Creeds: Words of Life-Giving Faith

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by William H. Johnston, PhD

See the Expanded Study Guide at the
end of this article for additional Reflection Questions and Exercises.

Early twentieth-century British author
Evelyn Underhill (d. 1941) began one of her many writings on mysticism and spirituality
by recounting that “a very earnest but rather nebulous lady once defined her
creed to me in these words: ‘I feel there is a spiritual something somewhere.’”

Well, that’s a start. And, indeed, it
represents a not uncommon way of understanding things shared by people today
(“I’m spiritual, not religious”) as well as in New Testament times—think of the
altar Paul found in Athens dedicated “To an Unknown God” (Acts of the Apostles

But Christians affirm more than this. Christians
affirm that we know God’s very name because God has revealed it. God’s name is
so holy that some Jews, out of reverence, will not even speak it: “YHWH” (see
Exodus 3:13–15). This is a term notoriously hard to translate—perhaps “I am who
I am” or “I will be who I will be.” We also know that Jesus called God “Abba”
(see Mark 14:36)—equivalent to the familial childhood word we use for our own
fathers—and he bid us make bold to call God “Father” as well (see Luke 11:2,
Matthew 6:9).

Starting, if you will, with the name of
God (“I believe in God the Father…”), Christian creeds articulate in concise,
almost poetic form, some of the most fundamental of the saving and joyful
truths that constitute the Christian faith. Such formulations have been around
since the beginnings of Christianity.


The New Testament contains passages
considered creedal. Some give witness to affirmations about Jesus: that he is
Lord (see Romans 10:9; Philippians 2:11) or Christ (see Mark 8:29; 1 John 2:22,
5:1). Others list basic teachings (see Hebrews 6:1–2). Still others are more
narrative in form, as when Paul reminds Corinthian Christians: “For I handed on to you as of first importance
what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the
scriptures; that
he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the
scriptures; that
he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:3–5; the list continues
for another few verses).

These passages tell us that from the
beginning, Christians reflected theologically on what God had done in Christ
and, under the guidance of God’s Spirit, formulated that reflection into basic
affirmations of faith. We can see something of the process and fruits of that
reflection in the account of Resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians 15. We
can also consider what implications might follow for us.

The first Christian believers sought and found theological meaning in the
events of Christ’s life. His death on the cross, for example, could seem to be
a tragic end to a failed life. Instead, it was understood as a purposeful act
undertaken and endured “for our sins”—that is, as part of God’s saving plan
(see Hebrews 10:12; 1 Peter 3:18; Matthew 1:21, 26:28). We, too, can find spiritual
and catechetical riches by theologically pondering each event of Christ’s life,
for each is a mystery given to us from which we can draw life (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 512-521).

The first Christians sought and found theological meaning in their personal and
collective experiences of seeing the Risen Christ. We, too, can theologically
reflect on our own life experiences, seeking to sense God’s presence within
them and to hear God’s call.

The first Christians sought and found the theological meaning of these events
by pondering and interpreting them not just according to their own lights, but
specifically by the light of revelation, “in accordance with the scriptures”—a
phrase still used in the Creed (see Romans 1:1–2; Luke 24:25–27 and 32). This
reminds us to make our own prayer and catechetical ministry as thoroughly
biblical as possible.

In their theological pondering, early Christians recognized certain features of
their Christian beliefs to be more primary or pivotal than others. Paul thus
speaks of the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death and Resurrection as being “of
first importance” (see Romans 4:24–25, 8:34, and 14:9; 2 Corinthians 13:4). The
Second Vatican Council took the same approach in speaking of the “hierarchy of
truths”—the understanding that, among the truths of the faith, some are more
foundational while others are derivative (see
Decree on Ecumenism, n. 11). For example, to say that God is
Creator is foundational; belief in angels derives from that. This is an
important distinction for catechists to know and teach.


Creeds were used not only didactically,
as tools of teaching, but also liturgically, first in the rite of Baptism. In
that context, they took an explicitly Trinitarian form based on Matthew
28:19–20. What we know as the Apostles’ Creed was the baptismal creed of the
Roman Church. Baptismal professions of faith are dialogical: the person being
baptized is asked whether he or she believes what the Church believes about
Father, Son, and Spirit, and the person replies, “I do.”

Something essential about the Christian
faith can be seen here. Saint Paul tells us that “faith comes from what is
heard” (Romans 10:17). That is to say, the Christian faith is not something I
think up or think out for myself; rather, it comes to me as a given, something
I encounter from outside, that opens me up to what is beyond my own
conceiving—which I then continue to ponder so as to understand it more deeply
and live it more authentically.

