"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, May 4, 2012

Tim Kelleher on the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed

I have previously drawn attention to a recently released documentary on DVD about the Nicene Creed: The Creed: What Christians Profess, and Why It Ought to Matter.

As I noted in my review, this is an excellent resource ideally suited for, say, parish study groups or introductory survey courses on Christian doctrine, doctrinal history, or the ecumenical councils. Such study of the creed--and of the ecumenical councils--is all the more necessary today in an age of general ignorance about both Christian history and fundamental Christian doctrine. 

I asked the producer, Tim Kelleher, for an interview about this production and his other works. Here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us about your background:

TK: Before I do, I’d like to thank you. As I’m a big fan of Logos, it means a lot to have this chance to talk with you about our film.

So, here we go. I was born in the Bronx, NY and went on to live in all five boroughs of NYC – which I believe ties the record! Thanks, in large part, to the heroism of certain Sisters of Charity of Halifax, I graduated from Villanova, where Bernard Prusak and Jack Caputo were teaching at the time. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to work consistently as a stage, film and TV actor, writer and director while continuing to study. In 1995 I “turned to the East,” was eventually received into the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and am about to complete a graduate degree in theology at The Catholic University America.

AD: What led you to work on The Creed?

When you think about it you realize that maybe more than anything else, what Christians have most tangibly in common is the Creed. And what does the Creed say?  Well, in a way, it can be distilled to those words of St. Athanasius: God became human, so that humans might become God. This is an astonishing vision of the dignity with which humanity – and by implication, all creation, indeed, reality itself – is endowed. All bluster aside, the worst that can really be said about it is that it’s too good to be true. And to that we ought to respond with the Psalmist: Taste and see.

At the beginning of the film there are two quotes, one of which is from 1 Peter: Always be prepared to give an account of the reasons for your hope. Well, this is exactly what we’re being asked to do today, by a culture in which a motivated minority is determined, not just to marginalize religious faith – and Christianity in particular – but to shove it off the cliff. What is unacceptable to me is that the far greater number of people--agnostic and religious--are bullied into virtual silence because of a lack of background in history, philosophy and theology that would enable them to see the gross deficiencies of the “threat” and respond to it with confidence and charity. But, honestly, it is tough--painful and awkward in this culture--to be a believer, or anyone in between, without such resources. You don’t have to be Karl Rahner or Pavel Florensky, but it’s not enough to parrot pious formula either, no matter how orthodox. People on both sides of the question require and deserve something real, personal, and alive.

The Creed has a unique capacity to foster that – most importantly, by helping to deepen an individual’s relationship to God in and through Christ. It is the impossible beauty of this experience that can, in time, be expressed in the form of the “reasons” spoken of in that Letter of Peter. 

AD: You draw on a remarkably "balanced" sample of theologians from Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox backgrounds. Was that by design?

TK: Thank you for saying so. It was important to us to aim for that kind of balance. Even though the scope of the project got trimmed quicker than a mullet on the first day of boot camp, I am deeply grateful for the people who agreed to participate. The late Charles Colson watched it and was very positive. He did ask, ”Where are the evangelicals?” Well, I can tell you, it wasn’t for lack of trying – or for lack of response. It came down to a matter of logistics and tight schedules. But I’ve heard from a number of evangelicals who’ve been very complimentary. And we did get a nice review from Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity.

AD: When it comes to the creed, Eastern and Western versions are identical except for one little word that has created huge problems: the "filioque." You do not really address that in your film. Why not?

The Fathers of Nicaea with the Symbol
TK: It’s true. I deliberately chose not to address the “filioque.” Given the time constraint (approx. 30 minutes), I felt I couldn’t justify “stepping out” of a narrative meant to focus on the Creed’s unifying charism. Certainly, the filoque is an important and fascinating topic, well worth exploring. Thankfully, it is also an issue that needs no longer pose an obstacle to the existentially urgent request issued so poignantly in Ut Unum Sint.

AD: Do we take the Creed for granted today? I'm thinking here of the common practice in Orthodox, Catholic, and some Protestant traditions to recite the Creed every Sunday. Do you think that weekly recitation helps with understanding and appreciation of the creed or does it instead tend to encourage a rote-memorization approach that glazes the riches of what the Creed actually says?

TK: I know that for a long time I took it for granted. Certainly, working on this project opened up aspects of the Creed I really hadn't appreciated before.  In the film, one of our participants puts it very well, calling it "an under-examined, under-utilized, and under-appreciated instrument," and voices the hope that parishes and all manner of Christian communities will come together to study the Creed. As he says, "It has produced saints of incredible power." I can’t argue with that.

AD: Is the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed too long and complicated? Should we just use shorter, simpler creeds like the so-called Apostles' Creed some in the West use? Or should Christians follow Islamic practice in their "shahaddah" that sums up the faith in one sentence ("there is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his last prophet"). Why not have a Christian equivalent "I believe in the Triune God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Wouldn't that be enough? 

