For The Someday Book

Book Review: The Creed

Posted on: September 12, 2015

The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters by Luke Timothy Johnson, Doubleday, 2003, 325 pp.

This is the second of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.

The CreedLuke Timothy Johnson’s work is richest, deepest and most scholarly of the various books about the creeds I have read. All other sources after 2003 refer to his work as foundational. It is also the only resource that focuses on the Nicene Creed more than the Apostles’ Creed.

Johnson begins with more than 60 pages of background on the origins, history and importance of the creed. He provides the most detailed account of the origins of the creeds, beginning with the initial professions of faith that named Jesus as Christ, Lord, Messiah and Son of God. Johnson then offers an extensive but manageable review of the patristic letters and writings that show traces of the creed’s formation and development before explaining the dynamics of the Council of Nicea.

Johnson’s second chapter, “What the Creed Is and What It Does,” was incredibly insightful and helpful in explaining why the creeds matter. His claims answered my inner skeptic and the skeptics in my congregation, and helped me formulate my own response to their importance. He writes,

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 are 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 counter-cultural act. (40-41)

No one of us individually believes as much or as well as all of us do communally. The church always believes more and better than any one of its members. … We choose to stand together under these truths, in the hope that our individual “I believe” someday approaches the strength of the church’s “we believe.” (46)

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. (61)

Johnson divides the creed into six major sections, and writes extensively about each one. He begins by tracing scriptural precedents for each, then offering a theological analysis of every piece of the creed. His Roman Catholicism, traditionalism and orthodoxy shine a little to strongly for me in his outdated critiques of liberation theology, but he surprised me with his insistence that we question all-male God language and recognize all forms of the church as holy and godly.

Many times in the course of the book, he makes a theological claim or description explaining the creed that is simply beautiful. He is able to articulate the importance of these basic theological claims in ways that leave me wanting to affirm them more deeply and more passionately. In his reflection on the resurrection, he writes,

The strong sense of salvation as a participation in God’s life, remember, depends on the strong experience of liberation and power, not as something hoped for in the future, but happening already in present-day lives. The reality of the resurrection was convincing because people acted freely and powerfully through the Holy Spirit. … The greatest miracle supporting the claims of Christians was the transformation of their lives and the creation of transforming communities. (151)

This is but one small example among many, in each section of the Johnson’s writings about the creeds, where he makes the ancient words come alive and reinforces their importance in the Christian life and faith.

The Creed is valuable not only because of the depth of its history, explanation and focus in the Nicene Creed, but because Johnson constructs a beautiful, holistic theology of the Christian faith. While I may disagree from time to time, I learned an enormous amount and my heart was warmed again and again throughout his reflection on the creeds.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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