Every Sunday millions of Christians recite the creed. Some sleepwalk through it thinking of other things, some puzzle over the strange language, some find offense in what it seems to say. Perhaps few of them fully appreciate what a remarkable thing they are doing. Would they keep on doing it if they grasped how different it made them in today's world? Would they keep on saying these words if they really knew what they implied?

In a world that celebrates individuality, they are actually doing something together. In an age that avoids commitment, they pledge themselves to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, they use words written by others long ago. In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, they claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, they accept, preserve, and continue tradition. Reciting the creed at worship is thus a countercultural act.

This quietly dramatic behavior deserves our attention. It is worthwhile pondering what sort of thing the creed is and what Christians are doing when they say it. Four terms have been used for the creed, each pointing to a distinctive aspect. The profession of faith points to the way the creed provides a statement of personal and communal commitment. The rule of faith points to the way the creed provides a statement of measure or norm for Christian identity, particularly how Christians should read their sacred writings and how they should live. The definition of faith points to the way the creed provides the boundaries of Christian belief and therefore of the Christian community. Finally, the symbol of faith points to the way the creed provides a sign of reception and membership, and a way of affirming the community's shared story. (Each of these terms is examined in much greater detail in my book.)

But the creed is more than a set of propositions to be analyzed. It is, above all, a script that is performed every week by millions of Christians throughout the world, as a part of worship. What the creed is goes with what it does as an element in worship. The creed performs five distinct but interrelated functions for the Christian community in worship and in its life beyond that context: it narrates the Christian myth, interprets Scripture, constructs a world, guides Christian practices, and prepares the Christian people for worship.

The Creed Narrates the Christian Myth
The creed does not propose a philosophy of life but tells a story with characters and a plot. It is a story about God and the world, about God's investment in humans and their future. The fact that Christian belief is embedded in the story says more than any philosophy could about the Christian commitment to the world—visible and invisible—as created by God.

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It starts with God's creation and ends in the future life. But the heart of the story is the birth, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the Son of God, who shared our humanity and transformed it by that sharing. When Christians recite the creed on Sunday morning, they tell themselves and each other a story that they already know but that bears such constant repetition, for it is a story unlike any other, a story that we must speak to each other because so much of what we experience in the world seems to deny the reality or the power of that story.

The story told by the creed is not myth in the sense of "made up" or "untrue." Myth is language seeking to express a truth about the world and humans that lies beyond what we can test and prove. It tells how God has entered the human story, or, perhaps better, how God has enabled humans to enter God's own community of life. Because Christians tell this story over and over, they know at a very deep level the answers to the three questions asked by every religion and philosophy of life: Where do you come from? We come from God, are created by God. Who are you? We are God's children through Jesus his Son. Where are you going? We hope to share in God's eternal life.

The Creed Interprets Scripture
The creed does not dictate how Scripture is to be read in all its richness and diversity, but it provides an epitome or summary that guides and directs the proper reading of Scripture. Apart from the few places where it uses terms from ancient philosophy, it draws all its language from Scripture. The story told by the creed is itself drawn from the great story line of Scripture. It omits great portions of Scripture, to be sure. It focuses on the birth of Jesus and his death and resurrection, which means that the focus is really on soteriology, the way in which humans have been saved through God's work in Christ.

That this is less than a full or adequate representation of the scriptural witness is clear. Nevertheless, the creed provides a guide for the correct understanding of the heart of Scripture and its overall intent. Any reading of Scripture that has it teaching of multiple gods or the equality of evil with good, or that Jesus was not fully human, or a sectarian view of the church, is, by the measure of the creed, a false reading. The creed unobtrusively but effectively supplies the Christian people with the code for understanding its sacred text.

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The Creed Constructs a World
Those reciting the creed thereby construct a world based on the Christian myth and Scripture. The world is not simply given to us, so that its nature and meaning is self-evident. It is constantly under construction by us as we give meaning to it. To be sure, those building the world this way deny that they are the builders. They see themselves rather as describing the world that has been "given" to all by nature or God.

Only when we are exposed to other people's dramatically different understandings of reality do we begin to perceive that "the world" is a more malleable place than we had thought. Others understand the world in quite different terms. Thus, to claim—and to live by the claim—that our world is one that is being created by the one God who makes everything that exists is to make a claim that competes with other claims.

