Believing and Believing In

An advantage of having two rites, one traditional and one contemporary, is that they can interpret each other; one can study the differences and thereby go deeper into the meaning. Let’s apply this to the Nicene Creed.

In traditional language it begins: “I believe in one God.” In the contemporary eucharistic rite it begins: “We believe in one God.” Neither of these is the singular, correct version, and each leads us to important truth.

“We believe” translates the Greek original, deriving ultimately from the ancient councils of bishops that met in Nicea in A.D. 325. The “we” are the bishops there assembled, representing the church throughout the world and giving words to what they all believed. This creed was not used liturgically, but over many centuries it gradually became part of the Eucharist in the West.

But the Apostles’ creed, or something like it, had been used liturgically for some time. This was in baptism. Those being baptized affirm the faith personally; their creed was always “I believe,” an individual affirmation of basic Christian faith. Thus when the Nicene Creed came into liturgical use in the West, it adopted the “I believe” (in Latin, credo).

The result, however, is more important than these historical origins of the different first lines. Clearly both “We believe” and “I believe” are right, because faith is at once an individual’s belief in God and also the fundamental orientation of the whole church. Christian faith is at once “mine” and “ours”—at once personal and communal—and to have the two versions of the Nicene Creed leads us into that truth.

May I draw your attention to a second difference between the two versions of this creed? Note the use of the preposition “in.” As the creed progresses, in both versions, we proclaim we “believe in” the Father, and “in” Jesus Christ his only Son, and “in” the Holy Spirit (or Ghost). But then comes a difference. In contemporary language, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” That “in” is missing in the traditional language: “I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”

This reflects a difference between Greek and Latin. In Greek, to believe is always to believe in.

It’s different in Latin. The basic teaching is that the Latin language allows three kinds of statements concerning belief. First is the strongest. To “believe in” is to put your whole self into God’s hands. To “believe” is to trust, but it falls short of that personal commitment. I believe the church when she teaches me about God, for instance, but I do not give to the church the fullness of “believing in.” Third is to “believe that” something or other is the case. Although it doesn’t use the words “believe that,” the following line of the creed can be taken to say, “I believe that there is one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”

This little difference between the contemporary and traditional creed points us to a subtle distinction of various levels of belief, with the highest and most personal being given to God alone, without thereby losing the importance of any particular line in the creed.

I offer these reflections as an example of what you can learn by holding the Prayer Book close—the printed Book, which allows you to flip back and forth between Rite One and Rite Two and see such small differences (without the danger of there being typographical errors, as can slip in when parts of the Book are printed for convenience).

Out & About. Sunday, March 20, I will be with St. Philip’s Church in Frisco, Tex.; the services are at 9 and 11:15 a.m. I am preaching on friendship as a spiritual discipline.

That same day at 5 p.m., the “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar will discuss Children of Men by P. D. James. The book is quite different from the movie, and more theological (which, in my book, means better). The seminar meets at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas; entrance at the Visitor Center. Anyone who reads the book is welcome to join the conversation (others are welcome to come and listen).

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."