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What Does It Mean to Believe?

General Audience — March 13, 1985

—    Symbol of faith
—    Meaning of "I believe"
—    Biblical meaning

The universally known professions of the Christian faith form the first and fundamental reference point for the present catechesis. They are also called "symbols of faith." The Greek word symbolon signified the half of an object that had been broken (for example, half of a seal) and which was offered as a sign of recognition. The separated parts were put together in order to prove the bearer's identity. Further meanings of "symbol" come from such things as proofs of identity, letters of credence and also a treaty or contract of which the symbolon was the proof. The passage from this meaning to that of a collection or summary of reported and documented things was natural enough. In our case, "symbols" signify the collection of the principal truths of faith - what the Church believes. Systematic catechesis contains instructions on what the Church believes, that is, on the contents of the Christian faith. The "symbols of faith" are the first and fundamental reference point for catechesis.

1.  Symbol of faith

Among the various ancient "symbols of faith" the most authoritative is the Apostles' Creed, the oldest in origin and commonly recited in the "prayers of the Christian." It contains the principal truths of the faith transmitted by the apostles of Jesus Christ. Another ancient and famous symbol is the Nicene - Constantinopolitan Creed, which contains the same truths of the apostolic faith authoritatively explained in the first two ecumenical councils of the universal Church: Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381). The custom of "symbols of faith" being proclaimed as a result of councils of the Church was resumed even in our century. After the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI proclaimed the profession of faith known as the Credo of the People of God (1968). It contains the synthesis of the truths of the Church's faith. It gives special consideration to those teachings which the last Council had expressed, or to those points about which some doubts had appeared in recent years.

The symbols of faith are the principal reference point for the present catechesis. However, they go back to the synthesis of the "deposit of the Word of God," made up of Sacred Scripture and apostolic Tradition, and are only a concise summary of it. Through the professions of faith, therefore, we too propose to go back to that unchangeable "deposit" with the guidance of the interpretation which the Church, assisted by the Holy Spirit, has given it throughout the centuries.

2.  Meaning of "I believe"

Each one of the above - mentioned "symbols" begins with the words "I believe." Each one of them serves not only as an instruction but also as a profession. The contents of this profession are the truths of the Christian faith. All of them are rooted in these first words, "I believe." In this first catechesis, we wish to concentrate precisely on this expression, "I believe."

The expression is used in daily language, even apart from all religious content, especially any Christian content. "I believe you" means that I trust you, and I am convinced that you are telling the truth. "I believe in what you are saying" means that I am convinced that the content of your words corresponds to objective reality.

In this common use of the word "believe," some essential elements are given prominence. "To believe" means to accept and to acknowledge as true and corresponding to reality the content of what is said, that is, the content of the words of another person (or even of more persons) by reason of his (or their) credibility. This credibility determines in a given case the particular authority of the person - the authority of truth.

So then by saying "I believe," we express at the same time a double reference - to the person and to the truth; to the truth in consideration of the person who enjoys special claims to credibility.

3.  Biblical meaning

The words "I believe" appear often in the pages of the Gospel and of all Sacred Scripture. It would be very useful to compare and analyze all the points of the Old and the New Testaments that enable us to grasp the biblical meaning of "to believe." Along with "to believe" we also find the noun "faith" as one of the central expressions of the whole Bible. We find even a certain type of "definition" of faith as, for example, "Faith is confident assurance concerning what we hope for, and conviction about things we do not see" (fides est sperandarum substantia rerum et argumentum non apparentium) (Heb 11:1).

These biblical data have been studied, explained, and developed by the Fathers and by theologians over the span of the two thousand years of Christianity. This is attested to by the enormous exegetical and dogmatic literature we have at our disposal. As in the "symbols," so also in all of theology, "to believe" - "faith" - is a fundamental category. It is also the starting point for catechesis, as the first act by which one responds to God's revelation.

In this meeting we will limit ourselves to just one source, which, however, includes all the others. It is the Constitution Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican Council. In it we read as follows:

"In his goodness and wisdom, God chose to reveal himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of his will (cf. Eph 1:9) by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man has access to the Father in the Holy Spirit and comes to share in the divine nature (cf. Eph 2:18; 2 Pet 1:4)..." (DV 2).

"'The obedience of faith' (Rom 16:26; cf. 1:5; 2 Cor 10:5 - 6) is to be given to God who reveals, an obedience by which man commits his whole self freely to God, offering 'the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals' (Vatican I), and freely assenting to the truth revealed by him" (DV 5).

These words of the conciliar document contain the answer to the question, "What does it mean to 'believe?'" The explanation is concise, but it contains a great wealth of content. Consequently we will have to penetrate more fully into this explanation of the Council, which has an importance equal to a so – called technical definition.

One thing is obvious. There is a genetic and organic link between our Christian "I believe" and that particular initiative of God himself which is called revelation.

Therefore catechesis on the creed (faith), must be carried out together with catechesis on divine revelation. Logically and historically revelation comes before faith. Faith is conditioned by revelation. It is man's response to divine revelation.

Henceforth we say that this response is possible and must be given, because God is credible. No one is as credible as he. No one has the authority of truth as he does. In no other case as in faith in God is there verified the conceptual and semantic value of the words that are so common in human language - "I believe," "I believe you."