TK: I suppose we could say something along the lines you’ve suggested – or St. Athanasius’s rendering of theosis – if that was all we had. But it’s not. The Trinity, made manifest through the experience of Jesus, is what differentiates Christianity from the other monotheistic traditions. Wolfhart Pannenberg once said that the Incarnation makes monotheism concrete. The Nicene Creed is the fullest creedal expression of that. Therefore, it would be pointless not to utilize it and mine its depths as we do.

AD: How would you explain the role, authority, and rationale of the Creed to a non-Christian? Why have such a statement of beliefs? 

TK: You’ve just touched on one of the reasons the Creed is so surprisingly compelling – and why it has such potential as an instrument for evangelization. It presents the opportunity to begin by identifying the historical context that made the Creed a necessity in the first place – namely, the Arian claim that denied the divinity of Christ. This is a great jumping-off point because this controversy has never completely gone away. In varying degrees, it continues to operate in, as well as outside, the Church.

AD: Today we've seen the "argument" from some Christians (e.g., Anglicans) that things not explicitly covered in the Creed can be changed. Thus Anglicans have said that same-sex marriages are not in the creed so Christians should have no problem approving them. Do we need an updated version of the Creed addressing in more detail such moral questions? 

TK: Now that’s a question Mike Wallace could be proud of!  I would say that the Tradition can accommodate – in fact, facilitate – the development of doctrine. However, within the Christian communion, we do see what looks like the eagerness for a different kind of accommodation, one keen to take its cue from secular models. This desire to accommodate, or synthesize, often seems lacking in an awareness of, or interest in, the fact that many of the models referenced are themselves deeply indebted to the Judeo-Christian tradition. This is a confused situation that is bound to multiply confusion.

As Luke Timothy Johnson points out in the film, the Creed is descriptive not prescriptive. It is not, for example, the US Constitution, open to prescriptive amendment. It seems to me that when broaching matters of doctrine and discipline, the various churches ought take every conceivable pain to distinguish clearly between development and innovation – or worse – novelty. Here, the paradigm of self-emptying, sacrificial love to which the Creed points is the only standard for evaluating what can authentically be called, Christian. To cross that border is to enter the minefield of self-reference.

AD: When I lecture on the ecumenical councils, especially Nicaea I and Constantinople I that gave us the eponymous creed, I often encounter bewilderment from people that the process of producing the creed was contentious and that people fought one another over it. But the fact they fought each other, I say, is just a sign of how seriously people of the fourth century took doctrinal debates. Are we too complacent about doctrine today--more worried about updating our wall on Facebook than understanding Christian dogma? 

TK: In those days, theological debate could be a full-contact affair. And it's not a pretty picture. For Christians, "religious violence" should be a contradiction in terms. Yet, while the means used were at times regrettable, the need for clarity was real. Today "doctrine" is a dirty word in many precincts. That's silly of course--and unfortunate. The more important things are, the greater the need to be specific when speaking of them. This specificity doesn't thereby limit discussion. Rather, it limits the confusion that clouds discussion. John Behr does a terrific job explaining this in the film when he elaborates on the Creed as the "canon" of truth. (Not an easy thing to get across in a tweet).

AD: In my review of The Creed, I lamented only one thing and that was the fact that it was only a half-hour. Did you hope to go into more detail and at greater length? Is a sequel in the works?  

TK: I would love to expand the film--really open up and explore each aspect of the Creed. There's just so much to consider--and virtually every dimension of theology is brought into play. I think it could work well as an ongoing series. As of now, though, I haven't been asked to clean the camera or test the mics. Until then, one thing I think could be done is to develop a study guide for the film.

AD: What other projects are you working on? 

TK: I have two TV pilot scripts that have just gone to market and I’m working on a new feature film script. There are a couple of documentary ideas--also with theological themes--that I'm developing too. Most importantly, I'm hoping to resume formation.

AD: Sum up for us what you were hoping to accomplish with The Creed

TK: In talking about the Creed, I describe it as “a treasure hidden in plain sight.” My hope is that more and more people will discover it – and avail themselves of that treasure.


  1. It is really hard for me to imagine the 30 minute long video being worth watching when the trailer, almost 1/10th the length of the actual video, is so godawful:


    I wrote with regard to the trailer this to some friends:

    When considering our age, one of the things that confuses me most is that seemingly intelligent people, in droves, seemed to have lost their ability to cringe, and they then go through with public actions which could have otherwise been prevented.

    The video has the "perfect" ending, when, after the stern drumbeat and silly wanna-be middle easternish music throughout the vidio, the relief of an angelic sounding choir pipes in, and then you see the "www.firstthings.com" on the screen, and then a slick white guy voice tells you to "unlock the treasure." Quite the self-confident aesthetic there. The whole video is just embarrassing, starting with their assertion at the beginning regarding the creed - "its words spoken by billions of human beings each day." Uh, no, not by any stretch of a sane imagination.

