Why the Creeds Matter by the Rev. Matthew David Larsen

I heard a story once of a parishioner who approached an Orthodox priest with an embarrassing topic of conversation (or at least one about which the parishioner felt embarrassed). “There are certain lines in the Creed that I don’t know if I really believe.” The parishioner expected the priest would then ask for a detailed list of the vexatious lines and then systematically go through each one and give an apology. Much to the parishioner’s surprise, the priest didn’t do anything of the sort. Rather the priest calmly paused for a moment, then responded, “That’s OK. Just keep standing up and saying it. It’ll come to you.”

This anecdote, of course, was likely meant to be more exemplary than historical. It touches on several ways the Creeds matter. The priest in the story understood that thinking, reasoning, and cognition are not always identical with believing. When the Church stands to say the Creeds, it is not voting on them. They are the faith the Church received from the past and transmits in to the present and into the future. Whether the parishioner intellectually assented to the one line of the Creed or another is not the point, strictly speaking. The point is to declare oneself to no longer be a free agent; to commit oneself to the faith of the historic Church. From day to day, moment to moment, a line of the Creed may seem more or less rational to a given person. But from the moment of baptism on, and each Sunday at the Eucharist, the Church declares a established starting ground from which to make meaning of the world it experiences.

The Creed also gives Christians a tool to engage Scripture. Cyril of Jerusalem in his catechetical lectures knew that many peoples reading of Scripture would be limited, for a variety of reasons. Some were illiterate. Some didn’t have enough time. As a remedy to this problem, he suggests memorizing the Creed word for word: “we encompass the entire doctrine of the faith in a a handful of lines … I want you to remember every single word, and to recite it among yourselves with great earnestness. Do not write it on papyri, but inscribe it in in a memorial in your hearts …  Pack it up as traveling supplies for every period of your life.”[1] The relationship between Scripture and Creed is symbiotic. The Creed comes from the Scriptures, and the Scripture are interpreted by the Creed. We almost might analogize the scriptures as a long conversation around a dinner table. Each book, read it is own context, is a person invited to the table. They have differing perspectives and even argue with one another at times. The whole winding and passionate conversation is Scripture. The Creed functions as the “cliffnotes” summary of the way Christians have heard the conversation—so short they can be memorized. So if you don’t have time to read the whole of Scripture, memorize the Creed. And if you do read the whole of Scripture, the Creed guides you into a Christian reading.

The priest’s answer also points to a few ways the Creeds matters for the Church catholic. The Church in each generation does not go back to square one and does not need to rethink the basics of Christian theology. We stand on the shoulders of a hundred generations. The foundational theological tenets of the Church are already identified and settled. We are rooted in the past for the sake of the present and the future. Because we have already decided what we think about the relationship between the Father and the Son, we are set free to turn our attention to the unique and fresh questions of our present moment, and with the Spirit to meet them with both creativity and faithfulness.

Moreover, the Creed offers the Church a taxonomy of what matters. There are many things mentioned in the Creed, as well as many things not mentioned, and both matter. How can the Church think about what is essential and what is not? The Creeds gives us a lens to think about what are the piers and beams of the Christian faith, and what is the window treatment and the wall coloring. We can disagree about a great many things. But not, say, the one baptism for the forgiveness of sins or the incarnation of Jesus as fully God and fully human. And knowing what really matters and what does not is practically helpful knowledge. 

The priest in the story is Orthodox, and the Creed in question is the Nicene. Episcopalians join with Orthodox and millions of other Christians around the world and profess the same Creed (apart, of course, from the filioque clause, but that’s a different post). The Creed is a source of unity and unification. With the numbers of Christians denomination reaching into the tens of thousands, and with frequent reminders of all the points of disagreement among Christians, the Creeds offer Christians a piece of common ground, a potential starting point of unity and conversation.

The Creeds provides us a faith to profess and to grow into as we journey through the life of faith. They provide us a real point of connection to saints around the world and throughout the ages, both in the past and the present and the future. So, following the priest’s recommendation, we stand with the Church and continue to says the Creeds until they come to form our heart and our minds into the image the Triune God reflected in the Creeds.

