Addresses and Statements

SCY Fidelis talk on “THE CREED”

29 Jun 2022

St Joachim’s Parish Hall Lidcombe, 29 June 2022

I. Does it really matter what we believe and profess?

Pope St John Paul II wrote that God has placed in our hearts a desire to know the truth, and that faith and reason are the two wings by which we reach it in contemplation.[1] In the 2012 superhero film, The Avengers, Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) says “These guys come from legend, Captain. They’re basically gods.” To which Captain America (played by Chris Evans) responds, “There’s only one God ma’am, and I’m pretty sure He doesn’t dress like that.” But does it really matter who our gods are? Well, if you believe in a god of love, or a god who merely issues orders, or a god who’s not interested; if you profess a good god, a bad god, multiple gods, or no god at all; if you believe the universe was created by a benign god, or a hateful god, or by merely random, natural forces; if you profess that human beings are made for thriving in this life and the next, or that they have no purpose and are doomed to die full-stop… these things will condition how you perceive reality, and yourself and your world, who you relate to and how, how you lean into hard things and easy, what you aspire to and commit to and do. So what you believe really matters.

Our topic this evening is ‘The Creed’ or ‘Profession of Faith’, on which I refer you to Part 1, section 2 of the Catechism. The word comes from the Latin Credo, meaningI believe, and refers to an official summary of belief.[2] There were proto-creeds doing the rounds from very early in Christianity. Matthew reports Simon-Peter’s profession near Caesarea-Philippi, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:13-17; cf. 28:19)[3] and John tells of Martha of Bethany declaring “You are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” (Jn 11:21-27)[4] The early Christians were are told that it’s not enough to believe inwardly: they must be prepared to confess that “Jesus is Lord” in public (1Cor 12:3; Rom 1:0; Heb 5:12). Paul himself declares: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, was buried in accordance with the Scriptures, and was raised on the third day also in accordance with the Scriptures” (1Cor 15:3-6; cf. Rom 1:1-6; 1Tim 3:15-16). Such mini-creeds affirmed shared beliefs “received from the apostles” and provided a “common language of faith”.[5]

II. The Creed

Why do we still recite the creed in our liturgies and devotions such as the Rosary? Well, together with what we might call their pedagogical or proclamatory function, there is also the reality that words have a sacred character in our faith. God creates through His word (Gen 1), sends his Word in Jesus Christ to heal and redeem us (Jn 1) and so “word us up” about building His kingdom. Our Profession of Faith on Sunday is a kind of cosmic bridge, between the liturgy of the Word and the Eucharistic sacrament, between past and present, between the earthly and heavenly realms, between diverse people united in a shared belief in the Triune God.

The Catechism unpacks the Catholic faith using the skeleton of the Apostles’ Creed, while also drawing upon the more detailed Nicene Creed. The Apostles’ Creed is the crystallisation of the ‘Old Roman Creed’ which authorities such as St Ambrose of Milan thought the twelve apostles themselves composed, reciting in turn one article each.[6] This Regula Fidei (Rule of Faith) or ‘Canon of the truth’ listed the ‘non-negotiables’ of the orthodox faith and helped distinguish it from its phony counterparts.[7] So, too, the formula agreed to at the ecumenical Councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) attempted to unite a divided Church and resolve disputes about the persons of God. In an interrogatory form they were used in the examination of catechumens at Baptism and in a declaratory form they had both liturgical and apologetic functions.

The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds are strikingly similar in their content but also in their ‘triadic’ structure. In the remainder of this short talk I will chart the contours of these three segments.

III. “I believe in one Lord God, the Father Almighty”

The opening chapter on God the Father is what we might call the metaphysical principle of our faith, simply that ‘God is’ and that He is one (Ex 3:14). When we recite the words “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, visible and invisible”, we are making an absolute claim about reality: that the one God is the source of all existence, and that this God is the same One who revealed Himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as Being.[8] Importantly, this God is not simply some abstract principle out there, disinterested and distant, but one who we recognise with a name as relational and intimate as ‘Father’. That our faith uses familial language as the first title for God is noteworthy for how to best understand Him.

