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Anglicans Online last updated 19 November 2017
for Anglicans Online
Recently, a priest asked me whether the Apostles’ Creed could be substituted for the Nicene Creed. When I asked why, the response was that people without any Christian frame of reference (more and more, every day, in the West) were having great difficulty with the text, and it immediately turned them away from returning to the church again.
I was reminded of a conversation at the House of Bishops some time ago. A bishop described his difficulty getting a parish to start using the Nicene Creed again. Another bishop, hearing this, asked why they thought they could drop its use, as the rubrics require the recitation of that Creed at the Sunday Eucharist (which means that it is also required by canon law). The first replied that the parish felt it was off-putting to visitors. “How romantic!” said the other, sarcastically.
Both bishops are what some might call “progressive” or “liberal”.
The priest who drops the use of the Nicene Creed, and the bishop who tacitly allows it, or directly permits it, are liable to discipline under Title IV of the General Canons. But it is clearly an increasing practice, despite its illegality.
My immediate reply to my interlocutor was that I could not give permission for something I have no power to grant. But since then, I have been thinking about issues people have with the Creeds — both the Apostles and the Nicene statements.
Years ago, a Jesuit friend asked why Episcopalians keep reciting the Creed every Sunday. I replied that since we have no magisterium to refine continually what we should be believing — and we do not want one — the recitation of the Creed keeps us in mind of basic doctrine.
Moreover, its role in the main Sunday Eucharistic liturgy is more significant than it would seem at first glance.
The Eucharist begins with the president and people blessing and praising God the Trinity. Then after a prayer “collecting” the intentions of the particular Sunday, we have a large dose of Scripture. After prayerfully listening to the Word read, we then hear the Word expounded in the sermon. Confronted once again with the question of faith that the Gospel puts to us, we respond with conviction, “We believe.” Only then are we ready to pray, ask for forgiveness, make peace with God and each other, and finally move to making the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
The Creed is therefore the hinge, so to speak, between the liturgy of the Word and the sacrament. As the Eucharist flows from our need of God, to God filling that need, the Creed gives us a way to say that we are ready to respond to the gift of unmerited love.
However, the Creeds are historical documents, created by the Church. They are utterly derivative from the Scriptures. The Apostles' Creed that we use at Baptism and in the Offices give us a thumbnail sketch of what we believe is the story of the Bible: creation and redemption now, eternal life in the future. Its origins are from the second century. When people were baptized, they were asked an increasing number of questions, which eventually became the Apostles’ Creed.
This was because of what is called technically a heresy. This happens when someone simplifies the gospel message so that it can be understood, in such a way that people can feel more certain about their faith. The difference between “orthodox” and “heretical” is essentially the difference between “simple” and “simplistic.” For instance, a bishop named Marcion in the second century concluded that there had to be two gods, not one: the mean nasty god of the Old Testament who created this old world, and the superior loving god of the New. It does not sound completely unreasonable, on the face of it. My favorite lector of Scripture is a woman in Paris named Olivia de Havilland. When I interviewed her about her ministry, she said that reading the Bible in church is an act of faith, because “That Yahweh can be so awful sometimes!”
So Christians began asking questions before baptizing someone: “Do you believe in one God?” The person replied, “I believe in one God (not two), the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth”. As new heresies grew, more questions were added. Thus we now have the Apostles’ Creed. It is important to note that when we baptize someone in the 1979 Prayer Book rite, the whole congregation renews their vows of Baptism with the baptizand first in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, in the original form of question-and-answer: “Do you believe…?” “I believe…”
The Nicene Creed was written in the fourth century. A Roman general named Constantine became Emperor of Rome after a battle in which he believed he had received the divine intervention of Jesus Christ. He soon discovered that Christians argued a lot about various and sundry details. Eager not to anger his new god (and lose his throne), the Emperor ordered all the bishops in the world to come together in council and hammer out the basic beliefs of his new religion. They came to a town named Nicaea, in modern Turkey, where the bishops were sequestered until they came out with a document. The result, issued in 325 A.D., forms the bulk of the Creed of Nicaea; the rest was added at a second council, again in what is now Turkey, in 381. (For more, see here.)
Because Christians love to argue, there is still an argument over whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, or from “the Father and the Son.” Besides that, however, no one is considered fully a Christian who denies creedal doctrine. There is a penumbra of churches that do not accept the creeds, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, and the Church of Christ, Scientist.
But do we still need these ancient documents, created in response to controversies of long ago? On the one hand, there are still plenty of heresies. Why does that matter? Because although as Scripture says, "It is the will of God that all should be saved," (I Tim. 2:4) proclaiming a message about God that is actually wrong is very harmful. Rulers since the dawn of our species have wanted religion to say what they think it ought to say, namely, “our government is blessed by God.” And this is very much alive today. Adolf Hitler made a "german church" in which the “subhuman” Jews killed the blond blue-eyed Aryan Jesus. The regime in Iran claims to have a supreme “archbishop” — ayatollah — to run the country, which is a heresy in traditional Shi'a Islam. Certain Christian fundamentalists proclaim that American democracy is God's plan for all nations, which contributed to the Iraq War. And so on.
