Vol I No. 7
From the Quarterly

"Lost in the Translation": An Essay on the Christian Creed

by The Editors

Cate McDermott

The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds have “served, and I believe continue to serve, as tokens or badges of Christian identity”[1] for the past seventeen hundred years. Without the Creeds, “the church can preserve neither its unity in Christ nor its identity as Christian.”[2] Christianity is an essentially “creedal religion,” dedicated to “a sense of right belief . . . from which deviation means heresy.”[3] Accordingly, the creedal doctrines are indispensable for the Christian faith, and indivisible from Christian truth.  The ability of the Church to communicate the truths contained in the Creeds is an important part of its evangelical mission. Is it also necessary, therefore, that the Church to “translate” the Creeds so that they may be better understood by Western society today, so far removed from the circumstances and cultural worldview of the early centuries of the church?

I will waive the question as to whether our culture of today is actually any further removed from the fourth century than were the equally unique cultures of the ninth, sixteenth, or eighteenth centuries, when no difficulty was perceived in retaining the Creeds in their original forms. Instead, I will focus on the issue raised by the very notion that “translation”. The idea that creedal Christian doctrines require “translation” for the sake of our worldview today appears to be based on an inaccurate definition of the concept of translation itself.

Translation is the act of stating something spoken or written in one language into the words of another. The meaning of the words and ideas translated is not changed, only the form of their expression. If this is all that is meant by “translation,” the Creeds have already been translated multiple times. In the Anglican Church of North America, we read them in English translation, and as English is still the language spoken in North America, no further translation is necessary in the concrete sense of the term.

However, this is not what people really mean when they insist that the Creeds must be “translated” in order to be put into use in the Church today, filled as it is with twenty-first century Western Christians. Rather, it appears that they desire that the meaning of the words as well as their linguistic form be changed to conform to modern understandings of how the world operates. As Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy was already arguing nearly a century ago, the conceptions—not merely the wording—contained in the Creeds have “become unreal.”[4] What he means is that moderns do not view the workings of the world and Divine Providence in the same manner as did their fourth-century forebears. The Creedal doctrines of Creation, Incarnation, Atonement, Sin, Eternity, and all the rest, cannot fit with “the great idea”[5] humanity has invented for itself in modernity.  In an entirely different sort of world, a scientific, democratic, progressive, increasingly educated world, doctrines that blazon forth a message of the miraculous power of a Sovereign, Unchanging, Mysterious God no longer have a place. “It has around it always the atmosphere of a fairy tale”, he remarked.[6]

A fairy tale? Perhaps, if Christianity is unreal. However, saying that the intrinsic message of the Creeds reads like a fairy tale says nothing for or against its reality. Reality can be only one of two things. It can either be an absolute, external fact that cannot be changed no matter what it said about it; or, reality can be, as the twentieth-century logical positivists posited, merely a construct of language itself. In either case, the Creed, as it stands in its historically understood conceptual terminology, is real.

If the Truth of God is something that is, a substantial reality-in-itself, then there can be only one way to talk about it, the way that it actually is. In that case, the fairy-tale sounding elements of Nicene Christianity are simply “in accordance with the way the world is,”[7] and to change and update them would be a falsification of reality. If the way God actually created and governs the world is congruent with what we now call a fairy tale, then so be it.  God’s reality is what it is, regardless of what we think it should be.

On the other hand, if reality is a linguistic and cultural concept, there is nothing to make the twenty-first century’s construction of reality any more or less authentic than that of the Creed.  Changing the terms of the Creed to accommodate the cultural norms of the secular modern world would simply be exchanging one idea of Christian reality with another reality—or supposed reality. For the Church to replace the language and culture that has shaped its identity from its earliest establishment with another conceptual language linked with another identity because it is more real is frankly an incoherent proposition.

