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Christian Beliefs |
What a creed is

Christian Beliefs is drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 66, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

‘Creeds are not set forth as the conditions for membership in some club,’ says a noted Christian dramatist, ‘but as statements of fact that are either true or false’

Christian Beliefs - What a creed is–and what it is not

Christian Beliefs - What a creed is–and what it is not

Dorothy L. Sayers, the twentieth-century British detective story writer, classics scholar and Christian dramatist, in an examination of the creeds of the Christian church, describes a misunderstanding of their nature and function, which remains as common today as it was when she wrote this sixty years ago. The essay is taken from her book on the triune nature of human creativity.

Volumes of angry controversy have been poured out about the Christian creeds, under the impression that they represent, not statements of fact, but arbitrary edicts. The conditions of salvation, for instance, are discussed as though they were conditions for membership in some fantastic club like the Red-Headed League. They do not purport to be anything of the kind. Rightly or wrongly, they purport to be necessary conditions based on the facts of human nature.

We are accustomed to find conditions attached to human undertakings, some of which are arbitrary and some not. A regulation that allowed a cook to make omelettes only on condition of first putting on a top hat might conceivably be given the force of law, and penalties might be inflicted for disobedience; but the condition would remain arbitrary and irrational. The law that omelettes can be made only on condition that there shall be a preliminary breaking of eggs is one with which we are sadly familiar. The efforts of idealists to make omelettes without observing this condition are foredoomed to failure by the nature of things. The Christian creeds are too frequently assumed to be in the top hat category; this is an error; they belong to the category of egg-breaking.

The proper question to be asked of any creed is not, “Is it pleasant?” but “Is it true?” Christianity has compelled the mind of man, not because it is the most cheering view of man’s existence, but because it is truest to the facts. It is unpleasant to be called sinners, and much nicer to think that we all have hearts of gold–but have we? It is agreeable to suppose that the more scientific knowledge we acquire the happier we shall be–but does it look like it? It is encouraging to feel that progress is making us automatically every day and in every way better, and better, and better–but does history support that view? “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men were created equal”–but does the external evidence support this a priori assertion? Or does experience rather suggest that man is “very far gone from original righteousness and is of his own nature inclined to evil?”

A creed put forward by authority deserves respect in the measure that we respect the authority’s claim to be a judge of truth. If the creed and the authority alike are conceived as being arbitrary, capricious and irrational, we shall continue in a state of terror and bewilderment, since we shall never know from one minute to the next what we are supposed to be doing, or why, or what we have to expect. But a creed that can be shown to have its basis in fact inclines us to trust the judgment of the authority; if in this case and in that it turns out to be correct, we may be disposed to think that it is, on the whole, probable that it is correct about everything.

The necessary condition for assessing the value of creeds is that we should fully understand that they claim to be, not idealistic fancies, not arbitrary codes, not abstractions irrelevant to human life and thought, but statements of fact about the universe as we know it. Any witness–however small–to the rationality of a creed assists us to an intelligent apprehension of what it is intended to mean, and enables us to decide whether it is, or is not, as it sets out to be, a witness of universal truth.

From The Mind of the Maker, by Dorothy L. Sayers, Harper Brace, New York, 1941. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Dorothy L. Sayers and the Watkins/Loomis Agency.

This is the end of the Christian Beliefs category article drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 66, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about Christian Beliefs from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at