Further, we see in this dialogue that
Christian faith is inherently social; I receive it from others who have come
before me, who hand it on to me so that I in turn can accept it, enter into it,
be formed by it, and live from it. Then it falls to me, in turn, to proclaim
and hand it on to others so they also may hear and, by God’s grace, accept and
enter into these saving mysteries (see Introduction
to Christianity,
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, San Francisco, CA: Ignatius
Press, 2004). Through this entire process, of course, faith remains always and
first of all a gift and grace of God; we can believe only with the prior and
sustaining help of the Holy Spirit (see CCC, n. 153).

Creeds did not become part of the Mass
until the sixth century, first in the Christian East and later in the West, in
Spain. Around the year 800, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, formulated at
the Councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381), was introduced into the
Mass in Gaul (France). It was first used in the Mass at Rome in the year 1014,
on the occasion of Pope Benedict VIII’s coronation of St. Henry II; it was part
of the ritual of Mass in Henry’s Germany, and he requested (indeed, insisted)
on its use. Ever since, it has been in the Roman liturgy, and we say or sing it
at Mass on Sundays still today. We do so both to respond to the Word of God
just heard in the readings and preached in the homily, and “to honor and
confess the great mysteries of the faith…before the celebration of these
mysteries in the Eucharist begins” (General
Instruction of the Roman Missal,
n. 67).

I Believe—We

Creeds sometimes begin “I believe,” and
sometimes “We believe.” Both forms are traditional and legitimate, manifesting
different aspects of the dynamics of faith. On the one hand, “faith is a
personal act…the free response of the human person to God who reveals himself”
(Compendium: Catechism of the Catholic
, n. 30). Each one of us
must come to be able to say for herself or himself, with mind well informed and
heart fully engaged, “I believe”—and to do so more and more knowingly,
committedly, and joyfully each year. Preparing us to do this at Easter, when we
renew our baptismal promises, is one of the chief purposes of Lent.

At the same time—or should we say, but
first of all—faith is “an ecclesial act which expresses itself in the
proclamation, ‘We believe’” (Compendium, n. 30). As noted before,
faith is something we receive as a gift from God, a gift that typically comes
to us through the Church. “It is the Church that believes first, and so bears,
nourishes, and sustains my faith….It is through the Church that we receive faith
and new life in Christ by Baptism” (CCC, n. 168). We acknowledge the priority
of the Church’s faith and our own need, choice, privilege, and joy to enter and
participate in it when we profess “We believe.”

Using the

How can we use the creeds so that they
have a life-giving effect for us? Here are a few simple suggestions.

1. Learn them by heart. Memorize our two
principal creeds: the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed that we usually say at
Mass, and the Apostles’ Creed that may also be used at Mass and is always prayed
at the beginning of the Rosary. As Blessed John Paul II said, “the blossoms, if
we may call them that, of faith and piety do not grow in the desert places of a
memory-less catechesis.” He immediately went on to add that “what is essential
is that the texts that are memorized must at the same time be taken in and
gradually understood in depth, in order to become a source of Christian life on
the personal level and the community level” (On Catechesis in Our Time, n. 55). Fostering this understanding-in-depth is the role of catechetical

Pray them.

Pope Benedict XVI tells us that the Creed served the early Christians “as a
daily prayer not to forget the commitment they had undertaken in Baptism” (Porta fidei, n. 9). Today, when reciting
or singing the creed at Mass, we can take care to be conscious of what we are professing,
meaning the words as an expression of
our own faith and trust in God. Or, in personal prayer, take time to pray the
words of the Creed in the manner of lectio
. In such ways as these, we can give ourselves to prayer and let God
use the words of the Creed to lead us to deeper, stronger faith.

Study them.

See Additional Resources in the Expanded
Study Guide for suggestions for studying the

Teach them.

Find a way in your catechetical ministry to teach the creeds. You may be able
to do a unit on a creed or a segment of a creed. At least make sure to reference
the Creed as you teach what you teach—Scripture (e.g., “in accordance with the
Scriptures”), Church (“I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic
Church”), Sacraments (“I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins”), and
so on. Doing so may help learners see how your topic has its place in the
larger framework of the Christian faith; it can help them understand more fully
what they are saying at Mass when they profess the Creed.

it a good idea to invite students in a classroom or perhaps on a retreat to
formulate their own “personal” profession of faith (in an age-appropriate way)?
Yes, it
certainly can be—especially after they have first studied the Church’s faith as
expressed in the creeds. This can then be a way to help them become reflective,
conscious, and articulate about their own way of understanding and expressing the
faith that they hold and the faith that holds them.

a class or retreat group has formulated a creed, is it appropriate to use that
formula in a prayer service?
Perhaps, if the prayer service is for those who
communally developed the formula. Is it
appropriate to use it in the Mass?
No. Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours is
never just that gathered assembly’s prayer; it is always a participation in the
liturgy of the Church—indeed, in the liturgy of heaven (see CCC, nos. 1090, 1137-1139).
Just as we always read only Scripture at Mass and not any other reading,
however personally meaningful to a particular person or community, so also we
do not change the Creed when celebrating Mass. Rather, we honor and share in
the profession of the Church’s faith hallowed by generations of use, and let
ourselves be formed in faith by it.

