The Apostles' Creed for Today
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The Apostles' Creed for Today

Justo L. González

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eBook - ePub

The Apostles' Creed for Today

Justo L. González

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This volume in the popular For Today series, written by the highly respected theologian and author Justo González, explains the familiar Apostles' Creed in easy, accessible language. González explores not only what the Creed meant in the early centuries but also its ongoing importance and relevance for Christian faith and practice today.

The For Today series was designed to provide reliable and accessible resources for the study and real life application of important biblical texts, theological documents, and Christian practices. The emphasis of the series is not only on the realization and appreciation of what these subjects have meant in the past, but also on their value in the present--"for today." Thought-provoking questions are included at the end of each chapter, making the books ideal for personal study and group use.

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I Believe in God the Father

Various Levels of Belief

What do we mean when we say, “I believe”? The phrase itself has several meanings. At its lowest level, it implies uncertainty. Someone asks us, “Did Joe tell Mary that I was coming?” and we reply, “I believe so.” In this case what we mean is that we have reason to think that Joe actually told Mary, but we cannot guarantee it. Perhaps Joe was supposed to tell Mary but may have forgotten. Or perhaps Joe told us that he did tell Mary, but we do not quite trust Joe, and we express our distrust by simply saying, “I believe so.”
At a slightly higher level, we say “I believe” when expressing an opinion we are willing to support but of which we are not absolutely certain. By saying “I believe,” we are signaling that we are willing to discuss the matter and are ready to be convinced that we were wrong. At this level, “I believe” is a synonym for “I think.” If I say, for instance, “I believe Isabella pawned her jewels in order to finance Columbus’s dream,” what I mean is that I think that to be the case but can be persuaded otherwise. In this particular case, if I study the matter further, I will find out that this commonly held notion is not true, and at the end of my inquiry I will say that “I no longer believe” what I used to. On the other hand, if I had said, “I believe that Columbus sailed with three ships,” after further inquiry I will no longer say that “I believe,” but rather that “I know.”
At a still higher level, I may say “I believe” meaning that I am convinced that something is true, even though others might not think so. This may be the result of my own inquiry, or it may be simply a decision I have made for my own personal reasons. At this level some declare, “I believe that God exists,” while others, with equal conviction, declare, “I believe that God does not exist,” and still others, “I believe that one cannot really know whether God exists or not.” For many, this is what is meant when we say, “I believe in God the Father Almighty.”
Sometimes when we introduce a sentence by saying “I believe,” what we mean is that we are absolutely convinced of something—in some cases even to the point of risking our lives for its sake. This was the case of Charles Findlay, the Cuban doctor who declared, “I believe that yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes.” He was sufficiently convinced of his belief that he had himself placed in a room with several patients suffering from yellow fever, with screening to keep mosquitoes out of the room. When he came out of this risky test, he was certain that yellow fever is indeed transmitted by mosquitoes. At this level, “belief” is tantamount to “conviction” and is ready to be tested in order to become certainty and to prove its point to others who may not share the same belief.
But there is still another, deeper level at which one may say, “I believe in….” At this level, belief is close to trust. If a child is willing to jump off a ledge into her father’s arms, we say that the child is willing because she “believes in” her father, or because she trusts him. At this point, we begin to see the difference between “believing that” and “believing in.” What the Creed means when we affirm that “I believe in God” is not merely that we believe that God exists—that we are of the opinion that God exists, or that, after due consideration, we have decided that God exists, or even that we are absolutely convinced that God exists. What the Creed means is that we trust God, that we are willing to stake our lives on God, just as a child jumping off a ledge stakes her life on her father.

Believing In

In continuing to explore the various meanings of the phrase “I believe in,” we discover that even trust is not enough. When we say we are in a house, we mean that our whole being is in it. When we say that we live in a particular nation, we are not saying only that we reside there, for it is possible to reside somewhere, but not really live there at all, to be always pining for a different place. We mean also that it is in that nation that we have roots, that—at least for the present—we have settled there, that it is that nation that provides the normal context for our lives.
Thus, when we declare, “I believe in God,” we are not saying only that we believe that God exists. Certainly, believing in God requires believing also that there is a God. But this is not the main thrust of our words. Their main thrust is that we trust God for our lives, and also that it is in this God that we live and believe, that this God is both the foundation and the context of all our belief.
The same is true of the entire Creed. Note that there are three persons in whom we believe: God the Father Almighty, Jesus Christ his Son, and the Holy Spirit. In this sense, it is only in God that we believe. We certainly believe that God is “Maker of heaven and earth,” and therefore we affirm the doctrine of creation. Likewise, we affirm the resurrection of the dead. Yet strictly speaking, these are things that we believe, and not things in which we believe.
Reformed theologian Karl Barth has expressed this as follows:
This “I believe” is consummated in a meeting with One who is not man but God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and by my believing I see myself completely filled and determined by this object of my faith. And what interests me is not my faith, but He in whom I believe.1