In his boundless love, God creates the human person in his own image and likeness (Gen 1:27) and, as such, the human person occupies a unique place in creation. Called to be friendship with God, the human person co-creates with God and multiplies creation acting also as God’s stewards of creation. Following humanity’s first sin—replacing trust in God with trust in self—humanity’s relationship with God moves from mirror image to disobedient autonomy. This sets the framework for the recapitulation of our relationship with God which will be the subject of salvation history.

As a loving Father, God reveals Himself and His attributes to His children and allows them to participate in these. So in just a few words we therefore profess him as ‘Father’ within the Trinity and Creation, especially of the Son who in Jesus is His greatest creation; as Being, Almighty, and Creator; and as source of the missions of the Son and the Spirit. This language of realism and relationality reflects the chief attributes in which we participate: his being, truth, goodness and love.[9]

IV. “I believe in one Lord God, Jesus Christ, the Only Son of the Father”

Chapter two of the Creed turns its attention to the second Person of God, Jesus Christ, a name which means God saves and God’s anointed. In a few words we profess that the Father fulfilled His promises to the patriarchs of old by sending His Son;[10] that in Jesus the God who transcends creation joined it as a creature; that the God who is Lord of history entered it as a subject of history; and that the God who is pure spirit took human flesh.[11] The reason is explicitly ‘for our sake and for our salvation’: the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection are so we may more perfectly know, love and serve God, receiving “grace upon grace” to do so,[12] and being conformed to Him in this life and united with Him for all eternity.

The Creed underlines that Jesus is fully divine—the Only-begotten of God, Son from the divine Father, God from God, Light from Light, Truth from Truth, Being from pure Being, the One who created and saved us, who descended from and ascended to heaven, who is seated in divine glory as our eternal king and judge.

The Creed equally insists that Jesus is fully human—a man, enfleshed, with a human mother, at a particular time and place (“under Pontius Pilate”[13]), who was tortured and executed, suffering a ”real death”,[14] before being resurrected but still in the flesh.

But to say that Jesus was Son of God and Son of Man, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin, is to insist that there is a single subject—the Second Person of the Trinity—of whom we affirm both human and divine things. There is nothing truly human or truly divine that He lacks. This was debated for centuries, sometimes bitterly, and it took the great Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon to finally settle these matters. This is why words like ‘true God from true God’ and ‘homousios’ or ‘consubstantial’ are so important: they are resolutions, in a word or two, of some very complex and theologically important debates.   

Having said something about who He is, this chapter moves on to what Christ does. He came “for us men” and died “for our salvation”. This death inaugurates a new history between God and humanity, no longer tied to a particular race and to sacrifices in a particular temple but offered to all and everywhere. Christ’s death suffices to atone for all human sins and to seal a new covenant.[15]

The most perplexing line in the creed is surely that Christ “descended into hell”. It sounds a logical impossibility: hell is separation from God and Christ is God. Yet what is going on here is essentially a reaffirmation that Christ really died—He descended amongst the dead rather than the damned—and that He died to save everyone, not just the people of His day and since, but even those long since dead; He “opens the gates” to all the just, bringing the voice of hope even to the depths of the grave.[16] We also affirm that He rose on the third day, we date it because it was an historical reality, not just wishful thinking, changed understanding or mass hysteria. And unlike the extension of life Jesus gave some who had died during his ministry, the resurrection is an altogether new kind of life, glorious, spiritual, what St Paul calls ‘the man from heaven’ (1Cor 15:35-50).[17] Jesus, as the “first born from the dead” (Col 1:18), is the pattern for our own future life.[18]