And heresy is permanent. Every one of us, myself included, wants to simplify the gospel message so as to understand it. Not just to be able to grasp it intellectually, but also to grasp onto it, to hang on and control it. Genuine faith is scary sometimes, because real faith is always subject to doubt. And all humans yearn for certainty. The mathematics of probability is difficult to fathom because it runs counter to our lust for absolutes. Besides death and taxes, however, probability theory is clear that everything else is only at best, probable.
This is the great difference between faith and belief. Faith is always no more than trusting in the God who encounters us in the Gospel. It is first of all a decision to do so. Belief, being intellectual, requires propositions, which are a temptation to make into certainties. In other words, our desire for certainty can lead to idolatry, as we create a god in the image that reassures and makes us feel safe.
There is also a great temptation for a leader to create a simpler version out of his or her yearning for people to be able to have faith and find hope and peace, and at length, everlasting life. The great heretics were first of all great evangelizers, moved first by the very honorable desire to see people find God.
The main reason that the creeds continue to be used is not their antiquity, but the quality that they have in maintaining the relation of belief to faith. And to Scripture.
All Episcopal clergy — deacons, priests, and bishops — are required at ordination to make a statement orally and in writing: “…I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation…” Note the oddity of the word “contain”. It has a studied vagueness, as some have put it. For if we believe that all one needs to know in order to have God’s eternal favor is to be found in the Bible, then on one hand we have no need of other authorities, as none other is the Word of God addressed to us. On the other hand, it also implies that we do not fully have in our control “all things necessary” for receiving God’s favor.
Faith is about trusting God, believing perhaps in spite of evidence to the contrary that we are indeed God’s beloved, invited to share the divine life forever. But being rational creatures up to a point, we also need to have some indication, some clues, that what we have decided to trust is not completely irrational.
Here is the real value of the creeds. They sum up the story of Jesus, in the context of God the Holy Trinity: he is God for us. It is in the Church that we learn to trust this story, coming to us from the first witnesses. But the creeds give only an outline of it, enough to clarify the necessary contours, but leaving open the mystery both at the heart of God's self-revelation, and the mystery that lies at the heart of each of us. Living with regular recitations of both should engender questions.
For instance, take the line in the creeds that "Jesus became incarnate by the (power of the) Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary." Now this is of course one of the creedal affirmations that some modern people say they cannot accept, because it is biologically impossible. As if first-century people didn't know that! But what does it actually mean? Space does not permit an excursus into that question, but suffice it to say that it is not about biology. Asking questions about that line should open up all kinds of avenues to explore for the faithful, and we need teachers capable of dealing with facile dismissals and eager to help open up the deep meanings of the Incarnation for each of us. And every line should be similarly explored.
Finally, the distinction between faith and belief is clearer if we start to consider the difference between belief as the intellect’s act of faith, and the more common usage of beliefs.
Beliefs are a codification of propositions that can be used to exclude people, declaring them to be "unsaved" because they do not profess allegiance to them. If there is anything that justifiably repels modern secularists, it is the enforcement of "confessions of faith" with threats of hellfire or shunning.
The creeds can be used that way. But that is a misuse. Their main function is to provide us with pointers to the Scriptures that reinforce trust.
What the Creeds do is protect the message that leads to saving faith. They protect from powers-that-be that want us to say God approves of them and so you'd better do what they say. They protect from the desire we all have to simplify the message, so that it does not offend us. And they ensure that we have the right story in mind, not one built on simplifications that also lead to exclusion. For instance, the Jehovah's Witnesses think the rest of us are never going to share the resurrection; only they do. And the Mormons call non-Mormons "the Gentiles" for similar reasons...
Faith is trusting God. Nothing more, nothing less. And the mind needs to have ways to come to trusting God. But the reason we cannot have certainty, no matter what statements of belief we profess, is that God's plan for you and me individually, for the whole human race, and the creation itself, cannot be comprehended. The plan, if indeed that is what it is, cannot be simplified so that it fits in my brain box.
What the Bible “contains,” and what the creeds protect, is that God gives us enough clues (technically called “revelation”) so that we can have faith in God's love, so that when we meet Christ, we will have trusted enough to know who he is, and therefore, who we are. But God never lets us be certain. Because once we are certain about what we profess, we will have reduced God-for-us to something we can clutch. Something which does not have the power to transform us.
So we need the creeds to keep reminding us in their obdurate shorthand way that we cannot resolve the mystery of God's love into some scheme we can grasp. However, they also invite us to dig deep, not only in the Bible but in our hearts, dig deep so that we can find in the center of our life the radiant transforming power of the Holy Spirit, God's love expressed for us, a love we cannot stop or turn away. A love we shall not understand in this life — though we have faith that one day, “we shall understand, even as we have been fully understood.” (I Cor. 13:12)
(Expanded from a sermon preached at St. Paul’s-Within-the-Walls, Rome, Italy, October 20, 2013)
Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.