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What Christians Believe and Why it Matters

Written by Luke Timothy JohnsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Luke Timothy Johnson

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 336 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42391-7
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

This thoughtful, fully accessible exploration of the creed, the list of beliefs central to the Christian faith, delves into its origins and illuminates the contemporary significance of why it still matters.

During services in Christian communities, the members of the congregation stand together to recite the creed, professing in unison the beliefs they share. For most Christians, the creed functions as a sort of “ABC” of what it means to be a Christian and to be part of a worldwide movement. Few people, however, know the source of this litany of beliefs, a topic that is further confused by the fact that there are two different versions: the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed.

In The Creed, Luke Timothy Johnson, a New Testament scholar and Catholic theologian, clarifies the history of the creed, discussing its evolution from the first decades of the Christian Church to the present day. By connecting the deep theological conflicts of the early Church with the conflicts and questions facing Christians today, Johnson shows that faith is a dynamic process, not based on a static set of rules. Written in a clear, graceful style and appropriate for Christians of all denominations, The Creed is destined to become a classic of modern writings on spirituality.

Excerpt

Chapter One

ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT

Before considering its individual elements, we do well to think about the existence of the Christian creed as such. Where does it come from? What does it do? Why do we still have it? By no means is it obvious, after all, that people should gather themselves into intentional communities with elaborate statements of what the members believe. The word "creed" comes from its opening word in Latin, credo ("I believe") or credimus ("we believe"). Not all religions even have creeds. Belief as such is not nearly so central to most other religions as it is to Christianity.

Many religions put more emphasis on orthopraxy (right practice) than on orthodoxy (right opinion or belief). Judaism and Islam each have created sophisticated systems of law to guide behavior, but have allowed an astonishing freedom of conviction and intellectual expression. Both have been able to get along with comparatively short statements of belief. Buddhism and Hinduism concentrate on the practices of ritual and transformation rather than on uniformity of belief. And tribal religions express their view of reality through a variety of myths, not a "rule of faith" for their members. What is it about Christianity that placed such peculiar emphasis on belief, and, given that emphasis, led to an ever more elaborate and official statement of beliefs in a creed?

In what follows, I want to show that the creed is not a late and violent imposition upon the simple gospel story--as some of its critics charge--but rather a natural development of Christianity best understood in light of the specific character of the Christian religion and the crises it faced from the start. I will try to show that the Christian creed began as a variation of Judaism's Shema Israel. We will see from Israel's experience that a creed takes its significance within a context of competing loyalties, the proper understanding of a communal narrative of experience, and serves both to identify the proper object of loyalty and to define the group that shows such loyalty. But the experience of Jesus as the resurrected one led his followers to a fundamental alteration in the narrative that they shared with their fellow Jews. With other Jews, they confessed one God, and so distinguished themselves from the polytheism of the Greco-Roman world. But they distinguished themselves from other Jews by professing Jesus as Christ, Lord, and Son of God, terms that later found their way into the creed.

This profession was rooted in deep religious experience. Indeed, in the early baptismal rites we see the close connection between the confession and first Christians' experience. I will then try to show that the creed became more explicit and elaborate in response to three challenges. The first challenge was to define the experience of Jesus within and over against the shared story of Israel. The second challenge was to clarify the complex understanding of God that was embedded in the resurrection experience. The third challenge was to correct misunderstandings of the newly emergent "Christian narrative" that was, at heart, a "story about Jesus."

I. ORIGINS

The Book of Deuteronomy contains an ancient rudimentary confession of belief known as the Shema (from its first word, "Hear"): "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might" (Deut 6:4). The statement has three features of special interest. First, it is a call for communal, and not simply individual, commitment. Second, in the context of surrounding polytheistic cultures, it is exclusive: The Lord (the proper name of Israel's God, Yahweh) is both the "one" God and the only God toward whom Israel owes allegiance. Finally, it is a personal commitment: Israelites are to "love" the Lord God with their whole heart and whole soul and whole might. In other words, the Shema both defines the one to whom loyalty is given and defines Israel among all the nations by its unique loyalty to this deity.

The Shema Israel stands within the community's shared narrative of how God has been at work in the people. A compressed version of that story is spoken by the Lord to introduce the Ten Commandments: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery," from which follows the conclusion, "You shall have no other Gods before me" (Exod 20:2-3). The people respond with faith and obedience to the one who first showed love and fidelity to them. The creedal statement "The Lord our God is one Lord" does not replace their experience and story, but is its most compressed expression.

