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.

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