God as Father in the Teachings of Jesus

The Creed begins by declaring faith—belief in—“God the Father.” What does this mean? For most of us, to speak of God as “Father”—or as “Mother,” or as “Father/Mother”—means that God is loving and close to us. This is certainly what Jesus, and a long Jewish tradition before him, meant when he told his disciples about “your Father,” when he taught them to pray, “Our Father,” and when he referred to God as “my Father.” Jesus was speaking mostly to relatively poor fishers and peasants who lived in a social framework where a father was responsible for providing food and shelter, as well as loving care, to his children. His hearers could readily understand when he spoke to them of God as a father watching over his children, or as a father whose child asks for bread or for an egg.
This is also the setting of the parable of the Prodigal Son, in which a father’s relationship to his sons is direct, and where this relationship is one of such love that much is forgiven and where the son’s return to the household is the occasion for a great feast. In that parable, the son who begrudges his father’s enthusiastic and generous reception of his wayward brother does not understand what this loving fatherhood is all about. Yet his father takes the time to explain to him why he is receiving the prodigal with such a feast, apparently hoping that the stubborn son will come to understand what family love is all about.

The Creed in Its Context

This, however, was not the setting in which the Creed took shape. Its original context was a church set at the very heart—the very capital—of the Roman Empire. In traditional Roman society, the figure of a father was not first of all a loving figure but rather a powerful one. The father of the family—the paterfamilias—ruled over it as a master, and was often a distant figure. His authority over his children remained until he decided to emancipate them, which he was not obliged to do no matter how old they were. But he was also the paterfamilias of the entire household—women, children, grandchildren, slaves, and even freedmen and freedwomen, who still owed him a certain obedience and service.
In a church such as that of Rome in the second century, there would be many who knew no father but their master or paterfamilias. Some would be slaves whose natural father had abandoned them in the open—as was quite legal and acceptable in the case of unwanted children—to die of exposure or to be picked up by someone in order to raise them until they could sell them into slavery.2 Others would be women married off by their father for his own convenience or gain. If the man they married was the paterfamilias, they would be directly subject to him. If not, they and their husbands would be subject to whoever held that position in the household.
This is why many of the early Christian writers used the term “God the Father” to refer to God’s otherness, to God beyond all human thought, to God as the distant and unknowable source of all things. Roughly at the same time that the Creed was taking shape in Rome, Justin Martyr was writing that God the Father is beyond all human knowledge and does not even relate directly to this mutable world; it is rather God the Son—the Word of God—who relates to the world. It was God the Son who walked in the garden, God the Son who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and God the Son who led Israel out of Egypt. The Father—like a tyrannical paterfamilias—was too highly placed and too distant for such matters.
When Christians in Rome in the second century recited the Creed in its earliest form, probably most of them were not thinking of its first clause as referring primarily to a loving father but to the supreme paterfamilias, the ruler of all.

