While many Christian denominations recite one or both of the creeds in worship at least occasionally, some don’t, and I have to wonder what folks new to Episcopal worship must make of our very regular practice of standing together to articulate a list of things we believe.
Are the creeds rules? Do they express doctrines that we are expected to believe? And what if we don’t really believe some of the things we say in the creeds? Are we meant to understand the claims of the creeds literally? There are questions that I suspect we’ve all asked ourselves at times. Because the creeds are such a central part of our worship life and because they raise such tricky questions, Heather and I decided that our final “teaching sermon” in this series should explore the creeds.
The word creed comes from the Latin credo, meaning “I believe”. Probably the most important thing we can say about the creeds are that they are historic documents, born in the days when the Church, the community of Jesus’ followers, was establishing itself. Like other historic documents , they reflect the concerns and issues that were important to their authors.
The Apostles’ Creed is the shorter and less complicated statement of the two we use. It contains twelve faith statements. A longstanding tradition in the church was that the twelve were written by (or at least associated with) the twelve apostles. While a simple form of the creed may have been in use in the middle of the second century, the Apostles’ Creed as we now know it didn’t actually emerge until the fourth or fifth century1.
What we do know is that the Apostles Creed has always been associated with baptism. From early times, new Christians about to be baptized were required to affirm their faith in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In one of the nice examples of the Church changing its liturgy to honor and reclaim ancient practices, we now use the question-and-answer format as a means of including the entire congregation present in the affirmation of belief in the three persons of the Trinity (and other fundamental articles of faith) during the baptismal service.
We use the Apostles’ Creed during the Morning and Evening Prayer, and when we bury the dead.
The Nicene Creed – or, more accurately, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed – is the profession of faith that we use each Sunday in the Eucharist. It’s a more complicated and arguably more interesting document with quite a dramatic history.
In the fourth century, the Christian Movement had spread throughout the Mediterranean world. The Roman Emperor Constantine had converted the Christianity and established the faith as the official religion of the Empire. The Church was not of a common mind, however, but was wracked by controversies, with various religious leaders teaching different and often conflicting doctrines. Constantine wanted to bring about peace and unity, and so in 325 he summoned all Christian bishops to Nicea for the first Ecumenical Council of the Church. He imposed a mandate: because religious peace could only occur if a single religion existed throughout the empire, none of the bishops would be allowed to leave until they had agreed on a universal interpretation for Christianity.2 (I imagine this to have been rather like a mother saying to a pair of quarreling siblings “Nobody leaves the room until you two have sorted this out!”)
And so the bishops began what would ultimately turn out to be a decades-long debate that must, at times, have been a rather dog-eat-dog process: eventually conclusions were reached about what constituted true and authentic Christian belief, and alternative perspectives were declared to be heresies.
Most of the controversies involved relationships between the persons of the Trinity. Bishop Arius of Alexandria and his followers, for example, taught that although Jesus Christ was begotten by the Father, “the Son” did not always exist, and was not of the same nature as the Creator. Macedonius I of Constantinople, meanwhile, taught that the Holy Spirit was not really divine. Both positions (and others) were eventually declared to be heretical, when the bishops took their votes, and bishops who refused to sign on to the agreed-upon definitions of Christian belief were exiled.
Following, Nicea, a series of further councils continued to refine the creed established in 325. The final form of the creed that we use today emerged from the Council of Constantinople in 381. The finely-tuned language that we speak together each week reflects the deeply-held convictions of those early Church Fathers, that Jesus Christ was
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from True God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Another line in the Nicene Creed that has been a source of considerable dispute comes in the part of the creed referring to the Holy Spirit. The creed from Nicea, confirmed by subsequent councils, stated that the
Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life
proceeds (or issues, or emanates) from the Father…
In the sixth century the Church in Europe, under the authority of the Pope in Rome, added the phrase “and the Son”, so the declaration of faith professed that the Spirit issues from both the Father and the Son, the Creator and the Christ. The Orthodox (Eastern) Church vehemently objected to the addition. Their concern was both that the addition was theologically untrue AND that the Bishop of Rome had no authority to change the common creed. In our own time, most of us grew up with the amended “and the Son” version. The Church in its wisdom has, in the last several decades, chosen to return to the earlier (and more truly ecumenical) form of the creed, which is why we now, in our own worship, say that the Spirit proceeds “from the Father”.
Another change to the way the Church has approached the creed has been to shift from an individual statement of faith to a communal expression. Those of us raised on the 1928 Book of Common Prayer declared that “I believe”, while we now say that “We believe”. It seems to me that this change reflects a larger shift in the Church, in our lifetimes, anyway, from a primary emphasis on our personal relationships with God and our own salvation, to a recognition that it is through our connections with one another and our efforts together that we live into God’s dream for the healing of the world.
All of the disputes and controversies associated with the creed over the centuries, considered in relation to the troubles that cause the suffering in the world, can seem trivial. It is hard to project ourselves into the minds and hearts of the people of faith for whom these fine points of language mattered so deeply and profoundly, for whom these words represented our very relationship with God.
Which point brings me to one of the tricky questions that I asked earlier. Do we HAVE to believe all of the things we say in the Creed to be literally true?
Here’s my answer. All of the language that human beings use in our attempt to explain God, salvation, the Church, and other elements of our faith is symbolic. Our words – and for that matter our attempts to express the truth of God in art, music, or any other form – can never capture the full reality of God and God’s dream for us, because these truths are beyond our imagination. Our words (and our images and our melodies) point toward the truth of God and God’s love for us in the life of Jesus the Christ, and of the Spirit that blows among us, but they cannot capture it. As Saint Paul said, we see in a mirror dimly. Our attempts, including the words of the creeds, are the scribblings of children in relation to the glory of God.
I love the explanation of late Bishop John Shelby Spong:
The church of the future will not dismantle and dispatch the gospel narratives, but will recognize them for what they are, a first-century attempt to explain the Christ experience. We will not jettison the creeds, but will recognize them as fourth-century love songs, sung to those people's understanding of God. We can thus join in singing these ancestral songs. We do not literalize their words, nor do we bend the church of tomorrow to the liturgical patterns of antiquity. We will allow the Christ experience to create new forms through which ultimate truth might be allowed to flow in our time.3
For me, the speaking of the creeds is a statement of faith in and solidarity with the universal Church, with the generations of questioning, struggling, faithful folks who have wondered and who have longed to love God and follow Jesus. The creeds tie us back to those who have gone before us, to those all over the world speaking the same words in myriad languages today, and and to those who, God willing, will continue to do so for generations to come.
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