Table Talk: What is your usual response when someone asks you the very general question, “What do you believe?” – does it make a difference if the questioner is a believer, or a not-yet-believer, or if you don’t know?
[“Table Talk” is an opening question or topic for discussion at the beginning of our time together. The intent is to help group members (around tables, with four to six at each table) build connections with each other, as well as to guide thinking in a direction related to the passage.]
Our first discussion about the Apostles’ Creed began by comparing past experiences with creeds in church. Some members of our group have a Roman Catholic background, and they remembered reciting the Creed every week and being required to memorize it. Others had little or no exposure to creeds. Some with a background in a conservative denomination had learned that creeds were unnecessary at best, maybe even dangerous. One person mentioned being unable to say the words “holy catholic church.” So we start with a wonderfully diverse background when it comes to Christian creeds. (For more introductory background about creeds, see the article “Christian Creeds – A Brief Introduction” and “Christian Creeds – Suggested Reading” under the Blogs menu on www.goodnotsafe.com ).
The first question that came from the group, not surprisingly, was for a definition: What is a creed? The first word in Latin, credo, is “I believe.” A creed is an affirmation of what a person believes. Most creeds, such as the Apostles’ Creed which is the focus of this discussion group, are brief. They are summaries of belief. As one person in the group said, a creed hits the high points, it provides an outline of the main things to remember.
Our discussion about creeds generally followed three aspects:
Examining Our Faith
Ever since the first century, there have been divergent understandings of who Jesus was and what He did. The creeds were and are intended to define the essence of Christian belief, the core or kernel of the faith. Sincere Christians may disagree about the exact mode of baptism or the best form of church government. However, when someone (in AD 100 or today) suggests that Jesus was not actually human or that the Holy Spirit is an impersonal influence or force, we sense that a boundary has been crossed, that we are no longer within the limits of genuine Christianity. Creeds define those boundaries. Listening to a sermon, or reading a book, or studying the Bible on our own often provides opportunities for new ideas. The creeds give us a filter for a first-pass evaluation: How does this thought fit into what the Christians have believed and affirmed since the beginning of the church? We can, as Dorothy L. Sayers suggested, “Stick to the Creeds:”
I have made it my practice to “stick to the Creeds,” using them as a kind of peg to pin down interpretations of, or speculations about, the Gospel. I have tried to avoid vague ramblings and roamings into general ethics, historical pictures, emotionalism and “religious experience”; to test all exercises of “private judgment” by whether they do or do not conform to the Creeds; and to use the Creeds as a check upon unbalanced presentments of the nature of God and Christ, and upon the over-emphasising of isolated texts.
Cults or other aberrant forms of belief often begin with the excesses Sayers warns about, and the creeds provide a way to evaluate unorthodox interpretations or practices. Paul warned Timothy that “evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:14). His exhortation to the young pastor: “You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of” (2 Timothy 3:15). Creeds remind us of the core of our faith, the things we have become convinced of.
Explaining Our Faith
The creeds (and specifically the Apostles’ Creed, or simply, the Creed) provide an outline of the faith that is both brief and broad. In Christian education or in evangelism, the Creed displays Christian belief “in its fullness and yet in the shortest words, as free as possible from everything accidental, as far as possible purified from every ambiguity, as definite as it is possible for faith to be.” As one member of our discussion suggested, having in mind an outline, like the Creed, can bring “clarity into chaos” as we are explaining the faith to a new believer or a not-yet-believer.
In explaining the faith to someone who is confused or skeptical, it is helpful to think about (preferably to think about ahead of time!) the questions: What did the Creed leave out? What did the Creed put in? Those questions can help direct the conversation toward the most essential aspects of what it means to be a Christian, to “a version of the faith that has stood the test of time and demonstrated its robust strength time and time again.”  Other questions may come up (evolution, morality, etc.), and those will eventually need to be addressed. It is important for both the Christian and the not-yet-Christian to avoid confusing Christian orthodoxy with a particular political agenda. “Since the last decade or two of the twentieth century, both the religious-political right and the religious-political left have identified various cultural values with Christian beliefs, making it difficult for churched and nonchurched alike to distinguish between Christian doctrine and cultural conviction.”  Having the Creed as a framework for your thinking will keep the focus on what is and what is not the heart of the Gospel.