The Ruler of All

This point is reinforced by the very next word in the Creed—the word we now translate as “almighty,” whose full import we will explore in the next chapter. In the original Greek, this word is pantokrator. This word has a double root, being derived from pan and from krasis. The first of these is the same prefix we still use in words such as “pan-American,” meaning encompassing all the Americas, and “pan-Hellenic,” meaning encompassing all Greeks. Krasis means “government or rule,” and its derivatives are still used in words such as “democracy,” government by the people, and “theocracy,” goverment by God or by those who claim to be God’s representatives. Thus, to say that God is pantokrator means first and foremost that God is the ruler of all. It is not, as we tend to think today, a statement about God’s power to do any and all things.
In short, to a member of a traditional family in Rome—particularly to one whose relationship with the paterfamilias was rather distant, as was probably the case with most Christians in the city—the declaration of belief in “God the Father Almighty” would not immediately bring to mind images of love and care, but rather images of power and authority.
While we now view parenthood—and particularly fatherhood—in a totally different way, it is important for us to understand this, for the Creed, while certainly affirming faith in a loving God, also takes into account God’s mighty power and sovereign authority.
How would early Christians reciting this Creed respond to such a statement? It is impossible for us to know, but we can at least surmise that Christians would respond in a variety of ways. It is possible that some would respond negatively, finding it difficult to relate God to their experience of an earthly and perhaps overbearing paterfamilias. Today many women and men who have had abusive or distant fathers prefer not to speak of God as “Father,” and even find the idea itself offensive. One may well imagine such a reaction from a son who had been denied his freedom by his father, or from a slave who was treated cruelly by his paterfamilias.
But then there is another possible reaction. Some years ago a friend who is a Roman Catholic nun told me that her father had been an abusive alcoholic and that to her as a teenager what was attractive in the Christian message was the offer of a different Father. Her friends and peers had loving fathers who cared for them and who hurried home to be with their children. In contrast, she had a father who did not really care for her, and who often came home late at night, drunk, and shouting abuse at her and all others in the family. She felt deeply deprived until she discovered God as a Father—as a Father who cared for her.
One may surmise that upon reciting the words of the Creed, many believers have felt as did my friend. They had never really had a natural father to care for them. Some may have been left to die by their natural fathers and then picked up by a supposedly foster father whose only purpose was to sell them into slavery. But now they had become Christians and could claim another Father who did care for them—one powerful beyond the most powerful paterfamilias. This Father did not rule over a particular household, as did the fathers they experienced in daily life, but over all. This one was the Almighty, the pantokrator, the ruler of all!

Subversive Overtones

When seen in this context, the naming of God as Father both affirmed the power and authority of God and limited the power and authority of earthly fathers—in ancient Rome, of the paterfamilias. It even had subversive overtones, questioning or at least limiting and relativizing the authority of those whom the existing social order had placed above many confessing this faith. I may be a slave or a wife ordered to be submissive to the head of my household, but I now belong to another household with a very different—and much more powerful—head. No wonder, then, that the Creed was not taught to believers until they had proven their faithfulness and commitment over a long period and were ready to be baptized! At this point, they had to decide whether they would confess this Almighty Father—even though this may prove costly in actual life, perhaps even provoking the wrath of those who had “fatherly” authority over them.3

God as Father Today

Time has gone by, and today we live in different social circumstances. We no longer live in a society where fathers have power of life and death over their children—nor even in one where physically abusive parents are legally and socially tolerated. Also, through a process that has been evolving over the last two centuries, we have come to idealize the family and parents’ role in it, so that the notion that immediately comes to mind when we hear that God is Father is that God follows Dr. Spock’s prescription in dealing with us!
Thus, when we today recite the Apostles’ Creed, we interpret its very first words as an affirmation of God’s loving closeness to us. This is as it should be, for our God is indeed loving and close to us as a parent is supposed to be, and we do well in affirming and proclaiming this faith and this experience.
Yet there are many today, both men and women, who object to this depiction of God. It seems to give God a masculine character and to neglect the many biblical images in which God is depicted with what society considers feminine, mothering traits. It is too close to the notion that men are somehow more in the image of God than are women. It seems to bolster a patriarchal view of the family, where the father rules the household and the mother and children simply obey and support the father’s decisions. From this patriarchal view of the family it is quite easy to move on to tyranny and abuse. For this reason, they prefer to speak of God as “Parent,” or as “Mother/Father.” These views and feelings deserve respect, both because they point to injustices in society and in the church, and because they often express deeply felt experiences and hurts.
At this point, it may be helpful for all of us to recover some of the subversive overtones of the Creed when it was first composed. By declaring God to be Father, the Creed was undermining fatherhood as it was then understood. Slaves, children, wives, and all others subject to the paterfamilias were claiming a Father above this earthly one. However, as the result of a process of centuries, the sharp cutting edge of this faith has been blunted,...


  1. Cover
  2. Other Books by this Author
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright
  5. Contents
  6. Series Introduction
  7. Preface
  8. Introduction
  9. 1. I Believe in God the Father
  10. 2. Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth
  11. 3. And in Jesus Christ His Only Son Our Lord
  12. 4. Who Was Conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary
  13. 5. Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was Crucified, Dead, and Buried
  14. 6. He Descended to the Dead
  15. 7. On the Third Day He Rose Again
  16. 8. He Ascended into Heaven, Is Seated at the Right Hand of the Father
  17. 9. And Will Come Again to Judge the Living and the Dead
  18. 10. I Believe in the Holy Spirit
  19. 11. The Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints
  20. 12. The Forgiveness of Sins
  21. 13. The Resurrection of the Body, and the Life Everlasting
  22. Notes
  23. Further Reading