Creeds are not summations of Christianity – they’re not summations of faith. Creeds are articulations of particular understandings inside of a certain contextual context. There were questions being asked – and there were responses to those questions. What do we believe? We believe these particular things as these people in these places. And that doesn’t mean at all that I’m suggesting that I wouldn’t hold to them. What I’m suggesting is they’re not to be used as summations, they’re to be used as particular beliefs. So if we talk about creeds as summaries, and we suggest that you have the scriptures and then you have the summary of all of that in this little package, in this little thing and all you have to do is look to that and have that be the shortest most simple amount of agreement that you can find…it de-bowels creeds of their life and their strength.
As someone who generally attends worship at Presbyterian (USA) churches, this is something that I think is important to wrestle with. Why do we use the creeds in worship. And do we use them to connect ourselves with the history of the church or do we indeed use them as summations of our faith? It seems that when we preface the congregational reading of the creed with “People of God, what is it that you believe?” we are continuing to perpetuate the idea that the creed we recite is a total summation of what it means to be a Christian.
The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship has an interesting article entitled “The Case for Reciting Creeds in Worship.” The article offers a few different reasons for the purpose of reciting creeds in worship:
- “Saying the creeds in worship links us to the church of past ages and connects us to the worship of future ages.”
- “Saying creeds in worship makes me feel so at home among believers, no matter where I am.”
- The biblical authority of creeds—reinforced by reciting them together in worship—“safeguards thoughtful worshipers from being led astray by every wind of doctrine.”
- Brushing up on historic creeds will prepare you for conversations about what Christians believe and why.
If there is one reason to recite creeds in worship, I think it may be to help connect the local congregation to believers in the past and in the future – to help one understand that the faith they confess has been confessed by multitudes in the past and will be professed by multitudes in the future as well. However, one must not believe that the faith will look exactly the same as it did for the early church or for the Reformers. And this is one of the potential downfalls of creeds, as Doug mentioned in his rant. If we do present the creeds as the summary of what Christians believe, we miss out on a lot.
For example, take the Apostles’ Creed. The Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Confessions writes: “Although not written by apostles, the Apostles’ Creed reflects the theological formulations of the first century church.” The last I checked, we were not still living in the first century. The text for the Apostles’ Creed is below:
I BELIEVE in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
Are these things that I would subscribe to? A belief in God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost? Yes, of course. These are things that Christianity has historically held to since the first century. However, if we present this creed to the congregation in the form of “What do you believe?” and if it is understood as a summation of the Christian faith – we are doing an injustice. Where does the creed talk about the God who is a radical liberating God, a God who cares about the poor, the downtrodden, the social inequalities? Where does it talk about the kingdom of God in the Apostles’ Creed? Where does it talk about humanity’s call to partner with God in the creating of God’s kingdom here on earth?
Obviously, a short creed recited in church will not be able to hold all of the things we believe it is important to believe as a Christian – not even the Apostles’ Creed. That being the case, it is even more important that we do not let the creeds serve as summations of Christian belief. I don’t think they should be thrown out, or that there may not be an appropriate use for them in worship, but I think it’s important to stop to reflect on what we think about the creeds. When we choose to put them in the Order of Worship for Sunday – what is our goal in doing so? Do we stick it in there simply because the PCUSA Book of Common Worship suggests we do? Do we insert the creed so that people can “brush up on” what are the most important things Christian believe? Do we want to recite the creed so that people will feel connected to Christians across time and space? Are there other ways to do that, perhaps other rituals?
I think it’s time to rethink the use of creeds in worship. Does your church use creeds in worship? What do you think about when you recite them (if you think about anything)? Do you think lay people have a strong understanding of their purpose in the liturgy? What does everyone else think?