[1] Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechatical Lectures 5.12. Translation mine.

Theology Matters by The Rev. Bill Murray

 The Commandments 4-6

My younger son is a joy and a challenge. From his earliest moments on this earth, he has been a willful child. Said differently, my son loves to break the rules. We discovered very quickly that the best and only way to get him to do something was to enjoy full-press reverse psychology on everything. “Son, you are not allowed to pick up your dirty clothes and put them in the hamper!” With a chuckle and delighted glee, he would gather up each piece and sprint to the laundry room. “You cannot eat your peas.” Like clockwork, the pile of green English peas would be consumed. Even his older brother learned quickly that telling him not to do something was the quickest way to getting what you want. Of course, there were and are rules that we make clear. Certain commands are not negotiable and are to keep him safe. We just have to craft them in such a way that we avoid words like “no”, “not” and “never.”

Imagine my delight when I was assigned the fourth, fifth, and sixth commandments. God handed down ten rules, among many others, to Moses. Of those instructions for better living, eight begin with “no” in Hebrew. Four and five are reminders of how to live a better life through positive requests. In case you do not have them memorized, number four is, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8) The fifth commandment comes shortly after, “Honor your father and your mother.” (Exodus 20:12) In many ways, they may be the toughest of the ten to follow. We can avoid a host of problems but being asked to dedicate a day to God and love our families is going a whole lot farther towards ordering our lives.

The official reasoning for setting aside a day is that God rested on the seventh day of creation. As a result, many folks will talk about how we must rest from our labors as though that is sole the purpose of the day. Terence Fretheim, a Lutheran professor, notes that true “Sabbath-keeping puts all human striving aside, recognizes the decisive role of God in creation, and provides for a weekly oasis to rest back in the arms of this reality.”[1] In others words, keeping the Sabbath holy is a clear reminder that we are not the center of the universe. God started creation before us and will complete it long after us. Through baptism and a life in Christ, we are beloved sons and daughters of God and participants in God’s kingdom. In the same breath, we rely on God from beginning to end for all of it. Sabbath keeping in this sense is about worshipping God and about reordering our lives weekly to what matters in God’s kingdom, not our personal fiefdoms.

The closest we come to understanding that call to a life prioritizing others is family. So, God continues the request that we order our lives differently by instructing us to honor our mothers and fathers. Regardless of our age, our parents are reminders that we did not get to where we are alone. From the beginning we need someone to feed us, clean us, care for us, instruct us, raise us up, and remind us that it is not all about us. We are pulled into relationship from birth through the desperate and basic needs of human life. Our parents are walking, talking, incarnate reminders that we did not do it all alone. Honoring our fathers and mothers is an invitation by God to remember that there are a million ways to be in relationship, most of them modeled by our parents in the first place. God’s command is a deeper reminder of the one who created us in the first place and upon whom we should depend at every age. Whether we have perfect parents, difficult relationships, never knew them, or lost them years ago, the instruction to honor fathers and mothers encourages us to reflect on all who have shaped, molded, and mentored us - and especially on our God who created us out of nothing to be who we are today.

The movement from keeping the Sabbath to honoring our parents is positive in command and breathtaking in simplicity. Taking time to remember who is in charge makes sense and flows into a gentle reminder that many others brought us to this day. To argue from lesser to greater, the work and ministry of being a parent has made me even more appreciative of all that my mom and dad did to raise me. And yes, I marvel even more at how much God engages us as our divine Father despite the fact that we are all a willful, crazy, sinful, broken humanity. In the end, it makes perfect sense that God starts again with the “do not’s” in commandment six. God may well be reminding himself as a loving parent as much as instructing us when we struggle with relationships large and small, “Do not kill.” (Exodus 20:13) Of course, if we are doing the hard work of keeping the Sabbath and honoring our parents, human and divine, then avoiding that one should be easy.        

[1] Fretheim, Terence E. Exodus. Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Preaching and Teaching. (Louisville, Kohn Knox Press: 1991), 230.

The Rev. Bill Murray is Vicar at Saint Michael and All Angels in Dallas


Priests from throughout the diocese explore religious topics with depth and nuance.