Friday, November 19, 2010

What "Credo" Means

I recently came across an interesting posting over at Ship of Fools entitled "What is the etymology of 'credo'"? In it, the author expresses doubts about etymological explanations of "credo" in relation to the creeds (Credo in unum Deum) and other areas of Christian believing which make it largely a matter of "giving one's heart" to something or someone rather than making intellectual commitments to truths that can be stated in propositional form. The author writes:

“Credo” comes from “cor do”, which means “I give my heart”. It’s an inspiring etymology. But I think it’s incorrect, or at best half right, a “folk etymology”, like the (false) supposition that the English posthumous derives from the Latin post humum, “after the earth”, “after burial”.

The author continues by briefly discussing other perspectives on the etymological roots of "credo," and concludes by writing:

So, if the etymology really says anything about the meaning of the word, perhaps the better reading of “credo” is not “something we give our hearts to rather than our brains” but “something (or someone) we are willing to trust or commit ourselves to”: hearts and brains and (in the older, business sense of credo) money.

Read it all.

There is something important and appealing about understanding the word "credo" as meaning "I give my heart." After all, Christian believing is not just about intellectual assent to truth claims; it's about faith. And as H. Richard Niebuhr reminds us, at its core, faith is about trust and loyalty. We do well to remember that the ultimate object of the Christian faith is not a proposition, but a Person. It's about giving our whole selves in trust and loyalty to Jesus Christ.

But placing our trust and loyalty in Jesus Christ cannot be separated from how we understand who he is. In an important sense, trusting in Jesus presupposes being shaped and influenced by what scripture and tradition say about him. Indeed, were it not for scripture and tradition, we wouldn't even know about Jesus. And so, whether we realize it or not, faith as trust in Jesus cannot be divorced from an at least implicit (if also, at times, distorted or even reluctant) trust in the Church.

Understandings of Jesus as mediated and shaped by scripture and tradition can be raised to conscious awareness and stated in propositional form. Of course, any particular individual's understanding of Jesus may be more or less adequate, or even flat-out wrong. If, for example, my understanding of Jesus can be stated as, "Jesus is a harsh, arbitrary judge who is eager to condemn me to eternal punishment in hell," then I will be unlikely to place my whole trust in him. Hence the need for the individual's understanding to be placed within the larger community of interpretation's checks and balances.

Its good sides notwithstanding, I think there are possible dangers in using the etymological explanation of "credo" as "I give my heart." Paramount is the danger of affirming a dualism between head and heart, with the heart being more important than the head. Going that route, I can imagine "credo" understood as "I give my heart" serving as a justification for subjectivism and relativism. According to such usage, the important thing is that I trust God and what I "feel" about God, etc., not that I accept the substantive doctrinal content of the creeds or what the scriptures teach. Such a perspective can lead to the view that the creeds and the scriptures mean whatever I interpret them to mean, or that they really aren't that important anyway (my subjective experience becoming a kind of rival "scripture" and "creed").

Credo without the heart can lead to a soulless rationalism divorced from the compassion of the One whom we claim to follow. On the other hand, credo without the head can lead to a gullible sentimentalism susceptible to being "tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, [and] by their craftiness in deceitful scheming" (Ephesians 4:14). So when it comes to the meaning of "credo," we need both the heart and the head.


plsdeacon said...

One problem is that we think of "heart" as the seat of emotions and "head" as the seat of the intellect.

In Scripture, the heart was the seat of the will. When God says that He will write His laws on our hearts, He is not indicating that we will simply like/love the Law, but that our wills will be aligned with His will.

So, in saying "I give my heart to..." as a meaning of "credo," we are actually saying "I give my will to."

When we see that the heart is not just the seat of emotions, but the seat of the will, then credo means "I give my will to the God described below."

Since the elightenment we have tried to divorce the intellect and the emotions from the will. We have turned "I believe..." from a statement of what we stake our lives on into "We believe" meaning "there are those in the Church that say...." And, yes, I have heard clergy say that since the words are no longer "I believe" but "we believe" that they no longer have to accept the truths spoken of in either the Nicene or Apostles' Creeds.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the on-target comments, Phil. I hope that my posting and your perspective are complementary.

Joe Rawls said...

Borg follows this approach to the creed (I can't cite the source offhand). I suppose we should be grateful he says anything positive about the creed at all.

Bill Carroll said...

Nothing wrong with thinking about credo this way, which brings out the importance of trust, which is rather central to Greek pistis and Latin fides.

When we learned theology in seminary, we spoke of faith as fiducia (loyalty) and assensus (assent). A related but somewhat different distinction is that between fides qua creditur, the faith by which we believe and fides quae creditur, the faith which is believed.

The risk in someone like Borg is the reduction of faith to trust without assent. Statements about God may signify in a very odd way, because of the limitations of the sign not the signified, but they do have truth value. And part of what it means to be faithful is to put one's trust in the true God and not an idol. Dogma is meant to prevent us from trusting falsely.

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks for this Bryan. It is one of my pet peeves:

1. Etymological argumetns are specious. The root of a word often has little to do with its later meaning. One might as well argue that every time Christopher Hitchens says "Goodbye" he really means "God be with you". The real question is, "What did those who wrote the creeds mean by the word (and what it meant in the baptismal liturgies from which they came)". It would be hard to argue that intellectual ascent was not part of what they were about.

2. As Augustine and others remind us, you cannot love something without knowing it and you cannot truly know something without loving it. The two go together.

3. How odd that this particular red herring has such traction in what used to be called - presumptuously - "The thinking person's church."

Charlie Sutton said...

Our adult Sunday School class was studying the Belgic Confession last year. (In my exile, I am attending a Christian Reformed congregation.) The teacher said that living faith has three elements: 1) Knowledge of the content of Christianity, so that propositional truth is necessary; 2) Assent that the teachings of Christianity are indeed the case; & 3) A whole-hearted reliance upon the truth of Christianity and upon the triune God.

Knowledge, conviction, and feelings are aspects of being a believer, but they are not separable components. All are needed.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for your comment, Charlie. I like the three-fold emphasis you've shared. It reminds me of the quote from Jaroslav Pelikan I've posted on the right sidebar of this blog:

"It is necessary to know the doctrinal and historical content of the Christian message in at least some detail, to acknowledge that the message is true, and to have personal confidence in it as reliable in life and in death."

Randall Rains said...

Words change through usage. Important words seem somehow more vulnerable to the slow creep of meaning drift. As we invite the world into our worship in the words of the creed it seems there might be a wide gap between what we proclaim and what they hear. Even many believers would tend to bring a very simplistic conceptualization of 'We believe' to the proclamation of the creed. When I share in the creed with my Anglican family I rehearse in my heart 'From my heart of hearts I trust, obey and put my hope in God the Father...'.