Madeleine Davies

Words uttered in the catacombs: A review of ‘The Apostles’ Creed: A guide to the ancient catechism’ by Ben Myers

In Uncategorized on April 10, 2019 at 12:01 am

Apostles

I did not grow up saying The Apostles’ Creed. Bar the mention of the Communion of Saints – not something I remember being articulated – its doctrine is all very familiar to me. But I am not accustomed to saying it aloud every Sunday.

I would like to recommend Ben Myers’ little book – The Apostles’ Creed: A guide to the ancient catechism – not only to others who are learning the Creed, but to anyone who would like to read a simple, compelling guide to the Christian faith. I’ve seen a few requests on Twitter lately asking for book recommendations for those exploring Christianity – this would be a wonderful addition.

One of its key strengths is its reminder that, at Christianity’s heart we find not a theory but a person, and that this person brings us into a family – that through baptism we join an “ever-widening circle of people who have handed their lives over to the pattern of Jesus’ life”.

By drawing consistently on the words of the Church Fathers, Myers presents as a friendly guide, initiating the reader into this circle. St Augustine, Gregory of Nazianzus and Julian of Norwich are introduced not merely as historical figures but as friends who have gone ahead of us – members of a family that “stretches out across space but also across time”.

Another strength is the insistence that Christianity is unambiguously Good News. The Creed makes most sense, Myers suggests, “when you imagine the words echoing among the bones of the catacombs”. It is “marked everywhere by an unflinching acceptance of the facts of human mortality, coupled with a straightforward confidence in the ultimate triumph of life”.

At times, I read it with a feeling of relief.

“The Christian faith is mysterious not because it is so complicated but because it is so simple,” Myers writes. “A person does not start with baptism and then advance to higher mysteries. In baptism each believer already possesses the faith in its fullness. . .In discipleship, the one who makes the most progress is the one who remains at the beginning.”

There are moments when it’s easy to forget this. Perhaps particularly for those of an academic nature, there can be a feeling that Christianity is another field to master. This is not to denigrate theological study (Myers teaches at The Millis Institute in Brisbane) but to set it in its proper place.

“We are like people who have inherited a vast estate,” Myers elaborates. “We have to study the documents and visit different locations because it’s more than we can take in at a single glance. In the same way, it takes considerable time and effort to begin to comprehend all that we have received in Christ. Theological thinking does not add a single thing to what we have received. The inheritance remains the same whether we grasp its magnitude or not. But the better we grasp it, the happier we are.”

This book is, he says, “An invitation to happiness.”

(I should mention that it’s also beautiful. Each Article is introduced with a black and white illustration of a stained glass window; each sub-clause with a cross-section of this larger whole).

In places, Myers’ writing reads like a piece of practical criticism, an examination of the associations to which certain words give rise. The first chapter is dedicated entirely to the first word: “I”. Who is it that is speaking here? What does “power” mean? What do we fear when we come across the judging of the living and the dead?

It’s also an important reminder that the Creed was set down in a particular time and place. It is not the work of a council, devised as part of any “deliberate theological strategy” but a “grassroots confession of faith . . .rooted in the faith of the apostles, and ultimately in the word of the risen Christ himself”. By the Second Century, it was found in widely dispersed Christian communities.

A significant thread is Myers’ explanation of the ways in which the Early Church was defining itself against contemporary beliefs: polytheism, unreliable Gods who occasionally intervened in human affairs, Gnosticism.

In the Second Century, the educated classes “took it for granted that the physical world was inherently evil and irredeemable”. The flesh was something to shed, escape, transcend. The Creed we recite was developed “in response to such world-denying doctrines and the wider culture of despair that had engendered them”. Christianity teaches that the world is in need of healing, not destruction.

I enjoyed a reflection on the inclusion of Pontius Pilate as a reminder that “the heart of Christianity is not an idea but a brute fact. Not a theory but a particular human life. Not a general principle but a person with a name.”

There is a very helpful chapter on the Virgin Birth – the clause that some seem most inclined to jettison – which cautions against looking at it in isolation and points us towards its place in a long line of miraculous births in Scripture, “the culmination of God’s loving faithfulness to the people of Israel”.

This book also serves as a corrective against any suggestion that contemporary concerns about language are new. By the Fourth Century Athanasius was critiquing the idea that God was male because of masculine nouns, while Gregory of Nazianzus was explaining that the word Father “designates neither the substance nor the activity, but the relationship, the manner of being, which holds good between the Father and the Son.”

“At the centre of the Christian faith is not an idea or a theory or even a version of life but a person, Jesus,” Myers reminds us. “Our faith centres on a personal attachment to him.”

I was reminded of the answer given by Rowan Williams at a recent discussion at St Paul’s Cathedral. Asked who Jesus was to him, he replied: “The ground of all my hope”. I also thought of contemporary hymns to Jesus: Delirious’s “What a Friend I’ve Found” and Graham Kendrick’s “Servant King”.

(No need to tweet me the reasons why contemporary worship is bad!)

I found Myers’ teaching on Jesus’s death of resurrection both powerful and comforting, in particular this passage:

“Each one of us approaches the day of our death. But there is someone waiting for us there: Jesus, the Lord of life, who meets us at all life’s crossroads, at the beginning and end of all our ways.”

Beautiful.

I thought of Dr Joanna Collicutt’s vital reminder that the New Testament “originates from bereaved and traumatised communities, but they act completely at odds with this trauma because of their hope in the bodily resurrection of Christ.”

In parallel with his championing of the Church Fathers, Myers has some gentle, but firm words for those who are sceptical about the past. The tone is not scolding, but corrective.

“We assume that the truest thing we could ever say would be something we had made up ourselves,” he observes. Many churches seem to be more comfortable with mission statements than the Creed – a preference he compares to the contemporary fashion for individualised wedding vows. In both cases, “the harder they try to be special and unique, the more they seem exactly like everybody else.”

Confessing the Creed is counter-cultural, he argues: “We locate ourselves as part of that community that transcends time and place.”

He is not, however, dismissive of those who doubt their ability to utter with integrity the first two words. They are, he suggests, “a cry of total trust in the Triune God”, the Creed as a whole a reminder “that life itself is founded on trust”.

This resonated with me. When I say the Creed I feel I am choosing to trust, however doubtful or anxious I may be feeling on that particular morning. I am not saying it alone, but as part of that “ever-widening circle” that includes those upon another shore, in a greater light.

Today, many churches have replaced the first word of the Creed with “We”  – not  something that Myers would encourage.

“It is intensely personal when I say ‘I believe’,” he writes. “I say the creed as if the words applied to me alone. But beneath and within and around my own personal ‘I’ I hear the surge of a greater voice.”

A preface to his book, which forms part of the “Christian Essentials” series, quotes Martin Luther:

“Although I’m an indeed an old doctor, I never move on from the childish doctrine of the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. I still daily learn and pray them with my little Hans and my little Lena.”

Myer’s gift is to make the reader delight in being a child again, helping us to explore an inheritance that will remain the same, regardless of how much we are currently able to grasp.

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