Theology Matters: Why the Creeds Matter by Paige Hanks
The baptismal liturgy in the Episcopal Church is a powerfully moving service. The call and response between the celebrant and the congregation at the start of the service sets the tone, as the participants in the service begin with statements of “oneness.” As we prepare to welcome our newest brother or sister in Christ, we remind ourselves of our catholicity by boldly proclaiming that there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, and one Baptism. We say the Baptismal Covenant every time we conduct a baptism, boldly proclaiming our beliefs in the context of welcoming our newest members. We say the words of the Nicene Creed together each week for much the same reason, as we come together as a community of believers to remind ourselves what we believe about God and God’s church, focusing on the “oneness” of our beliefs.
In this day and age, getting a group of people together to find common ground on a particular subject seems overwhelmingly difficult. If you think about it, it is remarkable that we have these ancient creeds at all! Following Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension, the early Christ followers struggled to make sense of this new revelation of Godself. Out of that struggle to make sense of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit and the Church, bishops gathered together to find agreement, eventually creating doctrinal belief statements that we call creeds today. Prior to the development of the creeds, the Christian practices and beliefs were developing quite loosely and were often subject to local interpretation and authority. In response to that, and as a way to unite Christians in common beliefs, the councils often met for years at a time. The creeds that arose from these councils were the result of deep dialogue, and continue to be familiar to us in our worship today.
The Apostles and Nicene Creeds are both found in our worship services in the Book of Common Prayer, and other mainline denominations use these in similar forms in their worship services as well. The structure of these creeds include statements of belief about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and make bold claims about what we as a church believe. And that gets to the heart of why the creeds matter in 2016.
There are churches of all kinds, worship services held different ways, and beliefs in God that are all over the map in modern Christianity. The creeds for us, are to be considered the anchors of our faith. The most important idea to remember is that the doctrinal beliefs found within these creedal statements are scripturally based, interpreted by a body of believers together in community. This is critical to understand, because our beliefs about God should not be dependent upon a particular pastor or developed on our own without the benefit of community. When we say the creed together in unison, there is great power in this shared experience, even when the words become so familiar that we don’t always stop to think about what we are saying. We are affirming our oneness as a community, while at the same time individually speaking our truth about God.
There is something to be said about the repetition that comes from saying the Nicene Creed week after week on Sundays and the Apostles Creed when we do the services of the daily office. Free flowing prayers to God certainly have their place in our spiritual lives, but one of the strengths of Christianity is what we believe about God. Consistently saying these creeds, particularly within a church assembly, binds us together with one another in common beliefs which strengthen the community. Our individual utterances of belief reverberate with others around us, but also with the communion of saints who have come before us. Think about it: for approximately 2,000 years, Christians have been saying the same basic things about God. These creeds have been spoken week after week, month after month, and year after year in church communities. This common experience links us to the past and is foundational for the future for believers, with a world full of Christians speaking the same things about God over and over again.
The creeds matter in the life of God’s church. When we say what we believe, we are drawn closer to God and one another through those shared beliefs. When is the last time you really thought deeply about what you are saying as you recite the creed? Saying what we believe for the sake of the words is not the point. These words should be coupled with our intentions, so if we believe that God created us, then we believe we are loved. If we believe that Jesus came for our salvation, then there is hope in a world without end. And if we believe that the Holy Spirit gives life now and in the world to come, then we are called to be active in God’s kingdom in the present. The creeds are an integral part of our personal transformation as children of God and our work in the world to make Christ known.
Paige Hanks is a Postulant , studying at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.