The Christian creed takes its origin in just this need to express a people's experience and story, and to distinguish their specific allegiance in the context of competing claims. It is, like the Shema, a call for communal, personal, and exclusive commitment. Christianity began within Judaism, and the Shema remained the basic framework for Christian belief as indicated by the clear allusions to it in the Gospels (e.g., Mark 12:29-31), Paul (Rom 3:29; 1 Cor 8:4-6), and James (2:19).

But the specific character of the Christian experience of Jesus made it necessary to alter the Shema and, with it, the story of God and God's people. Thus, the origins of the creed are easily detectable within the pages of the New Testament. Christianity was born not because followers of Jesus considered him to be the Messiah during his lifetime, but because many of them experienced him after his crucifixion and death as more powerfully alive than before, as sharing, indeed, the very life of God, a life that he in turn made available to them through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The resurrection of Jesus was not regarded as a simple continuation of his mortal body through resuscitation--a historical event--but as a new form of existence as the "life-giving Spirit" (1 Cor 15:45) who could touch and transform all other human bodies. It ended one world and began another: "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation" (2 Cor 5:16; Gal 6:15). By virtue of his resurrection, then, Jesus is much more than a Jewish messiah; he is a new Adam (1 Cor 15:45; Rom 5:12-21), the firstborn of a new humanity (Rom 8:29; Col 3:11).

A careful reading of the entire New Testament suggests that the resurrection experience involved both Jesus and his followers, took place not only on the single day later known as Easter but continuously, and consisted of the presence of the risen Jesus among his followers through the Holy Spirit. Corresponding to the experiential dimension of possession of the Holy Spirit in the community was the conviction that "Jesus is Lord," that is, he now shares the life of God and is the source of the Spirit by which they now live (see 1 Cor 12:3).

The claims made about Jesus were extraordinary. A new sect gathered in his name, not because he was an effective political leader or a persuasive teacher, but because--despite his shameful and violent death by crucifixion--they experienced him as the source of a life that transformed the very structures of human existence. We can get some sense of this as we consider three of the designations for Jesus in the New Testament that find their way into the creed. By these designations--Christ, Lord, and Son of God--Jesus' followers distinguished themselves from other Jews.

JESUS IS THE CHRIST

Christianity takes its name from the claim that Jesus is the Christ (Christos), the anointed one or Messiah (see Acts 11:26). In first-century Judaism, calling Jesus "the Christ" (Mark 8:29; Matt 16:16; Luke 9:20) would have distinguished these "messianists" from other Jewish groups, but not because they challenged basic Jewish convictions. Many Jews believed in the coming of a messiah, after all. This leader or that could be considered a messiah without in the least threatening the unity of the people gathered by the Shema Israel (see Acts 5:34-40). Even if Jesus turned out to be a failed messiah--one who did not restore the fortunes of the Jews--neither he nor his followers would on this account have ruptured relations with Judaism.

If proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah did not by itself challenge Jewish convictions, proclaiming him to be the Messiah because of his resurrection did. This is what Peter does in Acts 2:36: "Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified." Many of Peter's contemporaries expected a future resurrection, and there is no reason why the Messiah should not also be among those who rise in the new age (Luke 20:27-40; Acts 23:6-9). But the claim that Jesus was already resurrected challenged Jewish convictions for two reasons. They believed the resurrection would inaugurate the age to come, the time of God's (and God's people's) triumph on earth, but Jesus alone was raised. The lack of any visible present victory for God's saints in this world is therefore evidence against the claim being made for Jesus' resurrection by his followers.

Even more important, Jews believed the resurrection would be the triumph of the righteous, but Jesus' life did not correspond to the prescribed pattern of righteousness in first-century Judaism. He did not observe the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28; Luke 14:1-6), he reinterpreted Torah (the Jewish Law) without respect to the tradition (Matt 5:21-48), he neglected the temple tax (Matt 17:24-27), and he associated with tax collectors and sinners--people who deserved to be called "unrighteous" (Luke 7:34-8:3; 15:1-2). And decisively, the way he died--the legalized form of lynching known as crucifixion--was, according to the specific wording of Torah, a death cursed by God (Deut 21:23; see Gal 3:13).

In much of the New Testament, "Christ" appears so frequently as a title for Jesus that it has virtually become part of his proper name, "Jesus Christ" or "Christ Jesus." But with two important exceptions, language about Jesus as Christ plays little role in the earliest Christian efforts to express the experience of the resurrected Jesus.

