Christianity as always “I” and “We”

Edited, 30/01/21

First line of the Apostles’ Creed:
Credo in deum patrem omnipotentem” – “I believe in God the Father almighty”
cred.o (PRES ACTIVE IND 1st person singular).

First line of the Nicene/Constantinopolitan Creed:
“Πιστεύομεν εἰς ἕνα θεόν” – “We believe in one God”
πιστεύομεν (Root: πιστευω, LN: 31.35; verb, present, active, indicative, first person, plural).

It is of profound importance that the Church, has held together the personal and individual declaration of belief with the communal and participatory declaration of belief. One way this happens is by way of the two creeds universally regarded as authoritative within mainstream Christianity (east and west, Catholic, Orthodox, and Reformed Christianity), the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene/Constantinopolitan Creed. However, this importance has not always been recognized. Here I argue for an intentional use and increased awareness of the importance of the “I” of the baptismal creed, and the “We” of the conciliar and communal creed. The Christian faith is both personal and corporate, and the two cannot be severed without seriously damaging how we understand the Christian faith.

Even though these two creeds counterbalance the ”I” and the “We” this is not to say that the Church in time has been able to hold together these two emphases in an ideal or even somewhat ideal way. In fact, it is a basic struggle to hold the individual and communal together. The Nicene Creed underwent what many regard as an incidental change, by exchanging the “We” for the “I”. Philip Schaff says that this change was “in accordance with the Apostles’ Creed and the more subjective character of the Western churches.” In other words, the change was on one hand functional, because the Nicene Creed began being used as a baptismal creed. On the other hand, it shows a preference for the individual over the communal.

The struggle is not simple, however. It can be seen also in terms of the ministry and organization of the Church down through the centuries. At times the communal aspect of Christianity (emphasizing corporate authority and what may be characterized by a mechanistic individual participation within the corporate church) has marginalized or even eclipsed the individual and personal importance of declared and lived Christian belief. At other times the individual and personal basis of Christian belief has marginalized or eclipsed the necessity of being a part of the Body of Christ (the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church).

Our age is not an age of ‘We’ (at least not in the late modern ‘West’). The drift in late modern western Christianity has certainly between towards the mere “I” of individual and subjective belief, as a default. The drift is due to deep cultural currents of subjectivism and existentialism—currents which have altered the composition of the water in the cultural wells from which we all drink. We may be attentive to the influences, but we have all been influenced in varying degrees (even if the influence has caused a negative reaction and resistance).

For example, within even more reformed minded contemporary “Evangelical” churches, There is the tendency to substitute the Nicene Creed with the Apostles’ Creed (often justified by preferences for simplicity or brevity). This imbalanced preference causes a drift away from the central importance of Catholic (universal, historical, corporate, communal, fellowship) Christianity. (Here, of course, I’m not speaking of local congregations or fellowships which have abandoned the Creeds altogether, which is a problem of a different magnitude – a problem which manifestly has resulted in (or caused) a generally unhinged subjectivism and capitulation to contemporary culture, mostly due to a degree of disregard for substantial theological union and continuity with the historical Church – no keel, no rudder – inadequate keel, broken rudder). The drift caused by imbalanced language within our worship is not only indicated in credal preference, but also in confessions. The “I confess” of the daily office services has a tendency to supplanted the “We confess” of the classical Eucharistic services. There is a disregard for, or an embarrassment about, the declared absolution for our sins from the priest or bishop. This too indicates a drift towards the mere “I” as an entity which is a member of the Church by way of free association and does not really require the Church – the ego receives forgiveness subjectively and independent of the ministry of the Church (and for that matter ultimately interprets scripture and doctrine on its own terms also). The drift from common chalices to individual communion cups reveals the priority of the individual over the body in the Eucharist.

As noted above, the drift to the “I” is not merely a late modern innovation, however. Liturgically, in east and west, the original “We” was replaced by “I”. In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and following revisions, the original “We” of the Nicene Creed has been replaced by the “I”. Some later revisions have adopted the “We” of the original Greek text of the Nicene/Constantinopolitan Creed. Schaff’s simple point above regarding subjectivity in the west is a vast and important topic to explore. Eastern Orthodoxy does not typically use the Apostles’ Creed, thus the adaptation of the Nicene Creed for baptismal purposes makes sense. When it was incorporated into the Eucharist it was in response to Arianism. While there are notable theological and cultural differences between eastern and western Christianity regarding the individual and the community I find it odd that the Orthodox Church has not returned to the original “We” of the Nicene/Constantinopolitan Creed. I contend that the absence of this interplay is a loss for them that may well bear fruit as they also feel the influence of western subjective individualism in their own jurisdictions.

Of course, the Creeds do not invent this dual character of belief. It is Biblical. Biblical anthropology and the character of belief has held the “I” and the “We” together from the start. Adam’s “I” is inadequate, even in the time of innocence, and thus the Lord God creates Eve. We learn logos (intelligent human speech) which enables growth in rationality and ‘personhood’ (variously conceived), from the “Other”. Intelligent human speech requires always the “Other.” The primary “Other” is our Maker, whom we worship and to whom we pray and offer our solitary interiority to the extent we are able to fathom ourselves and communicate this fathoming. Secondarily, we direct human speech to one another in community. If we are incapacitated or born without the capacity for human communication, how much more do we depend upon the “We” of our family and broader community (and crucially, how does a local church which has emphasized the “I” to the exclusion of the “We” include the very young, those who have suffered some kind of mental injury, or those born incapable of intelligent human speech)? The covenant of circumcision is the “I” being circumcised within the Covenant people of Israel. There is the individual and corporate calls to repentance, as well as individual and corporate redemption and judgement. In the New Covenant, the baptized person is encountered by their Maker alone, but never utterly alone, as they are baptized within the Church, by the Church, and into the Church. The Eucharist cannot rightly be celebrated in a solitary fashion (and even when it is celebrated solitarily by individual priests, even that is generally joined to a deep belief of the solitary nested within the Body of Christ’s church victorious, and within the Body of Christ’s church militant).

The solitary human heart and mind is inadequate to the task of its own formation. Not only do we require being encountered by our Maker for our salvation, we require one another for instruction and influence. One of the key sources of Divine influence in the world, if not THE key source, is the Body of Christ, the Church. She is entrusted with God’s Word Written. Through her worship, and flowing out of that worship, she is called, in the words of J.H. Blunt, to “influence, subdue, and attract the world” with the Good News. Of basic importance to our worship and our ministry is this understanding that we approach our Maker always as both “I” and “We”.

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