V. “I believe in one Lord God, the Holy Spirit, the life-giver”

The final chapter of the Creed deals with the third person of the Holy Trinity. Crucial to our faith is the acknowledgment that the persons of God are distinct but inseparable; none acts independently of the others, let alone at cross-purposes with them. So while we say the Father is “Creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible”, we also say of the Son “through him all things were made” and of the Spirit that he is “the Lord, the giver of life”. And while we say that the Son is the Word, eternally thought, said and sung by the Father and now expressed in time in Jesus Christ, we also profess that the Spirit is the Breath of the Father that sends the Son, that overshadows the Virgin, that conceives the God-man and drives His mission—the same divine Breath that animates human life in the garden of creation (Gen 2:7) and is ever-present in the Scriptures. The Catechism stresses the inextricable relationship between the Son and the Spirit: it is only through the reception of the Holy Spirit that we are able to confess the Lordship of the Son.[19]

Descriptors abound for the Holy Spirit in our Scriptures: titles such as Paraclete, Advocate, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Spirit of Christ, Spirit of Glory, Breath of God; symbols such as fire, cloud and light, dove, God’s hand, finger, love or seal.[20] These underline the nature and mission of the Holy Spirit, creating, redeeming and inspiring with the two other persons of God. From the cross Christ “gives up the Ghost” (the Holy Ghost); at the Resurrection He breathes the Spirit (the Holy Spirit) upon the apostles; and at Pentecost He sends the Spirit to found the Church—a new creation paralleling the first, when the Spirit hovered over the murky wastes.

But the era before the incarnation is called the Age of the Father; and the era of Christ’s Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection is the Age of the Son; ours in the third era, the Age of the Spirit, when the divine life is shared with us, making us into the Church, Christ’s body and the Spirit’s temple, now the site where the mysteries of God are shared and actualised in our lives. It is in the Church that we receive God’s grace through word and sacrament, where our lives as adopted sons and daughters of God through Baptism are nourished, where we bring God’s love to all people, and where the fruits of the Spirit help elevate us to live and love as Christ did. And so the Holy Spirit’s chapter concludes not with recalling that He inspired the prophets of old, but with recalling that He inspires them still in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, in the forgiveness of sins through the sacraments, and in the resurrected life of the saints in the world to come.

The latest census numbers tell us religious affiliation is declining in Australia. Yet the census doesn’t tell us how many people are believers but just don’t want to identify with a particular branch of religion. It doesn’t tell us how often people pray or whether they turn to God when things go South for them. But the latest NCLS research found that one-in-three young people aged 18-34 attend church services at least monthly, compared to a national average of one-in-five. And when they do, they say “I believe in one God, the Father almighty… and so on.” And when they pray they often begin with the Baptismal formula “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”! As we’ve seen, there’s a lot packed into those 10 or 15 words, or our longer creeds and catechisms. But ultimately what they are all about is truth and love, a truth and love that create, redeem and inspire us, give us our identity and mission, give us confidence and hope. I pray you may know the truth and love of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, 1.

[2] CCC, 187.

[3] cf. Mk 8:29.

[4] cf. Mt 26:63; Mk 14:61; Lk 4:41; 22:67; Jn 10:24; 20:31.

[5] CCC, 185.

[6] J.N.D Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (Continuum Books: London, 1972), 1. The first time the symbolum apostolorum ‘Apostle’s Creed’ is mentioned is in a correspondence between the Synod of Milan and Pope Siricius (334-399) most probably drafted by the Bishop Ambrose (339-397) . It was Tyrannius Rufinus/Rufinus of Aquileia (344-411) who quotes the story of the each of the Apostles contributing a clause to the creed, 2-3. There is a Greek version of R found in a text of Marcellus of Ancyra (280-374)

[7] See for example Irenaeus  Against Heresies, Book 1, Ch 10. CHURCH FATHERS: Against Heresies, I.10 (St. Irenaeus) (  or in his Epideixis 3 and 6. Tertullain also speaks of the ’rule’ in his De Praescriptone Ch 13. See Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, 85-87.

[8] CCC 201-205.

[9] CCC 210-221

[10] CCC 422.

[11] CCC 423; Jn 1:14.

[12] CCC 423.

[13] CCC 571-573.

[14] CCC 627.

[15] CCC 613-615.

[16] CCC 635- 637.

[17] CCC 646.

[18] CCC 658.

[19] CCC 690.

[20] CCC 691-701.