Truth in advertising compels me to confess that Luke Timothy Johnson was a professor of mine during my undergraduate years - I took several classes from him in the Religious Studies field while an undergraduate at Indiana University; I have used his books consistently both as a student and as an instructor, and they have been of a consistently high quality in scholarship and readability.
Many of Johnson's text deal with the New Testament directly, or with issues deriving from it (explorations of Jesus, early church studies, etc.). This book, 'The Creed', combines a lot of this kind of scholarship into an overall discussion of the creeds the modern church espouses. Johnson, a life-long Roman Catholic, has had the recitation of the creed as part of his regular worship experiences all his life - first in Latin, then later in English. Many Christians Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant share this kind of experience. Often faithfulness is a response to God, but Johnson has in this text developed more along the lines of faith as belief, as giving a common sense of purpose and identity. In the preface, Johnson states his belief, his faith that the creed may be a most important element in helping the church to recover its sense of itself.
Johnson identifies the pervasive character of modern philosophical thinking from the Enlightenment through to Modernity as rather inimical to the kind of faith the creed called for when first formulated by the early church. The world is now set up in many ways in duality between belief and inquiry, and rarely to the two intersect happily. Not only is creedal Christianity a subject of criticism from outside Christian culture, but is also a controversial topic within - how are the creeds to be interpreted and applied? How vital are they? It is not simply the type of Jesus Seminar scholarship that makes belief problematic, according to Johnson; commited Christians such as Anabaptists and Free Church traditions distrust the politics behind the creedal constructions. However, Johnson's specific audience is more toward another - those persons who still take the creed seriously, but find it difficult to accept all of the assertions, all of the statements or all of the language of the ancient statement of faith.
Johnson draws some comparisons and contrasts with other religions - Judaism and Islam have less formal structures of belief despite highly developed systems of law and practice; Buddhism and Hinduism similarly have less focus on particular intellectual belief structures. Johnson traces the origins of the creed in different strands of practice and belief surrounding the early church, even prior to the gospels being committed to paper, and certainly prior to the canon of scripture being codified in final forms as it exists today. In the second and third centuries, more pronounced developments in liturgy and theology led to further codification, and ironically further ambiguity and controversy, necessitating various ecumenical councils that eventually led to the formulation of the creed most commonly recited today, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, usually referred to simply as the Nicene Creed (which is an historical inaccuracy, given that there was an earlier Nicene Creed, from which this later one developed). This is the creed of the title of this text.
Johnson explores the ways in which the creed acts for the church as a profession of faith, a rule of faith, a definition of faith, and a symbol of faith. The creed also serves as a narrative recitation of the Christian idea, an interpretative lens for scripture, and a guide to practice and worship. These roles for the creed are important individually and collectively, showing much more depth to the creed than the average person reciting it in the liturgy might realise.
Johnson then explores the creed section by section, developing the different lines. From the start, there is a point of ambiguity - does one state 'I believe', or 'we believe'? Johnson argues for the plural, 'we believe', as being a means by which individuals can be part of a communal belief and experience, to an historical community 'that believes more and better than any one of them [the individuals] does'. These are statements of faith that cannot be proven - one of the problems of scholarship such as the Jesus Seminar is it seeks a type of assured knowledge the creed was never intended to supply.
The statements of faith are affirmative statements about what the reciting Christian believes; they of course imply what the Christian does not believe. There are areas of disagreement and some freedom of interpretation even from the creedal statements, but Johnson argues for a fairly tradition and careful rendering, even as the modern situation is acknowledged as having validity in certain areas, too.
One might be surprised to reach the final chapter, some three hundred pages into the text, to find Johnson say that all up to that point has simply been introduction. The real argument and heart of the text is here, with Johnson arguing for the creed as a defining and boundary-marking set of statements, not designed to exclude, but rather to identify. Again, Johnson's mistrust of historical Jesus enterprises is raised here; Johnson calls this the 'longest-running of all Christological heresies', which seems to have arisen with little reaction from the church (in fact, I believe this to be an underestimation; it is true that there have been no grand councils called to address the issue, but it is also true that the controversy is worked out in different ways in many churches throughout Christendom).
This is not a book simply for Roman Catholics or Anglicans or Orthodoxers - any Christian will find wisdom of value here. Johnson mentions a parish (St. Charles Borromeo, in Bloomington) where I have attended many times as being a place that helped him formulate this text. The text has been used in several churches of my acquaintance to good effect.