Creeds in Worship

Perhaps the most fundamental question a human creature asks, as he or she breaks through and infiltrates this world, is where do I receive life-sustaining nourishment? Answering such an inquiry—your parents—might be correct, but I doubt it’s entirely helpful. How many parents? Who are these parents? Such logical puzzlements will continue to harass the mind until the newborn realizes limits and identities: I have two parents, and I possess the necessary means by which to recognize them. Changing the analogy slightly, Clement—the second-century Christian catechist from the influential city of Alexandria—loved to paint a picture of human creatures running to their “mother”—the church—as she nourishes “them with holy milk.”[1] “From her bountiful breasts,” says another church father, “our lady mother the Church” provides the necessary nourishment to live.[2]

Two named parents. Two known breasts. These are helpful ways to frame the question that is asked by the catechism—how many creeds does this church use in its worship? The catechism itself assumes that we are just like that small, infantile creature first coming into existence in need of parental aid. Or perhaps we are that child who, while more mature and knowledgeable, is still not outside the need of spiritual nursing. We need truth to survive as much as that little one needs milk.

The catechism names the two parents of our creedal faith. We worship using the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. But is it reasonable to believe that only these two creeds possess the ability to articulate an intelligible expression of the Christian faith? Given the fact that one publication uses over 700 pages to detail and document all the different creeds and confessions of Christendom, is this really valid?[3] Some or many of these expressions of faith are seen as valuable, even inspiring and encouraging, but the Book of Common Prayer limits the worship of the church as it places all such creeds and confessions aside. And this also is the case with the Athanasian Creed. While perhaps valuable, it lacks the necessary substantive and authoritative witness of history.

And this is why the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed are the creedal stories we tell in worship. They are in a class of their own. They alone contain the necessary substantive and authoritative witness of history. Why? Remember that the Apostles’ Creed is the great baptismal confession—it’s the truth that one is baptized into as he or she enters the church. That same story serves as the standard of authority during confirmation, and it often plays a central role during funerals when said person transitions from church militant to church triumphant. And also remember that the Nicean Creed is the great eucharistic confession—it’s the truth by which one approaches the altar in order to eat and drink in a shared communal experience of Christ’s presence. That same story is heard week after week in one’s life, building and forming and shaping faith in God’s person and will, the requisite ingredient to a full life—one that is moved by divine beauty and moves to beautify in ethical action.

So the substantive and authoritative witness of history that these two creeds uniquely contain has nothing to do with history in some abstract ideal; rather, it’s all about lives lived. It concerns the arc of life: from “baptismal admission within the Church” to “the deathbed,” these two creeds are the “sufficient proof that the [person] retains what [they] originally began with—the Christian’s confession of a true faith.”[4] So the creeds, in some sense, mark time as one journeys the path of faith.

But the arc of life I’m talking about, is not just limited to an individual’s life. No—it’s much more expansive. It’s the individual lives of all those brought into union as members of the Christian church. Try to picture that. Picture the vast multitudes of Christian brothers and sisters who over the generations have been baptized into the faith, as narrated by the Apostles’ Creed. Picture all those who across the epochs of history have been sanctified by the ritual affirmation of the truth, as expressed in the Nicean Creed. That is witness. It’s the multi-generational embodiment of the one faith as shaped by these two creeds. It demonstrates how effective they are in providing a meaningful and dependable testimony of that one faith (Eph 4). And conversely, these creeds witness to the credibility of all that sacramental action. As  summaries of God’s Word, the creeds uniquely serve as the benchmark for how the church worships God in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24). Furthermore, this creedal witness is ecumenical in nature. Not only transcending time in sweeping up all Christians into a unified communion of saints, the faith that these creeds articulate is also ecumenical in the way it breaks us free from the palisades of our own preferred denominational grouping and allows us to participate in what our hearts truly yearn for—simply, being in God. His story becomes our story.

The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed are more than a collection of words, they embody an apostolic faith that forms ecclesial union, against which not even the gates of hell can prevail (Matt 16:18). But what if I don’t believe fully in these creeds? That is a question I received some years ago during a confirmation class I was teaching. It helped me then, as it helps me now, to remember that these two great creeds are substantive and authoritative witnesses of history because they are prayers. We “use” them “in [the church’s] worship,” states the catechism, and everything done in worship is an act of prayer. So if there are parts of the creeds that you struggle with, portions you can’t comprehend or perhaps even believe, keep praying the creeds. May the God who created, create in you the necessary faith to see his full beauty; may the God who came down, descend into your life to provide complete assurance of his hope; and may the God who spoke, reveal to you his unconditional and unending love to such extent that it effuses to others.

