Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

SYMBOL, OR CREDO.

We resemble not the celebrated comedian, Mademoiselle Duclos, to whom somebody said: “I would lay a wager, mademoiselle, that you know not your credo!” “What!” said she, “not know my credo? I will repeat it to you. ‘Pater noster qui.’ . . . . Help me, I remember no more.” For myself, I repeat my pater and credo every morning. I am not like Broussin, of whom Reminiac said, that although he could distinguish a sauce almost in his infancy, he could never be taught his creed or paternoster:

Broussin, dès l’âge le plus tendre,

Posséda la sauce Robert,

Sans que son précepteur lui pût jamais apprende

Ni son credo, ni son pater.

The term “symbol” comes from the word “symbolein,” and the Latin church adopts this word because it has taken everything from the Greek church. Even slightly learned theologians know that the symbol, which we call apostolical, is not that of all the apostles.

Symbol, among the Greeks, signified the words and signs by which those initiated into the mysteries of Ceres, Cybele, and Mythra, recognized one another; and Christians in time had their symbol. If it had existed in the time of the apostles, we think that St. Luke would have spoken of it.

A history of the symbol is attributed to St. Augustine in his one hundred and fifteenth sermon; he is made to say, that Peter commenced the symbol by saying: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty.” John added: “Maker of heaven and earth;” James proceeded: “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,” and so on with the rest. This fable has been expunged from the last edition of Augustine; and I relate it to the reverend Benedictine fathers, in order to know whether this little curious article ought to be left out or not.

The fact is, that no person heard anything of this “creed” for more than four hundred years. People also say that Paris was not made in a day, and people are often right in their proverbs. The apostles had our symbol in their hearts, but they put it not into writing. One was formed in the time of St. Irenæus, which does not at all resemble that which we repeat. Our symbol, such as it is at present, is of the fifth century, which is posterior to that of Nice. The passage which says that Jesus descended into hell, and that which speaks of the communion of saints, are not found in any of the symbols which preceded ours; and, indeed, neither the gospels, nor the Acts of the Apostles, say that Jesus descended into hell; but it was an established opinion, from the third century, that Jesus descended into Hades, or Tartarus, words which we translate by that of hell. Hell, in this sense, is not the Hebrew word “sheol,” which signifies “under ground,” “the pit”; for which reason St. Athanasius has since taught us how our Saviour descended into hell. His humanity, says he, was not entirely in the tomb, nor entirely in hell. It was in the sepulchre, according to the body, and in hell, according to the soul.

St. Thomas affirms that the saints who arose at the death of Jesus Christ, died again to rise afterwards with him, which is the most general sentiment. All these opinions are absolutely foreign to morality. We must be good men, whether the saints were raised once or twice. Our symbol has been formed, I confess, recently, but virtue is from all eternity.

If it is permitted to quote moderns on so grave a matter, I will here repeat the creed of the Abbé de St. Pierre, as it was written with his own hand, in his book on the purity of religion, which has not been printed, but which I have copied faithfully:

“I believe in one God alone, and I love Him. I believe that He enlightens all souls coming into the world; thus says St. John. By that, I understand all souls which seek Him in good faith. I believe in one God alone, because there can be but one soul of the Great All, a single vivifying being, a sole Creator.

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty; because He is the common Father of nature, and of all men, who are equally His children. I believe that He who has caused all to be born equally, who arranges the springs of their life in the same manner, who has given them the same moral principles, as soon as they reflect, has made no difference between His children but that of crime and virtue.

“I believe that the just and righteous Chinese is more precious to Him than the cavilling and arrogant European scholar. I believe that God, being our common Father, we are bound to regard all men as our brothers. I believe that the persecutor is abominable, and that he follows immediately after the poisoner and parricide. I believe that theological disputes are at once the most ridiculous farce, and the most dreadful scourge of the earth, immediately after war, pestilence, famine, and leprosy.

“I believe that ecclesiastics should be paid and well paid, as servants of the public, moral teachers, keepers of registers of births and deaths; but there should be given to them neither the riches of farmers-general, nor the rank of princes, because both corrupt the soul; and nothing is more revolting than to see men so rich and so proud preach humility through their clerks, who have only a hundred crowns’ wages.

“I believe that all priests who serve a parish should be married, as in the Greek church; not only to have an honest woman to take care of their household, but to be better citizens, to give good subjects to the state, and to have plenty of wellbred children.

“I believe that many monks should give up the monastic form of life, for the sake of the country and themselves. It is said that there are men whom Circe has changed into hogs, whom the wise Ulysses must restore to the human form.”

“Paradise to the beneficent!” We repeat this symbol of the Abbé St. Pierre historically, without approving of it. We regard it merely as a curious singularity, and we hold with the most respectful faith to the true symbol of the Church.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25