Not every construction of the world can be true. God either creates all that is, or God doesn't. But humans are not in a position to adjudicate between competing world constructions. Contemporary Christians—who have been brought to this awareness more sharply than in any previous age—recognize that their world is not everybody's world. The world as constructed by Hinduism or Confucianism is simply not the same world that is constructed by the Bible and the Christian creed. Christians must acknowledge, furthermore, that they cannot demonstrate the superiority of their world to that of others. They must, therefore, live in the tension inherent in what has been called the "post-modern condition": they affirm the truth of the world as expressed in the creed even as they know that other creeds construct other worlds that are just as believable—just as "livable"—as the Christians'.

Not least plausible among such competing worlds—and most pertinent to those Christians reciting their creed on a Sunday morning—is that constructed by the competing creed of capitalistic commerce. It defines the world not in terms of gift but in terms of possession, not in terms of cooperation but in terms of competition, not in terms of life-for-others but in terms of winner-take-all. The world constructed by commerce is all the more plausible because it actually runs things outside the church—even on Sunday. It is a world that even the Christians reciting the creed carry within their minds and often their hearts for the six days and twenty-three hours each week that they are not in church.

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When believers stand together in the liturgy after the readings from Scripture and recite the words of the Christian creed, they affirm that the world as imagined by Scripture and constructed by the creed is the world in. which they choose to live. They construct this world together by imagining together the world that the creed imagines. When they say the creed together, Christians explicitly articulate their vision of the world and at the same time implicitly reject other visions of reality. They choose to live their lives in adherence to these claims about reality, and none other.

The Creed Guides Christian Practices
Because the creed constructs the world as one created by God the Father, saved by Jesus Christ his Son, and given life by the Holy Spirit, it also supports and guides the practices of the Christian community. It does not prescribe a full set of Christian practices. It does not tell Christians how to pray or to act in the world. But it does establish the right belief (orthodoxy) that lets us recognize right practice (orthopraxy). By providing an epitome of Scripture, the creed provides a bridge between the complex witnesses of Scripture and the moral lives of believers.

An obvious example is the way in which the confession of one all-powerful God as the maker of all things, visible and invisible, shapes our practices. At the level of piety, the perception of existence as a gift given moment by moment by an unseen power generates in us a sense of awe and wonder, of receptivity and thanksgiving.

At the level of politics, this same perception encourages a use of the world that is noninvasive, nonmanipulative, nondestructive. If God is equally and always the source of the smallest and the grandest creatures, of the infinite expanses of space as well as the minutest nuclear particles, then humans cannot arrogate to themselves what must always remain God's sovereignty over God's creation. They cannot narcissistically assume that God's prodigious energies are expended only for them and for their benefit, or that the special care that God has shown them in the gift of his Son exhausts God's capacity to care for all creation in God's own time and manner. They cannot, therefore, destroy God's earth for their own pleasure and profit and power in utter disregard of other creatures, as though creation was their possession to do with as they pleased rather than the precious gift of God that is given equally to all that exists and that is never removed from God's power or care. Precisely such convictions lie behind the Christian concern for the sanctity of life, the honoring of the body, the ecology of the universe, the sharing of possessions.

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In similar fashion, our profession of "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church" argues against any attitude or practice that would favor one of these qualities against the others. A practice in the church that led to disunity rather than unity, that tended to exclude rather than include, that had no roots in Scripture or tradition, and that failed to distinguish the church from the way of the world must be regarded as unacceptable. How much more coherent Christian identity and practice would be if it were consistently held to such a test.

In short, the creed helps create each week an actively committed people, prepared to enter together into the mystery that shapes and nourishes its common life.

Excerpted from The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters by Luke Timothy Johnson. Published by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. Copyright 2003 by Luke Timothy Johnson. Reprinted with permission.

Related Elsewhere

Luke Timothy Johnson's The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters is this month's selection for CT's Editor's Bookshelf. Elsewhere on our site you can:

Read a review of The Creed
Read an extended interview with author Luke Timothy Johnson
Buy the book online