The most noteworthy exception is Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians of "the good news that I proclaimed among you, which you received, in which you stand, and through which you are being saved, if you are holding on to the very word that I proclaimed to you as good news, unless you have believed in vain. For I handed on to you among things of first importance what I also received" (1 Cor 15:1-3a). Paul is concerned that his readers "stand within" and "hold firmly" this good news, as the condition of their being "saved by it." Getting the story wrong in its essentials amounts to "believing in vain." Paul summarizes the good news in the form of a narrative sequence:

That Christ died in behalf of our sins according to the Scriptures. And that he was buried. And that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. And that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the twelve, and then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at the same time. Some from among them remain until now, but some have died. And then he appeared to James, and then to all the apostles. Last of all he appeared also to me, as to one born out of season. (1 Cor 15:3b-8)

Christos ("Christ") is the subject of this entire sequence. This passage is especially important because it will help form the heart of the eventual Christian creed.

The other exception is the use of the term in the first and second letters of John. Some believers do not have the proper profession of Jesus. Unfortunately, the precise nature of their error is not clear. 1 John 2:22 describes a straightforward denial that Jesus is the Christ, complicated by an implied denial of both "son" and "father." The implication is that getting Jesus wrong is also getting God wrong. 1 John 4:2 seems to describe a misapprehension of Jesus' humanity. It is less important that we grasp exactly what the ancient dispute was than that we recognize how, even within the pages of the New Testament, there is a concern for protecting the integrity of the experience of Jesus in all its fullness in the face of controversy generated precisely by diverse understandings of that experience.

JESUS IS LORD

This confession is most closely associated with his followers' experience of Jesus' resurrection (1 Cor 12:3; Rom 10:9; Phil 2:11). It is this conviction--that Jesus is Lord--rather than the confession that Jesus was Christ, that decisively separated early Christians from their fellow Jews. They were applying to Jesus, a failed messiah and cursed criminal, the very name that in Judaism had been reserved exclusively to the God of Israel!

The frequent use of Psalm 110:1 in connection with the resurrection indicates an understanding of the resurrection as an exaltation by which Jesus enters into a share of God's presence and dominion: "The Lord said to my lord, 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet' " (Matt 22:44; Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42; Acts 2:34; 1 Cor 15:25; Heb 1:3, 13). The close connection between the title "Lord" and language about the Holy Spirit points to the conviction that the risen one is present powerfully among his followers: "No one speaking in the Spirit says 'Jesus be cursed,' and no one can say, 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor 12:3).

The complexity of this experience-conviction is suggested by Paul's statement in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18:

Now the Lord is the Spirit. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all with unveiled face, gazing on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed from glory to glory into the same image, just as from the Lord-Spirit.

The close coordination in status and activity among God, Lord, and Spirit is suggested by Paul's final words in this same letter, "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Cor 13:14). The later creeds will seek to make clearer the relations that, at the experiential level, have no need of explication: this is all God's work among them.

The perception that the risen Jesus had become "life-giving Spirit" (1 Cor 15:45) and ruled as "Lord" meant that Jesus shared the life, the ruling power, and the life-giving functions of God. His designation as Lord also indicated his capacity to return to judge the living and the dead (Acts 17:31; 1 Thess 4:14; Rom 14:7-9). Here was a much more provocative claim than that Jesus was a messiah or even a resurrected messiah. Calling Jesus "Lord" after his death could only mean that divine status was being claimed for a human being. In Jewish eyes, this amounted to "having two powers in heaven," or committing the unforgivable sin of polytheism. It meant that Christians were breaking decisively with the Shema Israel.


From the Hardcover edition.
Luke Timothy Johnson

About Luke Timothy Johnson

Luke Timothy Johnson - The Creed
Luke Timothy Johnson is Professor of the New Testament at the Chandler School of Theology, Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia. He is the author of The Letter of James (Anchor Bible) and of the bestseller, The Real Jesus, as well as other books and numerous articles on the New Testament.
Praise

Praise

Praise for The Real Jesus

“More than simply being a critique of the historical Jesus enterprise, Johnson’s book provides a positive statement about what it means to have a genuine, contemporary faith in the living Jesus.” —Philadelphia Inquirer

“The best of the recent flow of books [on Jesus].” —Newsweek

“One of the most exhilarating religious books published in this decade.” —Christianity Today

“Passionately argued . . . Highly recommended.” —Library Journal

Praise for Living Jesus

“Johnson demonstrates that the “living Jesus” of the biblical traditions is immensely more fascinating and significant than any of the “dead Jesus” that the quests for the historical Jesus keep producing.” —Miroslav Volf, Yale University Divinity School

“A stirring book…Informative and challenging”—The Bible Today

  • The Creed by Luke Timothy Johnson
  • August 17, 2004
  • Religion - Spirituality
  • Image
  • $15.99
  • 9780385502481

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