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No Creed. No scriptures. No Church?

old-sign-about-bible-scriptureFollowing is drawn from a response made to a blog post on Liturgy Canada: “do we need new creeds?”

On Sunday, we will hear Jesus proclaim, “I have told you but you do not believe.” This word “believing” is a tough nut to crack—always confronting us in discussions on the creeds. So often, I hear people complain or dismissing the creeds, “let’s get relevant,” or “how can I say that? Does anyone really believe that stuff?”

What do we mean when we say “We believe?”

I am a child of the BAS, and I remember always being perplexed during the BCP Communion rite, when immediately following the Gospel and preceding the homily, we hear the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed. It was not until later that I experienced some inspiration of why this location in the liturgy makes sense.

Frances Young, in The Making of the Creeds, points out that “Christianity is the only major religion to set such store by creeds and doctrines.” The history of the formation of the creeds is rooted in the particular historical reality of a community differentiating itself both from Jew and Gentile, and as empire. The stress on orthodoxy, true or untrue belief, fits for a group struggling to establish itself; and even more so, with often grave or violent consequences, as a ruling power. This is particularly the case for the Johannine community: confessing belief in Christ as the true temple (not the now-destroyed temple referenced in the Feast of the Dedication) in opposition to the wider Jewish community who rejects them.

The creeds, which grew from baptismal preparation into ‘rules of faith’ also served as a way to preserve the central teachings to those who could read. The creeds, in their tri-fold form, teach the basic pillars of the Triune faith, and retain the incarnational truth of flesh and blood. The creeds root the faith in history, not just as a philosophy or metaphor. As the church sought out its own identity and wrestled with the Truth both from its Hebrew roots and the predominant Hellenic culture, the rules of faith were the standards by which truth was vindicated or heresy condemned.

I would also argue that the creeds go hand in hand with scripture. As the rule of faith, they served and continue to serve, as the hermeneutic key to both the old and new testaments, and further, are inseparable from the formation of the New Testament. The letters of Paul are full of borrowed confessional statements and the redactors of the Gospels themselves would have had a reciprocal relationship with these statements. Let us not forget the formation of the canon itself, along with the final version of the Nicene Creed both happened in the late fourth century. This is the gathering point of the universal church that continued to descend into fragmentation from Chalcedon (451 C.E.) onwards. So Can we not say “no creeds means no scriptures, no Church?”

Further, I would also suggest that we live in an age of impoverished theology: sacramental, liturgical, spiritual, systematic and otherwise. The same old platonic ideas have found their way back into the mainstream and the radical incarnational claim of Christianity in mainline churches is often, at best, vague. How often do we rightly proclaim Mary as the Mother of God? How often do we hear our leaders so quickly dismissing the mysteries as ‘untrue’ or ‘just a metaphor,’ Jesus as a ‘great teacher among others.’ How often have we heard poems at funerals proclaiming the body is just a shell and the spirit is living with God as He needed another angel?

I think there definitely is a shadow to ‘orthodoxy’ as Frances Young also points out, as it inevitably leads to division. Inclusion and exclusion is a lightning rod for the Church and we are working hard to remove barriers to inclusivity, and rightly so. However, I believe we should retain the creeds as they are, using them intentionally and appropriately, without inventing new ones for the following reasons:

  1. They serve as a hermeneutic key, along with the Eucharistic prayers, to the reception of the Holy Scriptures and the Christian tradition as a whole. This avoids both a fundamentalist approach as well as a neo-liberal relativism.
  2. They hold before us the ancient holy catholic faith and maintain a commitment to the truths proclaimed by the generations before us, always holding out the mystery of incarnation, salvation and our Triune confession. This is not to affirm a brittle adherence to form, but to root ourselves deeply in the radical claims that make Christians Christian and meet the present without dismissing too quickly what we have received.
  3. They give context, a form, a canvas for seekers to wrestle with in approaching the life long journey of conversion and faith. They state boldly the pillars of faith and hold them forward as mystery not to be quickly explained and understood but to be lived into in awe and wonder and to shape one’s life around.

So, I am not puzzled anymore at reciting the creed after the Gospel when attending a BCP service of Communion. I am also not terribly concerned when a creed is not recited during a liturgy, though I notice that I miss it if it is regularly absent. I am, however, deeply concerned when I hear a contemporary version, crafted by a well-meaning presider trying to be ‘relevant.’ We have decided that God must be neatly controlled under the faculty of reason. We debate, conservative or liberal, using the best of science historic analysis to prove our point. Yet, we do such great disservice to the vast holy mystery of revelation and the encounter with the ever blessed Triune God. There is a reason Truth is passed from age to age in story, ritual, music and tradition. The Eschatological reality we call God is not the property of the created. The intellect is merely a limited faculty, from where we may enter into the ocean of divine relationship, which by definition transcends any possible category or definition.

I don’t abandon the rules of sailing when I get into a sailboat. They are there to serve me as I navigate and harness the untamable powers of nature. The creeds are the form in which “belief” is harnessed as we abandon ourselves into the holy mystery of love crucified and risen.

