given me the Holy Spirit and Christ’s Holy Church, here and above, composed of a summoned people linked in baptism for time without end.
Russell E. Saltzman, who writes from Kansas City, Missouri, is also a contributor at Aleteia. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at email@example.com. His previous First Things contributions are here.