Friday, December 9, 2011

An aside about Creeds

Before I continue with my fulminations about translation, I must make a correction. A few weeks ago I spoke of “God the creator of heaven and earth” That, as I am sure you noticed, comes from the Apostles’ Creed, or “Symbolum Apsotolorum”. I suspect that the use of the word “creator” in Latin is of greater antiquity than the word “maker”, which is used in the Nicene Creed. Perhaps this is an opportune moment to explain why we have two Creeds, and when one is to be used instead of the other and so on.

First, let us look at the Hebrew word “barah”, always a fun thing to do. It is used only in reference to God. Only God creates in the fullest sense of the word. Latin has two words “creator” and “factor” that is creator and maker respectively. Greek has only one word that will have to do for both creator and maker “poietes” from the verb “poieten,” meaning to do, cause, make and so on. In English, we get the word poetry, and not much else from it. Go figure. There were translation problems the day after the Council of Nicaea I imagine. So, in the Apostles’ Creed we have “creator.” In the Nicene Creed we have “maker”.

Note: an important point mentioned above which is the proper name of both creeds, the Apostolic Symbol and the Nicene Symbol.


The Nicene Creed is called the Symbolum Nicaenum in Latin and “Symbolon tes Pisteos” in Greek. The Roman Christians called it the “Nicene Symbol” while the Greeks of the 4th century called it the “Symbol of the faith”. I suspect this is because the Latins already had a “symbol” the Symbol of the Apostles. (Why does he keep calling the Creed a symbol? It’s getting a little irritating.) I am using the word symbol because that’s exactly what it is!

In modern English a symbol is some obscure representation of another thing, like a single perfect rose symbolizing a young man’s devotion to his sweetheart. (It usually symbolizes that he is in big trouble for having said or done something stupid.)

This is not what the Greco/Latin word symbolon/symbolum meant. A symbol was literally a thing thrown together. It often referred to two pieces of a coin broken between contracting parties, like those schlocky heart necklaces that come together to form one whole heart. (These are worn by the same irritating couples who wear matching outfits.)

A symbolon was a token of recognition. In ancient Athens, it was an identification token for jurors in the assembly, which in Greek is ekklesia, the same word used for Church. Thus, the symbolon which we call the Creed, is our admission ticket to the Church. It is the device by which fellow Christians recognize one another.

I was taught, back at the Casa Santa Animalia, my college seminary, that in the early Church, anyone could come to the first part of the Mass, the part composed of the readings, sermon and opening prayers, but that at a certain point, a porter, a sort of ordained bouncer, would make sure that only baptized Christians in good standing were in the congregation. This moment is memorialized in the Eastern Church by the words “The doors, the doors. In wisdom let us be attentive!” The non-Christians, the Catechumens and the Penitents were ushered out by the porter. The doors were closed, a sign of peace was exchanged and the Mass continued.

It was at this point that the Creed was finally placed in the Eastern Liturgy sometime around 400 AD. We in the West didn’t use the Nicene Creed at Mass until around 1100. We had our own Creed that was older than the Nicene Creed: the Apostles Creed, and it wasn’t necessarily used at Mass.

No one is quite sure where the Apostles Creed comes from. There is an old story that each of the Twelve Apostles added a verse to the Apostles’ Creed, hence the name. Perhaps this is the case. No one knows for sure. It is certainly very ancient and is thought to have been part of the Baptismal Liturgy of the Roman Church and still was even when I was a boy. I remember the terrible anxiety of godparents preparing for Baptism. They had to recite the Apostles’ Creed from memory. Now the priest just asks some questions and the godparents answer “I do” or “Whatever” or “Huh?” We don’t want to tax the overburdened modern brain by actually having anyone study what they claim to believe.

So that is why we have two Creeds in the West, the Nicene being more complex. The Apostles Creed is most appropriately used during the Lenten and the Easter season when we are thinking about and recommitting ourselves to our own Baptism. I suspect that sometimes it is used because it is a lot shorter than the Nicene. Perhaps soon we’ll have call in confessions and drive through communions. Ah, progress!

One more brief reflection on the Apostles Creed: “He descended into hell” this phrase certainly does alarm a lot of people. The use of the word hell is part of an unfortunate translation of a word in the Latin phrase, “descendit ad ínferos.” This literally means “He descended to those below.” It seems to refer to a text from 1Peter3:18 “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which He went and preached to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah.”

How’s that for obscure? The first Christians believed that, because of the justice and mercy of God, Jesus descended to the realm of the dead in order to give a chance for salvation to those who had not had the opportunity to enter a covenant with God. This realm of the dead is not what we mean by the eternal fire prepared for the “devil and his angels.” (Matt 25:41)

Don’t fret. It is interesting that the Bible does give us an example of post-mortem salvation. It is reasonable to assume that God in His justice and mercy makes the offer of Salvation to all people at some point. As St. Faustina reported, the Lord had told her in one of her visions that “At the hour of death I am my own apostle.”

God’s got it covered. Be calm!

Next week: Back to the new text!

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