Gregor Sneddon

About Gregor Sneddon

Gregor Sneddon is a Presbyter in the Diocese of Ottawa and the Rector of St Matthew’s, Ottawa. He received an MA from the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies and is the founding Coordinator for Contemplative Outreach of Eastern Ontario. Gregor is a council member of the Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission and serves on the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation. He is a husband, a dad, and enjoys being in the woods, a good dinner party and swinging the blues.

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18 Responses to No Creed. No scriptures. No Church?

  1. Went to a church this winter which used the Heartland Liturgy which used no creed nor The Peace” I don’t know if I agreed with its exclusion, but it certainly did not take away from the worshipfullness and learning that happened.

    • Gregor Sneddon

      HI Georgia:
      The creeds were never really designed as ‘liturgical rites’ the Roman and Orthodox Church do not use them in that way. I too have had many beautiful experiences of worship without the creed! My concern is throwing them away, or changing them to fit ‘my point of view.’ I am going to check out the Heartland Liturgy – sounds interesting!

  2. Good article.Creeds hold the foundations of our faith, if you can not say them without crossing your fingers ,well , there is always the Unitarian church or a Buddhist temple down the street.

    • You don’t have to cross your fingers to say the creeds with integrity and recognize that there are various interpretations both historically and within the broad spectrum of the Anglican Communion. The common words provide us with a foundation from which to begin theologizing as a community, but it is not the end. I for one love the creeds and want to preserve them, but we should not force people to accept only one view.

    • John Collins You can’t force anyone to believe anything but when those people go out to try to have the creeds dropped or changed to some benign statement because the won’t or don’t believe what they say,then there is a problem.The Christian faith is built on some foundational facts and if we start knocking those stones out it won’t belong before the house falls reminiscent of the one built on sand. By the way I took the statement “cross your fingers”from someone who did not believe the creeds not that he was having problems with somethings in it but flatly did not believe them.

  3. Dawn Leger

    As a racing sailor, I follow the rules of sailing every week I race. However, if I had to stand up every week in the middle of a race and recite the rules in order to remember who I am as a sailor, my skipper and my crew would be very concerned indeed.

    Not reciting one of the two patristic Creeds every Sunday is not about “Doing away with the Creeds”. The patristic creeds contain truth, history and tradition, but they are not complete. They fail to convey the complexity of the crucifixion and it’s meaning. They respond to theological arguments of the time. Our theological arguments have shifted, so can we not proclaim our faith in a way that responds to the arguments and questions of today? I hear the biggest question in some form of, “Who am I in relationship with God”? The creeds say hardly anything about that.

    The patristic creeds are foundational and critical expressions of our faith. But they are not a complete expression. We use different affirmations of faith at our church in order to expand our understanding of the Trinity and our place in God’s Creation and Christ’s Resurrection.

    • You are a capable sailor, I take it, and thus don’t need the rules restated to you. What if you had a novice–someone like myself who has been on a sailboat once in his life. Might you consider having everyone listen to the rules at that point? The rules that you might state probably wouldn’t tell me every nuance of sailing, but they would be sufficient to keep me going in the right direction, and they might also be helpful reminders to more experienced members.

      No statement of faith will every be complete, but neither has any been claimed to be complete. As I alluded to, and as Fr Gregor mentioned, the creeds are sufficient statements of faith. They cover some of the basic “must believes” of Christianity, though they do not claim to explain everything about the faith. It is the role of the homily and of education courses and individual study of the Holy Scriptures and other Christian writings to expand on these foundational statements.

      Also, while I am sure there are some for whom not reciting the Creeds on Sunday is because they view it as unecessary as you’ve suggested, earlier this month on the Community there was a discussion on the Creeds in which at least one commenter to my recollection stated that they omit the Creeds because they do not agree with their content, and would prefer that they were omitted from our worship. This suggests an importance of including it as there are people attending who do not yet believe.

      I am a firm proponent of their inclusion, because it also reminds us in times when even within a smaller congregation where there is division on non-essentials of belief, there are core doctrines of the Christian faith which unite as as the adopted children of God our Father. Perhaps that is one helpful way of looking at these statements: their importance is not so much in what we are declaring about our personal beliefs, but rather in our expression of the eternal truths of God’s nature revealed to us.

      • Gregor Sneddon

        I like the further unfolding of the sailing metaphor Matthew! I mentioned in my response to Matthew that I am not necessarily a firm advocate for using the creeds in the divine liturgy – though I personally like it. I really do think it is important to have the ‘essentials’ of belief, as you say, shared and claimed and stated. What do we believe anyway? Do we stand for anything? To dismiss the ancient confession of faith because you do not ‘agree’ with them is a blazing example of our creation of the idol of “me” and “what I think”. The buck stops here…

    • Gregor Sneddon

      Dawn – Great thoughts – sailing is a great metaphor for so many things. I am not suggesting we need the creeds every time we celebrate the Divine Liturgy to be sure. I agree they do not capture everything – but neither do the carefully crafted Eucharistic prayers which are perhaps even a more dense and full expression of our theology. I don’t think they intend to. Rather, they name the structure, form, foundational archetypes, ‘playing field’ in which the New Testament was penned, and out of which the Church and its self understanding and theology blossomed. The creeds name ‘tradition’ in a dense formula. To do away with them, puts us in an impossible position for it pulls out the very bones of who we are.
      My concern with crafting parish “we believe” creedal statements – no matter how profound or exquisite – is that it seems to be replacing the universal, the wholistic (belonging to the whole) “catholicity” of the age upon age of Christians in favour of what I think, or what this handful of people think. It seems to be moving towards a desire to “explain everything so I can accept it,” instead of a “hold out the mystery so I can yield to and become it.” I trust in all those who have gone before me, and the wisdom of the whole body of Christ in interpreting and leaning into the experience of ultimate reality, God, and a little suspicious of what my opinions are…especially when the tradition, the church, the scriptures challenge me.