 

[1] Clement of Alexandria, “The Instructor,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, trans. William Wilson, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 1.6, p. 220.

[2] Tertullian, “Ad Martyras,” in ibid., ch. 1, p. 693.

[3] See John Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches (Louisville: John Knox, 1982).

[4] Edgar Gibson, The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (London: Methuen, 1898), 68.

Posted by James Detrich with

What is the Athanasian Creed?

What is the Athanasian Creed?    

Trinitas quae dominus est. This Augustinian maxim—translating to the somewhat awkward “The Trinity the Lord is” (the English being no less confusing than the Latin, perhaps!)—is an attempt by the Church to describe the Triune nature of the One God of our confession. I think what the maxim is getting at is something like “Whatever the Lord is, it is the Trinity,” or maybe “The Trinity is what the Lord is.” None of these make for great prose, but they communicate something of deep importance, perhaps the most important truth in the universe. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Needless to say, the concept of the Trinity has been a stumbling block to many. I won’t try to articulate what the Trinity is here (that noble task has already been addressed in this blog post http://edod.org/theology-matters/what-is-the-holy-trinity/ )[1]; rather, I simply want to point out the centrality of the doctrine of the Trinity for us Christians.

“The Trinity the Lord is.” As catholic, creedal Christians, we believe that whoever it is that “the Lord” refers to, whatever “God” is, God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We may not fully understand how that works or what that exactly means, but we know, as truth revealed to us in Scripture, revealed in the life and witness of Our Lord Jesus, and revealed in the handing down of the catholic faith by His Body the Church, that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Athanasian Creed provides language with which we can begin to articulate the finally inexpressible truth of God’s Triune nature. Traditionally attributed to the great Church Father and defender of orthodoxy, Athanasius of Alexandria, the Creed (sometimes called the Quicunque Vult) articulates the Church’s belief about the Three-in-Oneness of the Godhead. The Creed begins with the strong assertion: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.” And how does the Creed summarize the content of this Faith? “And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.”

Our belief in the Trinity is so crucial because without the Trinity, we cannot be saved. Another popular phrase during the early Church period was “what is not assumed cannot be redeemed.” This phrase expresses the fundamental truth that sinful humanity cannot, on its own, save itself. The dead cannot bring the dead to life. Rather, in order for us to be saved, our very humanity must be united to God, which is exactly what happened when the Son took on flesh at the Incarnation. God the Son, the Spotless Victim, has “died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit.”[2] The second half of the Athanasian Creed addresses this point when it stresses the fullness of Christ’s humanity and His divinity.

This is why the Trinity plays such an important role in our baptism. In the sacrament of Holy Baptism, we are reconciled to the Father as we die with Christ the Son and are raised into new birth in the Holy Spirit.[3] Jesus took on the stuff of humanity, our sinful flesh, and redeemed it by uniting Himself to it and offering it to God at His Crucifixion. God has saved us by redeeming the stuff of humanity and Resurrecting it to new life in the Spirit, uniting us to Him.

Hopefully you can now begin to see why the Church is so insistent about the Trinity. The Athanasian Creed was probably written as a defense against heretical teachings that denied the Triune nature of the Lord; the Creed responded so forcefully not because the Church is legalistic or fascistic, demanding absolute conformity for the sake of authoritarianism. Rather, the Church understands rightly, and the Athanasian Creed helps us to understand, that without the Blessed Trinity, we have no hope for salvation. For this salvation to operate, as the Athanasian Creed insists, each member of the Trinity must be fully God. If you lose the Trinity, you lose the content of the “Catholic Faith.” You lose the Truth that is at the Center of the universe; the Truth of the God who saves us and reconciles us to Him.

In many churches, the Athanasian Creed is recited each year on Trinity Sunday. Whether or not this is not the practice of your parish, I would encourage you to visit the Athanasian Creed (conveniently located on page 864 in your Prayer Book!) and spend some time praying over it, for, in the words of the Creed itself, “He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.” 

[1] This post also helpfully articulates the important truth that God in God’s essence is of course neither male nor female, but “the source of all genderedness.”

[2] 1 Peter 3:18.

[3] BCP, 306.

Posted by Shea Gilliand with

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