by Joel Elowsky
Ted (his American name) was my teaching assistant when I was teaching English in China during the summer of my second year of seminary in 1987. Bibles were rare in China. I happened to have an extra one and gave it to him to read. He was so excited by what he was reading that he read the whole New Testament in a week in English. No small feat! He came back and wanted more, so I gave him a copy of the Apostles’ Creed. He quickly read through it and immediately replied, “This says the same thing as the book you just gave me — only shorter.”
Rule of faith
Ted realized something the Church has known for centuries: It’s good to have a quick summary of the Bible that expresses in a few words what we as Christians believe, teach and confess. The term Irenaeus, Tertullian and other early church fathers used for this was the “rule of faith” or “canon of truth.” What they meant by this was that these short summaries or narratives of salvation could serve as rules or measuring sticks for a person’s faith. Using the Creed, someone could tell if what they believed, or how they interpreted a certain Bible passage, or what someoneelse was teaching them, was in line with the narrative of faith the Church confessed.
Candidates for church membership would learn the Creed and memorize it in preparation for Baptism. The Creed was the primary teaching tool for learning the faith. At their Baptism during the Easter Vigil these words they had memorized would be confessed out loud as they were immersed in the waters and then brought up to be received by the faithful into the Body of Christ. They would then be allowed to partake of the “mysteries” of the faith, the central mystery being the Eucharist, of which only those who shared a common confession could partake. The Church included the recitation of the Creed in every celebration of the liturgy as an identity marker and a reinforcement of the faith. The Creed was like a well-worn path that provided a sure footing for the pilgrims, saints and martyrs. The weekly, sometimes daily, recitation of the Creed reinforced a faith that was being challenged on a daily basis by the culture and society of the day.
A life or death issue
Challenges came in many forms, just as they do today. When Christians were persecuted for their faith, for instance, it was because the creed they held dear would not allow them to worship the gods of the Romans, nor would it let them compromise in the face of heresies such as Arianism, which taught that Jesus was not coeternal with the Father. For the early Christians, it was often a life and death issue.
I was reminded of this when reading early Christian martyrdom accounts with my students in Nigeria a few years ago. The Scillitan martyrs of second-century North Africa chose to die rather than deny their faith. When the students read out loud the words of the martyrs expressing their allegiance to Christ — with each student choosing one of the martyrs — it was as if they were reading their own words. I only understood why later.
One of my students came to me after class and told me that he had been stopped by members of the Islamic group Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. They pointed an AK-47 at his face and demanded he recite the Shahada — the Muslim creed — or die. The Creed at that point was not just a rote memorization of facts for him, nor for his Muslim persecutors.
My students and friends in Egypt face a similar challenge. In fact, there is a YouTube video of Coptic Christians shouting out the Nicene Creed in Arabic in the streets of Alexandria after the bombing of their church. They wanted to let their Muslim neighbors know what they believed. They would not be intimidated.
Throughout the Church’s history, its creeds have served as an identity marker. Reciting the Apostles’, Nicene or Athanasian Creed in church each week serves as a reminder of what God has done for His people — “who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven.” The creeds rehearse and teach the narrative of salvation. The Church has continually sought to ensure that this narrative is always before the minds and hearts of its people in a short, memorable way. For Christians throughout history and around the globe, the weekly, even daily, repetition of this narrative is meant to keep us with Jesus Christ in the one true faith and let the world know who our God is.
The Rev. Dr. Joel Elowsky is professor of historical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.
This article originally appeared in the September print edition of The Lutheran Witness.