Following 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.