  4. Matthew Griffin

    It may be worth remembering in this conversation that the creeds come into the eucharistic liturgy REALLY late in the history–it’s only in the 10th century and following that, having been used in Gaul, they make their way back to Rome and from there begin to be used across the West.
    I don’t think recent trends of using non-creedal statements of faith are a naive return to basilica worship; I suspect they’re trying to do something else. But it’s also worth being careful about how we frame this conversation, especially when other provinces of our communion have authorised other texts that may be used when our rites require one of the the Nicene or Apostles’ Creeds–and it’s worth not being dismissive, especially when as in the CofE, many of those suggested alternates are portions of scripture aimed at helping us engage with the three numbered reasons Gregor points to in his reflection.

    • It seems to me that when the creeds are dropped ,for the option of the Shema or the like, for the reason that people no long believe in the declaration made in the creeds ,then I think you have a deeper underlying problem

      • Matthew Griffin

        That’s an interesting point, Tony. One of the things the inclusion of the creed in the Divine Liturgy does is to function as an exclusionary moment. Just as the deacons once yelled “Depart, catechumens” to ask anyone not yet baptized to leave before entering into preparing the altar and the Eucharistic prayer, the creed functions as a kind of ID check: do I belong here if I can’t say this with integrity?

        And yet. I’ve worked with any number of baptized parishioners who were struggling with aspects of the creeds, and the time we’ve spent talking together has been profoundly faithful even when they’ve held positions that a Chalcedonian Christian would have to call heterodox.

        Finally, I think that your point identifies one reason that people might prefer to drop the creeds, but there are others. I don’t think there’d be seven alternate authorized Affirmations of Faith in the Church of England’s _Common Worship_ materials otherwise.

        • Gregor Sneddon

          That makes sense Matthew. It does open the door to the other question, with great arguments either way – is the Eucharistic liturgy (theology) to be altered so that we can be less offensive, more inclusive? This gets us into the whole open table question etc.The invitation to recite the Nicene creed at St Luke’s is drawn form the Orthodox invitation: “Let us love one another so that with one mind we may confess:” We believe…

    • Gregor Sneddon

      Hey Matthew – great point.

      Our Eucharistic rite uses the gladsome phrase “may be used”, however for major festivals uses the more directive “shall.” Either way, I personally am not a proponent of making use of the creeds in the Divine Liturgy – other Churches certainly do not, including the Orthodox – and there are a variety of “affirmations of Faith” out there, to be sure. The creeds were never intended to be used in the liturgy anyway – other than of course the Baptismal rite. Certainly the desire to be more inclusive, welcoming and available to people is a noble and important intention (whether exercising this initiative by changing the rites intended for the initiated to do so is another discussion). My intention here is to highlight that the Church, the Scriptures, and Tradition are all co-dependant. To ‘do away with’ the Creeds or to change them or to replace them is the same thing as doing away with, changing or replacing the new Testament. Tradition is not some later add on but in fact anticipates the formation of the texts and remain as the hermeneutic frame work of interpretation of both Old and New. The canon itself, and the formation of a systematic theology is bound inseparably to tradition. There is no such thing as sola scriptura. There seems to be an impulse in the western ‘progressive’ vision towards a relativism, an emphasis on individualism and personal interpretation – “what works for me,” “What I think” – which sadly robs us of the greater opportunity to open ourselves and yield to far more vast, never to be fully grasped, encounter with the Mystery of God. The Creeds of course cannot address every aspect of the unfolding of revelation, we are after all creatures imprisoned in linear time – but they do ground us in the primary ‘posture’, ‘lens’, ‘archetypes’ of Scripture, the Church and revelation.

      • Matthew Griffin

        I strongly agree with the underlying point, Gregor. The creeds are a vital starting place not just because they help us understand how to interpret Scripture and define some rough bounds for our sandbox of theology, but because they are an expression of that tradition.
        Part of my motivation for noting the late inclusion of the creeds in the Divine Liturgy is that it shows a way the tradition is mutable with time. I’d be concerned about a community where the creeds are unknown; I’d be less concerned about a community in which alternate Affirmations of Faith were part of the liturgical practice in a carefully thought-out partnership with the creeds that emerge from the ecumenical Councils.

  5. I think that the creeds provide us with common language from where we can begin our faith conversations. That does not mean we all have to agree about the interpretation of such sources, but they provide us with a foundation from which to begin. I believe we benefit by having our scriptures and creeds.

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