Posted by: Kenn Hermann | March 14, 2006

The Meaning of the Creedal “I Believe in”

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My recent post on the analogical meanings of ‘believe’ reminded me of this excellent reflection on the meaning of the creedal “I believe in” from David S. Cunningham, Reading is Believing: The Christian Faith through Literature and Film (Brazos Press, 2002.) The entire book is worth reading.

At the same time, we should note that, not only to those who are unfamiliar with the Christian faith but also to those who are well-acquainted with it, the phrase “I believe” at the beginning of the creed can be misleading. The reasons for this are deeply embedded in our current cultural assumptions and in our most common uses of the word. We use the verb believe in a variety of ways, none which is particularly apt for explaining how the word has traditionally been understood in the creeds. We sometimes use the word to describe an opinion or a fact about which we are uncertain: “I believe that meeting is tomorrow,” meaning: I’m not sure, but I think so. We also use the word to describe tentative or provisional intention on our own part: “I believe I’ll take walk this afternoon,” meaning: I’ve pretty well made up my mind to do this, though I could be dissuaded. Sometimes it’s an expression of trust: “[ believe you,” meaning: I trust that you are telling me the truth. And ofcourse, it can also describe convictions: “I believe in free speech,”meaning; I think it’s the right thing, I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I might even die for its protection. These various meanings of the verb believe have led to a certain degree of confusion among speakers the English language, and are also occasionally a source of humor (as in the T -shirt that reads: “Everyone has to believe in something; ‘1 believe I’ll’ have another cookie”).

But none of these meanings is really descriptive of the use of the word believe in the creeds, or in more general statements that “Christians believe in” particular things. While the word believe does carry with it some of the above-mentioned connotations-including a proclamation of trust and a statement of conviction-it ultimately transcends all these elements. Part of this is due to the little word that appears just after the word believe–the little unobstrusive word in. To recognize the importance of this word, think about the two statements “I believe you” and believe in you.” The first one expresses a willingness to accept what the other says as truthful or accurate; this decision may be based on the person’s perceived authority, an external corroboration, or just habit. But the second expression, “I believe in you,” implies a real relationship and something of a personal investment in the other person. It suggests commitment, trust, acceptance, conviction, and even certainty-someling like, “I know you can do it” or “My whole life is wrapped up in you.”

This is part of what we mean when we make a claim such as ‘I believe in God.’ In doing so, we are announcing an orientation of our whole lives, a direction and a focus that we have come to acknowledge. When speak about our beliefs, we are describing ourselves as being part of a much larger group-part of the whole company of faithful people, over time and across space. We are aligning ourselves with billions of Christian believers, the living and the dead, who make up the Body of Christ. I might well interpret some aspect of my faith differently from the way a twelfth-century Christian in eastern Europe would have done; but that should not prevent me from accepting that we are both recognizably members of the same Body.” 19-20

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