Article VIII: Of the Three Creeds

This post is part of a Lenten series on the 39 Articles.

Article VIII: Of the Three Creeds
The three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius’ Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed; for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.

I’m going to go out on a limb (with much safety, I suspect) and guess that most Anglican churchgoers utter their creeds every Sunday and yet hardly give them any thought. The recitation of the Nicene Creed becomes rote to the point where many worshipers no longer pay attention to the words they’re saying. I was teaching a class a few years ago and asked who could define “incarnate”. Silence.

There are lots of reasons why the creeds matter. First, they provide a yardstick for the doctrine and faith of the church. If it’s in the creeds, we should teach it. Folks can argue over how to read some bits of the creeds. Marcus Borg’s take (“I give my heart, but I don’t need to believe all this stuff”) marks one end of the spectrum, and an objective, literal reading is the other end. I suspect that most thoughtful people would push for something within those bounds, probably closer to the objective end on most clauses of the creed.

This Article provides another good reason to keep the creeds around: they offer a fully scriptural summary of our faith. This claim is in keeping with the view of the previous articles, in which the primacy of the scriptures is asserted. With the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, it isn’t too hard to cite scriptural warrant for each clause in the creeds. I’m not so sure the complex trinitarian theology of the Athanasian Creed can be backed up with scriptures. Still, it is a fruitful exercise to think of the creeds as lenses through which the scriptures are projected.

Of course, these days we make lots of use of the Nicene Creed, as it pops up in every celebration of the Eucharist on Sundays and Major Feasts. The Apostles’ Creed is less used these days, unless you happen to be a person who is in the (laudable) habit of saying the daily office. Thank goodness we still use the Apostles’ Creed at baptisms and funerals! The Athanasian Creed is relegated, in the Episcopal Church, to the fine print in the dusty/historical documents section of our prayer book, along with the 39 Articles. Few people will object to the loss of the Athanasian Creed in liturgical use. It isn’t fashionable to anathematize people.

I would hope that we as a church might slow down a bit when we come to our creeds. Maybe we would even make them subjects of prayer and study. Who could proclaim a domesticated Jesus viewed primarily as “my friend” when we take seriously the notion that Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father”? That kind of Jesus has some claim on us, and not we on him.

Here are some questions on which you might meditate:

  • Do creeds matter in the church today?
  • Our creeds are well over 1,000 years old. Do we proclaim the ancient faith with those very ancient words? Or do we mean different things today with our words?
  • Are there parts of the creeds to which you have trouble subscribing? Are there things you wish you could add to the creeds?
  • How do you see the relationship of the creeds with the scriptures?
  • Should the creeds be understand as prayers, not just as summaries of doctrine?

Almighty God, you have revealed to your Church your eternal Being of glorious majesty and perfect love as one God in Trinity of Persons: Give us grace to continue steadfast in the confession of this faith, and constant in our worship of you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; for you live and reign, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Previous: Article VII: Of the Old Testament
Next: Article IX: Of Original or Birth Sin

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5 Responses

  1. Bob Chapman says:

    “Folks can argue over how to read some bits of the creeds.”

    The first time I read that statement my eyes saw, “Fools can argue over how to read some bits of the creeds.” If we were truly able to define the totality of God with a written statement, we would be in the place of being to create and control God.

    Some ambiguity and mystery reminds us that we are people of His pasture and sheep of His hand.

  2. Tim Schenck says:

    The late Jim Griffiths, canon theologian to the presiding bishop and a man I was privileged to have as a seminary professor, used to say that after some of the sermons he’d endured the Creed was the only thing he had to hold onto!

  3. Bob Chapman says:

    Is this why the 1979 BCP switched the order (Gospel-sermon-Creed) from the 1928 BCP (Gospel-Creed-[Bidding Prayer]-Sermon)?

    In other words, with this order, you always have something to take away.

  4. This post on my blog, Laughing Water, contains a link to a podcast of an interesting conversation about the role of creeds in the Christian life that recently took place at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis between two faculty members there: http://bit.ly/fm5gXQ

    One’s fer ’em and one’s agin ’em.

    It’s really worth listening to.