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Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters

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Creed: What Christians Believe

The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters, by Luke Timothy Johnson

Christianity is a creedal religion, which means that membership in the Christian community is conditioned at least in part on one’s willingness to recite and agree with some basic creed that summarizes Christian beliefs. Every week, millions of Christians recite one creed or another, signaling their acceptance of it — but just how many of them really understand what they are saying and what the creed implies?


Title: The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters
Author: Luke Timothy Johnson
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 0385502478

•  Solid introduction to many basic Christian beliefs from a committed believer

•  Author can be very arrogant at times

•  Analysis of the history and meaning of the Christian Creed
•  Argues that most Christians don’t fully appreciate the Creed, but should
•  Explains what the Creed can mean for Christians today


Book Review

It is arguable that many Christians go through their religious lives as if they were sleepwalking — making all of the right movements, gestures, and noises of someone who is awake, but not truly engaged with the world of ideas and doctrines that surrounds them. This seems to be the impression that Luke Timothy Johnson has and in order to combat this he has written The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters.

A New Testament scholar and Catholic theologian, Johnson believes that the basic Christian creed is more fundamental to understanding Christianity than most people realize. He believes moreover that a return to creedal Christianity can revitalize the religion for people, making it more vibrant and more integral to their lives. Johnson discusses the major versions, the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed (though he prefers the former). He analyzes what they mean, explains where they came from, and why he thinks that they are still relevant today.

The Christian Creed defines Christianity in a manner that sets it off from other religions, both positively and negatively. It describes what Christians are supposed to believe, what they aren’t supposed to believe, and how it all fits together. It’s not necessarily limiting, however, because within the boundaries it creates there is quite a lot of room for interpretation and variance.

This is by no means a book aimed at a general audience — it’s designed for believing Christians. In fact, he arrogantly asserts that “cultured despisers” are unlikely to read the book and unlikely to be persuaded by his arguments, just after he finishes with a long litany of complaints about how believing Christians are arrogantly looked down upon by others in society.

Not much later Johnson self-righteously dismisses agnosticism as a “contemptuous uninterest in the truth of the world" (a judgment that can only be derived from a contemptuous uninterest in the nature of agnosticism) and asserts that atheism “serves the cause of authentic faith” because it reminds believers not to be too self-righteous. I wonder why he thought his readers wouldn’t notice such contradictions?

Creed: What Christians Believe

The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters, by Luke Timothy Johnson

Of course, someone like me wasn’t supposed to read it so perhaps he didn’t think it would matter.

Secularists aren’t the only ones Johnson seeks to offend — he’s just as likely to complain about conservatives and traditionalists when they fail to meet his standards. Despite being a Catholic theologian, for example, he rejects quite strongly the doctrine of papal infallibility as "a case where the will to power has become so confused with theology that its practitioners actually think they are doing the latter when they are only exercising the former.“

Early on he Johnson describes “the creed” as having something in it to offend nearly everyone, which may explain why he seems to seek out ways to offend people himself, just in case the meager text in the creed fails to do its job. If you can manage to get past Johnson’s self-righteousness, though, there is quite a lot of interesting material here. For believers, it may be a welcome meditation on the meaning and nature of Christian faith; for others, it may provide insight into what Christians think about their religion and how they seek to structure orthodoxy.

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