June 7, 2004
Defenders of the Creed
Martin E. Marty
In Cappadocia, Istanbul, and Ephesus two weeks ago, we visited the sites (ancient "Asia Minor") where Christian creeds were shaped. On a pleasure trip with friends, I did not work hard enough to claim a tax deduction, but I did work some. Having had an excuse this spring to brush up on "The Cappadocian Fathers" and ancient creeds and councils, I presented a post-breakfast talk and filled in some theological comment as our remarkable guide showed us the sites.
Upon return, I read Peter Steinfels's article on creeds and councils (New York Times, June 5), a succinct defense in a time when it is presumed that creeds are a turn-off. Thanks to, or no thanks to, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, which gets everything wrong, the councils are seen by millions today as nothing but corrupt power grabs by emperors. The creeds are understood to be irrelevant, repressive clampings-down by villains and stupefiers.
Not so, or not simply so, responds Luke Timothy Johnson in his fine The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters, the book that occasioned and informed Steinfels's piece. Johnson deserves a hearing, not only among Christians but among those who want to understand them. For Johnson, these ancient statements of faith, still voiced, if not always understood, by a billion Christians, are empowering and provide a "clear and communal sense of identity" in our culture where New Age Gnostic spirituality and anti-creedalism reign.
Johnson and Steinfels give reasons why the latter should not have the field utterly to themselves. Johnson sees the creeds not as signs of submission but acts of subversion. I'd supplement Johnson and Steinfels by noting that anti-creedalism usually issues in another form of creedalism. Tell me you are "spiritual but not religious;" that you are reading gospels that say you are God, or God is in you, or you are in God; and that "vibrations," "connections," and "energies" in the universe should be the focus of your ultimate concern; and I can an outline "your" creed as clearly as you can grasp the Nicene Creed. At least, Johnson shows why the creeds need a fresh hearing today.
[It would be churlish of me not to mention that close friend Sedef O'Connell of Chicago and Istanbul (email@example.com) set up and co-guided our visit, and gave us a life-affirming experience. Visiting Turkey was a fulfillment of a decades-old dream for a church historian and roamer. The sites (and sights) are stunning, the people welcoming and generous. I recommend the experience. Warmly.]