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The Creeds

March 14, 2014 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


In last week’s column, we laid the groundwork to begin an in-depth exposition of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches that we, as Catholic Christians, are called to believe: the one, true faith we profess in the Creeds of the Church. For it is in the formulas of the Creeds that, “through the centuries, in so many languages, cultures, peoples, and nations, the Church has constantly confessed this one faith, received from the one Lord, transmitted by one Baptism, and grounded in the conviction that all people have only one God and Father” (CCC, n. 172).
Why is this so absolutely essential? Precisely, it is because “communion in faith needs a common language of faith, normative for all and uniting all in the same confession of faith” (CCC, n. 185). In other words, it does not matter in what age, in what culture, in what circumstances and conditions one lives — the faith we profess is one and the same. It is that faith which St. Paul refers to when he says, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, a fourth-century bishop and doctor of the Church, superbly explains this teaching about our faith as summarized in the Creeds: “This synthesis of faith was not made to accord with human opinions, but rather what was of the greatest importance was gathered from all the Scriptures, to present the one teaching of the faith in its entirety. And just as the mustard seed contains a great number of branches in a tiny grain, so too this summary of faith encompassed in a few words the whole knowledge of the true religion contained in the Old and New Testaments” (Catech. illum. 5, 12: PG 33, 521-524, as cited in CCC, n. 186).
Before proceeding, it would be good to define some terms. The word “creed” comes from the Latin credo, which literally means “I believe.” In his Modern Catholic Dictionary, Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, defines credo as a “code of belief” (p. 137). The term creed, then, as applied to the Catholic faith, is a “profession of faith” that summarizes the faith that Christian Catholics hold to. The Catechism goes on to tell us that creeds may also be referred to as “symbols of faith” (CCC, n. 187). The word “symbol” comes from the Greek symbolon, which Fr. Hardon defines as “a token, pledge, [or] a sign by which one infers a thing” (ibid., p. 528). In The Faith, Father refers to symbolon as “a collection or summary” (p. 39). The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, then, are “symbols of faith” or summaries of the principal truths of the faith and therefore serve as the first and fundamental point of reference for catechesis (cf. CCC, n. 188).
Let us now consider the most ancient and first “profession of faith” that Christians make: the baptismal creed. Recall the words of our Lord: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Just as “the truths of faith professed during Baptism are articulated in terms of their reference to the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity” (CCC, n. 189), so too, is the baptismal creed divided into three parts.
As expressed by Fr. Hardon, the three core elements of the faith we profess from the very initiation of our life in Jesus Christ are: 1) faith in God the Father and the creation of the world; 2) faith in God the Son and the redemption of the human race; and 3) faith in God the Holy Spirit and the sanctification of mankind (see The Faith, p. 39).
It is interesting to note that the CCC now makes direct reference to the 16th-century Roman Catechism (RC), a fruit of the Council of Trent, to explain further this truth of our faith. “These three parts [of the Creed] are distinct although connected with one another. According to a comparison often used by the Fathers, we call them articles. Indeed, just as in our bodily members there are certain articulations which distinguish and separate them, so too in this profession of faith, the name articles has justly and rightly been given to the truths we must believe particularly and distinctly” (RC, I, I, 4).
In other words, the articles of the Creed “are the individual truths of faith, each distinct from the others, like the separate members of our body that are united in one whole” (Fr. Hardon, The Faith, p. 39).
Is not the CCC’s usage of text from the Roman Catechism a fitting example of a principle expressed early in this series, namely, that the essential teaching on faith and morals as articulated in previous ages is unchanging? It shows, once again, that the purpose of the Catechism of Vatican Council II is not to redefine the faith, but to simply hand on the enduring truth in a way more accessible to modern man in the times and conditions in which he finds himself. When the language of prior teaching is clear for contemporary readers, the CCC simply incorporates and cites the exact words of prior magisterial documents.
Text in this section of the Catechism, in fact, acts to reinforce that very point: “Through the centuries many professions or symbols of faith have been articulated in response to the needs of the different eras: the creeds of the different apostolic and ancient Churches” (CCC, n. 192). Special note is made of several formulations of the profession of faith that have appeared since apostolic times. However, it goes on to say in very clear and exacting terms that “none of the creeds from the different stages in the Church’s life can be considered superseded or irrelevant. They help us today to attain and deepen the faith of all times by means of the different summaries made of it” (CCC, n. 193).
Is that not precisely why the CCC so often either directly includes or cites Sacred Scripture, teachings of prior ecumenical councils, Fathers and Doctors of the Church, papal encyclicals, and other earlier doctrinal teachings of the faith? Truly, we can be assured that during the two millennia of the Church’s history, the one true faith remains unchanged, but is simply more clearly illuminated by more contemporary teaching.

The Creed Of
Our Life-Giving Faith

As touched upon in last week’s column, two Creeds among all that have emerged throughout the history of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church hold a special place in expressing the unity of all her faithful: the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.
The Apostles’ Creed is “so called because it is rightly considered to be a faithful summary of the Apostles’ faith. It is the ancient baptismal symbol of the Church of Rome” (CCC, n. 194). It is, as expressed by Fr. Hardon, “a formula of belief, in twelve articles, containing the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, whose authorship (in substance if not in words) tradition ascribes to the Apostles. . . . At a very early date the Western Church required catechumens to learn and recite the Apostles’ Creed before admission to Baptism” (Modern Catholic Dictionary, p. 34).
The Nicene Creed gets its name from two fourth-century ecumenical councils, Nicaea I in AD 325 and Constantinople I in AD 381, and was written to address a great heresy of the time. Arius, a priest of Alexandria, denied the divinity of Christ — the Arian heresy taught that Jesus was not the eternal Son of the Father, but “only a creature, made out of nothing, like all other created things” (ibid., p. 41).
The Fathers of these two early councils added more explicit and detailed language to the foundational truths contained in the Apostles’ Creed so as to better explain the nature of the Trinity and the only begotten Son of God who is coeternal with the Father. It is “common to all the great Churches of both East and West to this day” (CCC, n. 195).
A comprehensive explanation of the Creeds, which will be the topic of this column for the next several weeks, will, like the CCC, follow the Apostles’ Creed but often draw upon references to the more detailed Nicene Creed. As the Catechism exhorts us, “let us embrace the Creed of our life-giving faith” (CCC, n. 197) and so enter into closer union with Jesus Christ.

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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