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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.

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