Experiencing Our Faith
The Creed is not merely a theological summary. Learning and thinking about the truths it contains can provide reminders of how we are to live out that theology. In our discussion, several practical uses were mentioned, such as the centrality of forgiveness, both God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others, and the reality of a coming judgment. The very structure of the Creed reminds us of God’s Triune nature, as we will see in future discussions. As the Creed becomes more and more a part of our thinking, it will shape our attitudes. “The creeds do not merely summarize doctrine but also issue an invitation to explore further the work and wonder of the God who is known to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The creeds propel us to open our Bibles and to read and reflect upon them in greater depth, so that we might know God better and be equipped to walk the path he has marked out for us.”
The Creed can contribute to our spiritual formation in a variety of ways. Memorizing the Creed and using it daily in a devotional time (as well as more often during the day) is a great starting point. Some churches use the Creed as a part of their weekly worship service. Other options would be to include the Creed whenever the church celebrates Communion or baptism. Affirming the Creed together could be a part of the recognition of new members in the church. The Creed provides a way to affirm our common faith whenever we have the opportunity.
With so many positive aspects of the Creed, what could possibly go wrong? Our group considered possible problems.
Substitute for Scripture?
The first concern that came up in our discussion concerned the Creed replacing the Bible. The intention of the Creed from the very beginning (probably before AD 200) was to clarify, not replace Scripture. As mentioned in the quotation earlier, the Creed should whet our appetite for deeper Bible study. As one person in our group said, “Why am I supposed to believe this?” The amazing affirmations in the Creed can stir our curiosity to find more detail and more explanation in Scripture. (One possible problem is that those affirmations have become so familiar that they no longer amaze us.)
Another common concern about the Creed applies to any memorized liturgy or prayer. Persons in our group from a more formal church background remembered reciting words of the Creed with little or no meaning, just a weekly rote exercise. That is a genuine danger. Speaking from personal experience, I use the Creed regularly in my Quiet Time. There are times when I finish the Creed and can hardly remember if I said it. But there are other times when a particular phrase or even a word in the Creed arrests my attention and draws me into worship. As one member of our group commented, even the rote repetition has value in embedding truth in our minds and in our hearts: “It’s in there, and it can come to life.”
Repeated routine can be a problem, but so can continuous innovation or novelty. C. S. Lewis found continual change and “improvement” detracted from his worship:
A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping. … A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the question “What on earth is he up to now?” will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, “I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.”
We may not want the same degree of regularity Lewis proposed, but he does have a point. Routine numbs, but novelty can distract. The worship Lewis describes usually happens somewhere between those extremes. Our attention is so drawn to God that we hardly notice how it happens. (My comments at this point in our discussion led to an interesting conflict of opinion – nothing new in our group. One person objected that rather than a distraction, novelty is necessary to get people’s attention and bring them to the worship service. That comment raised a larger question of the purpose of a worship service and what determines the activities it includes. That important discussion will have to wait for another day.)
One of the benefits of using the Creed regularly is the very routine and the repetition. In addition to the depth of the content of the Creed, there is value in repeating the same words that Christians around the world have used for centuries to affirm our common faith. That repetition helps avoid the danger Lewis described as “sliding away from ‘the faith once given’ into a phantom called ‘my religion.’”
Catholic or catholic?
The question of language raises another concern about the Creed, at least in the traditional form that includes the phrase “the holy catholic church.” People from various backgrounds, some Roman Catholic, some from Baptist or non-denominational upbringing, struggle with those words. But catholic is not Catholic. The lower case “c” makes a difference. The word means “universal” or “general” or even “global.” Affirming the Creed and including our commitment to the church all over the world and all through history is important, especially for us western Christians. We too often have little awareness of the ancient church or of the condition of the modern church in much of the third world. Affirming the holy catholic (little c) church is a regular reminder that our faith extends far beyond “my religion.” J. I. Packer makes a case for retaining the word catholic in the Creed:
For example, many evangelical churches that recite the Apostles’ Creed have altered “I believe … in the holy catholic Church” to read “holy Christian Church” or “holy universal Church.” Such a choice can easily be defended, of course, by appeal to cultural sensitivities and by a desire for clarity over confusion. But other evangelical churches have determined that the word catholic is a beautiful term that captures and communicates more than “universal” does, and something beyond what “Christian” does, in this context. They further recognize that this ancient word actually predates the distinctions between the Eastern and Western churches, or between Protestants and Roman Catholics. And so, with the help of sound and sustained teaching, they retain the term in their recitation of the Creed.
