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Creed (Part I) – Correct Belief and Correct Behaviour [C1]

Updated: Feb 3


Listen to the podcast here:


The third topic of the A-Z of DiscipleSHIP, “C”, is about the Creed. Like school children who recite the Singapore pledge every day, we say it at Mass every Sunday, springing to our feet, reciting formulae dating back to at least 325 AD. The Catechism notes that “Communion in faith needs a common language of faith, normative for all and uniting all in the same confession”. (CCC no 185). Why do we do that? Just as Singaporeans are supposed to take the national pledge to heart, the Christian disciple should strive to understand the words and the reasons for those words must mean something, beyond “it has always been done that way”.


Opening Prayer – Lead Kindly Light – Saint John Henry Newman


Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th'encircling gloom,

Lead Thou me on!

The night is dark, and I am far from home,

Lead Thou me on!

Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see

The distant scene; one step enough for me.


I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou

Shouldst lead me on;

I loved to choose and see my path; but now

Lead Thou me on!

I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,

Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!


Introduction


At around Christmas time, a popular meme which would make its rounds among theological nerds depicts a small boy approaching Santa with an unusual question. The small boy asks Santa “Homoousios” or “Homoiousios”? An incredulous Santa could reply only “What?” The boy concludes in a disappointed tone, “You’re not the real St Nicholas”.


If you laughed, good for you. If you didn’t get the joke, don’t worry, we can help you (so you can impress whoever you need to impress with your theological knowledge the next time). ^_^


Most Catholics will know that the figure of Santa Claus drew its inspiration from St Nicholas, the 4th century bishop of Smyrna. St. Nicholas was known for generously helping the poor in secret. His most well-known story was about him secretly providing dowries for a father who was in danger of needing to sell his daughters into prostitution. The father, keen to find out who this man was, finally “caught” Nicholas in the act, secretly slipping a bag of money through the window of his house like a “good thief”. These stories became the inspiration for Santa’s legendary feats of coming down a chimney and secretly leaving presents in socks and under Christmas trees.


But what many Catholics may not be aware of is that there is also a pious legend which had St. Nicholas attending the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Arius, the infamous priest who argued that that Jesus was homoiousios, Greek for ‘only like the Father in Greek, so therefore not fully divine, was present and made his case. St. Nicholas, who believed (as Christians do today and have believed since the time of the apostles) that Jesus was homoousios i.e. consubstantial with the Father, listened to Arius with increasing rage. In a fit of pious fury, he lashed out with his fists and struck Arius, causing the impious heretic to fall into a heap. His fellow bishops, outraged by his behaviour, had St. Nicholas put in prison. In prison, legend has it that he was visited by Christ and his Mother and had his bishop’s stole restored to him. His fellow bishops, upon realising that a miracle occurred, were embarrassed and released Nicholas. The rest as they say is history. Arius failed to convince others and lost badly at the council, though his teaching came back with a vengeance for a few more decades. Nevertheless, as a result of the council, the orthodox belief was codified and what we know today as the Nicene Creed, drew its inspiration from this Council.


Saint Nicholas Providing Dowries, by Bicci di Lorenzo (1373–1452)

If I were to ask the audience what they think of both stories, I suspect that the first, i.e. Nicholas trying to help people in secret, would be met with universal applause. Yes! This is agape love! This is what has been commonly preached i.e. “evangelise through actions.” What a Christ-like and practical example!


If I were to ask you about the second story, I suspect that the applause would be far from universal. You would probably be not sure what to think of that story. You may be scandalised at St. Nicholas’ short fuse, thinking, “Wah lau eh, this is why non-believers find us crazy lor”. Or you may chuckle at St. Nicholas’ politically incorrect gesture, i.e. “we don’t do PPC (Parish Pastoral Council) meetings like they do in those days.”


This would not be surprising at all. As Singaporeans, we are inevitably influenced by a pragmatic mindset. We like real life results. We don’t like people who seem to have “theory many many”, in other words, with their head full of ideas, arguing over what seems to be esoteric matters detached from real life. After all, a famous Singaporean once said that “We are pragmatists. We don't stick to any ideology. Does it work? Let's try it, and if it does work, fine, let's continue it. If it doesn't work, toss it out, try another one. We are not enamored with any ideology.”


Late medieval Greek Orthodox icon showing Saint Nicholas of Myra slapping Arius at the First Council of Nicaea.

If we were to interview St Nicholas however, I suspect he would insist that his passion for the poor, or what is known as (“orthopraxis” or correct behaviour) flows from his passion for correct belief (or what is known as “orthodoxy”). He may well regret hitting Arius, but he would certainly not regret engaging in intellectual combat and battling it out over the letter “I” or “iota” in Greek. (Some people say that the phrase “one iota of difference” came from Nicea), to ensure that Jesus is described as homoousios (same as) with the Father, and not just like the Father.


In a nutshell, to ensure correct behaviour, there needs to be correct beliefs. Minus correct belief, we run the risk of losing sight of correct behaviour. The Creed we recite every Sunday integrates both. And we will explore how this is the case in the rest of the podcast.


Part One: Correct Belief (orthodoxy) & Correct Behaviour (orthopraxy) in the New Testament


Joseph Ratzinger, before becoming Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, notes that for the Romans, religious feeling was understood as “mainly the observance of certain ritual forms and customs…even the complete absence of such faith did not imply any disloyalty to this religion[1]. Ratzinger’s observation about the Romans is not far from some forms of traditional Chinese religiosity. Very often, precise belief about the nature of the gods prayed to is not considered important. What is important is whether the rituals are performed with precision and whether through these rituals, the gods are able to bestow the required favour requested by the devotee.


Christianity, on the other hand, is determined by an insistence on “Credo” i.e. belief, or to be even more precise “orthodoxy” (traditional and correct belief).


This concern for sound doctrine can be seen from the beginning of Christianity, in the letters of the Apostle Paul. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul discusses the Resurrection of the Dead. The implications of orthodox, in contrast to heterodox doctrine could not be starker. If the Corinthians were to believe the heretical doctrine that “there is no resurrection of the dead”, the Christian faith would ultimately collapse and they would be left with an illusory hope. Paul draws out the logic implications of false doctrine for everyday living in the following manner.


If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…Your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.” (1 Cor 15:13-14,16-19). [2]


This doctrine, as Paul had earlier indicated in his letter, was not Paul’s private opinion or speculation but what he had himself received:


“... that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” - 1 Cor 15:4-6


Scriptural scholar, Brant Pitre notes that the four articles cited by Paul, echo what is found in the Apostle’s Creed, that Jesus was “crucified, died and was buried, on the third day he rose again from the dead.” Pitre goes on to explain that a number of scriptural scholars have observed that Paul in this particular passage would have been echoing early creedal formulas already in use by the emerging Christian communities to ensure correct doctrine among the believers and to provide formula for newly baptised Christians to assent to, when being initiated into the new Christian community.


The Creed’s connection with initiation into a new Christian community illustrates in a palpable manner, the inseparable connection between correct belief and correct behaviour. At the rite of baptism, the catechumen is asked a series of questions:


"Do you renounce Satan, and all his works and empty promises?"


After the candidate announces “I do”, he is then lead to assent to specific articles of the Creed by saying “I do”.


In other words, the assent to correct doctrine is not simply assent to intellectual propositions. Rather, they indicate a radical new way of life, a decisive rejection of Satan and a turning towards the Lord and his Kingdom.



Download the slides here:

C1 Creed
.pdf
Download PDF • 1.23MB


Footnotes


1. Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, p.48. 2. Unless otherwise stated, all Scriptural references are taken from the RSV, 2nd CE.


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