The Apostle’s Creed

No, I got the apostrophe in the right place…

We had Peter’s sermon in Acts 10 as one of the readings at Easter and I was struck by the content of his sermon. Two things in particular struck me as I heard it this time–here’s a selection of the text for reference:

10:34   And Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I perceive that God shows  no partiality,  10:35 but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is  acceptable to him.  10:36 You know the word which he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace  by Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all),  10:37 the word which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, beginning from  Galilee after the baptism which John preached:  10:38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power;  how he went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the  devil, for God was with him.  10:39 And we are witnesses to all that he did both in the country of the Jews  and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree;  10:40 but God raised him on the third day and made him manifest;  10:41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses,  who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.  10:42 And he commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that he is  the one ordained by God to be judge of the living and the dead.  10:43 To him all the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in him  receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” 

My first thought is that this sounds like an early creedal statement. It’s got a number of the key elements the connection between Jesus and God, thew fullfilment of the witness of the prophets, the life of Jesus, his crucifixion, resurrection, and role at the final judgment. (We’d also been listening to this interview with Jaroslav Pelikan on the way to M’s church—so creeds were near the top of my mind…)

The second is that this sermon—and others like it—give us a fascinating glimpse into the mind of Luke because they serve as a shorthand key to how he understood and interpreted the gospel that he handed down to us. Now, you’ve got to be careful with Luke.

Of all the Gospel writers, he’s the most sophisticated in terms of Hellenistic compositional technique (yes, te others are quite sophisticated too but in different ways—Luke excells them in this department.)
 If you want an example, look at Paul’s conversion narrative in Acts: we have three accounts of it and each one has subtle but important differences from the others that help it fit the immediate context of the retelling. He does the same thing when the apostles are presenting their kerygma (the heart of their proclamation)

In any case, it’s an interesting exercise to take this summary and to use it as a lens for the Gospel, thinking asbout how the various elements present here play out in Luke’s Gospel (as opposed to the others. Just as for-instances, note the geographical references—one of the distinctive features of Luke’s narrative is the “travel section” where Luke makes a big deal of Jesus leaving Galillee and going to Jerusalem. Here in the summary you’ve got a clear sense of that movement as well. The life of Jesus (something many creeds are short on) gets an interesting summary here too with a strong connection between doing good, exorcism/healing, and freedom from demonic oppression, all of it introduced by the Holy Spirit and power.

There’s a lot more here to go after too—I’m going to have to think about this for a while. I’m sure someone has taken this tack before, using the various apostolic sermons of Acts to analyze the Gospel of Luke, but I don’t know the minutiae of Lukan secondary literature quite well enough to say who…

6 thoughts on “The Apostle’s Creed

  1. Christopher

    Funny. In hearing this read at the Triduum, I thought what a succinct summary of the faith proclaimed and professed. “Creed” might just be the proper term. Hope you pursue this further.

  2. meg

    Heh — I was just getting ready to ask, as I read, whether you’d heard Jaroslav Pelikan on the radio (excuse me, wireless) sunday.

    While I was in Paris last week, I got into a discussion with a friend about creeds vs. liturgy. My view of things (which, as you know, is nearly entirely pre-Reformation) is that creeds express beliefs and liturgies try not to (in the interests of keeping the peace). What’s your take, since you know so much more than I do about both?

  3. Derek the Ænglican

    I’m going to have to disagree, Meg, especially since the recitation of the creed is fundamentally a liturgical act. They arose out of the confession of the faith in the baptismal liturgy and were brought into others from that source. Thus, the creed is a specific part of the liturgy that remins us of the common faith held by the community to which each member assent at his or her baptism (or confirmation).

    The way that I see the creeds is that they serve as boundaries. They provide a basic sketch of what Christians believe and nail down a few potentially disputed topics. They’re not straight-jaackets; there’s a lot of latitude within their boundaries–you just can’t cross the line and still be doing Christian theology.

    I’ve said a few things here before in The Creeds I and Creeds II. The first is mostly historical and exegetical reflections; the second more theological.

    I also heartily recommend this book.

  4. meg

    No, I don’t disagree with that. And I do recognize that creeds are a subset of a liturgy. We may be thinking of liturgy in different ways, though (you as theologian, me as historian)… I’m thinking of liturgy as, for example, the forms and practices that Harper scopes out in his book. A lot of them strike me as side-stepping the harder questions (or, if you prefer, the boundary lines) embodied in creeds.

  5. bls

    That’s interesting, Derek. I know there are people who think the Epistles are loaded with early Creedal material, too; I guess that famous hymn in Philippians might be one. I’m trying now to think of others I’ve seen mentioned….

    I agree that this is a good one for the simple reason that it contains mention (and even a bit of elaboration, I’m amazed to see!) about Jesus’ earthly ministry, without which I doubt I would be Christian in the first place.

  6. Christopher

    I second reading Johnson’s work. Quite fine.

    I might add that creeds are not meant to be only or even primarily propositional, but are proclamations of and professions of faith in who God is and what God has done for us (and does for us). Assent is not merely a headtrip as we like to think of belief in a reductive manner, but also faith in the sense of trust. This is who God has revealed Godself to be (content) and we profess and proclaim this God…

    They do have a content, within which there is a lot of wiggle room for differences in theologizing–just look at the variety of orthodox theologians even in patristics, but I think we err if we locate creeds primarily in modern systematic rather than liturgical or biblical theology (which is more akin to patristics).

    As Louis Weil notes, our eucharistic prayers also contain something of this quality, as do many of our hymns. The term theology itself was used in the proper preface through about the sixth century in the East when it became doxology, as in all of the angels declare their theologies…holy, holy, holy

    In that sense, the Song of Miriam and the Shema function as creeds for the Jewish people.

    The Hymn to Christ in Philippians is one of my favorites, and given its strongly incarnational bent and high christology when docetic tendencies were around, I would say it is absolutely creedal.

    But I’m not a biblical scholar…I’ll let Derek weigh in…

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