Credo

I come from a tradition that is skeptical of creeds. “No creed but the New Testament” is a popular saying among my people (Church of the Brethren). This is further nuanced in more theologically educated circles by adding something like “as read and understood in community.” Some take a “plain sense” approach, that the text itself speaks certain truths that are not open to multiple interpretations. Others are more open to look for deeper meanings and further enlightenment by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Some are more comfortable with dissent within the community and others would like to see more discipline. Tensions similar to these are ubiquitous across many different communities within American denominationalism.

At best, creeds are ecumenical, seeking to unite communities in common belief. At worst, they are exclusionary, used as litmus tests to define who is in and who is out. As liturgical affirmations, they can be repeated from rote memory without putting much thought into their deeper meanings. Along similar lines, they can emphasize stating belief over living belief, words over action. Another reason for creedal skepticism is that creeds tend to accommodate “worldly philosophy,” in a sense demystifying faith into rational formulas. Some even see them as denying the continued revelation of God. There is also the more complicated stream of thought coming from the Radical Reformation of getting back to the roots of the Christian faith, before the influence of Constantine and the eventual marriage of church and state. For all of these theological and sociological reasons, and a few others that don’t immediately come to mind, the sectarian forbears of my tradition strongly disliked creeds (the Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession being the closest thing to a creedal formula).

There is a sense that these arguments exist with or without creeds. There are ways to seek unity and exclude without holding to a specific creedal affirmation (the ban [excommunication]). Brethren often have adopted patterns reinforced by “that’s the way it’s always been done.” Different camps both affirm and deny the place of “worldly philosophy,” the role of mysticism, openness to continued revelation, and particular understandings of the authority of scripture. The battle lines are often drawn in ways that defy analysis. Some may just enjoy their own brand of sectarianism.

I carry quite a bit of ecclesiological angst into my theological writing. This is partly because Brethren tend to do theology in a deliberative way, aiming toward a kind of fluid communal consensus with accommodations for individual conscience, while somehow valuing discipline. One way to describe this is that we value relationship and community more than agreement on specific theological points (one definition of creed), even when relating and communing are more than a little bit painful.

This has been quite a long preface to the main concept of this post and what I have been aiming for in my own theological reflection, a good starting place that gets deep into the essence of what theology is. It seems to me that theology starts with Credo, some statement of belief, which is why an individual committing to write his own theology is more than a bit un-Brethren (or even an individual committing to represent the tradition in theological writing). The best that I might say is that I am an individual seeking to write theology, who happens to have a Brethren background.

In the context of the Nicene Creed, Credo (Latin translation of the Greek Πιστεύομεν [pisteuomen], we believe) has some pretty deep meaning that we seem to miss in English translation (especially with the common liturgical I believe). Interesting to note a similar Greek word πίστις (pistis), faith. Also interesting to note the root as part of epistemology (the study of knowledge). The concepts of faith, belief, and knowledge all have a pretty close relationship with one another and may not be as distinct as we often think. Other ideas like trust, submission, surrender, Gelassenheit (a good Anabaptist term for spiritual yieldedness), all seem to fall under the blanket of Credo as an essentially communal affirmation.

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