By Corinne Winter
Each Sunday and solemnity, after the homily at Mass, we stand to pray the Creed. It is a prayer by which we both praise God by recounting God’s wonderful actions in the world, and bear witness to one another as we confess the faith that brings us together in Christ. It is also a prayer with which we are so familiar that we may fail to think about its significance.
We may think of the Creed primarily as a link to the past and as a recitation of beliefs that are unchanged over the centuries. Indeed, its history goes back to the earliest centuries of the church. It expresses the faith that we have received from the apostles. Its history is not simply one of being passed down unchanged.
Creeds, fundamentally the same in content but varied in wording, developed in diverse local churches as each community sought to pass on the faith and bring new members into the church. Credal formulas were used during the preparation of catechumens. They also became part of the baptismal rite, often in the question and answer form that has been restored in the current baptismal rite. The creed that is associated with catechetical and baptismal practice is the Apostles’ Creed.
During the 4th century, as bishops gathered to address widespread threats to the unity of the faith, they formulated a creed that has become known as the Nicene Creed because it is associated with the Council of Nicaea (325), although the version we use today also reflects the work of councils at Constantinople (381) and at Chalcedon (451). That creed is the one usually used during the Mass, although use of the Apostles’ Creed is also an option. When we compare the two, we find the same basic content.
The Nicene Creed seems more formal, reflecting the fact that the bishops sought very precise language in order to rule out heretical interpretations. For example, they described Christ as “consubstantial” (Greek homoousios) with the Father because some were teaching that he was less than or subordinate to the Father. Recitation of the Nicene Creed during the eucharistic liturgy became a custom beginning in the 6th century as a sign that the community and the presider were in communion with the Catholic Church.
Later councils of the church did not make major changes to the wording of the Creed used at Mass or during baptism (we have experienced some minor changes in the translation used there). However, many councils did issue “creeds” intended for the instruction of the faithful as to the correct understanding of the church’s doctrine. One can find on line, for example, creeds from the 4th Lateran Council (1215), the Council of Lyons (1274) and Vatican I (1870).
These conciliar documents, as well as commentaries on the Creed by theologians, popes and bishops of nearly every century from the 5th to the 21st illustrate the dynamic power of the faith that is expressed in the creeds. The faith to which we are called by the creeds is defined by the acknowledgement of the awesome mystery of God who acts lovingly in history from creation through the work of Christ and of the Holy Spirit in the world to our ultimate destiny in “life everlasting.” The constancy of our faith is sustained by ongoing efforts to express, explain and act upon our beliefs. Our unity in faith is supported both by common consent to dogma and by our sharing of diverse perspectives on its meaning for our lives.
Part Two of the Catechism of the Catholic Church follows the Apostles’ Creed as a summary of the teachings to which we are called to be faithful. The introduction to that section of the Catechism includes the statement that “To say the Credo with faith is to enter into communion with God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and also with the whole church which transmits the faith to us and in whose midst we believe (CCC 197.)”
Given the role of the creed(s) in the life of the church and of each believer, it seems appropriate to reflect together on what it tells us of God and of our relationship with God. Over the coming months, this column will be dedicated to a brief exploration of the articles of the creed.
(Corinne Winter is a professor-emerita of St. Ambrose University, Davenport.)