I just finished reading The Creed by Luke Timothy Johnson. This book was very thought-provoking. Numerous times I went to my scriptures to look up Johnson’s references. I also kept thinking about the topics Johnson discusses after putting the book down. I think that makes it a pretty successful book.
It was also very illuminating. I’m not Catholic; I’m actually Latter Day Saint (commonly called Mormon), and as such, my church does not believe in everything in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed. But I wanted to learn more about it to better understand the beliefs of my Christian friends who are not of my faith.
I never really understood how different my own beliefs are from those of many other sects. But, there are also many beliefs we have in common, such as the need for a personal transformation in our lives brought about by the Spirit and faith in Jesus as our Savior.
This books caused me to think more deeply about how different beliefs are connected – such as how one’s understanding of the relationship between us and God affects our understanding of Christ’s role in our lives and human agency.
I was hoping for more discussion of the history of the creed, which only took about the first 3 chapters. The majority of the book dealt with the text of the creed itself, taking it apart line by line. Johnson’s audience was primarily those who recite the Creed at church without really understanding what they are saying. For them, this is undoubtedly a helpful book; Johnson’s explanations are pretty thorough and well-explained. I especially liked the references to the original Greek words and his explanation of them.
There was one part that disturbed me: saying that Mary was not a virgin, and that Jesus is the biological son of Joseph. I’m fairly certain that is not a mainstream Catholic belief. Johnson frequently comments that the scriptures are meant to be understood metaphorically. Certainly a lot of the Bible is metaphorical, but his commentary left me wondering if he takes any of the Bible literally.
He also speaks a great deal about the “mystery” of God and how “unknowable” God is. Certainly, there are many mysteries that we do not understand. But I don’t believe God intends for us to never understand. We might experience a trial in our lives in which we must exercise blind obedience to God’s will – but we are not meant to be blind always. At some point in our lives, hopefully, we can look back on that experience and understand what we were meant to learn from it, or how it was meant to put us in the right place at the right time. Likewise, as we study the scriptures, ponder, pray, and keep the commandments, we are meant to gain greater understanding of God and of His plan. We are not meant stay as children, needing “milk,” but to at some point need “meat” (Heb. 5: 12-14).
Another shocking thing to me was Johnson’s admission that he does not know why we have free will, calling it the “problem” of free agency, since, if God is good, why would He allow us to do bad things? I’ve been taught the answer to this from childhood. Someone who is always good does not force his or her will on others. A good person encourages others to be good through service and being a good example. Parents allow their children to make their own choices, even bad ones. Without that, their children would never be able to mature and grow. God treats us the same way. If He forced us to keep the commandments, we would never learn to love God and to obey Him out of love and faith.
My objections to his theology are not meant to dissuade anyone from reading it. Rather, I wanted to continue the discussion Johnson began. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!