Belief and Doubt
We also discussed doubt. The Creed (credo, “I believe”) is a way to affirm what we believe, what we have become convinced of (2 Timothy 3:15). But what do we do with doubt? We affirm the Creed, and we do believe what we say, but so often our actions don’t quite reflect that belief. And what about reason? Are belief and reason mutually exclusive?
Our group was certain that reason contributes to faith. But sometimes we still have the reality of doubt. C. S. Lewis relates faith, reason, and doubt:
I was assuming that if the human mind once accepts a thing as true it will automatically go on regarding it as true, until some real reason for reconsidering it turns up. In fact, I was assuming that the human mind is completely ruled by reason. But that is not so. For example, my reason is perfectly convinced by good evidence that anaesthetics do not smother me and that properly trained surgeons do not start operating until I am unconscious. But that does not alter the fact that when they have me down on the table and clap their horrible mask over my face, a mere childish panic begins inside me. I start thinking I am going to choke, and I am afraid they will start cutting me up before I am properly under. In other words, I lose my faith in anaesthetics. It is not reason that is taking away my faith: on the contrary, my faith is based on reason. It is my imagination and emotions. The battle is between faith and reason on one side and emotion and imagination on the other.
David also experienced that battle between faith and reason united on one side, based on his confidence in the Lord, and the effect his immediate circumstances had on his emotions and imagination:
21 Blessed is the Lord,
for he has been wondrous in His kindness to me
in the city that is besieged.
22 I had said in my panic,
“I am cut off from before your eyes.”
But in truth you heard the sound of my supplications
when I cried to you.
Most English translations have “I said in my alarm” in verse 22. The Jewish translation I was using in my Quiet Time used the word “panic,” just as Lewis described his experience. Panic, not reason, is the source of most of our doubts. Affirming the Creed regularly reminds us what we truly believe and fortifies us in times of panic.
We actually did spend some time (probably not enough) in Scripture during our discussion. Not wanting to take anything for granted, we considered what “I believe” means. Finding a passage in the Bible about belief is not difficult. We looked at Mark 9:14-29, where a desperate father brings his afflicted son to Jesus and the disciples for help. This passage includes the familiar phrase, “I believe, help my unbelief” (v. 24). Our group made several comments about the episode. The father came first to the disciples and then to Jesus. He asked for help. He recognized and admitted the limits of his faith. He depended on Jesus even for his faith.
There is at least one other example of belief in this passage. “When he saw Him, immediately the spirit threw him [the boy] into a convulsion” (v. 20). As James assured us, “the demons believe, and shudder” (James 2:19). The spirit “believed” in the sense that it acknowledged the facts about Jesus. The father’s belief was different. He recognized the facts as best as he knew them, and he acted in dependence on Jesus as a result. Perhaps that can be our goal in studying the Creed. How can we understand our faith in ways that increase our dependence on the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? May the next weeks accomplish that in the participants in our group.
 Dorothy Sayers, quoted in Laura K. Simmons, Creed without Chaos: Exploring Theology in the Writings of Dorothy L. Sayers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2005), 16.
 Karl Barth, Credo (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2005), KINDLE Edition Location 214.
 Michael F. Bird, What Christians Ought to Believe (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016), 219; KINDLE Edition location 3680.
 Laura K. Simmons, Creed without Chaos: Exploring Theology in the Writings of Dorothy L. Sayers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2005), 165-166.
 Michael F. Bird, What Christians Ought to Believe (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016), 41-42.
 C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1964), 4-5; Kindle Edition, First Mariner Books, 2012, Locations 44-51.
 C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1964), 11; Kindle Edition, First Mariner Books, 2012, Location 124.
 Gary Parrett, J.I. Packer. Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2010), Kindle Electronic Edition: Location 347-351.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 138-139; Kindle Edition location 1781.
 Psalm 31:21-22, Tehellim: The Book of Psalms with an Interlinear Translation (Brooklyn, New York: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 2014), 79.