But, it may be argued, although the Creed is a sign or symbol of the Christian faith, and although the reality of the faith should not be changed at whim, the Creed is not really identical with that faith itself. It was produced by a combination of Scriptural and historical factors to respond to a specific situation. Couldn’t the creedal language—and the doctrinal understanding and church culture that it has produced—be understood as only one way of expressing the Gospel truth, “merely one not-very-good attempt at pinning down a God we cannot really know”?[8]

If the Creedal language is imperfect and metaphorical at times, this is not an inherent problem.  C.S. Lewis has pointed out that all language is metaphorical:

The truth is that if we are going to talk at all about things which are not perceived by the senses, we are forced to use language metaphorically . . . there is no other way of talking . . .all speech about supersensibles is, and must be, metaphorical in the highest degree . . . . [S]ome people say, “In that case, would it not be better to get rid of the mental pictures, and of the language which suggests them, altogether?” But this is impossible. The people who recommend it have not noticed that . . . they merely succeed in substituting images of some different kind . . . vague images which, if inspected, would turn out to be even more absurd. . . every attempt to improve the ancient language will have the same result . . . We can make our speech duller, we cannot make it more literal.”[9]

They have merely replaced one not-very-good attempt at pinning down God with another. The Creeds, in their historical role as a symbol or confession of Christian faith, have “the authority of a norm that is itself normed; they have real yet conditional, limited, and subordinate authority to bind the church . . . subordinate, first and foremost, to the fact that the God of the gospel is free . . . Second, creeds . . . are subordinate . . . to Holy Scripture, for it is Scripture . . . that is appointed by God as the instrument of His self-communication.”[10]   Any attempt to “translate” the Creed that does not take into account the historical shaping of Church doctrine, developed courageously in opposition to the world and with the goal of imitating Christ as the only true norm for the Church’s life could in fact suffer from another danger. As Dorothy Sayers wrote: “heresy is, as I have tried to show, largely the expression of opinion of the untutored average man, trying to grapple with the problems of the universe at the point where they begin to interfere with his daily life and thought.”[11] And again, “Bishop Cotton, you will note, stated that the tendencies of the human mind against which the Athanasian Creed was directed, are ‘common everywhere.’”[12]    The precise language of doctrine is not the language of ordinary untutored persons.

When it is asked that the Creed be “translated” in conformity with modern ideas of progress and superiority to former ages, the danger lies in separating the unchangeable truth of the Gospel message. The Creed “safeguards . . . the free self-presence of the Church’s Lord and His testimony to Himself in Scripture . . . it binds by saying ‘Scripture says.’”[13] Therefore, the meaning of the Creed must be the same as that of Holy Scripture, and thus cannot be “translated” with regard to the concepts and doctrines expressed.

In conclusion, I agree with Richard Hooker: “if we think that the Church at this day needeth not those ancient preservatives which ages before us were so glad to use, we deceive ourselves greatly.”[14]  If the Church changes its Creedal confessions to match with the particular worldview of any era, something—the most significant Something of all, the Gospel message of Christ Himself—will be lost in the translation.

Cate McDermott holds a Master of Theological Studies degree from Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto, and a B.A. in Philosophy from George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. Her focus in ministry is providing training in Christian apologetics to Christian youth in today’s increasingly secular culture. She is developing a series of study guides on C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia for use in youth ministry. An author as well as a theologian, Ms. McDermott publishes her family novels through her website, www.thesiblingwritery.com. She currently resides in Newtown, PA, and attends St. Mark’s Reformed Episcopal Church.

[1]             Philip Turner, “Introduction,” in Nicene Christianity: The Future for a New Ecumenism, ed. Christopher R. Seitz (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, a division of Baker Book House Co., 2001), 11

[2]             Ibid., 10, emphasis mine.

[3]             Frances Young, The Making of the Creeds (London: SCM Press, 1991), 1-2.

[4]             Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, I Believe: Sermons on the Apostles’ Creed (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1928), 214.

[5]             Ibid., 37.

[6]             Ibid., 214.

[7]             John Webster, “Confession and Confessions,” in Nicene Christianity, 128.

[8]              Ibid., 129.

[9]             C.S. Lewis, Miracles (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers, 1947), 115, 117-118, and 126.

[10]           Webster, “Confession and Confessions,” in Nicene Christianity, 129.

[11]            Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos: Why Christians Must Choose Either Dogma or Disaster (Or, Why It Really Does Matter What You Believe) (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press), 55.

[12]            C.A. Swainson, The Athanasian Creed and its Usage in the English Church: An Investigation As to the Original Object of the Creed and the Growth of Prevailing Misconceptions Regarding It (London, Oxford, and Cambridge: 1870), 81.

[13]            Webster, “Confession and Confessions,” in Nicene Christianity, 130.

[14]            Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, facsimile version (Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Ltd. and New York: Da Capo Press, 1971), Book Five, 187.