At the Heart of It

Book cover
The Creedby By Luke Timothy JohnsonDoubleday. 324p $23.95

Luke Timothy Johnson, professor of New Testament in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, has contributed the volumes on James and 1 and 2 Timothy in the Anchor Bible Commentaries and on Luke and Acts in the Sacra Pagina series. He has also published The Real Jesus (1996), Religious Experience and Earliest Christianity (1998) and Living Jesus (1999). For readers of these last three books, many of the concerns in this new work will be familiar.

For many of us, the Sunday profession of the Creed comes close to being a quick and mindless recitation of ancient teachings that have little connection with daily life. The two strengths of this book are the way it demonstrates how the truths contained in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed are derived from Scripture and its effort to relate the right teaching of Scripture, as distilled in the Creed, to everyday life. The warrant for relating the Creed to everyday life is the ongoing character of revelation. Indeed, the Spirit who spoke through the prophets, Johnson argues, continues to speak through the prophetic witness of numerous men and women of today. A variation on this point is Johnson’s stress upon the abiding and transforming presence of the risen Jesus in the church; people continue to experience Jesus risen in their lives.


I appreciated the first half of the book. There Johnson locates the origin of the Creed’s central belief within the Shema of Dt 6:4 (bearing in mind the confession “Jesus is Lord” of 1 Cor 12:3) and traces the Creed’s development in the early centuries of the Christian tradition when the church formulated the right way to think about the nature of God and Christ. Since all parties to the ancient Christological and Trinitarian debates read the Bible, the Creed thus furnished a way to interpret Scripture “correctly.”

Johnson underscores the theological importance of the phrase qui propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem—“who for us and for the sake of our salvation.” Soteriology is key to understanding Christian revelation. Whatever insight we attain into the mystery of God derives from what God is doing in our lives and in our world in order to bring us to the fullness of life. Accordingly, who Jesus is as son and savior is inseparable from what he does and says; identity has to be connected to mission—a point on which Johnson could be sharper. Finally, while ecumenically sensitive, Johnson is alert to the distinctiveness of the Christian experience of God.

While I could see the usefulness of this book for a course with adults on the basics of Christian faith, or a class of undergraduates, I found myself pulling away from it the more I read. The teacher would want to refine a number of statements. I do not think it is accurate to say that Jesus did not observe the Sabbath. A number of episodes, after all, take place during a synagogue service. It is not altogether fair to say that both adversaries and disciples failed to grasp who Jesus was as he carried on his ministry; repenting and believing in the good news was not a matter of discovering Jesus’ identity. Rather they did not grasp what God was doing in and through Jesus as he enacted the kingdom. Besides, the resurrection as a constitutive element of Jesus’ “identity” had not yet occurred. In John’s Gospel, does Jesus enter creation as the Word, or does the Word enter creation as Jesus? Does the “power of the Christian myth” really achieve its “clearest and most compelling form in the Creed rather than in Scripture”? But these are minor points. The book became unsatisfying to me for more substantial reasons.

First, Johnson concludes his discussion of God as all-powerful by saying that God’s power is not something human beings can ever comprehend—we are, after all, far more familiar with its failure than its effectiveness—and so our only response has to be obedience to what we cannot possibly fathom. But it is hard to keep addressing God as “all-powerful” and “almighty” when confirmation by experience comes so seldom. Pointing out that God creates the world and raises the dead does not help us live with the divine absence during a genocide. Something from Jürgen Moltmann or Edward Schillebeeckx would have been helpful here.

Second, Johnson is fond of saying that the Creed is countercultural. It is, but the reason is that the Gospel itself is so challenging. Being countercultural means that the Creed and Christian faith have their adversaries, which may account for the cranky streak that runs through the book. In the course of the book, liberation theology takes a number of hits. No reputable liberation theologian would reduce the Gospel or Christian faith to the social-political sphere, but neither would any reputable theologian who knows the Gospels pretend that the path to salvation can bypass the world. The full transformation of political, social and economic structures and realities may be an eschatological ideal—like the new heaven and new earth of Rv 21:1—but it is hard to imagine an evangelically adequate soteriology that does not take these concerns with the utmost seriousness.

Johnson’s liberation theologian is a straw man, and I suspect he realizes this. For he notes that the cross as a symbol of suffering and service has in fact sometimes been a source of further oppression by fostering submissiveness. But then the point should be made vigorously that the cross in its social and political context represents prophetic resistance and protest. Its disconnection from the long history of oppression is what made it possible for the cross to become in those instances an instrument of the ideological legitimation of exploitation and bondage.

Third, while I appreciate the role the Creed plays as a rule of faith, I do not see how the Creed helps us interpret Scripture by bringing, for example, “some precision to the rich but ambiguous presentation of Jesus Christ in the New Testament.” I recall that Bernard Lonergan once noted that what the New Testament writers believed about Jesus was quite clear to them, but within a century or two people were looking for clarity framed in a different cultural setting. One moves, in other words, from one sort of clarity to another as one moves from Scripture to Creed. Now that is all well and good, except that the New Testament contains a fair amount of diversity both of thought and expression. But the Creed tends to suppress diversity. Again, Johnson is aware of this. When he comes to the phrase “born of the Virgin Mary,” he states sensitively that there is simply no way of knowing the biological circumstances of Jesus’ conception; human salvation, however, does not hinge upon resolving this uncertainty. Nevertheless, some pages before this Johnson writes that the Creed dictates the elements of the Jesus story that must be included if we are to tell that story correctly, and one of those elements, he says, is the manner of Jesus’ conception and birth. Another instance of the Creed’s suppression of diversity is to be seen in the lamentable insertion of filioque—“and from the Son”—in speaking about the Spirit’s “procession.”

Johnson is absolutely right concerning the need to think about what we are professing as we pray the Creed, and his effort to connect the Creed with Scripture and everyday life is to be commended. I would have welcomed some sustained attention to its liturgical setting, because liturgical performance also guides us as we read Scripture. In the end, though, when it comes to teaching, I prefer the texture, the diversity, the liveliness and the unabridged faith of the New Testament itself.

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