Confessing Creeds in the Contemporary World
Anyone new to Anglicanism will soon realize the importance of creeds. The two most common are the Apostles’ Creed, said at Morning and Evening Prayer, and the Nicene Creed, which is said during the Sunday liturgy and on major feast days. The former is shorter and earlier in origin, the latter more detailed and specific. Also important, and usually rehearsed on Trinity Sunday, is the Athanasian Creed.
These creeds emerged very early in the church’s tradition, and it’s helpful to know why and how they came about because the origins give us insight into their meaning. But in this post, I also want to reflect more broadly about why we say creeds at all. What does it mean to say that Christianity, and Anglicanism in particular, is a “creedal” faith?
It’s important to know why we place so much emphasis on the creeds because confessing creeds is largely out of step with contemporary American culture. These days, people prize independent thinking, originality, and spontaneity—seemingly the opposite of saying a creed we didn’t invent and maybe don’t fully understand.
In addition, many Protestants coming from evangelical or low-church traditions bring a suspicion of creeds as somehow being the product of “human tradition” as opposed to the God-given Scriptures. “No creed but the Bible,” is the slogan of this particular stripe of Christianity.
Such slogans, however, function in a suspiciously creedal way. In some sense, it seems, everyone lives by creeds—compact statements of belief that summarize a whole host of assumptions and claims about the nature of reality and how we ought to live.
So, creeds are inescapable. The question is not whether we will live by creeds, but which ones.
Still, there is a sense in which Christianity has an especially outspoken affinity for creeds. In her excellent book, The Making of the Creeds, Frances Young notes that “Christianity is the only major religion to set such store by creeds and doctrines.” While other religions have their sacred scriptures, prayers, religious practices, art forms, or codes of ethics, Christianity is unique in its high valuation of doctrinal truth. It places a strong emphasis on orthodoxy as opposed to heresy—that is, right belief or praise (ortho-doxa) as opposed to “personal choice” (“heresy” coming from a Greek word for “choice” or “preference”).
So where did this deep concern for truth come from? And what relevance do creeds have for us today?
There are at least three reasons why Christianity is a creedal faith:
- because of its understanding of monotheism, or belief in one God;
- because of the way creeds function as a bond for the church community;
- because of the close link between the creeds and salvation.
One God, One Truth
The first reason that Anglicans care about creeds is because of how they understand the nature of God.
Pagan polytheistic religions allowed for multiple gods, and even if you believed in a supreme god, there could still be plenty of “lesser” gods floating around as well. The introduction of new gods was not a problem. They could easily be drawn into the limitless collection of divinities within the pantheon of the gods.
Likewise, pagan philosophers could offer various and competing accounts of the nature of reality, without being worried that they were in fundamental disagreement. A multitude of gods produced a multitude of theories about the world and how to live in it.
But Christians did not permit other gods. These were, as their Jewish ancestors had taught them, mere idols. Monotheism, the belief in “one God,” meant not just that there was one God, but that there was one God and no others. They also believed that this God had a certain kind of character: he was good, merciful, loving, the source of wisdom and truth. He was not capricious or fickle, but trustworthy.
And so, because there is only one God, and if this God is good and loving and true, this meant that there could not be endless true accounts of reality.
Is there only one God? Then creation must be the creation of this God and not some other god.
Is this God good? Is he trustworthy? If so, then the world must be created in a fundamentally ordered and coherent way. We should be able to see patterns and structure in the world. If Christ is the logos of God, we should be able to see some kind of logic to the order of creation.
This is one reason Christianity expresses its identity in creedal or doctrinal terms: one God means one account of reality. There’s an inherent concern for truth—for getting things right—implied in this view of God.
The Bond of a Common Faith
Second, Anglicans are creedal Christians because the creeds function as a bond among the faithful.
As Fr. Greg Goebel mentioned in his post on the Nicene Creed, “the historic nature of the Nicene Creed reminds us that we did not invent our Faith yesterday. We are part of a long-standing tradition of faith, thought, and doctrine.”
Another name for “creed” in early Christianity was “symbol,” a word which literally meant something “thrown together.” (A belief among many early Christians was that each of the twelve apostles contributed one phrase of the creed.) The word symbol was used in the ancient world as a pact in a business transaction. It served to guarantee each person’s loyalty to the terms of an agreement.
As a symbol, the creeds serve a binding or unifying function. Augustine says that it is called a symbol because “it is something by which Christians can recognize each other” (Sermon 213.2). Because of Christianity’s concern for truth, Christians needed ways to distinguish genuine expressions of the faith from those that were not. Even today, amidst contentious divisions within the church, the Nicene Creed is one of the few ways to differentiate orthodox Christianity from heresies or cults.
Thus, as a “symbol” of the faith, creeds serve a unifying function. They give us a way to remain in solidarity with Christians all over the world as well as with those who lived thousands of years before us.
The Creeds and Salvation
Third, Anglicans are creedal Christians because there is an important link between the creeds and salvation.
Now, it can be difficult for contemporary Christians to see what creeds have to do with salvation. Saying the first line of the Athanasian Creed is not always easy: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith.”
But creeds are important to our salvation because they give shape and voice to our understanding of the God who saves us. Frances Young again writes: “At the heart of the life of the church was the belief that salvation was being realized, and at the heart of early Christian theology was a sense of the sacramental and spiritual reality of that salvation. Like the Bible, doctrines served the purpose of articulating the saving Word.”
The connection between creeds and salvation becomes clearer when we see how creeds emerged in the context of catechesis and baptism.
Following Jesus’ words in the Great Commission—“baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19)—early Christians adopted the practice of immersing new believers into the baptismal waters three times, asking them to make a profession of faith to each person of the Trinity, in a form much like what we find in the Apostles’ Creed.
By the fourth century, baptisms primarily took place at Easter, with the season of Lent being devoted to an intense period of pre-baptismal catechesis, which prepared new Christians for understanding what it meant to be baptized into this name.
In this context, the creeds were a memory-device. They summarized the long and complex story of Scripture, but they were short enough so that catechumens could memorize them. As Cyril of Jerusalem emphasized, the creeds were simple enough so that new Christians “can acquire the whole doctrine of the Christian faith in a few articles and so prevent any soul from being lost by not learning the faith” (Catechetical Lectures 5.12).
The creeds are brief for the purpose of memorizing. But the truth that they signify is the reality of salvation in the triune God. In this way, the creed, as all theological language should do, functions sacramentally. It gives us words that lead us to a reality that is more magnificent than we could ever express.
Conclusion: Creedal Spirituality
The reason we Anglicans say creeds, again, has to do with the very nature of Christianity. The invisible, unfathomable God—the one whom no eye can see and live (Exod. 33:20), the immortal one who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16)—has been made man and dwelt among us, in order to lead us into the divine mysteries. The words of the creed give us glimpses, pointers, echoes of this mystery—true words, yes, but words that still only give us dim glimpses, as if in a mirror (1 Cor. 13:13).
Once again, Christians don’t believe in the creeds (just as they don’t believe in the Scriptures). They believe in God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But the creeds play a crucial role in enabling us to know this God in whom we believe.
Anglicans are creedal Christians because they perceive in the creeds a deeper mystery than what first meets the eye. We believe that in the creeds we meet the triune God.
And so, week after week, as we rise and confess the creed together, we draw ever deeper into this great mystery.