  2. This is too vague to be constructive. What in particular is cringe-worthy? What is wrong with "self-confident aesthetics"? Why is "the whole video...just embarrassing"?

  3. Well let's see - it starts with an utterly exaggerated statement (the one above mentioned) that clearly evokes desperation at being taken as relevant and/or socially consequential. It ends with the above described flamboyance of asserting that First Things is going to unlock the treasure of the Creed for you should you watch a 30 minute video which can't possibly have much more than snippets regarding what Christians believe to be the most important truths mankind can ever contemplate. And in the middle you get the sort of video aesthetic one would expect from a commercial for one of the more, uhm, popular "documentaries" on the History Channel. The rhythmic use of the bells, drums, and instruments timed perfectly with the sort of carthartic-tension tone of the snippet interviewee voices conveys a very kitsch sense of urgency. It drums at you, on a very cheap emotive level "this is important, this is important, this is important." Thank God no traditional Christian liturgy, East or West, makes use of such aesthetics when reciting the Creed. And no, I don't expect Christian presentations of the meaning of the Creed for the general public to be liturgical in their aesthetic, but I do expect them to be grown up and not appeal to the more base instincts of entertainment addicted masses who apparently can't be expected to watch to 30 minutes on the Creed without being titillated in this manner. The words used in those snippets also are grasping at relevance by countering apparent irrelevance - so in 2 and a half minutes we get introduced conceptually to the ideas of the Creed being "dry" and "rote." Seriously? Talk about pandering. And someone who sounds like he is so white that he would be a fund manager for Morgan Stanley if he hadn't instead become a theologian says the words "what the hell" in a tone that conveys he is very, very aware of the gravitas of what he just said and that is is just a little bit naughty, but not too much. The cadence of that last line "God. became. man. so. that. men. might. become. God." is such that sounds very know-it-allish - or at least boyish in a manner that is embarrassing when coming from an adult's mouth. But most of them spoke with voices that had the artificial seriousness of a TA teaching a freshman level class or that of a politician being interviewed. A commercialized emphaticism we might say. This all reminds me of those videos I had to watch in youth group as a teenager explaining how abstinence was exciting and not boring and chaste kids were having a gee whiz golly good time, and could even be trendy and cool in x, y, and z ways despite their lack of body fluid exchange practices. There may have been some truth to that, but the medium sent a message of desperation for relevance and acceptance, despite the superficial presentation of confidence. Plus this, like all virtually all Christian media of this nature, is just so 15 years ago. Not that I expect much more from First Things these days - they've been desperately trying to figure out what they are since RJN died.

  4. Mr. Ochlophobist, Could you direct us to your film or to your study of the Creed?

    1. So the Ochlophobist must produce his own book or film before he has standing to criticize this one? It seems to me that he has elaborated in quite specific terms why he finds it lacking. If you don't agree perhaps you could say why.

      As it stands, your comment is one of the clumsier ad hominems that I have seen.

  5. I find it most interesting that the first thing you say about it is "And what does the Creed say? Well, in a way, it can be distilled to those words of St. Athanasius: God became human, so that humans might become God."
    Why then are Mormons (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) accused of not being Christians because of this precise belief?
    Just wondering.

  6. E B,

    Why then are Mormons ... accused of not being Christians because of this precise belief?

    Christians who object to the doctrine of theosis do not know their own tradition and their own teaching as well as they ought. However, if I am not mistaken, the Mormon teaching on theosis differs significantly from the Orthodox/Catholic teaching on theosis. In addition, Mormonism differs significantly from orthodox Christianity on the core doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation.

    Whether that makes Mormonism a heterodox variety of Christianity, or an entirely non-Christian religion, is perhaps a matter of semantics. But there can be no doubt that traditional orthodox Christianity and Mormonism are two very different faiths.

  7. What a terrific interview. Thanks to Tim Kelleher and Dr. Adam DeVille for this offering. Unfortunately, rather than discuss the interview here on the blog, Mr. Ochlophobist seems bent on knocking a trailer for a film he has never seen. Clearly, he is unschooled in these matters in order for him to refer to Luke Timothy Johnson, one of the world's preeminent New Testament scholars, as "someone who sounds like he is so white that he would be a fund manager for Morgan Stanley." A ludicrous and racist statement. I have watched Kelleher's film, The Creed, and I was transfixed -- the philosophical and theological ideas discussed were so heady that I often had to pause or rewind to more fully absorb what was being said. I would describe myself as an agnostic when it come to the Creed and therefore find it difficult to recite -- but this film gave me pause. I wish it were longer, at least twice as long, in order to hear more from each of the speakers, heavy hitters to say the least. Of course the film looks to discuss the social relevance of The Creed! If it's not relevant, why bother!


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