Using this
Common Language

Creedal formulas have been part of the
Church’s life from the beginning, and they continue to play an essential role
in the Church today, for “they permit one to express, assimilate, celebrate,
and share together with others the truth of the faith through a common language”
(Compendium, n. 31). Through our use of this common
language of faith, may we seek to grow together in faith and in love for God
and one another.


1. The Creed as we say it in Mass begins with the Latin
word, Credo, that is, the first
person singular, “I believe.” Interestingly, even this usage can manifest the
ecclesial dimension of faith, for as St. Thomas Aquinas said, we see here that
“the confession of faith is handed down in the Creed, as it were, as coming
from the person of the Church, united by means of the Faith” (see Aquinas, Summa theologiae, IIa-IIae, I, 9, as
cited in the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the
Sacraments, Liturgiam authenticam, n.

Dr. William
Johnston is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the
University of Dayton where he teaches courses related to pastoral ministry. He
has held parish and archdiocesan catechetical positions, directed a diocesan
ministry formation program, and chaired the board of NALM.

Study Guide

In its “Pastoral Recommendations for the
Year of Faith,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith writes: “Faith
which is a personal trust in the Lord and the faith which we profess in the
Creed are inseparable; they focus on each other and they require each other.”
Dr. Johnston presents a clear, comprehensive, and practical introduction to the
historical development of the Creed.

Pope Benedict XVI names the task of every
believer during this Year of Faith: “to rediscover the content of the faith
that is professed, celebrated, lived and prayed, and to reflect on the act of
faith…(Porta fidei, n. 9). In
this spirit, Johnston invites us to contemplatively reflect on the Creed and
discover the depth and beauty of what we proclaim each time we pray “We believe….”


1. What is my experience of praying the
Creed during the liturgy or at other times? How do I pray the Creed—or am I
simply saying the words? What is the difference between “praying” and “saying”
the Creed?

2. What new insights does Dr. Johnston present
regarding the theological reflection of early Christians on what God had done
in Christ? How did this influence the formulation of the Creed?

3. What does “baptismal professions of
faith are dialogical” mean? (Be specific.)

4. The Creeds did not become part of the
Mass until the sixth century. How did this evolve?

5. What is the difference between praying
“I believe” and praying “We believe”? Why is this important?

6. How can I use the creeds so that they
have a life-giving effect in my life?

7. What catechetical approach might I use
to spark my students’ appreciation for the beauty of praying the Creed?

8. Why are creedal formulas important for
the Church’s life?


1. First, spend quality time reflecting
on the Creed as presented in Dr. Johnston’s article. Second, reflect on how you
might put the Creed into your own words. What have you learned from this
experience? What difference does it offer you for praying the Creed during
Mass? You may use this same exercise with your students.

2. Have students work in teams to create
a visual understanding of the Creed. This could be accomplished through a wall
panel of religious pictures or a multimedia PowerPoint presentation. You might
check YouTube for some examples.

3. Meditative reading is a good way to learn
how to pray and not simply say prayers. Demonstrate to your students how to
prayerfully embrace the Creed. Ask them to memorize the Creed and pray it every
night before they retire.

4. Identify liturgical songs that connect
with the various phrases in the Creed. Have students listen to the songs,
reflect on their meaning, and discern how the songs help them come to a deeper
appreciation for the meaning of the Creed for living as disciples of Jesus.

5. The use of the body is a great prayerful
experience. First, identify various gestures that could be used to illustrate
the various ideas in the Creed. Teach these gestures to your students as
another way to pray. Or, ask students to identify gestures that help them
meditate with their entire body on the beautiful teachings (beliefs) in the

6. Give each student a 3’ x 5’ piece of
white fabric. Have them create a Creed prayer rug that they can position in a
special prayer corner in the bedroom for praying the Creed each day.


Catechism of
the Catholic Church
. Washington, DC: USCCB Publishing, 1994 (

for the Doctrine of the Faith: Recommendations for the Year of Faith (

Called to Witness: The New Evangelization
. Committee on Evangelization and
Catechesis. Washington, DC: USCCB Publishing, 2012 (

Porta fidei (The Apostolic
Letter for the Indiction of the Year of Faith). Benedict XVI. Vatican City,
2011 (

United States
Catholic Catechism for Adults
. Washington, DC: USCCB Publishing, 2006

Copyright 2013, Bayard, Inc. All rights reserved. This article is protected by United States copyright and other intellectual property laws and may not be reproduced, rewritten, distributed, redisseminated, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast, directly or indirectly, in any medium without the prior written permission of Bayard, Inc.

This article was written by the Catechist Staff and appeared in Catechist magazine, December 2012.

Image Credit: MIA Studio/Shutter Stock 557176453

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